Sheffield’s First Settlers

James George Powlett was born in Sheffield, England in 1809. When he was just a teenager, he was recruited by the Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) Co to help establish a far-off sheep station in the wild scrub of a remote island in the Antipodes. On 17 July 1827, young James (18) sailed from Hull aboard the SS Caroline, the second of several ships chartered by the VDL Co to convey their employees, basic supplies and livestock to what we now know as Circular Head, Tasmania.

Among the recruited families who also sailed on the Caroline were John (39) & Elizabeth (43) Ramsdale with their 5 daughters and 2-year-old son John Jnr. The Ramsdale’s eldest daughter Margaret (15) and young James Powlett (18) were soon attracted to one another and sought each other’s company as much as her father allowed. When the boat reached its destination and anchored off the beach at Stanley on 19 Jan 1828, some settlers cried. Apart from a flimsy pole jetty protruding into the sea, all they could see on shore was some split timber huts and a lot of tents. During the voyage they had lost 1 stallion, 1 filly and 44 sheep. Unloading would prove equally hazardous, two more animals being drowned.

Circular Head to Mersey River 

John Ramsdale was employed as an overseer at Circular head and about him Edward Curr said, ‘He was the best servant I ever had’. After their three years bond expired, Ramsdale and young Powlett were free to start out on their own. Both moved to the Tamar Valley, where the Ramsdales were twice held up by bushrangers. The budding seaboard romance continued to flourish, and on 26 July 1831, James Powlett (22) married Margaret Ramsdale (19) at St John’s Church of England, Launceston. The Powletts lived at Patterson Plains (now St Leonards), where their three children were born: John Powlett b1833, Elizabeth Patience Powlett b1835 & James Harlin Powlett b1840. 

Sometime before 1850, James & Margaret Powlett bought their farming property at Red Hills between Deloraine and Chudleigh called Parkland Grove. Here James Powlett was elected to the Chudleigh Road Trust and the Great Western Ploughing Association and advertised the services of two stud cart horses. On 23 Oct 1858, James & Margaret’s eldest son John Powlett (25) married Miss Elizabeth Bennett, daughter of wealthy Red Hills inn-keeper James Bennett. 

Bennett had amassed a fortune by constantly speculating with both property and stock. After their marriage, John Powlett took over as licensee of his father-in-law’s Red Hills Inn.

Meanwhile the rapid growth of the mining townships around the Mersey River had James Bennett, James Powlett and Margaret’s only brother John Ramsdale all wanting to join the action. Bennett and young Ramsdale both bought blocks there, while in Feb 1857, James & Margaret Powlett moved to the Mersey to become licensees of Thomas Johnson’s Sherwood Inn. Their three grown children remained behind to run Parkland Grove at Red Hills.

During the 3 years James Powlett managed the Sherwood Inn, he served on the Devon Road Trust and as treasurer of the Tarleton Annual Races. With others around the Mersey, Powlett increasingly shared the exciting prospects of the vast new agricultural area opening on the Kentish Plains.

Sheffield’s First Settlers Suggest Town’s Name 

When the sale of Kentish blocks commenced in 1859, the two related families of James Powlett and James Bennett were shrewd enough to select all the blocks surrounding both ends of the township of Sheffield. At the eastern end of Sheffield, James Powlett (50) with his two sons John (26) and James Harlin Powlett (19), purchased several blocks that ran along the eastern side of Kermode St. The present Sheffield-Railton Road runs right through the centre of John Powlett’s original block. At the western end of Sheffield, James Bennett of Red Hills bought all the land west of High Street, the street which then formed the original town boundary. He also purchased many surrounding blocks, including all the elevated country between the East and West Nook roads, recently owned by John Duff, Philson Duff, Mike Gibson and Max Butler. Bennett was a speculator, the Powletts genuine settlers.

In 1860 the Powlett family began their move from Sherwood and Red Hills to Kermode St, Sheffield. Margaret Powlett was an energetic woman, capable of riding her horse 50 miles in one day over the roughest country. She claimed to be the first woman to ride through the bush to reside at Sheffield. They erected the first split shingle house in Sheffield, but misfortune followed. While the family were hard at work clearing away the bush, their dwelling caught fire and they lost everything except what they were wearing. Not to be daunted, they made their next house from hand-made brick from the many clay deposits found on their property.

