Towards the end of the 1880s, Sheffield had become the centre of a flourishing agricultural and mining community. It had a population of around 400 residents and some 2000 people living within a 7-mile radius. The township consisted of the new Sheffield Hotel, Wesleyan church, public school, two banks, five general stores, three butchers, three blacksmiths, two shoemakers, two wheelwrights, one resident doctor, one chemist, one watchmaker, one bakery, one saddlery, one cooper, and several carpenters building about a dozen houses. It was reported ‘The pretty little township of Sheffield, not unlike its namesake, seems all hurry and bustle, everyone trying to see who will have the best building.’ ‘I know of no inland township in this colony that has made such headway during the last few years.’
Contributing to its success was a second outbreak of gold euphoria that followed a series of new finds around Mt Claude, Five Mile Rise at Middlesex, and Bell Mount near Moina. New mining companies were formed that had men flocking back to the mineral fields. In Sheffield, a public ‘stock exchange’ was held at nights, where shares changed hands. In Feb 1889 the Great Caledonian Gold Mining Co was formed and ordered 35-40 tons of mining machinery. The following year, it took 36 bullocks to haul the machinery from Railton station up over Mt Claude, then a four month wait to cross the Forth River at Lorinna before the final haul up Five Mile Rise to its destination.
Court House & Court House Hotel 1888
Early in 1888, two significant buildings were completed in the middle of the Sheffield township, one on either side of Main St. First, the long-awaited weatherboard Court House was built just up the hill from the original police watchhouse on the corner of Main St & Formby St. It was constructed by local builder Henry Bonney of Claude Road for £435. For the past two decades, all court cases had been held in the Sheffield Hotel. But people complained that while the Lord’s prayer says, ‘lead us not into temptation,’ local drunks were tried in the very place their drink was sold. The second new building, directly across Main St from the Court House, was John Mitchell’s wooden two-storey Court House Hotel. Built by Wm Jeffrey, it had 14 rooms with a balcony offering a splendid view of Mt Roland. Ex-constable John C Mitchell was granted his liquor license on 6 Feb 1888. After quitting the police force in 1880, Mitchell acquired various properties in Sheffield before taking a year-long visit to South Africa. Upon returning, he built several cottages to lease.
Upon the completion of Sheffield’s new Court House, it was found that no government funds had been allocated to furnish it. So, at the first court sitting in March 1888, there was this comical situation with plaintiffs and defendants summoned to appear in the new but empty Court House, the jurymen told to attend their old meeting place in the Sheffield Hotel while the magistrate was booked into Mitchell’s new Court House Hotel. Once the Police Commissioner sorted out this debacle, the local constable was seen trotting from house to house borrowing tables and chairs and carrying them on his head towards the empty courthouse. Twenty years later, this Court House was hauled by Rockliff’s traction engine up Main St and relocated next to the present-day Town Hall in High St, where today it forms the rear section of the Centrelink premises.
Town Hall 1888 & Coffee Palace 1889
The pressing need for a public meeting place in Sheffield was met when Charles Coleman opened his ‘town hall’ on Easter Monday night 2 April 1888 with a concert and a ball. Built at 103 Main St, (opposite the Baptist church) by Gideon Robson, the two-storey weatherboard building was 67ft x 25ft with a 12ft stage. Behind the stage on the first floor were two dressing rooms and above them, on the top floor, a large meeting room. The hall also had two galleries, one on each side. Coleman named it Roland Hall after the mountain. It was utilised by locals for all large gatherings, committee and club meetings, even as a roller-skating rink.
Seizing the opportunity to develop the valuable block next door to Roland Hall, Gideon Robson erected a ‘coffee palace’ over the summer of 1888/9. Coffee palaces had become popular alternative to staying in licensed hotels and every town wanted to have one. Built at 105 Main St, this large two-storey weatherboard building had 15 rooms with a front balcony overlooking the street. But Robson over-reached himself and went broke with liabilities of £586. Fortunately, local entrepreneur William Lade bought Robson’s new coffee house along with George Lane’s saddlery business on the corner of Main & Spring St. Lade leased the coffee palace premises to Albert & Agnes Bradshaw who opened a general store on its ground floor and boarding rooms upstairs. Twenty-four years later, on 12 Sept 1912, a spectacular fire started in a back room of the Roland Hall, destroying it together with Chas Coleman’s house on the east-side and Bradshaw’s shop/boarding house on the west-side.
