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first birth: Hobartia Hibbins – 26th Jan 1809

‘…of the settlers, there are but very few who are not at this moment occupied in the cultivation of their new farms, and erecting habitations of some kind for their families…’

James Sr. was given seventy acres, James Jnr. forty and young Thomas thirty-eight – Lots 2, 3 and 4 in Back River. The family settled on their combined holdings of- nearly one hundred and fifty acres – and set to work.

Stop right here. One hundred and fifty acres? That’s huge. We have a man in his early-forties, two boys and Mary Higgins to create a new life. There’s a house to be built, land to be cleared, food to be found. The two boys were old enough to work – they joined their father on the property while Mary mustered their few possessions and organised the domestic side of things.

She worked like a dog as well. Everything created from scratch, water carried from the stream, rations transformed into something resembling food. The colony was close to starvation – it was every man and woman for themselves.

The Derwent settlement was now in great straits for food.

The ration of salt meat had long since been reduced to one-half. There were only a few weeks’ full rations in hand, and starvation was staring them in the face. Collins got some few stores from the rare vessels which touched at Van Diemen’s Land, but this was a mere trifle. His only resource was to fall back on what the bush yielded. He, therefore, issued an order offering 18. per lb. for all the kangaroo meat brought into store. Without the kangaroo and the wallaby none of them would have survived. They became the main source of protein for growing boys and exhausted parents and women.

‘During the great scarcity, when we lived for 13 months, except at small intervals, upon 2 lbs. of biscuit per week, we had not a single death. We were living on the wild game of the country. The people certainly suffered inconvenience and very great privations from want of provisions. I have often myself been glad to go to bed from want of bread, and have often been without the little comforts of wine and sugar.’

 Lieut. Edward Lord: 1812


Speed was of the essence. Food, water and, above all, shelter and warmth were their simple priorities; the stark reality of daily life made every minor victory a triumph. Luckily, the brief wonder that is a Tasmanian summer was upon them, a perfect time for building, clearing, sewing of crops – all to be achieved before the cold settled in.  The family worked from dawn till they dropped every day.

I’d like to think there was a moment for reflection. I doubt it.

‘It was a brilliant day. There was a solemn stillness around that was imposing; the sun shining gloriously in the heavens, and the prospect around most calm and beautiful. I felt melancholy. Thoughts crowded thick upon me. I had undertaken a vast task to establish a home in the wilderness… I felt fearful at the work before me. No help near in case of danger; no medical assistance; no neighbour. I looked at my wife and children lying listlessly on the dry and parched grass; I looked around me, and tried to penetrate into the obscurity of the future, and guess the end…

The soil around me had not been disturbed by civilized man since its creation. The vast wilderness seemed to have received us into its ample bosom, and to have closed around us, shutting us out from all communication with humanity. We formed but a little speck on the vast space of the uninhabited country. I endeavored to picture to myself the future farms that might arise around us, and the coming of neighbours to cheer and strengthen us. But the reality was too present and too strong to admit of the consolations of the imagination. I felt committed to an act of doubt and difficulty…

Thursday, February 28th, Up at daylight. …After a good deal of consideration and examination of the parts about, I settled on the spot for building our log-house. I thought that the time might come when I should be able to erect a better house, so I marked the place for our temporary habitation close to the spot for the future building, and so as to form a part of the general plan. Marked out in my mind a garden and entrance. …I must get dogs, not only for hunting occasionally, but for safety, to give the alarm at night and in the day-time too. The weather beautiful. We live in the open air and it seems to me it would not harm us to sleep in the open air; but we have our tents. No one came near us all day.

Friday, March 1. – At work all day with…the men, sawing the fallen timber into lengths and splitting it to set up. Splitting shingles to serve instead of tiles.

Monday, March 4. – Chopping and sawing.

Tuesday, March 5. – Sawing and chopping.

Wednesday, March 6. – Chop, chop, chop, saw, saw, saw…’

‘Tales of the Colonies’ Marcus Clarke

Collins had ‘…neither the Mechanics, Artificers, nor Labourers” to grant more than “trifling Assistance” to them. Collins was compelled to hire several of the convicts whose sentence had expired ’to work again for the Government, and being paid for their Labour”.

“It must however, ‘ he added, ‘be mentioned to their credit, that the greater part of what is stated to be in cultivation by the Norfolk settlers is the effect of their own personal labour.’

Well, Mary Higgins knew that.


