Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • 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.

  • The Embedded Town

    The Embedded Town

    So many years, so many eyes, so much terrain: the search for Tasmania’s mineral wealth was an odyssey that spanned much of the 1800s. In the latter decades of that century, ragtag crews of raggedy men were measuring and pegging claims, and scratching for riches in the surface of the earth.

    When the wealth finally appeared on the island’s west coast, it wasn’t as expected.

    Traces of gold appeared at an alluvial claim on a mountain above the Queen River, and optimism rose to unprecedented levels. “Everyone who saw the ironstone, matted with fine gold that glistened after showers of rain, was impressed with the mine,” notes historian Geoffrey Blainey. The government geologist Gustav Thureau – who was not always right – rattled off his theory on the mine, describing it as eroding volcanic mud at last shedding its gold and sharing it with men. “Begorrah!” the soon-to-be-famous Irish miner James Crotty is said to have exclaimed, “It’s all gold, I tell you!”

    But it wasn’t. It was mostly something else, in fact, and the Mount Lyell mine became the richest copper mine in its day. The mine managers recruited an American metallurgist from the fields of Colorado and employed him to erect his innovative system of smelting to extract as much copper from Lyell to sell to the world.

    Among the handful of towns which appeared in a cluster around the generous geology of Mount Lyell, none compared to Queenstown. “No Tasmanian town had grown so rapidly,” according to Blainey, who was later commissioned to write a history of Mount Lyell. There were pubs galore; vibrant displays of entertainment visited the area frequently; unforgettable characters spilled out onto the streets.

    In Queenstown today, the brilliantly eccentric Galley Museum gives anecdotes on the experiences of those glory days. A snapshot of the neighbouring miners’ town of Gormanston in 1910 is accompanied by this caption: “Miners and their lovers were having a hell of a good time. Young married miners and their wife battling to get a home together and flat out producing babys.”

    But the humour of this note hints at the tremendous tragedy that was just around the corner for the Lyell community in 1912, when an entire shift of miners was trapped in the depths of a shaft. While many escaped, 42 men perished. Beyond the fatalities, the community was distraught. While bodies were trapped in the shaft, so too were families stuck in a state of unknowing.

    A photograph in the Galley shows a large crowd milling around the newsagency of A.A. Mylan, on Orr Street, trying to discover the latest news. “Women showed bravery,” a newspaper article reported during this distressing period, “but there were many sobbing...How long must we wait to know the worst was a pathetic question asked by many.”

    It was eight whole months before the last bodies could be retrieved from the mine.

    Most of these women would indeed discover their beloved was among the deceased. Louisa Scott, for example, would soon face the reality of having lost her young husband Leonard, the father of their six-week-old daughter Violet.

    Eugene Felix McCasland, whose family was back in New South Wales, had become engaged to a young lass in the Linda Valley; for the funeral of her betrothed, she made a shroud of brown material, with a white cross over the chest.

    Other men had only their mates to mourn them – like the Austrian-born Valentine Bianchini, who had time to write a will in his notebook before dying.

    Henry Dawson was one of the survivors, but had been trapped for five days: he didn’t return to mining, but instead moved to Melbourne and married a city girl. Unfortunately only a couple of years later, he was killed on a Flanders battlefield.

    Mount Lyell’s longevity is comparable to few other mines in Australia. Only a handful of years ago, two more young men died in a collapse there, however, once more leaving the local community shattered. The Mount Lyell mine is currently closed.

    “Mining towns are ephemeral by nature – as elusive as the minerals they pursue,” writes Tasmanian novelist Brett Martin. “There is no continuity, no history, no real confidence in the future...Nothing is embedded, nothing is certain.”

    But this impressive community has yet to give up its resolve; here in the wet and misty west, Queenstown remains where so many other towns have gone to ruin. Attached to a part of the world that is like no other, the people of Queenstown are adapting again to varying conditions, each of which is far from easy.

  • Notoriety

    Notoriety

    There are few towns in Tasmania with a reputation as notorious as Rossarden’s.

    My mate’s uncle stumbled upon a secret den for hideaways up there once upon a time; this is where you used to go when you were on the run from the cops. Marijuana crops surely grow in the gullies. When a friend’s car threatened to break down up here, she panicked and nearly drove into a ditch.

    Or so I’m told. That’s the thing about it all: once a place gains a reputation, stories proliferate and distort into rumours. Myth starts growing, whorling all around it.

    I should know: I grew up in such a place, in a town whose name affords you no favours when you say you belonged to it in the first years of your life. A town associated with incest and ice.

