To the Noongar tribes of the South West, the Bridgetown region of Western Australia was an important meeting and foraging area due to its plentiful and diverse supply of fauna and flora. It was historically known to these tribes as Geegelup, which is said to mean “place of gilgies” (a small freshwater crayfish which are plentiful in the region) but equally, some aboriginal clans claim it has the meaning “place of spears”.
Whichever is correct, Geegelup is the name initially adopted by the first white settlers to the region and continues to be used as a ‘place-name’ on a number of public buildings and community places such as, the natural water course running through the town centre – Geegelup stream and the local residential age care centre.
The first white person to explore the region was Thomas Turner in 1834. He was a member of a local pioneering family from the nearby coastal town of Augusta. He came upon the region whilst attempting to trace the source of the mighty Blackwood River, which runs through the town (as well as Boyup Brook, Greenbushes and Nannup) and eventually empties into the ocean at Augusta. He was later followed by Government Surveyor A. C. Gregory who conducted a brief exploration in 1845 and later returned in 1852 to carry out an official survey.
It wasn’t until 1857 that the first official white settlers arrived and commenced to inhabited the region. They were Edward Godfrey Hester and John Blechynden and even today some 160 years later, there continues to be some rivalry between the descendants of these two families within the town, as to who was the first.
Both E. G. Hester and John Blechynden claimed to have had no knowledge of the existence of the other until some 8 years after their arrival to the region.
The Hester’s came from Bunbury and settled to the north of the town on a 40,000 acre plot of land stretching from the current Greenbushes township towards Bridgetown and for whom the hamlet of Hester Brook (just outside Bridgetown) is named. Whereas the Blechynden’s settled to the south, including the land which now forms much of the main town centre of Bridgetown.
John Blechynden was a young 21 year old from Beverly near York (Western Australia) and similar to Edward Godfrey Hester, he also acquired 40,000 acres of forest land for grazing. It was common practice at the time, that pioneering settlers seeking to acquire large pastoral leases from the Crown, were also required to purchase an area of freehold land as part of the larger land leases. The 10 acres purchased by John Blechynden’s cost £10.00 and included the land where ‘Bridgedale’ – the Blechynden family home and oldest building in town is located, beside the main bridge heading south out of town on the South West Highway.
“Bridgetown” the town, was officially proclaimed on June 4th, 1868, and gazetted 5 days later by Governor Hampton. At the time of the proclamation, the Government Gazette of the day advertised the sale of 55 town lots at £5 per lot.
It is speculated that the town was named after the barque (ship) “Bridgetown” which carried the first exports from the region back to the United Kingdom.
Between the 1860’s and the 1900’s, settlement to the region gradually grew as knowledge of the fertile river valley increased. These early settler’s combined agriculture, timber milling and grazing to their activities and a number became extremely wealthy, which permitted them to build prominent homes in and around the town. Some of these homesteads still stand include, Nelson-Grange (1859) – the Allnutt homestead, Bridgedale House (1863) – the Blechynden homestead, May Cottage (1884), The Rectory (1894) and Ford House (1896).
An important person to settle in Bridgetown in these early years was John Allnutt. He was the son of a grocer from Australind (near Bunbury) and he was an avid horticulturalist. He was the first settler in the region to experiment with the planting and growing of fruit trees in the fertile Blackwood Valley and is often referred to as ‘the father’ of the commercial orchard industry in the South West.
From the late 1800’s until the 1960’s, apples were a primary industry for the region, with the town boasting no fewer than 8 commercial packing sheds during the industries heydays. Today, climate changes to the region has resulted in reduced rainfall and this has seen the industry shut down and move northwards to Donnybrook and southwards to Manjimup, where water collection is far easier for the watering of trees in summer.
In the early 20th Century until the present day, timber and grazing have become the main industries of the region, along with some mining which is centred around the township of Greenbushes.
Like many country towns across Australia, Bridgetown has had to learn and adapt over the years. A major component of its current adaptation and survival has been Tourism. The town and the region (in general) has an extensive calendar of events and festivals throughout the year which attracts numerous visitors to the town. A few of these events include the Bridgetown Easter Tennis Tournament (one of the longest running in Western Australia), the Writers Festival, Bridgetown In The Winter (a 3 month event celebrating all things associated with the cold and winter), the well known Bridgetown Blues Festival and the Blackwood Marathon.
Much of Bridgetown’s appeal as a tourist destination, centres on its landscape, climate and relative closeness to Perth. The town’s rolling hills (vivid green in winter) are more reminiscent of a European landscape than what is normally associated with Australia. It is known as the Winter Capital of Western Australia and has cold, crisp winters which combined with open fires are simply irresistible to many but more importantly, it has a friendly nature with a wide array of food venues, historic architecture and nature trails.