Their Impact on Kentish

The captivating story of how ex-convict Thomas Johnson (1806-1867) and half-caste aboriginal Dolly Dalrymple (1808-1864) came to Frogmore in 1845 and became the most celebrated couple in the early history of the Mersey estuary, is legend. It has been told countless times in nearly every history of the NW Coast. What is rarely ever mentioned, however, is the significant role Thomas Johnson played in opening up the Kentish Plains. He was one of its largest property holders, and the families of his three sons: Thomas Jnr, John G (Jack) and Lewis Johnson were among its earliest residents.

The Johnson family’s fame and fortune had an unlikely beginning. As a youth from Isle of Ely, Cambridgeshire, Thomas Johnson (18) was convicted on 15 Feb 1823 for housebreaking and burglary and transported for life to VDL. He arrived in Hobart aboard the ship Asia in January 1824. After serving 7 years, Thomas was granted a ticket of leave and joined stockmen working for Thomas Stocker at Dairy Plains, near Deloraine. Here Johnson (25) took up with a young half-caste aboriginal woman Dolly Dalrymple (23) who had previously lived with two other stockmen and had a daughter to each of them.

Dolly’s father was a British seaman, George Briggs, working on a sealing vessel in Bass Strait. Her aboriginal mother, Bong, came from the Dalrymple tribe around the Tamar Heads. In 1820, the surgeon for Port Dalrymple convict station- Dr Mountgarret and his wife- felt compelled to take this rather good-looking half-caste girl into their home. Under the care of Mrs Bridget Mountgarret, this confused 12-year-old learnt to read and write, cook and sew and was given the name Dolly Dalrymple Mountgarret Briggs. At about the age of 16 Dolly took off with a couple of stockmen to Dairy Plains. However, upon taking up with Thomas Johnson, Dolly and he remained together for the rest of their lives, having a total of 13 children. Historian Bonwick wrote: Their daughters were celebrated all over the country for their loveliness.

In 1831, during the Black War, Dolly was in their hut alone with her two young daughters Jane and Sarah, when a group of hostile natives attacked them. Jane received a spear wound to her thigh. An experienced shooter, Dolly managed to keep them at bay by firing into the air for six hours until Thomas returned home. Dolly’s heroic stand was reported to Governor Arthur by Captain Moriarty of Dunorlan who recommended she be rewarded for her bravery and granted permission to marry her partner, Thomas Johnson. Both requests were granted. They received a block of land in the town of Perth and on 29 Oct 1831, Thomas and Dolly married in the original Anglican church at Longford. Dolly’s first two daughters, Jane (1826) and Sarah (1828), were also baptised, both adopting the surname of Johnson. The family lived in Perth where Sarah died aged 9, but four sons were added: William (1833), Thomas Jnr (1834), John George (1839), Lewis (1841), and three more daughters: Caroline (1836), Mary Anne (1843) & Charlotte (1845). Although recently pardoned, in August 1836, Johnson received a further seven-year prison sentence for receiving stolen wheat. His wife Dolly displayed great resourcefulness in holding their family together, even successfully petitioning Governor Arthur to allow Thomas to become her own assigned servant.

1845 Thomas & Dolly come to Frogmore

Thomas & Dolly took over the tenancy of the Frogmore land grant on the Mersey River in 1845 from Mr Henry Bonney of Westbury. In a previous article about Surveyor Calder, mention was made of his arrival at Frogmore with his three convict assistants. Having spent five weeks in the bush without seeing a soul, they inadvertently came upon Dolly wading across the Mersey river in a near naked condition. When Dolly came up out of the river and unashamedly approached them, ready for a talk, Calder records how he and his assistants felt so uncomfortable that they had to excuse themselves and move on. A couple of years later a much more tragic event happened on 6 Nov 1848, when Thomas & Dolly’s oldest son William (15) drowned in this same river.

While the Johnsons were the first settlers at Frogmore, the following years saw the arrival of several boats in the Mersey estuary searching for suitable timber to supply the growing Launceston and mainland markets. Realising its potential, Thomas entered the timber exporting trade with a vengeance. He set up a sawmill and began shipping timber from Ballahoo Creek to as far away as South Australia.

