Launceston: A Brief History
The first inhabitants of the area of Launceston were largely nomadic Aboriginal Tasmanians believed to have been part of the North Midlands Tribe.
The first white visitors did not arrive until 1798, when George Bass and Matthew Flinders were sent to explore the possibility that there was a strait between Australia and Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). They originally landed at the mouth of the Tamar River), 40 kilometres to the north-west of Launceston. The river was called Ponrabbel by the indigenous people. Governor Hunter named the estuary after the naval hydrographer Alexander Dalrymple.
The Letteremairrener people
The geographical area in which Launceston is now located was previously occupied by the Letteremairrener people. The Letteremairrener country encompasses most of the Tamar Valley region. In 1804, reports from Early European voyagers describe a number of Letteremairrener camps, consisting of up to ten bark huts located on either side of the Tamar River. Extensive archeological evidence suggests that occupation and usage of the Tamar basin can be dated from at least 7,000 years ago, although it was likely used as long as 35,000 years ago.
The Letteremairrener, as seasonal hunter-gatherers, spent the winter months near George Town and the summer months residing on Ben Lomond, before returning to the banks of the Tamar River for the mutton-bird season. Campbell Macknight characterizes early British contact with the Letteremairrener people as a mixture of fear, curiosity and aggression. After several aggressive encounters prompted by bands of Letteremairrener in 1806, most likely as pay-back for British colonists hunting on the country without permission and for trespassing, Colonel William Paterson, in charge of the new settlement in Launceston, lead a series of putative skirmishes that were ostensibly continued by colonists until 1831. These conflicts intensified from 1827 until 1831 during the period of the Black War, with genocidal expeditions occurring within the Letteremairrener country and neighbouring areas.
Walter George Arthur, who petitioned Queen Victoria in 1847 while interned with other Aboriginal Tasmanians on Flinders Island, lived for several years in Launceston as one of numerous homeless children, before being taken into custody by George Augustus Robinson who sent him to the Boy's Orphan School in Hobart in 1832.
Lt. Col. William Paterson
The first significant colonial settlement in the region dates from 1804, when the commandant of the British garrison Lt. Col. William Paterson, and his men set up a camp at Outer Cove, the current site of George Town. A few weeks later, Paterson deemed their camp site to be unsuitable for the new settlement and established across the river on West Arm at York Town. In March 1806, it was moved again to its definitive position where Launceston stands.
Initially, the new settlement was called Patersonia; however, Paterson later changed the name to Launceston in honour of the New South Wales Governor Captain Philip Gidley King, who was born in Launceston, Cornwall. The name still survives in the tiny hamlet of Patersonia 18 kilometres north-west of Launceston. Paterson himself also served as Lieutenant-Governor of northern Van Diemen's Land from 1804 to 1808. When Van Diemen's Land was divided into Counties, the Country in which Launceston was positioned was named Cornwall (see below).
In 1804 James Meehan surveyed the area around Risdon from the upper Derwent Valley to Pitt Water, and from that year George Harris began surveying the area around Hobart. Because Port Dalrymple was settled almost simultaneously with Hobart, Harris was required to divide the Van Diemen's Land (VDL) at the 42nd parallel into two administrative areas, Cornwall in the north, with Launceston as its headquarters, and Buckinghamshire in the south, with Hobart as its headquarters. These locality names still exist, and north-south rivalry continues.
The second Cataract on the North Esk near Launceston Port Dalrymple, 1809 - John William Lewin. Courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales | Licence: Out of copyright.
In June 1806, the Venus arrived in Port Dalrymple from Sydney with much needed supplies, but the convict pilot, first mate and guard sailed away in the ship to Chile. On 26 August Paterson left for Sydney on the Sophia. Captain Kemp was left in charge. Under Kemp's control, the Launceston settlememt disintegrated into anarchy. Many settlers, facing starvation, abandoned their farms and hunted in the bush. Ten convicts escaped with arms and dogs.
Paterson returned in April 1807 and found the inhabitants in a miserable state without food or clothing. He rallied the remaining settlers and together they started to bring some order back into the place. The Government Cottage, a residence for the commasndant, was built, as were numrous permanent buildings for the settlers to live in. William and Elizabeth Paterson departed for Sydney in December 1808, leaving Launceston with a thriving herd of cattle and gardens. Lieutenant John Brabyn arrived in November to take command at Port Dalrymple.
