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Jack the Shepherd or Barometer Boy: Middlesex Plains stockman Jack Francis

DYI dentistry would make for intriguing reality TV (Channel Seven’s new blockbuster The chair anyone?) but in the nineteenth-century Tasmanian backwoods it was an everyday reality. Many people were far removed from medical services, and if you owned forceps you were licensed to operate. Middlesex Plains stockman Jack Francis (c1828–1912) was a model of self-sufficiency—hunter, stock rider, tanner, bootmaker, rug maker, leather worker, blacksmith, tool maker and dentist. Whether he aspired to more advanced surgery is unknown, but his prowess with the pincers must have made for some tense moments around the family dinner table.

From Chudleigh to Waratah, including the Field brothers’ stations of Middlesex Plains and Gads Hill. Map courtesy of DPIPWE.

Given that 40,000 years of Aboriginal custodianship are unrepresented on official charts of the area, it shouldn’t be surprising that Francis’s comparatively miniscule 40-year familiarity with this former Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDL Co) highland run is not recorded on its landmarks. Unlike his notable successor, Dave Courtney (recalled by Courtney Hill), the short, stocky Francis cut no memorable figure. He had no moustaches he could tie behind his back or thick beard to hide his face. Nor was he a ‘man of mystery’, as much as some might have preferred him to be. Francis’s convictism was unpalatable in some quarters even after his death. One newspaper editor omitted the words ‘though a prisoner for some trifling offence’ from his obituary.[1] Highland journalist Dan Griffin was less mealy-mouthed but confused Jack Francis the stockman with Jack Francis the builder and failed assassin.[2] Both men were transported from England to Van Diemen’s Land, the latter for taking pot shots at Queen Victoria, but Jack Francis the stockman was the most benign and pathetic of transportees, being a boy convicted of stealing a barometer.[3] These beginnings make his nickname ‘Jack the Shepherd’, recalling the notorious Irish outlaw, even more ironic.[4]

Jack Francis and Dan Griffin at the Chudleigh Races, from the Weekly Courier, 23 January 1904, p.23.

A native of County Armagh, Northern Ireland, Francis was apparently apprenticed as a ‘rough shoemaker’ when he faced court in Lancaster, Lancashire, England.[5] He probably had no idea how those skills would serve him in future years. Measuring all of 167 cm, he must have had a basic education. He could write, but with apparent difficulty, clearly preferring to dictate letters rather than write them himself.[6] Transported for seven years on the Egyptian in 1838, the boy convict served Launceston bootmaker Amos Langmaid before being assigned to rural masters James Grant at Tullochgorum near Fingal and Theodore Bartley at Kerry Lodge near Breadalbane.[7]

By now Francis was getting his leather in the field as well as at the end of an awl. After securing a certificate of freedom in 1845, he was a shepherd at Bentley near Chudleigh before securing his first posting to the highlands.[8] If childhood transportation to the antipodes hadn’t shaken his being to the core, his life now got a mite more adventurous. Because of Legislative Council parsimony, there were few public road bridges in northern Tasmania before 1865, but the VDL Co Track by which the highlands grazing runs were accessed from Chudleigh had dangerous fords much later than that. Negotiating the track for the first time, Francis and his two companions found the Mersey River almost impassable. Jim Garrett took the other two men’s clothes across on horseback, but with such difficulty that he could not return for the men, who of course had no chance of wading the torrent. They therefore had to spend the night without warm clothes or bedding, and were without food until late the next day when crossing became possible.[9]

This was probably in 1851 when grazier William Kimberley became the first victim of a beautiful mirage called the Vale of Belvoir. In that year Kimberley leased 1000 acres of this snowy glacial valley as a summer sheep run, posting Francis as their protector.[10] Barometer boy apparently had more of an issue with ‘wolves’ than with the highland weather. Thylacines—but more likely wild dogs—were said to have decimated Kimberley’s flock, although the survivors thrived, some being too fat to travel.[11]

Perhaps tubby sheep were Francis’s passport to the overseer’s position at Fields’ Middlesex Plains Station. This was a lonely, isolated job, with only the annual muster party and the occasional prospector like James ‘Philosopher’ Smith or surveyor like Charles Gould to interrupt proceedings. However, a routine of maintaining fences, preventing liver fluke in sheep, rescuing stock from bogs and patch-burning the runs left plenty of time for the hunter-stockman’s real occupation, snaring and hunting—primarily for the fur industry, secondarily for meat.

