Old Tales of a Young Country

A Leaf from an Old Newspaper

Marcus Clarke

ON Saturday, the 23rd of September, 1820, the free residents of Hobart Town, on opening the moist folio of the Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter found a startling proclamation.

The Hobart Town Gazette, let us note, was the paper authorised by the Government, and assisted by those agreeable evidences of patronage, Government advertisements. It was published “by authority,” and printed by Mr. Andrew Bent—the father of the Tasmanian press, who was at that time the leading printer in Hobart Town. Mr. Bent, however, fell out with Governor Arthur, and venturing to attack the Government, was summarily deprived of his office, and eventually ruined.

In the year 1820, however, Mr. Bent was in good favour, and headed his Gazette with the following notice:—

His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor has thought proper to direct that all Public Communications which may appear in the “Hobart Town Gazette” and “Southern Reporter,” signed with any Official Signature, are to be considered as Official Communications made to those persons to whom they may relate.

    “By command of His Honour,

            “E. ROBINSON, Secretary.”

The proclamation which greeted the readers of this issue of the 23rd of September, fifty years ago, was nothing less than an announcement of the death of the late “Sovereign Lord, King George III., and accession to the crown of that High and Mighty Prince George, of Wales,” and ran to the effect that William Sorrell, Esq., Lieutenant-Governor of the settlements of Van Diemen’s Land, together with several other distinguished persons, being assisted by the officers, civil and military, the magistrates, clergy, and principal inhabitants of the colony generally, did publish and proclaim, “with one Voice and consent of Tongue and Heart,” the aforesaid High and Mighty Prince, to be “George IV.,” defender and rightful liege lord of all sorts of things, and Supreme Liege Lord of Van Diemen’s Land among the rest.

The paper in which this piece of news appears is lying before me as I write. It is a broadsheet of the coarsest character, and, with its flourish of Royal Arms at the head of it, looks not unlike a corpulent playbill. The paper is rough in texture and brown in colour, and the imprint is not as clear as it might be. The whole matter is of course surrounded with a deep black border as mourning for poor old George Tertius.

A glance at its columns will give us a glimpse into a curious condition of society. In the first sheet is the Police Fund of Van Diemen’s Land “in account current with John Beamont, Esq., Treasurer,” in which are some quaint items. Mr. John Petchey receives £10 for fire-wood supplied to Government-house. Mr. R. W. Fyett charges £1 for the use of his cart and bullocks. The superintendent of police receives £6 as “a reward for capturing three absentees,” also £5 for “apprehending Blackmore, reward advertised” (Blackmore, I presume, being a convict illegally at large). Mrs. Cullen is paid £2 15s. for accommodating persons in attendance on the Lieutenant-Governor at general muster. Nicholas de Courcy claims £1 for tailor’s work for the Governor’s orderly, and Mr. Lord charges £50 “for a horse supplied to Government.” The Government was all in all in those days.

Immediately after this financial statement comes a paragraph that may perhaps surprise one or two of the inhabitants of Hobart Town who think their church has been named in honour of the patron saint of Wales.

“The Lieutenant-Governor directs that the new Church of Hobart Town shall be called ‘St. David’s Church,’ out of Respect to the memory of the late Colonel David Collins, of the Royal Marines, under whose Direction the Settlement was founded in the year 1804, and who died Lieutenant-Governor in the year 1810.”

Great generals have been canonised before now, and strong men lived before Agamemnon and Colonel David Collins. Though to name a church after a colonel of marines does seem rather a liberty with the Calendar.

The Lieutenant-Governor orders a “general muster of inhabitants” (civil officers and military alone excepted), on certain days. This proclamation is interesting because of its pleasant tyranny. It commands all “free men” and “free women,” together with “male and female prisoners and ticket-of-leave men,” to come together at certain places, at certain dates, for the purpose of being counted, like sheep; and further orders that at “all these musters the free women, as well those who came free to this colony as those who are free by absolute or conditional pardon, and by expiration of sentence, are to give in the names and ages of their children.”

What a strange sight this “muster” must have presented! Any colonial Frith desirous of painting a picture of the sensational school might choose a worse subject than that of “A General Muster in 1820.” Let us imagine for a moment the old town, the old-fashioned dresses, the striving of the “tawdry yellow” of the convict garb with the “dirty red” of His Majesty’s uniform, the intermingling of faces, the strong contrasts and curious juxtapositions. There seems room for powerful painting in such a picture.

