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A 27-year itch: Ron Smith finally tramps the Overland Track in 1940

In May 1914 Ron Smith’s former Forth mate Ted Adams invited him to go hiking at Lake St Clair. Smith, who would be one of the major figures in the establishment of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, could not make the appointed time.[1] He had business to attend to at Cradle Valley, but perhaps when that was done a cross-country short-cut would bring them together. ‘I thought … I could go overland to Lake St Clair to meet you there’, he told Adams.[2] It was perhaps in that instant that Ron Smith conceived the idea of the Overland Track between Cradle Valley and Lake St Clair. Ironically, it would take him another 27 years to walk it.

 

The opportunity finally came in late December 1940. Now fifty-nine years old and an invalid pensioner as the result of World War I service, Smith was also the secretary of the Cradle Mountain Reserve Board, a land owner at Cradle Mountain and the major documenter of the area’s European history, flora and fauna. The Overland Track, the southern section of which was roughly marked by Bert Nichols in 1931, had only become suitable for independent travellers in 1935–36 after additional track and hut work by Nichols, Lionel Connell and his sons.[3] Few people had then taken up the challenge of tramping a track that now attracts about 10,000 per year from all over the world.

 

Ron’s early trips from his home at Forth to Cradle Mountain were accomplished on bicycle and on foot, with stopovers at Middlesex Station, but in 1940 he was able to drive from his new home at Launceston to Waldheim Chalet, Cradle Valley, in less than five hours. From 1925 to 1936 the Smiths had had their own house at Cradle Valley, and they would have one again, Mount Kate house, from 1947.[4] However, in 1940 they were content to stay in the late Gustav Weindorfer’s Waldheim Chalet, then managed by Lionel and Maggie Connell. In fact it was almost a second home for the Smith family, since Ron’s oldest son, whom he called Ronny, and Kitty Connell, daughter of Lionel and Maggie, were courting. And yet, despite the stringencies imposed by the war raging in in Europe, people continued to enjoy the major holiday period of the year. On Christmas Day 1940 Waldheim was bursting at the seams with hikers, 50 guests in all. What a peaceful Christmas for head chef Maggie Connell! Ron slept on a sofa in the dining room, his sixteen-year-old son Charlie on the floor of the same room.

 

Ron Smith was always a formidable record keeper, and in his diary he recorded with typical precision that he and Charlie were on their way at 7.38 next morning, each of their knapsacks weighing 40 lbs (18 kg). After regular bouts of illness, Ron possibly doubted his own endurance. Two fit young men, Wally Connell and Ronny Smith, carried those heavy packs up to Kitchen Hut, sparing the hikers the full rigours of the tough climb up the Horse Track. After breakfast, Ron and Charlie continued alone, being passed by a party of five women who had started from Waldheim after them. Kitchen Hut was then only a three-sided shelter. There was no proper hut between Waldheim and Lake Windermere, making day one of an Overland Track trip a long and potentially dangerous one. Ron and Charlie reached Waterfall Valley before meeting their first fellow hikers—two young Sydney men—walking in the opposite direction (from Lake St Clair to Cradle Mountain, now prohibited).

The old miners' hut at Lake Windermere, 27 December 1940. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
The old miners’ hut at Lake Windermere, 27 December 1940. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
A Fred Smithies shot showing the rest of the old Windermere Hut, taken during an Overland Track tramp. Courtesy of Margaret Carrington.
A Fred Smithies shot showing the rest of the old Windermere Hut, taken during an Overland Track tramp. Courtesy of Margaret Carrington.

Father and son reached the Connells’ new Windermere Hut at 4.23 pm, nearly nine hours after setting out from Waldheim. The party of five women camped outside, leaving the hut to the men—and two grey possums, which entered, in what became Windermere tradition, via the chimney in their quest for food. Next morning, Ron and Charlie visited the c1901 Windermere miners’ hut, now in ‘great disrepair; the chimney fallen down and the roof very leaky’. Ron had reached the old hut with Gustav Weindorfer in 1911 and 1914; it was the furthest south he had so far travelled on the route of what became the Overland Track.[5]

 

Day two, from Windermere along the watershed of the Forth and the Pieman, then around the Forth Gorge and through to Pelion Plain, was another tiring one. They boiled the billy for lunch on the edge of the forest at Pine Forest Moor, with the dolerite ‘organ pipes’ of Mount Pelion West looming large ahead of them. At New Pelion Hut they re-joined the party of five women, greeted a married couple called Calver who arrived from Lake St Clair, plus four Victorian men who were returning to Waldheim after climbing Mount Ossa. There were ten in the Connells’ new hut, which had two rooms so that men and women could be separated. For Ron every new meeting was noteworthy. Names and sometimes addresses were exchanged, and it was a chance to chat and learn. The leisurely experience was far removed from that of more recent times, when the two-way traffic could make the Overland Track feel rather like a scenic Hume Highway.

