Tasmania11 and New Norfolk


“Melbourne was quite a big place, almost as big as New Norfolk.”

-Mr D Lewis, 1838



Tasmania in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was largely uninhabited and unexplored.  Though now named after the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, who sighted this land in 1642, Tasmania was proclaimed for Holland as Van Diemen’s Land.  

Although it is the largest of Australia’s islands, now a state in its own right, it was first thought to be part of the same continent (New Holland) where Captain Cook and his crew of the Endeavour  made the discoveries that would lead to the founding of the Colony of New South Wales some years later.

During that time explorers from the northern hemisphere visited both Tasmania and the mainland, and although they found fresh water, excellent stands of timber and fertile land, it was not until the early 1800’s that the first attempt at settlement was made.  French exploration was causing anxiety in 1802 in both New South Wales, (Sydney was only 14 years old then), and in London.  Governor Phillip Gidley King in Sydney, acting on orders from Lord Hobart in London, was directed to establish military and convict posts on the south-eastern shores of Van Diemen’s Land.  The following year, 1803, Lieutenant John Bowen sailed from Port Jackson with the intent of forestalling the French, who were interested in the colonisation of these lands.

Establishing a station at Risdon Cove, on the eastern shore of the River Derwent, he claimed all the land from there to Sydney in the name of the Crown.

The site Bowen chose for his colony had several problems, including poor access for shipping and problems with a constant supply of fresh water.

Lt Colonel David Collins, sent by Hobart himself, spent time on the south coast of Australia, at Port Phillip.  Although the Yarra River was known to him he did not use it as a superior site to the sandy area of Port Phillip, nor did he make any effort to explore the fertile Victorian countryside.  After complaining bitterly of his appointment, he was sent to Van Diemen’s Land as Lieutenant Governor. 

He established a settlement on the other side of the Derwent River and downstream from Risdon Cove, under the shadow of the imposing Mount Wellington.  This he called Hobart Town, the name it would remain until 1881 when the “Town” was dropped and it simply became Hobart.  Less than six miles (eight km) away, Bowen still served as  Governor of the Risdon Creek, meaning that with Colonel Paterson at Port Dalrymple in the north, there were three Lieutenant Governors in the Colony.  After several months this was redressed, with Collins replacing Bowen and the abandonment of Risdon as the seat of Government.

In those early years the settlers faced great hardships.  Military men and convicts alike lived on the verge of starvation, there were no farmers, and supplies still came mainly from England if they came at all, there being no locally grown flour, mutton or beef.  Were it not for an abundance of wallaby, and black swan and duck it is doubtful the Europeans would have survived in this new land.

With the establishment of Hobart Town on the Derwent Estuary, it was inevitable that the river would be explored to ascertain its source and its navigability.  The river provided a ready made ‘highway’ to the interior, free of the dense bush the covered the hills and mountain sides on its banks, and for a colony who’s lifeline to ‘civilisation’ was the ship, the river had special appeal.

But unlike the northern colony of New South Wales, there were very few free settlers in Van Diemen’s Land at this stage.  It was, and would remain for many decades, a prison colony first and foremost.  With the overwhelming majority of colony either convicts, soldiers guarding them or public servants administering the soldiers, the task of explorers was taken on by officers, usually high ranking ones at that, and by those prisoners who had escaped the custody of His Majesty.

Following in the footsteps of Joseph Holt, an Irish exile who had journeyed into the Derwent Valley the year before, one such ‘explorer’ who travelled inland along the Derwent  in January of 1806 was Lieutenant Governor Collins himself.  No doubt that Holts description, “I sat down... and saw some of the finest country eyes ever beheld.12” had among others things aroused his curiosity.  In the beginning of April, Collins, accompanied by three of his Officers, made their way up the River by boat to the site of the first rapid, approximately one mile [1.5 km] north of where New Norfolk today lies.  They camped the night where they landed, and set off early the following morning.  Their plan was to walk until noon, taking the direction of the River but not exactly following its windings.  This they did.  In the course of their walk they “...crossed over some very fine open Country...”, and had, “...where we halted, an uninterrupted view before us some extensive plains, stretching far into the Interior...”.  These were the Macquarie Plains.  From here they “...saw some very distant Mountains, or high Land, which in the Winter Season are covered with Snow, and which we supposed to be those named by Governor Paterson the Rothesay Mountains.”  The Rothesay Mountains are known now as the Asbestos Ranges, and lay on the western side of Port Dalrymple.  They would have been impossible to see from where he reported being.  The ranges he probably saw were a part of the Great Western Tiers.  On his return down the river, they “...passed a few hours in a cursory Examination of Herdsman’s Plains, where there is a considerable Quantity of Land, admirably adapted for Grazing and Agricultural Farms...”13

