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Timber wolves and a land shark, or Bill Etchell’s love of ears

Draining the Welcome Swamp, 1923. From the Weekly Courier, 6 September 1923, p.21
Winching a log out of the Welcome Swamp, 1923. From the Weekly Courier, 6 September 1923, p.21
Another shot of Welcome Swamp drainage, a familiar scene on the dolomite swamps of Circular Head in the first half of the 20th century. From the Weekly Courier, 6 September 1923, p.21.
Another shot of Welcome Swamp drainage, a familiar scene on the dolomite swamps of Circular Head in the first half of the 20th century. From the Weekly Courier, 6 September 1923, p.21.

The rapaciousness of the Circular Head timber industry was captured in Bernard Cronin’s novel Timber Wolves, published in 1920, the year before the establishment of the Tasmanian Forestry Department in an effort to make the industry sustainable. Mainland timber contractors and local operators tried to squeeze out competitors by securing strategic leases in front of existing working leases, cutting off transport routes and making expansion impossible:

 

‘Did you ever hear of “dummying”? These timber wolves go to the limit [of their timber quota] in their own names and put up dummy agents to cover the rest. It’s illegal, but what does that matter. They’s [sic] no one ever asts [sic] the question so long as the rental and royalties and so on are paid regularly. The while system is rotten to the core … We got to take the price they offer us, or let the timber rot …’[1]

 

Conservator of Forests Llewellyn Irby read Timber Wolves before visiting Smithton in 1922. ‘This is the worst place in Tasmania for toughs’, he wrote

 

and is part of the locality referred to in ‘Timber Wolves’ so you can imagine what we have to deal with. We have had a lot of trouble with a chap who is the worst scoundrel in the district. He has the reputation of being a man eater, has nearly killed two men by kicking them when down, while two or three others go through life minus half an ear, a piece he has bitten off.

 

This was Bill (William Henry) Etchell, whom Phil Britton described somewhat tactfully as ‘a notorious strong man, opportunist leader of men, hard drinker’. According to Phil, Etchell would pay his men well, then win back much of their wages in card games at the pub. Irby feared stronger tactics:

 

As he was looking for me I felt a tingling in my ears and as when drunk he is absolutely murderous and we had seized his logs; I carried my gun … if they are the ‘Timber Wolves’ we are the forest bloodhounds and intend to clean them up …[2]

 

Nor were rough tactics restricted to sawmillers. By 1921 the success of the Mowbray Swamp reclamation had convinced the government to drain the Welcome, Montagu, Brittons and Arthur River Swamps. The Surveyor-General stressed the importance of reclaiming

 

a large area of swamp lands, now lying in useless waste, but which when reclaimed and opened up will form one of the largest and best agricultural and dairying propositions in the state.[3]

 

Disappointment followed. The development of the Smithton dolomite Welcome Swamp near East Marrawah (Redpa) was a comparative disaster. Drainage was inadequate, the scheme was extremely expensive, and superintendent of the works, Thomas Strickland, faced accusations of foul play. Strickland resigned with the job incomplete after being criticised by a Royal Commission into the reclamation scheme.[4] For years afterwards no land on the Welcome Swamp was ploughed.

Harvesting blackwood by bullock team near Smithton. From the Tasmanian Mail, 12 September 1918.
Harvesting blackwood by bullock team near Smithton. From the Tasmanian Mail, 12 September 1918, p.19.

The summer of 1923–24 was so wet that it was impossible to haul logs out on flat land by bullock team, reducing productivity, but by February 1924 the bush was drying out. ‘We may have to get a bullock driver ourselves’, Mark Britton told Jim Livingstone, ‘as you cannot depend on CW [Charlie Wells] …’ Wet weather also prevented laying down more tramway, so the chance was taken to overhaul the locomotive instead. With blackwood hard to remove from the bush, attention was switched to cutting hardwood from Robinson’s land, where tracks were opened up for the winder to work. Brittons also applied to remove blackwood from a block of crown land which they believed could only be reached by log hauler from spur lines on their own lease. At least £30 of work was done in anticipation of gaining the lease—only to discover it had been granted to Frank Fenton, one of the sons of CBM Fenton and a grandson of James Fenton, pioneer settler at Forth. He was a new player in the timber game who had built a steam sawmill at the foot of the Sandhill. Mark Britton continued:

 

We do not know if Fenton knows about it [the blackwood on his lease] anyway we do not intend to tell him at present … some of the mills are going bung around here and more will follow we are thinking soon.[5]

Mark Britton (with beard), Arthur Coates, Pat Streets and H Shaw loading dry blackwood boards.
Mark Britton (with beard), Arthur Coates, Pat Streets, H Shaw and another man loading dry blackwood boards.