    Myth tends to have its basis somewhere in reality, and there is nothing fabulous about some of the police reports coming out of Rossarden. Not the least of these is the unsolved murder of Paul Byrne, who was last seen leaving the Rossarden Club at 2a.m. on September 20, 1996. Detectives believe he was “sexually tortured” before he was killed. It is generally believed that those responsible are well-known within the community.

    What do we do with the threads of official history that run through a place so far from the centre of the world’s historical narrative? High in the foothills of Ben Lomond, in Tasmania’s remote north-east, Rossarden grew to become a rough cloister in the bush. Its life was centred upon a tin mine. Outsiders rarely visited – perhaps mine managers from elsewhere, or footy teams visiting from the Fingal Valley, or the Mouth Organ Band on tour – and it wasn’t too common for locals to head out either. (They say, though, that Frank Sellars broke record speeds when asked by the local nurse to get a heavily pregnant woman down the windy roads to the hospital in Campbell Town.)

    They say that when a tin scratcher named Cheshire passed out after a night of drinking, he missed his chance on being a part of the first claim on the Aberfoyle Rivulet, which would sustain this place for decades. His colleagues, Shepherd and Haas, found the lode while Cheshire snored.

    Countless stories spiral out of the nucleus of this hole in the ground. At the dance hall, the younger members of established families met. Illicit bottles of home-brew were shared in secret corners. Men and women fell in love.

    “A cricket match was held in February 1937 between married and single men. The married men won by 23 runs. Afternoon tea was supplied by the ladies,” writes Narelle Blackaby in her history of the town.

    The stalwart nurse of Rossarden, Sister Phyllis McShane, ended up marrying the storekeeper Mac Campbell.

    Pop and Kees Dingjan had moved from Holland and ended up running a butchers store in the bush.

    These stories make this town as much as murder and outlawry. But they don’t make as good print.

    When I last passed through Rossarden, on a chilly spring day, stillness and chimney smoke hung off the structure of the landscape. And what a beautiful landscape: high up beneath Stacks Bluff, nestled amongst snow-tolerant gums and shrubs that come to flower late in the season.

    If I didn’t
    know better, I’d say the locals perpetuate their own notoriety to stop outsiders from taking over – to keep the property prices low.

    But in a few short years, I have watched Tasmania’s international reputation change. Even my own hometown is getting a makeover, with arts festivals and boutique booze distilleries starting to bring in a different crowd. One of these days, I’ll say where I’m from and it will mean something we’d never have guessed. The same may go for Rossarden. They say there’s only one crook left in town nowadays.

    But the thing about these small towns, far from the major roads, beyond the tourist route, is that the stories trickle down and don’t often reach the rest of the island undistorted. To know what’s going on in a place like Rossarden, you need to go there yourself. You need to spend a while.

  • 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.

     

  • The Easter Egg Hunt

    The Easter Egg Hunt

    The gold mine in Beaconsfield reopened in the same year that I was bitten by my dog Sox, above the eye, on my birthday.

    I grew up on a five-acre property just outside of that town, ‘up the river’, as my mother would always say. I remember it as a jackjumper-infested swamp, with a couple of flat grassy areas on which to play footy. A few big eucalypts stood tall above silver wattles and native cherries, and scrub. In Easter, my parents hid chocolate eggs wrapped in colourful foil in the fronds of manferns. We had a goat that needed putting down.

    The gold mine, which had once been the richest in Tasmania, was not as it was in its heyday. In 2006, when a subterranean rockfall killed a miner and trapped two others, it was closed again. But the mine was not the town’s identity anymore. If anything, Beaconsfield, and the Tamar Valley, was apples, with some forestry on the outskirts, and a reasonable proximity to both Launceston and the industrial ports where the river met Bass Strait.

    My family moved to town. Sox was put down too. My life’s shape changed. Shadows on the world’s map furled away. My knowledge increased. Suddenly, I was a young man, and on my way across the ocean. New places were impressing themselves upon me. New landscapes complicated my memory.

    Even while we were living there, in the 1990s, there were folks planting grapevines in the Tamar Valley. These were people who could foresee a future for cool-climate wines in this area – or they were hobbyists, enthusiasts, optimists. Nowadays, all around Beaconsfield are trellises in rows, vines clinging to them. I drove through there the other week. This year’s fruit has been harvested, of course. The leaves have turned all sorts of burnished Old World colours.

    An author has moved to Beaconsfield and has run a literary festival there. I hear rumours of other developments, boutique food and booze and accommodation, capitalising on tourists in search of a good pinot noir.

