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Lisdillon Salt Works


Although they operated only briefly in the late 1830s, the salt works established by James Radcliff at 'Lisdillon' were well-constructed and technologically innovative. The Lisdillon salt works site is one of only two early salt manufacture works in eastern Australia where substantial remains can still be found (the other being at Norfolk Island).

Colonial salt works were generally established by entrepreneurs as adjuncts to other businesses, such as farming. They were often located on the owner's estates which were not necessarily the most suitable locations for salt manufacture. Most ventures, including Lisdillon, operated for only a short time and did not achieve commercial success. Other ventures were located at Bruny Island, Oatlands, Richmond, Hobart, George Town and Port Arthur.

James Radcliff's Lisdillon Salt Works

James Radcliff

James Radcliff
(courtesy of the Radcliff
Family Collection)

James Radcliff, a bachelor from Belfast, arrived in Van Diemens Land in 1830. He settled on a 2560 acre grant of land at Little Swanport, which he named Lisdillon.

By 1838 Radcliff had established a farm on the northern portion of his grant including an eight-roomed stone residence, a men's hut, a barn, stockyards, and piggeries. On the coast, about 2.5km south of the farm, Radcliff had erected a salt works including boiling house, windmill and dwelling house, as well as a store, blacksmith's shop, men's huts and overseer's cottage. Here, over 40 acres had been cleared and fenced. Of the £4500 which had been expended by Radcliff on improvements, £2590 had been spent at the salt works. Convict labour had, most likely, been used in the erection of buildings and the clearing of land.

Although Radcliff's motives for establishing a salt works at Lisdillon remain obscure, it is most likely that he was responding to a need for the commodity in the local community. Once completed, the salt works were personally inspected by the Lt. Governor, John Franklin who was 'highly impressed'. He described Radcliff as an 'exceedingly industrious and useful settler'.

Despite his improvements, Radcliff repeatedly failed to gain an additional grant of land from the Government. In August 1838, after deciding to visit his homeland, Radcliff put the salt works up for lease. They were described as having been 'lately erected, and in 'full operation'.


The salt works were not a commercial success, however, and by 1841 had ceased operating. There has been some conjecture about the reasons for their failure. The proximity to the mouth of the Little Swanport River may have led to the dilution of the sea water, thus requiring more labour and fuel to extract the salt. The withdrawal of assigned convict labour and the removal of an import duty on salt, both of which occurred in the 1840s, have also been suggested as reasons for the closure of the Lisdillon works.

A gruesome end

Radcliff returned to the colony in 1844 accompanied by his new wife, Anna Maria Butler. They resided at his property at Rheban. Finding it increasingly difficult to devote enough time to his interests at Lisdillon, Radcliff once again put it up for lease. By this time the Lisdillon estate had been expanded to about 7000 acres. A succession of lessees and proprietors managed the estate in the early 1850s. By 1854 John Mitchell had acquired the property thus beginning a long association between the Mitchell family and Lisdillon.

In September 1856, having divested himself of the Lisdillon estate, Radcliff travelled alone to London for what was to be a short visit. He never returned. A carpet bag containing headless and mutilated remains was discovered some time later at Waterloo Bridge in London. The remains were thought to be those of James Radcliff, although no positive identification was made. For years afterwards, his wife met every boat arriving in Hobart from London, in the vain hope that her husband would return.

View of the remains of the Salt Works

View of the remains of the Salt Works (Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts)

The Mitchell Family of Lisdillon

John MitchellCatherine Mitchell

Catherine Augusta Mitchell
and John Mitchell, c. 1880
(Archives Office of Tasmania)

John Mitchell, a surveyor, arrived from England on the Marinus in 1837. He was appointed Superintendent of the establishment for convict boys at Point Puer. Once settled in that position, he sent for his fiancee, Catherine Augusta Keast, to join him. They were married at Hobart's Old Trinity Church in 1839.

In 1848 Mitchell resigned from Point Puer and by 1854 had acquired Lisdillon where he resided with his family. Under Mitchell's management Lisdillon prospered. He brought eight or nine families out from England to work as tenant farmers on the estate. A store, church, school room and post office were built to cater for the farmers and their families. Mitchell was soon able to acquire the neighbouring 'Mayfield' property and other real estate in the district.

The salt works were a popular resort for the Mitchell children. Miss Sarah Mitchell kept a journal and scrapbook which includes references to crops of beans and peas being grown at the salt works. Sheep were also shorn there and sailing ships often called in. James Dodge and his family leased the cottage at the salt works from 1873 to the early 1900s.

After the death of John Mitchell in 1880, Lisdillon was left to his son, Mark. In 1896 Mark suffered a bad fall from his horse. He died a year later. A succession of managers were then appointed to run the property.

By the early 1900s the property was running into debt. The newly-appointed manager, Peter Wilkinson, removed the tenant farmers from the property, and the land was turned over to pastoral pursuits. All the cottages, including the one at the salt works, were deserted and soon began to deteriorate.

Later history

Picnickers at the Salt Works

Picnickers at the Salt Works c. 1930.
(courtesy Glamorgan/Spring Bay Historical Society)

In 1920 the Lisdillon estate was bought from the Mitchell family by Sir Henry Jones. His son resided there with his family for many years. John Hood acquired the property in the 1950s, before selling it to the Cotton family from nearby 'Kelvedon'. The land surrounding the old salt works was subsequently subdivided and sold. The main part of the salt works ruins was returned to the Crown in 1983 and is now managed as part of the Coastal Reserve.

Recently, conservation works have been undertaken by the Parks and Wildlife Service to prevent their further deterioration.