Johnson Becomes a Leading Citizen

Before long, Thomas bought 500 acres of his own land a few kilometres up-river from Frogmore and named Caroline Creek after his own first daughter. He also leased 600 acres of land comprising the Tarleton township reserve, then the following year he purchased half the island of Ballahoo where he built a rough wharf on the banks of the Ballahoo creek. Following the Victorian Gold rush in the early 1850s, there developed an insatiable demand for all kinds of timber in Melbourne at unbelievable prices. When coal was also discovered locally, the population around the Mersey estuary dramatically increased. Townships sprung up at Tarleton, Ballahoo and Sherwood. Among the mine managers to arrive was William Dawson, ex-Launceston city surveyor who purchased a large block of land adjoining Thomas Johnson. Dawson was from Nottinghamshire and named this new district Sherwood after Sherwood Forest. There beside the Mersey River, Johnson built a new homestead for his family called Sherwood Hall where he & Dolly resided for the remainder of their lives. Close-by he also built the 16-room Native Youth Inn (later renamed the Sherwood Inn) and at Ballahoo he built a second hotel Dalrymple Inn named after his wife. Johnson also built a hall for public functions, which doubled as a school-room and church. Due to his hard work and business sense, Thomas Johnson prospered and became one of the districts most prominent citizens. The remainder of their 13 children born beside the Mersey River were: Alfred (1847), William II (1849), Sarah II (1851), and Walter (1854) who only lived 1 year.

A rival hotel-keeper Joshua Lyons, a Jew, received word of a significant jump in the price of palings in Melbourne, so he went to the Ballahoo wharf where Thomas Johnson had a large quantity of palings awaiting shipping. Lyons offered Johnson a price that seemed to be more than he could possibly have hoped for in Melbourne, so he agreed to sell them to Lyons who was to collect them the following morning. As the day progressed, Johnson also learnt of the huge increase to the price of palings, so working quietly well into the night, they loaded the brig Hercules and had her sail at daybreak for Melbourne. When Lyons arrived to collect his palings, there were none to be seen. When Lyons confronted Johnson about the missing palings, Johnson replied casually: ‘I have no palings, there was no sale to you, what are you talking about?’

1855 Opens his own Coal Mine

Both Johnson and Dawson benefitted greatly when coal was found on their properties on April 1855. Each owner employed a manager to develop their own coal mine. Thomas Johnson’s mine was up Coal Hill Rd over the present railway line and named the ‘Alfred Colliery’ after one of his sons. Dawson‘s mine was further along the present Railton road near Caroline Creek, and named the Sherwood Colliery. To commemorate the first loads of coal being delivered to the Ballahoo wharf, Johnson arranged a great celebration on 30 May 1856. Each wagon of coal had a colourful flag hoisted aloft and was drawn by a team of eight bullocks, all decorated with bells and ribbons. When they reach Frogmore House, three cheers were given for the Alfred Colliery and the same for Thomas Johnson and his family. Johnson, in turn, freely supplied all his miners with bread and cheese along with a hogshead (large wooden barrel) of ale. Wooden tramways were soon laid from both mines to the Ballahoo wharf, which had a jetty added to it to permit larger vessels.

Over time several of Thomas and Dolly’s surviving children married. First, Dolly’s child Jane, who was speared by the aborigines, married John Hearps. They lived at Latrobe and eventually had 14 children. In 1853 Caroline married Surveyor James J Gwynne but died early without children. In 1855 Thomas Johnson Jnr married Elizabeth Atkinson, sister of George Atkinson, the father of Latrobe, in 1857 John G (One Arm Jack) Johnson married Isabella Thompson, in1863 Charlotte married Henry Gower and 1864 Mary Anne married Samuel Wigmor.

