Torbay is located between the West Cape Howe and Torndirrup national parks and encompasses its own township as well as the tiny communities of Bornholm and Youngs Siding. Governor James Stirling called the area Torbay in 1838 after the seaside town in Devon, England. The area contains Torbay Head, the southernmost point in WA and a key feature of the coastal scenery. It has a population of approximately 274 (2006 census) and has a crater on Mars named in its honour.
Before the timber millers came and began to cut them out in 1884 for the construction of the Albany-Beverley section of the Great Southern Railway., great forests clothed Torbay's hills, but with the passing of the timber trade, Torbay was given over to agriculture and now the hillsides are clothed with orchards and pastures, while rich swamp lands produce prodigious crops of potatoes.
By 1889, when the Great Southern Railway opened a siding called Torbay, most of the karri and jarrah woodland had been felled and the State Government acquired the land from its owners, the Millar brothers. In 1900, the land was subdivided and sold for agriculture, with some set aside for a townsite which was gazetted in 1910.
The earliest settlers in the area were David Young and his family, who emigrated from Scotland in the 1840s and farmed at Marbelup near the Wilson Inlet. The farm was visited by Princes Albert and George (later King George V) in 1881 after their ship, HMS Bacchante, damaged its rudder in a storm and was forced to seek refuge in Albany for three weeks. The princes spent three nights at Marbelup and slept in one of the farm’s outbuildings.
In 1627, captain of the Dutch ship Gulden Zeepaerdt (Golden Seahorse) Francois Thijssen, on a voyage from Amsterdam to Batavia (then the capital of the Dutch East Indies - present day North Jakarta) travelled too far south and passed Cape Leeuwin. The cape was called Leeuwin (Lioness) after a Dutch ship of the same name passed it in 1622. Thijssen continued to sail a further 2,000km along the south coast until he reached Ceduna in South Australia. Thijssen named all the land east of Cape Leeuwin t'Land van P Nuyts after Dutch East India official Pieter Nuyts who was on board the Gulden Zeepaerdt. Thijssen's observations were included on a map made by Hessel Gerritsz in 1628. The map records a spot, east of Albany, where Thijssen and his crew came ashore and identifies a wide bay with several islands - the approximate position of Torbay.
In 1791, English explorer captain George Vancouver sailed along the south coast in HMS Discovery and named Cape Howe and Eclipse Island.
Captain Matthew Flinders renamed Cape Howe "West Cape Howe" (The Great Australian Bight's southernmost point on a line with South West Cape in Tasmanaia) in 1802 during his circumnavigation of Australia. Upon arriving at King George Sound, Flinders climbed Mt Melville and recorded lakes to the west of present day Albany, which he led a land expedition to investigate. After reaching Lake Powell, the party travelled north and reached a stream (Marbellup Creek) before heading north-east to find a way across.
After travelling south-east for about a mile, the party camped for the night, then headed towards the second lake which they found to be much larger than the first and brackish - a mixture of fresh and sea water. Concerned that this lake or bay, was too deep to cross, the party headed back to the eastern side of the first lake, then south to the top of cliffs, from where it appeared there was no connection between the lake and the bay. The group decided to follow a limestone ridge and they arrived at Princess Royal Harbour on Christmas Eve.
In 1829, Frederickstown's (Albany) new military commander Captain Collet Barker of the 39th Regiment and Dr Thomas Braidwood Wilson arrived at King George Sound on board the Governor Phillip. Wilson explored the land to the north and west of Albany accompanied by two soldiers, two convicts and the Aboriginal guide Mokare. They headed north-west for more than 60 miles, then west towards the Kent River and south past Mt Lindesay. Further on, they crossed the Denmark River and followed the Hay River to a large inlet, later named Wilson Inlet by Governor James Stirling after Braidwood Wilson. Wilson noted the inlet was tidal, but did not have enough time for further investigation. The party then travelled east and stumbled across Torbay Inlet, before heading south to the beach and a sandbar.
In 1838 Captain Francis Harding arrived at Albany onboard HMS Pelorus to conduct a survey of New Zealand and Australia's south coast. Governor James Stirling was also onboard to view his land at Location 33, west of Princess Royal Harbour (present day Robinson). Stirling ordered the Pelorus to be used for a survey of the Torbay coastline and its in-land lakes, which was conducted by the ship's first mate C.C. Forsyth.
The following is from a letter written by the Surveyor General John Septimus Roe on May 2, 1838, to the Colonial Secretary Peter Brown.
"Mr. C, C. Forsyth mate of H.M. sloop Pelorus having presented to this office a partial survey of the northern portion of Torbay. including Ports Harding and Hughes and several lines of soundings which are likely to be useful to shipping. I beg to recommend to His Excellecy the Governor the propriety of presenting that Gentleman with a donation of five guineas for his services, or such other sum as His Excellency may deem proper encouragement, for his consideration."
Port Harding and Forsyth Bluff on the western side of Torbay confirm the visit of the Pelorus, but in the absence of the original chart confirmation of Torbay and Port Hughes, apparently named at the same time, is unfortunately lacking. The partial survey was considered of sufficient importance to justify a leading article in the "Perth Gazette" on April 14, 1838.
"Torbay is likely to rise in importance before long as, within a quarter of a mile from the shore, it abounds in timber of the finest description for ship-building. The trees run from 80 to 100 feet. without a branch. Several were cut down by Pelorus' crew and were pronounced by those well acquainted with the nature of timber adapted to ship-bulding, to comprise every requisite quallty. Two masts were cut for the colonial schooner (Champion) and a spar was cut for the Pelorus, for a Jib boom on trial. There was a vessel building there of about 150 tons burthen (the Emma Sherratt) for Mr. Thomas Brooker Sherratt. The timber of this portion of the colony has been frequently spoken of as highly valuable."
Forsyth noted that the Emma Sherratt was being built from locally hewn timber on the banks of the Torbay Inlet by William Jenkins, Thomas Gill and others - Jenkins and Gill both arrived in Albany onboard HMS Buffalo with Sir Richard Spencer in September 1833 and helped build the Old Farm at Strawberry Hill.
The ship was named after Thomas' wife and was finished in 1844 - the first ship to be launched in Western Australia. After it was completed, but before registration, Sherratt became seriously ill and during his illness the vessel was registered in the names of Hugh McDonald, James Harding and John Hassell, apparently without any reference to the sick man. Some time after Sherratt recovered, half the ownership was transferred back to him, while he also claimed in the Civil Court the transfer of the remaining half. As two of the defendants were merchants they may possibly have been holding the vessel as security for money advanced or stores provided.
Under Harding's command, the ship was used for whaling at Two Peoples Bay in the 1840s and also made a perillious journey to London as well as carrying cargo between Perth, Adelaide and other ports around the Indian and Pacific oceans. It was wrecked on a reef between Samoa and Fiji in December 1850. All its crew made it ashore to a small island, from where they were rescued and taken to Sydney.
The Torbay area is littered with some stunning stretches of white sand including Perkins Beach, Torbay Inlet and the popular Cosy Corner, a favourite with families due to its picnic facilities and nearby store. These beaches are all accessible by car, but there are others which are 4WD access only. The Bibbulmun Track travels down long steps from the steep hills above Cosy Corner and follows the beach around the curve of the bay and across Torbay Inlet to Muttonbird Island.