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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 smile. Maintaining the rage had been easy on that hellish sea journey from Norfolk Island to Van Diemen’s Land, it wasn’t hard to stay angry at whoever had ripped them up from their settled life on the Island while she was heaving over the side of the ship, but now that was over and the end was in sight she had to agree that it was, at least, very pretty. She was 50 – the last thing this woman needed was another fresh start but here it was, all around her, looming up on every side. The boat gently sliced through still, clean water, the hills reflected perfectly on every side, turning into a swaying, mocking hallucination as the ripples caught them.Norfolk Islandwas long behind, ahead lay just this meandering river on the way to their next future. She already ached at the prospect of what they had to do.

For James the countryside reminded him of Yorkshire– those rolling hills, a different green, a natural world closer to the one of his youth. He looked around and felt comfortable, familiar; something approaching excitement caused a shiver that ran right through him. He was 39 and still had time, he knew it, to make another life. He was never to leave, would barely travel more than thirty miles away from any of it till the end of his days. James was home.

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 ofNorfolk Islandsettlers, 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.

Young James was the eldest by three crucial years. He had always had a younger brother to kick around and had developed quite a liking for a bit of genial sadism. He hovered just this side of being a bully and had already developed into a cock-sure, rather unpleasant young man. He was feral and pubescent, all his childhood years having been spent running wild on Norfolk Island with the otherIslandbrats; king of the pack, or at least one of the packs that swarmed over the place. Now everything was changing. The lad had left his power base behind.

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 outside theIslandhadn’t existed until now. He had never seen anything but one place and the open sea before; never seen a river like this; trees this shape, 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. Soon he could get off this last leg of his voyage, away from his parents and grab a bit of space. Coming in toHobartTownhad been a revelation. Everything was different. He knew he was on the edge of a new world.


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 with them, their stores and slops fromHobart, were hurled after them and, without a word of farewell, the boat slipped away from its anchor and glided back down stream. The families huddled together on the riverbank, unsure of which way to turn. A few minutes later a ruddy faced Irishman wandered down the bank and introduced himself. Dennis McCarty.

McCarty had been inVan Diemen’s Landsince the first settlement at Risdon, had somehow risen from a scurrilous convict past to the position of some importance in the district. He breezed in, offered no consolation to anyone and stood off to one side, watching as some of the other settlers arrived to greet the new arrivals. 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!”

The settlers were a ragged bunch but 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 widened as she heard the litany of complaints. She looked across 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 were sitting outside a bush shack belonging to the Scattergoods, 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.

The time spent with McCarty had been invaluable. He had presented his ragged credentials as a Constable, ingratiated himself with the volatile Irishman and quizzed him on where the good land might be, all within an hour of landing. He was formulating a plan.


Before they left Norfolk Island James Snr. was classified by Foveaux as a ‘Class 2 Settler’ and ‘recommended for further extension of land on account of his large family and service as a constable’. All of them had been offered property and some financial recompense to make up for the land and dwellings they had left behind onNorfolk Island. Land grants were offered on a four to one ratio.  The deal seemed like a good one to James, he was keen to resume his life, but many of the other settlers had become habituated to that strange existence on theIsland, institutionalized, unable to think for themselves any more. This transition was just too hard for some of them and they sank into a useless, self centred despair.

Settlement had already begun a twelve months earlier; most of the Norfolk Islanders huddled together around the banks of the Derwent at what is now New Norfolk. 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; dragging their things upstream, across the river, forging over open ground to a new life. 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.

It wasn’t long before they were officially granted the promised acreage – Lots 2, 3 and 4 atBack River. James Senior had 70 acres, James Jnr. was given 40 acres and young Thomas 38. The family settled on their combined holdings and set to work. There was a house to be built and land to be cleared. The two boys were old enough to work and already used to the hard grind of farming – 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 had to be created from scratch, water to be carried from the river, their rations turned into something approaching food. The colony was close to starvation and the bad winter of 1808/9 didn’t help one bit. Then the district was flooded in 1809, wiping out the hard work of those that had gone before them. Luckily James and his family weren’t well enough established to have their labours ruined so by the end of the catastrophe most of the settlers started out even. Everyone in the family was too busy working to complain and the parents struggled hard to maintain the faith in the face of adversity. Survival was everything.

Speed was of the essence. That brief wonder that is the Tasmanian summer would soon be upon them, a perfect time for building, clearing, sewing of crops – all had to be achieved before the cold settled in. The family was working hard, dawn till dusk every day and progress was soon made. Food, water and, above all, shelter and fire were their simple priorities and the stark exigencies of daily life made every minor victory a triumph.

