I haven’t had my own room for more than six months.
Part of that time was spent travelling – sleeping on friends’ couches or in hostel dormitories, in places like Istanbul or Ljubljana or Berlin – but it’s now been many weeks since I came home to Tasmania, and still I haven’t found a place to call my own – to stack my books and regularly rest my head.
Where do I stay then? Friends and family offer their spare rooms, couches, or patches of carpet. The ranger in Strahan offers a bed; he and his girlfriend live in an old Federation-era customs building. Sometimes I end up sprawled with several other mates, snoozing heavily after a boozy night, wearied with laughter.
Other times I strike off alone. I sleep in my tent, a yellow coffin of plastic which, for example, can be wedged in a cleft beneath the Snowy Range, or pinned to the dark earth by the Liffey River. There are mountain huts, too, which I can pretend are my own for a night or two: secret grey huts camouflaged in the boulders and snow peppermints of kunanyi-Wellington, or shacks built with bulky beams of pencil pine in the northern escarpment of the Central Plateau.
The other night I slept in a repurposed water tank, which had previously been used as accommodation on Macquarie Island, for scientists working on a rabbit eradication program. (This was cosy.)
This week, I’m waking up on a yacht. It’s not mine (of course), but I do some work on it, and in return, I’m allowed to contort myself into a v-shaped berth at the bow of the boat, as it sways quietly in sheltered anchorages in the south-east of Tasmania. This is Canoe Bay: the iron wreckage of a scuttled ship, the William Pitt, sticks up above the greeny-blue water. The dolerite silhouette of Cape Hauy is in the distance. Behind me, on the shore itself, a damp green tangle of forest. Big eucalypts stand above a busy network of ferns and flowering plants.
In the canopy of one of these eucs, there is a nest. It is the nest of the white-bellied sea eagle, Haliaeetus leucogaster. The birds themselves are incredible, but so too are their homes. Continuously used, for raising one or two fledglings each year, they consistently grow in mass. Parent eagles will go hunting for fish, eels, birds, or small land creatures, and bring them back to the nest, feeding themselves and their young. With so much decomposing animal matter brought into their homes, the sea eagles will add fresh green foliage to the inside of the nest for hygienic purposes.
Growing to dimensions of up to 2.5 metres wide and 4.5 metres deep, they can weigh up to a ton.
It is, I suppose, somewhat enviable. The dream of a permanent abode is borrowed from a human instinct for shelter and stability. I drive around, looking at the various living places of friends, of strangers. The west coast shacks of corrugated iron, the flaking weatherboard homes in the river valleys, the sandstone mansions of old towns. All have their various reasons for appealing. Above everything, they have their own kitchens, and walls to line with bookshelves.
I am not the first Tasmanian, naturally, to live this lifestyle. There was a certain nomadic element to the lives of the Tasmanian Aboriginals, although perhaps not as much as we are often taught. Certainly, however, these people did not crave absolute permanency in a single place. They may have instead found their homes in the various passages and patches of the landscape which they frequented – in ‘country’, rather than a building.
Sometimes I think I have found that too: I am happy in the high country, in the low moorlands, in the farm towns, in Canoe Bay.
This mobility may suit me more than most. For plenty of others, it is not so amenable. There are some being forced into it. Suddenly, Hobart has become one of the toughest rental markets in the country. Mates are looking for a bedroom, and failing. (I’ve cast an eye on things myself and dismissed it as too difficult.) There are various reasons why this is the case, but partly it is because of Hobart’s popularity as a tourist destination: rooms are being rented to short-term visitors, rather than longer-term residents. A different type of nomad is being catered for.
I don’t know what to make of all this, although I sense it augurs a different future on this island. One friend asserts that what is being lost is the ability to feel “secure enough in your home that you can unpack your life and become part of your community, to contribute to making Tasmania all the things that the government sells us off as to the rest of the world.”
I personally drift through this days supposing that life will leave me behind. It seems that what I’d like from my days on this planet is different from most others. Occasionally, I realise I will probably never have a place of my own, somewhere to put my books. I sadly expect to find myself in a sort of exile, somehow.
The nest in Canoe Bay is about 80 years old, but it has now been abandoned. This has been a successful spot, so it’s likely that the local pair will establish their new nest nearby, in the canopy of another of these eucalypts. The family will remain their neighbourhood.
