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Kew’s Natural and Aboriginal Heritage, and White Settlement

Kew was within the estate of the Wurundjeri clan, a part of the Woi wurrung language group. There were four clans who spoke the Woi wurrung language and they collectively claimed all of the area drained by the Yarra River and its tributaries. In turn this language group was part of the Eastern Kulin federation of neighbouring tribes who had very similar languages, traded and inter-married. One of the places at which Kulin clans met regularly was at a large wetland area called ‘Bolin’ (Bulleen) on the Yarra.

The land was central to the life and culture of the Wurundjeri. River red gums, casurina, box, banksia, acacia and ti-tree as well as a rich ground-cover of herbs and grasses grew on the flats and wooded hills. Possums and a range of other smaller mammals, as well as many bird species lived here. The abundant resources of this area, particularly on the river flats and billabongs provided food and all essential materials for the people.

Map of Kulin Tribes distribution

[click image to enlarge]

James Fleming recorded in his Diary, February 1803, the first description of the area where Kew now stands. He was accompanying Charles Grimes, Surveyor General of NSW, on an expedition to Port Philip. The party had journeyed upstream and having come to the impasse of (Dights) falls, near where Merri Creek joins the Yarra, they proceeded inland for about half a mile on foot.

He wrote that the land was

stony, about six inches of black soil (with) white clay at he bottom…(Mr Robbins) got up a tree; saw it to be a gently rising hill, clothed with trees for ten or fifteen miles. A little above the fall there is a small island, and the river divides in two. The timber in general is gum, oak and banksia; the latter two are small, the gum two to four feet in diameter, and from ten to thirty feet high, on some of the low ground they are something larger.

Dight's Falls and the wooded hills of current-day Studley Park

Dight’s Falls and the wooded hills of current-day Studley Park. Remains of the old 1840 Mill (left) & ‘Willsmere’ on the distant horizon.

In the early years European Settlers named this area the Parish of Boroondara—an Aboriginal word meaning ‘a place of shade’.

In about 1840, Godfrey Howitt (an Englishman who settled in Alphington, near the Yarra) wrote in his diary:

The situation is delicious; the soil tolerably rich; the slopes most graceful. The windings of the Yarra in full prospect, both near and far, are beautiful. Some twenty or thirty bell-birds are ringing a merry peal within hearing. White cockatoos are sitting on the old gum trees, and parrots are flitting about gorgeously numerous.

Of the local Aborigines, James Dredge made this diary entry in 1839:

On the Yarra. Fine young men, habitated in oppossum skins—having a number of pidgeon and other feathers in their hair.

A Yarra tribal group in 1858-9

A group of Aboriginal men, pictured in about 1859

White Settlement

White settlement in Melbourne began in the 1830s near the Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers. Kew’s development was relatively slow because access ‘across the Yarra’ was limited, the river flats there were prone to significant flooding, the banks were quite steep and since the land was thickly wooded with acacia and eucalyptus land clearing was most laborious.

Relations between aborigines and the new settlers were often cordial. The new authorities were generally benign though they variously sought to assimilate and then separate, but always to ‘civilize’. Some tensions naturally arose, particularly involving property rights, work and ‘settling down’ and ‘new’ foods and drinks. Some Aborigines were killed in conflicts. But this does not explain why, after just 20 or 30 years, only a remnant survived in the whole Melbourne district, with a few more in reserves at Healesville, and further afield at Goulburn.

The Wurundjeri themselves knew their well-being and future was under dire threat—that their connection with tradition, law and land was being overwhelmed. Within just a few years of white settlement the birthrate among Yarra Aborigines had plummeted. Is it true that people stop planting trees and having babies when they lose hope? Did the Wurundjeri people lose hope and heart, and die of a broken spirit?

We acknowledge today, with grateful hearts the riches and beauty of this part of God’s world, and that we are blessed to call it home. Following generations of Wurundjeri since the 1850s, we new settlers have made homes in Kew, enjoying fresh air and water, abundant flora and fauna, and its peaceful ambience and community life. It is still a beautiful place of trees and gardens, the river, remnant forest, billabongs and possums!

We acknowledge that we are to be good stewards of God’s Garden here in our time.

We also acknowledge with deep sadness the tragic demise of the first people of this place.

In their absence, and therefore in spirit, we acknowledge that this land is still theirs.

From Settlement in 1835 to 1840

Melbourne was founded in 1835. By 1836 there were 224 people in the new settlement. In early 1837 Melbourne is named and land sold in Melbourne town and in Hobson’s Bay (Williamstown).

