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Getting started at Brittons Swamp

The dolomite swamp that took the name of the Brittons Swamp is thought to be a polje, that is, a centrally-draining dolomite sinkhole. Dismal Swamp, the selectively logged hollow now operated as a tourist venue, is an almost intact version of the same sort of feature.[1]

 

Beyond the basalt hills, on the dolomite swamp beyond, Mark Britton found huge stands of blackwood and saw a better future than he and his brother expected to get in the Mallee. He and Fred Oehm selected 200 acres each. Summoned over by his brother, Elijah selected 200 acres adjoining Fred’s block and which contained both hardwood and blackwood.

 

Phil Britton’s earliest memories of Tasmania were of arriving on the Holyman steamer the Marrawah at Burnie as a two-year-old. His sister Lorna was a babe in arms. From Burnie the family travelled by Tatlow’s horse-drawn coach south of the Sisters Hills and along the beach to Stanley, then changed coach to cross the old Sand Track over Tier Hill to Smithton.[2] Smithton had its own port at Pelican Point, from which timber was exported. Blackwood staves were already fetching a market on the mainland. On one occasion when Elijah and Harold braved the rough crossing on a timber ketch to Melbourne,

 

the skipper said, ‘If you blokes like to hop in and help load up these blackwood staves we will be away quicker.’ A certain Robert Pratt [junior] was also there and he did help. While Dad and Harold carried the staves on by the armful, R Pratt senior took one at a time. ‘For sure’, he said, ‘the pay will be the same’.[3]

(Left to right) Elijah, Mark and Harold Britton.Twenty-year-old Harold Britton married nineteen-year-old Laura Fixter in 1909 and moved to Leongatha, Victoria.
(Left to right) Elijah, Mark and Harold Britton. Twenty-year-old
Harold Britton married nineteen-year-old Laura Fixter
in 1909 and moved to Leongatha, Victoria.
Christmas Hills State School, 1911, with five-year-old Phil Britton (arrowed) front row at left. The teacher pictured is probably Fred Parsons. The original school was a room provided by Tommy and Lizzie Hine, who also lodged the teacher and kept the post office. This was a ‘subsidised’ school, which relied upon the regular attendance of a set number of students and the community providing suitable lodgings for the teacher.
Christmas Hills State School, 1911, with five-year-old Phil Britton (arrowed) front row at left. The teacher pictured is probably Fred Parsons. The original school was a room provided by Tommy and Lizzie Hine, who also lodged the teacher and kept the post office. This was a ‘subsidised’ school, which relied upon the regular attendance of a set number of students and the community providing suitable lodgings for the teacher.

 

For two years the family lived in a cottage on a small acreage opposite the post office at Christmas Hills, with Elijah only coming home from the mill (four kilometres away) at weekends. While Harold Britton soon dipped out of the business, Mark and Elijah proved an ideal partnership. Elijah, a skilled, mostly self-taught blacksmith, filled the roles of engineer, saw doctor, stoker and timekeeper. He could repair anything mechanical, improvising as needed, and also manned the docker saw. Mark was a fine benchman, an expert at minimising wastage when cutting blackwood. His niece Lorna Haygarth (née Britton) recalled him even bemoaning the fate of heavy timber ends destined for the family fire:

 

Taking his pipe out of his mouth and putting it carefully on the hearth, he would declare, ‘What a waste, burning this beautiful wood. It should be kept and made into useful articles. Just look at the grain and lovely figure in this piece. It’s real timber, not like some of the pencil wood—it’s heavy, real heavy.’[4]

 

Mark was a good bullock and horse-driver and had the business brain, keeping the books. Above all, he was a positive thinker. This was essential, because the sight of a five–ton boiler being eased up the Sandhill to the Brittons Swamp site by a twelve–bullock team and a block and tackle signalled the start of a tremendous struggle for survival.