With recommendations like this as to the quality of the country, and with the added benefits of proximity, the area described was less than 30 miles [50 km] from Hobart Town, and with relatively easy access by river, it was a natural decision that when the experienced farmers arrived from Norfolk Island this was one of the places they would be given grants of land to establish their farms.

This came about as the  small settlement of free farmers and convicts established by Governor Phillip of New South Wales on Norfolk Island was experiencing difficulties.  Norfolk Island, named by Cook  “...in honour of the noble family of Howard [the Duke of Norfolk]”, was ringed by imposing cliffs with only two landing sites on its eastern coast, and both of those accessible only in fine weather.  All goods entering or leaving the island had to be transferred from ship to shore via longboats, often the loading and unloading taking place in heavy swells.  The cost was high.  Though its soil was fertile, the crops attempted there were ravished by disease and insects, and it was decided the inhabitants of this small island, settlers and convicts alike, should be transferred to Van Diemen’s Land.  This General Order was issued by J Foveaux on Norfolk Island, May 8, 1804:  


“...And His Lordship having expressed a Wish  that this measure should be carried into effect with as little  delay as possible, The Lieut. Governor, therefore, being desirous that the Settlers so disposed to remove should have the earliest information, and that they should clearly understand the Terms upon which such Removal will take place, had judged it expedient to point out His Lordships instructions thereon.

His Lordship directs that every Facility and Accommodation should be granted the Settlers in the Embarkation and Transport of their live and dead Stock at Public Expense, such part of the former, as it may be necessary for the Settlers to leave on the Island, shall be paid for at a fair valuation, in Money, or in such Articles of Cloathing, etca., as the Public Stores of New South Wales may contain ; and, with respect to the Lands  which the Settlers may vacate, upon a regular Surrender of them to Government, the Parties will become entitles to Grants at the New Settlement... in the proportion of Four acres [1.62ha] for every acre [0.405ha] they may have brought under cultivation at Norfolk Island, and of Two acres [0.810ha] for every acre of Waste Land ; And further, that the Persons so removing shall be entitled to Rations for themselves, and for each individual in their respective families, during the Term of Twelve months after their arrival in any of the Settlements, during which time they will severally be allowed the Labour of two Convicts, and be otherwise assisted in every respect as new Settlers are accustomed to be assisted...14


By the end of 1808 the arrival of 554 Norfolk Islanders had doubled the population of the Colony, with many of these receiving land grants in the area they called “New” Norfolk.  With a reliable rainfall, rich soil and hard work, they established the area, growing livestock and crops.  

Though the process of beginning anew was not an easy one, it wasn’t long until the country began to be transformed from virgin bush to productive farmland.

As Lieutenant Governor Collins reported to Viscount Castlereagh in a dispatch dated May 10, 180915:


In continuation of my former Reports to your Lordship on the subject of Evacuation of Norfolk Island, I have the Honour to acquaint you that early in the Month of October last, a Ship, the City of Edinburgh... arrived here, having on board the greater part of the remaining Settlers and Inhabitants from that Settlement...

Of the Settlers, there are but very few who are not at this Moment occupied in the Cultivation of their new Farms, and erecting Habitations of some kind for their Families...


Apparently not all those transferred from Norfolk Island were happy, though, as Collins went on to say he  had “...neither the Mechanics, Artificers, nor Labourers” to grant more than a “trifling Assistance” to them.  Most of the convicts in Van Diemen’s Land arrived 1803, now six years ago, and with the time previously spent in Port Jackson, their seven year sentence had expired.  They were now free, and Collins was  “compelled to hire several of them to work again for the Government, and being paid for their Labour”.  He concluded his dispatch with  “It must, however, be mentioned to their Credit, that the greater part of what is stated to be in Cultivation by the Norfolk Settlers is the Effect of their own personal Labour.”

