Travel Story Echoes of past evoke reflection on island State's legacy

Old route to "Hobart town".
Picture: Patrick Cornish

Tassie's heritage is a living treasure, writers Patrick Cornish

Recreation. Salvation. Not quite enough to tempt you to take a Tasmanian holiday?

Well, you can have Temptation too. Eh? Still not off the blocks? Right. Fourthly, you could have Damnation, which does sound a bit grim but must surely arouse curiosity.

All four of these human conditions are represented, in imposing physical form, at the main crossroads in Ross, just over 100km north of Hobart. To explain: Recreation is the town hall, Salvation the Roman Catholic church, Temptation the Man O’Ross hotel . . . and Damnation is the “Old Gaol”.

In this pretty little town, with tree-lined streets and sandstone buildings, I have often lunched while driving between Hobart and the island’s second-biggest city, Launceston. It’s a restfully scenic stop. The post office is the most photogenic I have seen in Australia.

This time, making more allowance for the educational content of a Tasmanian journey, I stayed overnight.

Which is how, at sunset with an autumn chill in the air, I had the mental space to stroll around a heritage site that was once busy, now largely desolate, and contemplate the desperate unfairness of life for many in the 19th century. I realise there is still widespread injustice today, but if you doubt that over the decades things have improved in many ways, you should have accompanied me to this patch of land just south of those crossroads.

It’s the Female Factory, as it was known between 1847 and 1854. Ross was one of the sites in Tasmania where female prisoners were dispatched to work, behave, eat, pray and sleep. Today all that is left of the extensive workhouse institution is one building, the overseer’s cottage, plus a series of information plaques dotted around the bare ground. In the cottage is a display of the factory in its heyday. For at least some inmates that should read “hellday”.

The text with most impact on me recalled that inmates with a good record of obedience and subservience were allowed to move out and go into service for suitable families. “Many such women fell pregnant . . .” says one plaque. As punishment for their “immorality” they were returned to the factory, given daily tasks until giving birth, and in most cases allowed to keep their children until their sentence ended.

Ross was then a military garrison town — today the National Trust-classified barracks is a private residence. Among the soldiers’ duties was guarding the convicts who built the stone bridge, over the Macquarie River, that carries the road south-westwards to Tasmania’s main highway. Carved into the bridge is the legend “To Hobart Town LXIX miles” (69 miles or 111km). On the previous day, driving north to Ross, I had enjoyed a walk around Richmond, which has Australia’s oldest bridge. On the side is engraved “1823”, a reminder of the colonial longevity of Tasmania/Van Diemen’s Land. That date was three years before the British flag was planted at what would become Albany and eventually the launch pad for the Swan River Colony. 

Heading north from Richmond, there was a tapestry of heritage to see. Here a country church. . . there a village hall where Fridays once meant dances but now it’s more likely bingo and craft fairs.

Now, leaving Ross and heading towards Hobart on what has been officially rebranded as Heritage Highway, I reflect on why the past matters. One reason is that those beautiful bridges attest to a penitential system that was constructive, not just incarceration. A legacy was intended and confirmed during the intervening decades. Tasmania has respected its heritage as well as anywhere in the nation.

This praise of European cultural contribution is not to gloss over the appalling cost to the State’s first people who lived there for thousands of years. Three years ago while visiting Bruny, a geographically fascinating island off Tasmania’s south-east coast, I noted the mournful but respectful memorial to Truganini, the lady widely considered to have been the colony’s last full-blooded Aboriginal.

The final stretch of my drive was to include Tunbridge and Kempton, but suddenly all thoughts of these two recommended towns flew away at the sight of two mysterious figures at the roadside. One was aiming a gun at the other. Closer inspection showed they were men of steel, two of 16 public art pieces by local sculptors Folko Kooper and Maureen Craig. The highway is home to their striking silhouette tributes to times past: stagecoach, troopers, emus, a shepherd with his flock.

At Tunbridge stands a family of wooden figures in brightly painted traditional dress. The entrance to Kempton’s Recreation Ground has a photograph of sheep races and comforting words about local aviation: “In September 1919 the ground was visited By Major A.P. Crisp in his biplane, raising money for the patriotic ‘Peace Loan’. Crisp managed to land his plane on the oval and take off again afterwards.” Everyone was surely relieved to see that uplifting procedure.

Looking to buy an ice-cream, I find a little old wooden shop that has evidently been well cared for. And above the door a name to cherish: Little Echoes of the Past.

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