Building the Marrawah Tramway: bridging the Welcome River, 1913. From the Weekly Courier, 13 March 1913, p.20.
Building the Marrawah Tramway: bridging the Welcome River, 1913. From the Weekly Courier, 13 March 1913, p.20.
Free beer celebration for the construction party at Christmas. From the Weekly Courier, 13 March 1913, p.20
Free beer celebration for the construction party at Christmas. From the Weekly Courier, 13 March 1913, p.20

With government reluctant to build roads to bush selections, economic survival in almost impenetrable forest depended on sawmillers making their own path to market. The Marrawah Tramway (1912?–61) was started by JS Lee in order to harvest the timber on the Mowbray Swamp, epitomising the self-sufficiency and initiative of the early Circular Head sawmilling industry. The state government took over the tramway and extended it to Marrawah on the west coast. Then private timber tramways radiated from the Marrawah Tramway into the Montagu, Brittons, Arthur River and Welcome Swamps.[5]

A blockage on the Marrawah Tramway. From the Weekly Courier, 13 October 1921, p.28.
A blockage on the Marrawah Tramway. From the Weekly Courier, 13 October 1921, p.28.
The Marrawah Tramway enters the dolomite Mowbray and Montagu Swamps on its journey from Smithton to Marrawah. Brittons’ branch tramway penetrates Brittons Swamp. Map by ‘Wanderer’, ‘Railways and Tramways of the Circular Head District’, Australian Railway Historical Bulletin no.168, October 1951.
The Marrawah Tramway enters the dolomite Mowbray and Montagu Swamps on its journey from Smithton to Marrawah. Brittons’ branch tramway penetrates Brittons Swamp.
Map by ‘Wanderer’, ‘Railways and Tramways of the Circular
Head District’, Australian Railway Historical Bulletin no.168, October 1951.

Brittons’ line linked their mill to the 9¼-mile mark of the Marrawah Tramway. The 3’6”-gauge Britton Tramway cost about £2,000, a small fortune then. It originally used white myrtle spars for stringers, and was closely corded and ballasted with sawdust so that the five-horse team could haul the trucks of sawn timber (two at a time) without tripping. After a few years, heavy, long hardwood stringers were substituted for the white myrtle ones, and iron rails were placed on the outside bends. Twelve loading ramps enabled twenty-four loads of timber to be left at the junction with the Marrawah Tramway. The timber was then delivered to the Pelican Point jetty at the Duck River heads, where it was loaded on ships bound for Melbourne or Adelaide.[6]

 

Specialisation in blackwood, supplemented by production of hardwood and other timber, established the Britton’s seasonal regime. The swampy habitat of blackwood made haulage in the drier months essential, with strong, stoic bullocks being favoured for this task. (Horses were preferred to haul hardwood from the drier eucalypt forest.) Logging, cutting and carting in summer gave most of the men a job under cover, milling, in winter, when the weather was bad. In the winter of 1919, for example, Brittons milled about 8,000 super feet (24 cubic metres) of logs per day.

 

Loss of valuable horses to colic and falling trees prompted the purchase of a 1910 Buffalo and Pitts traction steam engine, which crushed culverts beneath it as it chugged from Forest to its new home. It was fuelled by the abundant wood and water. Elijah Britton devised a cog system which enabled the steam engine to be converted from road to rail, and the tramway was upgraded accordingly. The Buffalo and Pitts hauled sawn timber out to market on the tramway, back-loading with stores. When its boiler eventually rusted out, the engine was replaced by a 1904 Marshall single-cylinder traction engine, which had a better boiler and was a better steamer.

Bush engineering. The Marshall loco (above), seen here hauling a load of blackwood, was a triumph of improvisation.
Bush engineering. The Marshall loco, seen here hauling a load of blackwood, was a triumph of improvisation.
Brittons also had this Model T-Ford converted into a dynamic railmotor by Arthur Schmidt of Burnie.
Brittons also had this Model T-Ford converted into a dynamic rail motor by Arthur Schmidt of Burnie.

Brittons’ transport problems didn’t end with delivery of timber to the Marrawah Tramway, as the following example illustrates. In 1918 Brittons reached an agreement with Cummings & Co to share the 20,000 super feet of space available on the Holyman steamer ss Hall Cain after JS Lee & Sons had loaded up their guaranteed shipment of 50,000 super feet. Brittons were to ship 15,000 super feet of hardwood to its agents in Melbourne, and delivered this timber to its junction on the Marrawah Tramway. However, timber was already stacked in the way at the junction, including seasoned blackwood owned by Cummings. This forced Brittons to load Cummings’ blackwood onto the vessel before they could load their own hardwood, leading to a dispute between the two companies. Brittons demanded and eventually gained compensation from Cummings.

