Railton Pioneer Settlers

When the 600-ton Merrington from London arrived in the mouth of the Tamar River on 20 Oct 1854, on board were Henry & Priscilla Weeks (both 21) bound for the newly discovered coal mines at the Mersey River. They were amongst 110 recruits, mainly from South Wales, who responded to Zephaniah Williams’ plea to miners to work his Denison colliery, just south of Tarleton. The Merrington’s destination was Melbourne, but first had to transfer all these miners onto a smaller boat to take them to the Mersey River. Also aboard were Thomas (21) & Mary (17) Hainsworth, who would become life-long Wesleyan friends with the Weeks.

The miners were forced to wait aboard the Merrington for three more days until the 100-ton Titania could be organised to take them to the Mersey River. This coastal steamer arrived from Launceston in the late afternoon with its cooks boiling two sheep that had just been killed from the new colony. Together with fresh turnips, this was the first fresh meat & vegetable meal the passengers had had in four months. Everybody camped on deck for the overnight voyage to the Mersey, where they waited until the 9am high-tide to enter the mouth and travel as far up river as possible. Then, taking turns, they were off-loaded into a flat boat and rowed up into Ballahoo creek to climb ashore. What an emotional moment! Everyone was jumping about or rolling on the ground; some laughing, some crying, some distraught at the absolute desolation of their final destination.

Henry Weeks, born in 1832 in Somerset, England, had been working as a coal miner in Ebbw Vale, Wales. Priscilla Caswell, born 1833 in Bitton, Gloucestershire, was a servant to the Isaac Fox family in Hanham, both townships now part of greater Bristol. They had married on 10 Aug 1853, so celebrated their first wedding anniversary at sea. Once their cases, boxes, and baskets were stacked on the river bank, they walked to Tarleton’s only local store to fill up on fresh bread and fresh water out of Ballahoo Creek. Then they walked off into the bush in search of the small houses Zephaniah Williams had built for them.

Short-lived Coal Mining, Long-term Farming

It only took a couple of years mining before the Mersey Coal Co was in trouble. By the time Weeks’ contract expired and their first two children were born, mining had virtually come to an end. Over the next five years, Henry was forced to do casual work, but did lease a small block on Stotts Plains, between East Devonport and Latrobe, where their next three babies were born.

Things improved in 1862 when Henry Weeks obtained a land grant at Native Plains along the banks of the Mersey River, two miles east of Railton. Henry called their 193 acre property Native Rock, after a prominent landmark so named by early explorers, once being popular hunting grounds of Tasmanian aborigines. Along with Amos Langmaid, the Weeks family were the first settlers in the Railton district. Here they built a slab dwelling where they raised their family of 11: Sarah Ann b1855 d aged 22, Thomas b1856, Henry (Jnr) b1858, Elizabeth b1861, Charles b1863, Edward b1865, Emma b1867, Alice b1869, William Hezekiah b1871, Ada Priscilla b1873 & Ernest b1875. As his sons grew up, Henry Weeks  expanded his holdings, buying a large 188 acre farm in Sunnyside, later taken over by his son Henry Jnr, plus four smaller blocks at Sunnyside and one 70 acre block at Stoodley. In April 1878 Henry Senior was one of eight candidates that sought election for two positions on the Kentishbury Road Trust, which were won by John Hope and Reuben Austin. In March 1879 he commenced leasing 1000 acres of Crown land at Dulverton, where he was fined 5/- after one of his cattle strayed onto the new Mersey-Deloraine railway line. In the 1880s, Weeks bought two house blocks in Gilbert St, Latrobe, and erected a new house with fashionable bow windows. He was quite a successful farmer, being one of the first in 1885 to use Blenhorn’s lime on his farm. He spread 100 bushels of lime per acre and harvested an excellent crop of peas.

