Old Tales of a Young Country

The Settler in Tasmania Fifty Years Ago

Marcus Clarke

“NOW, gentlemen,” said the captain, “the boat’s all ready for you.”

“We had come to anchor that morning in Sullivan’s Cove,” says Dr. Ross, writing in 1836 an account of his landing fourteen years before at Hobart Town, “and for the last hour or two had been doing our best, after a long voyage, to make ourselves decent, in order to pay our respects to the Governor.”

Dr. Ross was a gentleman of ability and taste, who had emigrated from England with a view of settling as a farmer in Tasmania—as it was then called, Van Diemen’s Land. After many vicissitudes, truthfully recorded in the following narrative, he became editor of a Government paper, and starting the Hobart Town Chronicle and Van Diemen’s Land Annual, occupied a prominent position in the colony until his death. To his exertions the historians of Tasmania have been largely indebted for the material of their books. His Annual is—apart from the scarce newspapers of the day—the almost only record left of the earlier days of the colony, and his experiences may be read with interest.

On this memorable morning he seated himself in his well-creased “last new London-made dress coat” in the bows of the boat, eagar to be among the first to call at Government-house. His fellow-passengers were of a motley character, and he describes with some humour the incidents of the landing:—

“The boat was just shoving off when we were desired to stop (in a stentorian voice, which none of us dared to disobey), in order to take on board an emigrant, whom we had all forgotten, and who we wished had also forgotten us, but who now appeared, descending the steps. I do not, to this hour, know how he managed to get down, for both arms were loaded with articles of the heaviest kind. One embraced a steel mill, on the excellent machinery of which he had enlarged almost every day since he had purchased it in Oxfordstreet. The other held, linked together in a bullock-chain, a huge iron maul, a broad axe, and another very long felling or rather falling one, as it is colonially called, and which it, unfortunately for me, in this instance, too truly proved to be. For in spite of all our cries—‘No room, no room! ’ ‘Keep back!’ ‘Wait till next time!’ &c.—in an instant he had his foot impressed, with all the superincumbent weight of himself and his iron ware, on the gunwale of the boat, which he at once brought down to the edge of the water, and, with the help of the passenger who sat beside me, and by the sweep of his arm, trying to preserve his equilibrium, deprived me of mine. I was as suddenly precipitated about ten or a dozen feet below the water. Thanks to the aquatic acquirements of my early days, however, I was soon again at the surface, where I swam until I caught the end of a rope, by which I returned on board, with the mortification of having my fine levée coat steeped in salt water, and seeing the rest of the passengers paddling smoothly on shore to get the first blush of the Governor’s patronage. The only consolation I had under my catastrophe was the finding that the whole of the heavy articles which had contributed to it, were now lying snug, four fathoms under water, at the bottom of the Derwent.”

This unlucky accident, however, procured him the pleasure of a private interview with the Governor, Colonel Sorrell, who seemed to be much pleased at the intention of the new-comer to settle in Van Diemen’s Land instead of going on to Sydney. He was assured that the colony was in urgent need of settlers like himself, and was promised all the assistance the Government could give. The largest grant that the Governor was at that time empowered to make to any settler was 2560 acres. Unfortunately, in sailing from London the doctor had been induced, in order to accommodate some other passengers, to take out of the ship a large quantity of goods, and as grants of land were only made in consideration of, and in proportion to, real property, he could not claim the full allowance. Colonel Sorrell, however, ordered that 1000 acres should be “laid off” for him, with the understanding that he could take it up as soon as the second vessel, containing his property, arrived. This took place six weeks afterwards, but Ross was then “busy with his farm and family in the interior,” and was unable to come to town or see after the fulfilment of the promise. This state of things continued until a change of Governors took place, and when Colonel Arthur arrived, Ross came down to enforce his claim. New Governors or Governments are not always eager to confirm the minutes left by their predecessors, and Arthur did not appear to think it necessary to carry out the suggestions of Sorrell in every particular. Poor Ross was informed that “the additions would all come in good time, when he had made the proper improvements on the 1000 acres he had already obtained;” and this decision, he says, took him so much aback that he never since stirred in the matter, and—“I have, in consequence, for a series of years been struggling with every colonial difficulty to maintain a numerous family; I have seen many other settlers, with far less original means, and—I say it without disparagement—with certainly no higher claims, enjoying the advantage of maximum and additional maximum grants, and rapidly accumulating large and independent fortunes.”

