Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged Hobart

  • A Mania For Having Photographs Taken

    A Mania For Having Photographs Taken

    While winter’s slow creep gets little love in Tasmania, there is one benefit to the end of summer: selfie season is over.

    I refer to “#selfieseason”, an inane tourism campaign which put, in prominent locations, stickers spruiking the possibility for tourists to photograph themselves in front of something beautiful.

    I won’t harp on about it for too long, but my gut feeling is that pandering to consumeristic fads is not exactly playing to our strengths as an island. Many people come here to get away from that sort of superficiality.

    Much has been said in public arenas about what might be the meaning of the cultural obsession with autoportraits. To really understand them in a Tasmanian context, though, we might want to venture into this building in New Norfolk – previously a ‘hospital for the insane’.

    Here, in 1900, a man in his 40s named Thomas Hinton was admitted to the asylum. He had sent fifteen photographic self-portraits to a young woman, Miss Headlam, and consequently was diagnosed with “a mania for having his photograph taken in all sorts of dress and without dress”.

    The tableaux for which Thomas Hinton was locked up seem to be part of a national competition to design a new flag, in the lead-up to Australia’s Federation. On one photograph, dated August 9, 1900, Hinton wrote to Miss Headlam. “I got four taken today. I am sure you will like ’em.”

    She evidently did not; Hinton was sent to New Norfolk two weeks later.

    Hinton suffered from episodes of mental illness, ending up in mental hospitals on multiple occasions, in different parts of Australia. His record from 1900 tell us that he had been working as an engineer or engine driver in the midlands of Tasmania. Returning to the asylum in Willow Court may have been traumatic: conditions were poor, with mental illnesses poorly understood, and mistreatment of inmates far from unheard of.

    The Royal Derwent Hospital was closed in 2000; life in the hospital was often described as a nightmare, right up until its closure.

    Thomas Hinton’s photographs are far more imaginative than anything I saw during ‘selfie season’. My favourite sees Hinton standing in profile before an artistic hanging with animal motifs,
    probably his own flag design: he wears nothing more than a homemade loincloth, fashioned from patterned material and tied around his waist, his arms folded over his bare chest.

    The collection of Hinton’s photographs were acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 2013. They had been advertised at that time for $9,900.

    Art curator Anthea Gunn has written a fascinating analysis of Thomas Hinton’s self-portraits on The Conversation website. The images, she says, “give a response refracted by mental illness to matters of national importance.” In response I am forced to wonder what meaning will be gleaned from the millions of selfies taken in Tasmanian locales, when they are looked back upon in a dozen decades’ time.

  • Stolen Spoons

    Stolen Spoons

    That was all it took to change the course of Felix Myers’s life: a handful of spoons, perhaps silver, or perhaps merely of foreign provenance. Some table spoons and some tea spoons.

    Felix Myers, also known as Carl Kernetzki, and also known as Peter Sinclair, was born in Prussia – who knows precisely where – but ended up in Leicester with a sweetheart he’d met at the charmingly-named landmark of Gallowtree Gate. This was in Leicester, where Myers worked as a
    surveyor, musician, and German teacher – but he was evidently interested in supplementing his income in the trade of goods stolen from his mistress’s abode.

    A bunch of spoons.

    He was sentenced, at a court session in the dog days of 1837, to seven years’ transportation. He would be exiled along with an accomplice, Joseph Brant. Myers was 27 and Brant was 21.

    The Leicester Chronicle, which never failed to describe Myers as ‘a German Jew’, and reported the messy details of the case (although quickly forgot the fate of the mistress), also records a ‘pathetic appeal’ Felix Myers made to the jury, in which he described himself as ‘an unfortunate foreigner’. He would become even more foreign still, a German Jew shipped off to Van Diemen’s Land.

    But his behaviour was generally good, and he was assigned as a ‘sub-overseer’ on the road gangs completing works in the Southern Midlands of the island. Occasionally he would make a transgression of the harsh rules of convict life: this would earn him a bit of time on the treadwheel, one of the classic devices of punishment that the penal regime had invented.

    Felix Myers worked on building the highway through Bagdad and Green Ponds – now Kempton, and pictured here with the historic Wilmot Arms hotel on the left, erected some four years after Myers left the region.

    Mary Hickson (or Hixon) had been born in Hobart in 1821, one of the first of a generation of colonial children – the currency lads and lasses – who grew up as Vandemonian kids. Probably the child of a convict, she was acquainted early with the fresh Southern Ocean air and the antipodean birdsong, which had been such an affront to many of the first generation of colonial settlers, prisoner or otherwise.

    She was not yet 20 when she met Felix Myers, the bilingual Prussian who had previously charmed the young dame of Gallowstree Gate on the other side of the world. Mary too was sufficiently taken to be swayed into taking the spoon thief’s red hand in marriage.

    It is regrettable that for so many lovers in our local history, we don’t know what it is that drew them to one another. Was Felix Myers dashing, with dark features and a glint in his eyes? Did Mary Hickson have a eucalypt twang in her voice, already freckly and confident on horseback? Was there some pragmatic reason that brought them together? Did Felix have a ready smile? Would Mary sing? Did they share some dream that hovered cloud-like above them in Van Diemen’s Land?

    The records, muddled as they are, seem to suggest they had two children shortly after their Hobart wedding in 1840. It also looks like they moved to Launceston. The name ‘Myers’ – already probably fictitious – became morphed to ‘Meyer’ or ‘Meyers’.

