Crossing Kimberley’s Ford, Climbing the Stoodley Hill

The advertising campaign in the Examiner newspaper over the summer of 1858/59 that attracted the first settlers to the Kentish Plains gave no indication of the atrocious travelling conditions that awaited them in this new isolated region. The Government promised these pioneers a £5000 grant to improve their bush tracts and build bridges, but nothing was ever done. For the first couple of decades of settlement, during the rainy seasons, the unformed bush tracks became muddy quagmires that could become impassable for months on end. It became usual practice for bullock teams to leave Kentish at daybreak, travel together to the wharf at Ballahoo, and assist each other when the wagons sank to their axles in mud. Over the summer months, astute settlers tried to store up enough supplies to last a year.

Precarious Crossing at Kimberley Ford

The pioneers’ journey, from Deloraine to the Kentish Plains, necessitated crossing the Mersey River at a place called Kimberley’s Ford. And it was crossing this constantly swollen Mersey River that added real danger and possible peril to every journey. In summer months the Mersey is about 50 metres across, but after rain in the back country, it quickly rises and swells, up to 75 metres wide. Its fast-flowing current rushes over a treacherous bottom of slippery stones, making any attempt to wade across a highly risky undertaking.

As early as 1826, the first VDL Co surveyors identified this ford as the best place to cross the Mersey River to gain access to all NW coastal regions. But it was here, on 15 August 1826, that they lost their first ever employee. Convict William Green became separated from his survey party on the wrong side of the Mersey River, and spent 3 days stranded there without food. When he eventually tried to ride his horse across the river, both were swept downstream and drowned. Green’s body was never retrieved.

Sixteen years later, in 1842, Surveyor Nathaniel Kentish also selected this ford for his grand inland highway to Emu Bay. His party was forced to make log rafts and use ropes to prevent being swept down river. After Kentish had completed surveying the route to Emu Bay, he returned to Kimberley’s Crossing in 1845 to finalize the design of its bridge. In the meantime, a Probation Station had been constructed at Kimberley, and, in August 1845, several hundred convicts (some experienced bridge builders, others, road makers) moved in. Later that same year, Surveyor James Calder arrived with a three-man team to begin a two-month assessment of Kentish’s selected route to Emu Bay that required six significant bridges. Calder hired a man with a horse and wagon to transport their gear from Deloraine to the Kentish Plains. When this carrier reached the swollen Mersey river, he absolutely refused to take his cart across it. Calder records ‘He unceremoniously removed our goods from his wagon, jumped into it, wished me good morning and bolted back to Deloraine’. Calder was forced to ask for volunteer convicts from the Probation Station to help carry his supplies across the river. Although Calder and his own three assistants all got their loads across safely, every one of the convicts were swept off their feet, lost their loads, yet managed to scramble out down river. It was following Calder’s final report to the Government that both the construction of the Kimberley bridge and Kentish’s highway to Emu Bay were scrapped.

As mentioned earlier, all the first settlers coming overland to Frogmore, Tarleton and Ballahoo travelled via Kimberley’s Ford. So it was here that the notable pioneer settler David Cocker of Spreyton almost lost his life crossing the cold, fast-flowing Mersey River. He and his horse were swept down river, but fortunately, when thrown up against a bank, Cocker hung on and eventually climbed out.

In June 1860, the Government assured all the first Kentish settlers that a bridge was about to be built: ‘It is the intention of the Government to expend a portion of the £5000 voted by Parliament for improvements in the county of Devon, by building a bridge over the Mersey River at the Old Kentish Track. The director of Public Works returned to Launceston on Saturday from the Mersey, where he had gone to survey the site of the proposed bridge.’

However, the Government changed its mind and instead of Kimberley’s Ford, they built the first wooden bridge across the Mersey River at Frogmore. With this in place, they lost interest in building a second bridge at Kimberley’s Ford. It was argued that Tarleton and Frogmore were where most people now lived; a bridge at Kimberley would only lead to an uninhabited district. So, for well over a decade, all our pioneering families coming via Kimberley continued to face the same harrowing prospect of wading across this treacherous Mersey River. Sometimes it meant waiting and sheltering for days in the old convict Probation barracks until the rushing torrent subsided. The only alternative was to travel a further 20 miles down a very rough track on the eastern side of the Mersey River and cross over the new bridge at Frogmore. The road route from Deloraine to Kentish Plains via Kimberley Ford was 24 miles, or via the Frogmore bridge, 44 miles. How fascinating it would be to know how each of our pioneering families dealt with this dilemma.

It is true that many Kentish travellers did try to cross the ford while the river was swollen, sometimes with tragic results. On 20 Oct 1865, John Strawberry (52) drove a bullock across the flooded ford while he was mounted on horseback. His horse stepped into a hole and both disappeared. The horse eventually surfaced, but not the rider.  John’s tragic death left his wife Susannah Strawberry (48) up on the Kentish Plains with 10 children, the youngest barely a year old. Around the same time, two other men attempting to cross this ford on horseback were washed down stream. One escaped a watery grave ‘by clinging with the energy of a drowning man to his horse’s neck’. The other was ‘carried down the stream for 100 yards, plunging and rolling over in the rapid current, before eventually landing on the same side from which he started’.

The first bridge eventually erected at Kimberley in 1872 was not a road bridge but a railway bridge. It was built for the Mersey-Deloraine Tramway Co, whose line opened on 1 January, 1872, but closed 4 ½ months later, when the Company went broke. However, their railway bridge remained in use for the travelling public for over a decade until, through disrepair, it became unsafe. Unbelievably, it wasn’t until mid-1885, 25 years after the original settlers came to Kentish, that the first of now four White Rock road bridges was opened, to the huge relief of our Kentish residents.

