The Convict Probation Station built on the banks of the Mersey River at Kimberley was one of some 80 similar barracks built across VDL during the early 1840s. Its purpose was to house all male convicts during the time they built a this section of the recently surveyed road from Deloraine to Emu Bay.

Probation Stations at Westbury and Deloraine had enabled convicts to construct the western road from Launceston through both of those settlements towards Dunorlan. Now the road needed to be continued to Whitefoord Hills (Moltema) and along Coiler Creek valley to the Mersey River at Kimberley. Our present railway line follows much the same route as this original convict road. These Mersey River probationers had also to construct a bridge across the river and continue the road up and across the Kentish Plains.

The Probation System was a new experiment in penal discipline unique to Van Diemen’s Land. It was introduced by Colonial Secretary in London in 1840 to replace the Assignment System which had been declared deficient and unfair. In a period of severe economic depression, this new system provided much needed free labour for the Government’s road building programme and was supposed to create a way for convicts to improve their status by working hard and behaving well. But despite its high ideals, the new system became another miserable failure. Firstly because of entrenched corruption in the bureaucracy and secondly because of the serious detrimental effects coming from communal living in barracks.

The evil influence harden criminals had upon naïve younger convicts forced Lt Governor Dennison to admit in 1847 ‘that with very few exceptions, the convicts immerging from the Probation stations were worse than when they went in.” The British Colonial Secretary in London tried to modify the system several times but ultimately abandoned it altogether.

Building the Barracks 1844 

The Controller–General of Convicts Captain Matthew Forster arrived at the Mersey River crossing in April 1844 to select a site for the proposed station intended to house between 200- 300 convicts.

He chose a location on the eastern bank of the Mersey River within the current township of Kimberley between its natural hot springs and the present highway to Railton. Surveyor Nathaniel Kentish was there also to peg the site of the bridge and finalize its design. He found the river running so high, it was week before he could safely cross it. He planned a long high bridge allowing the river to rise 12-16 feet when in flood. It would be supported by several large four-sided pylons constructed by laying round logs horizontally one upon another and interlocking them together at each end.

In August 1844 eight-five probationers were marched from the Deloraine barracks to commence construction of this station. It included officers’ quarters, accommodation for 1st, 2rd and 3rd class convicts, prison cells, a cook house and mess hall, a small hospital, chapel, woodyard and airing paddock for bedding. Apart from stone foundations, everything else was made from round poles, split timber and shingles. It was completed 10 months later in mid-1845.

Meanwhile the Government Commissariat store in Launceston had called tenders to supply the new Mersey River station with the following goods: Fresh meat, flour, vegetables, tea, sugar, salt, yellow soap, rice, sago, arrowroot, scotch barley, oatmeal, bottles of port wine, brandy, yeast, new milk, cottonwaist, vinegar, lime juice, lard and straw. Each probationer was allowed 1 palliase (straw mattress), 1 rug, 1 blanket during summer + 2 extra blankets during winter. Their clothing allowance consisted of 2 cloth jackets, 2 pairs of trousers, 3 cotton shirts, 2 pairs of boots, 1 pair of shoes and 2 leather caps. Every item had to be clearly marked with the convict‘s own special number.

Opening the Probation Station 1845 

When the Mersey River Probation Station opened in August 1845, 130 experienced bridge building convicts were marched from the Perth Probation Station to Kimberley to begin preparing the site for the proposed bridge. The remaining convicts came from the Deloraine Probation Station and were assigned to road building in both directions. The Probation Station at Deloraine had been built in 1843 on the western bank of Meander River at the corner of Church Street and Western Parade. It housed 500 prisoners under the control of Superintendent George Courtney and his large staff. They had been engaged in making the road from Westbury through Deloraine, however a severe flood in 1844 had damaged the first bridge across the Meander River requiring major repairs.

The small chapel erected at the Mersey River Probation Station was used by both the Anglican and Catholic convict chaplains. Periodically the Dean of Westbury Rev John Biston had visited Deloraine since the early 1840s. Having a heart to help the convicts, he conducted an experiment at his own expense.

He purchased land at a Government sale, surveyed it off into small lots, then sold them to ticket-of-leave and conditionally pardoned convicts. Rev Bishton said: “They have all become respectable members of society. I consider that men having the opportunity to purchase their own land become more fixed and settled in their conduct and character.

He had helped to build 14 cottages. Catholic convicts were seen by Father Tom Butler of Launceston who visited all three Probation stations at Westbury, Deloraine and the Mersey River. When the first Roman Catholic Bishop of VDL Dr Robert William Willson came to Deloraine in 1845, he insisted on inspecting the new Probation Station at Mersey River. He wasn’t too impressed with conditions and insisted on supplying the convicts with reading material.

Surveyor Calder Conned by the Convicts 

On 13 October 1845 Surveyor James Calder left Deloraine under orders to further explore the region around the Kentish Plains. Arriving at the usual fording place across the Mersey River, Calder found the river in flood and was forced to seek the help of the probationers to cross the fast-flowing river.

