When Surveyor Dooley laid out the streets of Sheffield, he envisioned the centre of town would develop midway between its eastern boundary (Kermode St) and western boundary (High St). So, commencing on the corner of Formby St and running eastward along Main St, he set aside an 11-acre reserve to be used for the town’s public buildings, e.g. post office, police station, & courthouse.

Original Watchhouse built 1868, Courthouse in 1888

The first watchhouse (police house, lock-up and horse stable) was built in 1868 on this public reserve, where Brian & Pauline Baker live today. Local settlers had called for a resident policeman to be stationed in Sheffield after a worker from the local Brick Works was stabbed with a kitchen knife during a drunken party. With so many straying animals, the police paddock doubled as the public pound. The creek that crosses Main St at this point was called Watchhouse Creek. Interestingly, some time later when a road gang was blasting rock ready to build the first bridge across Watchman’s Creek, they blew a 12lb piece of rock 150ft into the air before it landed in the backyard of the police house and buried itself six inches in the ground. Had it occurred the day before, the policeman’s wife Emily Quinn was doing the washing on that exact spot with her small children playing around her.

The long-awaited courthouse was constructed at the eastern end of this same reserve in 1888 by builder Henry Bonney of Claude Road for £435. Prior to this, all court cases had been held in the original Sheffield Hotel on the corner of Main & High Streets, where the business centre of town had unexpectedly developed. Two local magistrates Robert Manley and John Hope strongly objected to erecting the courthouse down close to Formby St because ‘it was in such an out-of-way place and inconvenient for the public’. But because the land had been previously reserved for public buildings, the government went ahead. This inconvenience lasted 20 years.

Before the Kentish Municipal Council was established on 1 Jan 1908, all six local Road Trusts (Kentish Plains, Tarleton, Sherwood, Railton, Beulah & Wilmot) had been abolished the day before. The Hon John Hope MLC was elected warden and, with his 14 new councillors, appointed Alan D Soutar as council clerk and David Hope as health inspector. Whilst looking for a permanent place to establish their ‘council chambers’ (offices & meeting room), they rented the Oddfellows Hall in Main St. There the council clerk was considerably inconvenienced, having to pack away his ledgers and papers each evening so the hall could be used for Friendly Society meetings and other activities. Eventually, in Sept 1908, an agreement was reached with the government for the Kentish Council to move the weatherboard courthouse from its current remote location up into the centre of Sheffield and re-erect it in the old cemetery reserve, fronting on High St (now 64 High St). Two extra rooms were built on the front of the courthouse to become the new Kentish Council offices. After long delays in getting plans drawn up in Hobart, in April 1909 the tender from F H Haines of Devonport to do this work for £327 was accepted.

1909 Moving the Courthouse to High St.

The courthouse was to be placed in a location that had a 60ft frontage next to it for the building of a town hall whenever one was required. The Hon John Hope agreed it was a splendid site for the new courthouse and council chambers, and alleyed any fears people may have had about building over the graves. He said the nearest grave would be 30ft away.

F H Haines P/L commenced work on Monday 10 May 1909, possibly sub-letting the haulage of the courthouse up Main St into High St to Vernon Rockliff, whose traction engine was used locally to move similar buildings. The new council chambers were first occupied on Wed 28 July 1909 after the furniture and books had been transferred from the Oddfellows’ Hall. One office was for the warden, the other one – fitted with a counter – was for the council clerk and health inspector. Folding doors gave access into the old courthouse, which had already been used for magisterial purposes for the last 23 years at the other end of town. The first monthly meeting of the Kentish Council in the courthouse was held on August 10th and the first court sitting shortly afterwards.

With the courthouse relocated to High St and local Constable Pemberton moved to the new police house at 19 Henry St, the pressure was on for the government to have the old dilapidated police cells behind the original watchhouse repaired and also moved into town. It was said that ‘these 40-year-old cells were not fit to detain a human being for any length of time, despite its present occupant having been held there for 8 days pending his court appearance’. In an earlier incident, a prisoner had escaped from these cells whilst the Sheffield policeman was preparing to escort him by coach to Launceston. A month later, he still hadn’t been recaptured.

F H Haines P/L, again, won the contract for renovating these old cells and installing the most up-to-date means of ventilation. In Nov 1909, the cells were loaded onto a wooden sledge, hauled by bullocks up Main St and relocated at the rear of Senior Constable Pemberton’s police house in Henry Street.

When the impressive 2-storey brick Sheffield Town Hall was opened in August 1914 on the northside of the weatherboard courthouse, it contained a much larger purpose-built council chambers with two offices downstairs and special council meeting rooms upstairs. Once the council offices moved into the town hall, the Sheffield Police Station was free to occupy the front of the courthouse where it remained for the next 84 years.

Unusual Court Cases

In 1902 W C Kelly, licensee of the Sheffield Hotel, was charged with refusing accommodation to Lang Me, a Chinese gardener from Devonport. The Chinaman complained to Sergeant Carr that the hotel proprietor told him his ‘rooms were full and to go back to Devonport’, but shortly afterwards had given accommodation to another traveller. Kelly was fined 5s with witness costs of 7s 8d. Sitting on the bench, John Hope JP said this was ‘the first time a case of this kind had come before the court.’ Chas Billing was charged in April 1905 with failing to hand over to the police, within 48 hours, a sovereign he had recently found. He was fined 5s with costs £1/4s/6d and ordered to return the sovereign to its deprived owner at once. In the same court, a young woman charged a local man for failing to support their illegitimate child. He was ordered to pay her 7s 6d per week including expenses incurred to-date, amounting to £21 3s. John Breheney, licensee of the Sheffield Hotel, was charged with serving an underage minor with alcohol. Trooper House said he was in the hotel on the night of 12 Dec 1914 and heard young Cecil Tyler ask for a glass of whiskey. After Mrs Breheney served him a drink, the policeman charged both the proprietor and the youth. But in court, Tyler pleaded not guilty, saying what he received was not whisky, but ‘sarsaparilla and lemonade.’ In the absence of corroborative evidence, the case was dismissed. Two young men were brought before the Court on 26 April 1919 charged with ‘being under the influence of billiards’. The prosecutor declared that both the young men were confirmed billiard players and a menace to the morals of the community. Pressed by the Bench, the policeman admitted that both men were returned soldiers and had fought for their country, but ‘That fact,’ he said, ‘did not mitigate the enormity of their crime.’ One young man pleaded guilty, and the other young offender denied the charge. Cross-examined, he admitted having played Ludo and Snakes & Ladders, but never billiards. He was cautioned by the Bench and released.

