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Theophilus Jones and the thylacine: or the case for the prosecution

1901 was a prolific year for thylacine appearances at Woolnorth. Here VDL Co stockman Walter Pinkard reports from the thick of the action 8 June 1901. From VDL22-1-32 (TAHO).
Tigers to the left, tigers to the right … VDL Co stockman Walter Pinkard reports from the thick of the Woolnorth tiger action 8 June 1901. From VDL22-1-32 (TAHO).

How do you stigmatise an animal? Try branding. The change from ‘hyena’ to ‘tiger’, as the common descriptor for the thylacine, was a major step in its reinvention as a sheep killer. Both ‘tiger’ and ‘hyena’ were used commonly to describe the thylacine during much of the nineteenth century, with ‘tiger’ only becoming the dominant term late in that century and into the twentieth century. For example, the records of the Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDL Co) show that the company’s local officers used ‘hyena’ almost universally to describe the thylacine during the company’s first period of farming its Woolnorth property, in the years 1827–51—whereas later they went exclusively with ‘tiger’.

The stripes on the thylacine’s back presumably prompted the original attributions of the names ‘tiger’ and ‘hyena’, by Robert Knopwood and CH Jeffreys respectively.[1] The Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) and the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) were mentioned regularly in nineteenth-century newspaper items about life in the British Raj, which some foreign-born Tasmanians had also visited. Tigers, leopards, cheetahs, wolves and, less often, hyenas, preyed on stock and sometimes people in India. Government rewards were offered there for killing tigers. While the fearsome tiger was the favourite ‘sport’ of Indian big game hunters, the hyena, unlike its some-time Tasmanian namesake, was not the primary carnivore in the Bengali ecology. It was sometimes reported to be ‘cowardly’, ‘skulking’ and lacking in the fight desired by the game hunter.[2]

Likewise, the thylacine was also often described as ‘cowardly’ in its alleged sheep predations.[3] By the 1870s and 1880s, however, when the profitability of the wool industry was declining, those employed in the industry seem to have used the term ‘tiger’ almost universally to describe the thylacine. Perhaps shepherds preferred ‘tiger’ because it glamorised their profession, introducing an element of danger and likening them to the big game hunters of India. The way in which some thylacine killers made trophies of their kills and were photographed with these suggests identification with big game hunting.[4] By the same token, dubbing the thylacine a ‘tiger’ provided a potential scapegoat for sheep losses, enabling the shepherd to shift the blame for his own poor performance on to what may henceforth be perceived as a dangerous predator. Wool-growers wanting to eliminate the thylacine would also be keen to cast it as a dangerous predator. John Lyne, the east coast wool-grower who led the campaign for a government thylacine bounty, referred to the animal as a ‘tiger’ but also as a ‘dingo’, thereby equating the thylacine with the well-known mainland Australian sheep predator.[5] In 1887 ‘Tiger Lyne’s campaign   was mocked to the effect that

‘the jungles of India do not furnish anything like the terrors that our own east coast does in the matter of wild beasts of the most ferocious kind. According to ‘Tiger Lyne’, these dreadful animals [thylacines] may be seen in their hundreds stealthily sneaking along, seeking whom they may devour …’[6]

The VDL Co correspondence records show that the company’s local agent James Norton Smith also originally described the thylacine as a ‘hyena’. He appears to have adopted ‘tiger’ as a descriptor in 1872 after his Woolnorth overseer, Cole, used the term in a letter to him. James Wilson, Woolnorth overseer 1874–98, also used the term ‘tiger’ exclusively, and after 1876 Norton Smith followed suit. The term ‘hyena’ was not used in any correspondence written or compiled by VDL Co staff, in Woolnorth farm journal records or Woolnorth accounting records in the years 1877–99. While Norton Smith occasionally used the term ‘hyena’ in the years following Wilson’s retirement from Woolnorth, ‘tiger’ remained his preferred term and this continued to be used exclusively at Woolnorth.