    It will change.

    I have changed too. But here is where I spent some formative years, getting stung by jackjumpers and bitten by dogs, tripping over the strips of shedding stringybark, collecting tadpoles from puddles on Lightwood Hill Road.

    In whatever this town becomes, there will be the history of the gold rush – of the Dallys, of Hart and Grubb, of the Chinese migrant workers, of Todd Russell and Brant Webb and Larry Knight.

    There, too, is the history of who came before them: the Letteremairrener people. Or of what came before that: the flora and fauna, the geology and geography of the Tamar Valley, which too is not as it once was.

    Wherever I find myself in this world – peering into portraits in the Uffizi Gallery, for example, or listening to mariachi music at a restaurant in San Diego – I am still the extension of that memory too. I am not entirely who I once was, but I am still the boy who found chocolate eggs in the garden. I find myself scrounging around for stories with the same enthusiasm.

    For people may change their places, but it is more true that places have changed us. That we belong to the places that we spend most of our time in – especially in childhood.

     

    Last week, I wrote a short history of the town of Beaconsfield - once known as Brandy Creek.

  • Historical Account of the Beaconsfield Miners

    Historical Account of the Beaconsfield Miners

    In 1869, the Dally brothers started prospecting for gold around Brandy Creek, about fifty kilometres north of Launceston along the Tamar River. Systematically scouring the bush – tea-tree scrub full of snakes – William and David Dally found a payable gold reef on Cabbage Tree Hill in 1877. There was gold, said William, ‘like blackberries in the bush’. The gold rush was about to begin.

    It became Tasmania’s most famous patch of colour. The Dallys sold their claim for a cool 15,000 pounds. A small hamlet of two shops, a drapery and a grocery soon became a bustling township, the third-most populous on the whole island. Not only shops and hotels appeared, but entertainment too: plays and circuses, bringing horses and elephants down the main street.

    The Chinese came too. The Chinese, particularly Cantonese, migrant workers spread throughout the world’s diggings after the gold rushes of the mid-1800s. At Brandy Creek, as everywhere, they formed their own unique communities, transplanting their religion, culture and cuisine into the shanty towns on the goldfields. They were almost all single men; many married local women.

    Ah Sing was one such man. Later known as ‘Tom’ – and his descendants would corrupt their surname to ‘Seen’ – Ah Sing not only picked on the fields, but was a market gardener and a courthouse interpreter.

    As the town grew, so too did its ‘civic consciousness’ – Brandy Creek and Cabbage Tree Hill would not do for nomenclature. Dallys Town was mooted as a name; so too a name honouring the Governor of the day, F.A. Weld. But in the end, Beaconsfield was chosen, after the contemporary Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Lord Beaconsfield, Benjamin Disraeli.

    The mine’s success hit its zenith around 1900, with over fifty companies working the reef; in 1914, it closed due to regular flooding of the shafts. Deep drilling resumed with new technologies in 1993, with limited success. And on Anzac Day 2006, an earth tremor caused rockfall in the mine. Fourteen miners escaped immediately; two were trapped for a fortnight before being their release was made possible by painstaking and dramatic rescue operations; and one, Larry Knight, was killed.

    Beaconsfield, suddenly, was put on the map in a whole new way.

    The Foo Fighters even wrote a song called ‘Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners’.


     
    The 'Field Guide' is in Issue 32 of Tasmanian Geographic.

  • Jack Badcock's Moment of Glory

    Jack Badcock's Moment of Glory

    As a teenager, my best mate lived in the town of Westbury. In his paddock, in summer, we strung up a long white net to act as the wicketkeeper, and played one-on-one for hours on end. One morning I scored 249 from 252 balls. My poor mate was working hard.

    These giant stumps commemorate the rich history of cricket in the town of Westbury, although my exploits in the back paddock in Adelaide St. are not recorded. Instead, the honours go to Clayvel Lindsay Badcock – better known as ‘Jack’.

    Born in 1914 in the nearby hamlet of Exton, Jack Badcock was the descendant of Cornish free settlers who had come to Van Diemen’s Land almost a century earlier as agriculturalists. Jack began playing for his state at the age of just 15. The bushy-eyebrowed batsman flashed the blade for Tasmania for several seasons, before moving to South Australia, taking up a job as a furniture salesman.

    In 1936, Badcock was called up to the Test team to take on England. His first games were poor; dropped, he recovered his form in the domestic league, and was brought up to play against the old enemy once more.