Hobart Town in 1822 was not a very cheerful place. The population, including prisoners and military, barely amounted to 3000 souls. The streets were but just marked out, and consisted for the most part of thinly-scattered cottages standing in the midst of unfenced allotments, while the roots and stumps of primeval gumtrees tripped up the unwary foot-passenger. Macquarie-street was distinguished by Government House, several stores, and “The Hope and Anchor public-house,” St. David’s Church (then but just built), and the Macquarie Hotel, a store where Ross expended the first money he laid out in the colony in “the purchase of a razor-strop for two dollars.” The streets were knee-deep in mud, and undermined with large holes, into which the unwary fell headlong. Even in 1825—three years later—Dr. Ross states that going home one night he witnessed the sudden plunge of the military band into a mud-hole, and the consequent stoppage of the martial music which they were discoursing.

The “old market-place,” where “Mr. Fergusson’s granary stood by itself,” was an “impassable mud-hole, periodically overflowed with the tide.” The only inns were Mrs. Kearney’s, the Derwent, and Macquarie Hotels, and the Ship Inn—the last-named being at this moment of writing the best hotel in Hobart Town—and the remainder of the town was principally composed of two-roomed cottages, having a “skillion” behind. The only bridge was the “Cross,” in Elizabeth-street, which spanned the “town rivulet,” and was calculated as the centre of the city. This bridge was the 1“Under the Verandah” of Hobart Town, and many admirable plans for spoiling the Egyptians were there concocted.

“There were assembled, especially towards evening, gentlemen of various classes, and from various parts of the world—those who had recently left the pocket-picking purlieus of the great metropolis, and those who had added to that experience a few years’ sojourn in these colonies. Numerous bargains, assignments, and assignations were there planned and transacted, which made their appearance on the ensuing morning in dismantled and dilapidated stores, and other symptoms of ‘freedom’ in a foreign land.”

Mount Wellington over-hung the city in all his primeval and barbarous beauty. The forest of gum-trees reached down to the edge of the town, and “people cut cart-loads and barrow-loads of wood for their fires not a hundred yards from their own doors.”

It so happened that another vessel had arrived in harbour at the same time with that one which had brought Dr. Ross, and this astonishing and unusual circumstance created a profound sensation. Lodging-house keepers, as rapacious then as now, and as ready to turn an honest penny at some one else’s expense, had raised their prices, and Ross found it most difficult to obtain a resting-place for himself and his family. “After a weary search,” he succeeded in “hiring a hut of two apartments, in one of the principal streets, at the weekly rent of 4dol., or 20s. currency.

“Each room had a glazed window, and one of them a fire-place. It had no other floor but the mother earth, nor roof but the gum shingles, nor door but the entrance one. Such a building, at a moderate estimate, I think could have been put up in any part of Middlesex for 40s., or two months’ rent. Indeed, when I hired the premises, the proprietor said he would prefer selling it to me right out, and that I should have it for £20, or not quite a half-year’s rent.”

This pleasant and cheap domicile was situated about a quarter of a mile from the town, and Ross set out to find it, carrying his portmanteau in one hand and his little baby on the opposite arm, while his wife and two little ones walked by his side—surely as forlorn a picture of immigration as could be well imagined.

Presently, however, a man, decently dressed in blue trousers and jacket, volunteered to carry the portmanteau, and, on arriving at the “hut,” demanded payment for his trouble. This good Samaritan was an “assigned servant,” and eked out his living by this method of charity. Ross gave him “the only English shilling, with its George and Dragon,” which had remained in his pocket since he had paid the boatmen at Cox’s Quay. Unluckily, English money was at a discount, and the convict did not like the look of it.

“He turned it from side to side, between his finger and his thumb; he looked at the dragon, and he looked at the shield with the garter, but neither seemed to please him. I saw by his countenance that he considered them in bad taste in Van Diemen’s Land, and he flatly told me that a pillar dollar of the then oppressed country of Spain was the only coin he approved of; which, as I did not choose to give him, he would make me a compliment of the shilling and the job together. As my pride at that time was not very high—I blush to avow it—I was mean enough to pocket the affront, and so we parted, never to meet again.”

