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Henry Thom Sing, Chinese entrepreneur, and the Arthur River gold rush 1872

Henry Thom Sing, from the Weekly Courier, 30 May 1912, p.22.
Henry Thom Sing, from the Weekly Courier, 30 May 1912, p.22.

A downtown Launceston store is the face of a forgotten immigrant success story. The building at 127 St John Street was commissioned by Ah Sin, aka Henry Thom Sing or Tom Ah Sing, Chinese gold digger, shopkeeper, interpreter and entrepreneur. He was born at Canton, China on 14 March 1844, arriving in Tasmania on the ship Tamar in 1868.[1] Sing appears to have come from to Tasmania from the Victorian goldfields, and he was quick to seize on this experience when the northern Tasmanian alluvial goldfields of Nine Mile Springs (Lefroy), Back Creek and Brandy Creek (Beaconsfield) opened up. Like Launceston’s Peters, Barnard & Co, who hired Chinese miners through Kong Meng & Co in Melbourne, Sing began to recruit Chinese diggers on the Victorian goldfields.[2] His good English skills were an asset in trade and communication, and throughout his time in Launceston his services were drawn upon regularly as an interpreter in court cases involving Chinese speakers as far afield as Wynyard and Beaconsfield.

Circular Head farmer Skelton Emmett had been washing specks of gold in the Arthur River for years before a minor rush was sparked by two sets of brothers, Robert and David Cooper Kay, and Michael and Patrick Harvey, in April 1872.[3] Within three months, 160 miner’s rights had been issued and 70 claims registered.[4]

Claims were spread over about 2 km around the confluence of the Arthur and Hellyer Rivers. The European diggers generally preferred to work ‘beaches’ in the river.[5] Two European claims, the Golden Crown and the Golden Eagle, were on the Arthur downstream of the junction. The Golden Eagle party, who included William Jones and John Durant, strung a suspension bridge consisting of a single two-inch rope across the river in order to work both banks and for easy access: effectively it was a ‘bosun’s chair’ or flying fox. They worked their claim with a sluice box and Californian pump.[6] James West and party’s claim known as the Southern Cross was in a small gully on the southern side of the Arthur. The Kays’ claim was ‘in the gulch of a ravine’ a little further inland from the river. The claim of Frank Long, who later found fame on the Zeehan–Dundas silver field, was further down the same gulch.[7] The British Lion claim of W King was at the junction of the Arthur and the Hellyer, the Harvey brothers’ claim on the Arthur above it.[8] Waters from Circular Head and a man named House also held claims.[9]

Most of the gold obtained in the area by Chinese came from working the sand bars and shallows of the Arthur River. Sing had several roles on the field. Although Seberberg & Co had also engaged Chinese diggers for Tasmania, the 50 or so Chinese at the Arthur appear to have represented only two agents, Sing and Peters, Barnard & Co, both Launceston based.[10] Because he had a Launceston business to maintain, Sing’s time at the diggings would have been limited. He appears to have had two claims which were worked by Chinese parties, and he acted as an interpreter for other parties.[11] He also bought gold from diggers.[12] In November 1872, with the river low enough to permit an attack on its dry bed, both Sing parties engaged in ‘paddocking’, that is, diverting part of or the entire stream by damming it on their claim. On the upper claim the resulting wash dirt was put through a cradle, but the eight men expected to achieve better results when their sluice boxes were complete. Likewise, Lee Hung was building a sluice box.[13] The upper party once took 10 oz of gold in a day.[14] Wha Sing’s claim on the Arthur above the confluence included a vegetable garden, which would have provided his party with both food and cash, since stores would have been at a premium on the isolated field.[15]

One of the Chinese parties was said to have ‘turned’ the Arthur River in order to work its bed. While the Arthur is a large river, this is not as difficult an undertaking as it sounds. The idea is to drive a short tunnel or channel through a hairpin bend in the river, diverting its flow. A quick scan of the map makes it obvious where this could have been done. In fact the diversion channel would not have been on the Arthur River, but on the Hellyer, just above its junction with the parent river. This ingenious method of exposing a stream bed was employed on many gold fields and in Tasmania by osmiridium miners on Nineteen Mile Creek and other places.

