In the beginning
Of the future prospects and destiny of the colony… the industry and perseverance of the colonists will enable them to triumph over the difficulties of the first settlement.1
-Lt Governor Sorell
Tallow candles and lanterns cast their yellow light into the room, providing considerable more illumination than the open fire in the hearth. Every movement in the room is amplified by the weak shadows cast against the walls, and there is considerable movement in the room as rough men drink crude rum and ale. Their clothing is drab, functional more than decorous, though efficient at keeping the winters chill outside at bay they are not.
The noise reflects the background of the men, their voices as varied as their origins, but all crude and vulgar as befits their station in life. Cockney and Irish, West End and Scots, their tongues and their fists loosened by the alcohol they have imbibed. Fights are not uncommon, and the drunkards are accustomed to them. It is an age of violence, a time where the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is a yawning chasm, not easily spanned. Though everyone in the room is from the British Isles, they are no longer in the country that nurtured them, badly perhaps, but that far off land is still referred to as ‘home’. They are half a world away, most of them not here by choice or desire, and right now most of them wished they weren’t.
In this rough sly grog shop, an unlicensed den of iniquity called the Black Snake Inn, in an area later to be known as Granton, near Hobart, the patrons, those who by choice or accident happened to be on the bottom end of the social scale could perhaps not realise the fate that awaited them and their young colony of Van Diemen’s Land.
Removed as they were from all things familiar, in a strange land populated by strange creatures, with very few of the ‘necessities’ they’d taken for granted in the over populated slums of their former home, not many of those in the Inn would ever dream this country would not only be home to their descendants, but become a paradise in a world that would change beyond their beliefs.
For even now there were people undertaking the long and arduous sea voyage to the Antipodes, and doing so voluntarily.
To the men in the Inn this place, Van Diemen’s Land, was a prison. They were isolated not by bars or balls and chains, as many of them had previously been, but isolated by distance. The poor and teeming cities of England held little promise for them, but at least they were familiar territory.
But to many, those who had the foresight and courage to admit that there was a better place waiting for them ‘somewhere out there’, the far off colonies represented a challenge and opportunity, a chance at a better life.
If any of those in the Inn could read, this simple article in the Hobart Town Gazette on May 10, 1823, would have caught their attention:
SHIP NEWS:-- On Sunday la∫t arrived from the Cape of Good Hope, the Brig Thalia, Capt. Shout, with wine and hor∫es. --Pa∫∫engers, J.B. Bridekirk, and Mrs. Bridger and family.
Arrived on Wedne∫day the ∫hip Andromeda...
The article went on to describe the various arrivals and departures of the ships into and out of Hobart Town, their passengers and cargoes, and more importantly, news from ‘Home’.
But it in was that article that the colony of Van Diemen’s Land learned of the arrival of a most extraordinary woman, Ann Bridger, who would within a year be the proprietor of the Black Snake Inn, and a year later be destined to play a major role in the lives of so many people in the young town of New Norfolk, and in the development of the town itself.
Ann Bridger, a widow2, bought with her from England her son, Henry, and two daughters, £500 ($1,000) in cash and £200 ($400) in ‘various merchandise for investing in agricultural pursuits’3, and a desire to succeed.
One of the first people she befriended in this strange, new land, was the Reverend Robert (Bobby) Knopwood. Knopwood was one of the more influential people in the colony at the time. Apart from being the Governments official Chaplain, he was a magistrate, diarist, and wrote various articles that appeared in the Hobart Town Gazette of the day.
The third child of Robert and Elizabeth Knopwood of Threxton, Norfolk, England, Knopwood was ordained deacon at Norwich in December of 1788. He was appointed chaplain on the H.M.S. Resolution in 1801 after facing debts so severe at home that he was forced to sell his inheritance of the family estate of Threxton. His financial problems, though, were far from over. Serving in the West Indies before joining the Collins expedition to Port Phillip, he conducted the first religious service in Victoria in October 1803, and the first in Van Diemen’s Land at Hobart Town in February 1804.4
Even after receiving land grants of eventually one thousand acres [405 ha] at Clarence Plains [Rokeby], and land on the South Esk River, his financial ineptitude had forced him to accept an offer of £2,000 ($4,000) on his Cottage Green property. Though the deal fell through, an example of his monetary mismanagement was that the property was eventually sold- in 1824 and for only £800 ($1,600).
