The discovery of alluvial gold in the Minnow River at Lower Beulah in December 1877 was the catalyst to kick-start the township of Sheffield. Although the population on the Kentish Plains had been growing continually over the last fifteen years, Sheffield had less than a dozen buildings sprawled out over the entire one-mile length of the surveyed township site. At the far eastern end of town, a small cluster of houses surrounded pioneer settler James Powlett’s clay pit where he employed brickmakers. On the corner of Main & Formby St, Constable John Mitchell had charge of the police watchhouse/gaol.

Opposite the present-day Baptist Church, Charles & Ellen Coleman from Barrington (12 chn) moved in and built a house. Though they lacked proper qualifications, in 1876 both Charles and Ellen took over as teachers at the Sheffield school after the original schoolteacher Thos Pullen was transferred and a trained replacement couldn’t be found. Their day school was held in the Union Chapel, built in 1866 on the site of the old Ts Chinese restaurant. Next door was the post office/house where John Coleman (contractor) lived with his wife Isabella (postmistress). In those days, the western boundary of the Sheffield township was High St, and it was there on the present Caltex corner that John Powlett built his Sheffield Inn in 1861. Twelve years later, the Inn was taken over by John T Wilson, with blacksmith John Herron working in the hotel’s backyard. Along High St, in what is now King George V Park, a cemetery reserve already contained its first graves. Earlier, in the gold-strike year of 1877, local farmer Robert Manley bought land next to the Sheffield Inn and began building the first general store.

On Boxing Day 1877, Charles Coleman visited the gold-strike site 8 miles southeast of Sheffield and sent a glowing report to the Examiner, entitled ‘The Sheffield Gold Fields’. This sensational news had its predictable response: some 150 ‘hopefuls’ rushed to the Minnow River to start panning for gold. Scores began prospecting the district and some set up shops in Sheffield. Manley opened his new store on New Year’s Day 1878. At the other end of town, J G Johnson opened a smaller store on the corner of Main St & Torquay St, opposite the brickfields. Close-by, on the banks of Dodder Creek, brothers John, James & Wm Greenhill owned property and erected a water-powered flour mill. Today, Greenhill descendant Frank Atkins OAM still owns this land. Between Union Chapel/school and the corner of Henry St, John Hutton built a couple of houses and established himself as a bootmaker. After Chas Coleman was relieved from his temporary teaching position in 1878, he and another brother, William, purchased all the property along the northern side of Main St between the Kentish Museum and Spring St. There, they built a butchery, a cooperage, and several more houses. Across Main St, his brother-in-law John Robertson erected a house and another blacksmith shop, whilst next door John Davis opened his butcher’s shop. Close-by, Robert Herron started a boot-making business and Miss Isabella Herron a bookshop. Further down Main St, opposite the honey factory, John & Amelia Best (11 chn) from Westbury built another general store with a house behind and a saddler’s shop leased to Thomas Brown.

In 1879, wheelwright Peter Ford & blacksmith Arthur Wright teamed up to build horse-drawn farm drays and wagons in a building adjacent to Robert Manley’s new general store. Their first wagon was made for Henry Jones and the second one, built of blackwood, was for Hugh Powell who farmed along Spring St. 40 years later, both wagons were still yielding useful service.

No streets in the township had yet been formed; muddy tracks weaved between tree stumps and bog holes. Driving a team of bullocks through the town, Albert Charleston over-turned his dray, throwing his bags of flour into the mud. First contracts to burn the stumps and begin forming Main St were given to Thomas & James Jubb at the western end and Chas Coleman on the eastern end. In Feb 1879, an 11-acre reserve was made for public purposes that commenced at the police watch-house and extended eastward up the hill, whilst along Spring St 10 acres were reserved for recreational purposes, which is now our sports oval. In Sept 1879, the largest meeting ever seen in Sheffield led to the formation of the ‘Sheffield Railway League’. Its object was to get the defunct north-western railway line reopened and a branch line put in to the Kentish district. This goal was finally achieved 34 years later in 1914. After more than a dozen local children died from diphtheria and typhoid fever within a seven-week period in 1880, Dr Sydney Smyth of Latrobe was appointed Government Public Vaccinator for Latrobe/Kentish and began weekly visits to Sheffield.