To Mark, as he explained to Llewellyn Irby, this was a clear case of dummying by Fenton. He went on to explain that there was no longer enough timber on Crown land to keep a small mill cutting for three months of the year. Brittons could have attacked the disputed blackwood by steam hauler. Fenton could not, making it impossible for him to obtain the whole of the timber.[6] Not only would timber be wasted, Mark claimed, but Fenton’s method of removing the timber could destroy roads designed for lighter traffic and built by men working legitimately.[7]

 

As Mark complained, by October 1925 Brittons were watching blackwood logs that they themselves had felled being removed by Fenton to his mill, using tracks they had cut and cleared:

 

Does your department allow such proceedings if not to whom must we apply for justice please reply at once re the matter, we do not want those tracks cut up and if your department is not responsible we will take proceedings ourselves.[8]

 

In truth, this was a case of Brittons letting an opportunity slip. The Forestry Department had advised the company to take up the lease, but they did not see its value, as Phil Britton remembered:

 

I blamed myself too, as I was told to have a look at it which I did, but not having the knowledge of assessing the volume of timber let the offer slip.[9]

 

Fenton saw its worth. He applied for the area, built a steam sawmill at the foot of the Sandhill and added to his holdings another 15,000 acres held by Chapman, a clerk for Cumming Bros in Burnie. He built a tramline to this new area but cleaned up the handy timber at Christmas Hills with trucks and Aub Sheen’s horse team:

 

Wet or fine those logs kept coming into Frank Fenton’s mill. Hazel Jacklyn was the steam engine man who kept the steam up and sharpened the circular saws. A twin sawmill and breast bench and docker were common in those days and turned out large quantities of furniture boards and flooring, all quarter cut and racked and held in stock till the Depression passed.[10]

 

Fenton would be the only sawmiller to beat the slump of the mid to late 1920s.

 

Bill Etchell was another who gave rival sawmillers a run for their money. In the early 1920s he ran out of logs on private property at Christmas Hills. He moved his portable steam engine and spot sawmill to Edith Creek, and in October 1924 relocated again, this time at the Salmon River to exploit the stands of blackwood in that area. At that time hardwood was almost unsaleable, whereas there was a strong market for blackwood.[11]

 

Etchell was in the habit of applying for large timber leases in front of another sawmiller, cutting off his future supply. After moving his mill, in March 1925 Etchell applied for and won a lease beyond where Brittons were working at Edith Creek. Mark Britton complained that his company should be given preference in this area,

 

seeing that we have opened up the way to obtain the timber having spent the best part of our time and money in the venture and then to find ourselves outdone by what appears to us speculators and adventurers that just take up areas wherever they see a blank space on the chart …

 

Mark pointed out that the Edith Creek mill to which Etchell was supposed to be going to mill the timber was now at the Salmon River. Anyone acquainted with the rough country concerned, Mark claimed, ‘would realise the absurdity’ of trying to build a tramway into it, although, apparently, the timber on it would have been accessible from Brittons’ existing tramway network.[12] Brittons won out on this occasion.

 

Careful assessment of costs had to be made ahead of taking up a permit, taking into consideration the cost of constructing and maintaining tramways and haulage. By December 1925 Brittons had cut all the blackwood on their leases with the exception of an 800-acre lease and were looking for new leases.[13]

 

A consummate ‘land shark’: Major Musson

Tasmania was in a perilous economic state during the 1920s. As well as sawmillers, many farmers, including returned soldiers, struggled for survival. The Primary Producers’ Association (a forerunner of today’s Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers’ Association) was established to lobby politicians about the needs of farmers.

 

However, not everyone was on the side of the farmer. Major Richard William Musson (not to be confused with promoter of the pulp and paper mill at Burnie, Gerald Musson) first appeared in Tasmania in December 1922 as a representative of ‘one of the leading insurance businesses’. He was noted as ‘a singer of great repute, well known in Manchester’, and had been a member of the Welsh Fusiliers during World War I.[14] The businesses he was involved in included the Flax Corporation of Australia, the Renown Rubber Ltd, the Rapson Tyre Company and the Primary Producers’ Bank of Australia, which opened its first branch at Wynyard in December 1923 before extending its custom across the state.[15] In the years 1923–25 Musson lived in Wynyard, demonstrating his talent for instant rapport by being elected president of the Wynyard Football Club and a vice-president of the Wynyard Homing Society. In February 1924 he and an associate were reported to be undertaking successful negotiations with farmers in the Marrawah district, his aim being, apparently, ‘to give the best advantages to primary producers’.[16]

 

Lorna Britton recalled Elijah and Mark Britton losing a great deal of money by signing up for one of Musson’s schemes, presumably the Primary Producers’ Bank. She believed that they were susceptible to cultured English accents like Musson’s. His sales pitch began by giving Lorna a pair of spurs

