Clearing the Bush, Building a Hut, Eking out a Living

Most of our Kentish pioneers purchased Crown Land being offered at £1 an acre, payable over 14 years. Many were unable to keep up with these annual payments and had to appeal for an extension of time to pay. My two great grandfathers settled in West Kentish on either side of the Don River. John Dyer bought his block, half of it open river flats across the creek, from the first settler Francis von Bibra, while Edwin Morse purchased heavily timbered bushland up Cables Road on the western side of the Don River.

The pioneers’ initial visit to their purchased blocks often meant bashing their way through dense undergrowth in heavily timbered bush, sleeping where possible in hollow trees. First tasks included erecting a basic overnight hut and working out where their boundary lines lay. One of the first men to enter the Upper Barrington forests was William Smith, who had most of the palings split for his hut and house when he discovered he was not on the actual block he purchased. Smith had to carry all the palings on his shoulders another ¼ mile to the correct location.

Building their bush homes

A split-paling home built for early settlers with the typical young family of 6-8 children would have a living room/kitchen, plus three bedrooms – one for the parents and babies, another for daughters, and the third for sons. Children slept head-to-toe in single beds, or three-to-four in a double bed. If further privacy was needed an old blanket or sheet would be hung across the room.  

House foundations were formed by stacking flat stones together. On them rested wooden ground plates, then uprights and top plates, squared where necessary by an axe or adze. The pitch of the roof was important. Unless it was sufficiently steep, the timber shingles would leak. Split palings were attached horizontally to outside walls, vertically on the inside. Later on, the inside walls would be covered with hessian scrim, pasted over with old newspapers, and finally covered with a patterned wallpaper.

Before hand-made bricks became available, houses had very large wooden chimneys, about 6 feet square at floor level, narrower at the top. The bottom of the fireplace consisted of small field stones filled with earth and ash. Around the inside of these spacious chimneys, larger stones were neatly stacked to provide a wide hob or stone shelf to sit an array of iron kettles and cooking pots. After the cooking, this same stone shelf allowed several people to sit either side of the fire and keep cosy and warm. These cavernous chimneys were also the place to dry clothes. At the end of the day, sodden work clothes would be hung up the chimney to dry, with the strong possibility of adding a few more spark holes to them. Wooden chimneys often caught alight, so it was essential to keep a ladder leaning up against the side of the house with a full bucket of water handy. To prevent the rain coming directly down the chimney, covers were often fitted, which frequently caused them to smoke badly. Gradually a stinging blue smoke haze would fill the living room until the family were forced to open an outside door to allow the smoke out and the cold night air to rush in.

Imagine the family’s journey bringing a first wagon load of furniture, bedding, household stores, and food. Hour after hour, the bullock team slowly pulled the loaded wagon as it wobbled along the deeply rutted bush tracks. Women and children were tied on top of the load to prevent them from being bounced off. The men walked each side of the wagon to stop it capsizing when the load leaned too far one way. A separate trip was required to bring farm implements and the animals – a couple of cows, a dozen small pigs, and a similar number of chooks.

Bullocks were by far the best beasts for bush work because of their ability to work in rough and rugged conditions. Yoked together in teams of six, eight, ten, or more, they possessed enormous pulling strength, yet remained patient under difficulty. The bullock driver, with his whip long enough to reach the leading pair, was known as a teamster. Each beast was given their own name to which, when called, they learnt to respond. Popular bullock names were: Bluey, Bowler, Cherry, Dart, Leader, Redman, Scarlet, Smoker, Star, and Traveller.

Clearing and Fencing

The scrub was cut with wide-bladed hatchets or curved slashers; small trees by axes and cross-saws. Trees too large to cross-saw were ring-barked to remain standing like scrawny ghosts for the next 50-60 years. Tree-fellers were proud of their sharp axes, which were honed to a very sharp edge and sometimes tested by shaving their hairy arms. Before felling a tree, the tree-feller would ‘sight it’ with his axe. Lifting it up high by the end of its handle and allowing it to hang straight down, he could then check the lean of a tree and calculate the direction it was likely to fall. A certain anxiety was felt in the pioneers’ homes, as this was perilous work. While felling a tree on his property at Roland, James Byard (48) was killed in front of his two eldest sons, aged 15 & 17. He left his wife Lucy with 10 children, the youngest just 3 years old.

Bullocks were used to haul fallen trees to form the first fences. Getting boundary fences in the right place resulted in many disputes. In October 1868, a heated dispute broke out between Robert Pease of Lockwood’s Rd and William Excell of Carey’s Rd, who shared a common back boundary line. When ex-convict Pease attacked Excell with his axe, cutting him on the shoulder, it resulted in one of the first court cases in Kentish.

The most common form of early fencing was known as a chock & log fence. Logs of similar length were laid out along the fence line so that their adjoining ends overlapped about two feet. A short length of tree trunk, about 3 feet long, called ‘a chock’, with two large grooves chopped out of both its top and bottom sides, was laid at  right angles over these two overlapping logs. The chock’s lower grooves fitted down on the overlapping logs and held them tight. Now two new logs were laid in the upper groves of the chock. This process was repeated until you had a fence about five feet high.

Decades later, this primitive form of fencing was replaced by the more advanced post & rail fences, which required much more skill and preparation to build. In certain districts, field stones were so plentiful that they were picked up and stacked together to form stone fences. Up on Vinegar Hill, all through the vast pine tree plantations, are several kilometres of old stone fences, over hundred years old, which are possibly the most extensive examples of stone fencing left in Tasmania.