The yacht gently rocks in the bay. A sea eagle suddenly lifts out of the trees and soars above me, honking.
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I haven’t had my own room for more than six months.
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.
A party of forty had been camped here for two weeks in August 1829. Their situation was desperate; they were marooned and starving. Three pocket-knives were the only tools they possessed. With these they built a tiny boat from wattle timber, and put two men in it. They sailed for help in this “crazy little craft”.
This was Recherche Bay in Tasmania’s far south – named after one the early French scientific vessels, it is still pronounced locally as ‘Research’ Bay. Ever since Europeans became aware of its existence, it had served as a useful harbour for voyages departing from Hobart Town to Macquarie Harbour on the west coast.
The two score stranded on this beach had been on the same route, on a brig named the Cyprus. The colonial government had, in 1826, purchased the vessel from John Briggs, a notorious sailor and sealer in Vandemonian waters during the early part of that century. It had been bought for £1700. The Cyprus was then used for these south coast journeys: usually bringing supplies and convicts to the penal station at Macquarie Harbour, and returning to the capital with Huon pine and other convict-manufactured goods.
So on August 6, 1829, under the charge of Lieutenant William Carew, the Cyprus left Hobart with 62 passengers. Exactly half of them were convicts, “a pretty bad lot all in double irons”. Lt. Carew was with his family; they would be moving to the Macquarie Harbour convict settlement.
They had reached Recherche Bay on a still night when mutiny suddenly broke out. Lieutenant Carew had been off on a small boat, fishing for provisions. The soldiers’ quarters on the boat were blocked by the tactical positioning of a hencoop. The captain was knocked out. A shot fired produced smoke and added to the confusion. The pirates took command of the brig, and took two sailors hostage; the rest were sent off to shore with minimal rations.
William Swallow, a former sailor and the alleged instigator of the mutiny, took command along with seventeen other convicts. The two sailors managed to escape and swim ashore. Regardless, the Cyprus then took an incredible voyage: through the South Seas, by the southern islands of Japan, and to China, arriving the significant trading post of Canton, now Guangzhou. Here, they destroyed their stolen brig, and came ashore pretending to be the shipwrecked sailors of a different ship, the Edward – somehow they had come into possession of property belonging to this ship, including a rowboat, her sextant, and logbooks.
After some investigation from the authorities, most were given freedom to leave. William Swallow and three others were given passage to London. The others joined a Danish vessel and went to Mexico.
For some reason, two of the pirates had arrived separately, on the coast away from China; Chinese authorities took them in as British subjects, and by the time they made it to Canton, news had arrived of the convicts’ mutiny. These last two were arrested; they made a confession; and they were taken to trial.
In the meantime, the handmade coracle had reached another vessel departing Hobart Town, and the stranded party were saved. A convict with the superb name of John Popjoy (or Pobjoy) had become a hero. He had been fishing when the mutiny occurred; he had rowed their boat, and led the efforts to be found. Eleven years old when he was convicted and transported to Van Diemen’s Land, he was given his liberty when the party returned to Hobart.
Popjoy’s descriptions of his fellow-convicts made it possible to identify William Swallow and the other pirates when they landed in London, just six days after an express voyage from Hobart. They were arrested. Those with him were executed; somehow, William Swallow managed to avoid responsibility for the mutiny, claiming he was ill and taken against his volition. He was returned to Hobart as a convict, and died at Port Arthur in 1834.
The Bruny Island man Mangana told that his wife had been kidnapped and taken on the Cyprus, never to be heard from again.
John Popjoy married in 1832, but continued his sailing career; in 1833 he drowned off the coast of France. Three months later his child, Elizabeth Sarah, was born.
The convict mutineers who boarded the Danish trading vessel for Mexico are lost to history, but we know at least that they were not punished for their crimes.
Convict poet Francis MacNamara recorded all of this in verse for posterity.
"The morn broke bright, the wind was fair, we headed for the sea
With one cheer more to those on shore and glorious liberty.
For navigating smartly Bill Swallow was the man,
Who laid a course out neatly to take us to Japan."
Last week we took a trip down the west coast's Savage River.
A maharajah arrived unexpectedly in the early days of Launceston.
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.”
“I too know the magical power of a look at the right time and place,” she said. “I know how the heart burns in slow fires.”
