Highfield by Hellyer, 1831.
(VDL Co. records, Archives Office of Tasmania)
A small band of Van Diemen's Land Company personnel arrived at Circular Head in October 1826 aboard the Tranmere, together with livestock, supplies and equipment. They were the first Europeans to attempt to settle the rugged and remote north-west corner of Tasmania.
The Van Diemen's Land Company had been formed two years previously by a group of London-based businessmen. Their proposal was to establish a successful wool growing venture on the island to supply the needs of the British textile industry.
The company was granted royal permission to select 250 000 acres in the unexplored territory of the far north-west. Circular Head appeared to be the most promising place for the new settlement. In June 1826 Adey, superintendent of company farms, wrote:
Here, instead of the dense unbroken forest further east were tracts of... 200 to 500 acres of clear and grassy lands and hills not so heavily timbered.
There was also a good harbour and plenty of fresh water.
Living conditions were primitive at first. Edward Curr, the chief agent, reported:
The cottages of the married people are built of turf and shingled; that of the unmarried men is temporarily constructed of some of the deals which came out in the 'Tranmere' and shingled. Five huts have been built of turf and thatched for the prisoners.
Stables and a blacksmith's shop had also been erected. All the buildings were collected around the store (which was located near the corner of Church and Pearse Streets in modern Stanley). Curr at this stage was based in Hobart, with Adey left in charge of the fledgling settlement. Poor conditions incited unrest amongst both the convict and free workers.
The Company's Grant
Highfield & Chapel (Eye in the Sky)
The small encampment at Circular Head became the base for further exploration. Company surveyors Hellyer, Fossey and Lorymer set out in search of other suitable tracts of land to include in the company's grant. They were bitterly disappointed with the impenetrable forest and rugged terrain which they encountered. Whilst the Hampshire Hills showed some initial promise and for a short time was the main focus of the company's activities, it too proved discouraging. An agreement was finally reached in the mid-1830s for the company to take up its grant in six separate blocks.
Disputes with the colonial government over the boundaries of the grant, the lack of suitable land for sheep grazing, and labour difficulties all beset the company from the very beginning. Other settlers also resented special privileges being bestowed on a British company. The press in 1831 condemned the government for allowing the company 'monopoly of so large a portion of the finest part of the island, and some two or three hundred assigned servants'.
In the face of all these hardships some progress was made. Land was gradually cleared and cultivated, farm buildings erected and roads constructed at the various company establishments. In 1831 it was decided that Circular Head would become the headquarters for the company's operations. Curr made plans for a more substantial homestead for himself and his family. The new Highfield was completed in 1835 and the gardens laid out in a manner befitting a gentleman's residence.
Labour and production
'The Lawn Front, Highfield,
Circular Head' by Hellyer, 1832
(VDL Co. records, Archives Office of Tasmania)
Forty-five men, eleven women and twenty-five children were living at Circular Head in 1832. Indentured labourers brought out from Britain and assigned convicts made up the bulk of the company's workforce. The lure of higher wages elsewhere in the colony caused many indentured workers to abscond or nullify their contracts. Such occurrences prompted Curr to claim 'we owe everything we are and have to convict labour'. With the withdrawal of assigned convicts in the 1840s the company turned its attention to attracting tenant farmers to the property.
As a major wool producer the Van Diemen's Land Company was a failure. Between 1829 and 1852 no more than £20 000 was gained from this pursuit. The breeding of stud horses, grazing of cattle and creation of a deer park did little to alleviate the company's financial woes. English shareholders had lost heavily. Curr was dismissed in 1842 and replaced by James Gibson. The Directors in London decided to sell or lease much of the company's holdings. The first sale of blocks in the company township of Stanley occurred in the late 1840s.
In 1856 Highfield was leased to Dr William Story, and shortly after to Frederick Ford. The company's headquarters were transferred to Burnie. The Ford family purchased the Highfield property in 1914. Since then it has had several owners. In 1982 Highfield was acquired by the State Government and is now administered as an Historic Site.
Conflict with the Aborigines
Sealers living on offshore islands were the first Europeans to invade the territory of the Parpeloihener and Pennemukeer peoples of the far north-west. They competed with the Aborigines for resources such as muttonbirds, seals, and shellfish, and forcibly abducted their women.
The remote pastoral settlements of the Van Diemen's Land Co. became the scenes of bitter and bloody battles from the 1820s to 1840s. Officially the company's policy was to 'civilise' and placate the Aborigines whilst taking possession of their lands. Curr sanctioned the use of force if necessary, claiming that 'the surest way to prevent bloodshed is to always be prepared to repel and punish aggression'.
Some of the company's shepherds and assigned convicts were, at times, brutal in their approach. This was especially the case in remote regions when there was no-one to witness their cruelty. Early in 1828 four shepherds massacred thirty Aborigines on the company's Woolnorth property. The bodies were hurled over the high sea cliff. George Robinson on a visit to the scene in 1830 wrote that he 'saw several human bones, some of which I brought with me, and a piece of the bloody cliff'. The incident was the culmination of a series of violent clashes between the pastoral workers and the Aborigines.
Burning huts and killing livestock were tactics used by the Aborigines to take revenge on their invaders. To prevent his workers' huts being attacked or robbed Curr ordered that they be installed with spring-loaded guns and mantraps.
Due to these past events and strong cultural ties with the area, the north-west region is highly significant for Tasmanian Aborigines today.