The largest nugget obtained by February 1873―1 oz 3½ dwts―was found by a Chinese party in the river, but, generally, bigger nuggets were taken in the creeks.[16] Frank Long claimed to have got his best gold about 10 km from the Arthur River, and his was ‘much more nuggety’ than that of James West, who worked closer to the river. The gold appears to have been patchy. All the productive claims were above that of the Kays.[17] Working the creeks was harder in summer, but diggers made up for the lack of sluicing water by using chutes to bring the washdirt to the river.[18]

The Arthur River gold field was deserted by the end of 1873, and the Chinese soon switched to alluvial tin mining in the north-east. Sing built up his Launceston business. By the time he was naturalised as a British subject in 1882, he was renting a shop and residence at 127 St John Street, Launceston.[19] In 1883 he bought the site and erected a new premises designed by Leslie Corrie.[20] Here he sold imported Chinese groceries, ‘fancy goods’, preserved fruits, silk, tobacco, fireworks and the Chinese drinks and remedies Engape, Noo Too and Back Too.[21] Sing’s residence also served as a staging-post of Chinese tin miners arriving in Launceston. In 1885 he cemented his position in the north-east by buying out the store of Ma Mon Chin & Co at Weldborough, which afterwards operated as Tom Sing & Co.[22]

While a £10 poll tax was levied on Chinese entering the colony in 1887, Launceston’s established Chinese population became part of the community, with local businessmen Chin Kit, James Ah Catt and Henry Thom Sing supporting the work of the Launceston City and Suburbs Improvement Association by staging spectacular Chinese carnivals at City Park in 1890 and the Cataract Gorge in 1891. Fire gutted the Sing premises in 1895, and as a result it was either altered or rebuilt to the design of Launceston architect Alfred Luttrell.[23] This building remains today.

Sing married twice, and fathered at least seven children.[24] Both his brides appear to have been European. His death, in May 1912, aged 68, after 44 years in the Launceston business community, passed almost without comment in the Tasmanian press, perhaps indicating that, despite his naturalisation, a racial barrier between Chinese and Europeans remained.[25] Probate valued at £1738 suggested modest success.[26] Like the former Chung Gon store in Brisbane Street, today Henry Thom Sing’s St John Street store remains part of Launceston’s commercial sector.

[1] Naturalisation application, 22 July 1882, CSD13/1/53/850 (TAHO),, accessed 10 December 2016.

[2] ‘New Chinese diggers’, Tasmanian, 11 February 1871, p.11.

[3] ‘Gold discoveries at King’s Island and Rocky Cape’, Cornwall Chronicle, 29 April 1872, p.3.

[4] Charles Sprent to James Smith from Table Cape, 21 July 1872, NS234/3/1/25 (Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office).

[5] ‘The Hellyer goldfield’, Cornwall Chronicle, 22 November 1872, p.2.

[6] ‘Notes on the Hellyer’, Cornwall Chronicle, 20 December 1872, p.2.

[7] ‘A look round the Hellyer’, Cornwall Chronicle, 3 February 1873, p.2.

[8] ‘Notes on the Hellyer’, Cornwall Chronicle, 20 December 1872, p.2.

[9] ‘The Hellyer gold-field’, Cornwall Chronicle, 16 December 1872, supplement, p.1.

[10] ‘The Nine Mile Springs goldfield’, Cornwall Chronicle, 13 May 1872, p.2; ‘Chinese immigration’, Tasmanian, 18 May 1872, p.8.

[11] See, for example, ‘More gold from the Hellyer diggings’, Tasmanian, 25 January 1873, p.12.

[12] ‘Table Cape’, Tasmanian, 25 January 1873, p.5.

[13] ‘The Chinese diggers at the Hellyer’, Cornwall Chronicle, 6 November 1872, p.3.

[14] ‘The Hellyer goldfield’, Cornwall Chronicl,e 22 November 1872, p.2.

[15] ‘The Chinese diggers at the Hellyer’, Cornwall Chronicle, 6 November 1872, p.3.

[16] ‘The Hellyer diggings’, Mercury, 13 February 1873, p.3.

[17] ‘Table Cape’, Cornwall Chronicle, 17 January 1873, p.3.

[18] SB Emmett, ‘The western gold field’, Launceston Examiner, 1 February 1873, p.3.

[19] Naturalisation application, 22 July 1882, CSD13/1/53/850 (TAHO),, accessed 10 December 2016.

[20] ‘Tenders’, Launceston Examiner, 26 July 1884, p.1..

[21] ‘Law Courts’, Tasmanian, 26 May 1883, p.563.

[22] Advert, Launceston Examiner, 19 September 1885, p.1.

[23] ‘Tenders’, Launceston Examiner, 7 March 1895, p.1.

[24] ‘Deaths’, Launceston Examiner, 29 March 1882, p.2; marriage registration no.966/1884,; accessed 10 December 2016.

[25] ‘Deaths’, Weekly Courier, 30 May 1912, p.25.

[26] Will AD96/1/11, LINC Tasmania website, accessed 10 December 2016.

