Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged bushrangers

  • One Sunday Morning in Ranelagh

    One Sunday Morning in Ranelagh

    I. Riddell, 1819.

    The country along the Huon River had been known to Europeans for a couple of decades. The French had come up the river under Bruni d’Entrecasteaux. He had assigned the river’s name in honour of the commander of one of his vessels, Huon de Kermadec. That was 1792.

    Pre-eminent naturalist Robert Brown led a journey down the Huon in 1804, before declaring it unsuitable for settlement. But there was now knowledge of the country’s geography and the first scattered settlements appeared.

    In 1819, for example, I. Riddell came and scratched his name into a tree.

    In the 1820s, an absconded convict with the surname of Martin was found at a makeshift campsite at what is now the township of Franklin. As was so often the case with the bolters of colonial Van Diemen’s Land, this Martin had escaped into a location with a wealth of resources. The river, the wetlands, and the hinterland of eucalypt forest were full of life; here it was possible for an outcast to find shelter,
    find food, make fire and survive.

    However, as elsewhere in Tasmania, these colonial outposts required ingenuity and bravery. New settlers would live in bark huts and work long hours. Everything was home-made. Conflict with the original Tasmanian population was also prevalent in this period of history, and these remote settlements were exposed.

    After the development of a bridle track the following decade, the Huon Valley became one of the most fecund agricultural areas on the island. Even Lady Jane Franklin acquired a large block of land and put it to use.

    The Huon River came to have over 70 jetties; even with the bridle track, it made more sense to use the water as a road. Vessels without engines were replaced by steamers and soon enough, a Huon resident would be able to take an early-morning boat ride to Hobart.

    Like many others, George Lucas shipped timber upstream. He felled the trees on his property Ranelagh, today the name of a village of about 1000 people.

    It was here I woke up about this time last year. Not quite in the cemetery, amongst the tombstones of my predecessors, but in the adjacent park. Sometimes after midnight, I had arrived from the Huon Valley Midwinter Feast, the local wassailing festival. (It is genuinely one of my favourite festivals and I’m sorry to miss it this year). Giddy with cider and bock, I’d sort-of put up my tent and slept in it. When I woke up, the sun was melting the frost. The resonant voices of the Sunday morning flock rose from the Anglican church-house, joining the mist lifting from the Huon. Some children were hunting for Pokémon – now that’s history.

    What makes a person try and mark their time and place in the world so definitely, to scribble their name on a wall or scratch it into a tree? If ever I needed to fix myself somewhere, it may have been that morning in Ranelagh. I was completely untethered for the day – no car, no mobile phone,
    no plans, no companions. I went and found a wallaby pie for breakfast, and wandered off, unregistered, with the other old souls of the Huon Valley.

  • Nowhere Valley

    Nowhere Valley

    Beneath here is Nowhere Valley. There, the bushranger Lucas Wilson set up his utopia. “What I’ve done in establishing Nowhere Valley,” he said, “is to escape the world which is too much with us…Here in this beautiful place, we’re in a territory that’s never been spoiled: one that’s just as it was at the beginning of time.”

    Fiction: from the last novel of Tasmanian author Christopher Koch, Lost Voices, published in 2012.

    Nowhere Valley is Collinsvale, a hamlet hidden in the northern bumps and folds of Mount Wellington. By the mid-nineteenth century, when the invented scholastic woodsman and his followers had established their society in Koch’s novel, British settlements had begun to creep up the creeks from Glenorchy and New Norfolk into this valley. Sorell Creek was the region’s first name.

    And then came the first immigrants from Germany and Denmark. These Lutherans were drawn by cheap land and good water supplies to start a township there, centred around agriculture, from 1870. They planted vines and potatoes, and worked as carpenters and blacksmiths and bakers. The relative isolation provided by the valley allowed the migrants to maintain their identities. Their names were Neilsen and Fehlberg, Tötenhofer and Appeldorff. In 1881, the town was gazetted with the name of Bismarck, after the Prussian statesman.

    But a few decades later, with the Great War invoking anti-German sentiments around Tasmania, a letter-writing campaign sought to change this name. Collinsvale, after the first Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, David Collins, was proposed. “We are quite unanimous in believing that Collinsvale is a far more suitable name for a Tasmanian township than Bis-marck,” wrote one W.F. Andersen in December 1914. “The only ones who do not think so are Germans, and a couple who are probably under obligations to Germans.”

    The latter’s oppositions included the claim that the brand name of Bismarck was associated with high quality produce. This was quashed: the town was renamed Collinsvale.

    Names can change with extraordinary ease: mountains and hills less so. The utopia of Nowhere Valley failed. The bushranger Lucas Wilson perished. His final exhortation was, “Keep faith with the hills.” His author, Christopher Koch, who grew up in the town of Glenorchy beneath the mountain summits now known as Collins Cap and Collins Bonnet, narrates: “Though I’ve lived most of my life outside the island, my native hills have figured very often in my work. Back here again, perhaps to stay, I wander outside the town and study their rhyming outlines: olive green; deep green; blue. Familiar, unchanging and apparently static, they nevertheless have a look of illusory fluidity, and are constantly renewing themselves.”

    And indeed they are. Lucas Wilson was wrong: this is not how these places have been since the beginning of time. “And the beauty that Lucas had so often spoken about was mere fancy – something he’d grafted onto this landscape.”

  • 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.

  • Causing a Scene in Prince's Square

    Causing a Scene in Prince's Square

    “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.

  • 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!