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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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The best three days of the year: growing up at Brittons Swamp, Tasmania

Annie with Lorna (left) and Phil (centre) c1913. Yeomans and Co photo, Melbourne.
Annie Britton with Lorna (left) and Phil (centre) c1913. Yeomans and Co photo, Melbourne.

After a couple of years at Christmas Hills, in about 1912 the Brittons sold their little farm to Charlie Wells and moved to a vacant mill worker’s cottage about four kilometres away next to their mill at Brittons Swamp. This was their home for a decade as the business was established.

The loco shed (centre) near the mill, with the old chaff house and the hut known as Buckingham Palace to its left in the background.
The loco shed (centre) near the mill, with the old chaff house and the hut known as Buckingham Palace to its left in the background.


The big social events of the year for people in the Christmas Hills area were the Boxing Day Picnic, New Year’s Day and, from 1923, the Easter Sports. The Boxing Day Picnic in Tommy Rowe’s paddock featured children’s foot races, tugs-of-war and a concert or theatrical performance by the kids of the school. The real competition, however, was between the ladies, trying to outdo each other with their hams, poultry and Christmas pudding spread under a huge marquee. People came in jinkers (two-wheeled carts for two or three passengers), buggies (two- or four-wheeled carriages for two people drawn by one or two horses), spring carts (two-wheeled carts without sides), on horseback or on foot. Often the road had to be cleared of fallen trees ahead of the event. No alcohol was available, but, almost as sinfully, dancing was indulged in till next morning.[1] Many a courtship began in that paddock. One young couple from Smithton set tongues wagging by disappearing hand-in-hand into the nearby forest for several hours. For kids the lolly scramble was a highlight:


Tommy Hine, the life of all picnics and parties, would take a huge tin of boiled sweets and bang loudly on the side, calling for the kids to rally round. Then he’d throw handfuls of sweets into the crowding children for them to pick up as many as they could find.


The New Year’s Day outing began well before sun-up, when Annie began to organise the whole family:


The cows would have to be milked and sent out, fowls fed, and the horse which was harnessed in the jinker and packed with our picnic basket had to be caught. The fire had to be lighted [lit], and breakfast prepared before we could start the journey to Smithton … the corduroy over the Mowbray Swamp always [being] taken at walking pace.


They had to reach Smithton by 6 am to catch Bill Boote’s motorboat down the Duck River to Seven-mile Beach.[2] Lorna remembered this as


a great adventure to us children as the boat was skillfully guided around the river’s winding watercourse. The air smelt of salt, and the water rushing by was constantly changing, colours of green and blue with white wings [being] flung up by the prow as the ship encountered opposition from the incoming tide.


When a sandbar was reached near the mouth of the river, preventing further progress, a dinghy was brought alongside the vessel to ferry the women and children ashore:


It was not an easy task for the ladies, who dressed in long frocks, but the men enjoyed helping the frightened ones (especially the pretty ones). Clasping them in their arms, they’d squeeze them more than was needed before they set them on terra firma …


The long beach was sheltered by boobyallas. AJ ‘Pelican’ Grey supplied lemonade and other cordials. He was so nicknamed because of his pelican brand lemonade bottles. These contained marble stoppers which had to be pushed into the neck of the bottle in order to release the liquid.


Sports events were held at the New Year’s Day picnic. One year when he was eleven or twelve Phil had a go at the foot running.


I had some bigger boys to compete against, but I came in first, to the amazement of others as well as myself. I seemed to have wings. The prize was only perhaps sixpence or a shilling but it was nice to beat the town lads who I knew only slightly. We lived in the bush with little or no contact with town life.[3]


Lorna remembered a small disaster that befell Annie one year on Seven-mile Beach:


One year Mother was dressed in a beautiful white dress, full length, nipped in at the waist with a waistband. She was wearing a beautifully engraved watch suspended from a gold chain around her neck. It was slipped into the waistband, the fashion at the time … Mother’s watch was a gift from her father, I think, and the pride and envy of many women … someone said to her, ‘There’s something on your neck’.