Norina was reading from a novel, a passage about love. Dr. Malatesta had approached her. He had a crafty plan to fool Don Pasquale. He would use this woman; Don Pasquale would bend to her will. And so Norina, in response, sings: “I know the effect of lying tears, on a sudden languor; I know a thousand ways love can fraud.”
Amy Sherwin was playing Norina in her theatre début at Hobart’s Theatre Royal in 1878. And at the end of the show, the crowd stood up in rapturous applause. The career of the ‘Tasmanian nightingale’ was about to be launched.
From there, she would tour Melbourne, Ballarat and Sydney, her devotees multiplying with each performance. It was only the beginning. She toured not only Australia, but America, Europe, Asia and even South Africa. In San Francisco in 1879 she nailed Violetta in La Traviata despite having just recovered from pneumonia. A biographer says that Amy Sherwin was “the first Australian singer to make an overseas impact.”
Strange to think it all began here in Judbury, a hamlet on the Huon River in Tasmania’s south. In apple country.
Born in 1855 as Frances Amy Lillian Sherwin, it is said that Amy was discovered singing alone in a paddock near to where some visitors were picnicking by the Huon River. Those picnickers turned out to be members of the touring Pompei and Cagli Italian Opera Company, and they convinced her to audition.
Raised in a farming family who had suffered from droughts and fires, Amy had been educated at home, with piano lessons given by her grandfather.
Two decades later, returning to Hobart after her global success, her fans commandeered her carriage, unharnessing the horses and pulling her themselves through the streets. One can imagine her, in her early forties, radiantly beautiful and rejuvenated by the enthusiasm of her fellow Tasmanians.
But she didn’t stay. In London, she was regarded as witty, erudite, polished and hospitable. It was to there that she retired in 1907, after tours in Australia in 1902 and 1906. She had a disabled daughter and became a teacher in order to support her. But she was not a good financial manager and descended into poverty and illness.
However, music continued to uplift her. “Even when her voice was only a whisper she would sit at the piano and sing with an archness and vivacity peculiarly her own”.
Perhaps she recalled the words she’d sung as Norina: “The charms and arts are easy to fool the heart.”
She was not forgotten by her homeland. A fundraiser in Hobart sent her £200. A plaque was erected outside the building where she made her début. She died in London on 20 September 1935.
It was William Shoobridge II who first brought hops – humulus lupulus, a crop used almost exclusively for adding flavour and aroma to beer – to Australia.
His son, Ebenezer Shoobridge, bought an estate between the Derwent and Styx Rivers in 1863. Bushy Park Estates is still Australia’s largest producer of hops, and is known worldwide for its successful hop production, as well as for unique Tasmanian varietals of the plant.
And although Ebenezer was producing an intoxicant that (it could be said) created negative social effects throughout his native island, he was a godly man. To offer his workers spiritual encouragement, the hop kiln was adorned with sandstone plaques bearing scriptural sayings. ‘Unexpectedly,’ said one employee of the hop farm later, ‘as you looked up from the work of emptying a bag of hop flower catkins ready for drying, your eye would catch a verse placed at eye level…’
One plaque extolled the unity of the Shoobridge family. And it was a family affair.
Ebenezer and his wife Charlotte (nee Giblin) had a task ahead of them to make the six-roomed homestead comfortable for living and raising children. Some years in, the roof collapsed under the weight of pigeon shit.
But it was a good life for the children. The ‘young ladies’ of Charlotte and Ebenezer’s clan would be the driving force for the annual Farm Tea and Strawberry Feast events. Along with their little cat Twissy, they would prepare and present a seemingly endless feast of sweet cakes, pies and tarts.
And son William Ebenezer Shoobridge, born in 1846, would go on to be one of Tasmania’s most innovative and prolific figures towards the end of that century. Engineering unique irrigation schemes at Bushy Park and other family properties (the water races at Bushy Park today are his designs, are heritage listed), he also invented a technique for pruning fruit trees, and came up with new designs for the hop kilns. His role in Tasmania’s burgeoning apple industry was equally important to what he was doing with hops. And he became involved in politics, representing in parliament and promoting agricultural policy including the government regular of water supplies.
For this, he became known as ‘Water Willie’.
Perhaps he was inspired by those verses chiselled in sandstone on the beautiful kiln house. The Shoobridges perhaps knew more keenly than anyone the truth of one biblical injunction, which you can still see there today:
‘THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S
AND THE FULLNESS THEREOF...”
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!
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.