New Pelion Hut, 28 December 1940, Charles Smith in the foreground. Ron Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith.
Flourishes of Federation Queen Anne and Arts and Crafts architecture in the Connells’ King Billy pine shingle New Pelion Hut, 28 December 1940, Charles Smith in the foreground. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.

With rain threatening, the Smiths decided to spend a day close to shelter at Pelion. Ron had now ventured further south than his departed friend, Gustav Weindorfer, who had taken the census at the Pelion copper mine and climbed Mount Pelion West in April 1921.[6] The mine manager’s hut (Old Pelion) and the workers’ hut from that period were both in good repair. Leaving these huts, Ron and Charlie crossed Douglas Creek and followed the southern edge of Lake Ayr until they met the Mole Creek (Innes) Track near the rock cairns and poles marking the then Cradle Mountain Reserve’s eastern boundary.

Tommy McCoy's hunting hut near Lake Ayr. Photo courtesy of the McCoy family.
Tommy McCoy’s hunting hut near Lake Ayr. Photo courtesy of the McCoy family.
McCoy's hut as it looked in 1951, with Mount Oakleigh and Lake Ayr for a backdrop. Photo courtesy of the McCoy family.
McCoy’s hut as it looked in 1951, with Mount Oakleigh and Lake Ayr for a backdrop. Photo courtesy of the McCoy family.

The reserve had been a bird and animal sanctuary since 1927. Yet, cheekily poised about 250 metres beyond the boundary, Tommy McCoy’s new hardwood paling hunting hut made his intentions clear. Hobart hikers would become conservation activists, puncturing McCoy’s food tins with a geological pick, when they came across his hut in 1948.[7] However, the Cradle Mountain Reserve Board secretary, a former possum shooter and a man of a different ilk, was much more respectful, leaving payment of threepence for a candle he removed from McCoy’s camp. Ron and Charlie also inspected the old post-and-rail stockyard near the western end of Lake Ayr on their way back to New Pelion. On their second night at Pelion propriety was dispensed with, as the Smiths and Calvers shared a room, leaving the other room for newcomers.

An unsympathetically cropped image of Du Cane Hut, 29 December 1940, with Cathedral Mountain omitted but Charles Smith in the foreground. Ron Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith.
An unsympathetically cropped image of the two-room Du Cane Hut, 29 December 1940, with Cathedral Mountain omitted but Charles Smith in the foreground. Ron Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith.
An earlier Ray McClinton or Fred Smithies shot of the original one-room Du Cane, taking full advantage of the view of Cathedral Mountain.
An earlier Ray McClinton or Fred Smithies shot of the original one-room Du Cane, taking full advantage of the view of Cathedral Mountain.

The party of five women motored past the Smiths on the climb up to Pelion Gap next day, marching right through to Narcissus Hut, a distance of about 27 km in a day. Ron and Charlie took a leisurely pace, visiting Kia Ora Falls and camping at Du Cane Hut (Windsor Castle or Cathedral Farm), Paddy Hartnett’s old haunt, which had been converted to a two-room building in keeping with New Pelion. Reflecting, perhaps, his reduced stamina, Ron elected to wait on the main track while Charlie viewed Hartnett Falls. The pair also made a diversion to Nichols Hut, the walkers’ hut Bert Nichols had erected beside his old hunting hut. For a man who in his younger days rarely left a bush setting or bush person unsnapped, Ron Smith was relatively parsimonious with his photos on this trip, neglecting these buildings, McCoy’s hut and the old Mount Pelion Mines NL huts. He appears to have been ignorant of the other hunters’ huts located near the track between Pelion Plain and Narcissus River.

