From the time in 1826 when Governor Arthur forced Chief Agent Edward Curr to relocate his large VDL Co venture from the Mersey River to Circular Head, there were hostile relationships between these two prominent men.
Lieutenant George Arthur (40) ambitious and autocratic, was the youngest colonial governor to be appointed to our island. Chief Agent Edward Curr (28) was also a strong leader who liked to have his own way. He was dubbed ‘The Potentate of the North’. The ongoing problems between these two powerful leaders had to do with the location of their Government grant; whether it should be one very large grant or several smaller grants in various places.
For three years this unresolved situation had created ongoing problems in Hobart and London. Finally, in January 1829 Governor Arthur decided to inspect the whole area himself to see what all the fuss was about. He would travel over the Great Western Road, visit Surrey Hills and Hampshire Hills, without telling Curr he was coming.
This Vice Regal party comprised His Excellency Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, his private secretary Captain John Montagu, Surveyor-General George Frankland, Assistant Surveyor-General Thomas Scott, two of Arthur’s nephews Frederick and Charles Arthur, plus a few convicts in charge of three packhorses loaded with baggage. On 9 January 1829 they left Hobart Town on horseback and proceeded up the midlands to the new military barracks recently established at Westbury. Here they hired Mr Bonney with a team of bullocks and wagon to carry their tents, bedding and supplies as far as he could along the Great Western Road.
Westbury to Mole Creek
Commencing on 14 January, 1829 the horsemen rode from Westbury westward, crossing the Meander River and eventually near Chudleigh passed a deserted hut used by the VDL Co employees while building the road. Shortly afterwards the Governor’s party stopped for the night at the stockman’s hut on T C Simpson’s sheep property. Tethering their horses, they inspected the rough grave of Bill Knight buried just outside the door of the hut.
Knight had been Simpson’s overseer until he was speared to death by the natives while cutting firewood within a few metres of his hut. Some claimed it was retribution as Knight was known to have shot several natives. After pitching their bell-shaped tents and lighting a fire, the party toasted ship’s biscuits and grilled mutton chops brought from Westbury. Unfortunately, Bonney’s bullock cart couldn’t travel as fast as the horsemen, so it didn’t arrive until later. With beds unrolled, they slept well except for the one man, put on guard duty.
Next morning, 15 January, the party was detained at Simpson’s hut waiting for William Leith to arrive with some fresh bread and biscuits that he promised would be baked the previous night. Later that day at Mole Creek, they encountered the first limestone protruding from the ground. They found the whole countryside around Mole Creek was of limestone formation, pock-marked with conical shaped pits. These holes varied in diameter from 4 to 200 feet, some full of water, others dry. Some were split into immense fissures with yawning caverns. A few party members descended into one and could hear a great rush of water in the bowels of the earth. They groped their slippery way downwards expecting to be charged any moment by a Tasmanian devil.
Crossing the Mersey & the Forth Rivers
Shortly after 5am on 16 January 1829 they crossed the broad-flowing Mersey River at what is now Liena. It was about 200 feet (60 metres) across and two feet (61cm) deep. In winter time or after rain, travellers could be forced to wait for days, even weeks before it was safe to cross.
It was here at the Mersey that the Governor’s party had to leave behind Bonney’s bullock wagon and transfer all their stuff to pack horses. Gad’s Hill is the formidably steep hill that surpasses all other hills on the road. It separates the Mersey and Forth Rivers, and completely repulsed Captain Rolland in his first attempt to reach the North West Coast. In 1828 Surveyor Fossey had finally found a way up the side of a steep gully that looked down on Ration Tree Creek far below. Some of the company’s cattle and sheep were known to have gone over the side of the track and fallen into the river below. The few times the VDL Co tried to bring laden carts up this steep hill, they used pulleys fasten to trees. One of the Vice Regal members commented on the plight of the poor pack horses: A horse’s hind legs should be at least twice the length of his fore legs to enable him to keep the load on his back.
On reaching the top of Gad’s hill, they told Governor Arthur that this was the only road in the entire Colony to pass through a thick forest of myrtle and sassafras trees. Surveyor Scott measured a big tree and found it was 210 feet (63 metres) high and 39 feet (12 metres) around the girth four feet (1.22m) from the ground. The flat area on top was called Emu Plains and had good grass for the horses, so the whole party were able to rest awhile. Continuing, they walked for a time leading their horses, before starting the long and arduous decent down the steep Forth valley to the river below.
Being mid-January, they found the waters of Forth River at Lorinna ‘low and limpid’. Once across, they again had great difficulty ascending the steep, stony Five Mile Rise to Epping Forest now known as Daisy Dell. Here they passed another deserted hut used by Fossey’s road party and about a mile further on they pitched their tents for the night. It was such a balmy evening, a couple of travellers decided to sleep outside their tents, but in the morning found they were nearly saturated by dense damp fog.