 

which he said had served him well during World War I, when he rode his trusty steed into the thick of battle in France. He said they were spurs of pure silver, but I never used them, and they have since disappeared. What use could I have had for such a cruel method of getting more speed out of poor Old Nag, who did her best with only a twitchy stick as an urge. He was a huge man, and even brought his wife with him on one occasion out through the muddy road astride a pair of horses. He used all the charismatic charm, playing the piano and singing. One favourite was ‘The Mountains of Mourne’, which he sang with such fervour that the mountains really did ‘sweep down to the sea’. He wooed the brothers so they signed eagerly on the dotted line, which cost them a great deal of money, and Mother shed many tears.[17]

Frank Britton at home with a broken arm, 1925.
Frank Britton at home with a broken arm, 1925.

Frank Britton, nine years younger than Lorna, remembered things a little differently, with Musson driving a big flashy car which, because of the muddy track, could only visit Brittons Swamp in the summer. Musson was, according to Frank,

 

instrumental in taking Dad down for a lot of money, with a lot of bogus companies. And the old Primary Producers’ Bank of course which was paying interest on current account that Dad never ever said you could ever do. Anyhow they did, and they went broke.[18]

 

The Primary Producers’ Bank closed its doors in 1931 and was liquidated. By then the fraudster’s schemes were catching up with him. In December 1931 Musson was arrested along with three other men in Texas, Queensland, on a charge of conspiracy to commit fraud by enticing people to invest in the Tasmanian Credits Ltd.[19] The men were convicted, but on appeal their convictions were quashed.[20] There was no escape in 1933, however, when Musson was one of three men arrested in Queensland on charges of conspiracy for selling land to which they had no title in relation to the Texas Tobacco Plantation Pty Ltd of Queensland.[21] The men played on their military bearing, calling themselves Captain Brough, Major Field and Major Musson, although Musson admitted that he had not held the substantive rank of major during World War I.[22] All three were convicted and imprisoned for three years.[23] Frank Britton believed that Musson’s deceit cost him [Frank] an education like the one that his brothers and sisters enjoyed in Launceston and, with it, the chance to become a lawyer or doctor.[24]

[1] Bernard Cronin, The timber wolves, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1920.

[2] Llewellyn Irby to his family from Smithton 27 October 1922 (copy held by the author).

[3] Surveyor-General to Minister for Lands 12 May 1921, ‘Exploration survey Salmon River Wellington’, file LSD344/1/1 (Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office).

[4] ‘Welcome Swamp: Royal Commission’s Report’, Examiner, 13 March 1924, p.8.

[5] Mark Britton to Jim Livingstone 11 February 1924, Journal pp.102–06.

[6] Mark Britton, Britton Timbers, to Llewellyn Irby, Conservator of Forests, 11 February 1924, Journal pp.107–10.

[7] Mark Britton, Britton Timbers, to Llewellyn Irby, Conservator of Forests, 19 February 1924, Journal pp.111–12.

[8] Mark Britton, Britton Brothers, to S Moore, Forestry Office, Smithton, 14 October 1925, Journal p126.

[9] Phil Britton, ‘Memories of Christmas Hills (Brittons Swamp): the Story of the Sawmilling Industry and Farming in the Circular Head District 1900–1980’, pp.25–26 (manuscript held by the Britton Family).

[10] Phil Britton, ‘Memories of Christmas Hills (Brittons Swamp)’, p.26.

[11] JJ Dooley, ‘Far north-west’, Advocate, 8 October 1924, p.6.

[12] Mark Britton, Britton Brothers, to the Conservator of Forests 30 March 1925, Journal p.123.

[13] Mark Britton, Britton Brothers, to Garrett, District Forest Officer14 December 1925, Journal pp.127–28.

[14] ‘Men and women’, Advocate, 19 December 1922, p.2.

[15] ‘Primary Producers’ Bank’, Advocate, 6 December 1923, p.2.

[16] ‘Marrawah’, Advocate, 25 February 1924, p.4.

[17] Lorna Haygarth (née Britton) notes 1984.

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

[19] ‘Tasmanian Credits’, Advocate, 14 December 1931, p.8.

[20] ‘Tasmanian Credits’, Mercury, 31 May 1933, p.7.

[21] ‘Land in Queensland’, Mercury, 8 March 1933, p.8.

[22] ‘Tobacco Land’, Brisbane Courier, 11 March 1933, p.15.

[23] ‘Land fraud’, Canberra Times, 15 March 1933, p.1.

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

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Building ‘Manuka’, Brittons Swamp

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[3] Lorna Britton notes1983.

[4] Lorna Britton notes 1983.

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

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

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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).