In 1838 Dight traveled down the Yarra from Heidelberg and decided to locate his water-powered mill on a site adjacent to the falls. The impressive 3 story Mill opened in 1840.

Dight's Mill, Yarra Yarra (1856)

Dight’s Mill, Yarra Yarra (1856)

From the start, Yarra Bend was reserved for possible use as a lunatic asylum (in service 1848–1925) or a prison (Fairlea prison actually incorporated some of the asylum). Yarra Bend (with Studley Park) was a significant gathering and camping place for Aborigines of the Yarra tribe near Melbourne. A mission school was established here in 1845 and the ‘Protector’ of aborigines was based here.

Development in Kew was very limited. A rudimentary survey was completed in 1837.

Only a few squatters settled ‘over the River’. They grazed their animals on the extensive river flats and up into the wooded hills. In 1838 Gardiner brought his family and 400 sheep/cattle from NSW and settled near ‘Gardiner’s Creek’. In the northern areas of Boroondara (Kew), Glass and Connor are associated with creeks named after them at this time. Others cut timber (and carted it to town) from stringy bark forests in the Nunawading area along ‘Barkers track’.

The track to Bulleen was well used. This became Bulleen Rd (with one part renamed High St in the 1850’s as Village of Kew’ grew).

It was a tough life. At this time there were still tents and only a few small and dilapidated huts. Little land had been cultivated, fenced or improved. Food would include fish from the river, native birds, swans, ducks, pigeons and wallabies, mutton, salted pork, damper, tea and sugar, few fruit and vegetables, and grog (rum).

In 1838 the Melbourne Advertiser reported bush-rangers in this area. These probably outnumbered women.

In the 1840s and early 1850s

Melbourne land sales were booming and new surveys were needed. In 1840 Hoddle created new ‘Parish Areas’ using native names:

  • Jika Jika
    North-west of Kew (based on ‘Jaga Jaga’, the names of the Aboriginal chiefs Barman originally negotiated with).
  • Bulleen
    North-east of Kew (based on ‘Bolin’).
  • Boroondra
    Covering Kew and land south to Glen Iris—hilly, with dense tree cover. (Meaning: ‘Place of shade’).
  • Nunawading
    To the east. (Meaning: ‘Coming, together’).
  • Mulgrave
    Further south.

In 1841 a more comprehensive survey of Boroondara was undertaken.

Detail of Survey Map 1841

Detail of Survey Map (1841) [click image to enlarge]

Features of particular interest regarding Kew shown in this map include:

  • Land at Hays Paddock marked ‘fine’.
  • Wilsmere was marked ‘VR’ (Village reserved).
  • Lines drawn on this survey to indicate a mile wide grid were sometimes used later as allotment boundaries and in some cases marked the place where roads were later planned and constructed. For example, Belford Rd from Bulleen Rd (High St) and Denmark/Princess Streets north to the River.

In the 1840s crossing the Yarra became much easier with the introduction of punts, from Richmond and later at Johnson St. Increasing traffic coming up and over the hills from these punts turned toward to the North-east—to Bulleen—or toward the squatters along the river, or to link with the old Barkers track ‘to the mountains’.

Market gardens, dairies and vineyards were increasing in number.

Into the 1850s Kew remained ‘beyond the Yarra’ and ‘in the country’. Conditions were primitive, the population tiny and most land was still wild bush. There were still just a few huts and tent dwellings.

James Bonwick, in his Sketch of Boroondara wrote of life in Kew even into the 1850s:

We bought a couple of acres in a pretty thick forest, with close underwood of wattles…We could see through the trees one or two other huts or rude huts…My friend and I had to walk in some 5 or 6 miles to our duties in Melbourne, and walk back the same distance in the evening…For five months my family had only the shelter of a couple of tents. My two little boys and I walked a mile and a half to the Yarra Yarra for daily supply of water.

He later recalled that at night:

The Opposums screamed to their own delight and one dropped down on our house…Night birds added to the diversion…The laughing Jackass awoke us early…We rose from our slumbers refreshed indeed by the soft airs and sweet odours of charming Boroondara.

Farmhouse (1850s)

Farm house (1850s)

Significant development in the 1840s involved Kew’s north-western river frontage which was surveyed in detail, but even here sales were few and mainly for ‘country retreats’—larger homes on high ground offering wonderful views.

