Part 2: From Spreyton, Don and Forth
Early in 1851, William Dean and his brother-in-law Benjamin Cocker made a voyage from Launceston along the North West Coast to buy split palings for the Melbourne market where Cocker had just established an importing business. They decided to return to Launceston overland. Following the Don River inland, they came to Bott Gorge (just off the Sheffield Main Road, opposite Acacia Hills) where they found two timber workers named Powell and Ayres.
Invited to shelter overnight in their hut, the travellers were struck by the strange appearance of the flames in their fireplace – the timber workers were burning coal. Next morning, Dean and Cocker offered the splitters five sovereigns to show them where this coal came from and were led to a nearby outcrop. This discovery of coal, within the present Kentish Municipality, was the first find of this mineral on the NW Coast. It set off the coal rush to the Mersey estuary. Soon coal was discovered in several other places. Hundreds of new settlers arrived, small townships came into existence, all of which changed the entire history of the Mersey River and Kentish districts.
The two merchants hurried back to Launceston with their coal samples and quickly organised a syndicate of business men who formed The Mersey Coal Company. By June 1851, they had purchased 1,700 acres of land covering the coal field, and by Sept 1851, Benjamin’s brother David Cocker and William Dean became the first settlers at Spreyton. They purchased two river frontage blocks at Dean’s Point (now Woodrising Golf Course) where they erected a jetty. On one occasion, David Cocker almost lost his life crossing the cold, fast-flowing Mersey River at Kimberley’s Ford. He and his horse were carried down river, but fortunately when thrown up against a bank, Cocker was able to hang on and eventually climbed out.
Spreyton to Acacia Hills & Barrington
While William Dean concentrated on developing the mine at Bott Gorge, David Cocker set about building the first steam driven sawmill on the coast, at the base of the Don Tier (now Jowetts hill) about 2 ½ miles inland from Dean’s Point. It was close to the present Spreyton Cider Factory from where a wooden tramway was constructed back to Dean’s Point over what was first called Coal Mine Flat, now the Sheffield Main Road. It carried both coal from Bott Gorge and sawn timber from the mill.
At Bott Gorge, the new Launceston syndicate found three beds of coal, one in a tributary of the Don River, they called Coal Creek, which rises in the slopes of Acacia Hills and crosses the Sheffield Main Road half way along the straight. The Mersey Coal Company purchased a powerful steam engine, sought miners from England, built a series of accommodation huts and commenced a shaft which eventually went down 300 feet. The coal mining prospects were so exciting that the Governor, Sir William Denison, visited Bott Gorge in Feb 1853 to see the first six bullock-dray loads of coal, to leave for Dean’s Point jetty, to be shipped to Launceston. But the Company’s operation began in such an extravagant and wasteful way that William Dean withdrew from the syndicate and commenced mining on his own. Visiting the Bott Gorge mining camp in Dec 1854, a Wesleyan minister preached to 30 adults and 40 children. The Company continued for a couple of more years, but the narrow coal seams were full of faults and after spending nearly £20,000, the mine ceased work in 1857.
William Dean moved a couple of miles further down the Don river where a new discovery of coal had been made in Denny’s Gorge. John and Elizabeth Denny had just become the first settlers in this whole Aberdeen-Melrose area. In Sept 1853, Dean & Denny formed a company, but here again after a year’s work, excessive faults caused their operation to cease. John Denny then became manager of the Dean & Cockers sawmill close by at South Spreyton. The Dennys had 14 children and their descendants are scattered all over the Devonport- Kentish area. A couple of months after the Dennys arrived, Edward & Esther Atkins bought a 600-acre block on the top of the Melrose hill and gave it the Gaelic name Waughambeham which it retains to this day.
The Dennys’ oldest daughter Harriett married Frank von Bibra, the eldest son of the first settlers on the Kentish Plains. The von Bibras settled on land adjacent to John Denny’s property between Melrose and Lower Barrington and it was here tragedy struck. Their 2nd daughter Isabella (3) wandered away from their bush home and became lost. Despite a massive search by many people, her body wasn’t found until a year later, little more than a hundred metres from the house. The mural Lost Child, erected on the side of the Upper Barrington Hall, depicts this tragedy. All the mining and sawmill activities mentioned so far were within the newly created Parish of Barrington. At first, it was the only address newcomers had, so they all claimed to be the first settlers in ‘Barrington’.
Meanwhile, David Cocker was shipping sawn timber to his merchant brother in Melbourne.
Cocker brothers owned two ships the John Bull and the Wave, and leased three others to handle their growing trade between the Mersey and Melbourne. Beside palings, shingles and planking, the first wooden piles for the wharves at Port Melbourne were cut in the Barrington bush. These timber workers also hand-made axe handles, wooden spokes and felloes for wagon and cart wheels, which were in high demand. David Cocker also set up a general store at South Spreyton so that his returning ships brought back every kind of basic supply for the isolated pioneers. Timber workers and settlers for miles around bought their supplies from Cocker’s shop. Sadly, in Feb 1858 a big bush fire burnt the sawmill and 80,000 feet of sawn timber ready for shipment. William Dean rebuilt the mill but shortly afterwards was involved in a serious accident when a log rolled onto him. He was many months getting over it and eventually moved to Tarleton. In Oct 1858, as chairman of the Mersey
Settlement Association, he became a prime mover in advertising for settlers to go to the new agricultural district on Kentish Plains.
In 1866, David Cocker purchased land in Lower Barrington where his two sons, Joseph and Joshua, managed it. Cocker Snr closed his South Spreyton store in 1868 and spent time in Launceston and Melbourne before returning to the Mersey to become a leading citizen of Formby (West Devonport).
