Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Story of John Best – Part 6

[updated 2 June 2016]

28th of March 1822 – families were reunited on the Hobart shore!

The Best, White, Bennett and Montgomery families. 22 individuals in all. Children of Ireland. Van Diemonians now. George White was recovered but carrying scars on his back, remnants of 50 lashes meted out for stealing 2 sheep 7 months earlier. But they would have been a happy band as they exchanged farewells with the Montgomery family. Patrick Montgomery had been assigned to Mr Peters on his arrival in 1818, Peters lived close to Hobart and so Patrick's family stayed in the town. But for the others came the loading of the new arrivals’ small belongings onto the bullock-drawn carts. And then the long haul out of town by the dirt track. Much news would have been exchanged on the long, slow journey to Mr Wells’ farm at Newtown. Perhaps a first night stopover there. Then on to New Norfolk, where the Bennett family moved off towards Brighton. The White and Best families kept travelling further west, to the vicinity of Allenvale, where the White family bade farewell. And then north-west to Hollow Tree for the Best family.

At Hollow Tree, a family may have awaited the Bests arrival: Patrick and Mary McCarthy and their children John (age 4), James (age 3) and Mary (age 1). With the arrival of John’s family, Hollow Tree could boast at least two families of Irish origin. The McCarthy’s had settled near Hollow Tree some time shortly before John had arrived as Mr Wells’ shepherd. Patrick had received a 50 acre grant of land near Hollow Tree.  The McCarthy's had spent a number of years at New Norfolk after Patrick received his conditional pardon, but apparently relocated to Hollow Tree around 1820.

John Best would probably have welcomed his family into a bush style hut common at the time. Perhaps built with help from Patrick McCarthy, it would have been constructed of logs and perhaps roofed with turf. Perhaps surrounded by a fire wood pile, a fenced vegetable garden and the signs of a shepherd’s work, such as old wool shearings and a dog or two. What did the family make of this, I wonder? And the sheer distance from other settlements? I suspect Mary Best was more than a little anxious about their future in such a remote spot.

The natives had not caused any trouble to the few settlers of the district and there was an abundance of high-protein food. By 1820, mutton had become the dominant meat for British people in VDL, by virtue of its abundance. As James Boyce explains in Van Diemen’s Land ‘Virtually unlimited mutton became a right of workers, convict and free, in the grassy woodlands until well into the 1830s.’ In 1822, there was generally little fencing of grazing lands except for stock holding yards, so the land was available for herding as well as game hunting. So activities in 1822 at Hollow Tree for the Best family would have concentrated around establishing the basis for their subsistence. 

Over the next year, a ‘mini-rush’ of new arrivals occurred. On the 6th of August 1822, James Byrne (an Irish convict who had escaped from Port Jackson, only to be discovered and detained in Hobart) and Eleanor Simpkin (an English convict) were married at St David's Church, Hobart, by the Rev R. Knopwood. Mr and Mrs Byrne and their four-year old illegitimate son (James) settled at Hollow Tree next door to the Best family.  I don’t exactly know when that occurred, but they were there during the 1820s. They are even shown on an early land map as living on land at Hollow Tree without authority(as ‘Burn’ not ‘Byrne’)! I suspect the Byrnes had been given poor land survey information and settled slightly away from the block they were entitled to occupy.

Andrew Downie (a free settler from Scotland) arrived in Hobart per the Skelton. He immediately took up the job of Head Shepherd for Thomas Wells at Allenvale and presumably became John Best’s boss! John Bell apparently also remained as a head shepherd, as Bell himself later wrote that he was head shepherd from 1819 to 1824.  And in January 1823, John Sherwin and his family (English free settlers) arrived in Hobart and took up a grant of land on the River Clyde (Sherwood) near present day Bothwell. Nearby, John Riseley and his wife (English settlers) had settled on land just westward of present-day Hamilton (Kimbolton Park) during 1821.

On the 27th of January 1823, John Best purchased, from Thomas Wells, the 55 acre block at Hollow Tree on which he and his family had been living. This is quite remarkable, as convicts were supposedly not able to purchase land in their own right until they had received their conditional pardon. John had not received his pardon, yet he was able to pay 40 wether lambs to Mr Wells to buy the 55 acres (approximately). To me, this shows the intent by Wells (probably influenced by similar approach of Lt Governor Sorrell) to rehabilitate worthy convicts. I also think that John Best had rapidly become simply a working man rather than a convict in the eyes of his new community. In any event, on 27 January 1823, Andrew Downie, on behalf of Thomas Wells, issued John a receipt documenting the exchange of the land at Hollow Tree for 40 lambs.

The 1823 muster shows that Thomas Wells now had 28 assigned men in his service, including Best, White and now also Bryan Bennett. By June 1823, Mary Best and the children had been in Van Diemen’s Land for a year. When not working as a shepherd, John busied himself with improving his 55 acre block. He added brush fencing around one paddock, put in a ditch to improve drainage toward the Dew Rivulet and he built a stone house. We know this because John Sherwin later (1842) mentioned this when providing John with a written deposition necessary when John had to renew his land claim. Interestingly, there are no signs of buildings on the block of land today except for a pile of stones that may be the remains of the Best home. And this pile of stones lies exactly where the early maps suggest the home may have stood.

John Best's block (still reflecting John Barnes' name, even though Barnes sold it to Wells shortly after receiving it as a grant). James Holland's block is the one James and Ellen Byrne acquired during the 1820s. 

By December 1823, Thomas Wells was in deep financial trouble. Creditors appointed trustees to receive claims against his' estate and Thomas Wells was placed into debtors’ gaol (i.e. he was put in Hobart Gaol for going bankrupt). Despite this, Best, Bennett, White and the other assigned men continued their work under the general guidance of Andrew Downie, Thomas Wells (from his prison cell) and perhaps Mrs Wells. Joint efforts began to help Wells trade his way back to freedom.  However, the men and their families were probably forced to become more self-reliant. John Best had his ticket of leave, so he was probably viewed more like a freelance worker than a convict. John was able to take on work from others, subject to Mr Wells’ permission – I suspect a ‘global approval’ from Mr Wells to take on additional work may have informally applied for some time already.

In late 1823 or early 1824, John’s neighbours – Patrick and Mary McCarthy – had a child; a girl they called Eleanor (or mostly just Ellen). They travelled to the Roman Catholic Church in Hobart town for a baptism ceremony on 23 March 1824, where John Best is recorded as being Ellen’s ‘sponsoribus’ (godparent). Tragically, later in 1824, Patrick McCarthy was speared by a native when he, Mary and their infant child were returning home through the bush near Hollow Tree. Mary escaped with baby Ellen in her arms. And so began the troubled times now referred to as the Black War.

Go forward to read The Story of John Best - Part 7

Go back to read The Story of John Best - Part 5.


  1. Thanks for gathering and posting the 'Best' information :) I had heard much of the history but it was good to see it in an organised and clear format, and my children can check out their family family origins. J Best

    1. My pleasure. There's still more of John Best's story to tell; I must get motivated and publish what I've been able to cobble together!



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...