By dint of using one box as a table, and another as a bed, the new settler contrived to give the “hut” a homely look; and, getting out his crockeryware, and unpacking his tea and sugar, set to work and made tea for his “poor sick and wearied wife, and little family.” He had brought with him two servants—the seductive “married couple” of the advertisements—but, like many deluded settlers before and since, he found that his importations were worse than useless. The man was a lout, and the wife a ninny, and disgusted Ross was compelled to get rid of them both.

Being awakened by the cold of the morning air, he got up to stroll around his new premises, and inspected more particularly a little inn which was opposite his door. The servant in this place was sweeping out the remains of last night’s feast, and stared so hard at the new arrival that Ross went across to look at him. The description he gives is so characteristic of the time that I extract it bodily:—

“A country settler, whose cart stood before the house, and whose four large oxen I saw grazing in the bush on the hill behind, was turning himself in order to renew his nap, on the long wooden sofa-seat, as it is colonially called, serving as a drinking-bench by day and bed by night, on which he lay half-undressed, and covered only with a kangaroo rug. I then inspected the garden of this hostelry, for though it had been once enclosed with a paling fence, many panels were already gone or lying prostrate on the ground, and, though so young in existence, it was already bearing the appearance of antiquity and decay. A goat was grazing in the farther corner, and no vestiges of horticulture were apparent, except a sweetbrier bush, a few marigolds in full yellow blossom, and the remains of two cabbage stalks, which had been nibbled by the goat.”

The next week was passed in arranging his furniture, unpacking his household goods, and storing them in the town. He had brought with him a small box of dollars for current expenses, and the conveyance of this box to his house cost him infinite pain. Some half-dozen fellows— “some in the garb of gentlemen, others in grey and yellow”—followed him to his hut, and peered suspiciously round the corner, looking with sharp eyes to see where the specie was stowed. Ross, however, purchased a bull-mastiff of one of the soldiers of the 48th, and hung his “trusty Manton,” loaded, on a couple of pegs in his bedroom.

Having thus provided for home cares, he determined to fix on a locality for his future farm. Getting letters of introduction from the Governor, he clubbed with three of his fellow-passengers in the hire of a ticket-of-leave man, who would guide the party to its destination. This gentleman was civil and attentive. He had been a burglar, and informed Ross that his last offence—for the commission of which he was then suffering—was the robbing of the picture gallery of a nobleman in England, and that he had received £400 as his share in the booty. Winding along the foot of the Wellington range, with the Derwent on their right hand, Ross took the road towards the present township of New Norfolk, and kept his eye open for farmland. He did not see what he desired, but met with something that frightened him instead of pleasing him. Surmounting the hill where is now the cottage of Beauly-lodge, he was met by three men, one of whom carried a blue bag on which the stains of blood were very conspicuous. Curiosity induced the party to pause, and the strangers good-naturedly opening the bag, showed them a human head.

Taking it by the hair, he held it up to our view, with the greatest exultation imaginable, and for a moment we thought we had indeed got amongst murderers, pondering between resistance and the chance of succour or escape, when we were agreeably relieved by the information that the bleeding head had belonged two days ago to the body of the notorious bushranger, Michael Howe, for whom, dead or alive, very large rewards had been offered.2 He had been caught at a remote solitary hut on the banks of the River Shannon, and in his attempt to break away from the soldiers who apprehended him, had been shot through the back, so that the painful disseverment of the head and trunk, the result of which we now witnessed, had been only a postmortem operation.”

After a pleasant journey, with numerous pauses at hospitable settlers’ houses, Ross arrived at a beautiful spot on the banks of the Shannon, which he determined to make his future home, and returned to Hobart Town for the purpose of making the necessary arrangements to purchase it.

He found his family well, but heard that several attempts had been made to carry off the box of dollars. Robberies at that time were absurdly frequent. The police—such as it was—was inefficient, and the thieves numerous. Scarcely a night passed without some robbery being committed. The assigned burglars, thieves, and “burkers” would put their wits together to prey upon their neighbours. They would cut away boards, or pull out a brick from the chimney bottom, and so work a hole large enough to admit their bodies. A foot-passenger walking the streets at night was almost certain to be attacked.

