Some significant overseas visitors who travelled this road across Kentish’s high country were English Quaker missionaries James Backhouse & George Walker and world travelled Polish scientist Count Paul Strzelecki in 1841. Who were our first international visitors and what were they doing in our Kentish terrority?
James Backhouse & George Walker
Arriving in Hobart on 8 February 1832, these two Quakers claimed their mission was ‘to discharge a duty of Christian love to all inhabitants’. They wanted to observe and report on the social conditions relating to the island’s indigenous people and the treatment of convicts. Over the next two years Governor George Arthur gave them permission to visit the notorious convict prison on Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, the recently established aboriginal camp on Flinders Island and to interview convicts in various road-gangs. During their time here, they worked tirelessly to improve conditions of the poor and disadvantaged and to promote the moral and spiritual regeneration of the colony. What they saw quickly confirmed to them that hard liquor was a major cause of depravity and distress, so they began promoting the newly established Temperance Movement from England and encouraged people to take the pledge of abstinence.
In Oct 1832 Backhouse (39) and Walker (33) travelled by cutter to the Aboriginal settlement on Flinders Island. Like George Robinson, the Quakers did not share the disdain for these natives as did most colonists. Walker denied their intellectual inferiority, observing that they exceeded the Europeans in the skills they learnt since childhood, just as much as Europeans exceeded them in the things they were taught when young. Backhouse and Walker reported positively on the progress of confinement camp on Flinders Island, but suggested more suitable accommodation on a healthier site. Their report was accepted by the Government who changed the location and renamed it Wybalenna.
Travelling Kentish’s Back Country
From Flinders Island, the cutter took them to Launceston then along the North West Coast to Emu Bay, where Walker’s own cousin, Captain George Robson (42) was Superintendent of the VDL Co’s stations at both Hampshire Hills and Surrey Hills. After spending two months visiting the Company’s camp sites and enjoying Christmas 1832 with cousin George and Mary Robson, the Quaker missionaries decided to return to Launceston over the Great Western Road.
The VDL Co provided them with horses and a guide Dr Joe Milligan (27) along with his convict servant.
In January 1833 the small party made their way eastward from Hampshire Hills and upon reaching the Vale of Belvoir was impressed with the lovely setting of Lake Lea. Backhouse compared it to Patterdale Valley in the English Lake district. While crossing one of the many streams, a snake came out of a bank and swum across in front of Walker’s horse. It so frightened his horse, it became reluctant to cross other brooks. Coming to the Middlesex Plains, Dr Milligan told Backhouse and Walker that this fine area had been recently included in the pastoral properties granted to the VDL Co. At present there was no stock on it, but there was a recently erected stockyard, where they camped for the night of 24 January 1832.
Crossing the Forth and Mersey River
Next day as they descended to the Forth River, they were again struck by the magnificent views of mountain scenery on their southern vista. Although summertime, the Forth River was wide and fast flowing making it difficult to cross. Both sides of Gad’s Hill were covered with lofty forests, but on top there were grassy areas called Emu Plains, where they rested for some time. Upon leaving this area, their guide set fire to the plain so that the next travellers coming this way might have fresh grass for their animals.
The Mersey River was also somewhat flooded. While crossing the river, it became so deep, three out of the four horses had to swim a short distance before regaining their footings. That night near the present town of Mole Creek, the fire they lit for cooking, got away from them and into the forest. They were forced to move to a safer place to sleep, but through the night they heard several trees come crashing down. Here Dr Joe Milligan and his servant said goodbye and returned to Hampshire with three of the four horses. Backhouse and Walker reached Launceston on 28 January 1833 where they lodged with prominent business man Isaac Sherwin. Later on, in 1833 the two Quakers travelled to the East Coast to visit a fellow Quaker Francis Cotton and his family living at Kelvedon, near Swanport. Several of Cotton’s sons later came to Barrington as pioneer settlers and became early members of the Barrington Presbyterian Church.
Enduring Quaker Influence
Over the next few years, Backhouse and Walker established Quaker gatherings in several places. Using Hobart as their base, they made two visits to the colonies on the mainland. Backhouse eventually returned to England, but Walker believed that it was God’s will he settle in Tasmania. In 1840 Walker married Sarah Benson in Hobart and had a family of 10 children. He was responsible for the formation of the Hobart Savings Bank and spent his life ministering to the poor and destitute, including supporting a refuge for prostitutes. The Quaker community in Hobart led to the establishing of the well-known Friends’ School and to some degree Cadbury’s Chocolate Factory at Claremont. My next article will focus on Count Paul Strzelecki’s Visit.