Early History of Pakenham
Acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the Land

The traditional owners of the land upon which the Pakenham community lives, works and plays are the Boonerwrung (Bunurong) and Woiworung (Wurundjeri) peoples. The district was the boundary between these people’s lands, with the Boonerwrung living mainly to the south-east and the Woiworung westwards towards what is now Melbourne. The traditional owners lived and hunted here undisturbed for thousands of years. They camped along the Toomuc Creek, and had a sacred corroboree ground near Ahern Road.  Like elsewhere in Australia, the coming of Europeans had a tragic impact on the traditional owners and their way of life. By 1839, it was estimated that little more than 10% of the pre-contact population remained. Contributing factors included lack of immunity to new diseases, conflict with Europeans and inter-clan fighting (Rhodes & Bell 2004, pp. 34-35).

European settlement

The Pakenham district was originally part of a larger area known as “Westernport” (or “Western Port”). This ran from Berwick, through Pakenham and Koo Wee Rup to the shores of Westernport itself. The area was also regarded as part of West Gippsland, though Gippsland proper was taken to start at Longwarry and Drouin, where the tall forests began (Morris 1978, p. 730).

The first European settlers began to take up land in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Amongst the early pioneers were members of the Waddell, Dore, Bourke, Connor, Mulcahy and Henry families. The task of these pioneers was an arduous one. Parts of the district were covered by dense, virgin ti-tree scrub which was difficult to clear. The hillier country now known as Pakenham Upper was heavily timbered, while the lower parts of the district (especially down through Pakenham South to Koo Wee Rup) were swampy. The first settlers, initially focused on grazing on large pastoral runs, such as the famous IYU estate. A small settlement developed along the Gippsland Road at what is now the junction of the Old Princes Highway and Toomuc Valley Road. This area was first known as “Toomuc Creek” or “Mount Pleasant” - Mount Pleasant roughly being the area between Toomuc Valley and Thewlis Roads. The Latrobe Inn (later Bourke’s Hotel) was established there at an early date and was associated with the famous Cobb and Co coach service to Gippsland. Being 35 to 40 miles from Melbourne, the district was several hours horse ride from Melbourne. William Waddell’s daughter Agnes Gulline used to proudly recall pioneering life in “the bush” at Pakenham, including “the ways and habits of the Australian aborigines [and] travels by both bullock wagon and the old coach” (North Melbourne Courier 26/11/1909, p. 2). By the late 1850s, the town developing along the Highway was being referred to as “Pakenham”. Given several place names in Gippsland are associated with the Napoleonic Wars, it is widely accepted that Pakenham’s honours General Sir Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law. of the Duke of Wellington (BPHS 2005, p. 134). Over time, the large pastoral runs were broken up, which encouraged new settlers to the district, and fostered the development of dairying and mixed farming, with fruit growing and logging also developing in Pakenham North (Toomuc Valley), Pakenham Upper (then known as “Gembrook South”) and Mount Burnett (then “Gembrook West”). 

With the opening of the Gippsland railway in the late 1870s, a “new” town began to develop south of the old highway, around what is now Main Street. This became known as “Pakenham East” as opposed to “Old Pakenham” along the Highway. It was really only when the Koo Wee Rup swamp began to be drained in the 1890s that large tracts of fertile farm land became available for dairying and vegetable growing (especially potatoes) at Pakenham South, although Cardinia had been settled at an earlier date.