[1] See Kevin Kiernan, An atlas of Tasmanian karst, Research report no.10, Tasmanian Forest Research Council Inc, Hobart, 1995.

[2] Phil Britton, ‘First Impressions of Brittons Swamp’; ‘The Britton Family’ (notes held by Britton family).

[3] Phil Britton, ‘First Impressions of Brittons Swamp’ (notes held by Britton family).

[4] Lorna Haygarth (nee Britton), ‘The Britton Story’ (notes held by the Britton family).

[5] ‘Wanderer’, ‘Railways and Tramways of the Circular Head District’, Australian Railway Historical Bulletin, no.168, October 1951, pp.151–52.

[6] Phil Britton, ‘The Britton Family’, pp.5–7 (notes held by Britton family).

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The hydraulic man, or how Teddy O’Rourke dried out in the wet season

Hydraulic sluicing on the north-eastern Tasmanian tin fields. O'Rourke's hydraulic gold mine operated in the same manner. Stephen Spurling III photo, courtesy of Stephen Hiller.
Hydraulic sluicing on the north-eastern Tasmanian tin fields. O’Rourke’s hydraulic gold mine operated in the same manner. Stephen Spurling III photo, courtesy of Stephen Hiller.
The Five Mile Rise goldfield, between the upper Forth River and the Middlesex Plains, north-western Tasmania, showing the position of the O'Rourke's hydraulic gold mine.
The Five Mile Rise goldfield, between the upper Forth River and the Middlesex Plains, north-western Tasmania, showing the position of the O’Rourke’s hydraulic gold mine.

Had Tasmanian miner Teddy O’Rourke been an interior decorator, he would have been a shoo-in for a colonial courtroom refit. His familiarity with magistrates’ chambers from Hobart to Deloraine, with dalliances at Kempton, Lefroy , George Town and almost a permanent booking in Launceston, must have been unsurpassed. Unfortunately, he was probably often too drunk to remember the decor. Yet Teddy also seems to have found a way to beat the bottle for two decades.

Edward Martin O’Rourke was born into an Irish Catholic family in Hobart in about 1856. A newspaper report of his mother Eliza (née O’Donnell or Donnell, a convict[1]) leaving home to escape violent attack by his father, ex-convict constable Martin O’Rourke (or Rourke), when he was an infant suggests that his was not a happy, comfortable childhood.[2] His education was probably rudimentary, as he remained illiterate.[3] By the time Martin O’Rourke drowned trying to ford the Forester River in 1876 at the age of 45, Teddy had at least five siblings.[4] It was after that that Teddy, along with his mother and sister Mary Ann Stratton, started making regular appearances in the Launceston Police Court, charged with assault (sometimes of each other), theft and drunk and disorderly behaviour.[5] The Jolly Butchers Hotel in Balfour Street kept by Eliza O’Rourke was the scene of some of this action.[6]

At the age of about 21 Teddy left Launceston for a rollicking lifestyle, racking up fines for public disturbances and learning how to handle a cradle at Brandy Creek, the alluvial goldfield that became Beaconsfield.[7] The only treatment he appears to have received for alcoholism was a stint in the slammer. One assault charge against him was dropped because his delirium tremens made him unable to testify.[8] Finally, in 1883, the judiciary lost patience and he got six months’ gaol for being idle and disorderly—followed by another three months for the same offence, this time in Hobart.[9] He served at least six terms in Hobart’s Campbell Street Gaol.[10]

Yet after 1892 O’Rourke stayed out of trouble for more than 20 years. Was mining his saviour? Men like Syd Reardon and Paddy Hartnett at Lorinna, 20 km from the nearest hotel, are said to have found an escape from the bottle in the bush. Perhaps Teddy’s experience on the Five Mile Rise when it was a diggers’ gold field in the 1880s was literally a sobering one.[11]