“It was a very common practice to run up behind a well-dressed person, and whipping off his hat, to run away with it. This was called ‘unshingling,’ or taking off a man’s roof. To say nothing of the jeopardy in which a watch and other little valuables were placed on such occasions, I have known instances of persons having the very coat taken off their backs, especially if it happened to be a good one. For my part, I could never discover what use the thieves could possibly put these stolen articles to; for in so small a population, not only were the face and person of every individual well-known, but the shape and colour of his coat, and even of his hat, were equally familiar. Unquestionably if I had been so unfortunate as to lose my hat in this way (which I was not), I should have recognised it had I seen it on any man’s head in Hobart Town next day. A man much more readily identifies an old friend of this kind, however great the similarity of black hats may be, when encountered in the open air, and in the bright light of day, than he can possibly do in an ante-room by candlelight after the dazzle of a dancing-party. I say this with the more confidence, because one of my fellowpassengers, who had lost his hat in this manner, actually recognised it on the head of a dashing fellow, strutting with gloves and cane in Macquarie-street. The rogue was apprehended and convicted of the theft, and enjoyed as a reward for his ‘unshingling’ propensities the pleasure of what is called in these ingenious countries a ‘second lagging.’”

Tired of these city joys, and having obtained his grant, and purchased tools, a plough, and bullocks, our immigrant started up the country to begin his farmer’s life.

The account of the journey “up the country” does not much vary from the accounts which have been given by early settlers in any colony. The same troubles with refractory bullocks, the same camping out in unexpected places, the same astonishment at the beauties of nature as she appears at dusk, and the same raptures concerning the rising sun, which are common to all suddenly transplanted cockneys, characterise our author’s description. He is disgusted because his men swear at his bullocks, but admits, with grief, that swearing is, after all, a necessary evil. He finds the same difficulty in using an axe that all town-bred gentlemen have found from time immemorial, and his classical allusions to Tityrus, Meliboeus, and Horace’s Sabine farm, have been made with more or less success by every “settler” of any pretensions to scholarship. But an element enters into Dr. Ross’s narrative which is wanting in that of the Canadian back woodsman, or the Victorian “pioneer of civilisation.” In addition to straying bullocks and cursing bullock-drivers, Ross had another experience. His servants were convicts, and their manners and customs were not of the most elegant nature.

The spot he selected for his farm was about 56 miles from Hobart Town, and was situated in the midst of a “howling wilderness.” To reach it, a pilgrimage had to be made with “assigned servants” as assistant pilgrims. He purchased two carts, made to order, at a cost of 31 guineas each, and with two bullock-teams and servants to match, set out from the city. The first cart was filled with baggage, and in the second sat Mrs. Ross and her family. The patriarch himself, sometimes walking, sometimes riding, hovered like the parent bird around this ambulatory nest. The day was oppressively hot, and before the cavalcade had proceeded two miles, Mrs. Ross, tired of the jolting and the flies, determined to walk a little. With the terrible exception of the nursemaid and the baby, the party dismounted, and Ross told the drivers to “proceed slowly.” Instantly they cracked their whips, cursed the bullocks, and disappeared over the brow of the hill. “I feel the exertion I made on that occasion,” says Ross, “at the moment I am writing. . . . The hill was steep enough and long enough to my conception. No attempt had then been made to cut down the bank in order to lessen the acclivity. It was to my mind as steep a ridge as any Dame Nature ever left upon her fair face. What on earth was to be done? Was I to sit down by the roadside and bemoan my fate, and the still worse uncertain fate of my torn-away infant? No, such a course would have been unworthy of a man born beyond the Tweed—of a man who had had the courage to transport himself. I carried the younger of my two little ones under my right arm, led the other by my left, and how I managed the ‘Manton’ I really cannot tell, but if I remember right it was in several ways. At one time, carried by the side of the younger child, I supported it across my arm; at another, with a portion of the fingers of my right hand, while I led the elder with the others. If the gun was not loaded I unquestionably was, and to all appearance with destruction too. The weight which Æneas escaped with from the flames of Troy was quite light compared with mine; for after a few steps accomplished in this manner, my anxiety to get to the summit of the hill, from whence I thought I might at least see the direction the carts were taking, or perhaps discover some stranger, though only an aboriginal, who would run after them, induced me to carry my eldest born also in my right arm—and now the difficulty of the Manton was greater than ever. It is almost as impracticable for me to recollect how I did it as it was then to carry it. To the best of my memory, I contrived to support it in the loop of my shot-belt, stuffed, as the latter was, as full of heavy shot as it could hold, while I balanced the other end under my arm-pit or my chin. I was pacing it along all the time, however, as fast as my legs could carry me. I perspired at every pore—my strength was tried to the utmost.”

