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As they sailed up the Derwent to their new life it must have seemed, briefly, like Heaven. Even Mary allowed herself a brief smile – a rare event these days. She was fifty and mighty pissed off – the last thing this prickly woman needed was another fresh start. She already ached at the prospect of what they had to do.

The boat sliced through still water, hills reflecting perfectly on every side, sliding into a swaying, mocking hallucination as the ripples caught them. Norfolk Island was a long way behind – ahead just a meandering river on the way to their next future.

The countryside reminded James of Yorkshire – he looked around and felt comfortable, almost familiar – but he was thirty-nine and still had energy and time to make another life. Anything to divert from the constant stream of misery that was his wife. She’d been grizzling for a hundred years, it seemed, ever since the plan to relocate was unveiled. The difference in their ages was starting to tell.

Mary’s gimlet eyes searched the shore for any sign of civilization. She was to be disappointed. Elizabeth Town was barely settled, but at least she wasn’t on her own. The boat was full of Norfolk Islanders, all with a shared experience, all with the same new life to hack out of the hills, all with the same mixed emotions showing on their face. The two boys ran excitedly from side to side, taking in their new surroundings – to them it was just a new adventure.

James Junior was the eldest by three crucial years. He had a younger brother to kick around and had developed quite a liking for it, hovered just this side of the bully, a cock-sure, rather surly young man. Not that he was aware of anything much in the world but himself. Pitched at the pointy end of puberty he was at the mercy of whatever chemical imbalance was taking place. All roads led to James Jnr at this point in his life, and woe betide anyone who stood in the way. Today the lad was enthusiastic. The world hadn’t existed until now. He’d never seen anything but Norfolk Island and the open sea before; never seen a river like this; never trees this shape, never a view quite so inviting. Every bend in the river opened up a new adventure; he was already running those hills, jumping in that water, exploring his new kingdom in his imagination. Hobart Town had been a revelation. Everything was different. He was on the edge of a great, new world.

Tom was eleven and a quieter child. He was shy and well-behaved, even sweet on occasion. Mary fussed over him. He fussed over Mary. Normal stuff.


When the boat docked there was no one to meet them. They were dumped unceremoniously on shore, left in ‘a state of wretchedness, near nakedness’ to fend for themselves. What few possessions they had were hurled after them and, without a word of farewell, the boat slipped away from its anchor and slid back downstream. Families huddled together on the riverbank, unsure which way to turn. A few minutes later a ruddy faced Irishman wandered down the bank and introduced himself. Dennis McCarty.

McCarty had somehow risen from a scurrilous convict past to the position of some importance in the district. It wouldn’t be long before they all found out how. He breezed in, offered no consolation to anyone and stood off to one side, checking out the new arrivals. Fresh blood. The news wasn’t good.

‘Heaven send that I was out of this horrible place! There’s scarcely a good bit of land to be seen anywhere. I do believe that there isn’t any twelve acres in the country that would feed a single sheep for the whole year…. There isn’t one single thing to stay for. Poor land where it’s better, it’s covered with trees, and they must be cut down before you can get at the soil to do anything with it. And then the stumps. Impossible to drive a plough in a straight line. And then, suppose you have stock; if you have cattle, they start away into the bush, and catch ‘em again when you can! And if you have sheep, they’re driven away by the thieves, and find ‘em again if you can; let alone being shot at when you’re looking after them. Oh, the fools that come here deserve to be robbed and starved, and murdered. I say, serve ‘em right for being such fools as to come, and bigger fools to stay!’

There were enthusiastic greetings as friends met up again after six months, a year apart. Little by little the group diminished as families were led off to share shelter, a meal, tell their stories and settle. By the end of it any enthusiasm had been beaten from the newcomer’s faces. The poor sods had been given rations, rudimentary shelter, the promise of land and possibility – now it was up to them. The bucolic fantasy had come to a rapid conclusion.

