Garden Island History

(Copied from CALM and Navy publications)

As with much of the Western Australian Coastline, Garden Island was known to early Dutch Navigators over three hundred years ago, well before the discovery of the East Coast.  It was first named “Buache” by the French expedition of 1801 – 03 under Peron.  Captain Stirling on his voyage of exploration in 1827 first noted the island’s potential as a naval base and its position for protecting ships anchored in Cockburn Sound.  When he returned as the Governor of the Swan River Colony three years later he selected the whole of the island as part of his land grant.

The settlers, who arrived at the colony on the ships, Parmelia and Sulphur, landed first at Cliff Head on the eastern shore of the island, south of the Munitions Jetty.  There they stayed, camping during the winter of 1829. Lack of fresh water caused the settlement to be shifted to the mainland, but some people remained on the island for many years afterwards.  The original settlement was burnt to the ground in bushfires in 1834.

After the first settlers departed for the mainland, the focus of activity on the Island shifted from Cliff Head south to Port Royal, which became known as Careening Bay because of its suitability for careening ships on the beach for cleaning and repairs.  Until the completion of the Fremantle Inner Harbour in 1897, ships arriving at the colony in winter sheltered at Careening Bay and off loaded onto lighters, which transferred goods to the main settlement.  With the establishment of trade, lighters also brought sandalwood, pit sawn timber and livestock from the coast to load the sail ships lying at anchor in Careening Bay.  The boats of a local whaling industry which provided the colony’s major export at it’s peak in 1839, were also based there.

In 1907, Peet and Company advertised the establishment of a “commuter suburb” on “this beautiful island with sheltered bays, wide expansive beaches, pine clad shores and bracing breezes” with the most expensive blocks over looking the bay at 35 pounds ($70)  each.   The promotion promised to establish a jetty and frequent fast steamer service to connect this “bather’s paradise, angler’s delight, yachtsman’s rendezvous and businessman’s doctor” to the mainland.  83 blocks were put on sale at the Perth Town Hall and only a few sold..  One wonders what the fate of the Island would have been had this concept caught on.  In the depression years of the 1930’s the island was used extensively as a holiday resort and a number of beach houses were constructed with the aid of saw miller and timber merchant Robert Bunning who established a pine plantation on the Island.  .

During World War 2 the Army fortified the island with gun emplacements.  Some still remain.  It was also the home for the commando unit “Z” force which operated against enemy shipping in the Far East.

Cottages started to be built on the north end in the 1950’s.  The then Department of the Interior leased land to the Garden Island Service Company to operate these cottages.  The blocks, leased to the public cost $18 pounds ($36) per year and this charge was still in place when the cottages were bulldozed.  The ingenuity of the builders of these often very comfortable residences is remarkable when you consider the size of the boats used to carry the materials to the Island.

H.M.A.S. Stirling was established in 1978 and this spelt the end for the cottages on the south end.   A few years later the North End suffered the same fate.


The island is covered with dense communities of Rottnest cypress, Rottnest tea-tree and honey murtle.  Some parts are forested, and others have impenetrable thickets of coastal scrub.  The untouched forests and thickets of Garden Island are home to many birds and the rare Tammar wallaby.   The sandy soils of the island are porous and the vegetation so dense that the island has no wetlands.  Because there are no introduced pests and no rubbish, Garden Island is free of the disease salmonella.  The aim is to keep it that way. (this is the reason why dogs and cats are banned, as salmonella is found in their faeces)

The extraordinary thing about Garden Island is that the environment you can see still remains much as it was before European settlement.  One section of land near Collins Point appears not to have been burnt for over 65 years.  By contrast on Rottnest and the mainland the frequency of accidental and deliberately lit fires in the bush has radically changed the nature of the vegetation, and consequently the animals that live in it.  Garden Island remains a piece of living history with which other areas can be compared.


 With the establishment of HMAS Stirling in the 1970’s a 4.2km causeway was constructed linking the island to the mainland and the cottages were removed to make way for the Naval Facilities.  The Commonwealth initially decided to no longer permit public access to the Island but with heavy lobbying from GIFAA amongst others the WA Government negotiated a joint management agreement to allow access outside the development zones. This access and the environment is now managed by the Garden Island Environmental Advisory Committee,  chaired by the HMAS Stirling Commanding Officer and with Commonwealth, State and community representation.  GIEAC helps integrate the management objectives of both the Commonwealth and State Governments to maintain the natural values of the island while meeting Defence objectives and allowing for compatible public recreational access.

Public moorings in Naval waters are not experienced anywhere else in Australia and GIEAC through the Base Environmental Officer, and GIFAA are have drawn up a new mooring management policy to control these moorings.  11 Public moorings, managed by GIFAA and various yacht clubs are installed in Pig Trough Bay and no other moorings can be installed anywhere else at this stage.  Navy fully supports GIFAA in it’s efforts to manage the existing moorings.  However the ultimate aim is for the State Government to take back control of the Western side of the Island and the mooring  areas and incorporate the whole lot in the proposed Shoalwater Marine Park.  When this will happen is yet to be decided

With several new marina’s planned for the Cockburn Sound area, the pressure is only going to increase on the Island.  The Navy takes it’s responsibility for the environmental care of the Island seriously and a Ranger and private security guards patrol regularly to control fire and monitor public use.