The words 'Woy Woy' reputedly come from the language of an Aboriginal group called the Guringgai (or Kuringgai). It is said to mean 'much water' or 'big lagoon' - an obvious reference to Brisbane Water. The Guringgai once occupied the land from the Hawkesbury in the south to Lake Macquarie in the north. It is known that the tribe wore possum hair belts (in which they carried their few possessions) and occasionally possum skin clothing. The men carried spears, boomerangs, stone axes, boomerangs and shields and hunted large prey such as kangaroos and fish which they speared. The women collected most of the food - fish (caught on fishing lines), shellfish, fruit, tubers, insect larvae, snakes, lizards and small mammals. When the fish migrated in winter the tribe moved inland to find other food sources.
Governor Phillip and a party of officers and seamen entered Broken Bay in a whaleboat in 1788, about a month after establishing the settlement at Sydney Cove. They passed Lion Island at the mouth of Brisbane Water and sheltered from heavy rains behind the rocky headland of Green Point. Phillip observed 'the land is much higher than at Port Jackson, more rocky and equally covered with timber; large trees which grow on the summits of mountains'. Apparently the indigenous peoples were impressed with the fact that he had a missing front tooth, as it was an initiation rite amongst them to knock out the front tooth of young men.
Phillip returned in 1789 to what was then called the North East Arm but the focus subsequently fell on the Hawkesbury River. The proximity of a penal colony at Newcastle also discouraged settlement but when this was moved north to Port Macquarie, European settlement around 'the Arm' began. It was renamed Brisbane Water in the early 1820s after the then-governor of NSW.
The first white settlers were drawn by the possibilities of exploiting the local supplies of cedar, forest oak, blue gum and other hardwoods. Boatbuilding also began at this time and continued until World War I. The first to receive a land grant in the area was boat builder James Webb who occupied 120 ha on the eastern side of Brisbane Water from 1823. Samuel Coulter also built a house there and established a farm. It was then a large sandy area covered with scrub. Webb purchased another 150 acres in 1834. It was this second portion which contained the land upon which the central shopping area of Woy Woy was later built.
Because there were no roads, contact with the world beyond was strictly by boat and so settlement was restricted to the area alongside the shores of Brisbane Water and its inlets. Small settlers took up land on the ocean shores, growing maize, onions, potatoes and hay. Others gathered cockle shells which were loaded on to ketches and sent off for lime-burning. The gentry focused on the timbered areas along the tidal inlets. The terrain made the area a haven for smugglers, moonshiners, escapee convicts and ticket-of-leave men.
As the land was cleared and settlement expanded into traditional Aboriginal lands, relationships with the local kooris, which had, till then, been amicable, began to sour. They were driven from the land. When they struck back against what they saw as theft, the whites settlers retaliated and, by the 1860s, there were virtually no Guringgai left in the area.
A survey in 1829 listed about 100 persons (half of them convicts assisting the timbergetters) living along Brisbane Water, with 916 cattle, 7 horses and 205 acres under cultivation. By 1833 there were 315 people.
The first oyster lease was established around1884. However, it was the arrival of the railway in 1888 which really precipitated the development of the town. The Woy Woy Tunnel (1791 metres) was built for the occasion out of ten million bricks, shipped by Rock Davis of Blackwall to Brick Wharf, at the north-eastern tip of Woy Woy Peninsula. They were then transported along a rail line (now Brick Wharf Rd) to the construction camp. It is the longest railway tunnel in NSW.
The first store and post office and four temporary hotels opened to cater for the 800 workers building the tunnel.
With railway access Woy Woy became a fishing and tourist resort in the 1890s. Around this time the Central Coast became the primary tourism destination of Sydneysiders. Fishing was the main drawcard, although bathing and shooting were other attractions. Subdivision soon got under way. Resorts, holiday villages and boarding houses began to appear and a ferry service was introduced. Two of the original boarding houses - Roma and Louisville - are now private houses in Brick Wharf Rd.
The population had increased to 660 by 1911. Webb's original Woy Woy estate was sold off at auction in 1912 and a permanent official post office opened the following year. The first road to the town was built in 1923 under an unemployment relief scheme. It was enlarged and made ready for road traffic in 1930. The population subsequently increased from 1 710 in 1947 to 7 396 by 1954 and 16 287 by 1966. Its growth was aided by the proximity of a rapidly expanding Gosford. Woy Woy later prospered as a service centre to the other resort and retirement centres along the foreshores of Brisbane Water.