Theophilus Jones: thylacine prosecutor

As Robert Paddle and others have suggested, pastoralists generally blamed the thylacine as well as the rabbit for their declining political power and wealth.[7] One of the greatest prosecutors of the thylacine at this time was Theophilus Jones. In 1877–78 and 1883–85 two young British journalists toured Tasmania writing serialised newspaper accounts of its districts. Since both were newcomers, with limited knowledge of the colony, they could be expected to repeat unquestioningly much of what they were told. The first of these writers, E Richall Richardson, travelled all the populated regions of Tasmania except the far north-west and Woolnorth. On the east coast, Richardson interviewed woolgrowers, including John Lyne, the MHA for Glamorgan who a decade later would petition to establish the thylacine bounty. Richardson’s only comment upon the thylacine as a sheep killer or any kind of nuisance in his 92-part series was not on the east coast or in the Midlands, but in reference to the twice-yearly visits of graziers to their Central Plateau stock runs:

‘If when the master comes up, and there is a deficit in the flock, the rule is ‘blame the tiger’. The native tiger is a kind of scape-goat amongst shepherds in Tasmania, as the dingo is with shepherds in Queensland; or as ‘the cat’ is with housemaids and careless servants all over the world. ‘It was the cat, ma’am, as broke the sugar-basin’; and ‘It was the tigers, sir, who ate the sheep’.[8]

Theophilus Jones, in his 99-part series written in the years 1883–85, told a different tale. By this time, only half a decade since Richardson wrote, the wool industry had declined markedly. The first ‘stock protection’ association, that is, a locally subscribed thylacine bounty scheme, was formed at Buckland on the east coast in August 1884 while Jones was touring the area.[9]

Jones’ circumstances were different to the earlier writer’s. Although travelling in poverty, Richardson was a single man with no commitments. Jones, on the other hand, was trying desperately to support a wife and large family. While travelling Tasmania as a newspaper correspondent, he doubled as an Australian Mutual Provident (AMP) assurance salesman. Much more than Richardson, Jones concentrated on populated areas where he might sell assurance and find well-to-do patrons. He not only visited Woolnorth but practically every large grazier in the colony, and he flattered men who were in a position to financially benefit him. Whether currying favour or being merely ignorant of the truth, it is not then surprising to find Jones spouting woolgrowers’ vituperative against the thylacine. Henry, John and William Lyne appear to have fed Jones a litany of almost six decades of warfare with Aborigines and the wildlife, as if these were age-old predators: ‘Blacks and tigers made the life of a young shepherd one of continued mental strain’.[10] For Jones the tiger was generally the biggest killer of sheep, followed by the devil and the ‘eaglehawk’. The thylacine had ‘massive’ jaws, ‘serrated’ teeth and a powerful body like that of a kangaroo dog.[11] It was ‘a great coward’, savaging lambs but refusing battle with man or dog.[12] Jones applauded the stock protection association, hoping that it would reduce eagles and tigers ‘to the last specimen’.[13] That is, drive them to extinction.

Jones had already visited Woolnorth. He found that, like his predecessors, tigerman Charlie Williams kept ‘trophies’ at Mount Cameron, his prize being a thylacine skin 2.3 metres long.[14]

Like Williams, the government was actually more interested in possums. It had cited increased hunting, in response to high skin prices, as a reason to introduce the Game Protection Amendment Act (1884), which protected all kinds of possum during the summer, allowing open season from April to July inclusive. During debate about the bill in the House of Assembly, James Dooley ‘likened the sympathy for the native animals to that which was excited in favour of the native race’, to which MHA for Sorell, James Gray, responded that ‘the only resemblance between the natives and the opossums were that they were both black. (Laughter.)’[15]

It was also Gray who in 1885 asserted the ‘necessity of something being done to stop the ravages of the native tiger in the pastoral districts of the colony …’.[16] John Lyne took up this stock protection measure: a £1 per head thylacine bounty operated from 1888 to 1909. About 2200 bounties were paid across Tasmania, helping to drive the animal towards extinction. Bounties were paid by the Colonial Treasurer upon thylacine carcasses being presented to local police magistrates or wardens. 