    Perhaps the tale of this family’s lives exists somewhere buried in some record I’ve not laid eyes on. Probably not the narrative of their love. There is no field guide for this. Unless it exists in unseen ripples, through the subtle realms of ancestors’ minds, woven through their interactions down the line, across history, around the island.

  • A Compendium for New Town, Hobart

    A Compendium for New Town, Hobart

    David Burn jr. had followed his mother to Hobart Town; in May 1826 he arrived with his daughter Jemima. He had left his wife back in Edinburgh and his infant son had died. While his mother had received a land grant, Burn would not qualify; eventually, though, he would be able to buy his own property at New Norfolk.

    Burn was a skilful writer, if we accept the flowery style of his day. He would write a sort of emigrant’s guide about Van Diemen’s Land, published in the Colonial Magazine of 1840-41. It compares interestingly to Thoreau’s Walden, as Burn’s Van Diemen’s Land has a similar style and mood. He describes the D’Entrecasteaux Channel as more favourable than Killarney, and the Huon River as an antipodean Loch Fyne. He does not exactly shy away from descriptions of the island’s ‘rude wilds’, the vicious cruelty of the transportation system, or the threatening behaviour of the original inhabitants, whose ‘sable hue has afforded a theme for naturalists and philosophers’. But it is clear that he writes from a moment in history in which the colonists, regardless of their professed humanitarianism (and many, like Burn, were professed humanitarians), could speak with some relief on the topic of the Aborigines at least.

    For the Black War was in its final days, and the end result was becoming clear: British colonial policy had ensured that Aboriginal existence would not restrain the growth of its Vandemonian settlement.

    So David Burn could enthuse prettily on a place like New Town, with its villas, its race-course, its vibrant gardens and the delicious jam that came from them. “New Town also boasts a pottery, and one or two breweries,” wrote Burn.

    In the early days of British reconnaissance here, this area just north of Hobart’s centre was named Stainforth’s Cove for an East India Company man who would never see the island. The early migrant settlers were the Pitt family, who had come on the
    Ocean in 1803. Richard Pitt would be granted 100 acres on the New Town Rivulet; his daughter Salome is said to have been the first white woman to climb Mount Wellington, following the rivulet’s course upstream with an Aboriginal girl who is remembered in nostalgic history as ‘her companion Miss Story’. Salome Pitt would become a “kind-hearted and firm” schoolteacher who fed her students bread and honey but wasn’t beyond boxing them in the ears if they misbehaved.

    There was a wattle-bark tannery here too, for a couple of years in the 1820s, until the deep colour it imparted to leather went out of fashion.

    This was also the home of the King’s (and later, the Queen’s) Orphan Asylum, where hundreds of children of convicts or deceased settlers would be housed over fifty years until the orphanage was converted into a home for the elderly and infirm.

    Perhaps the most significant figure to pass through the orphan school was Walter George Arthur, who had been given a British education on Flinders Island under the tutelage of George Augustus Robinson and others. Walter George Arthur and his wife Mary Anne identified themselves as Christians; they read and wrote well, and had a keenly developed political awareness. Walter George Arthur would petition the colonial and British governments to their highest office.
    There is perhaps no more interesting couple in recorded Tasmanian history.

    And there is no one bigger in New Town’s history than Thomas Dewhurst Jennings, a Yorkshireman who took over the lease of the popular Harvest Home Inn on New Town Road in 1881. Jennings was reputed to have been the biggest man in Australia, tipping the scales at over 200 kilograms. His own report suggests that Jennings was far from gluttonous – despite owning a public hotel, he rarely drank, although he thought that it ‘reduces his bulk’ when he did.

    The same newspaper report suggested that he was worried by neither his weight nor his age – he was then 60 years old – and intended to get married again. The reporter stated bluntly that this was “the only instance of a fat man who has preserved his health and his bulk together.” Jennings died in 1890.

    What would a contemporary field guide to New Town boast about? The coffee roasters, I suppose; the New Town Greenstore, where you can buy organic teas and gluten free baked goods; the Jackman & McRoss bakery, with its well-known croissants; or the popular Hill Street grocers; or perhaps the Video City, soon to become a relic of history as well.


  • Fish in Tasmania

    Fish in Tasmania

    Some of my mates like fly-fishing; I commend them. This activity is a fine demonstration of a person’s positive qualities. People who spend their leisure time traipsing across the highlands, just to dangle a tiny sculpture of steel, threads, feathers and other bric-a-brac in front of a fish – only to have the fish generally display its species’ rather snobbish attitude towards contemporary art – deserve credit for their patience, devotion, and optimism (no matter how unwarranted).

    Tasmania is well-known around the world as a famous fly-fishing destination. In rivers and lakes all across the island, you’ll find waters worthy of a line. Brown and rainbow trout wriggle away in the cold streams descending from the mountains. They are lovely creatures. It is nice to see fish rising in the Mersey or the South Esk. They seem wholesome.

    But of course, these animals (i.e. Salmo trutta; Oncorhynchus mykiss) weren’t originally found in Tasmania. This island’s waterways carried on without trout until 1864, when the first brown and rainbow trout were raised in the southern hemisphere. There had been a number of failures: beginning in 1852, with 50,000 salmon and trout ova that arrived on the Columbus and failed to acclimatise, effort and money (as well as piscine offspring) went to waste almost annually on importing the fish.