19 thoughts on “Henry Thom Sing, Chinese entrepreneur, and the Arthur River gold rush 1872

  1. Henry Thom Sing is my husband’s Great Grandfather. His first wife ~ Mary Theresa Carrington died in the early 1880’s ~ they had 5 children (4 girls [the eldest girl died very near her birth] & 1 boy) His 2nd wife Brigid bore him 4 children – 3 girls & 1 boy. My husband’s Grandmother is Alice Sing from the first marriage

    1. Carol, great to hear from you and to learn more. I thought there would have to be descendants from those two marriages in Tasmania today. Have you ever seen other photos of Henry or of his shop?

      1. Yes I have some photos of Henry & some of his children ~ how am I able to get copies to you ~ let me know

        1. Hi Carol, thanks, I’d love to see them, do you have digital copies? My email is

          1. Hi Nic
            I have emailed you some photos of the Sing Family

          2. Thanks a lot, Carol

    2. Henry Thom Sing is my great grandfather as well. I did not know much about him and certainly did not that he was twice married. My grandmother must be one of the daughters from his second marriage as she was born in the 1890’s and passed away in 1983 in Sydney. Her name was Irene and her two sisters were Lila and Rose. She had a contact with at least one half sister whose name was Glory. Thanks for your info.

      1. Thanks, David. There is still some research to do on this gentleman.

  2. Hi there,
    i too am looking into this side of my family tree on my grandmothers side and from what i have gathered so far Henry Thom Sing is my Great, Great, Great grandfather…But i have only found where he married Rebecca Glover so would love some more info or photo’s if possible please.

    1. Hi Tammy, thanks for writing. If I get more information and some photos I will certainly let you know, but at this stage I have only the one photo of him and none of this family.

      1. Hi again Nic, so after some more googling, & research I’m just wondering if the “Thomas Ah Sing” (Seen) that i have is the same as your Henry Thom Sing, they both read the same in occupation, born in Canton etc but the birth & death is 4 years out & i have him married to a rebecca Glover who my side of the family originates from? A little confused & can’t find anything to differentiate them……would appreciate any info you can pass on to help me work out if they’re one & the same man. If they are i would love to see some of the photo’s from Carol or her email address please ☺

        1. Good to hear from you, Tammy, I’ll take a look at it as soon as I can.

  3. Hi,

    I am looking for my ‘lost’ grandfather, who may have been the son of a Chinese tin miner and an Irish woman in the Weldborough area. I believe that my grandfather and his brother may have been taken in by Henry Thom Sing when they were orphaned.

    I’m wondering if you have knowledge of a fire at 127 St John Street (Henry Thom Sing’s premises)? It was reported in the Daily Telegraph (Launceston) dated Wednesday 3 January 1906. The boys were Eli and Charlie Kin who were mentioned in the article as being instrumental in saving the family.

    I would love to know what happened to the boys after the fire,and any other information that you might have regarding this act of kindness by Henry Thom Sing.

    1. Hi Helen, thanks for writing, I remember reading about a fire at the premises, but I don’t know much more. It would be interesting to see whether there is a police report on the incident which gives more information about the people present. It may be available on and when I get the chance to check it I will and will let you know. Henry Thom Sing seems to have been a central figure in the Chinese community. I hope you find your ‘lost’ grandfather.

      1. What a great idea, Nic! I hadn’t thought of the Police Reports.

        And, thanks for this site, it’s so informative.


  4. Nic

    Is it possible to pass on my e mail to Carol Duplessis & Tammy Charles regarding the wives of Thomas Sing – I am chasing up information on a Wah Sing who was in Beaconsfield and married to a Mary Munting a daughter of two convicts, an Englishman and an Irish woman – they had three daughters and a son from the marriage.

    Allan Kemp
    ( Board Member Chinese Museum Melbourne )

    1. Sure, Allan, I will do that.

  5. My grandmother was Henry Thom Sing’s daughter from his second marriage as she was born in early 1890. Her name was Irene and her two sister’s names were Lila and Rose. She was married at 16 years of age in Melbourne to William Edward Todd. They had two boys, Gordon(born about 1911) and Donald, born 1913. Donald was my father. Her sister, Rose, married William Todd’s brother. William Todd died in 1916 at Pozieres in WW1. His brother, Roderick, was gassed but survived, but died young from lung disease as a result. Irene, widowed, moved to Sydney with her two sons and lived at Daceyville. Both sons married and had two and three children respectively. My ‘nana’, Irene, lived with her sister, Rose, in Kingsford. Lila came to live with them after her husband passed away in the 1960’s. Lila’s son was killed in the Voyager ship disaster in the 1960s(?). Nana passed away in 1983, her two sisters having passed away earlier. I didn’t know she had a brother as mentioned above. There are many great grandchildren and some great great grand children. Her name and memory lives on. She was as sweet a person as you could ever meet.

    1. Wow, you have done a lot of research, David, it’s a great story, well done.

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