Sheffield Declared a Town
On 19 Aug 1889, Sheffield was declared a town under the recent Towns Board Act and became entitled to its own governing trustees. Twelve candidates stood for the five vacancies on Sheffield’s first Town Board. Those elected were George Padman–30 votes, Joseph Acklin–30, John Coleman–25, Owen Ridley–17, and John Harman–14.
The decade of the 1890s commenced with Sheffield in the peak of the latest mining boom. Storekeeper T J Clerke sold 2,240 shares to form his Australasian Gold Mining Co, whilst Lorinna Prospecting Co sold 4000 shares; both these ventures mining up the Five Mile Rise between Lorinna and Middlesex. The Kentish Prospecting Silver Mining Co sold 22,000 shares, mainly to residents of Sheffield & Latrobe, to reopen the old Mt Claude Mine. Malcolm Campbell’s discovery of alluvial gold at Mount Bell, near Moina, in 1892 had about 100 men flocking there, where they found Tasmania’s largest gold nuggets. One nugget unearthed by Wm Lade’s party worth £100 was lodged in the National Bank in Sheffield.
These euphoric conditions were reflected in Sheffield’s continued growth. In 1890 York, Schmidt & Co added a second storey to the brick building James Bellion had built for Schmidt eight years earlier. When completed, it was rated one of the best retail premises of its kind on the Coast – even today its ornamental frontage remains impressive. The ground floor contained groceries, drapery, ironmongery and fancy goods, whilst on the second floor was the ladies’ showroom where Miss Carr employed seven dressmakers. The Bank of Australasia built their own premises with the manager’s residence at 67 Main St, while across the road at 74 Main St (later Inspiration Hairdressers) George Padman erected a two-storey weatherboard dwelling with a chemist shop front where he managed a branch of Hatton & Laws, Launceston.
The Sheffield Baptist Tabernacle built by Roe Bros, Latrobe, opened 10 May 1891. This wooden 50’x22’x16’ church with galvanised roofing cost around £600. Their benefactor was wealthy pastoralist Wm Gibson of Native Point, Perth. Just a month later, St Barnabas Anglican Church, corner of Main & Spring St, was consecrated by the Bishop of Tasmania on St Barnabas Day, 11 June 1891; the contractors being Piper & Co of Latrobe. On the following Wednesday half-holiday, 200 attended their first baptism service. 3½ months later, the new brick Sheffield Post Office & residence built by George Levy of Devonport for £750 was opened 1 Oct 1891. The postmistress was Miss Grace Coleman and, interestingly, her daily PO opening times were 9-9.45am, 10.15am-1pm, 2-4.30pm, 4.45-5pm, and 7pm-8pm. This building served as the Sheffield Post Office until 1964.
Gideon Robson was determined to build his wife another boarding house. Over 1891/92 he enlarged their existing home at 112 Main St to 12 rooms with a photographer’s studio off one end of the front veranda and a dressmaker at the other end. Behind the house, Robson built a large carpenter’s shop and stable from where he operated as local undertaker. A Salvation Army barracks opened on Sunday 3 Nov 1893 at 145 Main St near the Formby St junction, but in June 1917, wanting to get closer to the centre of town, the barracks were pulled by bullock teams up to 109 Main St, next to the honey factory.
Sheffield Loses its Gloss – 1890s Depression
Sheffield’s golden era of growth began to faulter with the collapse of the Bank of VDL on 4 August 1891. Sheffield didn’t have a branch of the VDL Bank, so locally the depression took a bit more time to bite. As prices collapsed and work dried up, this great 1890s depression caused scores of banks, businesses, and most mines to go bankrupt. The River Don Trading Co was placed into voluntary liquidation until it reorganised its assets and formed a new retail partnership between John Henry, James York & William Shaw. Flour miller Owen Ridley filed for bankruptcy. Gideon Robson was forced, again, to put his new boarding house on the market. Likewise, John Mitchell’s Court House Hotel. Neither building sold, but the well-insured Court House Hotel burnt to the ground in a mysterious fire on 12 Nov 1891. Dr Sydney Smythe of Latrobe was caught with large loans on numerous investment properties. Though he sold some, eventually the Bank of Australasia took possession of his home and remaining properties, including his old Caledonian Hotel premises in Sheffield. This was purchased by John Maddox of Latrobe in 1896, relicensed, and for nearly 90 years run as a popular hotel by three generations of the Maddox family.
