First Pioneer Settlers on the Kentish Plains

Well-educated widower and descendant of German nobility, Francis von Bibra (41), along with his daughter (Isa)Bella (23), two sons Frank (21) and Will (19) and four younger children – Ernest, Eliza, Bertha and Leopold – became the first pioneer family to settle on the Kentish Plains. Prior to coming to Kentish, Francis had been a prominent citizen in the coal mining township of Tarleton, where he was Chairman of the Devon Road Trust. During 1859, they erected their split timber dwelling on their 50-acre block beside the Don River between the West Kentish Rd and Shoreys Road. Their simple homestead, some 6 kms south of Nathaniel Kentish’s track across the Plains, became the centre of the first emerging settlement in the area. Surrounding neighbours included Wm Braid, George Redpath, John Dyer and John Davies. It was on von Bibra’s property that the first crops were put in, first ploughing occurred, first church service and tea meeting and first school classes were held.

Francis and his two oldest boys Frank & Will, cleared the first tracks into the area; some voluntary, some under contract. Describing ‘the resolution and pluck of the Von Bibra boys’, one early settler told how after a giant tree had fallen across their bridle track there was no cross-cut saw in the country that could cut it in half. So the von Bibra boys spent three weeks burning it through before they could use bullock teams to pull the two sections apart. On 21 Dec 1861, Francis von Bibra and two other pioneers purchased one of the first blocks in the township of Sheffield for the future erection of a Wesleyan church. The following month, Francis’ 40-year-old hired servant John Price dropped dead of ‘heat stroke’ on his property.

Francis von Bibra never lost his gold mining fever. During Nov & Dec 1861 he accompanied Wm R Bell (son of Robert Bell of Bell’s Parade, Latrobe) on his first prospecting ventures behind Mt Roland. A couple of months later, in Feb 1862, Bell & von Bibra made a much more adventurous expedition to prospect around the Arthur River and its tributaries. Bell became a well-known prospector and seems to have given his name to Bell Mt near Wilmot.

(Isa)Bella’s Brief Life 

In mid-1862 Louis von Bibra, son of Francis’ eldest brother Benedict then residing in Western Australia, came to visit his uncle Francis’ family on the Kentish Plains. A civil engineer, young Louis and Bella, both 26, were soon attracted to each other. In fact so attracted that their hastily arranged Wesleyan marriage ceremony held in the von Bibra homestead on 7 March 1863, was followed 2½ months later with Bella giving birth to their first child Elbert von Bibra. Later Louis, Bella and baby left Kentish to commence an entirely different life. After Bella sold her 50-acre block to her father, the young family sailed to Calcutta, India where Louis became an engineer on a new railway project. But after Bella had three babies in less than three years, she became ill. Fearing tuberculosis, Louis send Bella back to Tasmania for treatment. Leaving her oldest two infants in the care of Indian servants in Calcutta, Bella and youngest baby arrived back in Launceston in Aug 1866, but sadly three months later, on 13 Nov 1866, she died of ‘dysentery’ aged 29.

During 1862 & 1863, Francis and his two sons Frank & Will accepted Government tenders for more road construction jobs. They gained contracts for upgrading parts of the Kentish’s Track down to Barrington. Later, for roads around Forth and Ulverstone, then finally the huge contract of cutting off the side of Round Hill just east of Burnie, to allow the formation of a new coastal road to be built around its base. They lost money on this last contract, as much more rock had to be blasted by gelignite than anticipated and it all had to be removed by bullock carts.

Late in 1864, the Devon Road Trust was divided into three separate Road Trusts: East Mersey, West Mersey and the Kentishbury Road Trust. The first elections took place on 16 Jan 1865, and Francis von Bibra was one of the five new members elected to the first Kentishbury Road Trust. The other four were Edmund Lord (chairman), Thomas Johnson, John McFarlane and Henry Cooper.

By this date the first school classes for settler’s children had outgrown von Bibra‘s house. So in 1864 Francis allowed their parents to build a separate school house, at their own expense, on the north-east corner of his farm. Its entrance was off Shorey’s Road, close by the river – so it was called the Don School Room. Henry Harris became the first teacher, but after he died on 20 July 1876 of ‘stoppage of urine’, he was followed by John Nunn. The Government didn’t erect a public school and teacher’s residence at West Kentish until 1885.

Francis’ older brother Benedict von Bibra, still residing in Western Australia, had now been joined by another brother – Charles. Both brothers urged Francis to join them in this new ‘Cinderella’ state. So, in Feb 1865, Francis put his two blocks in Kentish – totalling 109 acres – on the market advertising them as having ‘a dwelling, a workman’s hut and a barn, with 43 acres cleared and being cropped’.

This property known as Eureka was sold a few times and eventually purchased by William & Ann Braid who already owned an adjacent property. The early Braid family planted a special fir tree to mark the exact spot where the first house in Kentish had stood, but in recent times it has been removed. A second memorial tree marking the site of the original Don School Room still stands.

Francis Extraordinary Exploits in W.A. 

When Francis von Bibra left for Western Australia in June 1865, his eldest two sons Frank (27) & Will (25) chose to stay in Tasmania, where they had been born and had road-making contracts. But Francis’ four youngest children: Ernest (19), Eliza (16), Bertha (14) & Leopold (10) accompanied their father to the West. It gave Dominic great joy to have his younger brother arrive in the West, where lots of new opportunities opened up for Francis. Down in Bunbury, in 1867, he met and married a widow Mercy Everett, who at 39 was 10 years younger than him. Mercy had a daughter by her late husband Captain James Everett and following her marriage to Francis, two more von Bibra children were born. Benedict von Bibra had become a shipowner, operating out of the Port of Fremantle and in 1868 he invited Francis to become a partner in this enterprise. For the next few years their ships regularly sailed between Fremantle and Sydney, Port Philip Bay, Hobart, and even to England. They sold the business in 1870, as Benedict, still very active and full of energy, wanted to join his family in India. Francis and Mercy opened a store in Bunbury, but always hankering for adventure, Francis spent almost a year negotiating to buy the historic Dirk Hartog Island, just off the coast of WA, 550 miles (900 kms) north of Perth. In 1872 Francis’ whole family (Mercy, now expecting their second baby) set off in bullock drays for the long journey north. Driving a mob of cattle and sheep, it took them two months to complete.