Mother, thinking in alarm that it could be a spider, rose quickly to her feet and banged her neck area. The watch broke loose and disappeared in the sand and, even with no effort spared, we failed to find it. Mother was inconsolable and, taking us with her, went for a walk along the beach to find shells which were pretty, as well as some to take home for the fowls (shell grit) in a bag. She also got a leech on her leg, a huge one. To get it off she pulled at it and, being full of blood, it burst, and her beautiful white dress was in a horrible state.[4]



Bringing home the meat

The link with the outside world was maintained by Phil and Lorna, who operated the ‘pony mail’ on Ante, a sturdy pony ‘black as coal’. Two or three days a week after school they collected the mail from the Christmas Hills Post Office (the Hine residence). On occasions, to fill in time while waiting for the mail to arrive, they visited the farm of Cornish immigrants the Rowe family, where Phil tasted his first Cornish pasty. Sometimes it would be 8.00 pm before Phil and Lorna arrived home:


The people who ran the carry mail service were wonderful to us, and would give us food and drink, and even bed us down for the night if they considered we were in danger of falling trees in a wind storm. One day the man of the house loaded us up with the usual meat load and any other provisions—two sugar bags tied together and slung over the pony’s neck as evenly as possible—and tossed us up behind, and I heard him say ‘Jee! Those Britton kids are tough. It’s as black as your hat outside.’ But we had Ante and, as he knew all the little side-tracks to avoid deep mud holes in the road, we were not very scared. The occasional branch or tree falling or a native animal jumping across the road (in my imagination only, perhaps) would make me shudder and cling more tightly to Phil up front.


There would be stops to open gates and deliver parcels, and sometimes they would take the shorter route down the tramway which, however, was dangerous in wet weather when the line might be submerged by water. A clever pony made them feel more secure:


I’ve known Ante to place his feet on the timber rails to avoid holes in the path as he smelt his way through. Ponies are very sensitive and clever really. He could push a wire fastener off a gate, open it, and turn around so that we could reach and pull the gate shut without getting off.[5]


Parcels of meat would be secured in saddlebags, but if a parcel was dropped in the dark it would be hard to find or re-secure. On one occasion Phil rode a draught horse named Boxer to school in order to bring a large cut of beef home after school. The meat was so big and heavy that it had to be lifted up to Phil on the back of the horse and balanced in front of him. But


it was a dark wet night. I was getting near home. The road was full of little holes and wet and slippery. The horse stumbled and I lost my balance. The meat fell off in the mud … My reputation was somewhat impaired, and so I gave Aunty [Kate, the Brittons’ housekeeper at the time] the horse and she had one of the men go out and get the meat out of the mud–all in a night’s work.[6]


Like nearly all early 20th-century bush farmers, the Brittons snared wallaby, pademelon and possum for extra income and, in the case of the wallaby or pademelon, extra meat. They pegged out the skins to dry on flat boards awaiting the visit of the skin buyer.


Other marsupials were less welcome. One night a quoll got into the lean-to which housed the meat safe, and when Elijah chased it, it ran into the sitting-room where the family was gather around the fire. ‘Mother grabbed me and rushed into the bedroom’, Lorna remembered. ‘She didn’t know if it was dangerous or not, I suppose’. Elijah battered it to death while it growled at him from the top of the organ.[7] Since the animals were regarded as fowl killers, no mercy was granted them.


Lorna and Phil thought they heard the ‘cough’ of ‘hyenas’ (Tasmanian tigers or thylacines) as they rode their pony home at night, although they never saw one.[8] In about 1917 Wynyard marsupial dealer James Harrison paid £5 each for three thylacine cubs secured by the Rowe brothers of Brittons Swamp after the mother thylacine had drowned while caught in a snare.[9] Lorna recalled that the Rowes had two fireside chairs backed with ‘tiger pelts’.[10]



Phil goes to finishing school

Phil was the first to go away to school. He was a sickly child, and Annie hoped his health would benefit from finishing his education with two years at Scotch College in Launceston.[11] This promoted Lorna to the front seat on Ante for mail and parcel collection. Annie was terrified of bushfires, and it was lucky that she was away settling Phil into boarding when a fire threatened the mill and the timber stacks. Lorna was returning down the tramway from the Christmas Hills with a parcel of meat when a fire fighter hurried out of the smoky gloom.


He shouted at me, as if I were to blame, as he rushed past, ‘The swamp’s on fire and before the night you will be lucky not to be burned out’. Nevertheless I was going home, fire or no fire.


Auntie Florrie had assumed control of the kitchen, feeding the fire fighters. The meat parcel suddenly looked meagre as Florrie and Lorna prepared a meal:


Uncle Mark [Britton] had collapsed, overcome by smoke in the thickest and most dangerous area, and he was brought in to rest a while. I got him a billy can of milk and water, his favourite drink, and he was soon ready for attack again. I remember him in his own way of saying thanks—‘Ah, good, this is the best drink, better than that old tea with tannin in it’. Lighting up his smelly pipe (which was full of nicotine, if he had thought about it), he gave me a cheeky grin and disappeared into the smoky area. We didn’t get burned out, but fires smouldered for days.[12]

Annie and the Britton kids, 1921. (Left to right): Phil (in Scotch College uniform), Lorna, Ken (on Annie’s lap), Annie, Frank, Eva.
Annie and the Britton kids, 1921. (Left to right): Phil (in Scotch College uniform), Lorna, Ken (on Annie’s lap), Annie, Frank, Eva.