Woolnorth was a remote settlement with challenges faced by few wool-growing properties. Distance from towns, doctors and schools was probably one reason that it was so difficult to find and keep a reliable man to work at Mount Cameron West in particular. Time and time again James Wilson’s farm journals record the Mount Cameron West shepherd’s monthly visits to the main farm at Woolnorth to get supplies and return with them to his own hut: ‘Tigerman came down’ and ‘Tiger went home’. ‘Tigerman’, which carries the implication of being a dedicated thylacine killer, may have been coined to glamorise the position in order to attract staff. It and the general use of the term ‘tiger’ at Woolnorth may also indicate that the overseer, his stockman and farm hands wanted to shift the blame for sheep losses on the property. 

Table 3: Occurrences of various names for the thylacine in Tasmanian newspapers for the years 1816–1954 (in both text and advertising), taken from the Trove digital newspaper database 22 December 2016

NAME 1816–87 1888–1909 1910–54 TOTAL
Tasmanian tiger 141 (84–57) 96 (64–32) 434 (420–14) 671 (568–103)
Native tiger 326 (199–127) 197 (186–11) 88 (88–0) 611 (473–138)
Tasmanian native tiger 5 (5–0) 0 (0–0) 7 (7–0) 12 (12–0)
Thylacine/thylacinus 43 (43–0) 20 (20–0) 93 (91–2) 156 (154–2)
Hyena/native hyena/opossum hyena 165 (107–58) 46 (39–7) 84 (77–7) 295 (223–72)
Dog-faced opossum 1 (1–0) 0 (0–0) 0 (0–0) 1 (1–0)
Tasmanian wolf 9 (3–6) 11 (11–0) 97 (97–0) 117 (111–6)
Marsupial wolf 4 (4–0) 6 (6–0) 74 (74–0) 84 (84–0)
Tiger wolf 7 (7–0) 3 (3–0) 3 (3–0) 13 (13–0)
Native wolf/native wolf-dog 5 (5–0) 0 (0–0) 5 (5–0) 10 (10–0)
Zebra wolf 5 (5–0) 6 (6–0) 2 (2–0) 13 (13–0)
Tasmanian tiger wolf 1 (1–0) 0 (0–0) 0 (0–0) 1 (1–0)[17]

In her book Paper tiger: how pictures shaped the thylacine, Carol Freeman stated that ‘Tasmanian wolf’ and ‘marsupial wolf’ were the principal names given to the thylacine in the zoological world until well into the twentieth century, described how in the period from the 1870s to the 1890s ‘wolf-like’ visual images of the species predominated in natural history literature, and speculated that illustrations of this kind, repeated in mass-produced Australian newspapers in 1884, 1885 and 1899, ‘influenced perceptions close to the habitat of the thylacine and encouraged government extermination policies’.[18]

The National Library of Australia’s Trove digital newspaper database allows us to test the idea that the depiction of the thylacine as a ‘wolf’ or as ‘wolf-like’ had any traction in Tasmania. Unlike the inter-colonial illustrated newspapers to which Freeman referred—Australian Graphic (1884), Illustrated Australian News (1885) and Town and Country Journal (1899)—the Trove search represented by Table 3 is restricted to 88 Tasmanian newspaper titles, 23 of which published during at least part of the period of the Tasmanian government thylacine bounty 1888–1909. More than any other type of publication, the Tasmanian newspapers are likely to contain the language of ordinary Tasmanians, expressed either by journalists, newspaper correspondents or by themselves in letters to the editor—and they were more likely than any other form of publication to be read by and contributed to by graziers, legislators and hunter-stockmen involved in killing thylacines. Some of these newspapers carried occasional lithographed or engraved images, but the search does not include the two best-known Tasmanian illustrated newspapers, the Weekly Courier (1901–35) and the Tasmanian Mail/Illustrated Tasmanian Mail (1877–1935), which (in December 2016) were yet to be digitised for the Trove database. Trove coverage of Tasmanian newspapers begins with the Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter in 1816 and goes no later than 1954 except in a few cases.