Francis and Mercy stayed on Dirk Hartog Island until their retirement. Francis and his employees turned this 60-mile-long island into one of the notable pastoral enterprises in North Western Australia. On the island he also founded the pearling industry, the sandalwood trade, the dugong oil and guano trade. In partnership with his brother Charles, they opened another cattle station on the mainland near Denham. In about 1875 he purchased Burswood Island, located down in the Swan River at Perth, and divided his time between Dirk Hartog Island and Burswood House, a large hospitable homestead he built on the island in the river. Today Burswood Island is now the centre of Perth’s thriving night life and the home of the city’s Crown casino.

When gold was discovered in Western Australia, it awakened Francis’ old ‘gold fever.’ Although nearly 70 years of age, he went out into the desert prospecting, and discovered what he always referred to as ‘a hill of gold’. He rushed back to civilisation, registered his claim, but upon his return, much to his annoyance and disgust was never able to find the gold again. It was thought this lost hill of gold was later developed as Bullfinch Mine.

When it was time for Francis to retire, his youngest daughter Amy Piper, now living in Sydney, insisted that her father and Mercy come live with them. After a long visit to Tasmania in 1896, staying first with Frank at Somerset then with Will at Dunorlan and meeting all his grandchildren, Francis retired to Sydney, where he died at his Mosman residence near Sydney on 1 Sept 1900. He had spent 10 of his 82 years in England, 39 in Tasmania (including pioneering the Kentish Plains), 29 in WA & his last 4 in NSW.

Two von Bibra Sons who Remained in Tasmania 

After completing their road contracts, in 1870 Frank von Bibra visited WA and spent a year there. Returning to Tasmania, two years later Frank (36) married Harriet Denny, oldest daughter of John Denny of Melrose. The von Bibras lived on an adjacent property to her parents and it was there, as mentioned in a previous article, their 2nd daughter Isabella wandered off and became lost. Despite a frantic search, no trace of her was found, until a year later when her body was discovered in a stump less than 100 metres from her home Altogether Frank & Harriet had 11 children.

In 1885 Frank & Harriett purchased the valuable property Woodburn on the Bass Highway near the Cam River, Somerset. Later they added the adjoining property of Seabrook. They remained at Somerset for the rest of their lives, where Frank introduced the first steam powered stone crusher, chaffcutter and thrasher. In 1901 Frank and Harriett were one of the main couples behind building the Wesleyan church at Somerset. Frank became not only a trustee, but a loyal lay preacher. In 1906 they lost a second child when Lawrence (14) drowned in the mouth of the Cam River. Frank died in 1919 aged 82 with Harriet following in 1939, aged 93.

His brother William F von Bibra was not afraid of hard work either. In his twenties he began leasing the 300-acre property The Glen near Harford, and in 1870 Will (29) married local girl German-born Louisa Plapp (25). Will was eventually able to purchase The Glen property where all their 8 children were born. In the early 1880s the von Bibra family began leasing 500 acres, being part of Henry Reed’s Dunorlan estate, living in its substantial weatherboard Dunorlan House. It burnt down in 1890 and Henry Reed replaced it with the present impressive 2-storey stone building. Will & Henry Reed were both hard-headed business men who got on well together, each buying farms and doing deals together. Will milked 60 cows producing 300-400 lbs of butter per week for sale in Launceston. Like the Reeds, the von Bibras were a very musical, church-going family. Will purchased one of the best family coaches on the coast – a four-wheeler pulled by two horses that could transport up to 20 people. At some point Will removed his mother’s coffin from the old disused cemetery at Ballahoo to the Launceston Charles St cemetery, where his 29-year-old sister, Bella, had been buried. Like Frank, Will went in for farm machinery. He became the first man in Tasmania to own a threshing machine. Later he bought a traction engine and in Oct/Nov 1899 successfully contracted to haul all the mine machinery back to the Shepherd & Murphy mine at Moina.

But Will‘s main claim to notoriety relates to a heading in the Examiner, 19 Mar 1912 which read: Von Bibra Thrashes Joseph Lyons MHA. At a political rally in Dunorlan, Joe Lyons made an unfavourable comment about William von Bibra in his absence. The slur was quickly conveyed to Will who soon arrived at the Public Hall, strode to the front and attacked Lyons with his cane, while he was still speaking. Lyons closed in on his assailant and there was a quite a scrimmage until they were separated. When von Bibra was fined £5, he told the judge: I’ll gladly pay another £5 if you let me hit him again. Will retired to Ulverstone where he died in 1920, age 81.

Two of Will‘s grandsons, Max & Brian, farmed at Wilmot for many years. Later Max opened Von Bibra’s Auction Mart in King St, Devonport. Will’s more notable descendants include Sir Eric von Bibra (1895-1958) Agent General for Tas in London, Sir Donald Von Bibra (1905 -1982) of Beaufront Ross, awarded an OBE for service to Aus Wool Board & National Trust, Ken & his wife Berta von Bibra both with OAMs. Another descendant, Ulverstone car dealer Warren von Bibra, who moved to the Queensland some years back, now has one of the Gold Coast’s largest car dealerships, with ten different showroom sites employing 450 people.

Next time: Sheffield’s first settlers: The James Polwett’s family –