 

Ron and Charlie were accompanied most of the way from Pelion to Narcissus Hut by the Robinsons, a Sydney couple they had first met at Waldheim. Crossing the suspension bridge over the Narcissus River, Mrs Robinson’s hat landed in the drink and disappeared, despite a group rescue effort. Narcissus Hut, the staging post for the motorboat trip down Lake St Clair, as it is today, replicated the situation at Waldheim, being full to the brim and beyond, with numerous tents being pitched outside. Among the hikers were the economist and statistician, Lyndhurst Giblin, and HR Hutchinson, Chairman of the National Park Board, the subsidiary of the Scenery Preservation Board which oversaw the Lake St Clair Reserve. Indeed, it must have seemed like the veritable busman’s holiday when the Cradle Mountain Reserve Board secretary met the Lake St Clair Reserve Board chairman on the Overland Track that united their realms.

Bert Fergusson's motorboat loading at Narcissus Landing, 31 December 1940. Seventeen to board, including the party of five women, and a tentative Charles Smith (fourth from right). Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
Bert Fergusson’s motorboat loading at Narcissus Landing, 31 December 1940. Seventeen to board, including the party of five women, and a tentative Charles Smith (fourth from right). Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.

The trip was concluded in six days. It took 1 hour 45 minutes to traverse Lake St Clair in the famous Bert ‘Fergy’ Fergusson motorboat on New Year’s Eve, 1940. This seems extraordinarily slow progress—didn’t Paddy Hartnett row the lake faster than that 30 years earlier, against the wind?— until you realise how overloaded Fergy’s vessel was! Seventeen people were crammed aboard what was certainly not Miss Velocity. Ron and Charlie slept in Hut Twelve of Fergy’s tourist camp at Cynthia Bay, where a housekeeper, Mrs Payne, was also employed. From here Fergy operated a free ‘bus’ service (Jessie Luckman called it a ‘frightful old half bus’ sporting sawn-off kitchen chairs with basket-work seats) to Derwent Bridge, where the departing tourist joined one of Grey’s buses. The Lake St Clair tourist infrastructure of 76 years ago was surprisingly well organised. Charlie having departed with family members, Ron stayed on a day more and caught a bus back to Launceston via Rainbow Chalet at Great Lake and Deloraine, using a short stopover in that town to submit a butcher’s order for Fergy. All this recreational transport at a time when petrol was rationed for the war effort!

 

On 3 January 1941 Ron Smith rested at home, having at last completed the journey contemplated 27 years earlier. Perhaps the experience strengthened his belief in the need for a motor road from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair, thereby conferring universal reserve access.[8] Age may not have wearied him, but maybe at that moment his swollen right foot felt more comfortable on an accelerator than in a heavy boot.[9]

[1] See ‘Ron Smith: bushwalker and national park promoter’, in Simon Cubit and Nic Haygarth, Mountain men: stories from the Tasmanian high country, Forty South Publishing, Hobart, 2015, pp.132–59.

[2] Ron Smith to GES Adams, 15 May 1914, NS234/17/1/4 (TAHO).

[3] See Simon Cubit and Nic Haygarth, Mountain men, pp.122–27.

[4] See ‘Smith huts’, in Simon Cubit and Nic Haygarth, Historic Tasmanian mountain huts: through the photographer’s lens, Forty South Publishing, Hobart, 2014, pp.36–43.

[5] For the 1911 trip, see Ron Smith to Kathie Carruthers, 29 November and 1 December 1911, NS234/22/1/1 (TAHO). The pair’s arrival at the Windermere Hut in 1914 had scared the life out of its incumbent, miner/hunter Mick Rose, who feared he had been he had been nabbed engaging in out-of-season snaring.

[6] Gustav Weindorfer diary, NS234/27/1/8 (TAHO); ‘Mountain beauties: Tasmania’s charms’, Examiner, 6 January 1934, p.11.

[7] Interview with Jessie Luckman.

[8] See, for example, minutes of the Cradle Mountain Reserve Board meeting, 25 June 1947, AA595/1/2 (TAHO).

[9] This account of Ron and Charlie Smith’s walk on the Overland Track is derived from Ron Smith’s diary, NS234/16/1/41 (TAHO).