In records of the House of Assembly Proceedings for 26 Aug 1862, Parliamentary Paper #75 Surveyor-General Calder presented to parliament the names of eight newly surveyed townships in Tasmania.

The name of the second township Sheffield had been suggested by Surveyor James Dooley. So why would an Irishman choose the name ‘Sheffield’? The only reasonable explanation is that Dooley suggested this name after it was clear that James Powlett (born in Sheffield, England) would become the first settler in this new unnamed township. Quite possibly James’s son John Powlett may also have indicated to Dooley his immediate intention to build an inn he wanted to call the Sheffield Inn. By April 1861 there were only six residents in Sheffield, all of them James Powlett’s family.

The Parents: James & Margaret Powlett 

One of the other early blocks of land sold within the township of Sheffield on 19 Dec 1861, was purchased for £5 by three Kentish pioneer settlers: Francis von Bibra, Edmund Lord and James Powlett. These visionary settlers secured an acre of land on the corner of Main & Henry Streets to erect a future Wesleyan Chapel. But their Wesleyan dream didn’t go quite as planned.

Rev Jesse Pullen of Deloraine also purchased land in Main St, Sheffield opposite the Wesleyan block. Pullen’s plan was to donate his block to build a ‘Union Chapel’ to serve all settlers, regardless of denominational roots. Then through the week this Chapel would double as a school room. Most settlers, including the Wesleyans, fell in behind this second idea. After the Chapel was built, Rev Jesse Pullen transferred the building on 18 Sep 1866 to a group of respected local trustees, including James Powlett Snr. A year later, on 16 Dec 1867, Mrs James Powlett Snr, Miss Elizabeth Patience Powlett, Mrs John Powlett topped a list of over 20 Kentishbury women who catered for the popular tea meetings that followed their first anniversary services.

In the mid-1860s, when the crops on his small acreage failed, James Powlett Snr fell upon hard times and had to be financially supported by his son John. Things improved and in October 1874, James Powlett was chosen as a judge for the Latrobe Ploughing Match. His only daughter, Elizabeth Patience Powlett, lived with her parents for the first 20 years, then on 22 Jun 1880, when aged 45, she married Andrew Hope (45), the younger brother of the Hon John Hope MHA. Their marriage was childless.

Sheffield’s pioneer settler, James Powlett, died 24 Mar 1887, aged 78, of senility. He was buried in King George V Park where his name is inscribed on the Pioneer Monument. His robust wife, Margaret (Ramsdale) Powlett, lived on until she was 95. Cared for initially by her married daughter Mrs Andrew Hope in Sheffield, later by her youngest son James Harlin Powlett in Sunnyside, Margaret died on 12 Oct 1906. She was buried beside her husband in the town they were honoured to name.

Eldest son John Powlett builds Sheffield Inn 

On 6 Aug 1861, John purchased a 2½ acre block on the corner of Main & High St to build Sheffield’s first Inn. Old timers recalled that it was a single storey split timber structure painted a shade of blue, with a sign above the front entrance Sheffield Inn. It was licensed on 19 Dec 1861. Behind the Inn, fronting on to High St, Powlett also built a blacksmith shop and cottage, leased first to Ambrose Fisher, followed by Robert Heron.

John & Elizabeth had 3 boys & 3 girls, all born in Sheffield. They were: Patience Caroline b1859, William Edward b1863, Richard (Dick) b1864, Margaret Hannah b1865, George b1866 and Jane Elizabeth b1867. At first John Powlett tried to combined hotel-keeping with farming, as both he and his wife Elizabeth owned property. But it is as the popular host of the Sheffield Inn that he was best known. It became the arrival and departure point of Kentishbury’s thriving community, and the hub of all public meetings and social life.