The NSW Governor and Brabyn's superior, Lachlan Macquarie, visited Launceston in December 1811 and was not impressed. Appalled by the unreliable water supplies and low-lying land at Launceston, he ordered the northern headquarters of VDL to be moved to Outer Cove (he renamed it York Cove) where he laid out a new settlement called George Town.
The move did not please the settlers. Many refused to leave, or slowly drifted back after Macquarie had gone. In 1820, Port Dalrymple received a visit by John Thomas Bigge to conduct an enquiry into colonial administration. He recommended that building works in George Town were to cease and the headquarters be moved back to Launceston. Governor Macquarie refused.
Col Gilbert Cimitiere, who had been commandant at Port Dalrymple since April 1818, left in December and was replaced by Lt-Col Charles Cameron. Macquarie made a second tour of VDL in 1821, prior to returning to England. He continued with developments at George Town as the headquarters until his departure from office in 1822. Lt-Col Charles Cameron was given the task of moving the headquarters back to Launceston.
Buried away in the Archives Office of Tasmania, the Sharland Map was compiled in 1826 by surveyor William Stanley Sharland and is one of the earliest and most detailed survey maps of the then fledgling settlement of Launceston. Sharland had joined the Survey Department under Surveyor-General George Evans in 1823, and this was one of his first projects as a fully fledged surveyor.
The city’s major streets, including Brisbane Street, York Street, Elizabeth Street and Charles Street had been laid out and new homes and businesses were being constructed across the township, which at the time was only 20 years old. Along with street names, buildings and property boundaries, the Sharland map also contains the names of more than 163 people who were occupying parcels of land in Launceston in 1826.
Gov. George Arthur claimed he named the streets as they appear on surveyor William Stanley Sharland's map of Launceston, when the northern headquarters were transferred back to Launceston in 1825, but my research on the early history of Launceston has so far not revealed who surveyed Launceston and laid out its streets in the first place. The streets clearly existed when Sharland did his survey, as town lots appear on the map along with the names of their occupants. Lieut. Gov Paterson erected the government cottage in 1807 as his residence, at which time houses were being built near it along the waterfront. That was less than a year after the move from York Town, indicating the likelihood that a survey had taken place by then, and that construction of permanent buildings had been given the go-ahead.
The Sharland Mapping Project
NSW acting Surveyor-General James Meehan 1806-07 was in Van Diemen's Land measuring farms for grantees and exploring the Derwent region 1803-04, and returned from Sydney in 1806-07 to continue his work, so laying out Launceston may well have been one of his tasks. It certainly wasn't NSW Governor Lachlan Macquarie - he hated Launceston, and instigated the settlement's immediate move to what is now George Town.
Interestingly, George Town's street names are almost identical to those of Launceston, escept for Macquarie Street, which is missing from Launceston. As Maquarie did not like Launceston and wanted nothing to do with it, it is unlikely he would have bothered to name or re-name Launceston's streets, nor would he name a town's streets and leave his own name off. I suspect both town's street names were made uniform at a later date, as Launceston contains names that are "copybook" Macquarie names, yet George Town honours commandands and governors that hadn't been appointed to their positions when Macquarie had Geporge Town laid out in 1816. As it was common practice for streets to be named at the time they were surveyed, one wonders how many, if any, of Launceston's street names were pre-existent when Gov. Arthur became involved in 1825.
In February, 1807, a party of 5 men led by Lt Thomas Laycock, mounted an expedition to cross the State from North to South and back again. The expedition opened up the Midlands to settlers, explored the route which would later become the Midlands Highway, and ultimately led to the end of separate government administration in Northern Tasmania. The reward for this feat was a cow; a grand prize at a time when the northern settlement was experiencing a severe famine.
By 1824, Launceston had become the headquarters of the Civil Administration of the County of Cornwall (or port Dalrymple as the area was then known). The military detachment, the commandant and convicts moved back to Launceston from George Town in 1824 and 1825, at which time a number of buildings were being erected. Governor Arthur proclaimed the first street names for Launceston in 1824. In 1826, the town was starting to build again to become the commencial centre for its hinterland.
The Shetland map of Launceston shows not only the streets but the buildings that existed in 1826, the time of the survey, and even some that were under construction. It also shows the first property boundaries and the names associated with each property.