Sheffield – Bustling Frontier Town

Whilst the Minnow gold boom and the rush to mine the base of Mt Roland and Mt Claude were short-lived, they were quickly followed by several finds further back. Reef gold was discovered by Malcolm and Alex Campbell near Lorinna in 1882, which led to the whole hinterland being opened up. Both Manley and Johnson sold their general stores to concentrate on prospecting and mining. With Sheffield becoming a bustling frontier town, the government opened a telegraph line from Latrobe to Sheffield in July 1881, and from 1 Jan 1882 the original Kentishbury Post Office was renamed Sheffield Post Office. It was said, ‘It is only a matter of time before Sheffield becomes the centre of an important gold mining district.’ Sheffield’s new businessmen became so over-confident about the town’s future that they commenced erecting large two-storey brick buildings such as hotels, banks and large shops, some of which still stand today.

The first brick building was a hotel built for entrepreneur William Collard from Latrobe. Previously bankrupt, Collard had recently become agent for several new Kentish mining companies and optimistically purchased 16 acres just outside the town’s western boundary. There he erected his large two-storey hotel containing twelve rooms lavishly furnished mainly on credit. Not to be outdone, John T Wilson of the Sheffield Inn, demolished his original 20-year-old single-storey slit-timber building on the corner of Main & High and erected a similarly impressive double-storey brick hotel in its place. However, the following year Collard became bankrupt again. When his creditors failed to sell the hotel as a going concern, they were forced to auction off all its contents, which left the huge hotel an empty shell. Sadly, at Wilson’s hotel, his wife Elizabeth (40) died in childbirth on 27 Sept 1883, leaving the publican with six young children. Less than three weeks later, John Wilson’s three-horse mail coach capsized on the rough unformed road to Latrobe with the driver Sam Pointon and two passengers all thrown off. Alice Purdy (18) landed on her head and died of a fractured skull.

Joseph Schmidt, who began trading in a split-timber house/shop close to the present pharmacy, had James Bellion of Latrobe build a large single-storey brick shop next door (now the Don Co) and an impressive brick family home on the site of the RSL. In March 1883 Schmidt joined forces with James York to form York Schmidt & Co. Other shops opened, including James Butt at the brickworks and George Lane Jnr (saddler, harness-maker) at 119 Main on corner with Spring St. Across the street at 116 Main, Charles Morey of Launceston took over John Best’s general store. Two doors up, Gideon Robson built his own house and carpenter shop at 112 Main St, and further up James Acklin took over the butcher business.

New Church, Parsonage & School 1882-1885

The old split-timber Union Chapel, used as a place of worship and school since 1866, was in a very ‘miserable, dilapidated condition.’ School teacher Thomas Alexander had 112 children registered with an average attendance of 80. It was said more children could have come, only parents were afraid of the building collapsing and burying their children, so they divided the risk by sending half the family at a time. The town desperately needed both a bigger and better church and school. Three Wesleyan pioneers had made such a provision back in 1861 by buying a church block on the corner of Main & Henry St. Gideon Robson gained the contract to build a 50ft x 22ft weatherboard Wesleyan church with a 15ft x 12ft vestry for £340. It opened on Sunday 3rd Dec 1882 with three packed services and was followed on Monday afternoon with 500 people attending the tea meeting. To feed this crowd, six trestle tables were cleared and replenished six times. Regrettably, heavy rain created havoc for the many visitors needing to use the tent toilets. In mid-1884 James Bellion of Latrobe completed a fine six-roomed parsonage next to the church on the corner of Main & Henry St for £400.

Whilst the government allocated money to build new public schools in Sheffield and Railton back in 1882, it was Oct 1883 before the local School Board (John Duff, John Hope, John McFarlane, Robert Murphy & Alex Turnbull) finalised the Sheffield site and June 1884 when J G Pierce of Formby gained the contract for £550. 12 months later, residents complained that while the foundation stone, 50,000 local bricks, and timber were on site, no construction work had commenced. It wasn’t until October 1885 that headmaster Thomas Alexander took possession of ‘the magnificent new brick building with cement cornices and iron roof, well-placed in a good big reserve, where the boys have plenty of room to play what most young Australians aspire to, the game of cricket.’ Two years later, school attendance averaged 130 pupils.