Surmounting the rise at last, however, he found the drays upset, and the nursemaid in a state of unwonted hilarity. This lady was a convict, and had but one eye. She consigned all the settlers in the colony to a place which Ross suggestively hints is “warmer than Siberia.” This hand-maiden—like a transported Miriam—burst into jubilee. “Free men,” she vowed, “had no business in Van Diemen’s Land. It was not meant for them. It belonged, ay, and should belong, to prisoners only! It was their country, and their country it should be. Ducks and green peas for ever! Hurrah!” This sudden outburst somewhat astonished the good doctor, and the behaviour of the nymph was still more astonishing. “As she spoke, her hands followed the direction that her animated eye pointed to in the joyous regions above—she did not certainly wave her hat, because she had not one to wave, and her Dunstable bonnet had just received a new shape from the impression of the cart-wheel under which it had fallen. But she waved her hand in the joy of her heart, and would have sent my then only son and heir to perdition, never to inherit the noble estate on the romantic banks of the Shannon, had not his mother happily caught him by the clothes, while the rump of my newly-bought gigantic bullock ‘Strawberry’ saved his little head from dashing on the ground.”

The cause was soon apparent. A bottle of rum which Ross had, “for his stomach’s sake,” conserved in the bottom of the dray, had been espied by the single eye of his Hobart Town exportation, and she had drunk it silently alone. Hinc illoe lucrimoe!

There is no need to expatiate upon the “assignment system.” Suffice to say, that its main feature was the employment of the abilities of convicts in that groove in which they were best fitted to run. Any free settler who desired a servant could, by complying with certain conditions, hire a well-conducted convict from the superintendent’s office. The master clothed and fed this man, and the man worked without pay for the master.

Unluckily, it often happened that, to speak metaphorically, the round man got into the square hole. Cooks were hired as wood-cutters, poachers as cooks. Petty thieves, whose soft hands had touched nothing harder than a handkerchief or a watch-chain, were sent to grub roots and drive bullocks; while the accomplished valet, whose skill in hairdressing was the boast of Portman-square, and whose adroitness in assisting at the compound fracture to the seventh commandment rivalled that of Leporello himself, was too often condemned to hew wood and draw water for the use of some commonplace person, who never had intrigued with another man’s wife in the whole course of his plebeian existence. Hobart Town society was composed at that period of but three classes—free settlers, and that male and female creation which are proverbially said to have populated Yorkshire. The “condition of things” was the most primitive in the world. Literature, as might be expected, was at a discount.

“It will appear strange,” interjects Ross, “but it is no less true, the Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land General Advertiser, printed once a fortnight on one leaf, sometimes of white, sometimes of coloured paper, as Mr. Bent happened to get it, was at that time the only species of periodical literature which the colony could boast. It contained, however, a very full and circumstantial account of the goods for sale in the town, and the various articles that had arrived from England or elsewhere, and afforded me considerable assistance. It detailed the measures of Government, the appointments of public officers, general notices and regulations, agricultural meetings, and indeed almost everything which a settler required or wished to know. Nevertheless it had no more claim to compete with the newspapers of the present day than Tom Thumb has with Tom Paine. Up to the time I am speaking of, and some years after, there was not a word of slander or defamation put in print in the colony, unless, indeed, the announcements of the Provost Marshal or Sheriff of that period, injurious as they sometimes were to people’s credit, could be called so. The ‘free press,’ or great fourth estate—the palladium of Englishmen and Van Diemen’s Land men too, as it is justly and proudly called—had scarcely come into being in the colony, when a fifth power, ‘the abuse of the press,’ paramount of all others, such is the rapidity of advancement in new countries, was almost simultaneously created.”

Good Doctor Ross, I may observe, in parenthesis, is a little warm on this point. Governor Arthur having been handsomely abused by Mr. Melville, took away from that too out-spoken writer the Government printing, and gave it to our author. Ross being Government publisher, and a Scotchman, had more sense than to risk his position. He “went with the tide,” and supported the Government of the day by taking occasion now and then to give poor Melville a sly dig in the editorial ribs. As thus:—

“By the sanction of one of the slanderous journals with which this literary colony now abounds, you may enter the house of the most retired individual—you may turn his dwelling inside out—you may fill it with anything you like, or strip it to the bare walls—you may backbite himself, his wife, and his children—make his servants insult instead of serving him—give him a large nose or no nose at all, just as it suits your convenience—his castle shall or shall not be his castle, agreeably to your will and pleasure. Never on earth was power more supreme or despotic—the Imperial Parliament must submit and give way to its domination, and even Majesty itself must bend if you choose to write home with the consent and concurrence of this glorious, this tremendous autocratic, political association press!”

