The Mornington Peninsula has a fascinating history, wrapped up in the prominent families who were the original settlers in the area in the mid 1800s. Names like Coppin, McCrae, Merricks and Balcombe are well known throughout the region, the latter forming a strong foundation in Mt Martha.
A residential beach-side suburb on the Mornington Peninsula, Mt Martha is around 52km south of Melbourne and faces Port Phillip Bay. With a gentle, curving coastline that encompasses South Beach and North Beach, Mt Martha’s geography is anchored with a granitic rise known as Martha Point. Balcombe Creek creates the dividing line (a five km boardwalk now winds it’s way along its length from North Beach to the Briars Historic Park).
The area was named after Martha Lonsdale (Smythe) by Captain William Hobson (of HMS Rattlesnake) when he surveyed Port Phillip Bay in 1836. Martha Lonsdale was the wife of Captain Lonsdale, Port Phillip’s first Police Magistrate, who travelled to Port Phillip with Hobson on board the Rattlesnake.
Much of Mt Martha was suited to grazing and timber-cutting during the early years of pastoral settlement. There was no coastal access to this area, and at first the granite cliffs, steep gullies and ravines saw only the hardy traveller who followed basic tracks. Early pastoralists who took up runs in the district were the first European settlers and a small hamlet developed as fishermen arrived on the Balcombe Creek estuary.
Architecturally, the drive from Mornington to Mt Martha is extraordinary, with beautiful mansions on large grounds from an era long past. There was certainly a level of wealth and opulence that made these coastal suburbs what they are today. From the intersection of Beleura Hill Road and the Esplanade, the road flows along the waterfront to Mount Martha, Martha’s Cove and beyond all the way to Portsea. The views along the way, across Port Phillip Bay, to Melbourne, to Point Nepean and to the Bellarine Peninsula are breathtaking, and the gorgeous beaches that are dotted along the way are safe for swimming, and often deserted.
The current character of Mt Martha was formed by a few well-to-do Melburnites who built impressive summer holiday residences including Craigie Lea (1863) and Woodclyffe (1874). A burst of residential building occurred in the 1920s with modest holiday homes and a general store, as well as architecturally applauded homes like ‘Glynt’ (1921), and Grey Gables (1928), both in Dominion Road.
One of the most significant properties in Mt Martha is Mt Martha House on the Esplanade. Built on five acres in 1889 for the Mount Martha Estate Company who subdivided a substantial amount of land in this area. Originally built as a guest house to accommodate nearly 100 guests, the building was designed to ensure there was light and shade in every room. The 'noisy rooms’ (the drawing room, billiards room and kitchen) were built at right angles to the main house so that guests would not be disturbed. After a series of owners, the hotel was purchased by Mrs Annie Ferrero who continued to operate it as a hotel and guest house until World War 2 when the AIF arrived in Mount Martha.
Interestingly, the Balcombe military camp immediately east of Mount Martha and Uralla Road brought upwards of 3000 Australian and American military personnel to the area. Guest houses including the Mount Martha Hotel were requisitioned for accommodation for the wives of service men. In 1951 the Australian Army purchased Mount Martha Hotel and 2 hectares of land and it became the base of the No.30 W.R.A.A.C. Barracks for the next 20 years. The Shire of Mornington purchased the hotel in 1978 and advertised for expressions of use from community groups. Today it is a community centre.
During the post war years there was surge in the building of holiday homes and a smattering of permanent residents, predominantly retirees. By 1994 about 70% of the population were permanent residents. A shopping centre was established along with boating, yachting and life saving clubs. The Mt Martha public park and the golf course were developed to provide open space as an alternative to beaches.
Mount Martha expanded during the 1990s-2000s, merging with Mornington as continuous suburbia. Bentons Square shopping centre, on the border between Mount Martha and Mornington, opened in 2002. Major schools were established in the area including Mt Martha Primary School, Osborne Primary school and Balcombe P-12 Grammar School was founded in 2007 near the former Balcombe military camp. The latest census conducted in 2011 stated the Mt Martha population at just over 17,000 – a figure which would have significantly increased with the influx of families and the expansion of Martha Cove.
The historic showpiece of Mount Martha is ‘The Briars’ historic park formed around Alexander Balcombe’s homestead (1846-66). With a woodland, a wetland, a vineyard and education facilities, the homestead is now owned by the National Trust.
The Mt Martha lifestyle is focused around the bathing beach (South Beach), the local shopping centre of Mt Martha Village, the sporting clubs and recreational facilities and the school community. It’s the village atmosphere and sense of belonging that gives Mt Martha it’s unique and much loved rural seaside character.