Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Story of John Best - Part 4

John Best’s first night on land for half a year must have been a bit strange for him. If you’ve ever spent weeks aboard a ship on the open ocean, you’ll know that your first night’s sleep on land is odd, because you compensate for wave motion even though there is no motion. You know why there's no wave motion, but your senses just expect there to be - it seems weird!

When dawn broke on that cold June morning in 1818, John and his fellow convicts would have been introduced to the farm workings immediately. They would have been told that every Sunday was muster, a day they had to clean up for – if they were not presentable, severe punishment could be meted out by the authorities. Muster often coincided with attending church. John and his fellow convicts were all Catholics and the only Catholic church at that time was in Hobart town. Initially, muster was likely to have been in the tiny village of Newtown. On occasions, the convicts may have been allowed to attend their church in Hobart.

On the 4th of August 1818, Lesley Ferguson was absent from muster. For this misdemeanour, he was given one week on the government gang. In essence, he was sentenced to a week of physical labour in the government’s service. Perhaps constructing a road, or clearing rubbish in Hobart Town. Ferguson apparently got his back up at being treated in such manner. A short while after his release from the government gang, he was caught entering into the parlour of a Captain Barclay with felonious intent (i.e. break and enter). He was sentenced to receive 50 lashes and labour in irons for 1 month. Thomas Wells must surely have returned Ferguson to the government, wishing nothing further to do with him. Ferguson’s convict record shows that he continued a life of misbehaviour and crime until his record stops at 1829. He was still a young man, so perhaps he died.

For the rest of 1818, John Best and his fellow convicts (John Bell and George White) helped operate the Newtown farm for Messrs Wells and Brodribb. The farm grew grain and carried dairy cattle. Perhaps John was involved in sowing wheat on the farm.

In October 1818, the local newspaper reported “On Friendly Farms in this neighbourhood, ninety springs or stalks were counted and ascertained to proceed from one grain of wheat; and will doubtless produce ninety full ears. The ground in question was sown with five pecks of seed to the acre, and has a most abundant promise.” The same month, Wells and Brodribb took out a public notice in the paper warning people to cease moving stock through, or allowing their stock to stray on, Friendly Farms land. The notice advised that the new main road recently constructed (largely by convicts off the Lady Castlereagh and the Minerva) was to be used. The several older tracks on Friendly Farms would be obstructed by felling timber over them. No doubt John and company were put to work on this task!

On the 7th of January 1819, all male convicts in the Hobart area were issued with new clothing (slops), consisting of ... “One Duck or Linen Frock, One Linen Shirt, One Pair of Duck Trowsers, and One Pair of Shoes.” Six months between changes of clothes was pretty good at that time for Van Diemen’s Land – many of the earlier convicts, settlers and even military men had resorted to making their own garments from kangaroo furs!

Also, in 1819, Thomas Wells acquired more land. He was granted a large estate upstream from New Norfolk, about 3.5 km north of present day Gretna. Wells called this property ‘Allenvale’.  I suspect Wells then despatched John Best, John Bell and George White at different times, or in pairs, to move his growing flock of sheep from Friendly Farms to Allenvale and surrounds. This would have been scary work for the shepherds, as the country at the back of New Norfolk had been the hiding place of various convicts turned rogue, known then as ‘banditti’. Wells would have provided the men with a gun and instructions to build themselves a hut, or huts, so they could stay on the Allenvale land and oversee the flock. 

I believe that a hut was built at Hollow Tree, about 12 km north of Allenvale, in which John Best was based. I believe this because, later, Thomas Wells purchased a 55 acre block of land from a Mr John Barnes at Hollow Tree - title to that block later passed from Wells to .... John Best (see below).

A notice in the press published many years later (1841) shows that John Best acquired a block of land from his 'master' Thomas Wells.
Another hut may have built west of, but closer to, Allen Vale, in which George White was based. And perhaps John Bell was based in another hut – possibly north-east of Allen Vale. The men used these huts as a base/shelter while overseeing the flocks. This was only a temporary arrangement – at first.
In mid-September 1819, Thomas Wells sought another convict to help work his farms.  He was allocated Bryant (or Brian) Carroll, who had arrived in Hobart on the Admiral Cockburn on 16 September 1819. This would certainly have allowed Wells to send shepherds to the Allenvale district in pairs.

The 1819 annual muster recorded that John Best had ‘no offences’ during 1818 or 1819. John was a convict who kept out of trouble.

Flocks of sheep had arrived to graze on the grassed valleys of Allenvale and environs. The indigenous people were faced with a new competitor using their resources. For generations, the Big River (Lairmairrener) people had periodically burnt the valleys to promote grass growth and eliminate trees. As a result, the valley grasslands would feed greater numbers of kangaroos, wallabies and bird life. The valleys were literally larders! Another way of looking at is - the valleys were indigenous farms, it’s just that they didn’t look, nor work, like a British farm. The first white men to arrive in the area had been the transient banditti. With them came a reign of terror and abuse.  But some British residents of the grassy woodlands, like Edward White who lived near the Great Western Tiers for three years, were not armed. Settlers taking up land grants after 1818 also recorded peaceful exchanges in their journals and letters. James Boyce describes this period immediately before 1820 as a time when, despite sporadic violence, "... access to Aboriginal hunting grounds had been achieved without outright conquest.  This was a period of uneasy co-existence ...".

But it was inevitable that the Big River people would come into conflict with the shepherds, stock men and landowners. In December of 1819, James Triffitt (senior) lost 300 of his flock of 1,000 sheep; the 300 had been beaten to death at the hands of the Big River people on west bank of Clyde River (Mr Triffitt was residing in New Norfolk at the time and the sheep were possibly left untended by their shepherds).

Go forward to read The Story of John Best - Part 5

Go back to read The Story of John Best - Part 3

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