Here is a condensed account of Calder’s report of this incident: On the bank of this river there stood, one of those schools of idleness and nurseries of vice, called Probation Stations, to which our erring fellows were consigned, to fit them, ostensibly at least, for their return to that society from whence they were expelled. I had always a hatred of these odious looking edifices. The slovenly and tasteless way they were patched together; their mean and dismal look; the entire absence of energy, bustle, and activity, always visible in the abodes of industry; the monotonous and infernal ding-dong of the ever-jingling bell, so ostentatiously ringing the repulsive looking inmates to some new labour, where next to nothing was ever done, rarely failed to evoke feelings of disgust in the visitor or passer-by. 

The Mersey is a rapid stream, flowing over a bottom of loose stones, so worn by the never-ceasing action of the current that their surface is nearly as smooth as polished marble, thus making the operation of fording it, a highly disagreeable adventure. In summer time it is not more than fifty yards wide, but about half as much again when flooded, -as it most unfortunately was on my visit. My carrier, whom I had hired at Deloraine to cart my goods to Kentish Plains (and was green enough to pay him before starting), refused to cross the swollen river. So, he unceremoniously removed my goods and baggage from his cart, jumped into it himself, wished me good morning and bolted back to Deloraine. 

Following this wholly unexpected action, I was thus reduced to the necessity of getting my stores across the river as I best could. But this could not to be done without the accursed assistance of the probationers. When approached, it appeared every man on the station was ready to undertake this dangerous adventure, mainly for the possibility of pilfering from me. About a dozen of them were chosen, and after each man was laden according to his strength, they entered the impetuous torrent. Now whether from accident or design I cannot say, but every one of the party except myself and one of my own men, stumbled and were washed downstream before they were half way over. I was mortified to see nearly my possessions in the water, of which at least a third was eventually lost, Strange to say the convicts all got out safely, so I had not even the comfort of seeing any one of them drowned as they deserved to be. For I afterwards learned, their stumbling over was a deliberate plan to plunder me. It seems everything except a few small weighty articles such as a travelling compass, mountain barometer, was recovered by their trusty associates, who lined the river bank, around a sharp bend, a few hundred yards downstream. But being accustomed to losses and crosses of this nature all my life, it did not trouble me too much, and I went heartily to work to leave the accursed neighbourhood as soon as possible. 

Convicts Escape 

Shortly after some of the convicts were tranferred from Deloraine to the Mersey River, three remaining convicts made their escape from the Deloraine Probation Station. When the superintendant cut rations to the rest of the convicts, many laid down their tools and refused to work. It resulted in open rebellion with 21 probationers breaking out of the barracks and making their escape. This was Tasmania’s largest station outbreak. As the escapees moved toward Launceston, they raid a number of settlers houses. Only through the combined efforts of a number of constables and an attatchment of the 96th Regiment were they all recaptured. At the trial eight men were acquitted, the remaining thirteen sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life imprisonment at Port Arthur.

Writing about the early days of Dunorlan, Dan Griffin says after his parents Daniel and Elizabeth Griffin with their ten children began leasing the 1000 acre property known as Dunorlan House in 1845, they were stuck up by two different lots of escaped convicts from Mersey River Probation Station.

Probation Station Abandoned 1848 

A surprising change to the unpopular Probation System was announced in August 1845 just as the new barracks at Mersey River was being filled with convicts. The Colonial Secretary Lord Stanley in London announced that because of its huge financial cost to the Government and the shocking social evils associated with communal living in the convict barracks, the Probation System was to be gradually closed and a ‘new self-supporting convict system’ implemented.

Probationers would be withdrawn from road building around the State and re-employed clearing Government land so that it could be sold to new settlers. Convicts would be encouraged to earn passes so that they could be hired out for employment to settlers. The only exception to this new policy would be probationers now assigned to building Kentish’s road to Emu Bay. However shortly after completing the construction of a cart-road up onto the Kentish Plains, the Government declared the remainder of this major road project through to Emu Bay requiring several significant bridges was to be abandoned as well.

The Deloraine Probation Station closed in 1847 and new Mersey River Probation Station followed in 1848. Convicts from both stations were transferred to the Launceston Hiring Depot. Two years later the deserted Mersey convict barracks were occupied by William Kimberley and his family who arrived from the Midlands with their thousands of sheep and subsequently leased the land. (This story coming shortly).

For several decades these obsolete wooden barracks stood beside the Mersey River guarding the main gateway to the new Kingdom of Kentish. They remained a haunting reminder of an austere convict system that ended in failure. The original bridge Nathaniel Kentish had designed to across the Mersey River was also abandon. In 1869 the Mersey- Deloraine Tramway Co built a light wooden railway bridge to cross the Mersey which the travelling public also used for a couple of years before the Company failed and bridge quickly fell into disrepair. From Kentish’s initial attempt to bridge this river, it was forty frustrating years and several drownings before the Government could be persuaded in 1885 to construct a road bridge across this broad river.

Meanwhile as the Mersey River regularly rose and flooded after heavy rain in the back country, our poor pioneers with their young families and livestock spent their nights sheltering in the old Probation Station patiently waiting for the river to subside. Slowly the ravages of time, fire, vandalism and several realignments of the main road to Railton eroded all traces of this very visible connection with our island’s infamous convict era. In 1898 when digging the foundations of his general store in Kimberley, Bill Cullen dug up the old convict flogging triangle. Our only link now, being our convict constructed ‘bridle track’ from Kimberley up through the bush to Sheffield.

Next Time: Calder Climbs Mt Roland 1845