Mr Thomas Wills was an early settler in Fairfield (with a convict past but respected and wealthy) who later moved across the river and established ‘Willsmere’. William Oswin, George Annaud and Thomas Wills were among only 5 owners who held all the land between Bulleen Rd (High St) and the river across Kew’s northern boundary (a situation that continued from 1845–1875).

Kilby Farm was established in 1845. This photograph was taken during the later occupancy of the Oswins. (See the 1850s map showing this land as allotments 50-53)

Kilby farm

Kilby farm

There was an article in The Argus at about this time reporting an incident concerning the property of a George Annand Esq. (in Kew). In consequence of the annoyance and damage resulting from parties shooting upon this Estate, especially on the Lord’s day, notice was given that ‘All persons so offending shall have enforced the full penalty of the law.’

Kew in 1850

Ten years on, this map of about 1850 shows some development (eg. Kilby, Harp and Belford Roads are shown).

Kew in 1850

Kew in 1850 [click image to enlarge]

Allotments remained very large. Population and the number of dwellings remained low. No ‘VR’ now appeared on the map and roads shown were of poor condition.

Kew in the 1850s

Prosperity came to Melbourne and Victoria in 1851 with the discovery of gold and in this same year Victoria was established as an independent Colony (from NSW). It was a boom decade.

In 1851 a small bridge across the Yarra at Bridge Rd was opened and this sign appeared on a tree near the corner of High and Princess Streets: ‘The Village of Kew extends 976 yards East from this point.’ The naming of this area as ‘Kew’ may be related to the knowledge of settlers that Kew in England is near Richmond.

In 1853 Kew’s first store opened and a Police Station was established in Studley Park. The policeman also acted as ranger for the park which had been established as a place for public recreation. Kew residents were strong defenders against any subsequent development in the park.

East Kew was very little developed, but in 1854 the Harp of Erin Hotel opened at the corner of Harp and Bulleen Roads (as today) to cater for settlers, woodcutters and passing gold diggers headed for Anderson Creek in Warrandyte.

Harp of Erin Hotel - it was first erected by Edward Glynn in 1854

Harp of Erin Hotel
It was first erected by Edward Glynn in 1854.

The Post Office on the corner of High St and Cotham Rd was opened in 1856.

A bridge at Johnson St was built in 1858—a very significant event for Kew’s development.

Early Churches in Kew

  • 1853 — Wesleyans and Baptists began home prayer meetings
  • 1854 — Congregational Church built
  • 1857 — Methodist Church built
  • 1858 — Anglican services held in the Peel St Church School Hall
  • 1863 — Holy Trinity Anglican Church opened
  • 1875 — Roman Catholic Services held in Kew
  • 1889 — St Hillary’s Anglican Church opened

From Village to Town (1860–1910)

In 1860, building on some resentment that “Q in the corner” was neglected by Boroondara local authorities, residents achieved independence and Kew was proclaimed a municipality.

High St, Kew, in the 1890s

High St, Kew, in the 1890s

Services were gradually introduced:

  • 1865 — Yan Yean water main in High St
  • 1869 — Gas
  • 1875 — Telegraph Office opened
  • 1876 — Omnibus started from Hawthorn bridge to Kew
  • 1887 — Telephone
  • 1887 — Railway opened (spur line from Hawthorn)
  • 1887 — Horse drawn tram Richmond
  • 1895 — Electric light
  • 1904 — Sewerage first connected
Kew Post Office - 1888

Kew Post Office
The Post Office was built in 1888. This photograph was taken prior to the erection of the War Memorial.

Kew’s Growth

Kew’s growth was based on residential development.

Year Dwellings Population
1861 279 1,439
1881 565 4,288
1891 1,331 8,462
1910 2,100 9,820
1966 6,404 32,816


Schools became an important feature in Kew’s life.

  • From 1856 a number of small church (Anglican and Independent) and private ‘schools’ were established.
  • In the 1870s (with new Government involvement) these consolidated and Kew State School was established.
  • Ruyton Girls School opened at about this time.
  • 1872 — A (private) Kew High School
  • 1878 — Xavier College
  • 1882 — MLC
  • 1902 — Trinity Grammar (associated with Holy Trinity Anglican Parish)