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The Middlesex Station huts 1901–20, or the twilight years of Fields’ highland run

In Historic Tasmanian mountain huts, written with Simon Cubit, I told the story of a visit made to the Browns’ hut at Middlesex Station by the Anglican Bishop of Tasmania, Henry Hutchinson Montgomery and the Vicar of Sheffield, JS Roper, in February 1901.[1] Montgomery’s photo of the Brown family at their hut, featuring an eighteen-year-old Linda Brown with already two children, and the family turned out in Sunday best for the camera, tells us much about their isolated lifestyle, their social expectations and their pride.

 

Henry Montgomery’s photo of Field stockman Jacky Brown and his wife Linda Brown at their hut, with children Mollie (the babe in arms) and William (standing with his father). The girl standing beside Linda is possibly from the Aylett family and fulfilling the role of maid. PH30-1-3836 (TAHO).
Henry Montgomery’s photo of Field stockman Jacky Brown and his wife Linda Brown at their hut, with children Mollie (the babe in arms) and William (standing with his father). The girl standing beside Linda is possibly from the Aylett family and fulfilling the role of maid. PH30-1-3836 (TAHO).

The underlying story in this photo is the decline of the Field grazing empire, which was becoming as rickety as the Middlesex hut. That empire had been established by ex-convict William Field senior (1774–1837) and his four sons William (1816–90), Thomas (1817–81), John (1821–1900) and Charles (1826–57). The death of John Field of Calstock, near Deloraine, in the previous year had closed those generations which had spread half-wild cattle from the Norfolk Plains/Longford area as far as Waratah, intimidating other graziers and dominating its impoverished landlord, the Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDL Co). The Fields were notorious for occupation by default, and they knew that legitimately occupying the VDL Co properties of the Middlesex Plains and the Hampshire and Surrey Hills would also allow them to occupy all the open plains of the north-western highlands gratis. The Fields’ power over the VDL Co increased as the company’s fortunes declined. In 1840 the Field brothers leased the 10,000-acre Middlesex from the VDL Co for 14 years at £400 per annum.[2] In 1860, after financial losses forced the VDL Co to retreat to England as an absentee landlord, they obtained a lease of the Hampshire and Surrey Hills plus Middlesex—170,000 acres in all—for the same price, £400.[3] The problem for the VDL Co was that few other graziers wanted such a large, isolated holding, and that any who did dare to take it on would have to first remove the Fields’ wild cattle. In 1888 the Fields screwed the VDL Co down further to £350 for the lot for the first two years of a seven-year lease, raising the price to £400 for the final five years.[4]

 

Nor were any of these negotiations straightforward. With every lease there was a battle to collect the rent, necessitating letters between the respective solicitors, Ritchie and Parker for the VDL Co, and Douglas and Collins for the Fields. Thomas or John Field would stall, demanding a reduction in rent for fencing, rates or police tax. On one occasion they requested the right to seek minerals, and to make roads and tramways on the leased land—and to take timber for the construction of this infrastructure.[5] Worse yet, in 1871 some of Fields’ wild cattle from the Hampshire or Surrey Hills got confused with VDL Co stock and ended up on the Woolnorth property at Cape Grim, and the VDL Co couldn’t figure out how to get rid of them.[6] Since Fields would soon ask to rent Woolnorth—and be refused—it was as if their advance guard had infiltrated the property ahead of a storming of the battlements.[7] The VDL Co’s solicitor told them that to shoot the offending animals would be to risk a Field law suit, leaving the company no option but to buy them from Fields and then weed them out for slaughter.[8]

 

However, now things were changing. By the 1890s reduced meat prices and natural attrition had taken their toll on the Field empire. John Field was the only one of the four brothers still standing. The VDL Co was now fielding offers from potential buyers of the large Surrey Hills block, as the company looked to land sales and timber for financial redemption. John Field’s final gesture in 1900 was to offer the VDL Co £75 per year for Middlesex.[9] The VDL Co wanted £125, and in the new year of 1901 the executors of John Field’s estate haggled for a concession. They wanted their landlord to offset some of the increased rental by paying for improvements to the station. ‘The place is greatly out of repair and the house would require to be a new one throughout’, WL Field told VDL Co local agent James Norton Smith. ‘The outbuildings are none and there is not a fence on the place’.[10]

 

We can see for ourselves that some of this, at least, was true. The unfenced, out-of-repair Middlesex ‘house’ in Montgomery’s photo had already undergone renovations, a chimney having been removed from its eastern end. However, Field was probably exaggerating a little. Perhaps there were no outbuildings, but Fields probably always kept a second hut at Middlesex for the stockmen who came up for the muster.