The bad season of 1808/9 didn’t help one bit. The rainfall in Tasmania that year was unusually heavy. The chill began. On 10 April, snow covered Mt. Wellington. The Norfolk Island brats had never experienced such cold – or ever seen snow before. The bitter reality of a Tasmanian winter crowded in – this wasn’t cold – this was freezing. Nobody had proper clothes, no one had good shoes – nobody had anything, really. Then in early 1809 the district flooded, wiping out the hard work of those by the river. Everyone in the family was too busy working to complain; James struggled hard to maintain the faith in the face of such adversity. Mary just turned up her nose. I told you so.

The dynamics of Norfolk Island, the friendships and enmities garnered there continued in the Valley. Not just  families were transported to Van Diemen’s Land – history, feuds, the whole panoply of nearly two decades of Island life came with them. Strict loyalties must be maintained.

Survival was everything. Somehow, they did.


By the end of summer the Triffitts began to feel a sense of achievement. James built their house – such as it was – then added to it, cleared and planted some of the land and all while the weather was kind. Mary ran the finances and the household, cooked, cleaned, solemn drudge to resettlement. The family unit was tight and unexpectedly happy. Even Mary smiled occasionally.

On May 10th 1809, James and his family were mustered as ‘holding 130 acres, 6 sown in wheat, 2 in barley and owning two pigs.’ All were ‘on the stores’. While the others flapped about exercising their muscle as fully fledged free settlers they’d been busy. The Triffitts of Back River were a very efficient working team. As the months went by little Thomas grew to become big Thomas and added extra muscle to the farm. Things were ticking over.

Some prospered; others did not – the bigger the land grant or the combined holding, the more chance of survival. Fate intervened regularly, but so did human nature. Back River was a tiny, enclosed community – the personalities of the neighbours were as much a part of the scenery as those gentle hills.

Gradually the surrounding farms took shape as well, land was cleared, houses built, the first flocks of sheep and cattle began to chew at the grass. The family settled in and began to build their little empire. Mary was fifty-two years old – James just forty-one. The boys turned into men.

It was in the Derwent Valley that James Snr. really came into his own. The man from Yorkshire had a knowledge and appreciation of the land that most of the others didn’t – after all, he was the son of a farmer, grew up in the country, worked the fields – James was home.

Down by the river it was a different story.


Many of the Norfolk Islanders at the Derwent were now an unhappy and disgruntled group. They arrived with the understanding that they would be fed and clothed from the Store for two years, would receive two acres of land for each acre held at Norfolk, they would be given a house equivalent to that left behind, and would be allocated two convicts to help clear their new land. They now discovered the Store was practically empty. There was virtually no food or clothing available, and they were required to live on Kangaroo meat from the bush.

There were no spare houses and the newcomers had to share the small homes of the convicts they might otherwise have expected would be assigned to clear their land. The land itself was considered very inferior to the rich volcanic soil of Norfolk Island, regardless, a number of people who had previously been classed as farmers appear to have had difficulties in obtaining land. The change in climate from subtropical Norfolk would not have helped to raise their ebbing spirits.

OXLEY: The orders of Government for abandoning Norfolk Island were carried into full effect in 1807-8 to the very serious loss and inconvenience of those poor people, arising not from the want of liberality in the conditions offered to their acceptance by the Government at home, but from the totally inadequate means that were provided for their subsistence and comfort at their new place of abode. Most of these settlers were living in a most comfortable manner, possessing without much labour every necessary of life in abundance, and the luxuries, which the island did not afford, was purchased by its produce. Every one of them had some stock, which, on giving up to the Commandant at Norfolk Island, was to be returned in kind at the Derwent,  habitations were also to be provided for them till they could build others for themselves. In these expectations, they were disappointed, and very few of their claims have been settled.

As the greater pan of those settlers had large families, who had been used to live in a state of comparative plenty, were now reduced to a precarious and scanty allowance from the public store, unaccustomed to the climate and totally unacquainted with the seasons, it could neither be supposed nor expected but that they would be a burden on the public for a considerable time; and at the same time lament the state of ease and plenty they had exchanged for hard labour and the miseries of famine.

There can be, however, no doubt but that something will be done to relieve them from the deplorable state of poverty, to which they are reduced, and that Government will lend a compassionate ear to the claims of those numerous families, who are now experiencing the pressure of want.