It wasn’t long before they began setting out the logs, ready to begin the construction of the house. It was really just one large room but James had grand ideas. They sank the logs into the ground two feet deep, stamped the dirt around the base, stood inside their make-believe house of poles and imagined the roof, the fire, the door. Then, with another week of effort, the roof was almost there, shingles laid almost as they were cut, hammered over the rough structure, forming a surprisingly watertight shelter. With timber walls and a lot of effort the house began to take shape. Both the boys shared their father’s pride at their emerging dwelling; they joined in the planning and execution with gusto, working at their father’s side till hunger or exhaustion drove them away. These lads were ferociously hungry all the time but the hard physical labour, long hours and lack of vitamins was beginning to show. Without the kangaroo and the wallaby none of them would have survived. They were everywhere in the early days and became the main source of protein for growing boys and exhausted men and women.

By the end of summer they began to feel a sense of achievement. James had built a house, then added to it, cleared and planted some of the land, begun the long road to self-sufficiency and all while the weather was kind. The family unit was tight and unexpectedly happy. Even Mary took the frown from her face. Life was tough – but good. Down by the river it was a different story.


It was in the Derwent Valley that James Snr. really came into his own. That young man from Yorkshire had a knowledge and appreciation of the land that most of the other transplanted Norfolk Islanders didn’t – they were city-dwellers; pickpockets, thieves, petty criminals entirely unsuited to the physical rigors of farming and lacking the basic knowledge they needed. James was the son of a farmer, had grown up on the soil, knew more than the basics, he was at home. Van Diemen’s Land was a great deal closer to Yorkshire than Norfolk Island ever had been – the climate, the weather, the nature of the land. His fellow expatriates hadn’t the faintest idea.

James Triffitt knew which side of the great divide he was going to live on. Dennis McCarty was appointed Chief Constable of the district and, in turn, made James a Constable. 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 had 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.



After only a year James Triffitt Snr. and his family were mustered as ‘holding 130 acres, 6 sown in wheat, 2 in barley and owning two pigs.’ They’d been busy while the others flapped about exercising their muscle as newly fledged free settlers. 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. Everybody contributed in exactly delineated areas and the property grew from strength to strength.

James remained a constable for years. He enjoyed it, had grown accustomed to the added rank and status it gave him, took care to continue his cultivation of the hot-blooded Dennis McCarthy, chief Constable, aided by Mary. Being a constable was a part time job that took him away when occasion demanded. Constables were paid 25 Pounds per annum in addition to being victualled so it was a smart move. There was always that extra money coming in, and, as a constable, James became heavily connected. His extra work took him all over the district, down into Hobart, into the courts – James began to know where the bodies were buried. Incrementally his power base widened.

Whether he was a good man at heart is impossible to tell, but he certainly knew how to play the game. This was a tiny community and the elevation in status Constable James Triffitt began to enjoy must have affected his family. Just how James handled his power, whether he resisted the temptations that came with be revealed. Perhaps he was the only honest policeman in Van Diemen’s Land. Somehow I doubt it.



The settlers in New Norfolk led a vaguely pariah life. They were forever saddled with their convict past, sneered at, left to live in their own thieves’ colony up there in the Back Hills. They became insular by sheer fact of isolation. Everything was difficult. Many were disappointed by their new life – some just gave up, defeated by the newness and the sheer hard grind. Others felt cheated by the experts from Hobart Town, falling prey to scams, both small and large. No-one was safe from avarice, even amongst their own small band. It was every man and woman for themselves and families turned inward, unable to embrace the commonality of their lives, the community that surrounded them. This wasn’t just an attitude of mind, it was a practicality as well – the sheer effort of getting off their land and into the wider world was just too much for most of them and attitudes hardened, old patterns of behavior from a time long ago and far away still prevailed. Only a few really embraced the opportunity but those who did found that, with time, things began to get better. The families who didn’t became trapped in time, produced children who carried their parents cross through to the next generation, and the next. For these ignorance held sway. The women carped and complained, the men gave up. Starting a new life is never easy, and for some the road was just too hard.

The area was first known as “The Hills” because of its setting among hills, valleys and gentle streams. Early settlers had to be supported on government rations until 1812. There were no roads and no transport as we know it and the population were entirely dependent on river transport or had to create dirt tracks overland using horse-drawn vehicles and bullock wagons.  These were tough times.

The community started to feed upon itself for stimulation. Long held hatreds from Norfolk Island ran through all negotiations – it was a hard and dark place in the early years, a struggle just to get through. Few took the chance to look up from their plough to observe where they were. They didn’t see the forest, they just saw the trees – and in the trees saw houses and warmth, not beauty. These were inward looking people who preferred the company of others like them. No one else could possibly understand. All of them had that single bond. They lived through the Island.

Few of them thought about an outside. They had been habituated to looking inside the island, with their backs to the ocean. They were caged in open spaces, always with a border they could not cross, always girt by sea. Their minds were habituated to punishment and control. Some were brutalized, unable to beak free of the cycle of ignorance and violence, others cast off those shackles gladly – but none of them ever escaped from what, for most, had been a twenty year intrusion into their lives.

The ghosts of Norfolk Island took a long, long time to disappear.


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