 

Silence spoke for the VDL Co. Receiving no reply to his request, WL Field agreed to the annual rental of £125 for seven years, with an option of seven years more at £150 per annum, noting that ‘we have the 10,000 acres of govt land adjoining it at a rental of £60 and I consider the block as good as the co’s and it will save a lot of fencing having both …’.[11]

The Middlesex Station huts in February 1905, with Jacky, Linda Brown and two children standing in front of the second (mustering) hut. The hut occupied by the family can be seen at the extreme left in the left-hand photo, set well away from the others. The curl of smoke from the distant hut confirms the location of the chimney at its rear. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
The Middlesex Station huts in February 1905, with Jacky, Linda Brown and two children standing in front of the second (mustering) hut. The hut occupied by the family can be seen at the extreme left in the left-hand photo, set well away from the others. The curl of smoke from the distant hut confirms the location of the chimney at its rear.
Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
A close-up of the Browns in front of the mustering hut. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
A close-up of the Browns in front of the mustering hut. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.

Perhaps the VDL Co did eventually submit to improvements. By 1905, when Jacky and Linda Brown were still in residence, there was a collection of buildings at Middlesex Station, including a ramshackle hut with a boarded-up window which was used by mustering stockmen and travellers. The main hut used by the Browns was set further east, away from these buildings, outside the House Paddock, which had now been fenced.

 

However, on the down side, the Fields were losing their unfettered reign over the highlands. A small land boom occurred in the upper Forth River country when a track was pushed through from the Moina region to Middlesex. The Davis brothers from Victoria tried to cultivate the Vale of Belvoir, and highland grazing runs were selected.[12] Frank and Louisa Brown were Fields’ Middlesex residents in November 1906 when Jack Geale, the new owner of the Weaning Paddock, asked new VDL Co agent AK McGaw to pay half the cost of fencing the eastern side of the Middlesex block, which would enable him to separate his herd from the Fields’.[13] McGaw sent surveyor GF Jakins with a team of men to Middlesex to re-mark the boundaries. The resulting survey shows the fenced paddock, the collection of buildings and the separate stockman’s hut.

A crop from GF Jakins' 1908 survey of the Middlesex Plains block, showing the House and Bullock Paddocks and the collection of buildings at the head of the House Paddock. From VDL343-1-359, TAHO, courtesy of the VDL Co.
A crop from GF Jakins’ 1908 survey of the Middlesex Plains block, showing the House and Bullock Paddocks and the collection of buildings at the head of the House Paddock. From VDL343-1-359, TAHO, courtesy of the VDL Co.

Jakins also marked Olivia Falls (‘falls 300 ft’, ‘falls 60 ft’)—better known today as Quaile Falls—just outside the south-east corner of the Middlesex block. This casts doubt on the story of Quaile Falls being discovered by Roy Quaile while searching for stock.[14] The falls were probably known to the miners who worked the Sirdar silver mine nearby in the Dove River gorge from 1899—and were possibly given their present name in recognition of Wilmot farmer Bob Quaile’s visits there with tourists.[15] And what did the Aborigines call this ‘second Niagara’ long before that?

 

Perhaps it was knowledge of the ‘red’ pine growing on the south-western corner of the Middlesex Plains block that prompted Ron Smith of Forth to enquire about buying the block from the VDL Co.[16] That land owner would have enjoyed this attention. In 1908 Fields signed up for their second seven-year lease on Middlesex, at the increased rental of £150 per year. They had to agree to allow the VDL Co to sell any part of the Middlesex Plains block during that term excepting the 640 acres around the ‘homestead’.[17] As a regular visitor to Middlesex Station on his way to and from Cradle Mountain, Smith had no illusions about the standard of accommodation provided there. In January 1908 he and his party stayed in a new hut that had been built for the mustering stockmen. ‘We were very glad to do so’, Smith noted, ‘as the old hut was very much out of repair … ‘ It was a two-room hut with a moveable partition, so that it could be converted into one room as needed.[18]

A collection of Middlesex buildings in December 1909 or January 1910. These seem to be the same buildings visible in the 1905 photo. The main hut further east is not shown here. Ron Smith photo from the Weekly Courier, 22 September 1910, p.17.
A collection of Middlesex buildings in December 1909 or January 1910. These seem to be the same buildings visible in the 1905 photo. The main hut further east is not shown here. Ron Smith photo from the Weekly Courier, 22 September 1910, p.17.
Louisa Brown with a pet wallaby, January 1910. This appears to be the same main hut photographed by Montgomery in 1901. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
Louisa Brown with a pet wallaby, January 1910. This appears to be the same main hut photographed by Montgomery in 1901. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.

