Railton‘s 1st Leader & Famous Tasmanian Novelist
John Silvester Nottage

One of Kentish’s forgotten pioneers, John Silvester Nottage, was not only Railton’s first recognised leader, but a famous novelist who became a household name throughout Tasmania. Besides being a farmer, schoolteacher, secretary of the Railton Road Trust, Justice of the Peace, and local Magistrate, Nottage contributed over 30 serialised novels and short stories to our Tasmanian newspapers between 1874–1902.

Born 5 July 1833, John Silvester Nottage was the eldest of four children born in London to

John William & Ann (Silvester) Nottage, who were married at Holy Trinity, Newington, Surrey on Christmas Day 1830. The family lived in Bedford Square, London, before setting sail for Victoria in the early 1850s. On 26 Feb 1853 they sailed from Geelong aboard the Sea Belle for Launceston. At the time, John and Ann Nottage were both 51, their children John Silvester 20, James 17, Henry 13, and Jane 11. Initially they spent time near Elizabeth Town before moving to Forth about 1855-6, where John Senior with his three sons intended to buy a farm. Sadly, on 10 February 1858 his youngest son, Henry Nottage (18) was killed while descending a hill in his bullock dray when it overturned and landed on top of him.

First Settlers at Sunnyside

In 1862 John Nottage Senior and his remaining two sons, John Silvester and James, purchased bush blocks in the Parish of Stoodley to become the first settlers at Sunnyside. Their properties were just off Leake St & Goss Rd, south of Railton, close to original bush track up to Kentish Plains. With his excellent education in London, John Silvester Nottage (29) wrote his first letter to a local newspaper in 22 Oct 1862, to expose the deplorable conditions of this increasingly important track as it passes his place and ascends up the Stoodley Hill to service the new settlers on the Plains.

On 6 Sept 1864 John Silvester Nottage (31) was married to Margaret Kennedy (24) by a Wesleyan minister in Joseph Nixon’s house in Westbury. The following year, on 20 Oct 1865, their daughter Gertrude Nottage became the first child born in Sunnyside. When John’s mother, Mrs Anne (Silvester) Nottage, died in 1866 aged 63, hers was the first death in the district. As no churches or cemeteries existed, presumably she was buried on their property. Likewise there is no record of her husband John‘s burial when he died on 12 October 1877 aged 75, so  presumably he was also laid beside his wife on their farm.  John Silvester & Margaret Nottage had the following children, all born at Sunnyside: 1865 Gertrude, 1866 Henry (William), 1868 Eva Annie (died aged 14), 1870 Lydia Augusta, b1871 Clara Margaret, and b1876 Herbert Edgar Nottage.

In 1874 John Nottage offered the Examiner newspaper a couple of his short stories for their Weekend edition printed each Saturday. They were accepted by the newspaper and from November 1874. they began serialising his story Dr Longhurst‘s Mistake.  The following month they also printed his special Christmas story. When he sent in his next contribution, the Examiner advertised in advance that a new tale entitled Durrage House would shortly commence on Saturday 3 July 1875. Thus, begun Nottage’s regular literary contributions to newspapers which continued for almost 30 years. For the first five years his stories were all published anonymously, none carried his name. However they did launch him on a trajectory that later made the name John Silvester Nottage one of the best-known authors in the State. The first novel that carried his name was printed in July 1879.

Nottage’s Interest in School and teaching

As early as December 1876, Nottage is mentioned as addressing the annual Wesleyan Sunday School Tea Meeting held up at Sheffield. In 1879, when the Devon Herald newspaper began to be published in Latrobe, Nottage became the local Railton correspondent for both it and the Launceston Examiner. This provided him with excellent opportunities to describe in detail the original Wesleyan church and day school built near Red Water Creek, Railton, for which he was the treasurer. On 14 January 1879 Nottage reported 23 sturdy bushmen came together to fell the timber on three acres of land given by William and Sam Winter for a local church and school. Six months later, 18 June 1879, when the church opened, Nottage joyfully reported that the church had cost £171 to build and only £4 pounds was still owing.

