Lake Leather - A Small Slice of the Local History of Tasmania (Part 1 of 2)
Alex Mileham·August 05, 2021
A Small Slice of the History of Tasmania's North West:
Now, anyone who has ever met me in one of our Lake Leather shops would tell you I am as English as the day is long. I have a fairly distinctive British accent, or so I am told. One sniff of a gin and tonic and I become even more English than the day I left the motherland. I was born in the UK and grew up in Kent, in the very southeast corner of the UK. What a lot of people might not realise is that, despite this, my Tasmanian heritage goes back five generations to 1854, when my great-great grandfather
Thomas Stephens struck out for Australia from his family’s home in the Lake District, Northumberland. Coming from a family with eight children, those days were tough for the younger siblings, who could expect to inherit nothing of the family’s land or wealth (as the son of a vicar there would be no wealth to speak of for Thomas anyhow). The younger siblings would have to strike their own path in the world. Thomas was 25 when he graduated from
Oxford University in 1854 and embarked upon his journey to Australia on the sailing ship Fulward. Two of Thomas’s older brothers were living here in Australia already – in Sydney. The eldest, William Stephens, was well established and respected as a natural history and geology professor at Sydney University. Thomas came to Tasmania to work as an educator at the recently founded tertiary education facility at Bishopsbourne, Tas, the Christ College. The school was opened in 1846 and closed due to poor financial situation in 1856. Two years later, Thomas was engaged by the Tasmanian government to conduct a trip overland through the still very rugged northwest tip of Tasmania, from Devonport to Circular Head, to assess the state of settlement, specifically with a view to offering education for the families of settlers in this region. The following is his account of that journey.
When I found the pamphlet in my mum’s package of family history goodies, I was so thrilled by my connection with this man. His writing makes the journey so alive, so real, and even today brings to life the hardship and the hardiness of these people. Thomas was an Oxford-educated academic, who set out alone (apart from his trusty steed Brian) on an arduous, multi-day ride through tough bush on barely marked tracks. References to Kentish’s track refer to the track cut in 1841 by surveyor Nathaniel Lipscomb Kentish, who was commissioned to survey the virgin northwest corner of Tasmania, and discovered the Kentish Plains, which were named for him. Cutting his way through rough country, swimming rivers, avoiding bushfires, while cheerfully describing the events he and Brian encountered and the characters he met along the way. I am filled with admiration for the tenacity, the strength and the fortitude of these pioneers who tamed the beautiful island we live on today. This account of part of the history of Tasmania was written some years (maybe 30) after his journey. It is a fairly long read, but well worth it, so I have split it into two parts for ease and comfort. The second part will be issued in the next blog. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!!
Pioneering the North-West Coast (Tasmania)
By T Stephens, M.A., F.G.S.
It was early in the month of February 1858, that it became necessary for me to plan an overland journey from the Mersey to Circular Head for the purpose of gaining information respecting the progress of settlement, and the possibility of providing some means of education for the families of settlers already in residence along the coast. A similar expedition had been planned in the previous year, but had been foiled by the impossibility of effecting a landing from the small coasting steamer, The Titania, either at Emu Bay or Wynyard, which were practically the only residential settlements west of the Mersey at that time. The so-called main road from Deloraine to the Mersey was, except for the first seven miles, little more than a bush track. Latrobe existed only as a name on the map, and the heavily timbered country precluded access to Torquay (now East Devonport) except by a bridle road via Northdown. On arrival at Torquay, I found
the ebb-tide running out with a strong stream, but with the aid of a fisherman and his boat managed to tow my good cob Brian safely across, and struck out for the Forth. There was a bridge over the Don, the only one along a hundred miles of coast, and here a choice of two routes presented itself, one leading up a steep ridge to the south, the other coastwise. After traversing the former for a mile or two I found it ending in a heavily timbered forest through which a beginning had been made to cut a road to the township reserve then known as Hamilton-on-Forth. The scrub had been cleared and burnt, the timber being cut into long lengths and stacked on both sides of the road. This made pleasant travelling for a time, but the cleared road suddenly came to an end. As it was impossible to get a horse through the dense scrub, blocked with huge logs crossing one another in all directions, a return had to be made to the Don bridge, and a bush track followed to the coastline, and thence to the mouth of the Forth. Here the pioneer of those days had to learn his first lesson in the
matter of crossing of unbridged tidal rivers. All the rivers of the North-West coast are tidal waters, with a rise of 10-12 feet, and are fordable at low water on the bar, except in times of flood. There were then no bridges between the Don and Circular Head, nor any resting place east of Emu Bay except an inn at the mouth of the Forth. I arrived about 5pm and was informed by the landlord that the river would not be fordable for an hour or more. He showed me over his premises and explained how he disposed of his customers in various states of insobriety. They were chiefly splitters of palings in the neighbouring forest, earning a lot of money, which many of them spent in the public house. He pointed out three rooms, one without any furniture except straw mattresses on the floor. “Here,” he said, “I puts ‘em when they can’t sit up.” The second contained a few stretchers, and of the third he said, “Here I puts ‘em when they begin to come around.” It is hard to realise in these quiet times what was the average condition of the bush-workers in those early days.
It was now getting dusk, and not desiring to be ‘bushed’ on the way to the Leven I decided to risk the Forth crossing and got nearly over when the channel suddenly deepened, and Brian had his first experience of swimming, but only for a few yards. I crossed the Clayton Rivulet without difficulty and struck into the bush in search of a track which I had been told would take me to the mouth of the Leven. The scrub was rather thick, and after vainly seeking for a practicable track I kept along the shoreline, having occasionally to deviate on the pebble banks which lined it, and made the travelling very bad. It was a starlight night, and when I reached the river there were visible some signs of human progress on the spot where the prosperous town of Ulverstone now stands in the shape of stacks of palings at the water’s edge waiting for shipment. The only place it would be possible to find quarters for myself and horse was two miles up the river, and the getting through the intervening rough country in the dark was no joke. A solitary light showed itself at last, and I soon found myself hospitably received by a settler with whom I had some personal acquaintance, and who was engaged in carving out in the heavily timbered forest a home for himself and his family.