By December 1910 that hut was also in a state of disrepair. The Fields asked the VDL Co to renew or extend the two-roomed hut in time for the muster in the following month: ‘Up to now they have lived in the old house, but it is really unsafe. Mr Sanderson [VDL Co accountant] has seen the house that was built by us about four years ago, as he was there and stayed in it just after it was built. There is a man living there [Frank Brown] who would split the timber & do it’.[19]

Main hut at Middlesex Station, Christmas 1920. The figure second from right appears to be Dave Courtney, with moustaches but as yet no beard. Ray McClinton photo, LPIC27-1-2 (TAHO)
Main hut at Middlesex Station, Christmas 1920. The figure second from right appears to be Dave Courtney, with moustaches but as yet no beard.
Ray McClinton photo, LPIC27-1-2 (TAHO)

Such is the incomplete photographic record of Middlesex Station at the time that it is unknown whether the mustering hut was replaced. However, we can say more about the main hut used by the stockman. The hut shown in the 1901 and 1910 photos appears to have remained the stockman’s hut in 1920 when Ray McClinton snapped it, this time with Dave Courtney the resident stockman. The chimney had been rebuilt with a vertical arrangement of palings, and a skillion had been added at the back. A prominent stump standing beside the hut in this photo must have been just out of picture in Montgomery’s 1901 shot.

 

After Fields had rented Middlesex from the VDL Co for 82 years, in 1922 JT Field, son of the late John Field of Calstock, bought the block, ending the uncertainty about its future. However, the lone figure of 49-year-old stockman Dave Courtney was emblematic of the Fields’ dwindling presence in the highlands, and his long, flowing beard of the 1920s and 1930s would not have allayed the impression of a once vigorous enterprise slowly grinding to a halt.

[1] Simon Cubit and Nic Haygarth, Historic Tasmanian mountain huts: through the photographer’s lens, Forty South Publishing, Hobart, 2014, pp.24–29.

[2] Edward Curr, Outward Despatch no.215, 18 November 1840, VDL1/1/5 (TAHO).

[3] Inward Despatch no.291, 16 November 1857, VDL 1/1/6 (TAHO).

[4] Minutes of VDL Co Court of Directors, 16 February 1888, VDL201/1/10 (TAHO).

[5] Douglas & Collins to James Norton Smith, 16 April 1875, VDL22/1/5 (TAHO).

[6] John Field offered to settle the matter by selling the wild cattle to the VDL Co for £100. See Douglas & Collins to James Norton Smith, 7 July 1871. See also Douglas & Collins to James Norton Smith, 14 October 1871 and 3 September 1872, VDL22/1/4 (TAHO).

[7] Douglas & Collins to James Norton Smith, 16 February 1872, VDL22/1/4 (TAHO).

[8] Ritchie & Parker to James Norton Smith, 31 October 1871, VDL22/1/4 (TAHO).

[9] Minutes of VDL Co Court of Directors 3 October 1900, VDL201/1/11 (TAHO).

[10] WL Field to James Norton Smith, 19 January 1901, VDL22/1/32 (TAHO).

[11] WL Field to James Norton Smith, 30 April 1901 and 15 June 1901, VDL22/1/32 (TAHO).

[12] See Simon Cubit and Nic Haygarth, Historic Tasmanian mountain huts: through the photographer’s lens, Forty South Publishing, Hobart, 2014, pp.18–23.

[13] JW Geale to EK McGaw, 26 November 1906, VDL22/1/38 (TAHO).

[14] Leonard C Fisher, Wilmot: those were the days, the author, Port Sorell, 1990, p.150.

[15] See, for example, ‘The Cradle Mountain’, Examiner, 5 January 1909, p.6.

