The Township’s Birth

In 1842, when surveyor Nathaniel Kentish first set eyes on the grassy plains that were later named after him, he wrote: ‘They constitute an immediately available country never before known to exist; a portion of which might be laid out as a village or township with advantage to the Colony’. Had it not been that Field Bros stepped in and quickly acquired this entire plain with two 15-year leases, the envisaged township on Kentish Plains may well have become one of the first and oldest towns along the North West Coast. 

Selecting the Township Site

When Field Bros’ two leases were about to expire, Surveyor James Dooley was given the task of surveying these plains into saleable farm blocks. Like Kentish before him, Dooley also foresaw the need to reserve a site for a future township to service the needs of these new, very isolated settlers. He marked off a large, rectangular section of land, that straddled Kentish’s original track across the Plains, for such a township site. It was about 1 mile long by ½ mile wide, midway across the open plains, at the point of highest elevation between the Mersey and the Forth Rivers.

From this rectangular township site, Dooley drew a grid of straight country roads; all of them parallel to either the north/south or east/west boundaries of the township. Three ran south towards Mt Roland (West Kentish Rd, Spring St to Claude Rd, Old Paradise Rd) and one ran north to the Badgers (East Nook Rd). With these in place to guide him, Dooley then set about dividing the vast Kentish district into dozens of square and rectangular blocks. As he worked, where possible, he kept the direction of many minor country roads, such as Cables Rd, Shorey/Haberle Rds, Careys Rd, West Nook Rd, Rockliffs Rd, Tylers Rd, and others, in sync with the north/south or east/west boundaries of his future township.

The first land sold in the vicinity of the township occurred in March and July 1859. Thomas Johnson Snr purchased all the open plains from the township’s south boundary, along Old Paradise Road to Bray’s road. It included Fields Bros’ stock keeper’s hut and muster yards. James Powlett and his two sons, John & James Jnr, purchased all the land along the eastern boundary of the township. The present Sheffield-Railton Road runs right through the centre of John Powlett’s original block. Both the Johnson and Powlett families became the first genuine settlers in the vicinity of the proposed township.

Naming the town Sheffield

After spending most of the year surveying the Plains, late in 1859 Dooley returned to his oblong township site to survey its streets, create some allotments, and name the town. It seems during this time James Powlett (50), who originated from Sheffield, England, suggested this name to Dooley. Powlett, and sons John (26) & James Jnr (19), were already beginning to move onto their blocks they had bought earlier, bordering the eastern end of town. Young John Powlett, a previous licensee of his father-in-law’s Jolly Farmer Inn at Red Hills, was anxious to purchase a block within the township to erect his own Inn. Their actions were enough to persuade Dooley to call the town Sheffield. James’ wife Margaret Powlett was an energetic woman used to riding long distances, and later claimed to be the first woman to ride through the bush to reside at Sheffield.

The first use of the name Sheffield came from the Survey Department, Hobart, on 8 February 1860, when it announced a large sale of Crown Land. After this, it was used regularly for the sale of blocks within the township. The name was ratified in Parliamentary Paper #75, which records House of Assembly Proceedings for 26 Aug 1862. Surveyor-General Calder presented to Parliament the names of eight recently-surveyed townships in Tasmania. The second was Sheffield, whose name Calder said was suggested by Surveyor James Dooley.

Streets Names

Dooley’s choice of street names seems to follow two different themes. On the western side of the town, he seems to have used the first names of royalty, starting with the reigning monarchs at the time – Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, followed by Henry, Elizabeth, George, James, and Florence. The latter three streets, though surveyed and named, were never formed, and eventually added to private land. On the eastern side of Sheffield, Dooley recognised the recent upsurge of several small townships in the vicinity of the Mersey estuary that were within his jurisdiction –Tarleton, Latrobe, Formby, Torquay, Leith, & Kermode.

Tarleton St, Sheffield, was surveyed to run the entire length of the town’s northern boundary, but here again, between High St and the Railton Rd, it was never developed and ultimately became private land. Kermode St, between Railton Road and the Old Paradise Road, became the town’s eastern boundary, and Leith St was to form the town’s southern boundary, but again was never developed and no longer exists. The last remaining town boundary on the western side was called High St for obvious reasons – the southern parts of it being the watershed mark for stormwater running west into the Don River or east into the Dasher River. In 1921, because several shops, a hotel, and houses had been built west of High St instead of east, it became necessary to extend the town’s western boundary down the hill to the West Kentish & West Nook Roads. Spring St was named from the marshy ground in the vicinity of the Recreation Ground, from which is the source of Dodder Creek, presumably named because the Dodder plant, a parasite vine, appeared to be growing along the creek. Finally, Johnson St (spelt the same way as Thomas Johnson Snr) was surveyed to run north to south right through town, ending where his property adjoined the southern side of the town.

By checking some of Dooley’s town blocks surveyed in 1860, it is apparent he did not follow Kentish’s original track through the township. He chose a straighter, more direct route, roughly 200 metres on its north side of Kentish’s original track, which he, on his township map, called Kentish Road (now Main Street). The old, original route appears to have crossed Spring St at the Clematis Cottage Nursery, come up Station St, where it crossed Henry St, passed between the Mural Park and the Catholic church to cross High St, then  exited the town along Hope St, and down the hill to the Kentish Hills Motel corner.

Examining Dooley’s completed street map of the Sheffield township, we find he had surveyed more than 8 miles (13 kms) of streets within its boundaries. With just a handful of settlers occupying the entire Kentish Plains, what incredible foresight and faith in the future Dooley must have had. Yet, this appears common practise among all Tasmanian surveyors. The townships of Deloraine, Westbury, Longford, Campbell Town, and Ross, to name a few, have dozens of surveyed streets, many miles long. Yet still today, after one hundred & sixty years of settlement, many of them remain undeveloped, or have been sold back to neighbouring land-owners.

