Following the abrupt departure of the VDL Co’s advance party from Frogmore beside the Mersey River to Circular Head late in October 1826, all employees were engaged in building their new base camp at Stanley. It was not until early 1827 that the surveyors could resume their search for suitable sheep grazing land. Sadly, Surveyor Clement Lorymer was drowned trying to cross the swollen Duck River on April 6. 1827
Henry Hellyer remained anxious to examine the huge expanse of grasslands he had seen five months earlier from the top of Mount Claude. So early in February 1827 he set out on a 32-day trek from Circular Head eastward towards the volcano-like peak he had seen previously. Reaching it on 14 February (St Valentine’s Day) Hellyer named it accordingly. From the top of the Peak, huge grassy plains spread out both to the north and south. Reminding him of the English downs, Hellyer called the northern plains Hampshire Hills and vast southern grasslands Surrey Hills. Viewing them in mid-February, Hellyer mistakenly believed this immense area would make excellent sheep country. He sent a very favourable report to Curr in Hobart recommending the VDL Co include this huge area as part of their grant. Curr needed this encouraging discovery and immediately agreed to commence stocking them with Merino and Saxon sheep under the care of ex-convict shepherds.
Building the First Road to the NW Coast
Some of the Company’s imported sheep had been off loaded at George Town and was now being held on sheep runs near Westbury. Curr had also purchased 2,300 local sheep here in Tasmania. Realizing the need to connect the North of the island with Hellyer’s new grazing plains around St Valentine’s Peak, Curr ordered Surveyor Fossey to find a suitable stock route across the back country behind Mount Roland.
Leaving Launceston on 6 April 1827, Fossey (38) with two experience bushmen Richard Frederick and Isaac Cutts made their way to the upper Mersey River where they began a preliminary exploration for the route over the hills. Fossey wrote to Edward Curr “I have left the cart at the Mersey near Mount Roland, having being confined there with indisposition”.
They spent two days high on the south west corner of Mount Roland working out a way up and over the very steep slopes of Gads Hill (2,588 ft or 790m) between the Mersey and Forth rivers which had previously repulsed Captain Rolland.
On top of Gad’s Hill, Fossey named the flat area Emu Plains after seeing some long-legged land birds soon to become extinct. To find a suitable crossing over the Forth River, Fossey’s men had to trek south passed the present Lemonthyme power station, but later located the ford at Lorinna regularly used by the Aborigines. While trekking south Fossey had superb views of Cradle Mountain, Barn Bluff and Hounslow Heath, all of which he named. Climbing out of the Forth Valley, Fossey named the Vale of Belvoir after a scenic valley in Leicestershire and observed “it would make a good summer sheep run’’ and Mount Mayday on 1 May.
When he finally reached Hampshire Hills, Fossey also endorsed Hellyer’s enthusiastic assessment of the area’s potential for grazing sheep. Continuing down to the coast, Fossey conferred about the proposed route with Hellyer at their Emu Bay depot. They made the decision that Fossey was to hire a team of convicts and to cut a stock and cart track from the Mersey River westward and Hellyer was to do the same starting from Emu Bay go south to Surrey Hills, then work eastward until the two road parties met. No sooner had Fossey started his road clearing task, then he was diverted to make several exploratory trips right to the upper Forth Valley to check the feasibility of also forming a direct stock route up the Derwent Valley across the Central Highlands to Hampshire Hills. Finally, Fossey concluded this was not a practicable idea.
Curr’s shock upon seeing Hampshire & Surrey Hills
By October 1827, Hellyer had made good progress on his road from Emu Bay, which enabled Curr to make his first inspection of the Hampshire & Surrey Hills. What Curr saw bitterly disappointed him. He quickly realized that the snowy winter climate at Surrey Hills was far too wet and cold for sheep and only parts of Hampshire Hills could be called second class sheep country.
In November 1827 Fossey was free to continue his work on the cart track with a group of convict conscripts. On Christmas Day 1827 at Black Heath 3.5 km east of the Mersey river, a convict named Samuel Britton cut into a large tree the following ditty: Under this leafy bower, where I passed my Christmas hour, along with those who took the pains, To cut the road to Emu Plains. Britton later became a notorious bushranger involved with a shootout with police. Travellers dubbed this tree as The Explorer’s Tree. Fording the Mersey River (55 yards wide) at Liena, Fossey’s workmen cut a track into the side of the gully of Ration Tree Creek to get up the steepest section of Gad’s Hill. On top they planned stock yards at Emu Plains to rest the animals before descending a long and dangerous mountain spur called Chace Hill to the Forth River ford (45 yards wide) at Lorinna. It was just as steep to climb again up the notorious Five Mile Rise to the Middlesex Plains. From here the present Cradle Mountain Road follows Fossey’s route from Daisy Dell to Leary’s Corner, then along to the present West Coast Link road which follows Hellyer’s original route over the ‘saddle’ south Black Bluff.