The erection of the school and teacher’s residence over that 1879/80 summer however, was postponed because it was such a disastrously bad season. In May 1880, when the Government-appointed teachers Mr and Mrs Benson Mather from Hobart arrived in Railton, they had to commence teaching in the Wesleyan church building. This brought criticism because many children had to walk 2 or 3 miles, arrive with wet feet and clothes, then sit for five hours in a cold church without a fireplace. After nearly three years and still no school erected, the Government decided to close Railton and transferred the Mathers to another district. This caused an outcry. Local settlers engaged Sam Oliver of the Railton Sawmills to erect the school building with all haste, while John Silvester Nottage, now the chairman of the local Board of Education, offered to take charge of the school. Six months later the Railton Public school reopened on the 4th June 1883, with Nottage appointed temporary teacher on a salary of £30 per annum.

The last half of that same year was particularly distressing for the Nottage family. In mid-July 1883 their 2nd daughter Eva Annie (14) developed an unrelenting pain in her head and within days died of inflammation of the brain. Her funeral was the largest ever held in the district. Her father, now schoolteacher wrote: As the sun sank behind the western hills, the coffin was lowered to its last resting place, while the children and teachers of the Sunday-school sang the hymn ‘Shall we gather at the river?’ over the remains of her who but a few days before, was among them full of youth’s hopes and high spirits. Just five weeks later, a second Nottage funeral was held in the same churchyard. A young relative from London, 22-year-old accountant Francis Nottage, had been sent to Tasmania in a desperate attempt to have our congenial climate arrest the insidious progress of his consumptive disease. But it didn’t. He continued to deteriorate and died on 6 September 1883.

At the end of 1885, the Government replaced Nottage’s temporary school assignment with the appointment of Mrs E Haywood as head teacher. She stayed many years and  both Nottage’s daughters Lydia and Clara became school teachers and joined her at Railton.

Noted Tasmanian Author and Novelist

From 1880, as the Examiner continued serialising Nottage’s historical novels in its weekend newspaper, they now began using the author‘s full name – John Silvester Nottage.

The following is the list of Nottage‘s popular novels and short stories published in the Weekend Examiner over the next 13-year period:

1880 May Half a Century Ago (20 episodes)

1880 Dec Paul Ferrel’s Revenge – Christmas Story

1881 Apr Life of late Robert Warden, Solicitor

1881 May Retribution: A Story Founded on Fact

1881 July The Great Golconda Mine (5 episodes)

1882 Jan Two Christmas Eves

1882 Feb Vidah  (8 episodes)

1883 Jul Doctor Delmont  (14 episodes)

1884 Dec Rose Raymond’s Two Weddings

1885 Jun Harold Thornton’s Revenge (9 episodes)

1885 Dec Cousin Ronald

1886 Sep Mr Thornycroft’s Will (3 episodes)

1886 Dec Little Mr Lightfoot – A Christmas Story

1888 May Westdale- A Tasmanian Story (8 episodes)

1889 Dec Living or Dead – a True Story of Dr Malar

1889 Dec A Christmas Long Ago

1890 Feb Claude Le Vernnon (16 episodes)

1890 Dec Mr Trelawney’s Double, A Mysterious Patient, The Bridge of Sighs.

1891 Aug Gilbert‘s Promise, Told at the Ford, Our Camp at Mount Macedon

1893 Dec The Lost Deeds of Driftfield

One of his contemporaries wrote: John Silvester Nottage, school master of Railton, is a gentleman of considerable literary attainment, and an enthusiastic naturalist. He has produced several novels, besides several sketches of merit which, when he is under the sod, will be republished, read and lauded.

Nottage was 60 years old when he wrote his last novel for the Examiner. He may have ceased  because of his wife’s ill health. During most of John‘s writing career, his wife Margaret suffered a protracted illness that lasted 19 years. She finally succumbed to this cardiac vascular disease dying at their Sunnyside home on 5 February 1895 aged 55. Margaret was buried in the Railton Methodist Cemetery. It was a particularly sad time, as the family had hoped Margaret might have lived for another three weeks to be present at her daughter Lydia’s wedding to young British engineer Chas Belcher in their Sunnyside home.

