Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged midlands

  • 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.

  • History of a Highway

    History of a Highway

    A road is not like a railway, built mile by mile, inching along to an inevitable goal. No, a road begins with tracks, either of men or animals; it is improved haphazardly as occasion demands.”

    So wrote George Hawley Stancombe, in his self-published history of the Midlands Highway, History in Van Diemen’s Land (1968). Anyone making the journey between Tasmania’s two urban centres today would notice that the haphazard improvements continue. The earth along the highway’s sides scoured and graded, big boulders broken, lanes added, and (for the meantime) vehicles being slowed down to a grinding halt at certain sections.

    But we presume that in the end it will make the journey between Hobart and Launceston smoother, quicker, and safer. We chip away gladly at the amount of minutes spent on that road as it glides amidst the farmlands and villages of Tasmania’s eastern interior.

    In doing so we dismiss the efforts of Lieutenant Laycock, who on February 12th 1807, accompanied by four men and three weeks worth of provisions, staggered bedraggled into Hobart Town, having hoofed it from the Tamar to the Derwent.

    Their route was not identical to our highway’s, and the landscape is not the same. They spoke of thick forests – now all the land is cleared for agriculture – and they seem to have been in the vicinity of New Norfolk. Their adventure, along with those of several other parties that followed theirs, may have involved encounters with Aboriginals and bushrangers, and required that they overcome swollen rivers and tough terrain, not to mention the transport of their possessions.

    The first vehicular passages occurred in 1824, with two mail carriages relaying, meeting centrally at York Plains on Friday afternoons. Rendezvousing at the White Hart Inn, they quickly toasted one another, and then returned from whence they came with the other man’s cargo. (Mr. Presnell, proprietor of the inn, is said to have served “good mutton, indifferent wine and very poor bread.”)

    The name of York Plains, along with Ross, Epping Forest, and anything with his or his wife’s name in it came from Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who, with Elizabeth Macquarie and other dignitaries, traversed the island in the early days of the colony. But was Antill Ponds named after one of his men, one Major Antill, or a bushranger whose head was bashed in by one of his colleagues? And who is responsible for the naming of Jericho, Jordan and Bagdad – and were they really reading from the Bible or the Arabian Nights?

    Each traveller in Tasmania has their impressions from the road. Many have a story of accident, or more often, a near-accident. The weather has come and gone on us, hazing up Ben Lomond or the Western Tiers on either side; Mount Wellington, either ahead or behind, looks stern and foreboding, or glorious and inviting. On a recent trip down, there was snow down to about 500 metres in the midlands.

    We have had a good toasted sandwich in Kempton or a kick of the footy at Oatlands. Sometimes the two hours have passed too quickly, and sometimes, they’ve dragged on forever. Everyone has had a coffee at Campbell Town – but do you prefer Zep’s or Red Bridge?

    Poor old Brighton, bypassed a few years back: who knows what happens in Brighton now? These days, in and out of Hobart we pass the former Pontville Detention Centre. This was an army barracks, and then for a short while, housed asylum seekers. It is back in private hands now, and its history, shadowy, may just disappear as we familiarise ourselves with it as a benign, unregistered, fairly bland landmark along the highway.

    Just as we ignore the silhouettes in steel commissioned, I am told, to help drivers keep their attention as they head through the Southern Midlands. The gunpoint mugging of a gig, the surveyor’s strained efforts, the emus and thylacines, and the forlorn figure of the hangman at the turn-off to Stonor all blend into the hedgerows, the sloping fields, the solitary gums, the homesteads and so on, as we mostly move hastily between the urban centres.

    But I have missed too much out! History and anecdote crowd my attempts to write this brief account of the Midlands Highway. There are those who have lived along the highway, who have seen it snake towards and away from them, and those people and animals who formed its basic route before Europeans ever dragged their sheep to the fields or planted a radiata pine or poppy. There are truly funny stories to tell, and miraculous moments, and maybe I could even muster up something romantic. I am sure there will be many readers who feel the same.

