“It’s the people’s park,” my friend Tim fairly shouted at me one afternoon in Prince’s Square, where a large crowd had gathered for the wake of Launceston’s Deputy Mayor. It was a lovely spring evening, and dusk fell on an eclectic group of local characters. Towns like ours produce strange stories, wonderful connections. “People sleep here,” Tim went on, “they make love here, they get arrested here…”
Tim had done some research on the park, and in particular, on its fountain. An ornate construction of mythical figures (including Neptune and his bare-breasted missus), the fountain was produced by art foundry Val d’Osne, of Haute-Marne, France. A local myth has persisted that Launceston, Tasmania mistakenly received it as a gift meant for the homonymous town in England, but this is unlikely; the Cornwall Chronicle of 1859 does, however, cast doubt on Mayor Henry Dowling’s book-keeping with regards to the cost of the fountain. Mayor Dowling’s claim that it cost only £50 seemed doubtful to the wry editor of the paper at the time.
In the 1850s, the place was designated a public park, with Prince Alfred planting two oaks that are still growing. The fountain was the pièce de résistance. But even before it was made a park, the site was used to crowds. First, it was a convict brickfields. Then, Launcestonians started to use it to host their public events: the area drew military drills and political gatherings. There was also a hanging. John Conway and Riley Jeffs had become a bushranging duo, and on May 4, 1843, they put a gun to the head of a landowner along the South Esk River, who was sitting on his verandah at the time.
“Stand,” said Conway, breathing heavily through his prominent proboscis.
“No,” said the landowner. “I’m comfortable sitting down. What do you want?”
The landowner and his servant were detained, and the bushrangers set about pilfering the usual – firearms, tea, sugar, flour, and rum. Soon after they left, Constable Thomas Connell was in hot pursuit, supported by a group of local vigilantes. Unfortunately, poor Jeffs had been wounded the previous day, and was easily caught; nor was Conway a great athlete, and he too was captured.
It turned out they had also murdered a constable, and for this, they were sentenced to be hanged. In July of that year, a crowd of 1000 – near a quarter of Launceston’s population of the day – slept out for a midwinter’s night in order to see the dawn hanging. The mob gathered were unruly, singing and making a scene, throughout the night. A disgraceful scene, said the Cornwall Chronicle.
Some weeks after the wake, I was part of a small impromptu gathering of people, which also included Tim, a Frenchman, and a musician. We stood next to the fountain, with plastic cups of sangria, talking about these layers of history - the ghosts of the area. The Presbyterian church has just been renovated by a design firm; behind the Anglican church, there were once Chinese market gardens, and probably opium dens too. A statue of a local doctor stands where Riley and Jeffs were hanged. Across the road from the park is the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre: before any of us were here, there was an indigenous population, for millennia.
The wind was cold. Cigarettes were lit by a few. No-one else was around; it surely was not a night for sleeping out in the park. The talk was serious for a moment, but then, someone started talking about ‘continental breakfasts’, about the pineapple-looking thing on top of the fountain, about the French, and finally about how it was probably time to go home. The scene was “not a disgraceful one”, despite the personalities involved.
There are more stories from the area. In 1811, Jonothan Burke McHugo sailed into the young colony of Launceston and claimed himself its Maharajah.