As the terms held out by Government to the Norfolk settlers appear not only liberal but easy to be fulfilled, it does not appear why those stipulations were not complied with; there must either have been a considerable degree of neglect in the executive Government in not providing means to fulfil the intentions of the Government at home, or those means if supplied have not been appropriated to the purpose for which they were intended. One thing is certain, the settlers have not received the encouragement they were promised, nor does there appear to be any extraordinary trouble taken either to maliorate their condition or render them contented with their change of situation.

Collins to Viscount Castlereagh 20th April 1808

Bligh became aware of the plight of the Norfolk Islanders, and requested permission to address them and explain that their current situation was not the fault of Lieut. Governor Collins, but was caused by the NSW Corps. Collins was now under pressure from the Military Government at Sydney, and the Service representatives in his own split Executive, to deny Bligh and his party any assistance. It was not beyond Bligh to arouse the Norfolk group into measures which would embarrass both Collins and the NSW Corps. Collins refused Bligh permission to address the new settlers, and no doubt the deposed Governor became a little more difficult and demanding.

In the meantime a group of Norfolk Islanders prepared a petition to be sent to Governor Bligh, which was circulated for signature, and was held by James Belbin when news of it reached Lieut. Lord’s ears. The suggestion is that this petition may have been the work of James Dodding and James Belbin together.


Address of Settlers to   Governor Bligh

To His Excellency W.Bligh, Esqre., Govr.-in-Chief, &c.,

May it Please Your Excellency,

The Derwent, 21st May, 1809.



James Triffitt didn’t sign. He was no fool. He already knew precisely which side of the great divide he was going to live on. For now, and ever after he was going to stick squarely on the side of the powers that be. Safe there. Protected.

There was no naivety about his decision. Twenty years in the system taught him the essential Tasmanian lesson; stick with the Government, ask no questions and grab every chance you get. Officially sanctioned corruption was much easier to control, particularly if you were in the middle of it. He made a grab for the main game, just as had McCarty, and clung tenaciously to his acquisition, knowing that he was in for the long haul. He let the settlers grizzle, he watched them dissipate their efforts on useless and prolonged attack, while all the time he and the family worked and planned and planted, with an eye to the main game.

Father took care to continue his cultivation of the hot-blooded Dennis McCarthy, chief Constable. Around him revolution fluttered. He didn’t care.

James Triffitt chose well – or fate made the decision for him. Lots 2, 3 and 4 Back River sat in a prime commanding position. Apart from old Betsy King over the rise there was nobody on their side of the river. The Triffitt’s held the high ground in the west – on the other side there was the rest.

James and Mary could see them all. From their seat on the front verandah they had an arc of neighbours to spy on; on their immediate left was James Jnr.’s house and beyond that Thomas’ land; spread out below them the valley and every farm, every activity from the Shone’s right down to the Abel’s was in their view.  The front paddocks stretched down from the track in front of the house to the River, behind them the low hills spilled white gum trees to the back door.  On a cool Sunday afternoon, with the luxury of leisure, James, Mary and the boys stretched out and drank their tea, gazing down on the neighbours with a vaguely proprietal air. For a moment James was back in Yorkshire.


Mary settled into rural life with a stoic thud, content to let her husband make the moves. Perhaps she was broken, perhaps reformed, perhaps just too busy to care. Life was  one endless drudge, trapped on the property  by circumstance and poverty, cooking, washing, cleaning, building her domain from scratch. She was unlikely to have been a reflective woman – too little education or time for that – but perhaps she allowed herself the occasional luxury of contemplation, let her eyes open sufficiently to take in her surroundings and enjoy the unfamiliar. Did she remember those London years, that fierce independence she once guarded, those adventures in the streets? Twenty years ago now. What happened? Maybe distance obscured the muck and the clutter, time hid the memory of the greed that drove her on. Now there was no need for any of the edgy aggression of her youth. Mary stayed silent, stoic, reinventing herself happily as a dowager queen.

It’s equally likely she sank into stubborn despair.

Actually, the less self-aware she was the better.



ROBERT HAY comes into district – first of Govt. men to help build. MARIA HOPPER / HAZLEWOOD [1796] with Hay from September 1809  birth: Mary Ann 6th July 1810     

CRAHAN  birth of twins: John & David Crahan 10th Sept. 1809

BRYAN CULLEN marries Elizabeth Bartlett 25th Sept. 1809      

 SAM KING marries Elizabeth Thackeray 28th Jan 1810             solo

24th March David Collins dies suddenly

HIBBINS birth: Derwent Sept 1810

JANE FLETCHER  death: 1810  born  1805

McCarthy gets a free pardon

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