Interestingly, it is recorded that an overnight guest who stole a wallaby rug from one of Powlett’s bedrooms, was sentenced to six months hard labour. A more amusing story relates to two early settlers Edwin Morse and Henry Day who occasionally enjoyed drinking there together. One night when they failed to arrive home, concerned family began searching for them. Edwin Morse was found lying on his back, one foot still in the horse’s stirrup, while the animal stood patiently beside him. Henry Day was straddling a large log, digging his heels in and wondering why he wasn’t getting home sooner.

On 14 Oct 1862 the Sheffield Inn became the first Post Office for the Kentishbury district, and John Powlett appointed postmaster. His younger brother James Harlin Powlett won the contract for conveying the mail bi-weekly to and from Latrobe. For the next decade all Kentish mail was handed out across the bar counter. At the end of 1866, John Powlett hosted a fundraising dinner at the Sheffield Inn to help the Union Chapel with its new school to open debt-free. In 1867 John was elected to the Kentishbury Road Trust, becoming its Treasurer 1869-1872.

In a surprise move over the summer of 1871/72 John Powlett decides to sell up and leave the Kentish district. Most of John Powlett‘s property, including the Sheffield Inn, was purchased by his wealthy father-in-law James Bennett. However, Elizabeth Powlett retained the ownership of the blacksmith’s buidings at the rear of the Inn. Between Feb 1872 and July 1873, the Inn was leased to Latrobe identity Mark Cullen, then purchased by John T Wilson. In the mid-1880s Wilson demolished the old original wooden inn and erected a new two-storey brick building. When Powlett left, the Post Office was transferred to the house of Thomas Pullen, the first headmaster who lived next door to the Union Chapel/School room.

John moves to Hampshire 

It seems the success of Mt Bischoff tin mines was the lure that caused John Powlett’s adventurous temperament to select a farming property at Hampshire, south of Burnie in 1872. He had lived there little more than a decade, when on 14 April 1885, after carting in hay most of the day, he complained of chest pains. His son George fetched him a drink of water, but shortly afterwards, John collapsed and died, aged 52. The inquest revealed death due to “ossification of the arteries supplying the heart.’ After selling the Hampshire farm, his wife Elizabeth moved into Burnie.

At the time of John’s unexpected death, none of their children had married. But in the following few years, three took the plunge. First, Patience Caroline Powlett (28) married John Addison, grandparents of Zillah (Mrs Rendle Bramich). Next, William Edward Powlett (24) married in Wynyard, then Margaret Powlett (24) married in Victoria. The decade of the 1890s proved to be a sad season for the remaining Powlett family: Richard (Dick) Powlett (28) died 1891, Jane Powlett (26) died 1893, their mother, John’s widow Elizabeth (Bennett) Powlett (61) died in 1895 and John’s sister Elizabeth (Mrs Andrew Hope) Hope (52) in 1897 – all four of them from phthisis (or tuberculosis).

Youngest son James Harlin Powlett settles in Sunnyside 

After only a few years of working his block and carting the first mail to & from Latrobe, young James moved to the mainland where in 1874 he married Mary Ann Edwards in Melbourne. After some years living in Victoria, James and Mary Ann returned to Sheffield about the time of his father’s death. Around 1890 they bought a 100 acres property at Sunnyside from Foster’s estate. James and Mary Ann had four sons and five daughters, some born in Victoria, the remainder here. His two eldest sons James & John, who were a great help in clearing the block, enjoyed horse racing and football.

Following a stroke, James Harlin Powlett’s wife Mary Ann died 30 Aug 1907, and was buried at the Don Cemetery. The following year, James retired to Best St Devonport, leaving his sons in charge of Sunnyside. In Aug 1915, his third daughter Elsie Powlett (30) who had begun work at McKinlay’s drapery store, Devonport before moving to Sydney, married the son of the founder of Mark Foy Ltd – that city’s famous department store. Sadly, eight months into their marriage, she died of peritonitis. Elsie’s body was returned on the SS Oonah to Devonport and buried beside her mother at Don. The last of Sheffield’s pioneer family, James Harlin Powlett also died in Sydney aged 80 on 23 Mar 1926. He too was returned by the SS Oonah and buried with his wife and daughter in the Don Cemetery.

Next time: Robert Manley – Kentish’s First Pioneer Leader