Many small farmers and scores of labourers were without work. A Sheffield resident wrote, ‘We have a great number of tramps knocking about here just now. The local police have their hands full, keeping a lively watch on them; some are in jail for misbehaviour.’ The recently formed Sheffield Town Board tried to provide some employment by having footpaths in the town formed and gravelled. But soon young men began leaving for the Coolgardie goldfields while a number of local farmers and tradesmen sailed for NZ, most never to return.
Horror spread throughout Sheffield on 21 Sept 1893 after a triple fatality occurred at the western entrance to the town. Annie Cox, housemaid to the local bakers Richard & Ada Dewis, had their two infant children Lily (2) and Wm (1) in a perambulator, rushing back to Sheffield to avoid being overtaken by a wild storm. With them was 16-year-old Elsie Oliver. Following a wind gust, the limb of a large tree fell across the pram, killing the two infants and Elsie Oliver instantaneously. Though the pram was wrenched out of Annie Cox’s hands, she was unhurt. Her hysterical cries were heard by Henry & Agnes Hope who came to her aid and raised the alarm.
In March 1894, the Sheffield Cemetery Trust finally chose a new 2 ¾ acre cemetery site one mile out of town. This ended more than a decade of complaints against the disgraceful conditions in the High St cemetery. Under the Grave Act, graves should not be less than six feet deep; however, at Sheffield solid rock was sometimes encountered 3ft 6in to 4ft under the surface. During winter burials, coffins often floated in water. Furthermore, because the cemetery was located at the highest part of the town and the town’s drinking water mainly came from wells, many believed, especially along Henry St, that their water supply was tainted with leakage from decaying coffins.
End of the Century
As the depression began to ease, in 1896 James Hope from Deloraine had his brother-in-law Wm Jeffrey build a gigantic three-storey steam roller flour mill on the cross-roads at the western entrance to Sheffield; hence this colossal landmark became known as ‘Hope’s Corner’ and the road leading up into Sheffield as ‘Mill Hill’. In 1896 Wm Jeffrey also erected the Oddfellows Hall, where on opening night the concert and dancing went till 2.30am.
Tasmania was tinder dry and the threat of bush fires extreme before the catastrophic ‘Black Saturday’ fires erupted on 5 Feb 1898. By Sunday evening the most extensive fires ever to occur in the Kentish district were burning on a 20-mile front from Beulah to Staverton. In the following days, further fires ignited at the Promised Land, Barrington, Nook, Newbed, Railton, Sunnyside and Beulah. Whole districts were cut off for days, and scores of houses, sheds, stock, fences, and crops were lost. But this catastrophic event calls for its own story.
In mid-1898 T J Clerke demolished Sheffield’s first split-timber shop and at 60 Main St had J & T Gunn erect a new brick building with a spacious shop downstairs and family residence upstairs. Its history is told in my book Grocery, Grains & Gourmet Meals published in 2011. During the same year, Henry Boutcher built the large two-storey Anglican rectory in what is now Nightingale Ave. In 1899 James York of York, Schmidt & Co had a handsome brick manager’s residence erected on the corner of Main & High St, which was later replaced by Turnbull’s Pharmacy.
By the turn of the century, not one of the many mines opened across Kentish’s back country had achieved any significant results. However, moving into the new century of the 1900s, three of them would. The Shepherd & Murphy site at Moina became one of the largest tin-tungsten-bismuth mines in Tasmania. About a mile away, Bell Mount became the State’s richest alluvial goldfield and, close to Mt Claude, the Round Hill mine exported silver-lead between 1913-1927.
Next time: Hope Family’s Input into Early Sheffield