Temperance & Wesleyan Church

In 1870 Henry Weeks joined the local Rechabites when they were formed in Railton by his teetotaling friend Thomas Hainsworth, who had been a strong promotor of ‘abstinence’ for the last decade. Undoubtedly Henry Week’s temperance views were strengthened by the man he had hired to erect his post-and-rail fencing. He was a good worker but a hard drinker. During a drinking binge that lasted several days, he suddenly presented himself at Week’s door at midnight in a semi-nude state and raving mad. He told Henry the place was full of devils of every shape and form that wouldn’t let him sleep. Next morning, he was found to be missing. His steps were tracked to the edge of the Mersey River where his hat and coat were located. But no trace of him was ever found.

Many Welsh miners were Wesleyan Methodists, including the Weeks family. When Sam & William Winter offered three acres of land at Redwater Creek for the erection of a Wesleyan church and day-school, Henry Weeks and his oldest sons Thomas, Henry (Jnr) & Charles were amongst 23 sturdy bushmen who, on 14 January 1879, helped clear the land. Six months later, on 18 June 1879 when the church opened, Henry Weeks became the first SS superintendent (13 years) and a trustee until his death, 20 years later. The whole Weeks family were ardent supporters of all Wesleyan church activities during their lifetimes. Initially the church also acted as the first school, and in Oct 1879 Henry Weeks was also elected to the Local School Board.

In April 1887 when James East built a new hotel at Railton and sought a liquor licence, it was strongly opposed by the local temperance movement. Henry Weeks canvased the district and wrote many letters to the Devon Herald, resulting in the licence, at the first hearing, being denied. But after 80 residents throughout Kentish signed a petition, the licence was finally granted. It was in the same month that the government began prosecuting parents who refused to have their children vaccinated against small-pox. The case against Henry Weeks Jnr was adjourned five times to give him a chance to change his mind.

Prospecting & Mining

Some ex-Welsh miners became Kentish’s foremost prospectors. One was Henry Weeks who, besides farming, developed a life-long passion for prospecting. He spent many summers in remote high country regions, picking rock samples off steep mountain sides or scrapping gravel from dangerous creek beds from Corinna to Cradle. It was while digging for gold in the Dasher River that he nearly lost his life: Henry had sunk a shaft down through shingle for 25ft, carefully boarding up the sides as he went. He was about to collect some gravel samples when he heard a noise above him. Looking up, he could see the supporting boards on the sides of the shaft bending and straining. Leaving his pick and shovel, he scrambled up to the top just as the sides caved in below him. Henry formed Weeks Prospecting Party, which agreed that whatever was found amongst them would be shared equally with all. Unfortunately, their most significant discoveries promised a lot but provided very little.

In May 1881, Henry Weeks’ party (including Thomas Shepheard and Arthur Wm Langmaid) were the first to discover a vein of silver-lead on Mt Claude. It set off a feverish rush of other hopefuls arriving at Mt Claude to scour the high country. A meeting of Weeks Prospecting Association at Latrobe on 25 June 1881 led to the formation of the Mt Claude Silver-Lead Mining Co with Dan Bourke of Westbury (Legal Manager), Thomas Hainsworth (Secretary), and James Hancock (Mine Manager). In Latrobe, 30,000 shares were sold in one day, with Weeks, Shepheard, and Langmaid each awarded 800 each. Between 1882-1885 they drove an adit in 593ft (190m) without striking a major vein of ore. Having spent the money, the Company was forced to wind up in Sept 1886.

In March 1887 Henry Weeks returned to the abandoned Star of the West gold mine at the Minnow River, Lower Beulah, with a new group of workers and extended the old shaft from 380ft to 585ft, but lack of finance forced them to quit.

More positive results and another mini gold rush occurred in August 1888 when 11 members in Henry Week’s prospecting party found gold near the summit of the Five-mile Rise at Middlesex Plains. Their meeting in East’s Hotel, Railton, led to the Great Caledonian Gold Mining Co being registered in Feb 1889. Soon, over 100 men were scouring the area, and serious consideration was given to building a hotel at Middlesex. In Jan 1890, wealthy pastoralist Wm Gibson Jnr of Scone Evandale visited the site of GCGM Co and decided to purchase half the Company. Without proper assessment, some 35-tons of mining machinery was ordered for the mine. It included a 10-ton boiler that took 36 bullocks seven months to haul it from Railton, up over Mt Claude, and up the Five Mile Rise to the mine near Middlesex Plains. It was held up for four months at Lorinna, waiting for the river to drop and suitable ropes to come from Melbourne. They were just getting into production when world mineral prices collapsed in 1891, causing many banks, mining, and investment ventures to crash. Their Company wound up in April 1893.