Middlesex Station, 1905, photo by RE Smith, courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
Same view of Middlesex Station in 1993, 88 years on. Nic Haygarth photo.

The stock-in-trade of the highland stockman was the brush-possum-skin rug. The cold highland climate necessitated thick furs, and Francis, with his expertise in leatherworking, was well placed to take advantage of the demand for this specifically Tasmanian product.[12] Possum-skin carriage rugs and stock-whips he sold to VDL Co agent James Norton Smith fetched £2 and 16 shillings each respectively.[13] This was useful money, given that a stockman or shepherd’s annual wage was in the range of only £20–£30, supplemented by rations (flour, sugar, tea, tobacco, perhaps potatoes and some meat) delivered to a depot on Ration Tree Creek at the foot of Gads Hill, the milk he could wring from a cow, a few skilling sheep and an abundance of wallaby and wombat meat. He would have grown a few hardy vegetables, guarding them against frost and snow.

Jack Francis letters to the VDL Co’s James Norton Smith in 1875 and 1884 respectively, showing the difference between Maria’s fluent hand (above) and Jack’s laboured one (below).
From VDL22/1/9 and VDL22/1/12 (TAHO) respectively.

Not every woman would have fancied the lifestyle, but plenty of Jack’s contemporaries were accustomed to hardship. Jack Francis married 29-year-old house maid and factory worker Maria Bagwell (c1830–83) at Deloraine in 1860, subordinating his Roman Catholicism to her Protestantism.[14] She had been transported for seven years for stealing barley meal in Somerset in 1849. Perhaps she needed the nourishment, measuring only 166 cm as a nineteen-year-old. Her prison record is littered with the phrase ‘existing sentence of hard labour extended’. In 1852 she had been ‘delivered of’—deprived of?—an ‘illegitimate child’ at the Female House of Correction.[15] What happened to this unnamed girl from an unnamed father? Just as elusive is George Francis (?–1924), the child apparently born to Jack and Maria Francis during their time at Middlesex.[16]

The house maid seems to have taken to station life. In 1865 Maria Francis escorted surveyors James Calder and James Dooley from Middlesex Station to Chudleigh. To their ‘amazement’, their guide sat astride her horse like a man

‘and thus rode the whole way … with an amount of unconcern that surprised us not a little; and as if determined that we should not lose sight of this extraordinary feat of horsewomanship, she rode in front of us almost the whole distance, smoking a dirty little black pipe from one end of the journey to the other’.[17]

The couple’s son George Francis had arrived by 1871, when a child was mentioned by a visitor to Middlesex. Now Jack Francis revealed himself to be not just a skilled shoemaker and possum-skin rug maker but an expert tanner, clothing himself and his family in leather. They lived

‘in a clean and comfortable hut. A very few minutes sufficed for Mrs Francis to give us a cup of good tea, with abundance of milk, toast, and bread and butter, and when bedtime came she provided us with flealess bed-clothes, an unusual luxury in the bush….’

Jack Francis was ‘a very handy fellow … adept at shoeing a horse or drawing a tooth, having himself made a first-rate pair of forceps with which to perform this last-named operation …’ [18]

Final resting place for Jack and Maria Francis, Old Chudleigh Cemetery. Nic Haygarth photo.
Headstone of Maria Francis, Old Chudleigh Cemetery. Nic Haygarth photo.