The Tasmanian 'zebra wolf', from the San Francisco Chronicle, 18 February 1896, p.6.
The Tasmanian ‘zebra wolf’, from the San Francisco Chronicle, 18 February 1896, p.6.

The Trove search suggests that in the period 1888–1909 the terms ‘native tiger’ (197 hits) and ‘Tasmanian tiger’ (96 hits) were much more widely used by the general public in Tasmania that any permutation of ‘wolf’ (26 hits altogether), and that ‘hyena’ (46 hits) was also more popular than ‘wolf’. While the 1884 issue of Australian Graphic which contained the illustration of the ‘Tasmanian zebra wolf’ is not included in the Trove search, it did pick up a description of that issue of the newspaper by the editor of the Mercury. Clearly he was not profoundly influenced by the engraving of the thylacine:

‘The illustrations are fairly good, excepting those which are apparently intended to be amusing; these amuse only by their extreme absurdity. There is a cut representing, what is termed, a Tasmanian zebra wolf. It is about as true to nature as the pictures exhibited outside a travelling menagerie’.[19]

The Tasmanian wolf as a sheep devourer in 1947, when the term had gained some popular usage: from Hotch Potch (the magazine of the Electrolytic Zinc Company of Australasia), October 1947, vol.4, p.2 (TAHO).
The ‘Tasmanian wolf’ as a sheep devourer in 1947, when the term ‘wolf’ had gained some popular usage: from Hotch Potch (the magazine of the Electrolytic Zinc Company of Australasia), October 1947, vol.4, p.2 (TAHO).

The names ‘Tasmanian wolf’ (97 hits) and ‘marsupial wolf’ (74 hits) only gained traction in Tasmanian newspapers in the period (1910–54) when the thylacine was clearly disappearing or virtually extinct, that is, when the scientific and zoological community entered the popular press in its desperate search for a remnant thylacine population. This is also the period in which the Latin scientific name for the animal, thylacine, thylacinus (93 hits) occurred much more frequently in the Tasmanian press. However, even in this period, ‘tiger’ (529 hits) remained easily the predominant descriptor for the thylacine. The fact that the thylacine received more attention in the press during the years when it could not be found than when it could speaks for itself, although of course many more newspapers were published in the first half of the twentieth century than in the nineteenth.

 

[1] Eric Guiler and Philippe Godard, Tasmanian tiger: a lesson to be learnt, Abrolhos Publishing, Perth, 1998, p.15.

[2] ‘Pigsticking in India’, Launceston Examiner, 29 March 1897, p.3; ‘Shikalee’, ‘Wild sport in India’, Launceston Examiner, 24 July 1897, p.2.

[3] See, for example’, ‘Royal Society of Tasmania’, Courier, 16 June 1858, p.2; or ‘Town talk and table chat’, Cornwall Chronicle, 27 March 1867, p.4.

[4] See, for example, [Theophilus Jones], ‘Through Tasmania: no.35’, Mercury, 26 April 1884, supplement, p.1.

[5] See, for example, ‘Parliament’, Launceston Examiner, 1 October 1886, p.3.

[6] Tasmanian Mail, 3 September 1887; cited by Robert Paddle, The last Tasmanian tiger: the history and extinction of the thylacine, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2000, p.161.

[7] See Robert Paddle, The last Tasmanian tiger.

[8] E Richall Richardson, ‘Tour through Tasmania: no.89: cattle branding’, Tasmanian Tribune, 14 March 1878, p.3.

[9] ‘Buckland’, Mercury, 15 August 1884, p.3.

[10] Theophilus Jones, ‘Through Tasmania: no.61’, Mercury, 8 November 1884, supplement, p.1.

[11] Theophilus Jones, ‘Through Tasmania: no.49’, Mercury, 26 July 1884, p.2.

[12] Theophilus Jones, ‘Through Tasmania: no.35’, Mercury, 26 April 1884, supplement, p.1.

