Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • History of a Perfect Miscreant

    History of a Perfect Miscreant

    The Richmond bridge is the oldest bridge still in use in Australia. The foundation sandstone was laid in December 1823, and with the aid of convict labour, the bridge successfully arched over the Coal River by 1825.

    Around this time, the Coal River became acquainted with Gilbert Robertson. Arriving in Van Diemen’s Land from Scotland, en route to Sydney, he wheedled his way into gaining 400 acres of land near Richmond, despite having no money. Still, Gilbert complained that he’d been gypped – not enough land, not enough servants.

    Pretty soon he lost his land, thanks to debt. He also made plenty of enemies. Magistrates, business partners, and even Lieutenant-Governors all came to loathe the “impertinence and swaggering” with which Gilbert Robertson carried out his affairs. In the end, though, Lt.-Gov. Arthur gave him his land back – plus the 600 additional acres Gilbert had moaned about – in 1829. Not much changed: Gilbert’s house burnt down and he was sued for assault. But just when it looked like his debts were going to catch up with him, circumstances changed curiously, and Gilbert saw his spot.

    It was the height of the Black War, and Lt.-Gov. Arthur had declared martial law. Gilbert Robertson applied for, and received, the position of chief constable of the Richmond district.

    The next few years at ‘Woodburn’, as Gilbert had named his estate, were eventful to say the least. In November 1828, he had captured five Aboriginal rebels, including the notorious warrior chief Umarrah. Along with Kickerterpoller, Gilbert’s off-and-on Oyster Bay Aboriginal servant, and a young Big River Aboriginal named Cowerterminna, Umarrah was a regular visitor to Woodburn.

    Gilbert and Kickerterpoller were particularly matey, and Gilbert tried to convince Lt.-Gov. Arthur that this was what Aboriginal and settler relations could be, given the right approach to conciliation. In fact, he had devised a whole model for conciliation, and suggested that he would be willing to put it into action - for the right price. The price, unfortunately, was too high. An idea similar to Gilbert’s was developed by missionary George Augustus Robinson, and Gilbert was high and dry again.

    Gilbert Robertson was born into an important Scottish family (his great-grandfather was the high chief of a clan), but he was also something inescapable in as sensitive a place as Van Diemen’s Land – he was half-black. His father had owned a plantation in Trinidad, and almost certainly Gilbert’s mother had been a slave. In Scotland, money and lineage had meant more than race. There were other stories being woven in Van Diemen’s Land, though, and the question of race was something that Gilbert was involved in – in more ways than one.

    “Here then in brief outline is a biography of someone who was almost pathologically inclined to get into trouble,” writes historian Cassandra Pybus. An assessment from Gilbert Robertson’s contemporary, Lady Jane Franklin, gave an equal description: he was “a perfect miscreant equally devoid of principle and feeling.”

    But interestingly, having moved late in life over to Geelong, he made quite a respectable name for himself. Working in the papers again, he died in 1851, of a heart attack during a particularly intense political campaign.

     

    Richmond is also home to Australia's oldest Catholic Church.

  • 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.