At the time at which he first landed, however, the “Press” was not in existence. That great engine for the blowing off of private steam not being yet established, the residents of the city were forced to vent their private malice in manuscript. “These were the days of ‘pipes.’ Certain supposed home truths or lively descriptions were indited in clear and legible letters on a piece of paper, which was then rolled up in the form of a pipe, and being held together by twisting at one end, was found at the door of the person intended to be instructed on its first opening in the morning.”

Nor was the expression of private opinion confined to personalities. A considerable dislike towards the country itself was manifested. Sydney was the place, and nothing but Sydney. Any person who settled in Van Diemen’s Land was looked upon as but little better than a madman. The same objections were urged by the same class of people who urge similar objections now.

“Sydney was the only place. Why don’t you go on to Sydney, sir! There is nothing but oppression here. The colony is ruined, sir. There is not even a drop of good water in the whole island, sir. It is all alum; you will be poisoned if you stop here, sir.”

Having crossed the solitary vale of Bagdad, and camped at Constitution-hill, bogged his bullocks and lost them, Ross at last reached the “desolate spot” on which his future home was to be built. His preparations for permanent residence were rapid. He cut down some poles and made a “wigwam,” and dwelling in this wigwam for some weeks, set boldly to work to construct a “slab hut,” in the midst of a landscape which he thought would have afforded scope for the employment of the pencil of Morland, and “does now, I trust,” says he, “to the equally immortal one of my friend Mr. Glover.”

The “hut” was built after the following manner:—

“Having first erected a snug hut for my men, with a good sleeping-loft above—which was very easily done by making the frame proportionately higher, and laying a floor of thinly-split logs neatly across the joists—I added a very good kitchen, with a fireplace almost as big as a small room behind, a storeroom, a bedroom for my children, with two pretty little four-pane windows looking on the river, a study with a long bench or desk, which served as a library, a workshop, a schoolroom, and spare bedroom by turns (this place had three little windows to it, was lined with shelves all round, stuffed full of old books), a small apartment for my nursemaid and youngest child, and a verandah with a porch in the centre, supported on four real Doric columns, formed of equal-sized barrels of trees set upright with flutes and other carving of bark as nature gave them. They were, though I say it myself, very pretty, and gave my cottage, with very little trouble, an unassuming, but comfortable, rural appearance. I lathed the whole, inside and out; and with the help of the sand and loam which I found at my door, mixed with chopped grass, I gave it two coats of plaster, that hardened and stuck, and sticks to this day, for aught I know, as well as any stucco. My two principal rooms were moreover nicely ceiled up to the rafters in the roof, giving them a lofty and arched appearance. They were 14ft. or 15ft. high in the centre, and the arching had this advantage, that it lessened the downward pressure, and saved it from falling, as I have known ceilings in houses of far higher pretensions often do—and especially at the most inopportune times, when the fumes of the dinner on the table informed the treacherous though blind mortar that the guests were assembled below. There was a very beautiful grass plat or lawn, of two or three acres in extent, a little to the right in front of my cottage, and elevated not more than two yards above the margin of the river. I took a great deal of pains with this little spot. I fenced it very carefully round, in connection with my garden and lawn that fronted my cottage, with good 6ft. paling on all sides, except towards the river, which of itself was a sufficient fence; besides that the opposite side overhung the stream, as I have said, with beautiful, basaltic, perpendicular rocks, with here and there a tuft of flowering shrubs growing out from the crevices. A long straight path, of four yards in width, stretched from end to end, on the borders of which grew several English flowers, from seeds I had brought with me, intermixed with indigenous ones collected from the bush.”

But the settler’s life was not a bed of roses. Bushrangers and blacks swarmed about him, and the immigrant was often shot dead on the threshold of that home which he had but just snatched from the wilderness. Yet, if the blacks were well treated, they were not invariably treacherous. Ross says, having began with kindness, he found that good feeling continued; and that confidence once inspired, the natives behaved with civility. “They never once committed the smallest trespass or annoyance on my farm, and during the five or six years that elapsed between their final removal by Mr. G. A. Robinson to Flinders Island, and the time of my own removal with my own family to Hobart Town, while the most dreadful outrages were committed by them all round, they never once attacked my farm, or any one belonging to it.”