    It was the Fifth and final Test of the Ashes series, February 1937. The series was levelled 2-2. Jack Badcock, despite his brilliant statistics in the national competition, had only failed at Test level. But in this decisive encounter, he rose to the occasion: scoring 118, he became the first Tasmanian to score a Test century.

    Australia won the match, and the series.

    It would be great to paint Badcock as an underdog hero who eked out a win for his country, but truth be told, Australia smashed England in that Fifth Test. When Badcock stepped onto the wicket, Don Bradman had Australia well and truly in front. Badcock was one of the three century-makers, and Australia’s bowlers made short work of the Poms.

    Badcock’s 1938 tour of England was equally insipid, and he never played again. While he averaged more than 50 in the domestic competition, in his seven Tests, he scored 160 runs, at an average of 14.54. 118 of his runs, had of course, come in one innings.

    Nevertheless, he got to bat with the Don, one of Australia’s greats. Bradman described Badcock as “a lovable and completely unspoiled personality.” Sciatica getting the best of him, Jack Badcock retired from the game and returned to his family’s farm in Exton, having gone a long way for a simple Tassie lad.


     

    Westbury has also had connections with the famous Nant rebels.

  • 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.

  • Flirting With the Frosty-Faces

    Flirting With the Frosty-Faces

    Even prior to becoming the first chief of Tasmania’s tourist bureau, Evelyn Temple Emmett spent much time walking around the island, and occasionally headed interstate to give talks about it, or received international delegations to the state. He was a fine ballroom-dancer and skiier. In 1931, aged 60, Mr. Emmett was a leader of the inaugural party to ever complete the now-famous Overland Track. On his way there, he passed through the town of Deloraine – arriving in his favourite mode of transport, on hoof.

    Mr. Emmett was very fond of Deloraine. He thought it was high on the list of the prettiest towns he’d ever come upon, and marvelled at the Old World trees along the river and the church spires reaching into the sky, streets and roads stretching up hills and around bends. Above the town, the Great Western Tiers stood majestically. Mr. Emmett would later summit the nearby peak of Quambys Bluff.

    “The only criticism I can make of Deloraine is that it is cold in winter and knows what frosts are,” Mr. Emmett said, strolling into town early one morning and feeling the sting of the cold on his face. But even of that grim cloud he found a silver lining. For there, on the banks of the Meander River, was a sight perhaps even better than that of the quaint town or the view from the Tiers: three charming lasses.

    “Stop!” Mr. Emmett cried to the young women. “Please; for I want to pay Deloraine a compliment through you.” And so they came to him, and Mr. Emmett explained how wonderful their complexions were, no doubt thanks to the cool air of Deloraine; and how, somewhere like Sydney, young women would pay £5 per square inch of whatever stuff might give them such a fine appearance as these locals of the Meander Valley had.

    Mr. Emmett finished his flattering speech with a flourish and a broad smile; and finally, letting the lasses have their chance to respond, he found them giggling hysterically.

    “Thank-you sir,” one of them finally said, “but we only arrived yesterday to this hole of a place, from Sydney, and we bought our complexions with us.”

    “The Deloraine frosts have nothing on our George Street chemist!” another chimed in.

    Nevertheless, good humour was retained amongst the group. Mr. Emmett took the young women out for breakfast. And they all went out to the races together, for which purpose the girls had come down from Sydney. It was a splendid day out, and after the morning’s events, laughter was easy to come by.

    The girls went back to Sydney and Mr. Emmett never saw them again. But returning home from his Overland Track adventures, he found a package at his house, bearing a postmark from Sydney. It was a little packet of powder. “For your wife if you have one,” the typewritten message read. “From the Three Frosty-Faces.”


     

    Another great journeyman on foot was Henry Reading, who made an almighty stroll from Hobart to Launceston.

  • It Began Here with John and Jemima

    It Began Here with John and Jemima

    In Bodney, England, in 1828, William and Judith gave birth to their son John.

    In 1845 John himself got married, to a lovely lass named Jemima King. They were both still teenagers. He was a farm labourer.

    After John and Jemima had been married for a decade or so, they were approached by the Launceston Immigration Aid Society, and recruited to move to Tasmania. They arrived on the Southern Eagle in 1857, and relocated their lives to the coastal hamlet of Penguin. With them, they brought their infant daughter, Caroline. In 1860, they had a son, Charles.

    Upon arrival, John armed himself with an axe and a cross-cut saw, and with no capital, cleared the dense wet sclerophyll forest of scrub and trees. For the bigger trees, the method of ring-barking was used. As the land was cleared, he began to build a home. Floorboards were adzed; furniture was home-made; candles of tallow were made for artificial light, and they had a fishy reek when extinguished. It was hard work, and a life with few comforts.

