First Pioneer Settlers on the Kentish Plains

The well-to-do ancestors of Francis von Bibra lived for centuries as powerful barons in large castles of Bavaria, overlooking the picturesque Rhine River. The von Bibras were among the most important, influential and wealthy families of the old German empire. One of Francis’ forebears came to England with the Hanoverians, joined the British Royal household and tutored two of King George IV nieces.

Born in 1818, Francis Lewis von Bibra was the 3rd of eight children born to Lieutenant Franz Ludwig von Bibra, who served 16 years in the British Army. Lieutenant von Bibra commanded a 500-strong cavalry based in southern Italy, during the Napoleonic wars. Afterwards, as the British Government downsized its armies, Lieutenant Von Bibra was offered a 1000-acre grant in Van Diemen’s Land. So, in Sept 1822 Von Bibra, his wife Elizabeth and 8 children sailed aboard the transport ship Morley, carrying 170 male prisoners. They arrived in Hobart on 10 Jan 1823. Our young Francis was aged 4 at the time. The von Bibra family took up their large grant beside the Macquarie River, close to present day Cressy, giving it the German ancestral name Coburg. It was here in July 1823 that Elizabeth, who had become pregnant soon after leaving England, gave birth to her 9th child. Tragically, two months later her husband Lieutenant Franz Ludwig von Bibra drowned in the Macquarie River.

Over the following six years Elizabeth von Bibra battled on against incredible difficulties – aboriginal attacks, bushrangers and the death of one child. A neighbour’s son Sam Lucas (in his mid-twenties), offered to help the struggling widow, but got her 12 ½ year old daughter Maria pregnant and had to marry her. By Jan 1830, Elizabeth had had enough. Leaving her three eldest children, Benedict 20, Frederick 18, Maria (now 16) & husband Sam Lucas, to run Coburg, she sailed aboard the Prince Regent back to London with her five youngest children. The plan was that after a good education, both sons, Charles & Francis, would return to Van Diemen’s Land to help their older brothers run their huge Coburg estate. When five years later Charles 19 and Francis 17 did return to VDL, they were shocked to discover their oldest brother Benedict (who had inherited Coburg because his father didn’t have a will) had sold it and moved to Western Australia, while their other brother Frederick had gone to NSW.

1835 Francis in race to ‘found’ Melbourne 

Hearing of the race to start a settlement across Bass Strait in unexplored Port Philip Bay, young Francis von Bibra, with several others, chartered the sloop Endeavour, under the command of Captain Bellim. They left the Tamar Heads on the same day and hour as John Batman’s party in the Rebecca. Because of a severe storm, Batman’s Rebecca was forced to shelter in the Rubicon River for six days, while Captain Bellim’s Endeavour was blown away off course and when they landed in Western Port Bay they believed it was Port Phillip Bay. While their party was on shore exploring the country, some sailors got on the grog, began fighting. Two fell over board and were drowned. By the time von Bibra’s party discovered their mistake and sailed around to Port Philip Bay, Batman was already there. Batman had made a deal with the natives and bought the best of the land on the site of Melbourne. Being a determined young man, Francis von Biba found another aboriginal chief and purchased an area of land which today includes the Flemington Racecourse. Later the authorities cancelled all private deals made by white men with the natives, so our ambitious Francis was left with nothing but unfulfilled memories.

Upon returning to Launceston in Sept 1835, Francis von Bibra took a position as an accountant with the Customs Dept and on 1 Feb 1836 married Eliza Palin Pernell at St Johns Church, Launceston. Their first child Isabella (always known as Bella) was born 30 Nov 1836 and was baptised in the Wesleyan church on News Year Day, 1837. Francis and Eliza’s marriage in the Anglican church may have been a concession to Eliza’s family, because after this, they both become committed Wesleyans, with Francis now a strict teetotaller and advocate of the Temperance Movement.

1840 Launceston’s House of Correction 

At this point Francis left his custom job and took a position at the House of Correction in Patterson St, Launceston – between Bathurst and Margaret St. Despite having two more children (Frank b1838, William b1840), his wife Eliza also became sub-matron of 250 women in the Female Factory. During a routine inspection by Dr Maddox in Oct 1842, a group of women rioted. Several prisoners seized Eliza and barricaded themselves in a room until police arrived to release her. Four years later, three of the von Bibra children had a narrow escape from drowning. Playing near a waterhole in a lumber yard, opposite the Female Factory, their youngest son Will slipped in. His brother Frank jumped in to save him and Bella followed. It was only because a workman some distance away heard their cries that the children were rescued. For a short time, Francis was transferred to Impression Bay near Port Arthur, then in June 1848 returned to Launceston to become Superintendent of the Treadmill situated across the street from the jail. The treadmill was a form of punishment for disobedient, non-compliant convicts – sentencing them for periods of time to turn a revolving grinding wheel. The magistrates had creative ways of describing this punishment, telling the convicts they had ‘one month’s recreation on Mr von Bibra’s roundabout’, or ‘14 days exercise in Mr von Bibra’s gymnasium’ or ‘a short period as a perambulator on von Bibra’s revolver’. In Launceston, Francis and Eliza were keen for their children to receive a good education; sending their sons to the Launceston Grammar School.

1852 Lured to the Victorian Gold Fields 

With the discovery of gold in Victoria, 34-year-old Francis was smitten. He resigned his job in May 1852 and, together with half the able male population of VDL, fled to the gold fields. After 14 months there, during which time he was moderately successful, Francis returned to his wife and family in Launceston in July 1853. Meeting up with fellow Wesleyan Methodist William B Dean, Francis von Bibra was persuaded to invest his new-found wealth in the Mersey Coal Company and move his family to the tiny town of Tarleton, near present day Latrobe. While sons Frank (15) & William (13) were still at Grammar School, Francis and Eliza, with their remaining children, moved to Tarleton. Their family included eldest daughter Bella (17) who had completed her schooling, Ernest (9), Eliza (4) and Bertha (2). Francis bought a 500-acre block and became a coal exporter. He even ordered a piano from London, which arrived almost a year later.