But the bushrangers were of a different nature. John Cook, Ross’s assigned servant, is a good example of the class. This fellow was surly, drunken, and obstructive, and after enduring his ill-humours for some time, poor Ross returned him to the hands of the Government. Three days after he was with his new employer he absconded, and was strongly suspected of being concerned in a murder and robbery perpetrated in the neighbourhood. Some weeks after this Ross missed a gun, ammunition, and an iron pot from his hut; and two days afterwards, on visiting his shepherd’s, saw Cook, armed with the stolen weapon, sneak out of the back door. Ten days afterwards, a party of the 48th, who were out “bushranger hunting,” caught sight of him, and then he disappeared. “I never more heard of him alive,” says Ross; “but about a year after, a skeleton, which some articles of dress, especially the kangaroo jacket, with the iron pot and tin pot he had stolen from me, identified as the remains of poor Cook, and a gun-shot entering under his left blade bone showed clearly how he met his death. The gun and shot-belt were taken away, and his miserable bones had been picked bare by the wretched crows, the self-same, I doubt not, whose foreboding croaking had been so untimely disregarded both by him and me in the gum-trees, while we lay beside our swamped cart before dawn on the banks of the Fat Doe river. I learned from very good though confidential authority some time after, that this poor misguided man having on one or two occasions for a small reward aided and assisted a sheep-stealer who possessed some pasture land between the Shannon and the Clyde, and was acquainted with his delinquencies, had subsequently shown some little symptoms of disapprobation of a small sheep robbery committed by the same individual, being a neighbour, on my own flock, and in consequence a schism or quarrel ensued. The sheep-stealer then became uneasy from the fear of Cook on some future occasion coming forward or being called on, should detection and a trial ensue, to give evidence against him. He and another associate had resolved, as they had already ‘put aside,’ as it is colonially called, one poor man similarly circumstanced as to a knowledge of their doings, to join him once more in the bush under a cloak of friendship, and by sending him unawares and unprepared out of the world, to deprive him of all power to give evidence against them in a witness-box.”

The “name and fame” of Cook continued, however, for several years afterwards, and existed in 1836 in the “Runaway List,” published in Hobart Town and Bow-street.

Apropos of the death of Cook, Ross tells a story of the untimely end of a friend of his, which, as an illustration of the “manners of the age,” is curious enough. Riding over one day to this man’s house, the doctor was surprised to find him “salting down the carcases of six sheep, which he had just killed. He said it was a very convenient plan, as it saved time, and obviated the necessity of bringing home the flock, to kill one every second day for the use of the family. Besides, he added, the six sheep’s heads and plucks served his people for more than a day, as, though they would throw away one head or give it to the dogs, they could not have the face to waste a whole half-dozen at a time. I was simple and unsuspecting enough to believe there was some convenience in his plan, though it was not great enough to induce me ever to adopt it. The same individual, however, was afterwards tried for stealing a whole flock of about 400 sheep, convicted, and executed with several other bad characters and bushrangers at Hobart Town. I stood at the bottom of the ladder as he mounted to the seaffold. He had his arms pinioned behind his back, and after stooping his head to suck a Sydney orange, which he was unable otherwise to reach to his mouth, he placed it by a rose which he held in his other hand, and shaking hands with me, he wished me farewell, saying, as he looked in my face with a most altered countenance, which I shall never forget, ‘Oh, sir! this is the happiest day I ever had in my life. ’”

Amid such scenes did the first ten years of our “pioneer’s” settlement pass. Each day, however, brought an increase of civilisation, and, says happy Ross, “I now saw my way fair before me. My flocks and herds were rapidly increasing; I could readily sell the former at a pound a head, and the latter from £8 to £10. Every day was adding something to the value of my estate, and the efforts which the Government was making to put down the aggressions of both the black and white invaders of life and property, although yet abortive, I looked forward with every hope to be at last, as they have since proved, triumphantly successful.”

1.    The verandah of the Hall of Commerce, the Melbourne Stock Exchange.    [back]

2.    Compare this account with that given by Worrall.     [back]

Old Tales of a Young Country - Contents

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