During the 1820s, the Best family lived an antipodean version of their Irish agricultural life. Agricultural activities dominated their lives. By 1823, their livelihood revolved around sheep flocks and the sale of Thomas Wells’ meat and grain that they and others had produced for him. Sales occurred mainly at the Hobart Town Market. Under the ‘thirds’ rule, John had been able to develop his own flock of sheep. He may have found the time to grow his own wheat and barley at Hollow Tree and he had a garden of vegetables and fruit trees for family consumption. But to survive, John would almost certainly have had to obtain a lot of occasional work.
The Hollow Tree district was gradually growing, as new settlers received land grants and brought with them their families and received assigned convicts as domestic servants or labourers. The resident Irish ticket of leave convicts maintained a social and commercial network, many developing bonds that remained strong well after their conditional pardons were issued. That network did not exclude English convicts. In fact, it seemed to be a network that evolved along certain commonalities such as a convict past, perhaps a shared transport ship but especially the poverty that afflicted those in and coming out of the convict system. That poverty provide the driver for mutual support. Irish, English, Welsh and Scottish convicts socialised freely, bartered goods and services, loaned goods on trust and so developed common bonds that were perhaps less likely in their homelands.
Sheep stealing was rampant in Van Diemen’s Land during the 1820s. Thomas Wells had his share of troubles in the early part of the decade. In February 1822, Robert Oldham stole 150 of Well’s sheep. Shepherds John Bell (Minerva) and Bryan Carroll (Admiral Cockburn) came under scrutiny. It seems Bell was never under any suspicion. Carroll, on the other hand, was found guilty of gross neglect of duty by absconding, which created the opportunity for Oldham to steal the sheep. Carroll later received 50 lashes. Oldham was caught, tried, sentenced to death and subsequently hanged on the 14th of April 1823. Then on the night of 22 April 1823, Mr Wells had 200 sheep stolen (largely breeding ewes and 9 merinos specially imported). Thomas Keane and Thomas Butler were later charged and tried in July 1824. Keane was found guilty and a gang of sheep stealers exposed as a result of the investigations. Wells recovered some of his sheep but incurred search costs of about 500 pounds. Keane appears to have been hanged, the usual fate of sheep stealers at that time. As a shepherd, John Best had to be alert to ensure sheep under his oversight were at all times accounted for.
But all through the 1820s, the Best family would have lived with the fear of attack by natives. The newspapers of the time reported incidents, clashes, attacks, many fatal, on the slowly increasing numbers of British people settling the New Country. The newspapers also reveal why the attacks by the natives became more frequent and violent. It became increasingly common during the 1820s for groups of natives to steal food and other provisions from the huts of settlers. These incidents were sometimes defused by diplomacy, but as the decade wore on, the Field Police and/or the Military Police would pursue the natives to drive them away from the locality. The natives, on being pushed into another district, found themselves again in need of food. Few of their traditional grounds remained available to freely find natural food sources. So they raided the settler’s huts, often stealing food, sometimes burning the huts. Settlers were sometimes killed. The Police would chase after them and kill any they could, but definitely drive them off. The survivors would start the same process again – need food – find settler’s huts – take food – kill settler if settler stands in the way – run from pursuers – start process over again in another valley. Displacement from their land and denial of access to traditional hunting and foraging grounds understandably fomented a deep hatred of the white people among the natives. And so the Black War played out. It was in this environment that the Best children grew up.
As was common, the children became workers at an early age; the boys probably helped their father with agricultural pursuits and Ellen probably helped her mother with domestic and community activities.
In September 1827, Patrick Montgomery (Minerva) died at age 52, only five years after his wife (Ann) and his children had arrived from Ireland as part of the group that included Mary Best, Bridget White, Mary Bennett and their respective children.
During the late 1820s, Ellen Best met John Doran, 5 years her senior and also of Irish descent. Doran had a property he called ‘Sweetwater’, 5 miles on the Hobart side of New Norfolk. Towards the end of the 1820’s they probably became betrothed. Also, Michael, John and Mary’s eldest son, became betrothed to one of Bryan and Mary Bennett's daughters, although it's unclear which daughter. Possibly Bridget, as she was the eldest and only four years younger than Michael, but it could also have been Ann (six years younger than Michael).
During the 1820s, the Best’s received new neighbours. Firstly, Joseph Bradbury, his mother Sarah and his sister, also Sarah, separately acquired several blocks bordering John’s 55 acres. The Bradbury family had arrived in Hobart on 8 November 1822 per brig Minerva. It’s unclear when they settled at Hollow Tree, although an 1824 map engraving by Charles Thomson, based on a survey by Thomas Scott, Assistant Surveyor General, showed the name Bradbury at the location of Joseph’s 2,000 acre block at Hollow Tree. The Byrne family were also living adjacent to the Best property on a 60 acre block originally granted to James Holland. It’s unclear when the Byrne’s took up residence. James Byrne appears to have received his 60 acres as a grant (originally James Holland’s grant) and he purchased an additional 50 acres to enlarge his holding following a Crown Land sale held in July 1828. In 1829, Henry Boden Torlesse acquired a large block (2,560 acres) between the Best’s block and the McCarthy’s block, calling his land 'Rathmore', however he and his wife lived at nearby 'Montacute', managing that property for William Langdon until his arrival from England (in 1834). Torlesse probably placed an overseer to manage his stock on Rathmore property and only a stock keeper’s hut would have been built on it until Torlesse and family took up residence several years later.
By 1827, Michael Best, aged about 20 – had his own block of land, although he continued to live with his family at Hollow Tree. He must have had enough sheep by 1827 to buy the 100 acre block in Cockatoo Valley. The land, however, was incredibly stony with a skeletal soil not suitable to much more than light grazing by sheep. Michael built a hut at Cockatoo Valley Creek.
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