[16] AK McGaw to Ron Smith, 23 January 1905, NS234/1/18 (TAHO). The term ‘red pine’ was often used indiscriminately to describe both the King Billy (Athrotaxis selaginoides) and pencil (Athrotaxis cupressoides) pine timber.

[17] WL Field to AK McGaw, 24 September 1908, VDL22/1/40 (TAHO).

[18] Ron Smith, ‘Trip to Cradle Mountain: RE Smith and the Adams Brothers, January 1908’, in Ron Smith, Cradle Mountain, with notes on wild life and climate by Gustav Weindorfer, the author, Launceston, 1937, pp.67–77.

[19] WT and JL Field, writing on behalf of WL Field, to AK McGaw, 7 December 1910, VDL22/1/42 (TAHO).

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Building ‘Manuka’, Brittons Swamp

 

‘Manuka’, originally known as ‘Glen Valley’, was built by Elijah Britton for his family at Brittons Swamp, with the help of his cousin Fred Britton and a plumber, Jack Bailey. The blackwood and hardwood for the inside walls and floors were air-seasoned, then dressed with a steam planer. Elijah’s one failing was brickwork, his chimneys leaving much to be desired. Nevertheless, in April 1922 the house was christened:

The seven-roomed 1922 bungalow ‘Glen Valley’, with the steam sawmill in the background at left, and the loco shed to the right.
The seven-roomed 1922 bungalow ‘Glen Valley’, with the steam sawmill in the background at left, and the loco shed to the right.
‘Glen Valley’ with lattice added to the veranda and the garden further developed.
‘Glen Valley’ with lattice added to the veranda and the garden further developed.

HOUSE-WARMING. — Mr E Britton has built a spacious residence at Christmas Hills. On Easter Saturday night the residents wended their way to give Mr and Mrs Britton a house-warming. A very pleasant evening was spent and cheers were given for Mr and Mrs Britton. During the evening items were rendered by Mrs P Streets, Miss E Dunn, and Messrs S Rowe, O Murphy, T Hine, A Rowe, R Dunn, and E Rowe. Excellent music for the dancing was supplied by Mr Y Wilson. Mr P Streets very capably carried out the duties of MC.[1]

View from the chimney of the original sawmill, showing the blacksmith’s shop (foreground), workers’ cottages (middle distance) and the Britton family house (background). The tramway pictured was used to supply wood to the house. The Bass Highway would later separate ‘Manuka’ from the other buildings.
View from the chimney of the original sawmill, showing the blacksmith’s shop (foreground), workers’ cottages (middle distance) and the Britton family house (background). The tramway pictured was used to supply wood to the house. The Bass Highway would later separate ‘Manuka’ from the other buildings.

This was long before electricity or sewerage came to the bush. The toilet was a kerosene tin in a little hut behind the house. Once or twice a week the kerosene tin was emptied, the effluent being buried in a hole.[2]

 

The mill workers’ cottage vacated by Elijah’s family became Mark Britton’s quarters, where he slept and did the office work. Once a year Lorna washed his blankets and scrubbed his dirty floors. Mark was in the habit of piling bark, sticks and firewood against the inside wall of his office. ‘This was clean dirt, so I’d take that out and scrub that room, but the bedroom was the worst’.

 

‘Our home was his real home’, Lorna remembered. ‘He had his special place at the table and sat one side of the fireside of an evening in the lounge chair opposite Father all the years he lived with us’.[3]

Lorna Britton leaving for a painting lesson on the ‘scary’ light chestnut draughthorse Boxer. She wrote that this horse was ‘so skittish he could toss me off his back easily, but boy could he trot. On the way to Smithton with the drains on each side of the Mowbray Swamp, it was a nightmare to have this scary horse. A passing car could make him jump sideways and you’d end up in the huge drain’. In the background is the cottage behind ‘Manuka’ which was used by workers at the mill, and in which Philip and Maria Britton also stayed.
Lorna Britton leaving for a painting lesson on the ‘scary’ light chestnut draughthorse Boxer. She wrote that this horse was ‘so skittish he could toss me off his back easily, but boy could he trot. On the way to Smithton with the drains on each side of the Mowbray Swamp, it was a nightmare to have this scary horse. A passing car could make him jump sideways and you’d end up in the huge drain’. In the background is the cottage behind ‘Manuka’ which was used by workers at the mill, and in which Philip and Maria Britton also stayed.
An unusual shot of a middle-aged Annie Britton smiling
An unusual shot of a middle-aged Annie Britton smiling.