    I won’t tell it all now. But someday I, like Lieutenant Laycock, will stroll from the Tamar to the Derwent – and then there will be time to unravel the stories. Even a highway journey ought be taken on foot sometime.

  • Cornish Pasties

    Cornish Pasties

    A friend in Mexico City once took me to an eatery for what he said was a regional dish from his family’s home nearby called pastes. A pastry shell stuffed with meat and/or vegetables, it was delicious and hearty meal. It was also something I’d grown up eating. It was a pasty.

    The pasty is said to have been popularised by tin miners from Cornwall, England, who held it by its thick crimped edge, so as not to contaminate it with dirty – or arsenic-tarnished – fingers.

    So it was that Cornish miners in Hidalgo, Mexico, brought pastes to that country; and likewise, migrant workers from Cornwall brought their “regional dish” to Australia.

    In 1843 a north-eastern farmhand followed his dog into the bush; the dog was chasing after wombats, and digging a hole into a bank, it revealed a seam of coal. Before long, a tent city had sprung up around the mine. Because of the number of Cornish migrants who had come to put use to their mining prowess, it became known as Cornwall.

    In this second half of the 1800s, these men picked and shovelled their way into the Nicholas Range, using sticks of gelignite to open up their shafts. At the end of their days, workers returned to ramshackle-style houses with walls of split palings, hessian, and layers of newspaper, and dirt floors covered with chaff bags.

    A railway built from the midlands to the east coast in 1886 livened the mine’s – and the town’s – prospects. By 1950, there were around one hundred houses, a post office, a butcher, shops, and daily bread delivery. A couple of churches and a school with attached recreational facilities serviced the town.

    Only a few years later, however, the coal industry lost its momentum. Cheap oil gained a stronghold around the world, and the Cornwall Coal Co. lost its customers. In 1964, they closed the mine. The town shrivelled. Houses were sold for a pittance as workers moved away in search of other work. Public buildings and services, along with shops and churches, were closed, torn down, or burnt out.

    In 1982, the mine reopened, with production up to 300,000 tonnes a year. But the town was still a shell of its former days; the mine only employs 70 people, with that number soon reducing by a third. Only forty houses still remain in the town.

    Perhaps home-made pasties are still made there, as the fog rolls in down from the forested mountains. Made, and made well, no doubt. But there are none sitting in bain-maries waiting to be bought for those who make the eight kilometre detour off the A4, on their way to St. Marys.

     

  • Christmas in Big River Country

    Christmas in Big River Country

    George Augustus Robinson was a religious man, whose sympathy for the Tasmanian Aboriginal people was motivated by a belief that God had created all people equal. His ‘Friendly Mission’ – a diplomatic journey on foot throughout the entire island of Van Diemen’s Land – was driven by other political and personal forces as well, but the influence of Robinson’s working-class Calvinism is not to be underestimated.

    By December 1831, the self-proclaimed Conciliator was in his third year of his expeditions. His journeys had truly taken to him all corners of the island. Now, he was tracking the Big River people – led by the enigmatic chief Montpeilliatter - in the southern highlands. With white settlements expanding, the violence of frontiersmen and stockkeepers increased and foreign diseases killed more and more of the native population. Robinson’s diplomatic project seemed more urgent than ever.

    Come Christmas Day, Robinson woke up by the “Big River” – the Ouse. The weather was pleasant. He and his party were out of tea and sugar. His companions were mostly Aboriginal recruits to his mission. Among others these were the north-east chief Mannalargenna and his wife Sall; the irascible Kickerterpoller and his wife Pagerly; the revolutionaries Peevay and Umarrah; and, ever faithful to Robinson’s mission, Woorrady and Trugernanna. A handful of convict servants – who often did not get along with Robinson – were with them too.

    There was no holiday from the mission. The party continued in the trail of the Big River tribe. Fording the river, some of the natives had a swim. They crossed the plains south-east, kangaroo bounding away at their approach. Peevay speared one to take for dinner. From a hilltop in the hot afternoon, they could see the peak of Mt. Wellington, which loomed over the township of Hobart. But they were far away from that.