    But 1864 brought the successful introduction with both trout and salmon, here on the River Plenty. The cold, clear, mountain-sourced waters of the Plenty run out the sea, which made it perfect as a breeding ground for the salmon. Mr. Robert Read of ‘Redlands’ gave access to the river through his property. Enthusiasts led by the entrepreneurial Morton Allport watched over the development.

    Soon, Tasmanian ova and fry were being exported around Australia and into New Zealand. Constable James Wilson stocked the Great Lake in 1870. Various other intrepid fishermen undertook expeditions into the central highlands to hasten the introduction of these foreign fish into the island’s river systems.

    Nowadays, some 30,000 licensed anglers fish Tasmanian waters each year. It’s a niche tourist trade, and a font of innumerable good yarns. The Salmon Ponds, now a historic site, does a decent trade itself: visitors can see great numbers of handsome trout and salmon varieties moving languorously through the dark water to receive their pellets of feed. The day I was there, a platypus stole the show, scratching its noggin for about five minutes in full view.

    But what of the native fish of Tasmania? Some experts the various species of galaxiids, a small freshwater fish family found only in the southern hemisphere, are under threat due to competition with trout, and even from direct predatory attacks. The poor Pedder galaxias (Galaxias pedderensis) is extinct in the wild, following the construction of an impoundment that flooded the river. Of many of the galaxiidae, little is known.

    As always with the relationship between humans and other animals, it’s complicated.

  • The Complicated Life and Death Story of Thylacinus Cynocephalus

    The Complicated Life and Death Story of Thylacinus Cynocephalus

    The last thylacine to die in captivity came to its demise here, at this former zoo site in Hobart’s Domain park, in 1936. Its name was – possibly – Benjamin. It may have been a female and died of neglect; after a hot day, the animal was locked outside of its shelter overnight in suddenly freezing temperatures. Her body – known to be the last captive specimen in existence – was thrown in the rubbish.

    Colloquially known as the Tasmanian tiger for distinctive black striping along its spine, the thylacine looked more like a wolf, but was in fact a marsupial related to neither. It evolved on the Australian continent and in New Guinea to fill a niche fitted by dogs and wolves elsewhere, although was made largely extinct through the impact of humans and/or dingos about 2000 years ago. Its survival on the island of Tasmania, however, made it the largest carnivore there, and its apex predator.

    Aboriginal Tasmanians are believed to have called the thylacine ‘corinna’, among other names. It is believed that it was hunted and eaten by Aboriginal bands. Diplomat-missionary George Robinson recorded some mythology surrounding the thylacine – namely that dramatic weather events were ‘attributed to the circumstance of the carcase of the hyaena being left exposed’.

    Dutch sailor Abel Tasman reported seeing footprints like those of a tiger’s on the shore in 1642. Upon European settlement, the thylacine was treated as an enemy. Known also as a ‘hyena’ and exclusively carnivorous, thylacines did indeed attack sheep flocks and disturbed agricultural practices implanted by the migrants. A bounty was put upon the thylacine as early as 1830, and between agriculturalists and the Tasmanian Government, over 2000 bounties were claimed over a number of decades.

    Benjamin was caught in the Florentine Valley by Elias Churchill in 1933 and given to the Hobart Zoo. The manager of the zoo was Alison Reid, who said that the animal had no pet name; debate over the animal’s gender continues to simmer.

    Since, though, the thylacine – Thylacinus cynocephalus – has come to adorn the logos of cricket teams, beer bottles and local councils. It’s on the Tasmanian number plate. The tragic history of the thylacine has been depicted in books and films, and used as an example to promote the conservation of other rare and endangered animals.

    Was Benjamin truly the last thylacine on Earth? There are believers and sceptics on the topic. Conversations about the thylacine sound much like religious debate. The dramatic level of loss in Tasmania adds to the weight of the discussion: for there have been extinctions, as well as the erasure of huge amounts of indigenous knowledge and culture, all throughout the island since Europeans arrived.

    The outcome is a matter of eternity too. For after all, if there are no more tigers in the forests, they are gone forever.

    Or is it? Can scientific methods recreate Thylacinus cynocephalus? If we can, should we? Can we repopulate the forests with this poorly-understood and much-maligned creature? Or can we simply let go, own up to our sins, and let dead wolves lie?

    In Tasmania, it seems even life and death isn't clear-cut.

    There is, as well, the story of a man named Bert, who is said to have once upon a time snared a tiger in the forests of Tasmania’s north – but that’s a yarn for another time.


     
    The King family say they saw a thylacine in the south-west in the 1950s.
    Last week, we celebrated the great characters of Hobart Town.

  • Fatty Appleton's Town

    Fatty Appleton's Town

    On the other side of the world, in a city founded more than two millennia ago, I turn to my usual news sources and read about Hobart.

    Of course, Hobart’s winter solstice festival, Dark Mofo, has been and gone with its feasts, concerts and presentations, as well as a skinny-dip in the cold water of the Derwent estuary. It has, according to one reporter, lived up to the hype.

    This festival, co-ordinated by those behind the Museum of Old and New Art, are creating new traditions. And it is interesting to watch traditions being born.