Police Cell & Morgue

Behind the courthouse were a horse stable, woodshed, smelly public dunnies and a solid square police cell. The latter served its purpose well until Sunday night 3 July 1924 when its prisoner escaped. The previous night, Earl Gibson (23) from Latrobe had been locked up for being drunk and disorderly in Sheffield. During Sunday night some local youths gathered outside his cell, smashed off the padlock with an axe, pulled back the bolt and disappeared. Gibson said he remained in his cell for about ten minutes, then pushed the door open and ran for his life, travelling across country to his home in Latrobe, then onto Devonport where he was recaptured aboard the SS Oonah just before it sailed for Melbourne.

In November 1926, Kentish Council discussed the need for a morgue. All agreed they could no longer expect the local hotelkeepers to provide a room to keep corpses and do post-mortems. Wm Hennessey won a contract to build a windowless morgue of corrugated iron adjoining the wooden police cell. Inside, a large table was positioned in the centre surrounded by benchtops against the walls – all covered with flat galvanized iron sheeting. As Sheffield was the centre of an extensive farming, mining and mountaineering district, the morgue was regularly used for road, farming, shooting and mining fatalities, victims of murder, or Cradle Mt tragedies such as snakebites, falling from rocks, getting frozen to death. In May 1932, Weindorfer’s post-mortem was conducted there after Constable Nibbs and Dr Firth returned to Sheffield with his stiff body wrapped in a sheet and tied along the running board of the doctor’s new Buick car. Post-mortem examinations were usually done by local doctors after hours. On windy nights, with the tall fir trees sighing outside and the corrugated iron rattling around the morgue, drunks placed in the police lockup overnight were often told to behave themselves or the corpse lying through the wall may pay them a visit.

Closure of the Courthouse

The Kentish Council approved plans in Aug 1954 for a new, modern police office. C D Cole of Latrobe won the contract, costing £3212. The archaic police station, with its ornate front veranda, which had stood for the last 40 years, six yards back from a picket front-fence that bordered High St, were all demolished. In its place was erected a cement brick building, brought forward to align with High St, and harmonize with the other municipal buildings in High St. It contained the new police office, witnesses’ room and interrogation room. ­­­­

During the 1970s, as the various magistrates court systems (petty sessions, licensing, civil, criminal, coroner’s, bankruptcy, family court, etc.) were regionalised and brought under the Devonport and Launceston jurisdictions, we cannot be sure when the last court was conducted at Sheffield. But other uses were soon found for the empty courthouse. In 1978, when the Kentish unit of the State Emergency Service was first formed with Roy Corbel as co-ordinator, the old courthouse was used prior to them getting their own building on the corner of Albert & Henry streets.

After 1982, the old courthouse became the Kentish Band Room under the baton of School Principal Tom Goninon. A government grant enabled the purchase of musical instruments to form the Kentish Community Band. Later a second junior band was formed, conducted by Vern Keep. The highlight of the Kentish Community Band was their trip to the mainland to perform at a national workshop at the Dallas Brooks Hall in Melbourne. After Tom Goninon moved to another school, the next music teacher was not interested and the band gradually disintegrated.

1998 Nov Opening of the Service Tasmania Shop

In May 1997, after nearly 90 years at 64 High St, the Sheffield Police Station moved to its new location in the old forestry offices at 37 Main St on the corner of Duff Drive. This allowed the old police offices to be renovated and open as the new Service Tasmania Shop on 12 Nov 1998. This put Sheffield among the earliest rural towns in Tasmania to obtain one of Australia’s first technology-driven one-stop shops offering country residents the opportunity to locally transact government business. Two hundred different services became available, providing easier access to most state government departments, including several local and Commonwealth government agencies. Services included paying government bills, registering births, deaths and relationships, motor vehicles and boats, obtaining licenses, grants and permits, and notifying changes of address. The early staff appointed were Don Thwaites, Debbie Baldock and Teresa Richardson, who, after 23 years, is still there.

Behind the old courthouse, all the adjacent buildings – including the police cell and morgue – have since been removed and only a flat concrete slab remains. The courthouse has continued as an excellent utility room, being used for workshops, voting booths, boy scouts and daffodil shows. In Oct 2017 it became the indoor training facility for the Kentish Rowing Club, the first new rowing club formed in Tasmania in 30 years. Two months earlier, 80 people had gathered in the Sheffield Hotel to form this local rowing club, where Craig Boutcher was elected president and received three second-hand single sculls from Rowing Tasmania. In Apr 2022, Jessica Welch (18) became the first rower from Kentish Rowing Club to win medals at the Australian Rowing Championships. She won bronze medals in the under 19 quadruple and the open women’s 500m races. Head coach of Kentish Rowing Graham Scattergood said Jessica’s medals were a sign of more to come from the Kentish Rowing Club.

Next Time: (84) Sheffield’s Town Hall & Council Offices