Today not even a headstone in the Old Chudleigh Cemetery records this go-getter’s existence. Around Middlesex Station the ‘old’ European names are forgotten: Misery (now Courtney Hill), the Sirdar (after Horatio Herbert Kitchener of the South African War), Pilot, Sutelmans Park, Vinegar Hill, Twin Creeks. Who named them all and why? No journalist interviewed the old station hands. Yet while the Francises left their mark only in written history, digitisation of archival records is enriching our knowledge of displaced people like them, who lived remarkable lives in remote places.

[1] ‘A veteran drover’, Examiner, 7 March 1912, p.4.

[2] ‘DDG’ (Dan Griffin), ‘Vice-royalty at Mole Creek’, Examiner, 15 March 1918, p.6.

[3] See conduct record for John Francis, transported on the Egyptian for seven years in 1839, CON31/1/12, image 175 (TAHO), https://stors.tas.gov.au/CON31-1-12$init=CON31-1-12p175, accessed 16 February 2020.

[4] For the nickname see, for example, ‘River Don’, Weekly Examiner, 4 October 1873, p.11; ‘A veteran drover’, Examiner, 7 March 1912, p.4.

[5] Francis’s obituarist in, for example, ‘A veteran drover’, Examiner, 7 March 1912, p.4, claimed that he was born at Woodburn, Buckinghamshire, 5 February 1828. Francis’s convict records make him a native of County Armagh.

[6] Indent for John Francis, CON14/1/48, images 25 and 26 (TAHO), https://librariestas.ent.sirsidynix.net.au/client/en_AU/tas/search/detailnonmodal/ent:$002f$002fARCHIVES_DIGITISED$002f0$002fARCHIVES_DIG_DIX:CON14-1-48/one, accessed 16 February 2020. Compare, for example, his letter to James Norton Smith, 11 April 1881, VDL22/1/9 (TAHO), written by his wife Maria Francis, with his letter to James Norton Smith, 25 July 1884, VDL22/1/12 (TAHO), written in his own hand after Maria’s death.

[7] Conduct record, as above.

[8] ‘A veteran drover’, Examiner, 7 March 1912, p.4.

[9] ‘A veteran drover’, Examiner, 7 March 1912, p.4.

[10] ‘Crown lands’, Courier, 5 February 1851, p.2; ‘Surveyor-General’s Office’, Courier, 3 December 1851, p.2; ‘The Tramp’ (Dan Griffin), ‘In the Vale of Belvoir’, Mercury, 15 February 1897, p.3.

[11] ‘The Tramp’ (Dan Griffin), ‘In the Vale of Belvoir’, Mercury, 15 February 1897, p.3.

[12] HW Wheelright, Bush wanderings of a naturalist, Oxford University Press, 1976 (originally published 1861), p.44.

[13] Jack Francis to James Norton Smith, 10 October 1873, NS22/1/4; and 25 July 1884, VDL22/1/12 (TAHO).

[14] Married 24 December 1860, marriage record no.657/1860, at St Mark’s (Anglican) Church, Deloraine, RGD37/1/19 (TAHO), https://librariestas.ent.sirsidynix.net.au/client/en_AU/names/search/results?qu=john&qu=francis&qf=NI_INDEX%09Record+type%09Marriages%09Marriages&qf=NI_NAME_FACET%09Name%09Francis%2C+John%09Francis%2C+John, accessed 15 February 2020. On his marriage certificate, Jack underestimated his age as 28 years.

[15] See conduct record for Maria Bagwell, transported on the St Vincent, CON41/1/25, image 16 (TAHO), https://stors.tas.gov.au/CON41-1-25$init=CON41-1-25p16, accessed 15 February 2020. See also birth record for Maria Bagwell’s unnamed illegitimate female child, born 7 September 1852, birth record no.1780/1852, registered at Hobart, RGD33/1/4 (TAHO), https://librariestas.ent.sirsidynix.net.au/client/en_AU/names/search/results?qu=NI_NAME%3D%22Bagwell,%20Maria%22#, accessed 15 February 2020.