Then in about 1893 the New Zealand hydraulic craze hit Tasmania, and old gold fields like the Five Mile Rise got another trial, this time with the high-pressure hydraulic hose. Teddy O’Rourke took a claim on Sunday Creek, high up the Five Mile Rise, built a hut nearby and embarked on an unusual seasonal regime. Since it was only in the wet season that he could get sufficient water to operate the high-pressure hose, he combined hydraulic sluicing with hunting. April, May and June were the traditional hunting season. Prospectors and miners in the bush generally snared and shot animals for food anyway, but processing their skins for sale would have enabled O’Rourke to maximise (and perhaps sustain) his winters in the bush. A photo of what is probably O’Rourke’s hut taken by Fred Smithies shows that it was equipped with a skin drying chimney typical of those developed in the Cradle Mountain-Middlesex Plains area for the drying of possum and wallaby skins.

Teddy now revealed that not only could he make the press but he could use it. The secret to raising capital, apparently, was constant self-reference in the mining columns of newspapers. Harold Tuson grew up at Lorinna. In 1911, at the age of thirteen, he started work on gangs making tracks and roads in the upper Forth River region. During this time he came to know O’Rourke well as a fellow road worker, one of the latter’s summer jobs. He recalled the ‘big lump of a [Tasmanian-born] Irishman’ speaking with a thick Irish brogue. Having survived two or three bushfires, O’Rourke’s hut was then clearly visible from Lorinna high on the hill. Tuson recalled the miner’s struggle with alcoholism and his appearances in both the legal and mining columns of the newspaper: ‘“O’Rourke’s Hydraulic showing gold freely in the face”. That was one of Teddy’s. He’d write that to the paper to keep it going’.[12] Other stock phrases included ‘sluicing on payable gold’.

‘Hut at the top of the Forth Gorge track’, probably O’Rourke’s hut, showing the typical skin shed chimney favoured by Middlesex area hunters. Fred Smithies photo, NS573/4/9/32 (TAHO)
‘Hut at the top of the Forth Gorge track’, probably O’Rourke’s hut, showing the typical skin shed chimney favoured by Middlesex area hunters.
Fred Smithies photo, NS573/4/9/32 (TAHO)

O’Rourke’s hut stood near the beginning of the pack track down to the Devon mine in the Dove River Gorge. This pack track had become part of an extraordinarily steep route used by hunters to gain access to the Cradle Mountain region. On the southern side of the Dove River Gorge, the route continued up a steep hill known as Paddys Nut and crossed the Campbell River.[13] This was the route used by hunters Tom Jones and Bert Hansen in the winter of 1905 when the latter was tragically lost in a snowstorm near the lake near Cradle Mountain that now bears his name. Jones reported four-feet-deep snow as he began to make his way out to O’Rourke’s hut to raise the alarm, giving some idea of the conditions the gold miner experienced during these winter stints.[14] Since there are no mining reports to the press from O’Rourke in 1905, hunting may have been his primary activity during that wet season.

He also had business elsewhere. In 1904 O’Rourke had taken up a tungsten claim nearby, and by 1907 he was based at Ringarooma in the north-east, where he discovered the Montrose tin mine.[15] Later he turned his attention to the Colebrook tin field on the west coast, where he held a claim for a Launceston syndicate.[16] Meanwhile, in his absence, his hut on the Five Mile Rise was entered, robbed and forfeited to the Crown.[17] Thus the only property Ted O’Rourke ever owned was lost.

In 1911 he had a child, Edeline O’Rourke, with the recently widowed Annie Bissett (née Garrett) in Launceston.[18] She already had five children! Family responsibilities would have necessitated a steady income, hence, perhaps, O’Rourke’s work on the road gang. Eventually he may have got too old for bush life. Again, he was not at his best in town near the pubs. O’Rourke’s declining years contained a familiar litany of court appearances, including charges of disturbing the peace and vagrancy.[19] In 1919 the 63-year-old was found lying unconscious with a gashed head on a Launceston street.[20] In 1920 he was described as ‘an old habitue’ when defending a charge of being drunk and incapable in Albert Park on Christmas Day and in Charles Street a few days later.[21] He sported a scar over his left eye, perhaps as the result of some drunken escapade.[22] In 1922 he absconded when wanted for non-maintenance of his children, being tracked down in Deloraine.[23] In 1924, at 68 years of age, he was again found drunk and incapable in the street.[24] The trail of self-destruction stops there.