The “Town Talk” is not very important. An account is given of a procession which took place on Sunday, and was composed of the Lieutenant-Governor, the Deputy Judge-advocate, the officers and magistrates, and principal inhabitants of the settlement, all in deep mourning, and it is stated that minute guns, in number corresponding with the years of his late Majesty were fired from Mulgrave Battery. The reporter for the Gazette remarks also that the ceremony left a deep impression of the veneration and respect which were felt towards the lamented sovereign, “an impression,” he says, “which was much strengthened by the discourse of the Rev. R. Knopwood, M.A., whose allusions to His late Majesty’s Public and Private Virtues were most appropriate to the melancholy occasion.” “The writer further observed that the memory of the deceased monarch cannot fail to live while Royal Virtue continues to be venerated.”

Le roi est mort; vive le roi! The next paragraph relates how the reading of the Proclamation of the new king was received. The document— which is printed at the head of the paper— was read “in front of Government-house under a Royal salute from Mulgrave Battery, and three volleys from a detachment of the 48th Regiment.”

Commerce goes hand in hand with loyalty. The Southern Reporter is happy to hear that “the new Flour-mill lately erected in Liverpool-street Grinds remarkably well.” The mill-stones of this remarkable structure are specially mentioned as being “the first yet used in this settlement the production of Van Diemen’s Land.” A vaguely-worded but well-meant support of native industries.

That portion of a paper which Punch called the Hatches, Matches, and Despatches, is not very well filled. One solitary marriage is alone recorded:—

“Married by special licence by the Rev. R. Knopwood, M.A., on Monday the 11th inst., John Beamont, Esq., Provost Marshal, to Harriett, second daughter of G. W. Evans, Esq., Deputy Surveyor-General.”

But close upon the heels of the marriage follows an amusing exposition of the intentions of a Mr. Fergusson.

“Mr. Fergusson hereby Begs leave to make known to those who stand Indebted to him his intention of Looking for the same in the next sitting of the Lieutenant-Governor’s Court, and no Favor or Affection will be shown.”

Mr. F.’s impartiality is quite touching. Debts appear difficult to collect at this date, for Mrs. Lord, acting as agent to Edward Lord, Esq., acquaints the public that though deeply desirous of “affording them every Facility for discharging their Embarrassments,” still she cannot remain wholly unpaid, but is prepared to accept good storeable beef and mutton to the extent in quantity of 250,000 lbs. weight, at 6d. per lb., in liquidation of their debts. While making this liberal offer, however, Mrs. Lord feels it a duty belonging to her agency to state, “that if the present opportunity be not embraced by Mr. Lord’s creditors, she will not allow the expected Circuit of the Supreme Court to pass without resorting to that and the Lieutenant-Governor’s Court as the case may require to Compel Payment of the several obligations.” A courteous but a severe lady, Mrs. Lord, evidently, and one who will stand no “nonsense,” but have her lawful bond or pound of flesh, as the case may be.

Here is a curious advertisement:—“Mr. Reiby has the pleasure of informing the public that he has received by the last arrivals the following choice articles, which will be sold at very reduced prices for ready money:— Brass-wire seives, loom-shirting, flannel, writing-paper, quills, wafers, ink-powder, tortoiseshell combs, spices of all sorts, snuff, ball-cotton, threads, white and coloured handkerchiefs, men’s common hats, red cotton shirts, Flushing coats, red caps, waistcoats, pea-jackets, drill frocks, trousers and jackets, chip hats, nankeens, knives and forks, crockery ware, cotton socks, best English chintz, best bottled London porter, cedar in plank, tumblers, English playing-cards, gunpowder, white wine in draught and bottle, rum, tea, sugar, Bengal soap, and various other Useful and Valuable articles. Also, a capital One-horse Gig, with harness complete.” Rather a miscellaneous collection of Mr. Reiby’s!

The newspapers of that day contained items which would rather startle a modern Tasmanian. For instance:—

    “One Hundred and Fifty Pounds Reward.

    “Police-office, Hobart Town, November 28, 1820.

“Whereas, Thomas Kenny (No. 73), a convict, 5ft. 3¾ in. high, brown hair, dark-grey eyes, 18 years of age, a blacksmith by trade, was tried in the county of Dublin in 1818, was sentenced to be transported for life, born in the county of Westmeath, has a crucifix above the elbow on the right arm, T.K. on the left arm, arrived in Sydney in the ship “Bencoolen,” and here in the ship “Admiral Cockburn,” charged with wilful murder; and Thomas Atkinson, &c., and James Letting, &c., and Thomas Lawton, &c., and Joseph Saunders, &c., charged with divers capital felonies, broke out of His Majesty’s gaol at Hobart Town on the night of the 27th of November.” And so on.