Knopwoods territory was ‘huge’ for the times, and it all had to be covered on horseback, from Hobart Town to New Norfolk and west, and north as far as Port Dalrymple until 1819. To assist him he had been granted the services of a convict, one David W Bush, as a clerk.
Knopwood, variously described as “an elderly parson in a straight-cut single breasted coat with an upright collar, a clergyman of the old school, remarkably mild and placid counterance, manner easy and gentlemanly in the extreme, conversation lively and agreeable- a choice spirit”, or, “a rum drinking, food loving, womanising, snobbish eccentric...5” was apparently not concerned at the severity of sentences he imposed on those appearing before him. Many of the men in the Black Snake Inn would have known him, and wished they hadn’t.
It appears Knopwood first met the Bridger family through one of her daughters, on Sunday the twenty-second of July, 1823. She, along with Elizabeth (Betsy) Mack, his adopted daughter, Mr Rowecroft and Captain Tayler, dined with Knopwood at the home of Mrs Lord6, all prominent families in the early history of Tasmania.
Life mask [of] the Rev. Robert Knopwood
M.A., 1st Chaplain to Van Diemen's Land
1803, front view
Location : W.L. Crowther Library
Creator : Unknown
‘Miss Bridger’ as Knopwood simply referred to her in his diary, soon became close friends with Betsy Mack. The Bridgers were staying with Mrs Lord at the time, and often Betsy stayed there with them, sharing the Bridgers room. This friendship seems to have cemented when, a week later, Betsy was taken ill. As Knopwood describes in his diary entry on Sunday the 29th of July:-
...when at dinner I was sent for to by Mrs. Lords. E. Mack taken very ill... Dr. Landen was sent for. I stayed with her till 12 o’clock.
Betsy stayed at the Lords with the Bridgers until Saturday July 12, when acting on the advise of Dr Scott, she was returned to Knopwoods home at Cottage Green. “I went and got [a] chaise and... drove her home. She was very weak. Her return was so sudden I could not procure a nurse. I set up with her chief of the night.”
Miss Bridgers and her mother were regular callers on Betsy, as were the Lieutenant Governor and Mrs Sorell, and it seemed, most of the residents of Hobart Town. “Many ladies and gents called on Betsy” was a phrase oft repeated in Knopwoods diary throughout the month of July in that year.
Most of the callers were well used to Knopwoods hospitality, he himself was often entertained and was entertained by most classes from the Lieutenant Governor down.
It didn’t take long before Anne Bridger had entered into a business in her adopted homeland, as the proprietor of the Black Snake Inn at Granton. The inn had a reputation as being ‘a shady thieves’ kitchen’7, but before long Bridgers had transformed the inn to a respectable Public House. It was known as the ‘halfway house’ to those who journeyed to New Norfolk. New Norfolk was many hours on horseback from Hobart Town, and most travellers stopped there to dine and refresh themselves, or in winter to warm themselves. Knopwood himself was a regular caller on his many trips to New Norfolk, where he acted both as Reverend and Magistrate. From descriptions of him at the time as to his frequent indisposition ascribed to intemperance, and the evidence of his liquor bills8, it was perhaps no coincidence that he was a regular caller there.
At the time traffic on the 24 mile [39 km] road to New Norfolk9 was varied, from Ticket O’ Leave men and servants to the Lieutenant Governor. Collins commuted at times weekly to the town to Turriff Lodge. Turriff Lodge was commenced in 1815 as a government cottage, and was used by Governors’ Sorell and Davey as a ‘retreat from the pressures of office’. New Norfolk was one of the fastest growing areas of the Colony, and an astute business woman like Mrs Bridger would have looked upon that as a potential opportunity for making money. This opportunity was realised when she decided to move her business and family there in 1825, to build the hotel still bearing the name of the Bush Inn, Australia’s oldest continually licensed hotel.10
But what was New Norfolk in the early 1820’s, and what was the state of the Colony of Van Diemen’s Land, and how had it come to be that way?
View from New Norfolk
Bowring, Emily Stuart, 1835-ca. 1912.
New Norfolk from the other side of the Derwent
Mary Morton, 1806-1895.
Original material © November 2000 KM Roberts