There are various versions of the family legends involving Henry Weeks that are difficult to verify. One is that Henry Weeks discovered an unknown mineral on a remote hillside and, with George (Chummy) Webb (Field’s stockman at Middlesex Plains), brought it into Philosopher Smith at Forth to identify. Smith said he didn’t know what it was, but only a short time later, in Dec 1871, the newspapers reported Philosopher Smith had found tin at Mt Bischoff. Another story is that George (Chummy) Webb found a reef of glittering gold in the upper Forth valley, but blind-folded Henry Weeks before leading him to it. Then Chummy Webb died suddenly before telling his sons where it was located. Henry Weeks then became obsessed with re-discovering it. His main clue was to have the Western Tiers behind you and Cradle Mt in front of you, but he never could find it.

Declining Years

When Railton separated from the Kentishbury Road Trust in September 1890 to form their own Railton Road Trust, there were 11 nominations for five trustees. Those elected were James Dodd (54), Henry Weeks Snr & James Sheean (49) equal second, John Allford Sen (34), and Harry Winter (27). Weeks was also made a trustee of the Railton Recreation Ground.

A final family story has Henry Weeks so convinced he will find gold in the tunnel he had spent months cutting into the bank of a tributary of the Forth River near Cethana, he actually mortgaged his properties to finance his continued exploration. After cutting a tunnel 700ft long, not one speck of gold showed up. But, with the collapse of world mineral prices and the closure of many banks in the early 1890s, Henry Weeks Snr found himself with mortgage debts of £2,621 and declared bankruptcy on 11 July 1894. Just two weeks later, all his properties were auctioned at George Atkinson’s mart in Latrobe. They included his beloved 193 acre homestead property Native Rock which he had owned for 32 years, with 165 acres under cultivation, including 18 acres of orchard containing 3,500 fruit trees. In the centre was their six-roomed house and outbuildings. Also a 70 acre farm with a four-roomed cottage and two smaller blocks at Sunnyside. Even though the Native Rock property was sold, it appears the Weeks family was allowed to remain living there.

The Passing of the Pioneers

The following year, Priscilla died of heart disease aged 62 years on 24 November 1895, at Native Rock farm. Described as a kind-hearted mother with a friendly word for everyone, Mrs Weeks was buried in the Wesleyan Church cemetery, Railton. 10 months later, on 29 Sept 1896, Henry Weeks (64) married Maria Winter (51), well-known widow of Walter Winter with whom she had six children. This second marriage did not produce any children.

Henry Weeks Snr died at his Native Rock residence on 25 August 1899, aged 67 years. A long-time sufferer of diabetes, he passed away following a stroke. In a letter of sympathy from the local Board of Agriculture at Railton, the secretary wrote: “Since the inauguration of this board, Mr Weeks has always been a regular and consistent member, and from his extended and varied experience, his suggestions and advice had always been looked to as genuine. His kind and genial temperament has left a gap at the Board meetings not easy to fill.” Henry was buried beside his first wife in the Railton Wesleyan cemetery, which today is accessed from another street. Their headstone inscription: In loving memory of our dear father and mother. Henry Weeks who died August 25, 1899 aged 67 years. Priscilla Weeks who died November 24, 1895 aged 62 years. Blessed are they that die in the Lord.

A small monumental plaque recognising the work of the Weeks family to the church is also erected on the grave. The last service held in the Railton Uniting Church, before it was sold to become a private residence, was a reunion on 13 Feb 1994 of Henry & Priscilla Weeks’ extended family.

Next: Merseylea, Native Plains & China Bush