Remembering the Past Australia

Information for Emigrants 1835

Questions and Answers Relating to Van Diemen's Land

First published in the Calcutta Literary Gazette and reprinted in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser on 21 February 1835, this article gives an account of early life in Van Diemen's Land, from a settler's viewpoint.


Question — As you have so lately arrived from Van Diemen’s Land, you can perhaps afford us information of some value regarding the prospects of emigrants from this country. There are many of the officers of the Bengal army who are extremely anxious to obtain authentic and particular intelligence upon this subject. What should you consider as the smallest annual income upon which a gentleman wife and a small family, could live plainly but comfortably in either of the large towns in Van Diemen’s Land?

Answer — I think a family could hardly be supported comfortably in Hobart Town or Launceston on less than £300 a year; house-rent being very high in every part of Van Diemen’s Land; — nor is living less expensive in the country than in town, unless you have a small farm of your own. Houses may certainly be seen as various in their rents as in their size, material, and appearance. Some are of stone, some of brick, and some of wood: and of the latter kind there are several varieties. Some are highly finished and painted; others extremely rude in their structure, and not even plastered. In Hobart Town, I have known a small wooden cottage of four rooms, with one or two out-houses, rent for £50 a-year. A comfortable brick or stone house can hardly be obtained for less.

Q — How could a gentleman educate his children? Is education good and cheap there?

A — A person living in Hobart Town might send his children to a day school; and as far as I know, the education so obtainable is both good and cheap. There are some respectable boarding school establishments in the interior, and I think the expense of such is mainly the same as in similar establishments in England; namely, £50 or £60 per annum.

Q — Are domestic provisions cheaper upon the whole than in England or in India?

A — At present I think provisions are considerably dearer than in India, but not dearer than in England. The prices, however, are more variable. Wheat within the last two years has varied from 4 to 10 shillings a bushel, and the price of butcher’s meat is equally fluctuating.

Q — If you live in the country, I suppose your neighbours are “few and far between.” Of what class are they in general? and what is the average amount of their annual incomes?

A — The density of the population varies much in different districts, depending chiefly on proximity to Hobart Town, fertility of soil, or on their having been located at periods, more or less remote. In the valleys within twenty miles of Hobart Town, you may find three or four respectable neighbours within a mile of your habitation; but in Van Diemen’s Land your neighbourhood is generally considered as extending to a distance of several miles. Almost all the respectable settlers are landed proprietors. Some have retired from the Army or Navy, and, as far as manners and information are considered, may be said to belong to the first class of society. The amount of their incomes it were difficult to estimate, as they depended chiefly on the produce of their farms. Perhaps some of the majority may range from £200 to £500 per annum, A few wealthy individuals may be able to spend as many thousands. Some of them live in great style.

Q — Are all the common European fruits (such as goose-berries, currants, raspberries, apricots, cherries, apples, pears, &c. &c.) plentiful, good, and cheap? Are plantains, mangoes, pine apples, and other oriental fruits, obtainable?

A — The European fruits mentioned are all abundant and excellent, and if not cheap at present, are annually becoming more so. The tropical fruits specified do not grow in Van Diemen’s Land, and are consequently not procurable. Oranges in abundance are brought from Sydney.

Q — Does literature often form a topic of conversation in society?

A — Among a very few numbers of it.

Q — The newspapers are, I believe, ably conducted; but judging from the few numbers I have met with, they have not a very light or elegant character. They do not present a combination of politics and literature such as found in the columns of the Calcutta newspapers. Am I right in supposing that the whole newspaper press at Van Diemen’s Land is as exclusively political as the few specimens that I have seen? What is their highest circulation?

A — Several of the newspapers are certainly ably conducted, but though not exclusively political, are too exclusively devoted to subjects of local interest. This censure is perhaps less applicable to the Courier, conducted by Dr. James Ross, than to the others; but even in that, the literary articles are few and meager. A settler may read every paper published in the island, and yet remain in almost total ignorance of what is passing in the literary world.

Q — Is there no Literary Gazette?

A — No — but a magazine there is, purely literary; in which the original and selected are jumbled together in a way quite puzzling to those who skip the notice to correspondents under which it is said that the articles with signatures are original. Neither is it possible to discover by whom the latter are written, nor even from what work that are so extracted. Neither does it contain any comprehensive notice of new works, nor of what is passing among authors and publishers. I think even the death of Sir Walter Scott passed unnoticed. These omissions ore of course grievously felt by those subscribers who cannot afford to purchase the European periodical.

Q — Of what character are the public libraries and book clubs? Can a subscriber have books sent him into the country? Are there many booksellers? Are books hawked about the streets as in Calcutta? Are there cheap bookstalls?

A — Public libraries and book-clubs there are none. There are two or three respectable book-sellers’ shops, in which books are of course dear; none are hawked about the streets. Cheap books are only occasionally procurable at auction sales.