[13] Theophilus Jones, ‘Through Tasmania: no.56’, Mercury, 20 September 1884, p.2.

[14] Theophilus Jones, ‘Through Tasmania: no.35’, Mercury, 26 April 1884, supplement, p.1.

[15] ‘House of Assembly’, Mercury, 24 October 1884, p.3.

[16] ‘Meeting at Buckland’, Mercury, 14 August 1884, p.2; ‘The native tiger’, Mercury, 25 September 1885, p.2.

[17] This list was compiled on 22 December 2016. The numbers in brackets indicate how many of the hits occurred in text and how many in advertising. While occurrences of a name in advertising are a relevant gauge of its public usage, it is recognised that numbers of hits are exaggerated by repeated publication of the same advertisement. Another issue noted in this search of Trove was the need to weed out references to ‘native and tiger cats’, which refer to the two species of quoll rather than to the thylacine. There are also cases of repetition in the sense that some textual references involve two or more names for the thylacine, such as ‘the Tasmanian tiger or marsupial wolf’. In such cases both names have been included in the table.

[18] Carol Freeman, Paper tiger: how pictures shaped the thylacine, Forty South Publishing, Hobart, 2014, pp.117and 140.

[19] Editorial, Mercury, 28 March 1884, p.2.

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George Wainwright/Brown/Wilson (1864-1903), Woolnorth ‘tigerman’

The Wainwrights at Mount Cameron West (now returned to the Aboriginal people, as Preminghana) during the late 1890s. Sunday best is adopted for the photographer. The girl standing at front beside her parents Matilda and George is probably May, the boys on horseback are probably George, Dick and Harry. Photo courtesy of Kath Medwin.
The Wainwrights at Mount Cameron West (now returned to the Aboriginal people, as Preminghana) during the late 1890s. Sunday best is adopted for the photographer. The girl standing at front beside her parents Matilda and George is probably May, the boys on horseback are probably George, Dick and Harry. Photo courtesy of Kath Medwin.

In 1889 Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDL Co) local agent James Norton Smith advertised for ‘a trustworthy man to snare tigers [thylacines or Tasmanian tigers], kangaroo, wallaby and other vermin at Woolnorth’, the company’s large grazing property at Cape Grim. The annual wage was £30 plus rations and a £1 bounty for each thylacine killed.[1] Applications came from Tasmanian centres as far afield as Branxholm in the north-east and New Norfolk in the south. One, written on behalf of her husband, came from Rachel Nichols of Campbell Town. She was the mother of then eleven-year-old Ethelbert (Bert) Nichols, the future hunter, Overland Track cutter, highland guide and Lake St Clair Reserve ranger.[2]

 

However, none of these applicants got the job. The man chosen as ‘tigerman’, as the position was known within the VDL Co, was George Wainwright senior, who arrived ‘under a cloud’ as George Wilson and departed in 1903 when convicted of receiving stolen skins.[3] Was he a relation of Woolnorth overseer James Wilson, or how was he selected for the job?[4] And what was a tigerman anyway?

 

George Wainwright was born in Launceston in 1864, and seems to have a not untypical upbringing for the poorly educated child of an ex-convict father, featuring family breakdown, petty crime, shiftlessness and suggestions of poverty.[5] As a young adult he measured only 162 cm (5 foot 3 inches), with a dark complexion and dark curly hair. The scar under his chin may have the result of rough times on the streets of Launceston.[6] Food may have been scarce. At thirteen he faced court with another boy on a charge of stealing apples (the case was dismissed for lack of evidence).[7] In 1883, his employer, Launceston butcher Richard Powell, had the nineteen-year-old arrested on warrant (that is, in absentia) on a charge of breaching the Master and Servant Act.[8] He had run off to Sydney, describing himself as a cook.[9]

 