    “As I journeyed along various reflections crossed my mind connected with this day: the comfortless situation I was placed in compared with those in towns,” he wrote in his journal, perhaps sparing a thought for his wife and their many children. “The service I was engaged in, however, bore me up as it was that service which him whose memory is perpetuated on this day delighted in.”

    Perhaps Robinson wanted to enter into that wondrous old story of the deity who chose to be born as a baby in a Palestinian stable in order to bring conciliation to the world. He was an English bricklayer expeditioning among an ancient and suffering race, learning their languages and customs, hoping to bring peace on the island at the bottom of the world. The results were all too human and ugly.

     
    George Robinson and Mannalargenna were an unlikely duo.

  • Al Qu'ran 17:37

    Al Qu'ran 17:37

    The first Muslims to come to Tasmania were an Indian seaman named Saib Sultan and his wife, whose name is not known to history. Sultan was shipwrecked in 1795 and ended up on Norfolk Island; in 1807, he transferred to Van Diemen’s Land and was awarded 27 acres of land at New Norfolk. He also ended up with the name Jacob.

    Zimran Youram (but one of the many spellings his name went through) was another Indian Muslim who came to Van Diemen’s Land, although through different circumstances. Born in Hyderabad, Zimran went to England for reasons unknown, got in trouble with the law, and was sentenced to transportation in the Third Fleet, arriving on the Atlantic. Like many convicts, though, after acquiring his ticket-of-leave in 1813, Zimran made a radically different life for himself. He acquired 40 acres of land in Norfolk Plains – around what is now Longford – and became a wealthy landowner, most likely growing wheat.

    But Zimran’s life ended violently and tragically. A conspiracy between convict labourers Patrick McDonough and John Jordan to clean Zimran out ended in what a newspaper journalist described as a “systematically planned and cold blooded murder”. Zimran Youram was believed to be in his 89th year of life when he was killed.

    It seems that Zimran ordered some new boots from the 22-year-old Jordan, a shoemaker by trade. Knowing that the old man had a fortune in his house, the thieves tried to drug him, slipping laudanum into his cider. The conspiracy failed. Several further attempts also didn’t come off. Six weeks later, however, on July 6 1848, McDonough belted Zimran Youram with a wrench. They found nearly £50 in total, in various hiding places around the house.

    Upwards of 100 people went to the funeral, and Zimran left everything to a child in Norfolk Plains, 12-year-old William Saltmarsh. It is supposed he did not have a family in Van Diemen’s Land.

    Muslims from Oman, Iraq, Mauritius and South Africa also came to Australia as convicts. Their names almost always disappear from the records. Perhaps they changed them as they assimilated into Australian society, or maybe they managed to return their homelands.

    These days, 900 Muslims are estimated to live in Tasmania – only 0.3% of Australia’s Muslim population.

     
    Trapper William Mullins was also brutally murdered in Mathinna in 1913.

  • Tom Roberts Fell in Love

    Tom Roberts Fell in Love

    In summer, Tom Roberts’ gravesite is the kind of setting familiar to his paintings. Roberts’ works were maligned by critics for not being ‘high art’. Instead, he famously portrayed sheep stations and wood splitters, often displaying his works on 9 x 5 inch cigar boxes. Where he now rests, the dry midlands heat has parched the grass. The gravestone faces out to a field of poppies, recently harvested. Behind the nearly-abandoned church (the lawns are nowadays decorated with an idol to ploughing), the bitumen road shimmers and glistens, and trucks scream down it.

    Roberts was born in Dorset, England, in March 1856, and migrated to Australia as an eleven-year-old. As a young man, he lived in Collingwood and studied art while working as a photographer’s assistant. He lived for most of his life in Victoria, but he married a Tasmanian woman, Jean Boyes, with whom he had made a number of visits to the island; when he died, he chose to be buried at the Christ Church just outside of Longford, Tasmania.

    She was an old family friend, and he was a 72-year-old widower. His friends called him Bulldog.