1855 Energetic Leader at Tarleton 

In Dec 1855, Francis took over one of the three general stores in Tarleton and began selling drapery, groceries, hardware and general provisions. Being an energetic and enterprising man, Francis ran it well, and soon became widely respected and known locally as ‘Mr Von.’ Invariably, Francis was first and foremost in every local movement to advance the district. The last of their seven children Leopold was born in 1855, but tragically two years later, on 4 June 1857, Francis’ wife Eliza (40) died of consumption. She was buried in the nearby Ballahoo cemetery. A close-knit family, Francis felt this loss keenly, but 21-year-old Bella stepped into the breach, and began to run the household and take care of the family.

When the export of coal began to falter, Francis was quick to turn his attention to exporting timber. Exploring the back country, he discovered an inexhaustible supply of stringy bark. With his two sons Frank & William – now strong young men – they began to open up bush tracks; cutting and hauling timber to the Ballahoo wharf. Gradually, they worked their way across Red Water Creek, up the Stoodley Hill, and eventually into the heavily timbered Forest of Arden, a couple of miles east of the present town of Sheffield. After some time in this area, Francis and his sons became convinced of the great agricultural value of the Kentish Plains. So much so, that he wrote to the Government to hasten their survey work to allow new settlers to move onto the Plains. Knowing Thomas Field’s leases were about to expire, Francis even wrote on the wall of Field’s hut in charcoal:

‘Tom Field, your reign is over. Soon these plains will grow grass and clover,

And plenty will abound, On Kentish ground.’

By late 1858, many Tarleton residents were inspecting the Plains for the possibility of purchasing property there. But nothing could be done until Surveyor James Dooley completed his survey work and put some bush blocks up for auction. As mentioned last month, Francis von Bibra led the fruitless search in Nov 1858 for a young man lost in the Kentish bush.

1859- First Settlers on the Kentish Plains 

Eventually some blocks were put up for sale on 22 Feb 1859. Francis von Bibra became the first person to purchase 59 acres for £70/16/- cash, beside the upper reaches of the Don River in the heart of what is now West Kentish. An adjoining 50-acre block was bought for £60/-/- cash in the name of his daughter Isabella Von Bibra. Today these two blocks lay within the area bounded by the West Kentish Rd on their south side, the Don River on their east side, with Shorey’s Road forming the boundary on both its north and west sides. As other pioneers took up adjoining blocks on both side of the Dasher river, this area became the centre of the original settlement on the Plains.

Francis von Biba’s two boys Frank and William helped blaze a better track up to Kentish Plain. At nights they slept beneath their wagon, between the wheels. To scare off prowling Tasmanian devils or tigers, they lit a fire at each end of the wagon and kept their guns loaded beside them. On their chosen block, they built a barn that gave them shelter and storage, then commenced erecting the first split timber dwelling on the Plains. Because of his financial status, the von Bibra homestead was more substantial than most pioneer’s huts. It had a large kitchen/living area and several bedrooms. Split shingles were placed horizontally on the outside walls, and vertically to line the inside walls. Wooden shutters were used for windows, and, surprisingly, split timber for chimneys – made so wide that you could actually sit in them, either side of the fire to keep warm. They also built a separate hut for their hired man John Price (35). Several times Francis walked the 4-day journey to Launceston to obtain supplies. These were shipped to Bell’s new wharf at Latrobe, then transported by bullock wagon to Kentish Plains. Bullock teams would leave Latrobe at daybreak and travel together to assist one another when wagons sank to their axles in mud.

At the time of settling in, Francis von Bibra was 42, Bella 23, Frank 21, Will 19, Ernest 13, Eliza 10, Bertha 8 & Leopold 4. All family members were expected to help clear and cultivate their land. Their main farming tools were a wedge-shaped axe, a mattock with a 4 x 12 inch (30cm) long blade, a potato fork and a sickle. The von Bibras were the first to hoe in their crops, cut them with a sickle and thresh them with a horse sled. Eventually Francis brought the first plough to Kentish and turned over 10 acres (4 hectares) of good ground. The first social event was a tea meeting held in von Bibra’s barn, and those attending were said to have seen Field’s stock drovers rounding up the last stray cattle on the Kentish Plains.

A committed Wesleyan Methodist, Francis missed the regular church services at Tarleton. So as more settlers arrived, he began holding church services in his own home. His daughter Bella ran a Sunday School class for children and presumably played their imported English piano, which must have been moved to Kentish in a bullock wagon., At first sons Frank or Will would go to meet Rev Thomas Angwin from Deloraine and guide him through the bush. A family story tells of an incident when Francis received an important document from Germany requiring his signature and immediate return. A certain amount of postage was needed, but von Bibra didn’t have the necessary money to buy the stamps. Being a sincerely religious man, he prayed about it and shortly afterwards found a guinea coin nearby.

Having benefited from a good education back in England, Francis was quick to recognize the needs of the pioneer settlers’ older children. After helping their parents clear land all day, Francis would open his home to these youths on certain evenings of the week to teach them some basic schooling. This continued for several years.

As Francis von Bibra became the first obvious leader among the emerging settlement on the Kentish Plains, this did not mean he lost influence down at Tarleton on the Mersey River. In April 1859, von Bibra was voted in to replace renowned pioneer settler James Fenton of Forth as Chairman of the Devon Road Trust, which covered the broad area surrounding the Mersey Estuary.

Next issue: Francis von Bibra & His Family: Part 2