“Every thing is wrong on this side of the globe. Nature first tried her hand at creation in Van Diemen’s Land, and found that she was making mistakes so she went right over to the other side and mended matters. For look at the trees, instead of shedding their leaves in winter they shed their bark; and there it hangs, in rags and tatters, till it drops off. Would any decent, respectable tree in England behave in such a manner? There’s not a natural flower in the whole country; nor a root, nor a plant, nor a fruit fit for man’s eating….Then every thing is contrary; you never know which is north and south, and it’s winter in June and summer in January! I tell you what it is, it’s all a mistake, and the best thing we can do is to go back to a country fit for a Christian to live in – to Old England, where a man knows what he’s about, and can get a pint of beer if he wants it, and get his plough and his cart dragged by horses, and not by bullocks in this outlandish fashion”…

Tales of the Colonies

Mary’s eyes narrowed as she heard the litany of complaints. I told you so. She glared at her husband but he was deep in conversation with that Irishman, McCarty. They seemed to be getting along like a house on fire. The boys were listening too, little Thomas struggling to keep his eyes open, his brother all ears. They sat outside a bush shack belonging to their neighbors on Norfolk and tonight, their hosts. James Snr came back to join them. He was visibly pleased with himself. The boys quizzed him but he was silent, preferring to slurp his billy tea with a glint in his eye.


Before they left Norfolk Island James Snr. was classified by Foveaux as a ‘Class 2 Settler’. All of them were offered property and some financial recompense to make up for the land and dwellings they would leave behind. Land grants were offered on a four to one ratio.  The deal seemed like a good one to James, keen to resume his life, but many of the other settlers were habituated to their strange non-existence, institutionalized, unable to think for themselves any more. The transition was just too hard for some of them and they sank into a useless, self-centered despair.

 …they appeared to be very necessitous, applying immediately to me for Clothing and Bedding, which, unfortunately, I had not to give them. I found they were prepossessed with an Idea that all their Wants could be supplied at this Settlement; and as it was my wish if possible not to increase the Discontent which this disappointment of their hopes created, I indulged them, particularly those who had families, in chusing their Farms in the Vicinity of the Settlement, and giving them such Assistance in building their Houses as my scanty means would permit…’


A certain proportion of the Norfolk Islanders – especially the marines and sailors who came out with Governor Phillip in 1788, and went to the island with King, and some of the crew of the Sirius-who had prospered in Norfolk Island, prospered also in Van Diemen’s Land, and their families have continued to hold respectable and honourable positions in this colony.

But, as a rule the Norfolk Island settlers did not add much to the welfare and progress of the settlement at the Derwent. The great majority, idle and improvident in their old home, did not improve by removal. They were content to draw their rations from the stores so long as that privilege was allowed them, and then bartered away their grants for a trifle, to sink out of sight in poverty and wretchedness.

Collins to Viscount Castlereagh 20th April 1808


‘The settlers from Norfolk Island were given lands at New Norfolk and Sandy Bay, at Pittwater (Sorell), and Clarence plains in the South, and at Norfolk plains on the Northern side of the island. These grants were at first small, seldom exceeding 40 acres…’

Grants were given out on the promise of land – it was up to settlers to find it, claim it and then the government deeded it officially. James wasted no time. The next morning at dawn he and young James set out to find a promising site for their combined future. About an hour’s walk upstream and then inland he found what he was looking for. They explored all day but found nothing better, cast their fate to the winds and settled on a property in what was to be known as Back River. Over the next two days the family relocated after much heavy grind, dragging their things upstream, across the river, forging their way over open ground to the new life they had been given. They erected a tent and proclaimed sovereignty over their new land leaving the rest of them still hovering back in town, grumbling and uncertain, fermenting useless revolution, trapped in their latest hell. The Triffitt family didn’t care. This wasn’t the moment to exercise charity, extend a helping hand, it was every man, woman and child for themselves, a concept that was not alien to any of them. Protect the family unit above all. James just made sure that his friends from the Island were his nearest neighbours and left the enemies far behind.


It’s difficult not to see a guiding hand in both the selection and placement of these first settlers, but impossible to find the logic behind the size of the land grants, despite the rash of promises made before they left Norfolk. The extraordinarily long time that elapsed between taking possession of the land and the legal procedure that gave them actual title complicated matters as well. The settlers were also burdened with letters of conduct that pointed out the malcontents and troublemakers. These delinquents had their past held against them – conversely, the good guys were rewarded for past conduct. James was a constable, a married man, a smart-witted, level-headed good citizen. He would prosper.

While the size of the land allocation defeats any attempt at analysis the groupings don’t. The families are placed together in pods, interspersed with couples or single men; Lots 22 and 23, Lots 26, 27 and 28 then Lot 31, directly opposite lots 50 and 51. The families were allocated land on the upper reaches of the river, upstream from the township, invariably in lots of thirty acres. All had river frontage; there were obviously no roads, the river was the best means of transport –  by the time the Triffitts arrived there was hardly any land left on the main river at all.

I think James and his mates worked it out on the spot.  They chose their neighbors – their neighbors chose them. The Back River Gals were a pack.




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