Hellyer checks Fossey’s progress thru’ Kentish High Country
In January 1828 having completed the road as far as Hampshire Hills, Hellyer set out to explore the country east of Surrey Hills and check Fossey’s progress to see where the two roads would meet. Hellyer’s party first climbed to the top of Black Bluff, from where he had a grand view of the entire Kentish municipality. Dominating the foreground was the densely forested Forth Valley which he could see ran from Cradle Mountain to the sea. Descending Black Bluff, they reached the beautiful Vale of Belvoir on 24 January. Then they spent two days exploring vast Middlesex Plains which he described as ‘low grassy hills, lightly wooded, intersected by rich flats of excellent grazing country’. Hellyer quickly recommended these newly discovered grasslands should also be included in the Company’s grant because they lay right in the path of the new overland road. He cut into a tree Middlesex Plains Jan 26, 1828 HH/VDLC
Continuing eastward, Hellyer’s party descended the steep Forth Valley, cross the river and eventually climbed up the other side. Here, well south of Mount Claude, Hellyer named the Borradaile Plains after a VDL Co director back in England. They finally reached Fossey’s camp at Liena on 29 January 1828. Instead of returning the same way, Hellyer chose to make a nostalgic journey through our Kentish country. His party crossed the saddle between Mount Roland and Mount Gog, followed the Minnow River to Claremont Park (Armistead), then down the Mersey to their old base camp at Frogmore and hence back to Emu Bay.
In April 1828 Fossey completed his road from Chudleigh to Middlesex Plains and a month later Hellyer working east from Surrey Hills connected the two roads. This first continuous road from Launceston to Emu Bay was soon dubbed The Great Western Road. In reality, it was nothing more than a very rough stock route, so terribly steep in places it was almost impossible to get a cart or wagon through without pulleys attached to trees.
Hellyer’s Two Maps of VDL Co Explorations.
In 1828 Surveyor Henry Hellyer published his map of the North West Coast. On it he shows all the mountains, hills and rivers that he had named and all the routes the surveyors had taken through the bush. It shows they had trekked on foot through most areas of the Kentish municipality from Cradle Mountain to Spreyton, with the exception of the heavily timbers hills running down each side of the Forth River. Had Hellyer one more month exploring from Frogmore, it is most likely he would have trekked up the Don River and discovered the Kentish Plains.
From mid-1828 Hellyer and Fossey now focused on exploring south of Surrey Hills in preparation of Hellyer’s similar map of the West Coast region published in 1831. This showed Hellyer made several exploratory visits around the Cradle Mountain region, where each time they encountered cold, snow and swollen rivers.
On one occasion while crossing Fury Gorge from Tullah to Cradle Mounain, Hellyer nearly loss his life. His party trekked over the north side of Cradle Mountain on 21 November 1828, but it is doubtful if he climbed it. Following down the Dove River, they crossed the Middlesex Plains then the Vale of Belvoir before eventually returning to their Hampshire Hills base. In March 1831 Henry Hellyer again tried to climb Cradle Mountain but failed to reach the summit.
The Demise of Hellyer, Fossey and Curr
The Company began grazing sheep back on the Hills in 1829. By 1832 some 5,500 finest quality sheep had been taken back there, but after several severe winters only a few hundred survived. During the winter of 1830 some 3,500 sheep were lost and in 1832 another 1000 or so, besides scores killed each year by Tasmanian tigers and devils. The failure of Hampshire Hills and Surrey Hills as good sheep grazing plains played on the conscientious Hellyer’s mind. On Sunday morning 2 Sept 1832 at Stanley, when he failed to appear from his hut, his door was pushed in. Hellyer was found in bed having shot himself in the head with a horse pistol. A hand-written note concluded with ‘In agony I fly to my Saviour.’
In the late 1980s while Surveyor Brian Rollins of Burnie was working on the present Cradle Mountain-West Coast Link road, he discovered an original rock cairn built as survey marker by Henry Hellyer back in 1831. It was on Mount Prospect south of Black Bluff. To honour Surveyor Henry Hellyer’s incredible work, on 11 March 1989 a commemorative plaque was unveiled on the same spot. To reach this cairn, you park near the highest point (924m) on the new link Road. Then follow the track north across easy terrain for 2½ km (about 40 minutes). The memorial cairn looks directly over Lake Lea in Vale of Belvoir and offers an excellent view of the surrounding panorama.
Joseph Fossey quit the Company in 1830 and became a hotel keeper in Melbourne. On recent North West Tasmaps Mount Roland, Mount Van Dyke, Mount Claude and Black Bluff are over-marked Fossey Range. Edward Curr switched to breeding cattle, horses and stud rams. But by September 1840 the Company was facing financial ruin and Curr was dismissed. Born in Sheffield, England, he had named the Mersey, Don and Forth Rivers, but not our town of Sheffield. That didn’t occur until 20 years later after Curr had left to live in Victoria.
Henry Hellyer and Joseph Fossey’s huge contribution to Kentish history has been largely understated. Firstly, because of the VDL Co’s moved to Circular Head, secondly because Hellyer’s detailed maps of their trekking through Kentish were not available to our early settlers who arrived over 30 years later. Not only did these surveyors spend months trekking through this entire district, they named most of our land-marks. After Captain Rolland, they were the first to climb Mount Roland. They were the first to visit and name Cradle Mountain. They built the first highway to the North West Coast straight across the Kentish Municipality.
If they had had their own way the great VDL Company itself would have stayed in our region.
Explorers Hellyer and Fossey are to Kentish what Bourke and Wills were to Central Australia, and Bass and Flinders were to Bass Strait. Their historic importance has been unjustly eclipsed by a later surveyor Nathaniel Kentish who in 1842 cut a very narrow bridle track up beside the well-known Dasher River to Kentish. When one of his convicts stumbled upon the open plains adjacent to the Don River, Kentish wrote several lengthy reports to the Government and all newspapers vividly describing his sensational discovery. He was rewarded by not only having the plains, but the whole municipality, named after him.