    That Hobart has hype is also a new thing. For a long time, Hobart and the island of which it is the capital city have been somewhat maligned by the rest of the country. A small population, poor education outcomes, a struggling economy and a relatively cold climate made Tasmania a butt of jokes, with the most common of them describing Tasmanians as socially isolated, backwards, and inbred.

    Not to mention a lingering stigma about the city’s sordid past. The second-oldest city in Australia was founded as a penal colony, and for the first part of the 1800s, that was its primary purpose. This, of course, also dispossessed the original Tasmanians, who had lived throughout the island for more than 40,000 years.

    This was the town to which the refuse of the British Empire was sent, or to which the riff-raff fled trying to escape their pasts. Where men were hung up on triangles on the street corners and flogged, where prostitutes and drunks roamed. Pedlars stood at Poor Man’s Corner on Elizabeth Street, such as Coffee Tom selling matchticks, and Nobby Dixon offering cigars, and Patsy Maher selling fruit from his donkey cart.

    It was the town of Fatty Appleton, a wharfie and a brawler, photographed by an unknown fin-du-siècle photographer with his meaty arms slung over a couple of barrels that look awfully similar to the subject himself. There is a cheeky glint in his eyes, deeply set into a nasty face.

    But then, the curious art collector David Walsh, who made his wealth from gambling, built an art gallery. Coinciding with a rising interest in eco-tourism and boutique food and drink, suddenly Tasmania was on the map. Lonely Planet put Hobart in the Top 10 Cities to visit. It was all becoming rather sexy. There was hype.

    And Hobart is living up to it, apparently.

    From afar, I remember my days and nights in Hobart happily. Swigging ale from the bottle as I run down to the Shipwrights Arms to watch the footy, or cradling a lager waiting for a local poet to meet me at the Hope and Anchor (he didn’t show up). Drinking herbal tea with breakfast in Moonah, while Ramos looks up at the mountain, picturing the wall of rock he will climb that day. Rifling through the selection of cheap buys outside Kookaburra Books. 

    Herodotus, the ancient historian, mentioned in the preface to his Histories that he should account for both cities small and great, ‘for those which in old times were great have for the most part become small, while those that were in my own time great used in former times to be small’.

    And indeed, in my own short lifetime I have seen the fate and reputation of cities like Hobart change.

    But it’s still Fatty Appleton’s town to me. Fatty Appletown.

    ‘Human prosperity never continues steadfast,’ Herodotus continues. The hype will disappear, but who knows: there may still be mid-winter swims for decades to come. And there is definitely still a Fatty or two lurking around the streets late at night.

     

    Another great Hobart character was the first chaplain, Bobby Knopwood.
    Last week, we recounted the history of sailor James Kelly.

  • Winter Customs

    Winter Customs

    There are those who hate winter in Tasmania. It is, they say, too cold, or too wet, or too windy, or too dark. It is as bleak as Siberia. It is the most depressing place on Earth.

    But there are others who cherish these days when the sky hangs low like a big-bellied whale over the towns, and some days the mountains rise like white-capped waves. It is good, they contend, to see the grass turn bright green, to don the thick woollen socks and down jackets, to feel frost crunch beneath your feet, to smell the spice of woodsmoke in the air and to sit by the fire yourself with a cosy over the teapot.

    The change in weather is a chance to cultivate new habits. Some of them are idiosyncratic: one gentleman I know takes to boiling eggs on winter mornings and putting them in his pockets as he walks to his place of vocation so they warm his hands.

    Other customs may seem familiar. For instance, one winter when I was short of money, I spent my spare hours scrounging around for good firewood. And on those crisp, starry nights when the weather has cleared but the air is still cold, I would feed sticks and logs into my pot-bellied stove and sit around it with an Irish coffee, sometimes with friends, watching the embers pulsate like melting caramel and tinkling like thin glass cracking in the changing temperature.

    And we should not forget that for thousands of years, this is what people have done in Tasmania during the months of June, July and August, these lunar cycles when the night seems to have more strength than day, when it is cold and wet and windy and dark, and Rowra hovers in the silhouettes of the eucalypts just beyond the room of firelight.

    Yes, for millennia, Tasmanians have had their rituals, their customs, their diets, their ideas, their politics and their dreams flex and change with the weather.

    So as you wipe the hoar off your car window, get a soup going in the slow-cooker, pull out your stripy longjohns, or invite the girl you flirted with all summer over to watch a movie on your laptop beneath a patchy quilt, remember that these details are part of what it is to be a human being in your time and your place. And that though customs have changed dramatically, at times with violence and force, the little behaviours that you share with your contemporaries are significant, full of memory and therefore full of meaning.

    Even the boiled egg hand-warmers. (They will end up in an Ethnographic Museum sometime, somewhere.)

    Perhaps in these months you will look out your window and see the European trees that have dropped all their leaves, and it will makes you feel something of a sense of loss.

    Perhaps you will stand over the Liffey or the Clyde in full flow, and know the trout are spawning, and feel hopeful for what is next, maybe even to the point of impatience.

    Perhaps you will see snow on Mount Wellington or Ben Lomond and long to feel the mist clinging to your hair and your shoes fill up with slush.

    Whatever it is you do and feel from now until the wattles are in blossom, this is the Tasmanian winter to which you belong.

  • The Hop Harvest

    The Hop Harvest

    It was a hellish journey. Within two months of leaving the port in Britain on the Denmark Hill, William Shoobridge buried four family members at sea: his 7-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter, and his wife and newborn child, who both died due complications during childbirth.