Q — Are the public roads good? Do you think the stage coaches as well managed, and do they drive as good cattle, as in England? Are there any hackney coaches in the towns? Can you hire carriages, gigs, and horses at a cheap rate? What can a saddle horse be purchased for? A witness at the trial of Thurtell said he considered him a “respectable man” because he kept a gig: — does this feeling prevail in Van Diemen’s Land? Do the gentry generally keep their own conveyances? Are they sent from England or built there?

A — Some of the public roads in the vicinity of Hobart Town are good. In other parts of the country some are indifferent, and others, in the winter season, almost impassable. The only stage coaches I have heard of, are those which run daily between Hobart Town and New Norfolk, which are well managed and sport good cattle. There are no hackney coaches. Gigs and horses you may hire; not carriages, I think. The hire may be more than in England, but not unreasonable. The possession of a gig is not considered essential to respectability, but you will hardly meet with a settler of any description who does not keep a saddle horse. Many of the gentry keep gigs, perhaps chiefly imported from England, but I think there is now a coach builder in Hobart Town.

Q — Are Europe supplies more expensive than they are in Calcutta? Are there not numerous manufactories of almost every kind?

A — Europe supplies are in general somewhat dearer than in Calcutta — at least I have never known them so cheap there as they sometimes are in the bazars here. Such manufactories as those in England, of cotton, glass, &c. are unknown; but artisans of almost every description are numerous — workers in wood, iron, copper, tin, leather, and even in gold and silver. Colonial hats have also been manufactured lately, of inferior quality, but proportionately cheap.

Q — Are robberies frequent in the country?

A — Not on the southern side of the island — but considerable depredations have been committed recently by a gang of bushrangers near Launceston. Some have been since captured, but I believe a few desperadoes are still at large.

Q — Are all British residents in the rank of gentry expected to call on the Governor; and are they usually invited to the parties at Government House?

A — I believe it is customary for all gentlemen on arriving in the Colony to call on the Governor. Whether invitations to parties follow to all, as a matter of course, I have not enquired. It may be so to those who reside in Hobart Town.

Q — Is the line of distinction between the tradesmen and the gentry very strongly marked in society?

A — Not more so than in England.

Q — Are the descendants of convicts, if they have acquired wealth, permitted to hold a place in the first society in the country?

A — I cannot answer this question categorically, for I cannot recollect an instance in point, but should think that the mere stigma of the character of his ancestor would not exclude from the best society a worthy individual.

Q — Do policies assume a fierce and rancorous aspect in private society? The liberal party, I suppose, is by far the most numerous.

A — Extreme virulence has been manifested by a few individuals towards each other in their political controversies but its effect on society has been limited to themselves and their personal friends. Among those unconnected with Government, there are very few who are not of the liberal party.

Q — Are there any artists of skill or eminence? Is there any literary character of much note or greatly esteemed?

A — I know of no artists of celebrity, nor of any individual highly distinguished above his brother literati. Men of talent there are, but I know not one whom I could call a man of genius. Dr. Ross, I believe, is distinguished both by ability and learning, and in his private character universally esteemed. The most vigorous and popular political writer in the country is undoubtedly Mr. Gilbert Robertson. The felicity and severity of his satirical effusions have not yet been forgotten, and will never be forgiven by those against whom they were directed.

Q — Do you think the climate superior in pleasantness and salubrity to that of England?

A — Superior in salubrity certainly, but I have not formed a decided opinion as to which is the more pleasant. We have no mouths so mild and equable as those of June and July in England, but none so gloomy as an English November. The extreme heat is greater in Van Diemen’s Land, but felt only a few days in summer. But the extreme cold of an English winter is unknown. The range of the thermometer is perhaps, not so great in Van Diemen’s Land as in England, but the variations of temperature are more frequent and rapid; so much is this the case, that even in January, the hottest month in the year, a parlour fire is frequently a pleasant companion.

Q — Do you think the country picturesque and fertile?

A — The country presents many picturesque and romantic views in which, however, I think there is more grandeur than beauty. The forest with which it is still overshadowed consists chiefly of trees individually ungraceful in form, and dull in hue; and though its aspect in maps at first appear magnificent, we in time begin to think it monotonous. This monotony will, however, be broken by the increase of cultivation, and the introduction of forest trees around the dwellings of the settlers will add much to the beauty of the country. The soil of the country is very various, but I should say is, on the whole, fertile.

Q — I should gather from your answers that you would not be very eager to induce emigrants to try their fortune in Van Diemen’s Land, unless they possessed such a capital or income as would amount to a small competency even in England. Am I right? Your account of the country, and its advantages, is by no means so glowing and attractive as we have received from other travellers.

A — I would not recommend any one to go to Van Diemen’s Land who had only an annual income to depend upon; for on that income, whether large or small, he could live more comfortably in England. But a small capital could be employed there much more profitably than in England, so as to produce more than double the income which could be derived from it in any country in Europe. The facility of procuring land and providing for children is also a great inducement to those who have families.

In what I have said of the country, I have not allowed myself to be biased by preceding writers, but have been guided solely by my own observation and experience, and have neither sought to magnify its attractions, nor to underrate its advantages, and my only object has been to enable the intending emigrant to form a correct estimate of both.

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