Atrocious Conditions between Kentish & Tarleton

The first tracks south from Tarleton and Ballahoo were formed by timber cutters and splitters in the 1850s. The better timber was found beyond Red Water Creek in the surrounding hills of Sunnyside and Stoodley. Immense quantities of palings, slats and shingles were split here and stacked, ready to be carted during summer months by bullock wagons down to the Ballahoo for shipment to the booming housing market in Melbourne. Eventually, the timber cutters worked their way up over the Stoodley Hill into the ‘Forest of Arden’, so called by Surveyor Calder on his first trip to Kentish Plains in 1846. This 3 x 2 mile area of very heavy forest, just east of the present township of Sheffield, was so named after the famous forest in Warwickshire, used by Shakespeare as the setting for his play As you like it.

When prime land on the Kentish Plains first began to sell, settlers cut a direct track from Tarleton across the saddle of the Badgers. But because of its steepness, Dooley surveyed a more gradual route that followed the timber workers’ tracks over the Stoodley hills. By far, the worst section of this second track was its last three or four miles up through the Stoodley hills, which included crossing a hazardous ravine known as Dick Lowes creek. After each rain, the hoofs of horses and bullock teams, pulling steel rimmed wagon wheels, cut deeper ruts into the mud. One person, in the habit of carting between the two places, claimed ‘the new road was ten times worse than the old one. It took 12 bullocks to pull a 10 cwt (approx. 500kg) load up through this forest’.

On 22 Oct 1862, early pioneer settler John Silvester Nottage (29) wrote his first letter to the Examiner newspaper describing the deplorable road track to Kentishbury to expose the difficulties of the early settlers. He also sent a report to the popular English newspaper “Illustrated London News” describing the plight of Kentish pioneer settler William Braid, who volunteered to take a bullock team to Tarleton to replenish their food supplies. Returning with four bags of flour, Braid became hopelessly bogged on the Stoodley hill. He had to unload each bag of flour and carry it clear of the mud. It was all his bullock team could do to pull the empty dray out of the bog.  Later, a newspaper copy came to hand showing a man up to his waist in mud with a bag of flour on his back.

Other settlers also wrote letters to newspapers venting their frustrations. Here are a few quotes: ‘The present roads are utterly useless in the winter and spring seasons. They are mud to the nave of the dray and the shoulders of the bullocks.’,The scrub up through Stoodley is so dense and so bad that not infrequently there are rumours of bullock teams lost in the mud.’, ‘At one point a petition was signed by every Kentish inhabitant, begging that one small but exceedingly dangerous ford might be bridged, but it was ignored. We are now literally shut off from all communication with the Mersey, save for the heroic exertions of our gallant mailman. He risks life and limb in the performance of his duty – swimming one creek, fording another, scrambling over logs in another, sometimes committing his horse to the mercy of the rushing waters while he crosses on some friendly spar.’

The following lines were written in the Stoodley scrub in September 1863 by a despairing bullock driver on finding his dray hopelessly bogged and his unyoked bullocks making off for the Kentish Plains:

Mud! nothing but mud, on your wheels and sides, old dray,
For I fear the Kentish scrub, will be my home today.
Flogging and yelling in vain, and wet through to the bone,
With near-wheel bogged to the nave, and the off-wheel against a stone.

If Messrs Calder and Co could see our wretched plight,
Their hearts would melt, I know, at such a piteous sight.
With labourer’s pick and spade, and clearer’s axe and hoe,
A road might soon be made, on which our teams might go.

Ah! there goes the mailman down, in a truly deplorable state;
He must either swim, clamber or crawl; poor fellow I pity his fate.
But my team I must unyoke, for the rain comes heavier still;
And I see there’s a broken spoke, my measure of woe to fill.

Away go the brutes with a will, merrily shaking their tails;
And never pull up until, reaching the Sheffield Inn’s rails.
Happier they than I, their home is the broad green field;
While I with wet wood try, to light my fire in vain.

Alas! a bachelor’s life, is at best a sorrowful load;
But whoever could get a wife, up such an infernal road?
O Rulers, give us roads – macadam, tram, or rail;
And over the rest of our loads, we easily shall prevail.

In a speech made by Sir Richard Dry in September 1863, he said ‘Devon is one of the most important districts in the island. Yet in no case that I am aware of, has a similar amount of enterprise, on the part of the inhabitants, been met by so much neglect on the part of the authorities, as in that of the people of Kentisbury’.

Local Road Trusts were established to collect rates and try to improve the first bush tracks. But there was little they could do apart from forming drains along both sides of the tracks to take away the water. Boggy sections were filled with field stones, and ‘corduroy’ roads formed by laying lengths of tea-trees, light saplings, or tree ferns side by side along the track. But most roads remained in a deplorable state for decades – their slippery muddy ruts, many axle-deep, running for mile after mile. For this reason, the construction of tramways and railways were favoured, because ‘the state of the existing roads in the District of Devon renders it impossible to convey produce to market during a greater portion of the year’.

Big improvements to our local roads didn’t occur until the mid-1880s, when the State Government began to extend ‘macadamised’ roads along the NW Coast. Steam stone-crushers were used in farmers’ paddocks to produce road metal, which was taken by horse and carts, and spread inches thick along the bush tracks. This crushed metal was then compressed by steam-rollers and covered over with loads of gravel and crusher dust. Once more this was rolled, binding it all together to form those glorious pot-holey gravel roads many of us remember so well.

Next time:  Harsh Living Conditions of our Early Settlers