    It is said that he went berserk. They would still be on that boat for many weeks.

    Youngest surviving son Ebenezer Shoobridge was two years old when they arrived in Van Diemen’s Land. The remains of the Shoobridge family eked out a living in Hobart Town, mostly operating lime kilns. But William also introduced an exotic plant to Van Diemen’s Land, humulus lupulus, the hop, which they cultivated on their allotment at Providence Valley.

    Another story told about William Shoobridge suggests he had a little luck on his side. Tending to his hop crop, the senior Shoobridge was shot at by a bushranger. The bullet deflected off a metal object in his pocket.

    When the opportunity came to investigate the Derwent River valley for land, they took it. In winter 1833 William took Ebenezer, now an adolescent, up to New Norfolk and beyond. Farming had only recently begun in the Valley. Coming upon a cleared field, William scooped up a handful of nutrient-rich soil. Hops, he murmured, would grow there excellently.

    They rode their horses to the top of a hill and surveyed the land between the Styx and the Derwent; it was then known as ‘Humphreyville’. Soon after, it would be known as Bushy Park. It would be bought by Ebenezer Shoobridge. And indeed, hops would be grown – right up to this day.

    All was not perfect, though. Ebenezer and his brother Richard had come to disagreements and parted ways in 1842. And it had taken some decades for Ebenezer and his esteemed wife Charlotte to purchase Bushy Park, having rented land at Plenty and Richmond in the meantime.

    But finally, in 1863, they moved into the homestead and constructed a series of brick kilns, as well as developing the orchard, the dairy, some grain and root crops.

    Bushy Park Estates is regarded as the birthplace of Australia’s hops, and remains one of the world’s great hop cultivation grounds. Now owned by a German company, Bushy Park remains a town centred around rows of vines, climbing up simple scaffolding in yards separated by poplars. By this time of the year – when the poplars are turning yellow – the hops have all been harvested, some 35-40 tons per day. The yield of the harvest annually reaches to over 500 tons.

    A friend of mine worked in the lab this year during the harvest. Rising with the sun, he would go to his lab, put on a blue coat, switch on some classical music, and begin analysing the hops for alpha and oil content. After he’d knocked off, we had a few beers by the duck pond; a platypus ducked about in it. It was a scene not quite from the early days of Bushy Park, but with the sense of it being an historical moment in itself.

    It’s a picturesque place, rich in history. And it's a wonderful crop they're growing there.

    Raise a toast to the Shoobridges with me this weekend at Saint John's Hop Harvest festival!

  • The Highwayman

    The Highwayman

    They say this cave on Mount Wellington was once the hideout of John ‘Rocky’ Whelan, the bushranger highwayman.

    Sent to the colonies from England as a convict, Whelan – like so many others – absconded. Like all bushrangers in Tasmania, he targeted the many isolated homesteads for plunder; but he also roved the forests ambushing lone travellers, robbing and often killing them.

    He’d never been a likeable man. Nicknamed for his gnarled, pock-marked face, Rocky Whelan was transported in 1829; he spent time in Sydney, Norfolk Island and Hobart, each time making efforts to escape. Myths surfaced about his fondness for dimly-lit cells, or his supposed imperviousness to the lash or other forms of corporal punishment. His final disappearance came as he was assigned to a public works gangs in Hobart. It took only two days for him to abscond into the bush around Mount Wellington.

    Without doubt, Whelan was bold. During his winter on the mountain, he would visit a local magistrate, repose in front of a roaring fire, and read the newspaper. He stopped visiting the day he read his own profile as a wanted man.

    But most of his time was spent in this curvaceous edifice of honey-coloured, quartz-rich Triassic sandstone, alone, with but a small fire to keep himself warm against the damp southern weather.

    In the end, Whelan was caught, by chance, outside a boot-maker’s workshop. He was repairing the boots of a missing man. He admitted to five murders. He was hanged at the Imperial Gaol in 1855 with 112 offences against his name.

    There was an old man near Brown’s River, the youth Dunn on the Huon track, an elderly gentleman at Bagdad, a young fellow on the Westbury Road, and a hawker near Clevelend. A chequered career of murder, fatalities scattered across the island. At one stage he appears to have travelled around 100 miles in three days.

    “Dead men tell no tales” was the highwayman’s mantra. And yet, this cleft of sandstone in which the cold-hearted bushranger John Whelan took refuge during his days of terror in Tasmania bears his story even still. Nowadays, a small detour off a popular recreational walking route on the mountain points out his old hideaway. I was there last week with a friend, sheltering from the wind, eating from a small container of grapes.

  • The Witness of Many Weddings

    The Witness of Many Weddings

    For four years, Lt.-Gov. Collins had upheld the prohibition of alcohol in Van Diemen’s Land, but in 1808 he accepted the inevitable. By this time, there were already a few public houses serving alcohol; the Sign of the Whale Fishery was the first pub to open in the colony, in July 1807. Soon after, Francis Barnes became the licensee of the Hope Inn.

    Francis was a rare case in the penal colony. A literate and worldly man, he was sent to Van Diemen’s Land on the Calcutta for the theft of £172 during a play at the Drury Lane Theatre. He claimed that he found the banknotes, but his story wasn’t convincing; he arrived with the first settlers of Hobart Town in 1804.