Other Events

  • 1863 — Kew Cricket Club founded
  • 1888 — Kew’s first local Newspaper—The Mercury—was published. This was followed by The Kew Sentinel.
  • The 1890s Depression was felt particularly by Kew’s many resident trades-people. Many families grew their own fruit and vegetables.
  • 1891 — That section of the Outer Circle Rail line through East Kew to Fairfield opened (with its Yarra bridge—now Chandler Hwy). It was a total failure and closed two years later.
  • 1894 — The Kew Golf Club opened for play with 20 members (10 of each sex) and a 9 hole course extending from Belford and Willsmere Roads between Kilby Rd and old Outer Circle Rail land.
  • 1895 — Boroondara (Kew) Cemetery opened (on land that had been set aside for the purpose since 1859—‘a thick forest of gum and wattle’.) The great walls and entry impressed the many weekend visitors who came on the High St horse-drawn tram (established in 1887 and terminated at Harp Junction). The old tea room building opposite in High St still stands.
Horse Tram at Kew Cemetery

Horse Tram at Kew Cemetery
The Tram Line was opened in 1887

Kew Railway Station in the early 1900s

Kew Railway Station in the early 1900s

From Town to City (1910–1960)

In 1908 Alexandra Gardens opened and in 1910 a monument celebrating Kew’s 50th year was erected there. In this same year Kew was proclaimed a Town.

In 1911 St George’s Hospital began where it has been since, but was then run by the Anglican ‘Sisters of the Holy Name’.

Victoria Park was established in 1915 and a pavilion built.

Kew residents built a fine memorial to commemorate 1914-18 (World War I).

Opening of Kew First World War Memorial

Opening of Kew First World War Memorial

The 1920s — East Kew & further expansion

In the early 1920s East Kew was very sparsely populated. There were few shops. The great attractions were the Cemetery and Smith’s Violet Farm in Harp Rd.

But things were changing. The Golf Club was relocating across Kilby Rd toward the River (its present site) and land at the old site was sold at auction for new housing.

  • 1923 — Kew East Primary School opened on its current site (having started on a site near Glass Creek and then in Strathalbyn St).
  • 1924 — St Paul’s Anglican Church in East Kew established.
  • 1926 — First Burke Rd Yarra crossing bridge opened.
  • 1928 — Kane (foot) bridge opened.
  • 1929 — The failed Outer Circle Railway bridge crossing the Yarra between Kew and Fairfield was opened as a road bridge.
  • 1930s Depression — Yarra Boulevard constructed.
  • 1937 — East Kew Roman Catholic Church established (following the school opened in 1930). St Anne’s Church was built in 1957.
  • Caritas Christi Hospice opened in Studley Park Rd.
  • 1941 — The relocated Kew Fire Brigade in Belford Rd was opened.
  • 1947 — First traffic lights at the corner of Barker and Power/Denmark and Glenferrie.
  • 1955–59 — High St widened and tram lines straightened at Harp Junction.
  • 1958 — New Johnson St bridge (See Photo).
  • 1959 — New Country Roads Board offices opened on Train Station land.
  • 1960 —Coles “New World” built on the corner of Burke and Kilby Rds. It was one Australia’s first supermarkets.
  • 1970s — Eastern Freeway constructed.
The old Johnstone St bridge, demolished 1959

The old Johnstone Street bridge, demolished 1959

1960 — Kew’s Civic Century

In 1960 a new City Hall was opened. Prime-minister Menzies wrote in his forward to Kew’s Civic Century (a text celebrating Kew’s first 100 years):

A quiet corner it [Kew] may be, but the quietness is one which has nourished thoughtful people, good citizens and great schools. There was a charm about Kew which nothing can take away.

Since the mid 1990s the City of Kew has been no more, being taken back into the ‘old’ City of Boroondara.

In preparing these pages I acknowledge my indebtedness to the authors of these texts on which I have relied. Most are available in Kew’s excellent public library.

Kew’s Natural and Aboriginal story

Shirley Wiencke. When the Wattles Bloom Again (Wiencke, 1984).

City of Boroondara. Willsmere-Chandler park management Plan (Dec 2000).

Judith Leanet. Bulleen: A Short History (Doncaster-Templestow Hist. Soc., 1991).

Andrew Lemon. The Northcote side of the River (Hargreen, 1983).

Gary Presland. Aboriginal Melbourne: the lost land of the Kulin people (Harriland Press, 2001).

Kew‘s story since European settlement

F.G.A. Bernard. The Jubillee History of Kew (Hodges, 1910).

James Bonwick. A Sketch of Boroondara (2nd ed., Book Col. Soc. of Aust., 1968).

Gwen McWilliam. Across the River to Kew - in Boroondara (1986).

Dorothy Rogers. A History of Kew (Lowden, 1973).

Cr W.D.Vaughan. Kew’s Civic Century (Vaughan, 1960).

Rev David Moore (Priest of St Paul’s Parish)