[16] George Francis died 12 January 1924, will no.14589, administered 7 March 1924, AD960/1/48, p.189 (TAHO), https://librariestas.ent.sirsidynix.net.au/client/en_AU/names/search/results?qu=george&qu=francis&qf=NI_INDEX%09Record+type%09Marriages%09Marriages+%7C%7C+Deaths%09Deaths+%7C%7C+Wills%09Wills&qf=PUBDATE%09Year%091906-1976%091906-1976, accessed 16 February 2020.

[17] James Erskine Calder, ‘Notes of a journey’, Tasmanian Times, 18 May 1867, p.4.

[18] Anonymous, Rough notes of journeys made in the years 1868, ’69, ’70, ’71, ’72 and ’73 in Syria, down the Tigris … and Australasia, Trubner & Co, London, 1875, pp.263–64.

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The rain on the plain falls mainly outside the gauge, or how a black sheep brought meteorology to Middlesex

Black's adit, Black Bluff gold mine, Lea River, north-western Tasmania.
Black’s adit, Black Bluff gold mine, Lea River, north-western Tasmania.

In summer you can easily wade up the Lea River beneath the beetling cliffs along the northern edge of the Middlesex Plains. Only by then doubling back can you find a mullock dump partially blocking the river, and above it a 30-metre-long tunnel into the cliff, where the remains of a skip and a rusted lantern testify to the past use of the rotten wooden rails. The price of gold is attractive in depression times, and it was in the wake of the 1891 depression that Lou Thomas first struck gold here. In 1931, during the Great Depression, depreciation of the pound boosted the gold price, an action repeated in 1952. Each time the miners returned hoping to plunder the Black Bluff or Lea River reef that had failed to yield its treasure last time around. Others, like Cliff ‘Dingo’ Beswick in the 1960s, chipped away in the main adit as a hobby, bothering more nesting swallows than gold buyers.

Dick Brown and George Francis, of Middlesex Station, renovating the log hut at the Black Bluff gold mine to accommodate Walter Malcolm Black, 1905. RE Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith,
Dick Brown and George Francis, of Middlesex Station, renovating the log hut at the Black Bluff gold mine to accommodate Walter Malcolm Black, 1905. RE Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith.

The mine’s only long-term resident, Walter Malcolm Black (1864–1923), probably spent a thousand pounds or so here. He was a remittance man—his family paid him to stay away from them. Black was the second son of grazier Archibald Black of Gnotuk, near Camperdown, Victoria, and a nephew of powerful Victorian squatter Niel Black.[1] Of medium build, 70 kg and 177 cm tall, Black was raised in the Presbyterian faith of his Scottish ancestry and, like many a grazier’s son, he was educated at the prestigious Geelong Grammar.[2]

 

In 1885, at 21 years old, he won an out-of-court settlement over his late father’s estate, which amounted to government debentures worth £7124.[3] The terms of settlement apparently included a deal that he stay well away from home.[4] His crime against his family, if there was one, is unknown, but in 1886 he was a grazier at Lila Springs Station, in the Warrego district, New South Wales, and in 1891 he was out at Bourke.[5]

 

Black’s later movements give the impression of being directed by the need of distraction. His nest egg probably satisfied his financial needs. By 1894 he had renounced grazing for a mining career, possibly at the Western Australian gold rushes. In 1905 he was in Tasmania, occupying Lou Thomas’ recently renovated log hut at the top of the 90-metre-high cliff in which several drives sought that elusive lode. His introduction to the Middlesex Plains area was probably Deloraine doctor Frank Cole, who at one stage applied for land at Lake Lea, where he was said to be planning a summer resort and sanatorium.[6] The area Cole applied for later became known as Blacks White Grass, and Black was said to be the owner of a boat on Lake Lea.[7] In 1909 he asked the Meteorological Office of the Department of Home Affairs to send him a rain gauge, which he attended conscientiously for six years.

Louisa Brown with pet wallaby at Middlesex Station, 1910. RE Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith.
Louisa Brown with pet wallaby at Middlesex Station, 1910. RE Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith.