Lorna’s first ride in a motor car was in 1921, when Annie took her children to visit her retired parents at Middle Brighton in Melbourne. Phil was at Scotch College, but three-year-old Frank Lindsay Britton (born 1918) and one-year old David Kenneth Britton (known as Ken, born 1920) made the trip. From Smithton they travelled to Burnie in Joey Morton’s twice-weekly Model T Ford service:


I was terrified … and held on tightly when the engine was started and away we sped, followed by a dog barking furiously. Joey Morton said not to worry as we would soon lose it when we got around on to the straight where we could do 25 miles [40 kilometres] per hour.


The return Bass Strait crossing on the Marrawah, the tiny Holymans steamer, filled both Lorna and Annie with apprehension. Annie was a poor sailor. Lorna thought, ‘Well, I’ll be able to help with the children anyway’, but soon both were seasick. Frank was sick on the toilet floor, whereupon, as Lorna recalled,


The stewardess, a harsh-tongued woman, shouted at me to clean it up, but as I had nothing excepting the toilet paper to do this I grabbed Frank and quickly retreated to our stuffy cabin.


Fresh air and calmer seas revived the Brittons next day, enabling them to watch the stevedoring work at King Island. Through the afternoon they passed Hunter and Three Hummock Island, and in the evening a full moon provided a silvery path to Stanley, where the ship berthed beneath the huge grey-black rock of the Nut. There was time next morning to explore the tiny town before Tommy Hine picked the family up with his fancy double-seated buggy and pair of lively horses. Back at Christmas Hills, Elijah had freshened up the cottage with the first spring bulbs—golden daffodils, eggs and bacon and tiny snowdrops. ‘It was so lovely’, Lorna remembered, ‘that tears filled my eyes, realising also that we were “home”!’ It was, however, only a temporary home. The permanent one at the mill was two years away.


Meanwhile, Phil remembered his two years at Scotch College (1920–21) as


the best years of my life. I was able to get out of the bush for a while and the Launceston air was good for my health, besides all the friends I made and learnt to play sport as well was education.[13]


Phil was missed at Scotch when he left. In February 1922 his friend Viv wrote from the school to say that the boys had a holiday in honour of Princess Mary’s birthday:


Dear Old Phip [sic]

I wish you were back here now. I miss you terrible much.

Davvy and I went rabbiting yesterday we saw 5 rabbits but we didn’t get any … I lost my fount-pen for about 5 minutes yesterday. It dropped in the river and when I found it only the top was to be seen. In another 2 or 3 minutes I reckon it would have sunk…

Love from Viv

PS Davvy and I went rabbiting to-day and we caught two. We are going to have them for breakfast to-morrow.

Shack sends his love to you[14]


A month later Les Acheson wrote, delighted that Youll from ‘Grammar’ might be joining Scotch College and that ‘Fordy’ might return to the school, increasing its chances of winning the cricket premiership.


There are a good few new chaps this term but nearly all nippers. I am in the 3rds at cricket. I suppose you drive the loco about.[15]


Phil wasn’t the loco driver, but there was plenty to keep him busy. Returning after those two years in Launceston, his first job was to fell all the dry trees which threatened to fall on the house, keeping Annie in a state of anxiety. Phil had ceased to be known by his second name, Raymond, while he was at Scotch. Now, as his sister Lorna recalled, the same change happened at home:


I considered ‘Ray’ was much too sissy for such a tree killer and he should be called by his first name. So he became Philip or Phil—Philip Raymond.[16]

[1] ‘The Holidays: In the Country: Christmas Hills’, Examiner 29 December 1916, p.6.

[2] Phil Britton notes, p.16.

[3] Phil Britton notes, pp.16–17.

[4] Lorna Britton notes 1983, pp.47–48.

[5] Lorna Britton notes 1983.

[6] Phil Britton notes, pp.14–15.

[7] Lorna Britton notes, 1983, pp.12 and 24; Phil Britton notes, p.11.

[8] Lorna Britton notes, 1983, p.23.

[9] ‘Proof of a tiger tale’, Advocate, 25 August 1977.

[10] Lorna Britton notes, 1984, p.23.

[11] In 1920 Phil Britton topped the Scotch College Fourth Form in Scripture (‘Scotch College Annual Speech Night’, Examiner 13 December 1920, p.3).

[12] Lorna Britton notes 1984.

[13] Phil Britton, Memories of Christmas Hills (Brittons Swamp), p.17..

[14] Viv to Phil Britton, undated (probably 27 February 1922).

[15] Les Acheson to Phil Britton 27 March 1922

[16] Lorna Britton notes 1984.

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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.