    Because of his skill with letters, Francis took up an important clerical role in the colony – he assisted the rambunctious chaplain Rev. Robert Knopwood, giving his signature as witness as many of the early weddings in the colony. He also became a printer, sporadically publishing newspapers to be disseminated around Hobart Town.

    As publican, Francis Barnes didn’t have great luck. His alehouse was forced to move several times, as the government enacted urban planning rearrangements to accommodate a growing settlement; ever the optimist, Barnes reopened the pub in different locations, finally settling under the name Hope and Anchor on Macquarie Street. Good food and reading material accompanied the printer’s service of spirits and beer. He also, famously, had an albino dog named Lady.

    But he didn’t have a real lady. Not until 1823, when he met Elizabeth Ann Macklin; finally, the man who had witnessed so many weddings was able to summon the minister, and Rev. Knopwood married them. Curiously, Francis lied about his age, claiming himself to be ten years more youthful than the 52 years his records suggest; Elizabeth was 39. A special day. But the marriage lasted only four years. In 1827, Elizabeth died. Francis Barnes gave up the pub, and moved into farming. He married again in 1833, to a spinster named Mary Anne Pritchard, and they settled on the 600 acres he had accumulated at Ralphs Bay. This time, his death annulled the matrimony, in 1842.

    The Hope and Anchor survived for close to 200 years, closed for six years, and was then bought for $1.5 million by a Chinese developer late last year.


    The chaplain, Bobby Knopwood, was an interesting character in his own right.

  • The Chaplain

    The Chaplain

    I don't pretend to know what a chaplain does or is supposed to do. Nevertheless, it is probably surprising that the old bar in the photograph above is named after the first man to perform a religious service in Tasmania, Bobby Knopwood.

    Bobby didn't have an easy start in life (his father died, and left enormous debts) but the spirited young man managed to gain an education and train for the ministry. He was also a well-known hunter and horseman. Rising through the ecclesiastical ranks, Bobby served in the West Indies, and then was employed as the first chaplain to the colonies in Victoria and Van Diemen's Land.

    Luckily for us, Bobby was a keen diarist, and so we know a lot about his life and his passions: my favourite excerpt from his journals is a delightful rant about the beauty of a young nun he met in Brazil, whose dark and secretive looks he couldn't dismiss from his mind. We also know a bit about him from his bills, and from these we can tell that Bobby Knopwood ate, drank and lived a very merry life in Van Diemen's Land. He became good mates with the Lieutenant-Governor of the colony, and became famous for his parties - as well as for the parties he went to, of which he said, 'Where I dine, I sleep.'

    And when he woke up, he was sometimes unfit to perform his duties as chaplain. Not a few Sunday services were skipped due to Bobby's intemperance. Probably the devout of Hobart Town didn't mind.

    Towards the end of his tenure, Bobby Knopwood took in an orphan girl named Betty Mack, whose marine father abandoned her. From all accounts, he committed himself to her, put himself in debt to pay her way, and 

    Maybe a man like Bobby Knopwood believed that there was something spiritual in drunkenness and admiring beautiful women. Or perhaps, in the end, we can believe that it matters little what a person eats or drinks, where their eyes rove or even where their spirits stray, if they are still able to be so moved as to take upon themselves a burden such as love for another - for any other - creature in this world.

    I apologise if that sounds somewhat like a paraphrase of something someone else once said, in the middle of the world, a couple thousand years ago. As I said, I have no idea what a chaplain is supposed to be all about.

  • The Man Who Died on Goulburn Street

    The Man Who Died on Goulburn Street

    People like to tell the story of what happened to William Lanne after he died. He was, they say, only 34 years old when he passed away from cholera. With his body in the hospital morgue, the chief medical scientists of the day came and hacked off his body parts. Buried the next day, he was dug up again and dismembered further. He was, after all, a significant scientific novelty: William was the last captured Aboriginal man left on the island.

    In his early days, he was moved around like a pinball. Born in the north-west of Van Diemen's Land, he was first removed with his family to Flinders Island in 1842, when he was seven; then, his parents having died like so many other Aborigines at the Wybalenna camp, they sent William to Bruny Island. After that, he was enrolled at the orphan school in Hobart. He left the school at 16. Rootless, without a family, his race disintegrating around him, William got himself a job on a ship. He sailed out onto the Pacific Ocean as a 'whale spotter'. They say he had the best eyes on the whole ocean; if anyone could spot a whale, it was William Lanne. He spent a lot of long days looking on that water, out to the horizon.

    He came back to Hobart and lodged at the Dog & Partridge on Goulburn Street. By that point, the island was no longer called Van Diemen's Land; it had a new name, a more euphonious one (if that's possible), one that wasn't so inextricably linked to acts of grisly violence, like those that happened in the early days of the colony. Sickness had a grip on him already. He coughed and spluttered, but did not give up smoking his pipe. A burly man, dressed now in heavy jackets and ragged pants, William had the face of a rugby player, but the eyes of a marsupial. His shipmates, and the Hobart locals, called him King Billy. It is not recorded how he responded. From the photographs of him, you might guess he took it gently, stoically.

    Nowadays the Dog & Partridge has been turned into some kind of backpackers' hostel. The Church of Christ up the road still stands in all its sandstone glory, but it's become a private residence. There's an art gallery, a laundromat, and the Pigeon Hole cafe has good coffee. That's what it's like now: a tumult of change, jarring and jolting shifts that you either have to adapt to or be abandoned by.