Early buildings were located around Brisbane Street, with the penitentiary built on the corner of George and Cameron Streets and Government Cottage in nearby City Park. However, it was the riverfront which first developed. Men such as Griffiths and Reibey established wharves and then breweries, stores and flourmills in the early decades. In the 1820s a wave of free settlers arrived. They brought trade and other vestiges of English civilisation: the Anglican church followed by other denominations, hotels, and the newspaper, Launceston Advertiser. Indiscipline natural in a penal settlement was regulated by the Police Act (1833). By 1827, Launceston's population had climbed to 2,000 and the town had become an export centre, mainly for the colony's northern pastoral industry.
Ships from Launceston carried parties of sealers to the islands of Bass Strait early in the 19th century. They also took whalers to the coast of Victoria in the 1820s and 1830s where they established temporary bay whaling stations. Some of these temporary communities, such as the ones at Portland Bay and Port Fairy, were the forerunner of permanent settlement of those places.
The 1840s were a time of unemployment and depression from a glut of free and convict labour. In response, the Launceston Association for the Promotion of Cessation of Transportation was formed in 1847. The resultant Anti-transportation League was successful in its campaign and transportation to the colony ceased in 1853. The Launceston Chamber of Commerce began in 1849 to boost the town's economy. Organised sports started, with a preference for boxing, rowing and horse racing. In 1851 Australia's first inter-colonial and first first-class cricket match was played at the Northern Tasmania Cricket Association ground, with Tasmania defeating Victoria.
Unemployment did not ease until the discovery of gold in Victoria during the 1850s. Launceston provided supplies and an exodus of the male population provided the labour force. William Button was elected the first mayor when the Launceston Municipal Council held its inaugural meeting in 1853. A priority was the construction of an underground sewer to reduce disease.
The financial boom resulting from the discovery of gold aided migration and supported the birth of other industries, Waverley Woollen Mills and Salisbury Foundry for example. Another legacy was the elegant Victorian architecture: a showpiece for the new city. The gold boom financed the St Patrick's River water scheme, solving the problem of fresh water to the township. It was commemorated with a new fountain in Prince's Square. Gas lighting was introduced by the Launceston Gas Company in 1860, and the creation of the Marine Board in 1857 showed the growing importance of trade and the port.
Tin was discovered at Mount Bischoff in 1871 in north-western Tasmania, starting a local minerals boom. Gold mining commenced about 50 kilometres away in Beaconsfield in 1877. During the following two decades Launceston grew from a small town into an urban centre. In 1889, Launceston was the second town in Tasmania to be declared a city, after state capital Hobart. During the late 1880s a small periodical called Launceston Literary contained stories as well as memoirs of the pioneering days of the region. The publication was distributed from a store in the northern end of the town, and while largely forgotten today, was at the time considered relatively popular, if at times controversial.
The Duck Reach Power Station was commissioned in 1893 and domestic electric lighting came to the city in 1895. Many of the buildings in the City's central business district were constructed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Launceston is a major location of Federation style housing. Launceston's many well preserved Victorian and Georgian buildings (including the Launceston synagogue, a rare example of architecture in Egyptian Revival style) together with its diverse collection of art-deco architecture (such as Holyman House and Lucks Corner in the CBD, the former Star Theatre in Invermay and the former Launceston General Hospital) give the city a distinct period ambience which it retains today.
The 1929 floods dislocated 4000 people through Invermay, Inveresk and Margaret Street. Approximately 1000 buildings were damaged, and more than 4,000 people were left homeless after just one night of flooding. Since the 1960s, parts of Launceston have been protected by a series of flood levees that reach up to 4 metres in height as large portions of the suburbs Invermay and Newstead sit within a flood plain. The last major flood occurred in 1929 when Invermay was completely devastated. Since then, there have only been minor floods.
The post-war migration and boom developed new suburbs such as Newnham, Riverside, Waverley and Prospect. European migrants helped with the construction of the Trevallyn Dam Power Station. Trams became redundant and in 1952 a combination trolley and diesel bus service was introduced. As industry declined the city looked towards commerce, education and tourism. This was reflected in 1970s city planning, with the creation of pedestrian malls. The Australian Maritime College opened in 1980, the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education became the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology and then part of the University of Tasmania in 1991.
Again the city area expanded through amalgamation with the councils of Lilydale and St Leonards in 1985. Toward the end of the century, the city focused on recycling and re-use with the redevelopment of Inveresk rail yards as part of the Museum and University, and the waterfront being proactively regenerated to foster pride and economic growth in the city.
Our Tasmania acknowledges the Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies as the source of some information contained in this article.