George had returned to Launceston by October of that year, when his mother, now known as ‘Mrs T Barrett’ (née Caroline Hinds or Haynes or Hyams), ran a public notice instructing clergymen not to marry her son to anyone, he being under age.[10] Presumably George had Matilda Maria Carey (1863–1941)—or her pregnancy—in mind, because the couple were soon united, and soon separated.[11] In 1885 Matilda prosecuted George for deserting her and George junior, having not sent her any money for six months. It was revealed in court in Melbourne that George had recently been a grocer’s assistant, but now was working in a Brunswick (Melbourne) brick yard. Matilda Wainwright was then living with her father-in-law William Wainwright in Launceston. She claimed he showed her little sympathy, having sold all her furniture and told her to seek a living for herself. George Wainwright was freed on agreeing to pay her 10 shillings per week.[12]

 

Interestingly, in Victoria he was known to police as George Brown, ‘alias Wainwright’.[13] Presumably he returned to Launceston sometime between 1885 and 1889—and changed his name to George Wilson! He may have been the George Wilson who was in Beaconsfield in 1886 and 1887.[14] Perhaps he became a protégé of James Wilson, the Woolnorth overseer, and perhaps that man’s intervention secured Wainwright/Brown/Wilson the tigerman job at Woolnorth. James Wilson had coined the term ‘tigerman’ to describe the Mount Cameron West shepherds in the period 1871–1905. Convinced that thylacines were killing their sheep, the VDL Co gave the Mount Cameron West man the additional job of maintaining a line of snares across a narrow neck of land at Green Point, which was believed to be the predator’s principal access point to Woolnorth. Otherwise, the tigermen were actually standard stockmen-hunters, charged with guarding sheep and destroying competitors for the grass.

 

George Wilson and his family originally occupied a one-room hut at Mount Cameron West. In 1893 George Wainwright, as he was now known again, apparently told a visitor that he received £2-10 for each thylacine killed—£1 from the VDL Co, £1 from the government and 10 shillings for the skin. In the years 1888–1909 the Tasmanian government paid a bounty on every thylacine carcass submitted to police. However, nobody by the name of Wainwright ever collected a government bounty: in fact only two VDL Co tigermen, Arthur Nicholls and Ernest Warde, personally collected government bounties while working for the company.[15] The thylacine carcasses appear to have been sold through intermediaries, chiefly Stanley merchants Charles Tasman (CT) Ford (1891–99) and (after Ford’s death) William B (WB) Collins (1900–06). Ford, who also drove cattle down the West Coast to Zeehan and bought VDL Co stock, was a regular visitor to Woolnorth.[16]

 

In 1893 Wainwright had about 60 springer snares set for wallaby, pademelon and brush possum.[17] Ringtails were the dubious beneficiary of technological change, as the commercial manufacture of acetylene or carbide during the 1890s revolutionised ‘spotlighting’. Using an acetylene lamp to spotlight nocturnal animals was a vast improvement on the traditional method of shooting by moonlight, since some animals, especially the ringtail possum and ‘native cat’, were ‘hypnotised’ by the lamp, remaining rooted to the spot. It was not the ideal hunting technique for a grazing run, however, let alone for a solitary shepherd. Usually, two men worked together, one ‘spotting’ the animals with the acetylene lamp, the other shooting them. The lamps which shooters used frightened stock, and sometimes shooters’ dogs ran amok with grazing sheep. More significantly for the hunter, shooting the animal in any other part but the head damaged its pelt. Acetylene fumes were also unpleasant for the hunter, and the battery sometimes gave him an unexpected ‘charge’.

 

More money was available for a living tiger than a dead one. By Wainwright’s time, thylacines were in demand from zoos. In 1892 James Denny caught one alive at the Surrey Hills and sent it to the Zoological Gardens in Melbourne.[18] In 1896 CT Ford was asked to procure live tigers for a circus. Wainwright obliged by capturing a thylacine alive and sending it into Stanley, where there was ‘a little excitement … to see “the tiger”’ before it was shipped to Sydney.[19] This thylacine capture does not appear in the extant Woolnorth farm journal record (the journal for 1896 is missing) or in any other surviving official records for Woolnorth. Since the animal was not killed, Wainwright received no VDL Co or government reward for it.