Other early pioneers of Spreyton were Stephen and Maria Kelcey who arrived from Canterbury, Kent in 1852. Stephen purchased a large amount of land at Spreyton where he built a house Maidstone, named after the place where he first worked in England as a grain merchant. He built a tidal flour mill in what is now known as Flour Mill Bay, adjacent to Woodrising Golf Links, and a sawmill to process timber from what became Kelcey Tiers. Some of his heavy timber was used on the Geelong wharf buildings and 30,000 sleepers for the railway line to Geelong. Stephen died in 1899 aged 99. In the early days his son Stephen Cooper Kelcey moved to Lower Barrington, and in the late 1870s to Nook where he built a flour mill driven by a large waterwheel at Kelcey Falls, later known as the Nook Falls. Also, some houses around Nook and in Sheffield.
From Don to Barrington, Sheffield & Claude Road.
The earliest timber trader to settle at the Don River was Thomas Drew in 1842 after he purchased 640 acres at the Don Heads. He owned the boat Waterwitch, with which he traded split timber first to Launceston, then Melbourne and Adelaide. He employed many ‘ticket of leave’ and assigned convicts as labourers, timber cutters, sawyers, splitters and bullock drivers. One of them was Ephraim Doe, whose family became early settlers of Paradise, later at Wilmot.
In the very early 1850s, two Canadian lumberjacks arrived at the Don River direct from the Victorian Goldfields with several small vessels they had purchased. Their plan was to build a sawmill and export timber to the mainland. They formed Cumming and Raymond & Co and sent to Canada for more experienced lumberjacks. In July 1853, 29 men arrived, but sadly shortly afterwards, one of the owners and two employees were drowned in a shipping accident. Then in 1855, their mill burnt down. Undeterred, the Company built another and slowly recovered. In 1863, a young man James York (18) came from Launceston to work for them. To access timber, the Company began building a horse-drawn tramway up the Don Valley, where they discovered both coal and limestone. When it reached Melrose, they built a store and made James York manager. But by 1872, this Company had run into financial difficulties, and bought in Melbourne accountant John Henry to help solve their problems. He brought into the company, first as Cummings, Henry and Co, then, when Cummings retired, John Henry and Co, and finally in 1880, he and his wife added two partners to form The River Don Trading Company. For a time, this Company was the largest business establishment on the North-West coast. It developed a chain of general stores, owned a sawmill, a shipping fleet, furniture and upholstery factories, a cooperage, butchery, bakery and a large acreage of land.
When the Company’s tramway finally reached Lower Barrington in 1879, they built a large store there and James York was appointed manager. His residence York House was built across the road and still stands. The railway line was extended a further two miles passed Lower Barrington, as John Henry had ideas of continuing it through to Sheffield. But one new Barrington arrival George Easton, (previously Under-Secretary of State for Bengal, India) through whose property the railway line would go, went down to Don and confronted John Henry, after which the idea was dropped.
During Kentish’s mining boom of the early 1880s, John Henry & James York offered to become partners with small-time store-keeper Joseph Schmidt at Sheffield and replace his weatherboard shop with a big new brick building. It was opened in March 1883 as York Schmidt & Co. After Schmidt’s early death, the store became the Sheffield branch of The River Don Trading Co, known locally as The Don Store. James York and John Henry’s brother William bought most of the Dasher River flats beyond Claude Road where Wm Henry set up a model dairy farm he called Gowrie. Employing young locals, Henry hand-milked a hundred cows to produce his cheese products. James York had a family of nine children with many descendants still living in the area.
From Forth to Kentish Plains, Middlesex & Cradle Mountain
Three early settlers at the Forth River impacted our Kentish history. Pioneer settler, and later historian, James Fenton arrived at the Forth River in 1840. He claimed, during that first year, to have made a solitary exploratory journey inland as far as Lower Barrington, two years before Nathaniel Kentish reached the same area. Later, during 1843-44, Fenton wrote that Kentish often stayed with him at Forth to write up his surveying reports. In Fenton’s book Bush Life in Tasmania, he provides the most detailed account of how Kentish discovered the Kentish Plains. In the late 1850s, when Fenton became chairman of the Devon Road Trust that met regularly at Tarleton, he too strongly promoted the settlement of Kentish Plains.
Fenton’s neighbour at Forth, ‘Philosopher’ James Smith arrived from the Victorian goldfields in 1853 and more than any other man, devoted his time to prospecting our mountainous back country. Trekking up the Forth Valley in April 1859 with Thomas Johnson from Tarleton, they found traces of gold in both the Wilmot and Forth Rivers. In 1862, he and Frank von Bibra tried cutting down the unique King Billy & pencil pine trees found in the Upper Forth and floating them down river. Eventually James Smith would discover the world’s largest tin mine at Mt Bischoff. His son Major Ronald Edgar Smith became best friends of Gustav & Kate Weindorfer. Together they purchased 200 acres at Cradle Mt which they leased out as a summer cattle run, while Smith operated a sawmill. Once Waldheim was established, Smith became the Secretary of the Cradle Mt Reserve Board.
James Dooley and his family from Ireland arrived at Forth in March 1856 to become District Surveyor for the County of Devon. During the 14 years he lived at Forth, he spent a lot of his time surveying and opening the vast inland area we know today as the Kentish Municipality. In 1870, Dooley moved to Latrobe, became a member of Parliament where he always fought for his north-western region.
So while the new white clover growing on Kentish Plains fed the cuds of Field’s cattle for 15 years between 1843-1858, other areas of Kentish closer to the Coast were invaded by timber workers, sawmillers, coal miners and the original pioneer settlers. Only when Field’s lease expired in 1858 did it become the Kentish Plains turn to attract its first pioneer settlers.