Sales of the First Blocks 

On 27 March, 1860, in Bell & Westbrook’s auction rooms, Charles St, Launceston, the Government offered blocks of land for sale in 15 different Tasmanian townships. One was the ‘Township of Sheffield, Kentish Plains in the vicinity of the Don River.’ At this first auction 10 blocks were offered at the extreme eastern end of Sheffield, between Torquay and Kermode Streets. Only four of them sold. The first two allotments on the eastern side of Torquay street were bought by Thomas Bollard. The corner block on Main & Kermode Sts went to Thomas Wilks Monds, and 18 acres, bounded by Torquay, Kermode & Formby St, were initially in James Fenton’s name, but soon afterwards changed to Surveyor Dooley. All of these buyers were out-of-town speculators. Later, Thomas Johnson Senior bought 16 acres south of Formby St to join up with his earlier purchases along the Old Paradise Road, and James Bennett bought 3 remaining allotments in Torquay St, next to Bollard.

When the remaining sections of the town were auctioned, John Powlett immediately purchased the corner block on Main and High Streets (now the Caltex service station) to build his Sheffield Inn, which he opened on 19 Dec 1861. Interestingly, on that same day, John’s father, James Powlett Senior, and two other early Kentish settlers purchased the corner block on Main & Henry Streets, hoping one day to erect a Wesleyan Chapel. Also on that same day, John Helder Wedge purchased the prime corner block on which Turnbull’s Pharmacy now stands, and Surveyor James Dooley bought the corner block of Main & Henry St, opposite the proposed Wesleyan Chapel. It took nearly two years to sell the first 12 blocks; nine of them purchased by out-of-town speculators, whose intentions were to hold them for a few years before reselling them for a considerable profit.

Who were the first Sheffield speculators?

Thomas Bollard was an ex-convict from City of Leicester, England, who in March 1840 aged 20, was sentenced to 15 years transportation to VDL for housebreaking and stealing. Upon his release he worked as a licensed hawker around the northern part of the State. In March 1860, Bollard obviously felt the best way to invest what little money he had accumulated was to buy the first two blocks offered for sale in the township of Sheffield. Nothing more is known of him until twelve years later on the day he died – Friday 20 April, 1872, aged 50, in the township of Perth. Bollard sent for the local postmaster Mr Templar to come to his rough, timber shanty because he was on the point of dying. Templar found him ‘in a state of nudity, sitting huddled up before an empty fire-place, in a most filthy condition, and literally alive with vermin.’ Thomas told Templar that he had £50 in the bank, and two allotments in township of Sheffield, which he wished to leave to his brother in Leicester, England. Templar reported these sad circumstances immediately to the Perth Police Station, but by the time Sergeant Whiting and the doctor reached his hovel, they found the miserable man lying on his back, having just expired. Thomas Wilks Monds (31), who bought 7 acres of land on the corner of Main St & Kermode St, became the well-known flour miller of Carrick, and later Launceston, owning some of the finest roller-mills and farms in Northern Tasmania.
At the western end of the township, Turnbull’s Pharmacy corner block was purchased by John Helder Wedge when he was 67. Having arrived in VDL in 1824, Wedge worked as a Government explorer/surveyor. He became a keen pursuer of Tasmanian bushranger Matthew Brady, and it was with John Batman that this wounded outlaw was finally captured at Cocked Hat Hill in May 1826. Both Batman and Wedge left Launceston together to establish the new Colony of Victoria. Returning from visiting England, Wedge brought back some of the first sheep to VDL. Later he served in the Tasmanian Parliament (1855-1866), and was mid-way through this period when he invested in this prime Sheffield block. He owned it at the time of his death in 1872 at his Medlands hometead on the Forth River, 3 miles south of the Forth township.

From the beginning James Bennett of Red Hills was a very significant property investor on the Kentish Plains. He was father-in-law to John Powlett of the Sheffield Inn. Bennett bought large areas of land adjoining the western boundary of Sheffield, extending out as far as the North Pole at Nook. He also bought the remaining three one-acre allotments in Torquay St, next to Thomas Bollard, and several blocks of land in the vicinity of Main & Spring Sts. When Powlett sold the Sheffield Inn, James Bennett briefly owned it before selling it to John T. Wilson.

But as far as speculators go, no one could out-do our Government Surveyor James Dooley. From his very privileged position, he bought many good blocks, and even surveyed one specially to suit his own needs. Geologist Charles Gould was sent to assess and map the coal fields in the Mersey region at the same time Dooley began surveying the Kentish Plains. In 1861, when Gould published his Map of the Tarleton/Sheffield Coal Field, between the Badgers and the oblong site Dooley reserved for Sheffield, Gould had marked coal reported here. Interestingly close-by, Gould showed the most ridiculously shaped block of land Dooley ever created in his whole career. It was ¼ miles (400 m) wide and over 2 miles (3.5k) in length. Commencing at the corner of Railton Road & Kermode St, this narrow block runs the entire length of the northern town boundary, continues along Tarleton St, and out along West Nook Road until it finally ends at the Don River. Gould names the owner as James Fenton of Forth, but some months later, when Dooley’s own survey maps appears, he is now the owner. One can only assume Dooley used Fenton’s name to conceal the real purchaser, and that he secretly hoped that somewhere along this narrow 2-mile block, he might find a seam of coal. At one time, Dooley owned more than 60 acres of land within the Sheffield township. Eventually Dooley was barred from further survey work, so he turned to State politics and put his energy into promoting his Devon electorate.

Next time: The Shaping of Sheffield: Its first 20 years.