Right from the start, Annie had recognised the need to diversify and, especially that farming, as well as timber, was needed to sustain her family. Her duties in the home were so many and so laborious that she was run off her feet. Even as her children were growing up and leaving home, Annie suffered with quinsy and a sore throat. She had her tonsils removed late in life in hope of fixing the latter problem. During the winters, her seasons of greatest suffering, the burden of the housework and childcare fell upon her eldest daughter Lorna:

 

Mother was either too sick or too busy to give the children much love, and I lavished all my affection on those kids. I never knew Mother to be affectionate to me or Phil, and we missed out there.

 

I was amazed to hear someone say they didn’t know I did anything other than play the violin and piano, paint, and be a lady. Maybe I did when they knew me, but who did the helping where there was no hot water and electric power and light? I would do the last tea dishes in a dish of hot water on the kitchen table by the light of one candle, and put away the meat that came late. It had to be lightly salted and put in the meat safe in a cool place. Mother would already be in bed, and I’d still be working till 8 or 9 o’clock.

 

Lorna remembered the young Ken as ‘The Little Comforter’ because with a twinkle in his eye he could bring a smile to Annie’s face

 

He loved the farm animals and could find a calf that had strayed or been hidden by its mother, or a hen’s nest. At that time the common swear word was ‘cussed’, heavily emphasised. I never heard my father, uncle or brothers swear, so Ken came running in at the lisping stage, clutching an egg and shouting ‘I heard a dusserd hen dackle, and I runned over and bruted her off the nest’. It was a favourite saying around the mill for a long time and caused many a happy moment.

Ken Britton at six months of age in 1921.
Ken Britton at six months of age in 1921.

The next-youngest boy John was ‘a frail little chap’ who developed eczema so badly that, despite medical treatment, Lorna feared his earlobes would drop off:

 

But he survived, and I cared for him until I was sent away to school in Launceston for one year. When I left school he was still weak and sickly, suffering many colds and Mother and I sat up more nights than I wish to remember when he had croup and we tried with limited medical care to ease his suffering.

 

One night he was so distressed that Mother, with her face set in anguish, left the room and brought in a spoonful of something which she poured down his little throat and soon brought relief. What it was I never really knew, but it was probably something that her mother had given her as a child. I think the mixture contained turpentine.

 

Both feared he would not ‘make old bones’, but John would prove them wrong.[4] Unfortunately, to do so, he would have to survive an accident in which his legs were crushed.

Lorna Britton at Broadland House, Launceston, 1923.
Lorna Britton at Broadland House, Launceston, 1923.

As Elijah and Annie’s children grew, the role of mail and meat bearers fell to Eva, Frank and Ken in turn. By that stage the house the Brittons formerly occupied at Christmas Hills had been enlarged to become the new school, and a public hall had also been raised nearby by public subscription. In 1922 the school graduated from a subsidised school to an ordinary state school, with Irene Dunn continuing as teacher.[5] It was in the unfinished school building that 15–year–old Lorna Britton was farewelled when she left for Launceston to finish her education at Broadland House Ladies’ College (now part of Launceston Church Grammar School):

 

Dancing was the order of the evening … a presentation of an Xylonite brush and comb and a very handsome box of writing material was made by Mr. C. Burton on behalf of the residents of Christmas Hills to Miss Britton to remind her of those she was leaving behind. Mr. Roy [sic: Phillip Raymond] Britton on behalf of his sister, thanked all for the kind wishes and the presents given to Lorna. The singing of “For she’s a jolly good fellow” terminated a very enjoyable evening.”[6]

[1] ‘Christmas Hills’, Circular Head Chronicle, 26 April 1922, p.3.

[2] Frank Britton memoir, 16 December 1992 (QVMAG).

[3] Lorna Britton notes1983.

[4] Lorna Britton notes 1983.

[5] ‘Xmas Hills Picnic Sports’, Advocate, 21 March 1923, p.6.

[6] ‘Christmas Hills: farewell’, Circular Head Chronicle, 14 February 1923, p.2.