Beneath this Mr. James Blay puts a

    “Caution to the Public.

“Whereas several of my One Shilling promissory Notes have been lately altered into Five Shilling Bills; in order to bring the offender or offenders to public justice, I hereby offer a reward of Five Pounds sterling to any person or persons who will be the means of apprehending them.

            “JAMES BLAY.”

A glance at the police reports and trials shows a healthy condition of severity:—

Daniel Eachan, charged with forging an order for £3, is sentenced to 200 lashes and transportation to Newcastle. James Flinn and John Griffiths, alias Frog, charged with stealing a pocket-book, value 15s., and attempting to steal a watch, are sentenced to 50 lashes and transportation to Newcastle; and John Anthony, James Taylor, and George Howel, charged with “committing divers felonies,” are treated to 100 lashes each and 12 months in the gaol-gang.

Here are specimens of female absconders:

“Ann Darter. May. 5ft. 1½ in.; brown hair, brown eyes; aged 36; servant. Tried at the Old Bailey, April, 1822—life. Native place, St. Sepulchre’s. Absconded from the service of Dr. Bromley, 17 th February.”

“Janet Ceflude. Brothers. 5 ft. 4 in.; dark hair, dark eyes; aged 26; dressmaker. Tried at Chester, April 5—life. Native place, Whitehaven.”

Constables who permitted convicts to escape were not merely reprimanded or reduced. A sterner punishment was meted out to them, as thus—

“Thomas Trueman, a Constable, was charged with negligently suffering two prisoners, who were confined in the County Gaol on charges of a very serious nature, to Escape, which was clearly proved by various witnesses, and he was sentenced, being a prisoner, to be Dismissed his Office and to receive 100 lashes.’

Quis custodiel ipse custodes?

Amongst other duties of constables was that of seeing to the safe housing of all ticket-of-leave men by a certain hour, and the ancient institution of curfew, or something very like it, was in force. A notice in the issue of the 23rd November, signed by Mr. Robinson, says—

“Commencing on Monday next, the Evening Bell will ring at 9 o’clock until further orders.”

Matrimonial matters did not always seem to go happily, even in this primitive condition of things. Gentlemen are constantly advertising their domestic troubles in the Southern Reporter, and scarcely a day passes without some husband being left lamenting by his frail spouse. Ladies seem to have been at a premium. I extract two plaints which are touching in their simple woe:—


“The public are hereby Cautioned against harbouring or concealing or giving credit to my Wife, Mary Steele, she having absconded from her home with sundry Articles amounting to nearly Fifty Pounds in property, as I am determined not to pay any Debts she may contract, and to prosecute any person or persons who may harbour or conceal her after this notice.

            “GEO. STEELE.”

The second is even more notable—

Whereas, my wife, Margaret Banks, having eloped from her home without any Just Provocation, leaving me with her Eive (sic) Small Children! —This is to give notice that I will not be responsible for any debts she may contract on my account.

            “THOMAS BANKS.”

The care with which Mr. Banks distributes his personal pronouns is remarkable.

“Leading articles” are few and far between in the columns of our journal. Government advertisements, “local news,” and lists of “prisoners tried” exhausted the balance of reading matter, which is made up of such items as these —“Indian marriage in high life,” “Singular discovery of a murder by dreaming,” “New method of seasoning mahogany,” “The honest cook,” and “A jest by Mr. Curran.” The “jest” is so exquisitely dull that it is worth extracting—

“Mr. Curran, cross-examining a horse-jockey’s servant, asked his master’s age. ‘I never put my hand into his mouth to try,’ answered the witness. The laugh was against the counsel’ (mark this!) ‘till he retorted, ‘You are perfectly right, friend, for your master is said to be a great bite!’”

Let me close the Hobart Town Gazette of 1820 with the account of a thunderstorm, during which an intrusive “Electric Fire-ball” entered a “dormant window” in the roof of Government House. This impertinent manifestation of nature descended from floor to floor, knocked doors off their hinges, scattered plates, pulverised panes of glass, walked down the grand staircase, melted the bell-wires, entered His Excellency’s office, struck His Excellency’s chair [but “providentially His Excellency was at that time absent on his tour through the North-Western Country”], shattered His Excellency’s umbrella, and passed through the wall, leaving the house nearly a wreck, and full of a suffocating smell of sulphur. “Most providentially” it so happened that “Mrs. Macquarie and her darling boy” had that morning breakfasted in an apartment which was the only one in the house not visited by this “scourge,” and to this cause “may be attributed their almost miraculous escape.”

A distinction between the providential and the almost miraculous is here very delicately marked.

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