Thursday 1 May 2014

From City to Summit 2: Not Easily Tamed

[Hobart Town Rivulet and Mount Wellington by John Skinner Prout (1847) Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts]

It was going to be such a simple exercise. Walk from Hobart city upstream, close to the line of the Hobart Rivulet, until I got to the summit of kunanyi/Mt Wellington. Yes, I did expect a few complications with transport, especially once the walking group included three generations of family. But I hadn’t counted on the vast number of diverting stories I would uncover along the way.

Take, for a start, the convict “king”: Jorgen Jorgensen. It would be hard to invent a story more colourful than his. Born in Denmark in chaotic times, he grew up with a thirst for adventure. In 1809 he sailed to Iceland to trade, and while there he overthrew the Danish Governor and declared himself “Protector” of the Danish colony. Just two months later his “reign” ended with his arrest and imprisonment.

[Portrait of Jorgen Jorgensen by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg
(Public domain) via Wikimedia Commons
Although released a couple of years later, he continued to find himself on the wrong side of the law. He was eventually convicted of theft by the British and was transported to Van Diemen’s Land, arriving here in 1826.

His viking spirit was well suited to the needs of the colony, and he soon became an explorer of some of its wildest parts. Back then that even included the Hobart Rivulet, just upstream of the town. Here’s his 1835 description of the area.

An impervious growth of the thickest brushwood, surmounted with some of the largest gum trees that this island can produce, and all along the rivulet as far up as where the old and upper mill now is, was impassable from the denseness of the shrubs and underwood, and huge collections of prostrate trees and dead timber which had been washed down by the stream and were strewn all around.

On a chilly autumn morning, a couple of centuries later, Sally, Tim and I gather in Collins Street in the city. We’d planned to start with a warming coffee, but it’s 9am on a Sunday, and nothing is open. Instead we hoist our day packs and wander up for our first encounter with the Hobart Rivulet. Just downstream from Molle Street it has been tamed and corralled between sandstone and concrete banks, though boulders in its bed are a reminder of its former wildness. A little closer to the city the concrete restrains it still more, giving it the look of a glorified open stormwater drain.

[The imprisoned Rivulet flows toward Barrack Street, Hobart] 

The rivulet hasn’t always cooperated with its imprisonment. It has flooded seriously a few times, most recently in April 1960 when lower Collins and Liverpool Streets had up to a metre of water over them. Jorgensen’s “huge collections of prostrate trees and dead timber” were among the culprits. After 1960 tree and boulder traps and trash racks were constructed upstream of the city to prevent such debris choking the flow in future.

[Tim and Sally on the Rivulet Track] 

We cross Molle Street, enter the Hobart Rivulet Linear Park, and meet the first of these barriers. They stand like derelict factory foundations, rusty and awkward astride the stream. The factory reference is apt. For much of Hobart’s early life the rivulet was not only its main source of drinking water, it also drove the wheels of the mills and factories that supplied the town.

[Tree traps on the Hobart Rivulet]

The 21st century’s gentrification of the Rivulet, once wild, then industrial, has been ongoing. The old Cuthbertsons’ tannery, which once supplied leather for Blundstone shoes and boots, has recently been demolished. Speculation is that a housing development will take its place. Sally vividly remembers the “fruity” air that used to waft up from the factory to the adjacent South Hobart School, where all three of our children began their schooling.

There were far worse factories than the tannery. A little further upstream we pass the Cascades Female Factory, now a World Heritage Site, though for many years a feared and fearful place. Here convicts and “fallen” women of the early colony were housed – some with infants – for “correction” through hard work and discipline. An 1829 newspaper reported with great optimism:

Farewell now to idleness and impudence, lover-letter writing, throwing of packets &c. over the wall, and all the concomitants of clandestine taking and receiving.

[kunanyi/Mt Wellington above the wall of the Cascades Female Factory] 

A truer report might have mentioned overcrowding, corruption, inadequate nutrition, disease and death. There were even riots among the women in the 1840s. By the 1850s it had become a straight gaol, and it eventually closed altogether in 1877. Today you can be entertained by re-enactments of life in the Female Factory, with actors dressed in period costume. It’s one way of celebrating what is now considered of World Heritage significance. But while we're being entertained, it's as well to remember that Hobart’s past, like its Rivulet, is not easily tamed.

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