    Sometimes life just gets pulled out from under you.

  • Fram

    Fram

    The triumphant Captain of the Antarctic exploration crew finally disembarked from his vessel, Fram - Norwegian for 'Forward' - and wandered into the obscurity of Hobart Town.

    He was the last one off the ship. The Captain signed his declarations and was obsequiously welcomed to town by the officials. His men all had found the grimy hotels attached to brothels, no doubt, and were probably enjoying themselves and renewing their religious sentiments as he took his first steps out of the port. The Captain would be alone whatever he did. He considered a meal, but had breakfasted late, and heartily. No, what he really wanted was a stiff drink.

    First of all, he booked into a hotel, the Orient Hotel, where he was treated as if he were a tramp, and shunted into a small back-room without windows. The Captain didn’t give himself time to be frustrated. He was thirsty for liquor. It was a little surprising to him just how quickly the urge to drink had come upon him. The Captain thought of one of his men, Johansen, who was a pest and a boozehound, the only one of the crew he couldn’t stand and had no respect for. No doubt he was already wallowing in drunkenness. The Captain figured he better find a better place to drink than one of those seamy wharf bars that sold moonshine and watery beer. He went back out into the street without bothering to bathe or change his clothes. The Captain walked with his head and shoulders lifted high, his spine erect. He seemed to sniff the air with curiosity.

    Just around the corner from the Orient Hotel, he found what he was after. It was a whisky bar: a squat brick building with dark windows wrapped around it. The Captain walked in and was surprised to see it so full at such an early hour. Many of them clearly came from the shipyard, but there were a number of other unlikely characters frequenting the bar. The place was so busy, and so heavily populated with rugged souls, that the Captain entered completely unnoticed, despite his improbable appearance. Unbelievably, there were a number of others in the bar who looked like they too could have been journeying through that frigid desert – youths and women included.

    Later in the day, reports would come from Hobart Town, Tasmania, that Roald Amundsen was the first person in the world to reach the South Pole.

     

    Another famous ship had docked in Hobart nearly a century earlier: the Beagle.

  • Blow My Skull

    Blow My Skull

    At one point, the biggest drunk in the colony was also the man in the highest position of authority.

    
Thomas Davey was appointed as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land in 1812. When he got the job, he tried to leave England without telling his wife; she found out, and Davey became so furious that he ‘threw his wig at the wall in temper’. It was a strange appointment. Davey was in a Gentleman’s Prison for Debtors at the time, and wouldn’t have the means to pay off his debts until after he returned from Van Diemen’s Land.
 Lachlan Macquarie, the Governor of Australia – after whom so many landmarks are named – instantly took a disliking to Tom Davey when the latter arrived in Sydney. Davey had suffered the misfortune of losing his luggage, somehow, on the voyage from London. (Long after he left the antipodes he would be claiming he was owed thousands of pounds for the loss.) Macquarie would later describe Davey as a drunk who showed “an incredible degree of frivolity and buffoonery in his manners.”


    Was this fair?

    Definitely. In February 1813, when Davey arrived in Hobart Town, he lurched across the ship’s gangway, surveyed his new dominion, took off his jacket and said, “It’s hot as Hades here!” He then opened a bottle of port and poured the entirety of its contents all over his wife’s hat, in some kind of unexplained personal ritual.
 (The poor lady: her name, in a shameful coincidence, was Temperance.)

    Davey wasn’t an overly competent administrator. His policies ended up allowing the art of bushranging to flourish – even two of his own officials ended up becoming part of a gang. At one point, Davey declared martial law, an act deemed illegal by London and stupid by Macquarie. In fairness, Lt.-Gov. Davey also made Hobart a free port, and encouraged the proper treatment of the Aboriginal population. But the fact is that his legacy is largely to do with the consumption of alcoholic beverages.


    On royal birthdays, Tom Davey gave out free rum, doling it out from a keg in front of the Governor’s House. It was not uncommon to find him in the pubs, drinking with the lower classes, especially at a bar called Stocker’s; he would explode out of Parliament House in a fit of frustration - sick of his job, or his long-suffering wife, I suppose. Many of Van Diemen’s Land elite thought he was responsible for the dissipation of morals and etiquette. So they started calling him Mad Tom.


    He also invented a cocktail, named ‘Blow My Skull’. Simply dissolve 165g (¾ cup) of brown cane sugar into a litre of water, then add the juice of six limes (about 180ml), and 500ml each of porter and navy-style rum (57% alcohol content), and 250ml of strong brandy. It’s not bad!

  • Remembering a Long Walk

    Remembering a Long Walk

    Sometimes, towards the end, he would look back on it all and laugh. As the years had gone by, Henry Reading had accumulated an immense wealth; he owned over 120 properties in the north of the island, and it was said that there wasn’t a street in Launceston that you couldn’t find a house of Henry’s.

    He was the equivalent of a millionaire, but that hadn’t seemed like Henry Reading’s destiny from the beginning. Born to a young mother in one or another of London’s gin-soaked hovels, Reading was imprisoned for stealing beeswax, and sentenced to Van Diemen’s Land on the Claudine. When he arrived in 1821, he had just turned thirteen years old, and stood at a a miniscule 137 centimetres tall.