 

In 1897–98 a new hut was built for George and Matilda at Mount Cameron. They would need it. Six children—George, Alf, Dick, May, Harry, Gertrude and Robert—gave them plenty to worry about in such an isolated place. If that was not enough, Matilda was reportedly ‘very ill’ in July 1893 and ‘badly hurt’ in January 1894, while in May 1900 Woolnorth overseer W Pinkard had to fetch medicine for her from Stanley.[20]

 

By 1900 George and Dick were already showing their prowess as tiger snarers, and one of the Wainwright boys was digging potatoes.[21] With their father sometimes helping out elsewhere on the property, fetching cattle from Ridgley or a stockman from Trefoil Island, the children quickly developed a range of skills which ensured that they could work on the land independently.[22]

George Wainwright's mugshot, 1903. Courtesy of TAHO.
George Wainwright’s mugshot, 1903. Courtesy of TAHO.

Wainwright’s imprisonment in 1903 gave them that opportunity. The story of his crime of receiving 298 wallaby, 298 pademelon, 17 tiger cat, 2 domestic cat and 10 brush possum skins stolen from William Charles Wells contains insight into hunting at Mount Cameron West and on Woolnorth generally. Wells was caretaker (hunter-stockman) for a farm at Green Point south of Woolnorth, near where the VDL Co arranged its snares. The owner of the property, Thomas John King, had stayed with Wainwright in the Mount Cameron Hut in July 1902 after fetching the skins from the farm. The skins disappeared overnight after being left outside the hut in a cart. Suspicion fell on Wainwright not only because his was the only hut in the area but because he had previously tried to buy the skins at a price which was refused. Police alleged that in September Matilda Wainwright drove a buggy containing the skins to the port at Montagu to be loaded on the ketch Ariel.[23] It was now close season, so Wainwright wrote telling Stanley storekeeper WB Collins that he was sending down some out-of-season skins and suggesting that he ask the police to let them pass. Wells claimed to have identified 23 of his stolen skins in Collins’ store.[24] Proof that Wainwright was guilty centred on Wells’ identification of an unusually light skin among those Wainwright had sent to market. A search conducted among the skins of three Launceston skin merchants, Lees, Sidebottom and Gardner, revealed only three or four skins matching the one identified by Wells, confirming the distinctiveness of the skin and strengthening the case against Wainwright.[25]

 

Launceston merchant Robert Gardner testified that he had known Wainwright for 25 years, having employed him when he (Wainwright) was a boy, and that he had done business with him for several years, finding him straightforward and honest. He had bought wallaby skins from Wainwright regularly.[26] Despite this testimonial, Wainwright was given a twelve-month sentence for receiving stolen property. Thirty-nine years old, he died in the Hobart Gaol of heart failure prompted by acute pneumonia only four months into that sentence.[27]

 

Today a relatively young man’s death in custody would provoke an inquest. However, the harshness of Wainwright’s demise seems in keeping with the harshness of his sentence and the general torpor of working people’s lives more than a century ago. George must have done something right as a hunter and provider, because he left wife Matilda £305—more than ten times his annual stockman’s wage.[28]

 

Charged with nothing, Matilda Wainwright stayed on as cook at Woolnorth, although only because no one else could be found for the job. ‘I would have preferred anyone else rather than Mrs Wainwright’, new VDL Co agent AK McGaw lamented, ‘and now that she is there I am not altogether satisfied that her influence is for the best. Of course I find her appointment does not answer I will have no hesitation in terminating it’.[29] McGaw had advertised for a married couple to replace the Wainwrights.[30] He effectively got one when the widowed Matilda married the new overseer, Thomas Lovell, while her sons, good workmen, also had a future at Woolnorth. As a woman and mother, remarriage was her only option anyway. George Wainwright junior would carve out his own long career as a VDL Co stockman.

[1] ‘Wanted, at Woolnorth’, Daily Telegraph, 9 August 1889, p.1.