By 1858 Thomas and Dolly owned 2 hotels, 1 coal mine, 1 flour mill, 3 shops, 1 blacksmith shop,1 tannery and shoemaker’s shop, 21 houses, 17 allotments and considerable land. A racing track was opened at Sherwood with Thomas owning popular race horse Fairy Queen. The Johnsons had become two of the wealthiest people in the district, which is remarkable considering their background, having emerged from the lowest strata of colonial society.

Although the coal mines at Tarleton and Sherwood lasted a little more than a decade, several workers were killed in mining accidents. By the mid-1860s, the hamlets of Tarleton, Ballahoo and Sherwood were practically deserted, while Latrobe, with its better shipping facilities, began to prosper and expand. Thomas Johnson leased his Alfred Colliery to entrepreneur William Bennett, and his Sherwood Inn to James Powlett – both men from Red Hills. Johnson continued to export timber, but his interests were turning toward the promising plains of Kentish and the possibility of discovering gold in the mountains.

Large Land Holder on the Kentish Plains

In 1858 Thomas Johnson and his neighbour Wm Dawson made their first visit to the Kentish Plains to survey their potential. Arriving in the evening, they couldn’t find Field’s hut so they slept the night in a hollow tree. The next day they made contact with Field‘s stockman who spent a couple of days showing them the Plains. They quickly realised what the timber & agricultural produce from Kentish could do for those exporters shipping out of Tarleton and Ballahoo. Johnson was a member of the Devon Road Trust when they formed The Mersey Settlement Association to actively promote the sale and settlement of the Kentish Plains. Wm Dawson cleared a track from Sherwood up across the saddle of the Badgers then south, past the present Sheffield Golf Links to Kentish Plains.

In March 1859, Johnson began buying various blocks of land on the Kentish Plains. He became one of its largest landholders, as he was at Tarleton, Ballahoo and Sherwood. He was the only Kentish landholder to have a street in the township of Sheffield named after him. Johnson bought all the open plains out along Old Paradise Road as far as Brays road, which included Field’s Bros original hut and stockyards. He also bought two blocks on the eastern side of Old Paradise Road and a long block that stretches between West Kentish Road and top end of Spring Street, owned today by Alwyn Riley. Thomas Johnson never reside on the Kentish Plains, but regularly visited his three sons and their families who came to manage his land for him.

Death of the Mersey Pioneers

Thomas’s popular wife Dolly Dalrymple Mountgarret Johnson died of ‘general decay of constitution‘ at Sherwood Hall on 1 Dec 1864, aged 54, and was buried close to their homestead beside the Mersey River. Only seven months later, on 5 July 1865, Thomas Johnson (59) married a much younger woman Marie Emma Bourne (19) and brought her to Sherwood Hall, where they had one child. To ensure she was well looked after, Thomas added a codicil to his will leaving her all the content of his household. But just before his death, Marie offended Thomas by saying she only married him for his money. Only days before he died, Thomas revoked this codicil he had added to his will, leaving Maria nothing other than a small property he gave her at the time of their marriage.

Thomas died at Sherwood Hall on 3 Dec 1867, aged 61, and was buried beside his wife, beneath a laurel tree planted on the bank of the Mersey River. Their graves have long since been washed away by flood waters, however a memorial cairn still stands near this site, which, along with their names, has the simple epitaph: They are both buried here.

His many properties were divided amongst his surviving sons and daughters. His lease of the Frogmore estate from the Moriarty family, was taken over by Daniel French until sold many years later to George Atkinson Jnr, who in 1890 built the present two-storey brick Frogmore House. The Sherwood Hall property went to his oldest son Thomas Johnson Jnr, and remained in the Johnson family until 1890 when the estate was split up. The old wooden Sherwood Hall homestead eventually became derelict and deserted until 21 July 1991, when a committee was formed to restore it. It was moved to Bell’s Parade, renovated, and on 26 Nov 1996 opened to the public as the historic pioneer home of Thomas & Dolly Dalrymple.

All properties on the Kentish Plains and in the township of Sheffield were left to his three older sons Thomas Johnson Jnr, J G (One Arm Jack) Johnson & Lewis Johnson and it is their contribution to Kentish that we look at next month.