The account finished with the following enclosure:


Time Received By what Conveyance Settlers and Free Persons Women Children Prisoners (Male) Total Nos Received
29-11-1807 P.H.M. Brig Lady Nelson 15  6 13 ..  34
 17- 1-1808 P.H.M. Ship Porpoise 56 39 76 11 182
 1-  3-1808 P.H.M. Brig Lady Nelson 25 12  11 2 50
7-  6-1808 H.M. Col Schr Estamina  23  13 24   2   62
2-10-1808 P. City of Edinburgh 83  39 96  8   226 


202 109 220 23  


In 1810, John Oxley  wrote:


New Norfolk... A considerable portion of the Norfolk [Island] Settlers have chosen to settle on the Upper part of the river;  their district is named New Norfolk and is represented as being a most delightful Country, the land contiguous to the Banks of the River being exceedingly fertile and not liable to flood ; extensive plains and rising Ground afford pasturage for any number of Cattle ; a number of small rivulets, intersecting the Country in every direction is an advantage the Country near the Sea Coast is deprived of ; the Main River, being navigable for Boats for a considerable distance, affords an easy communication with he principle Settlement [of Hobart].  These lands have not been settled for more than eighteen months, And appearances are so favourable as to Warrant the Expectation that with proper Care and Management a short Space of time will preclude the Necessity of further Importations of Grain.16


Though Oxley painted a rosy picture of the New Norfolk area, the Norfolk Island settlers were still arguing that the terms of their relocation had not been met in full, particularly in respect of the labour promised them.  This dispute was ongoing, and even in 1812 Lieutenant Governor Macquarie was still trying to resolve it.


...I must recommend to you in the Strongest manner to pay particular attention to the Distribution of  the Eighty Male Convicts now proceeding to the Derwent on board the [ship] Ruby.  You are to retain Twenty Men out of that number for the use of the Government, including Mechanics ; and you are to distribute the remaining Sixty Men amongst that Class of People called the Norfolk Island Settlers, in liquidation of their long standing Claims for Government Labourers.  In making this Distribution, the Strictest impartiality must be observed ; and... it will be impossible to liquidate the whole of the Claims of the Norfolk Island Settlers for Men...17


Also inevitable is that once an area becomes settled by farmers, others will follow, providing businesses and services any community requires.  And with these first entrepreneurs and community groups the Government is usually there too, often after these business have established themselves, sometimes before.  

Issuing instruction to James Meechan, the colonies  Surveyor  General, Macquarie said:18


You will mark out the new Township of Elizabeth Town  (named so by me when at the Derwent in November last) [after his wife] exactly on the same Ground I have already pointed out for it on the Right Bank of the River Derwent, opposite and adjoining to the District of New Norfolk ; laying the Scite of the Town exactly on the same Plan and Principle as that of George-Town with regard to the Centre Square, Streets... with the exception however of the few Allotments I have already promised to some few Individuals who have promised to come to reside there immediately...


In  1812 Governor  Macquarie directed:19


Having deemed it advisable, when lately at the Derwent and on my visit of Inspection to the District of New Norfolk, to examine and to mark out an eligible Situation for a Township I have named Elizabeth Town , I have to direct that every facility and encouragement in your power to Sober, industrious Tradesmen, and useful Mechanics to go to reside and Settle there, as soon as the Township has been subdivided into regular Allotments by the Surveyor.


Along with Turriff Lodge and John Terrys (flour) Mill, sited where the Lachlan and the Derwent Rivers met (now the Oast House and Tynwald), one of the first permanent buildings erected, high on the banks of the river and overlooking its verdant valley, was the public house known as the “Bush Inn”.



At the time of its construction, the colonys Licensing Laws were changing (again), and this time not for the better.  At the time Van Diemen’s Land was just twenty years old, but it had already had its share of problems with sly grog shops, spirits and smugglers.


Original material © November 2000 KM Roberts