When nearly 70 year old, Nottage wrote his last and longest novel Raymon’s Plant, which was published in Launceston‘s Daily Telegraph during 1901/1902 and ran for 27 episodes. In his day, John Silvester Nottage was both a prolific and popular Tasmanian author whose contributions to the reading public spanned a period of 28 years. But because his novels were only published in newspapers and not as printed books, over-time his name and fame gradually diminished and ultimately became lost to memory.

Railton’s First Recognised Leader

Back in March 1881 Nottage was made a census collector for the Railton area for the first time. Following his couple of years as a schoolteacher, in April 1888 he was also appointed Government Valuator for the Kentish/Latrobe district. A year later, when he had completed over 600 valuations in Kentish area, there were only 24 appeals against his assessments. The visiting magistrate Adams, who heard these appeals in the Sheffield Court House, granted reductions in only 4 cases. He congratulated Nottage on the very satisfactory way he had accomplished his somewhat onerous task. That same year he was appointed Justice of the Peace. Shortly after the Railton Road Trust was separated from the Kentishbury Road Trust in 1890, Nottage became its secretary, a position he held until the formation of the Kentish Municipality in 1908. In April 1891 Nottage JP was appointed a magistrate and presided over the first court held in Railton. This was something he continued to do till the end of his life.

When the new Municipality of Kentish came into being on 1 January 1908, the now defunct Railton Road Trust met one last time to close its books. John Nottage, who had held the post of Railton Trust Secretary for the last 17 years, was presented with a mantle-piece clock. In his reply speech, Nottage said that as an old man of 75, he was in the unique position of being the oldest inhabitant of the new Kentish municipality. He was also among the first selectors of land when the Kentish Plains was first opened. The Government of that time were happy to collect land survey fees, but left selectors to cut their own roads the best way they could into their forest farms. Nottage contrasted this original wild wilderness with the flourishing district of Kentish today. He said: This marvellous work of transformation had been accomplished by road trustees, who had, by their self-denying exertions, earned the gratitude of those who were now enjoying the fruits of their labour.

Eventually John Silvester’s only married son, Herbert E Nottage, came to help his father run the old family farm at Sunnyside. One morning in March 1912, while most were out milking the cows, the house caught on fire and burnt to the ground. Railton’s old leader went to live with his son-in-law and daughter’s (William and Gertrude Anderson) home at Ferndale, Sisters Creek, where he died on 13 May 1914 aged 81. He was returned to Railton and buried with his wife in the Methodist Cemetery.

John & Margaret Nottage’s surviving children: Gertrude Nottage who was the first child born at Sunnyside, married William Anderson at Nottage’s house on 16 Oct 1889. They farmed at Ferndale, Sisters Creek and had 2 daughters. William Henry Nottage never married. He worked all his life on the farm where he was born, dying in 1936, aged 70. Lydia Nottage was the schoolteacher who married Latrobe’s waterworks engineer Chas Belcher on 26 Feb 1895. Later they moved to Everleigh, Moonah where Lydia died in 1942 aged 71. They had 1 son and 3 daughters. The other schoolteacher Clara Nottage remained single. She died 1941 aged 69. Herbert Edgar Nottage married Mabel Ross and lived at ‘Glenvale‘, Railton where he had a farm. In 1941 Herbert sold out and moved to Leith where he died in 24 August 1958 aged 82. William, Clara & Herbert were buried in the Railton Methodist Cemetery.

New Life for Nottage‘s Novels

Since 2017, a project supported by the Australian National University, Canberra, has been developing a Database of Australian Newspaper Fiction. Literary researcher Kath Bode has scoured many 19th and early 20th century Australian newspapers and unearthed a treasure trove of early authors whose only outlet for their literary talents were local newspapers. Bode now has text files on over 21,000 novels and short stories, along with limited bibliographical data. She writes: We found a Tasmanian author named John Silvester Nottage, who has written multiple full-length novels. With many early newspapers now electronically digitised, Nottage’s historic novels are getting new life by becoming available again. One hundred and forty years on and the world is about to rediscover our forgotten Kentish pioneer and once noted Tasmanian novelist.

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