The first explorer, an Augusta settler, Thomas Turner, traced the Blackwood River upstream to its junction with the Arthur River in 1834. Although a report was then sent to Perth, it was 20 years before an official expedition was undertaken. Augustus C. Gregory, Assistant Surveyor, led a party from the upper Blackwood to the coast in 1845,and later conducted a survey of the district in 1852.
The two earliest settlers found their way here and settled in 1857 as they had sought grazing land free of “Poison” plants (of the Gastrolobium species). As with most other settlers of the time, they purchased small freehold lots on which to build their homes, and leased large acreages of the forest for grazing their stock.. Edward Godfrey Hester drove his sheep south from Bunbury and settled on the banks of the brook just north of the Blackwood River in 1858 in an area now known as Hesters Hill. He took up 40,000 acres from Greenbushes toward Bridgetown. Twenty one year old John Blechynden came from Beverley in the east, and took up 40,000 acres, including purchasing a 10acre freehold on which his family home and Ford House now stand. It is rumoured that the two men did not know of each others existence for over 8 years !
John Blechynden built a small one roomed brick cottage for his wife and child to live until he completed the family home “Bridgedale” in 1862. Both buildings still stand and are under the National Trust. Bridgedale was in a prime location as 23 settlers had successfully petitioned the Governor to install the first bridge across the Blackwood River at Austins Ford, now washed away, but previously on land now owned by Ford House. The first bridge across the Blackwood was swept away just before completion in 1862. A second bridge was built and in 1867, Surveyor T. Campbell arrived to draw up the plans for a townsite. In 1868 he wrote to the Surveyor General commenting:
Herewith I have the honour to forward a plan of the townsite laid out at Geegeelup. (The name was probably taken from the local Aboriginal term for the fresh water crustaceans found in the lock brook. The local tribe called these “guglies” and incorporated them into their diet. Other people changes this term to “gilgies”). Some of the settlers wish me to suggest the name of “Bridgetown” as it is at a bridge and the “HMS Bridgetown” was the first ship to put in at Bunbury to carry wool from these districts. The name of the brook “Geegeelup” is also a very good name and one by which the place is well known, besides keeping up the native name.”
It was proclaimed as “Bridgetown” on June 4th, 1868, and gazetted 5 days later by Governor Hampton. In the same issue of the Government Gazette was an advertisement for the 55 town lots, available at £5 per lot.
By late 1860, settlement had spread along the fertile river valley with large pastoral leases along the hills. Some of the more prominent homes that still survive are The Grange, The Rectory(1894), Ford House(1896) and original Peninsula House (now derelict). The districts population slowly increased until the end of the century when the development of the timber sawmilling industry and the opening of the railway line in 1898 gave an added boost to the region’s economy at a time when the demand for agricultural goods was stagnating.
John Allnutt, a trained carpenter and avid horticulturalist, was the first settler to experiment with orchards in the valley. He imported berries, apples, pears and stone fruit into the district when he settled at The Grange. It was John Alnutt that pushed the authorities to adopt the name “Bridgetown”. Other settlers followed his example (including Ford House) and the first shipment of apples was railed to the Goldfields in 1905. (The railway was opened on October 7th, 1898). By the turn of the century, the Bridgetown region was one of the most productive mixed farming areas and timber getting in the State.
A Mines Dept. surveyor noticed alluvial tin at Greenbushes in 1886. Greenbushes was names such because of the green shade on the main road in the area. In 1888, David W. Stinton applied for a 400acre tin lease there on July 5th, 1888. By 1899 more than 200 mineral claims had been applied for. Bunbury Tin Mining Co alone spent £20,000 to develop their mine & commissioned a smelter in 1900, but there were many other successful small prospecting companies there. Now, the mine, which includes a dressing plant and ilumenite processing plant, is owned by Sons of Gwalia.
Many younger men were called up in the 1914-18 War. This left many farms struggling. After the war the Australian Government started the Soldier settlement schemes, and the Group Settlement Schemes. Much of this was not a success, especially the latter where only 5400 of the original 6000 migrants walked off their land due to hardship and lack of knowledge. To supplement the settlers incomes, bushy tailed possum skins were sold at 15 shillings/skin in the early 1930’s. During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, many migrants ventured south to look for work as they camped along the banks of the Blackwood. Several schemes were started locally to find work for the unemployed, including opening the Bridgetown Cream Depot in 1939. In the second World War, 1939-1945, Italian prisoners and suspected alien sympathisers were supplied to keep the farms running while men were at war. Unfortunately, at the same time, overseas markets dropped and the price of fertilisers soared. In the 1950s dairying slumped, followed by a diminishingly productive orchard industry in the 1960’s. In the 1960’s to early 70’s, rural populations generally decreased as many moved to the city, with farm sizes and farm machinery increasing.
After many years, the townships of Bridgetown and Greenbushes operated their road Boards independently, but amalgamated as the Shire of Bridgetown-Greenbushes July 1970. Since the late 70s there has been a steady increase in the population, first with “alternative” hippies many of whom are now respected citizens, and more lately, a “Yuppies” and “Retirees” (including Jenny and Kenny at Ford House) are seeking the rolling Bridgetown Hills and deep cool river valley of Bridgetown. Orcharding suffered a heavy blow in the late 1980’s as coddling moth infestations caused a massive Government encouraged “Tree Pull”. Grazing and tree plantations (Blue gum and pine) have largely replaced intensive orcharding, and many farms are now investing in grapes.