When Surveyor Calder divided the County of Devon into Civil Parishes around 1855, he completely overlooked the fact that 20 years earlier the Oatlands district in the midlands had already been called the Parish of Dulverton (hence Lake Dulverton). Ever since, our small island has been blessed with two distinct Parishes of Dulverton. Of special interest in our Dulverton parish will be the highly mineralized valley on the east side of the Badgers Range through which Caroline Creek runs. Like Redwater Creek, Caroline Creek has its source on the slopes of Kimberleys Lookout near Sheffield but runs through very rich limestone country to join the Mersey River at Sherwood, on property originally owned by Thomas Johnson. It was Thomas Johnson who named this stream Caroline Creek after Dolly Dalrymple’s first child Caroline, fathered by a stockman before Johnson took up with her.

Tree Fallers & Timber Splitters

The first settlers in this inland region were tree fallers and splitters, cutting timber and shingles for shipment from Ballahoo Creek to Melbourne where, in the early 1850s, a ¼ million people arrived for the Victorian Gold Rush. All through the 1850s, fallers, splitters, and pit sawyers worked their way south through the forests of Dulverton, Newbed, and Sunnyside, cutting and stacking timber during the winter months to be hauled by bullock teams to Ballahoo Creek through the summer. It was on top of Stoodley hill in 1857 that timber cutters, looking for lost bullocks, stumbled out onto the open Kentish Plains, sparking the settlement of this rich new agricultural area.

Coal Mining

The first discovery of coal on the NW coast was made at Bott’s Gorge near Acacia Hills early in 1851. This led directly to the opening of various coal mines around the Mersey estuary and the start of the mining townships Tarleton & Ballahoo. One early Launceston mining syndicate, consisting of well-to-do businessmen Button, Crookes, Grubb, and Reed, was among the first to gain a mining lease within the Parish of Dulverton. They employed seven of the 300 Yorkshire and Welsh miners brought from England in 1854. Decades later, Henry Carter, Michael Wood, Thomas Lodge, George Laycock, James Naylor (Devonport), and Allan and James Beaumont (Don) reminisced how they started life in VDL working in this Dulverton coal mine. But within five or six years, most mining ventures were over. The coal seams were too narrow and frequent fault-lines meant they could not be worked profitably.

In 1861 Gov geologist Chas Gould was sent to examine these Mersey coalfields. He found ancient geological upheavals had twisted the stratus of limestone and coal, creating many broken fault-lines. In several places, lower levels of ancient rock had been forced up through overlaying strata and now lay exposed on the earth’s surface. This was the case especially around Caroline Creek, where Gould was the first to discover ancient sandstone rocks embedded with several species of marine fossils known as ‘trilobites’. So numerous were these marine fossils that one creek was named Marine Creek. They are now regarded as the oldest fossil-bearing rocks of Tasmania, with specimens on display in several of the world’s museums.

When the Mersey miners’ employment was terminated, many bought or leased inland blocks of land where they cut timber and began to dig for their own coal. The most successful small mines were located between Dulverton and Newbed, where at intervals over the next 90 years, a score of small operators with one or two employees produced coal. However, like the timber cutters, carting wagons of coal over unmade boggy roads to the wharf at Ballahoo was an incredibly difficult task.

Dawsons Siding Rd

After 20 years as Launceston’s town surveyor and civil engineer, William Dawson with wife Ann and their 10 children came to Mersey River in 1853 in charge of a Dean’s & Denny’s coal mine. When that failed, in 1854 Dawson became licensee of Thomas Johnson’s 16-room Native Youth Inn at Sherwood, where both Johnson and Dawson had a child drown in the Mersey River. For a couple of years Dawson was employed by the new Devon Road Trust, surveying both the first direct road and wooden tramway routes from Sherwood to Deloraine. On 15 June 1856 Wm Dawson purchased 100 acres south of Sherwood to commence coal mining. His mines out performed all the other mines at Tarleton by continuing for several decades, hence Dawsons Siding Rd.