Dr Smythe Redevelops Old Hotel

Collard’s empty hotel was sold in 1884 to Fred Padfield of Campbell Town who opened it as the Caledonian Hotel, despite strong protest by some Kentish residents against having a second public-house. Not sure it had divine approval, for in August 1884 an earthquake shook Sheffield’s houses, toppling at least one chimney. Less than a year later, Padfield had a change of mind. He purchased the more lucrative Sea View Hotel in Devonport and sold the Caledonian to Dr Sydney Smythe of Latrobe in July 1885. In the de-licensed hotel, Smythe enticed several Latrobe businesses to become tenants and open branches in Sheffield. He set up his own surgery rooms for his one-day-per-week visits and opened Sheffield’s first chemist shop with Sam Breaden as manager. His biggest client was the Bank of Australasia, which opened the first bank in Sheffield. Its manager, Captain Alexander Faulkner, introduced the game of tennis to Sheffield by building a grass court on the site of the Sheffield Bodyworks. Another tenant was Latrobe Solicitor G D Inglis who opened a local office with Law Clerk Malcolm Bauld in charge. The much-anticipated railway extension from Launceston to Latrobe opened on 10 May 1885, bringing huge marketing benefits for Kentish and, for the first time, a daily mail service.

Friendly Societies & First Local Doctor 1885

The phenomenal spread of Friendly Benefit Societies across Australia reached Sheffield on 8 Dec 1885 when the Rechabite Order established their ‘Diamond Lodge.’ Four months later, the Independent Order of Oddfellows formed their Loyal Rose Lodge on 23 April 1886. By charging an annual subscription, these Friendly Societies provided insurance cover for medical expenses and loss of wages as well as death benefits for their members. Both lodges wanted to have a full-time resident doctor live in Sheffield to serve their clients. This was settled on 30 August 1886 when Dr Robert Davis was chosen to fill that role. From Ireland, Dr Davis (52) had recently arrived with his wife Christiana and five teenagers to Tasmania. He began by renting a house/surgery at 166 Main St on the crest of the hill above the police watchhouse. Later he built a substantial house and surgery called Lynwood at 2 Johnson St, which still stands today. He also rented a more central surgery, near the present Epicurean Restaurant. The Davises were active Anglicans and foundation members of the Sheffield Horticulture Society in 1890. Robert Davis died on 6 Dec 1907. After Dr Smythe lost business to Dr Robert Davis, he sold his chemist business in the refurbished hotel to J L Nicholson of Devonport who opened a new chemist shop at 92 Main St, opposite the Kentish Museum.

Sheffield continued to expand throughout 1886-87. The National Bank erected premises on the present-day site of Bossimi’s Bakery, whilst George Eastman opened the first bakery on the western side of the Oddfellows Hall. Irishman T J Clerke took over Sheffield’s original store established by Robert Manley, and Wm Bye opened a blacksmith shop next door. Across the lane, Thomas King built his own two-storey house Alabama (now a souvenir shop) plus several shops east of it for rental. Eric Rees bought Chas Coleman’s butcher business, whilst Stephen’s general store opened next to George Lane’s saddlery. In Nov 1887 the Wednesday half-holiday was introduced, with all Sheffield storekeepers agreeing to close their shops that afternoon. It soon became the favourite time for sports events and weddings.

Though prospecting continued through the 1880s and scores of mineral strikes were made, once tunnelling commenced, most mines proved not worth developing. The Mt Claude Silver-Lead Mining Co that started with great gusto in Aug 1881 was abandoned in Sept 1885. Through the mid-1880s, some miners became discouraged and left the backcountry. Then, commencing late 1887, a new series of mineral strikes ignited a new euphoria as the largest mines to-date commenced production. (Continued next month)

Next time: Sheffield’s Golden Era (1880-1900) Part 2