From the late nineteenth century, the grassed area adjacent to the wetlands was used as rifle range and military encampment, but was long envisioned as a valuable asset for housing development, a vision realised in the late 1980s after the Commonwealth sold the land to the State of Victoria.
Because the activities at the rifle range had ‘protected’ the area for over a century, the wetlands were in essentially pre-European settlement condition. Open grasslands where Western Plains indigenous grasses and flora survived, salt marshes and intertidal mudflats that provide an important habitat for migratory birds still existed. In addition, beyond the white mangroves edging the outer perimeter of the saltmarsh a marine reef teemed with life.
Thanks to the hard work and passion of the Friends group, first formed in 1987 as the Friends of Williamstown Rifle Range Conservation Areas, (now known as Friends of Williamstown Wetlands Incorporated) the most sensitive conservation areas are protected from further development and habitat has been restored for indigenous fauna and flora.
More than 25 years on, the success of the Friends group, particularly in the early days of negotiating to retain conservation areas, can be appreciated at the Jawbone Fauna and Flora Reserve, with its flourishing indigenous vegetation and abundant birdlife.
The first attempt at a settlement by the English in Port Phillip Bay was in 1803. At that time more convicts were to be sent from England to Port Jackson (Sydney) but the Governor at the time, Philip Gidley King, was concerned that they did not have the resources to support more people. Victoria did not exist, the entire coast south of Port Jackson was included in New South Wales. Charles Grimes, Surveyor General of NSW, completed a survey of Port Phillip Bay in early 1803. Governor King sent a Government Order to Lieutenant-Governor Collins to develop, if possible, a new colony at Port Phillip Bay.
Lieutenant-Governor Collins sailed on the HMS Calcutta from England, arriving in Port Phillip in October 1803. He decided on present day Sorrento for the settlement as the best of the poor sites available. The settlement was called Sullivan Bay. A lack of fresh water and poor soil made life very difficult so Second Lieutenant Tuckey, surveyor Charles Prideaux Harris and a small crew were ordered to do a complete survey of Port Phillip and return in eight days. They took almost 10 days and produced a map that, if placed over a modern one of the same size, is almost identical.