[2] Rachel Nichols to James Norton Smith, 8 August 1889, VDL22/1/19 (Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office [afterwards TAHO]).

[3] AW McGaw, Outward Despatch no.16, 1 June 1903, p.151, VDL7/1/13 (TAHO); ‘Death of a prisoner’, Mercury, 15 July 1903, supplement p.6.

[4] On the bottom of J Lowe’s application for the job is written in pencil ‘Geo Wilson also’. Everett was the reserve choice: on the back of his application is written ‘If man, at present engaged—not successful will write JL again’. See J Lowe application 9 August 1889 and J Everett application, 19 August 1889, VDL22/1/19 (TAHO).

[5] For William Wainwright (1810–87), see conduct record, CON33-1-90, TAHO website, http://search.archives.tas.gov.au/ImageViewer/image_viewer.htm?CON33-1-90,207,205,F,60, accessed 17 December 2016.

[6] ‘Miscellaneous information’, Victoria Police Gazette, 19 August 1885, p.232.

[7] Birth registration 60/1864, Launceston; ‘Police Court’, Cornwall Chronicle, 7 February 1877, p.3.

[8] ‘Launceston Police Court’, Tasmanian, 22 April 1882, p.432; ‘Launceston Police Court’, Launceston Examiner, 7 February 1883, p.3.

[9] He arrived in Sydney from Launceston on the Esk, 9 February 1883, New South Wales, Australia, Unassisted Passenger Lists, 1826–1922.

[10] Advert, Launceston Examiner, 31 October 1883, p.1.

[11] Marriage registration 677/1883, Launceston. They married 7 November 1883, George William Wainwright was born seven months later, on 12 June 1884, birth registration 371/1884, Launceston. Matilda Maria Carey was born in Launceston, 22 December 1863, registration 23/1864, Launceston.

[12] ‘Wife desertion’, Launceston Examiner, 29 August 1885, p.2.

[13] ‘Miscellaneous information’, Victoria Police Gazette, 19 August 1885, p.232.

[14] ‘Beaconsfield’, Daily Telegraph, 29 May 1886, p.3; ‘Beaconsfield’, Launceston Examiner, 15 January 1887, p.12.

[15] Nicholls: bounties no.289, 14 January 1889, p.127; and no.126, 29 April 1889, p.133, LSD247/1/1. Warde: bounty no.190, 20 October 1904, p.325, LSD247/1/2 (TAHO).

[16] James Wilson to JW Norton Smith, 8 April 1879, VDL22/1/7 (TAHO).

[17] Austin Allom, ‘A trip to the west coast’, Daily Telegraph, 19 August 1893, p.7.

[18] ‘Current topics’, Launceston Examiner, 17 September 1892, p.2.

[19] ‘Circular Head notes’, Wellington Times and Agricultural and Mining Gazette, 25 June 1896, p.2.

[20] Woolnorth Farm Journal, 10 July 1893, VDL277/1/20; 22 January 1894, VDL277/1/21; and 7 May 1900, VDL277/1/25 (TAHO).

[21] Woolnorth Farm Journal, 13 and 14 June, 7 May 1900, VDL277/1/25 (TAHO).

[22] Woolnorth Farm Journal, 22 September 1898, VDL277/1/24; 16 January and 5 March 1899, VDL277/1/25 (TAHO).

[23] ‘Supreme Court’, North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, 14 November 1902, p.2.

[24] ‘Supreme Court’, Mercury, 15 November 1902, p.3.

[25] ‘The Wainwright case’, Examiner, 28 February 1903, p.6.

[26] ‘The Wainwright case’, Examiner, 27 February 1903, p.6.

[27] ‘Death of a prisoner’, Examiner, 15 July 1903, p.6.

[28] ‘Testamentary’, Mercury, 20 October 1903, p.4.

[29] AK McGaw to VDL Co Board of Directors, no.38, 2 November 1903, p.313, VDL7/1/13 (TAHO).

[30] Advert, Examiner 20 May 1903, supplement p.8.

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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).