But it was Dawson’s early contribution to Kentish we need to note here. After the report of the timber cutters finding the open Kentish Plains, it was Wm Dawson, Thomas Johnson, his son John G Johnson, and Francis L von Bibra who first set out to examine these plains during the summer of 1857/58. Their estimate that there were 30,000 acres of fertile land moved the Government to stop Field Bros renewing their cattle-grazing lease and appoint Surveyor James Dooley to carve up the Plains into saleable blocks. Dawson cut the first wagon track up over the Badgers, then an easier route via Redwater Creek and Stoodley hill, both of which are clearly marked on Gould’s 1861 Coal map. When Philosopher Smith found gold in the Forth valley near Lorinna, to assist the many eager Tarleton prospectors Wm Dawson extended his track from Kentish Plains over Mt Claude and down to the Forth River. Although Wm Dawson bought two town blocks in Sheffield, late in 1861 he accepted the position of town engineer of Invercargill and, with the younger members of his family, moved to NZ. His oldest sons Henry, James, and Ebenezer Dawson all became well-known pioneer farmers on the Plains.

Dulverton Siding Road (now Youngman Road)

Amongst the earliest settlers around Dulverton were Henry & Emma Cooper (12 chn), John & Marion Ramsdale (2 chn), & James & Margaret Castles (1 ch), all of whom were farmers. In 1870 Henry Cooper and family crossed the Badgers to become the first settlers in Nook. Their sixth child became the first baby born in Nook and, partly through Henry Cooper’s generosity, the first Nook Methodist church opened debt-free. After a hot day harvesting, James Castles (38) drank contaminated water from a ditch and died within days.

In the early 1880s, several new coal fields were discovered along the eastern side of the Badgers Range on John Ryan’s & Joseph Lobley’s properties near Dulverton and Sutcliffe’s & Winter’s land at Newbed. Attempts by Latrobe businessmen to form the Dulverton Mining Co failed for lack of finance and their inability to find carters prepared to haul wagon loads of coal along impassable bush tracks to Ballahoo Creek. But the opening of the Launceston-Deloraine railway line’s extension through to Devonport on 30 May 1885 changed everything. A railway siding was established at Dulverton, midway between Railton and Latrobe, from where coal was railed direct to Devonport or Launceston.  In March 1888, a group of experienced miners from the Cornwall coal mines near Fingal formed their own syndicate to develop this Dulverton coal mine. They were Joshua Mackey, John Kneebone, William & John Trotter, and Moses Howarth. Over Easter 1888 they moved with their wives, 16 children, and household furniture by train from Fingal to Dulverton, increasing its population by 26. In October 1888 Wesleyan minister Rev J Polkinghorne commenced holding cottage meetings there, and seven months later a small 24ft x 14ft building was erected to serve as a place of worship and day school. The church opened debt-free on Sun, 5 May 1889 with two services – Wesleyan (morning), Baptist (afternoon). Miss Blackett, who played the organ for both services, announced she would be commencing school the next day. A PO was opened with Mrs Mary Jane Parker as Postmistress. At the height of the mining boom, Dulverton’s population reached nearly 300, with about 40 being Mahoneys. The Mahoneys were descendants of two brothers Michael & Denis Mahoney, whose Irish father Timothy Mahoney, having completed his convict sentence, sent for his two teenage sons to join him in VDL in 1852. The first Mahoneys came to Dulverton in 1876.

Newbed District

The name New Bed was first used in the early 1870s, according to Thomas Hainsworth, by a splitter who, having exhausted one area, discovered this new heavily-wooded district. The first selectors were the Winter family (12 blocks), Latrobe entrepreneur B S Oppenheim (7 blocks), and Henry Cooper (10 blocks). Early settlers included Harry & Harriett O’Neil, James & Rose Ryan, Wm & Elizabeth Sloane (12 chn), John & Mary Allford (5 dau), Fred Williams, Sam & Martha Oliver, John Bowers, James & Pauline Castles, Frank & Annie Roe, Joseph & Jane Thomas, and Fred & Edith Pedder. Because of the number of children living in Newbed and on the opposite hill of Sunnyside, the first church and school was built at Redwater Creek in 1879.

Late 1880s – Coal mining’s boom years.  