Like so many children of ex-convicts who could never escape the cycle of poverty and alcoholism into which they were born, Ted O’Rourke would have died intestate, with few possessions. His death stirred no comment in the press. Perhaps no one mourned his passing. However, I like to think of him as an innovator. He developed an unusual regime of hose, snare and, perhaps, teetotal, which kept him upright for two decades, drying out when the wet winter season brought his mining claim to life. That counts him as a success!

[1] Eliza O’Donnell was transported on the Midlothian. See permission to marry, 4 April 1855, CON52/1/7, p.408 (TAHO) and marriage certificate 473/1855, Hobart.

[2] ‘Local intelligence’, Colonial Times, 17 March 1857, p.3.

[3] Campbell Street Gaol Gate-book, warrant no.17591, 18 February 1889; records compiled by Laurie Moody; http://www.tasmanianwarcasualties.com/gravesofts%20split/Campbell%20Street%20Gaol/Rural%20Offences%20Part%209.htm

[4] See inquest, POL709/1/13, p.31 (TAHO); ‘Police Court’, Launceston Examiner, 20 January 1877, p.3. Martin Rourke was tried at Galway on 23 June 1848, sentenced to seven years, and came to Tasmania on the Lord Balhousie, being pardoned in 1855.

[5] See, for example, ‘Police Court’, Launceston Examiner, 21 September 1876, supplement p.2; ‘Police Court’, Launceston Examiner, 9 November 1876, p.4.

[6] ‘Quarterly licence meeting’, Launceston Examiner, 8 August 1876, p.3; ‘Police Court’, Launceston Examiner, 9 November 1876, p.4; ‘No true bill’, Launceston Examiner, 1 March 1877, p.2.

[7] ‘George Town’, Reports of Crime, 5 April 1878, pp.55–56.

[8] ‘Launceston Police Court’, Launceston Examiner, 26 April 1882, p.3.

[9] ‘Launceston Police Court’, Launceston Examiner, 12 November 1883, p.3; ‘City Police Court’, Mercury, 17 December 1884, p.2.

[10] Laurie Moody, ‘Campbell Street Gaol: inmates 1873–1890’, Tasmanian Ancestry, vol.26, no.2, September 2005, pp.24–30.

[11] Harold Tuson, interviewed in Canberra, 11 May 1995.

[12] Harold Tuson, interviewed in Canberra, 11 May 1995.

[13] See, for example, ‘North Western notes’, Mercury, 4 August 1905, p.2.

[14] ‘Cradle Mountain mystery’, North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, 11 September 1905, p.2.

[15] ‘Iris River wolfram field’, Examiner, 20 September 1904, p.2; ‘Discovery of tin’, Examiner, 26 October 1906, p.2.

[16] See, for example, ‘Colebrook tin fields’, Examiner, 24 February 1912, p.4.

[17] POL386/1/1, Daily Record of Crime Occurrences – Sheffield 1901-1916 (TAHO).

[18] Birth registration 4877/1911, Launceston. See ‘Branxholm railway accident’, Mercury, 26 April 1910, p.2.

[19] ‘Police Courts, Hobart’, Mercury, 21 September 1915, p.6; ‘Police Court’, Launceston Examiner, 3 November 1916, p.4; ‘City Police Court’, Launceston Examiner, 13 April 1917, p.4; ‘City Police Court’, Daily Telegraph, 18 June 1918, p.4.

[20] ‘An old age pensioner’s plight’, Launceston Examiner, 26 December 1919, p.4.

[21] ‘City Police Court’, Daily Telegraph, 6 January 1920, p.2.

[22] ‘Prisoners to be discharged’, Police Gazette, 9 April 1920, p.69.

[23] ‘Persons enquired for’, Police Gazette, 23 June 1922, p.114; ‘Absconders’, Police Gazette, 14 July 1922, p.127.

[24] ‘City Police Court’, Daily Telegraph, 15 December 1924, p.4.