    Flour shortages were common. It was delivered on occasion by sailing craft from north coast towns, but once as it was being put ashore, the boat overturned and spoiled the product. Normally a draught horse brought it in from Forth, through the labyrinthine forest. If the flour supplies ran short, what remained was shared among the whole community to the last pound. Housewives made the bread in camp ovens; bachelors made damper, cooked in ashes.

    The new settlers grew oats and potatoes. As soon as the cleared land had enough grass covering, a cow was purchased. Gradually berry bushes and fruit trees gave produce. Meat was mostly wallaby and parrots; those on the coast fished. When they needed something they couldn’t grow, and once the Leven River was bridged, the women would walk to a store at Forth, a few miles away.

    The daughter Caroline met a young man with the fine name of James Sushames, originally of Caston, England, who arrived to Tasmania on the Whirlwind. They got married and had a son.

    Charles fell in love too, with a girl named Rachel Ling. They had eight children and raised them in Penguin. Six were sons. As these children grew up, a flour mill was built at nearby Sulphur Creek. The first churches were built, and a teacher arrived, Miss Neligan. By the mid-1870s, there was a general store.

    The youngest of these eight children, Leslie, preferred to go by his middle name, which was Herbert. He was born in 1899. In his late teens, he got a job delivering bread and milk; he would go around town in a horse and dray. His son, Vivian, would remember being taken to school in this vehicle. Herbert played footy at the local club, for the Penguin Two-Blues. He was also a bass baritone singer and sung at the Methodist church sometimes.

    Herbert Spinks and family moved to Launceston for a job at a wool factory. Herbert’s son Vivian fought in World War II. Vivian’s son Martin matriculated and built a white collar career. Martin’s son is the author of this article. I went up to Penguin the other week. These days, there is little clearing left to be done; flour comes from the local supermarket, along with a variety of pre-prepared products made from it; the parrots are largely left uneaten, although they exist in much smaller quantities. Coffee drinkers can satisfy their urges at several cafeterias, and an afternoon beer is available at the Neptune Hotel.

    Once this was pretty coastal town was covered in dense bush. Now, there's a grubby backpackers' hostel on its main road. We do not well understand the hardships and labours of the people who came before us. “With a low standard of living, few amenities, and little security, to win a bare living they worked from daylight to dark,” wrote local historian A.O. Barker. “For little return they toiled and we are reaping – as future generations will reap – the profit of their toil.”

     
    There are more stories about Herbert Spinks and the Penguin Two-Blues here.

  • From Fingal to Pebble Beach

    From Fingal to Pebble Beach

    Over in Monterey, California, I was introduced to Mr. Seavey by his daughter Cat. “Tasmania, eh? You’re not from Fingal, are ya?”

    I’ve never before been asked if I hail from Fingal. With a population of 366 at the last census, and dwindling rapidly, Fingal is not exactly famous. There are probably plenty of Tasmanians who have never heard of it. I’ve never met anyone from Fingal.

    These days, things are looking pretty bleak there. According to local drug counselling organisations, it’s one of the hotspots for methamphetamine use in Tasmania, for example. Unemployment is high, real estate prices are low. There are plenty of closed shopfronts on the main drag; even the old hotel, which once claimed to have the biggest Scotch whisky collection in the southern hemisphere, is gone.

    The Fingal Valley was first surveyed in 1824, and in 1827, the town was settled as a convict station. In 1852 gold was found ten kilometres north. Towards the end of the 19th century, coal became the centre of the area’s economy; the town of Fingal was growing rapidly, and a young man named Francis McComas was born.

    This was Mr. Seavey’s connection with Fingal.

    Francis became one of the world’s great watercolourists, famous for his modernist landscapes. As a young man, he had been sent to Sydney for training under a master plein air landscape painter. Watercolour was not widely regarded in Australia, but young Francis adopted this as his medium of choice. He then went across the Pacific to the United States.

    Like many young Australian artists of the time, Francis had wanted to go to Europe to paint – to Paris, specifically – but got distracted, making friends in Monterey and having successful shows in San Francisco. He returned to Australia at least once, to Sydney, where he made scathing reviews of the Australian art scene. He probably never returned, and died in the luxurious Californian coastal town of Pebble Beach, where you can find one of the world’s richest golf courses.

    A new coal mine is in the works, and the old hotel is opening. Could there be another Frank McComas ready to burst out of Fingal?