First Farming

The goal of every farmer was to become self-sustaining; growing various grains for both stock and household use and producing his own meat, fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, and butter. Once the ground was roughly cleared, the whole area would be burnt. While some wood piles would continue to burn for weeks, the settler sowed grain and grass seed directly into the ashes on the ground. From a bag slung over one shoulder, the settler would use his other hand to broadcast (scatter) the seed out over the newly cleared land. Then the family would chip the seed in with their hoes. Come January and again the whole family would work from dawn to dusk with hand-held sickles to harvest the crops.

As the heavy clearing work on properties was completed, the slow bullocks were replaced by the faster and more versatile Clydesdale draught horses, which remained the chief source of farm power right through until the 1930s. Common names for faithful Clydesdales were: Belle, Blossom, Bonnie, Clyde, Noble, Nellie, Prince, Ranger, Robin, Toby, and Trooper.

To build up their stock of animals, cattle breeds used were Herefords, Devons, and Durhams; Sheep breeds were Lincoln, Leicester, and Romney, while Pigs were mainly Berkshires. Neighbours banded together to slaughter their animals – a beast, couple of sheep, and often half a dozen pigs at a time. Nearly every part of the animals was eaten, including sheep’s heads, brains, eyes, inner organs, intestines, even pig trotters.

Wild windy weather created frightening possibilities for early pioneers. The dozens of dead, ring-barked trees would become brittle and, in storms, limbs would crash to the ground, killing stock, destroying homesteads and outbuildings. Myrtle trees were the most dangerous. They gave no warning and could fall at any time, even on a calm day. On my great grandfather Morse’s property Arthur Diprose (17) died instantly when a limb from a tree struck him on the head.

Milking cows was a family activity. The younger ones usually had to round up the cows, and in frosty, winter weather, bare footed children would hop from one fresh cow pat to another, just to keep their feet from freezing. To separate the cream from the milk, it was necessary to pour it into large, shallow dishes and leave it undisturbed, to settle, for 24 hours. Finding a safe, protected place in the house of a family was often difficult. One solution was to slide the large settling pans beneath the parents’ double bed. The next day the cream would be skimmed off the top to make butter.

Women’s Work Never Ended

Even though the women rose early, their work was never complete. There was always bread to bake, meals to cook, boil, stew, fry, roast in pots and pans over hot smoky fires, as well as regularly making cakes, biscuits, jams, jellies, and relishes to feed large hungry families. Curing (preserving food by drawing moisture out of them) was done three different ways – drying, salting, and smoking. Fruits were dried by placing them out in the sun, meat products preserved by constantly rubbing salt into them for a month, or until it was completely dry, or alternatively hanging it in a smoke house for a similar amount of time. It was all hard work. So, too, was constantly scrubbing wooden bench tops and floors, cleaning the bedrooms, hand-washing with a scrubbing board, ironing with heavy, hot irons from the stove, making curtains, children’s clothes, patching trousers, darning jumpers and socks. All this without mentioning the outside work of drawing water from the well, milking the cows, feeding the chooks, gardening, and helping with numerous farm jobs.

Basic food supplies were purchased at the district’s one and only country store, attached to the front of someone’s house. Nothing came pre-packaged. All foods were weighed out on scales and poured into paper bags. Sadly, one country storekeeper completely ran out of paper bags, forcing one husband to fill the pockets of his overcoat with salt, while the wife, after removing her stockings, half-filled each one with sugar and tea, then, tying a knot in each stocking, completed filling them with other basic requirements. Another pioneering family arrived home to discover that kerosene had leaked all through their bag of flour. For the next month this family was forced to eat their bread and scones heavily tainted with kerosene.

Family life

Surviving in the bush was based on the belief that everyone worked hard, worked together, showed respect, and were obedient. Discipline both at home and school was dispensed on the premise: Spare the rod and spoil the child. Of an evening, families made their own fun around the fire – singing around a pedal organ, reading out loud, reciting, and play-acting charades. Saturday evening was bath night, also in front of the fire. Using a large, oval-shaped tub, parents would commence with the youngest and work their way through the family, finishing with themselves after the children were all in bed. Hospitality was a vital part of the early settler’s social life. Meals were always offered to visitors, strangers offered a bed in the barn. If relatives visited, however, particularly a married couple, the two wives would share the marital bed, while the two husbands slept in improvised beds on the living room floor. For most families no work was done on Sundays, but attendance at church and Sunday school expected. Quarterly church tea meetings were hugely popular, as were the annual produce fairs where ladies exhibited all kinds of homemade breads, biscuits, slices, fancy cakes, jams, relish, potted meat, and sculptured butter, along with flower displays and vegetables. The Wednesday half-holiday was the time for weddings, picnics, and early sports events like local horse races and wood chopping, followed in the 1870s with ploughing contests, cricket, and football.

Killer diseases such as diphtheria claimed many small children, while tuberculosis took scores of older youths in the prime of life. Tragic accidents on farms, in homes, and along roads were regular occurrences. While sitting in the fireplace studying her lessons, eleven-year-old Hannah Packett was burnt to death after her clothes caught fire. Small children were particularly vulnerable. Of the first 10 deaths in Kentish, seven were three years or under. At Barrington, of Alex and Annie Smith’s ten children, six were born prematurely and died within their first few hours. As the clergymen so often said over their open graves: ‘In the midst of life, we are in death.

Next time:  The Shaping of Sheffield – Part 1: The Township’s Birth