Middlesex Plains & the Vale of Belvoir
Up at 4am on the morning of 17 January 1829, they prepared to move. After four miles they reached the Iris River running through the Middlesex Plains. The scenery on the Middlesex Plains they described as prettily wooded and pleasantly park-like with kangaroos everywhere, bounding away with their tails thumping the ground. It was well irrigated and the soil the finest description. Scott told them that VDL Co was about to bring the large flock of sheep they saw grazing at Gibson’s grant The Retreat just east of the Meander River to Middlesex Plains. Moving on, they came to the Vale of Belvoir which they considered one of the finest landscapes in the island. The Valley was several miles long, tree-less, except for picturesque Lake Lea which was surrounded by myrtle trees and shrubs. This was another limestone area where streams sometimes disappeared underground for a while. As they passed over the plain, they did see a couple of cows, absconders from VDL Co herds and joked that these cows had set themselves up on the Vale as ‘Ladies of the Lake.’
Continuing westward along the Company’s road, they passed Mount Mayday and crossed over the saddle that extends south from the Black Bluff range. It is marked by a large granite rock, offering specular views of snow-capped Cradle Mountain and Barn Bluff. Finally, they reach the Company’s stock huts at Surrey Hills, where the Governor was not too impressed. He noted ‘There is little feed for sheep here’.
Vice-Regal Dinner Disaster
Next day the party proceeded down to Emu Bay (now Burnie) on the coast, where they found Superintendent Goldie in charge of the VDL Co stores and workshops on the water front. Manager Edward Curr was at Circular Head, so Goldie offered the vice regal party Irish pork and English beef with a jar of cranberry jam which he had just received from Scotland. It turned out to be rancid and before long they were all vomiting on the rocks at the seaside. The Governor and Captain Montague were the worst affected and forced to take an emetic to recover.
Governor Arthur was appalled at the steepness of hills and valleys along the Great Western Road. His experience was so bad that he chose to have his party return to Westbury along the uninhabited coastline –riding along the beaches and taking the risk fording each river bar on horseback at low tide. When Curr received word, that Arthur was in the area, he immediately left Circular Head by boat to try to meet him. Curr caught up with the Governor Arthur while their vice-regal party was waiting for low tide at the mouth of the Mersey River.
Significant Meeting at the Mersey Bluff
On 21 January 1829 the two most powerful men on the island sat for several hours on the beach at the Mersey Bluff to thrash out the final solution as where the various VDL Co grants would be located. Now that Arthur had inspected the high country along the Great Western Road, he could see at once the enormous difference between the fine sheep country through the Midlands and the rough terrain of the Company’s claims on the North West Coast. He became much more conciliatory towards granting large blocks in several different places.
Back in Hobart, Governor Arthur recommended to his Colonial Office in London that the VDL Company be granted the following blocks: 100,000 acres at Cape Grim, 10,000 acres comprising Walkers, Robbin’s and Trefoil islands, 20,000 at Circular Head, 50,000 at Emu Bay, 10,000 at Hampshire Hills, 150,000 at Surrey Hills and 10,000 acres at Middlesex Plains in the Kentish Municipality All up this amounted to 350,000 acres to compensate for inclusion of so much unsuitable bush land.
The Great Western Road built by Fossey and Hellyer was the first vital land link connecting the North with the North West Coast. It traversed the back country behind Mount Roland across both the Deloraine and Kentish Municipalities. At best it was a rough cattle track cleared through heavy scrub by bullocks. In open bush its route was indicated by axe marks on trees trunks and over grassy plains by swamp sticks stuck in the ground. Stockyards were erected at the Mersey River (Liena), on top of Gad’s Hill (Emu Plains), at the Forth River (Lorinna) and at Middlesex Plains. All rivers and creeks had to be forded when their water flow was low. After rain especially in winter time, stock and travellers could be held up at river crossings for days and weeks at a time.
Doomed from the Start
This first Great Western Road to the North West Coast was really doomed from the very beginning. In 1833 when Edward Curr returned to England to discuss the Company’s woes with his English directors, he told them their Western Road was so exceedingly steep that no permanent improvement should be attempted upon it until it is clearly proven that no better route cannot be found. Curr felt certain that a road from the Deloraine via the Mersey Ford (Kimberley) to Claremont Park (Armistead), then continuing westward well north of Mount Roland and Black Bluff and thence Emu Bay must be better option than the present road. This is precisely the brief given to Surveyor Nathaniel Lipscomb Kentish nine years later in 1842.