    Henry was a well-behaved convict and earned his ticket-of-leave in due course. The urge to have a fresh start stirred within the young man. He decided to leave Hobart, and head for the northern settlement of Launceston. For a poor convict lad, there was no transportation available – other than his two feet. Henry Reading put his few possessions on a handcart and began lugging it the 190 kilometres from Hobart to Launceston.

    It was April when he set out. Cold winds blew, rain came and went, and the odd storm assailed him. The transplanted trees on the homesteads were beginning to litter their leaves. Occasionally a servant, a cook, or even a master would take pity on the little man hiking across the island and give him soup, grog, or a bed to sleep in.

    Oddly, when he was older and reminiscing on his walk, Henry Reading could remember little of the aching muscles, the wet clothes, the cold rivers he had to wade, the blisters, the nights of bad sleep, or the hunger. He knew that’s how it had been – a tough slog – but instead, he remembered the good moments: these instances of hospitality, or the sight of a blue sky over the Midlands plains. Or best of all, that final day of walking.

    It had nearly been a month since he crossed the Derwent River coming out of Hobart Town. Now, departing Breadalbane on May 12th, Henry felt the load lighten a little, knowing he would soon be arriving to a new life, a clean slate, a blank page. And as he approached Launceston, he noted in his diary the immense heads of cattle that he was passing through. “Prosperity bodes well here,” he scrawled.

    Yes, when Henry Reading thought about the naïve young man he had been when he wrote that prognostication, he had to laugh.

  • The Otago

    The Otago

    Joseph Conrad was an enigmatic man. Born in the landlocked far east of Poland as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, he became a ship captain, and then one of the most famous names in English literature – even though he only learned the language when he was twenty.

    Joseph Conrad never came to Tasmania, but the first ship he captained did. The Otago was skippered by Conrad from Bangkok to Sydney, and later to Mauritius, then back to Adelaide. Afterwards, though, when Conrad had gone back to Europe, it was purchased as a coal-hauling barge on the Derwent River. Its twenty-six year career ended in demolition.

    Conrad was regarded as a moody skeptic, melancholy and wary of showing emotion, and his bachelorhood was confirmed by moral judgement. “This is not my marriage story,” writes Conrad in his book The Shadow-Line, its plot centred around his commissioning as captain of the Otago. “It wasn’t so bad as that for me.” And yet suddenly, in 1896, aged 38, Conrad went and married an Englishwoman. Jessie George was a young, plain, peasant girl. But they ended up having a sturdy, happy marriage until Conrad died in the 1920s. So go figure.

    The Otago wreck remains on the eastern shore of the Derwent, and is a site of pilgrimage for fans of the taciturn author, who visit the wreck on the date of Conrad’s death, August 3. Common events for Korzeniowski Day, as it is called, involve reciting Polish translations of his work. Nic tak nie nęci, nie rozczarowuje i nie zniewala, jak życie na morzu, they recite from Lord Jim. “There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea.”

  • The Twenty-Seventh Birthday Party of Charles Darwin

    How they loved a party in Hobart Town! As soon as he arrived, on February 5 1836, they told him of a fancy-dress ball that he'd just missed: 113 guests, all in costume. 

    "Well we may as well do something for my birthday," he said.
    "Don’t you worry Mr. Darwin," they informed the young scientist, "we already have something in mind."

    It was a funny place for Charles Darwin to spend such an anniversary and no doubt he remembered it in a strange light, many years on. Hobart was not quite as charming in its aspect as Sydney, Darwin felt, but the climate was damper, and the land was agreeably fertile. Agriculture flourished. The bright yellow of corn cobs and the dark green of potato leaves shone on the banks of the Derwent as Darwin approached. Fruit-trees leaned over the ramshackle houses. It almost resembled some parts of home, wrote Darwin in his notebook. Perhaps one could imagine someday wanting to emigrate there. This colony – all of Australia – shall be one of the jewels of the Empire, a grand centre of civilisation, he scrawled between scientific observations.

    Nevertheless there was disappointment when Darwin joined a party in climbing up Mount Wellington. After it almost defeated him, Darwin labelled it a squat, ugly mountain, and the view from the top was, to him, flat and tame. Cloud and rain besieged them. It wasn’t a wasted day, though. The slopes of the mountain were well-furnished with magnificent fern trees and eucalypts. Darwin made an excellent collection of local insect specimens: over 100. There was not a shortage of geological observations to be made there either: basalt (which surely once flowed as lava), unstratified greenstone deposits, fossiliferous strata, yellow limestone or travertine.

    The Aborigines there, believed Darwin, were a few degrees higher in civilisation than the natives of Tierra de Fuego - for example. Far from being the utterly degraded people they were sometimes described as, they are fine hunters, nimble, more astute than given credit for. But when two races of men meet, they do so like two different animal species – it is a deadly struggle, and contact between these varieties inevitably conclude with the stronger pinning down the weaker. Such would be the case, he predicted, in Van Diemen’s Land.

     But the party was wonderful! There were a number of distinguished guests, all impeccably attired; one could expect nothing more even in England. The finest classical music was played for entertainment. There were several quite beautiful women in the colony, and their dancing was something to behold - as it was with ladies in all of the Empire.

    'This voyage has been by far the most important event of my whole life,' wrote Charles Darwin on board the Beagle, as he was leaving two weeks later.