Remembering the Past Australia

Tasmanian Memories 1874

by a Government Employee
Originally published in the
“Quadrilateral”, The Tasmanian Tribune
22 July 1874


Supreme Court & Police Office, Hobart Town, Tasmania c.1900.
J. W. Beattie (John Watt) 1859-1930.
State Library of Victoria.

I am a Government Officer of many years’ standing. My predecessor in the office I fill at the present time was a votary to the muse. As such he penned the following lines:-

“Oh, say not that memory wears the heart!
Oh, seek not to banish the thoughts of the past!
Let each fleeting sorrow its lesson impart.
Though a shade o’er the spirit of sadness it cast:
For ’tis sweet to look back on the joys of our youth,
To remember the brightness of every scene
Of those days of innocence, freshness, and truth.
Evermore, Lord! keep my memory green.”

Whatever be the critic’s estimate of these lines, they express exactly what, without them, I would have attempted to set down in prose as an introduction to the incidents I am about to relate. In the course of my narration I shall refer to many of whom it may now be said: –

“The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that we had pressed
In their bloom;

And the names we love to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.”

I trust, however, that in writing my ‘memories’ I shall say nothing to give pain to any of those moving in our midst. I could harrow up the hears of my readers with tales of what I know, and of what I have seen, but I will not. It is enough that they are in my memory. There let them rest and pass away with me and my generation.

It is, perhaps, only right that I should state, before proceeding further, that some of the incidents which follow in this paper are known to me by the report of others only. They were, however, related to me so long ago, and some cases, so near the time of their occurrence, that they have become inseparably associated with my personal recollections, and may I think, be fairly included in these “memories.” In the case of some events which happened in the colony, and with the actors in which I was familiar, I cannot always say whether I was an eye witness of them or not. This may sound strange to some, but possibly when they have stored in their memory as much various material as is preserved in mine they may appreciate my statement. After this explanation, I will “move on.”

In the earliest days of emigration to Tasmania, there was a rule that all newly arrived persons should if they wished it, receive land according to the amount of money which they brought with them; and in the case of officers of either the army or the navy the quantity of land granted was four square miles, or 2560 acres. It was a frequent practice on the part of newcomers, who had only managed to pay the passage money of themselves and their families, and had only fifty or sixty sovereigns left – which would have given them only the same number of acres of land – to get their friends who had emigrated before them to put a much larger sum to their credit in the Bank for a few weeks. The certificate of the banker was then presented to the Surveyor-General, and an order for land to the extent of an acre for every £1 in the banker’s certificate was at once granted. This was certainly not a creditable way of procuring an estate, yet possibly as much land was obtained by means of it as by strictly honest certificates.

As soon as the emigrant had got his location order his difficulties commenced. In these, his wife and family shared equally with himself. Imagine well brought up ladies helping their husbands to build log huts, carrying in their aprons the stones to form a chimney, and mixing mud to fill up the crevices in the log walls of their first colonial home. In the majority of instances, however, they lived to enjoy an ample reward for their energy and determination and left in many cases large fortunes to be enjoyed by their children after them.

In such a state of society, bother humorous and tragical events were of frequent occurrence. The latter mostly happened in connection with the aborigines. One evening a number of these poor creatures with their women and children were congregated in the neighbourhood of Hobart Town, near the river, where they had formed themselves into a ring around a large wood fire, at which black women were cooking opossums and bandicoots for supper. What merry yells of laughter! What queer songs and queerer gibberish! Happy in having every want supplied for the passing hour, they knew no fear. Suddenly a party of soldiers surprised them and fired pell-mell among them. Those who could run got away as quickly as possible; but one poor little child, a “picaninny” was left sprawling on the ground. A soldier picked it up on the point of his bayonet, threw it into the fire, and left it to be roasted alive. Incidents more horrible than this one only of that character, and pass on to the others less painful.

