The early 1840s was one of the most volatile periods in the history of Van Diemen’s Land. A severe economic depression developed in 1840 that lasted until 1845. As this depression deepened, banks failed, merchants and properties owners went broke and most colonists were close to insolvency. Every Government department was forced to cut spending and reduce employees. At the same time the Governor Sir John Franklin was struggling with greatly increasing convict arrivals and the introduction of the very unpopular Probation System. This new system emptied the jails of prisoners and had them distributed around the island to live in scores of large regional barracks so that they could work on building roads and bridges.
These conflicting developments created a very negative press critical of the Government policy and generally promoting contempt for authority. Within most government departments this resulted in growing incompetence, antagonism and jealousy. It became so bad that the Colonial Secretary in London was forced to the dismiss Governor Sir John Franklin in 1843 and his successor Sir Eardley-Wilmot in 1846.
Similar instability existed within the Van Diemen’s Land Company located on the North West Coast. Because manager Edward Curr couldn’t make the Company profitable and hadn’t obeyed all orders, in December 1840 the Company’s directors in London sent him 12 months’ notice of dismissal, while they procured and sent out a new manager. His replacement was James Gibson who arrived in December 1841 with strict orders to reverse many of Curr’s policies, especially to curb his large expenditure on livestock.
One of the first things the new manager James Gibson did after assessing the local situation, was to visit Hobart in the autumn of 1842 and re-negotiate some decisions with the Government. One of Gibson’s cost cutting measures was to reverse Curr’s earlier decision to jointly fund with the Government Surveyor Kentish’s search for a new road to Emu Bay. Instead of depending on breeding cattle and sheep, Gibson’s new approach for the VDL Co was to subdivide its vast land holdings into scores of small farmlets and lease or sell them to tenants.
To do this Gibson asked Power for Government surveyors to come and subdivide the Company’s land both around Emu Bay and Circular Head. These new agreements were made in Hobart in the winter of 1842, while Kentish’s men were enduring the harsh cold and wet condition in the area that now bears his name.
They led directly to the sudden termination of Kentish’s exploration work. So, upon sending in his report of the discovery of August Plains, instead of receiving the expected praise and accolades from the Surveyor General, Kentish gets blunt word that his surveying work was suddenly suspended and he was reassigned to Emu Bay. Rather bewildered Kentish’s convict party pack up their survey camp and return to Launceston.
Six months surveying at Emu Bay (Sep 1842 – Mar 1843)
On 15 Sept 1842 surveyors Nathaniel Kentish and James Sprent, each with several convict assistants sailed aboard 108-ton schooner Eagle from Launceston to Emu Bay. Kentish and his men disembarked at Burnie, while Sprent with his helpers continued to Circular Head. Both surveyors had been reassigned to subdivide some VDL Co land off into small farmlets for leasing or sale. Kentish undertook the survey work around Emu Bay district including the township of Burnie, where he was soon in dispute with the new VDL Co manager James Gibson. When Kentish offered to name some landmarks in his honour, James Gibson rebuffed Kentish by replying: “I have a very great objection to anything bearing my name”.
Early in February1843 Nathaniel Kentish gets word at Emu Bay that his wife Anna Maria & their three children Emilia (10), Marie (9) and Henry (7) had arrived in Hobart on 1st February from London aboard the 388-ton Glenbervie. This was an enormous relief to Kentish as his family had been absent for four years and for the last five months, he had been very anxious over their whereabouts, not having received any confirmation that they had set sail from England. However, in anticipation of their returning, the surveyor had erected a good-sized stone house in Burnie, to which he now brought them to live.
While down in Hobart welcoming his family, Kentish arranged for a revised version of his earlier publication on Abolition of Capital Punishment to be printed and sent to several local newspapers on the island. It is a very long essay including parts written in verse. This is strange subject for Kentish to keep promoting, as it was upon his identification of two of the four Irish convicts who assailed him on the Bathurst Road that they were executed. Not every newspaper published it, but the editor of the Launceston Advertiser wrote:
“Mr Kentish has given a sufficiently detailed account of himself in the title page to prevent any possibility of him being mistaken for any other individual. But not satisfied with that… the first sixteen pages are filled with a detailed account of the origin and progress of his essay, in which the personal pronoun I, is far too conspicuous for a modest essayist.”
Kentish also prepared a long petition against capital punishment addressed to Queen Victoria and left it in Launceston to be signed by local residents. Many months later when he returned from his survey work, it had only 3 signatures.
Kentish Resumes His Road Exploration- 1843-1845
Having completed his six months subdivision work around Emu Bay, Surveyor General Power ordered Kentish to reassemble his work party and resume exploring the route to Emu Bay. Presumably the Government now bearing the entire expense. One group of convicts coming from the Probation Camp through the bush to join the explorer, became lost for five days, the last three without food. They became so desperately hungry, one convict Edward M’Ginley even tried to boil up his leather prison cap and eat it. Meanwhile Kentish and the rest of his party, were searching the dense forest firing off guns in a quest to find them. Finally, the lost convicts succeeded in relocating Kentish’s marked line and arrived utterly exhausted. Again, Kentish had Lukin Boyes as his assistant and with over a dozen convicts, they resumed exploring westward, this time commencing from the Forth River crossing he had selected close to the present Paloona Dam.
Forth River to Emu Bay (March 1843-Oct 1844)
While working between the Forth-Leven Rivers, Kentish landed his supplies a couple miles up the Forth River at the farm of James Fenton who had become first settler there three years earlier. Kentish was quick to give Fenton a book of his poems, about which Fenton wrote:
“Kentish was a visionary who was unfortunately misunderstood by the common race of mortal men.”
Fenton relates how on one occasion some of his convicts had to carry a small wooden case containing bottles of rum inland to the Kentish’s camp. Next day they met the surveyor with bloodshot eyes, telling unconvincingly that the case had somehow slipped to the ground and all the bottles were broken.
During the last section of his exploration work between the Leven River and Emu Bay, Kentish used a government whale boat to move his men, equipment and supplies along the coast. Several times in tremendous seas it was swamped. Once he received a stunning blow to his head from an oar and was fortunate to escape with his life. He named that place ‘Preservation Bay’. On another occasion, they lost all their supplies and their boat so severely damaged, they had great difficulty rowing it on to Emu Bay for repairs. At the Blythe River, they tried towing it, but the whale boat soon became water-logged and ultimately broke up.
By the end of February 1844, Kentish completed his preliminary work of selecting and pegging out the entire route to Emu Bay, even though it crossed several significant rivers and creeks. From the Forth River, it climbed up to Kindred, passed over to North Motton, before reaching the wide Leven River at its first narrowing, three miles in from the Coast.
Kentish placed flags here on each side of the river realizing a punt would be needed until a bridge could be built. From the Leven River his pegged route passed over the northern end of the Dial Range, reaching the coastline for the first time at the mouth of the Blythe River which he crossed along with the Emu River, at their entrance bars.
With the Western road now completely surveyed right through, it was now time to begin clearing the marked route into a suitable walking or bridle track. Lukin Boyes with his convicts began at the Emu Bay end and worked eastward, while Kentish with his convicts returned to the Mersey River to work westward. Kentish now placed markers every mile along the route indicating the distance from Launceston.