Black soon met his closest neighbours, Middlesex Station tenants Frank and Louisa Brown, plus William Hitchcock, manager of the Shepherd and Murphy tin, tungsten and bismuth mine at Moina. Later, Cradle Mountain enthusiast Gustav Weindorfer joined him in the high country. Educated men, Hitchcock and Weindorfer were important contacts because they were fellow converts to the ‘bush brotherhood’ and enabled an exchange of news, books and magazines. Illuminating titles like When earth was young, The great age, Waterfall and the Bulletin helped them keep a fragile hold on what must sometimes have seemed a world far removed. Black loved botany. For recreation, he could ramble up the Lea River in search of Blandfordia blooms with his sheepdog, take a row on Lake Lea, or track down his grey horse, Blue Spec, named after the 1905 Melbourne Cup winner, who roamed the woods with a bell around his neck.

Fury hut, Fleece Creek, 1909: Gustav Weindorfer, Walter Malcolm Black, Kate Weindorfer. RE Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith.
Fury hut, Fleece Creek, 1910: Gustav Weindorfer, Walter Malcolm Black, Kate Weindorfer. RE Smith photo courtesy of Charles Smith.

However, Black is best known for his part in a legendary 1909–10 Cradle Mountain expedition. Kate Weindorfer, Ron Smith, Black and his sheepdog were there on the Cradle summit in January 1910 when Gustav Weindorfer proclaimed the need for a national park ‘for the people for all time’. This statement anticipated the establishment of both Waldheim (‘forest home’) Chalet at Cradle Valley and today’s Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park.

 

Black returned to his unnamed log hut. Perhaps because he had scoffed strawberries from Black’s garden, Government Geologist WH Twelvetrees took an optimistic view of the Black Bluff mine when he inspected it in 1912. However, Black never found his gold lode. Frustrated with the mine, he prospected as far afield as Granite Tor and the Dove River gorge, armed with a £75 government advance granted under the Aid to Mining Act (1912). Keeping the rain gauge only seemed to dampen his spirits. ‘I am heartily sick of things here,’ he wrote in 1915, ‘and I want to go down … and take a contract digging spuds—something to do at any rate … Measured 110 points this morning and raining still—over 6 inches this week’. In October of that year Black rewound his age by six years to 45, enabling him to qualify for war service and join up as a private in the First Remounts. He took the rain gauge, his books, his horse, saddle and bridle down the Five Mile Rise to Lorinna and sold them to fellow prospector Syd Reardon for £5.[8] Blue Spec may have passed to another Lorinna identity, Bert Nichols, who was known to use a grey mare by that name to transport his wallaby and possum skins.

 

Black served his time in Egypt without seeing the battlefront. However, war service aggravated a susceptibility to pleurisy which he had first contracted in Australia. At Heliopolis, Cairo, in 1916 he was struck by a galloping horse, breaking two ribs and damaging others. After that, every cold he caught turned into pleurisy, a condition which was exacerbated by another rib injury sustained when he fell down a manhole while aboard the Devon on his way home to Tasmania. Black spent ten days in hospital upon arrival in Hobart, and was discharged as permanently unfit in January 1919.[9] However, instead of returning to Black Bluff, he took advantage of the Returned Soldiers Settlement Act (1916) by market gardening a free land selection at Tolosa Street, Glenorchy. His restless ways continued. Soon he was grazing at Bellerive.[10] After a stint working at the cement works on Maria Island, he was admitted to the no.9 Military (Repatriation) Hospital, Hobart, where he died on 31 June 1923 at 58 years of age.[11] He was intestate, his probate being valued at a little more than £19.[12] That family nest egg was long gone.[13]

 

So was Black’s rain gauge. Syd Reardon was delighted to have it—and not because of an interest in precipitation. The only liquid Reardon cared about came in a bottle. Every month the Meteorological Department sent out a chart on which to plot the rainfall figures. Reardon saved them up and used them to wallpaper his hut. Meanwhile, young Harold Tuson delivered the gauge to the Lorinna State School, where for a time the teacher, Ivy Lloyd, kept up the rainfall records. However, when she fell ill and moved to Bothwell, the meteorology of the Middlesex Plains area drifted back into obscurity.