Among the earliest of my remembrances are the daily fears we lived in of an attack from the bushrangers. At that time they were so bold as to address threatening and insulting letters to the Government through the Post Office. One of their most daring attempts was made upon a gentleman’s house within a mile of Launceston two hours before midnight. On this occasion, the robbers were all mounted and having tied all their horses in the yard, they walked into the parlour where the ladies of the house were assembled and there tied them up. They then proceeded to plunder as coolly as can be imagined. But happily one member of the household escaped on horseback at the first alarm, and he rode furiously into Launceston for help. Within half an hour from the time of his departure a detachment of ten soldiers and a sergeant under the command of Col. Balfour were drawn up in front of the house.

At the command of the colonel, the soldiers fired a volley into the windows. The robbers answered with another and decamped. The doctor of the regiment, who accompanied the soldiers, had his horse killed under him and his own leg shot. He refused to have his leg amputated, and shortly afterwards died of the effects of the wound. Bushranging is, however, a subject about which so much has already been printed, that I shall forbear, at present, narrating any additional incidents in connection with it.

At the time to which I am now going back, there was no church yet built in Hobart Town for the accommodation of the community, and Divine Service was performed on Sundays under the verandah of Government House, weather permitting. The military were on those occasions drawn up as if on parade, and the story is told of the officer in command on one occasion, that he having said in a half whisper to the officiating clergyman “Cut it short, Bobby,” the venerable gentleman leaned over to the officer replying, “go to the d—l!”

In Colonel Sorrell’s time, the colony had become a comparatively populous place, and the mail travelled regularly from Hobart Town to Launceston and back again once every week. The main road was then in such a condition that more frequent communication between the two towns could not be effected. Those were palmy days for Government clerks, when with salaries averaging £20 per year they lived more affluently than now is possible on six times the amount. This, of course, did not arise from any enormous difference in the value of money in those days and in these, but from the perquisites and pickings, which were at the time allowed to the Government officials.

There was at that time very little coin in circulation in the colony, and when newly arrived emigrants purchased goods at any of the shops they received in change for the gold and silver a large number of small square pieces of paper purporting to be promissary notes from sums varying from six-pence up to four dollars. Some of these notes, printed in red ink, were largely taken by the people until the speculative merchant who issued them failed, and the holders found the worthlessness of much of what was then called currency in contradistinction to the sterling money of Great Britain. On account of the scarcity of coin, the English sovereign passing for twenty-three shillings, and the Spanish dollar, now worth less than 4s, for 6s 3d. It was a general custom to cut a round piece out of the centre of the latter and stamp it with a crown. The small piece was called a dump and passed for 1s 3d, and the rest of the coin was called a “holy dollar,” and went for 5s.

‘We had then no Supreme Court here, and prisoners charged with felony or other offences were conveyed to Sydney to be tried. We had, however, a Civil Court, called the “Judge Advocate’s Court, ” presided over by a gentleman who had seen much military service and held the rank of major in the army. The reports of some of the trials in this court are given in the old newspapers. At one time a celebrated colonial advocate employed as plaintiff’s counsel made out his case so satisfactorily to His Honor the Judge that a verdict was about to be recorded in his favour when it was discovered that neither the defendant nor anyone representing him, was present in court. After some little irregular discussion, the advocate observed that it was a pity no one appeared for the defence and that rather than it should be said that His Honor had decided ex parte, he would plead for the defendant also. He did so, and as the latter, according to the advocate’s showing, had the best of the case, His Honor, to the astonishment of the plaintiff, gave a verdict for the defendant, observing “I am no lawyer and won’t be bothered with law. Verdict for the defendant.”

Hobart Town presented then a gayer and lively aspect than at the present day. The streets were always full of the bright uniforms of the military, and of naval officers. Two military bands playing every moonlight night in the Barrack square from eight to nine o’clock. Balls, picnics, &c., were of constant occurrence, and every place of public entertainment was nightly crowded.

Governor Sorell’s successor, Colonel Arthur, was a man of strong passions, and any man to whom he took a dislike was sure to suffer. On the other hand, his favourites made rapid fortunes through his help. He, however, found some among the colonists held enough to brave his displeasure. On one occasion he ventured to visit the establishment of a settler who was opposed to him in politics. The Governor was accompanied with his orderlies and A.D.C., and riding up to the house, he dismounted and approached the settler who was standing at his door.

