Welcome back Len Langan! He’s written this terrific article about George Town, a town in northern Tasmania we’ve only managed to visit briefly on one occasion. Since reading Len’s article, it’s a place we’d love to explore again in more detail. We hope you feel the same. Many thanks to Dan Fellow and Carol Haberle, who are responsible for the photos of George Town and nearby Low Head in this article.
George Town: History
by Len Langan
In November in the year 1804, but a few months before Nelson’s great and last victory at Trafalgar, four ships braved high seas to make safe harbour in Outer Cove at the mouth of the Tamar River in northern Van Diemen’s Land. Here they were to establish a new settlement as a declared British Territory to keep other contenders, particularly the French, away. One hundred and eighty one souls violently tossed about, perhaps in fourteen foot seas, in the vessels Buffalo, Integrity, Francis and the brave little Lady Nelson. The latter nicknamed by some unkind and unappreciative nautical characters as “HMS Tinderbox.” Sadly those on board the Francis and the Lady Nelson missed the formalities customary on the settlement of a new territory held on 11th of November because they were delayed by the weather and did not make anchorage until the 21st of the month.
The newly appointed Lieutenant Governor, William Paterson, was a genial and honest man although inclined to drink too much. He had fought a duel with the arrogant mentally unbalanced Macarthur in which he was wounded sending Macarthur to England under arrest. Many years later after the Rum Rebellion William Bligh’s replacement Lachlan Macquarie describe Paterson as “such an easy, good natured, thoughtless man.” History has not been kind to him but he took a lively and genuine interest in botany and did not lack courage although perhaps fortified by a good bottle or two.
Paterson at first set his preference on the site of the now almost forgotten York Town feeling that it was a better defensive position than Outer Cove but somehow in an inexplicable twist of fortune Outer Cove was to play an important role in the early settlement of northern Van Diemen’s Land.
In December 1811 Governor in Chief Lachlan Macquarie visited Outer Cove and decided that it should be called George Town in honour of King George III (1760-1820). Macquarie loved naming places and when not expressing his loyalty to his king, members of his family and some of his friends were high on the list of those chosen by this curiously foreseeing administrator. Macquarie might have been a renaissance prince in an earlier incarnation or in a later age a dynamic town planner.
Certainly he was vain, sensitive about his own dignity and sometimes petty but, he was gifted with great foresight and he earned the title engraved on his last resting place on the Isle of Mull “Father of Australia”. He was aware of a fact that now seems so obvious, that Australia could not always be frozen as a convict colony. The Emancipists having served their time would become free men, their offspring would be born free and that free settlers would arrive and stay in this new land of hope and great promise. His liberal vision made him many enemies from the established bastions of self interest. The prevailing justice system did not easily encompass forgiveness or even compassion. Even members of the clergy given the dignity and authority of appointed magistrates handed out punishments that did not reflect their faith in an ever loving and forgiving Creator.
The mouth of The Tamar was first charted by Flinders and Bass in 1798 but the new settlement was not blessed with immediate success in 1804. Paterson a seasoned explorer soon found his way to the present site of Launceston that might have been known for ever as “Patersonia” and took a keen observation of the excellent land watered by the north and south Esk rivers. He wanted to move his headquarters to this promising location but the authorities too often guilty of not listening to the voices at the coal face, refused to authorise his plea.
Macquarie did not of course, get his way and the streets of George Town were not laid out to his revised plan until 1816. Sadly many of the original buildings have disappeared with the passage of time into the mists of history but the town can claim to be the oldest town in Australia; because the other older settlement towns have become cities.
The legendary John Thomas Bigge eventually sealed the fate of George Town and the seat of northern government moved to Launceston in 1824. Yet even his pompous ramblings could not deter the determination of the settled souls of the old town and it now holds a loved place in our Island State.
In 1835 the town held almost a thousand convicts although it is true to say that it had poorly defined boundaries running down both sides of the Tamar and out to the east coast. The terrain was glorious but demanding and Paterson lent all of his skills and knowledge as a botanist to ensure a viable future for it in both livestock and plantations. He introduced white clover and our dairy industry should acknowledge him for the rewarding thought.
The town should have a statue honouring William Paterson perhaps standing at a table containing a bottle or two and an image of his loving and supportive wife that “good, cosy Scottish lass, and fit for a soldier’s wife”. At William’s death on his way back to England in 1810, she found herself denied a pension and destined for a second short marriage from March to May in 1814.
George Town: Tourism
George Town’s House Museum in Macquarie Street offers a fascinating insight into the growth and history of the township. It is housed in the old lock-up for both male and female offenders offering a scale model of the original village built by volunteers and proudly exhibited by the George Town & District Historical Society.
A visit to George Town should not be rushed and a short way from the town centre to look at the glorious Georgian elegance of “The Grove” almost certainly built by Lieutenant Matthew Curling Friend in the early 1830’s, and later occupied by The Reverend John and Mrs Susan Feredaye celebrated botanists and gifted artists to whom modern society remains indebted. It is now a private home although it offers accommodation, so please view it respectfully as an eye delighting example of 19th century architectural elegance.
At nearby Low Head a manned Pilot Station was established in 1805 and although the original “black towers” have all but disappeared the light houses and many original buildings whisk one back on fine threads of the human imagination to the days of sail and the early steam ships. It is not hard to imagine the relief that the sight of the lights brought to the hearts of many travellers in the hope of a safe arrival by God’s grace. On this treacherous coast James & Eliza Cox of Clarendon lost their six month old baby Georgina in the wreck of the ship “Portland”. They lived here at Marion Villa, at Low Head and at Launceston during the building of their great house at Clarendon and used Marion Villa as a holiday house for many years. Georgina’s sad little grave can still be found in the towns burial ground. The present light houses were erected in 1881.
Locals and tourists alike will bring away lasting memories of their visit to George Town, and the surrounding district regardless of the industrial sites will grant them some glorious scenery. It is an area rich in history worthy of a place on your “day out” list offering good food and a friendly welcome.
Len Langan lives in Longford with his wife Jill. They are both passionate about Tasmanian heritage and tourism and things that can be done in this industry. Len writes about Tasmanian history for both The Courier in Longford and the magazine Sagacity, and works with Virtuosi taking music to rural areas.
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