Dave Courtney with the beginnings of his moustaches in 1903 mugshots. From GD63-1-3, TAHO.

Dave Courtney with the beginnings
of his moustaches, in 1903 mugshots.
From GD63-1-3, TAHO.

 

Until legendary stockman Dave Courtney came on the scene. How Foley, the Divisional Meteorologist, came to choose the famously sullen Middlesex Station ‘mystery man’ as an ‘observer’ is hard to imagine. Yet their meagre exchanges show Courtney to be the one reliable record keeper in a dynamic tenancy. In August 1928, for example, Foley asked Courtney why no rainfall records had been received from Middlesex Station for six months. The bearded wonder responded that ‘since February last I have been away and the other man who was left in charge did not take the other rain’.

 

Courtney’s replacement Ted Farrell maintained the records for a time. Sometimes in winter Middlesex was cut off by snow drifts. Foley sent Farrell a snow gauge to measure that as well as the rain, but the stockman had moved on. Next man Bill Ward refused gauge duty, and when in December 1932 Ben Brown took over the station the snow gauge was missing. Alex Burnie replaced Brown in November 1934 and records again lapsed. Burnie left Middlesex, Dave Courtney returned—no rain gauge this time. Where was it? The Meteorological Department tracked down Alex Burnie in Queenstown in 1940, when he denied any responsibility, ‘I left Middlesex in May 1938 and all gauge [sic] were in good order then’.

 

The family of Middlesex Station grazier JT Field sold the property after his death in 1940. New owner, saw-miller FH ‘Cocky’ Haines, was more interested in millable timber than in raising stock. The station gained a strange new tenant called Frank Whitworth. In April 1946 he asked the Meteorological Department for ‘a suitable outfit for taking rain, temp records’ and a record book. ‘I am taking over a certain portion [of Middlesex] (which will be named Brayfield)’, he wrote. ‘I expect to be here for a considerable time’. Whitworth’s Brayfield letterhead, which included postal, telegram, cable and street addresses, supported this expectation. Unfortunately, one snowy winter at Middlesex consigned Brayfield to history. Whitworth scurried away to the sunnier climes of Port Sorell, taking the gauge with him.

 

So the rain on the plains splashed silently on the earth again, and the unmeasured hail clanged on the station roof. A hot fire took out Black’s log cabin. An adit packed with ancient, weeping gelignite is all that now signifies the remittance man’s tenancy of more than a century ago, and should a foot fall too heavily in that Lea River eyrie, more than a winter deluge may rain down on Middlesex.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Birth record no.7299/1864, Victoria.

[2] ‘Personal’, Camperdown Chronicle, 9 August 1923, p.2.

[3] ‘Supreme Court’, Age, 27 February 1885, p.6.

[4] Harold Tuson, interviewed at Canberra, 11 May 1995. He met Black many times at the Mail Tree, Middlesex Plains, and once at Lorinna, and recalled that he was a ‘remittance man’.

[5] Notice, New South Wales Government Gazette, 19 March 1886, p.1983; ‘Quarter sessions’, Western Herald, 10 February 1891, p.2.

[6] ‘EJA’ (Dr EJ Addison), ‘On the roof of Tasmania’, North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, 1 March 1907, p.4.

[7] Ken Cook, interviewed 8 August 1993; ‘LJB’ (Lionel Brown), ‘Middlesex: a tourist resort’, Examiner, 11 February 1909, p.3.

[8] Harold Tuson, interviewed at Canberra, 11 May 1995.

[9] World War I service record. See https://www.awm.gov.au/people/rolls/R1791278/

[10] Supplemental electoral roll for Commonwealth Subdivision of Franklin, 1919, p.3.

[11] ‘Items of interest’, World, 2 July 1923, p.4.

[12] AD963/1/2, no.1057 (TAHO).

[13] AD963/1/2, no.1057 (TAHO).