“I am glad to see you,” said the Governor. “Then I am not glad to see you,” replied the settler, and slammed the door in the Governor’s face.

In Colonel Arthur’s time, a convict ship with 400 men on board was wrecked in D’Entrecasteaux channel. A signal was passed up to Hobart Town for aid, and the Governor immediately ordered all the troops in garrison, to the number of 600, and all the government officers and clerks to march to St. David’s Church, and there put up prayers to God that He would save the shipwrecked. The troops proceeded to the Church with their regimental colours and headed by the band playing the Dead March in Saul.

“Toll’d the bells in all the churches in the summer morning air,
And the summer morning’s sunshine, falling on the street beneath,
Seemed to wear a veil of sadness; seemed a solemn hush to bear
As if sobered into pity for those doomed to death.”

All the soldiers and sailors on board were saved, but 150 convicts went down into the sea. The hatches had been battened down on them, and when they attempted, in their agony, to burst them open, the soldiers fired on them and bayoneted the nearer ones. No satisfactory explanation was ever given of the proceeding, and the most charitable construction we can put upon it is to believe that those in command were distracted by the danger and confusion.

After Colonel Arthur came Sir John Franklin for our Governor. He said, on coming amongst us, that he was determined to see “with his own eyes.” Such conduct had often been wanting on the part of his predecessors, and brave old Sir John for the most part kept his word. He established our Annual Regatta and used to provide a general luncheon in a large pavilion on every celebration of it.

The Governor’s lady and the wife of the colonel commanding did not agree, and on one of the King’s birthdays, the military band (the only one in Hobart Town at the time) was refused by the colonel to be lent to the ball. Sir John, by virtue of his authority as Governor, ordered the guard of honour of one hundred men to attend at Government House, and be there kept under arms outside the house all the time of the ball. Inside a piano, a flute, and a violin supplied the music for the dancing. The military band went down as usual with the guard; and as soon as the music inside commenced a dozen drums and fifes outside struck up most vigorously, putting the music inside altogether out of time and tune, and rendering it almost impossible for the dancers to proceed.

During Sir John Franklin’s term of office, I witnessed a humorous event in one of the churches in Hobart Town. The regular clergyman was ill and a chaplain from a neighbouring district arrived to officiate for him. He was a mild, amiable old gentleman, and, on getting into the pulpit for the purpose of reading his sermon, he pulled out of his pocket a small roll of paper and unfolded it. Instead of commencing to read it, he paused some moments; and then looking at the congregation, he said to them, “My friends, I find in the hurry of coming away from home, I have brought away a sermon intended for the lunatics at the Asylum, here he paused again, but suddenly taking courage he added, “but as it contains advice which may be applied to many present, I will read it.” He then went through the sermon, to the great astonishment of his hearers, who heard themselves coolly told that in most of their cases drink had brought them there where they were sitting and that in cracking the bottle they had cracked their intellects.

The swearing in of a new Governor, or of a military officer pro-tem., was always a great event in former times. On one of these occasions, the solemnity of the scene was thoroughly dissipated by a pet magpie. The ceremony was performed as usual in the verandah of Government House, and all the public officers and their ladies were there assembled. The Queen’s proclamation was being read by the Chief Justice, and just as he concluded with the words “God save the Queen,” the magpie, who was perched upon a rail in the verandah, struck up in his shrillest whistle a bar of a ludicrous song which one of the orderlies had taught him. The contrast between the magpie’s and the Chief Justice’s appreciation of the ceremony was too much for the assembly, and roars of laughter followed upon the magpie’s interruption.

I have not in relating the foregoing incidents been careful to adhere to any chronological sequence, in as much as it was not my intention to attempt a connected narrative, but have merely written down such events as came spontaneously to me.

Note: A copy of this article can be found in the original source “The Quadrilateral” at Linc Tasmania pages 28-31.

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