In 1888 a wealthy NSW investment company Henry Law & Co of Sydney proceeded to invest in mining operations all over the northern half of the island. They claimed to have the latest equipment capable of boring to greater depths enabling them to supply an annual order of 50,000 tons of coal to Melbourne. They bought into coal mines at Seymour (East Coast), gold mines at Beaconsfield, iron mines at Penguin, and silver-lead mines at Zeehan. After getting favourable results from coal samples taken from the Mersey estuary, in July 1889 Henry Law & Co began re-opening the old coal mines worked 30 years ago around Tarleton and purchased the Dulverton Coal Mine off Joshua Mackey’s syndicate and several other small operators at Newbed.

The whole Dulverton-Newbed district was gradually transformed into a major coal-producing area. Around Dawsons Sidings new cottages were built; the Dulverton township now had around 30 houses and commenced their own cricket club. The Dulverton Mine had a comfortable office with telephone lines to Devonport and Railton. At Newbed, coal had been discovered on Henry Cooper’s and John Allford’s land, so Brightburn coal mine opened. By April 1891 the output of coal by Henry Law’s investment company reached 6,000 tons per month and was increasing at the rate of 200 tons per week as new mines began to produce coal. Long trains of coal trucks travelled to Devonport wharf where the Company’s boat Siren shipped it to Melbourne, and their 210-ton Glenelg carried minerals from Launceston, Beaconsfield, , and Strahan.

Henry Law’s Corporate Catastrophe.

In Railton, Henry Law & Co purchased 200 acres and announced plans to open a major new coal seam that would fill the township with miners cottages. The site chosen by their experts for this new shaft was about 100ft off the end of Morrison St, between the Esplanade and railway line. Local geologist Thomas Hainsworth, who had spent 30 years studying the fractured coal strata in the area, announced, ‘they would never find coal there.’ However, on 25 Nov 1889 in front of a large crowd, local lass Miss Minnie Tucker lifted out the first spadeful of soil and christened this new venture The Minnie Coal Mine. Mining Co engineer Mr Hardy spoke in glowing terms about this project, declaring it a red-letter day for Railton. On behalf of Railton’s residents, Henry Cooper wished them every success.

Nine miners began working around the clock to sink the 9ft diameter shaft. Three on each shift, six days a week, commencing ½ hour after Sun midnight and stopping ½ hour before Sat midnight. Additional bricklayers, blacksmiths, and carpenters began erecting all the buildings needed for a good colliery. Morrison St was cleared to form a fine thoroughfare from Redwater Creek township direct to the mine. Henry Law & Co hired Winter’s sawmill for Mr Shea and his carpenters to erect split-timber houses along Morrison and Dowbiggin streets as fast as possible.

Despite the liberal expenditure of this investment company, after six months of sinking the shaft through limestone, there was still no sign of coal. Local expectations were rapidly evaporating. In October 1890, Henry Law & Co imported another diamond drill and plant to erect at Railton. After 13 months drilling, public support had plummeted, yet in Dec 1890 Henry Law & Co again declared they expected to find coal any day now, and that no expense in machinery or manpower would be spared. By Jan 1891 the diamond drill was down well beyond 300 feet and still no coal. Then on 6 Feb 1891, after the Company’s visiting expert from Sydney made a very dismal assessment, the whole Railton mine project was abruptly terminated.

Despite Henry Law & Co’s initial success in other mines, ominous clouds had been forming overseas. Following the boom years of the late 1880s, the world’s mineral prices had begun to plummet. When the big bust came, it issued in the Great Depression of the 1890s. On 3 August 1891, when Henry Law & Co went to draw wages for their massive work force, the Bank of VDL had closed its doors. There was no money. Being the miner’s bank, it was the first of nearly 40 Australian banks to fold. With promises from the Company that employees would get their wages, miners kept working for five more weeks, but desperate attempts to raise money from other banks failed. On 1 Sept 1891 came the news Henry Law & Co was bankrupt. Finlayson’s Foundry Devonport was called in to remove all plant and machinery, while on 15 April 1893 23 house blocks along Morrison St, Dowbiggin St, and the Railway Esplanade were put up for sale. So, Railton’s large circular shaft, dubbed Law’s Folly, remained within about 30 metres of the Railway Esplanade for many decades, a monumental ‘black hole’ in remembrance of a very misguided investment.

Next: Dulverton, Railton & Newbed (Part 2 Post-1900)