Brief History of Launceston

Early European Settlement

Early European Settlement of the Tamar Valley

The Streets of Launceston

How Launceston's inner city streets got their names.

The Suburbs of Launceston

A brief history, and how they got their names.


Heritage Walk

Yorkton Port Dalrymple Van Diemens Land, 1808. Courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales | Licence: Out of copyright

Early European Settlement in the Tamar Valley

The history of the European settlement of Launceston and the Tamar Valley dates back to 1798 when Bass and Flinders were sent to explore Van Diemen's Land Tasmania) and determine if there existed a strait between what we now call the mainland and continent and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). They came ashore near where the Tamar River enters Bass Strait and named their landing place Port Dalrymple.

Before examining at what happened next, it is worth looking at the state of play in the European exploration and settlement of Australia at that point in time. The west coast of Australia had been encountered and mapped by the Dutch in the early 17th century. The Spanish and Portuguese appear to have encountered the east coast of mainland Australia around that time also, but no records have survived to determine with certainty by whom and when. Its placement on maps had to wait until 1770 when Cook explored the east coast.

Around the time the Dutch were charting the west coast, they sent Abel Tasman on two voyages of discovery. On one, in 1942, he encountered the southern coasts of Tasmania, naming it Van Diemen's Land. 130 years would pass before Europeans would re-visit Southern Tasmania. Tobias Furneaux (1772), part of Cook's 2nd expedition into the South Pacific visited Tasmania's east coast, taking on water at Encounter Bay, Bruny Island, and charting the coast all the way north to Bass Strait.

Twenty years later, and four years after the penal coloany of New South Wales had been established at Sydney Cove, the French made the first of two exploratory expeditions to Tasmania, its commander, Brni D'Entrecasteaux staying in the same areas visited by Tasman. Six years later, after news of the expedition had reached Sydney, the Governor of NSW realised it was time to make a move on claiming and settling Van Diemen's Land before the French did. For this reason, Matthew Flinders and George Bass were despatched in 1798 to explore its coasts and scout for suitable places to establish settelements. During the voyage they determined that Van Diemen's Land was in fact an island and not connected by land to NSW as first thought.

From that time onwards things began to move quickly. Port Phillip (the future site of Melbourne) and the Bass Strait islands were discovered and claimed for Britain by expeditions out of Sydney, as the French had sent a second expedition to the South Pacific under Nicolass Baudin, which called in at Sydney in early 1802. David Collins was then deopatched from England with a group of free settlers to establish a British colony on Port Phillip near present day Sorrento. It struggled to survive.

In early 1804, while still in Port Phillip Bay and wondering where to move his starving colony, Collins sent his namesake, William Collins, on a voyage of exploration to the Tamar estuary with a view to establishing a British settlement in Tasmania's north. By the time William Collins returned with good reports of the Tamar for settlement, David Collins was already preparing to transfer the Sullivan Bay (Port Phillip) settlers to the Derwent (Hobart).

Lt. Col. William Paterson

Whilst all this was happening, Governor King received a despatch from Lord Hobart (Britain's Secretary of State for the Colonies) which recommended the establishment at Port Dalrymple on the Tamar. A group of 181 soldiers, settlers and convicts was quickly assembled under Lieut-Colonel William Paterson to complete the mission. Paterson was appointed as its Lieutenant-Governor.

Upon arrival, and after a first attempt to enter Port Dalrymple was forced back by adverse winds, the party of four ships arrived at Outer Cove (now George Town) on 4th November 1804. Paterson ran HMS Buffalo aground at what he named York Cove and, apparently nonplussed by his misfortune, duly ran up the flag, fired three volleys in the air, and played the national anthem. A memorial to the event stands on Esplanade North at Windmill Point, Gorge Town.

York Town, 1805

Although he penetrated as far as the fertile site of Launceston in his initial exploration of the Tamar Valley soon after arrival, Paterson made the decision to set up his headquarters on the opposite shore and at the head of West Arm, deeming it to be a better site for his new colony, which he named York Town. He also set up up outposts at Outer Cove, Low Head and Green Island, presumably to assist ships looking for York Town.

In deciding on West Arm, one can only imagine that Paterson was guided purely by the strategic necessity, as was Collins at Sorrento, and wanted to be near near Bass Strait. He gave little thought to the problem of soil fertility and cultivation, though this might well have been because he was a military man, and farming was not his area of expertise.

York Town became the headquarters of the Port Dalrymple settlement on March 4, 1805 The settlers faced many difficulties stock losses, poor soil, food shortages and episodes of robbery, bushranging and piracy. The hard clay soil proved unsuitable for grazing though water was in plentious supply. On 19 March 1804 the ship 'Sydney' arrived with 612 Bengal cows, ten calves and 34 ewes. By December only 246 cattle had survived, so Paterson moved the remaining cattle to the banks of the North Esk River on the site of modern day Launceston. Sheds for the cattle and an eight by ten foot hut were built at the 'Plains'. Only two years after the York Town settlement was established, it was clear that full relocation would be necessary. In March 1806, Paterson was willing to admit that York Town was a most unsuitable site and accordingly, he moved his headquarters to the present site of Launceston. By 1811, when the new governor, Lachlan Macquarie made his first visit to Van Diemen's Land, York Town was virtually deserted. Macquarie described the settlement as a "miserable barren spot".

While many of the building materials were removed from York Town and recycled, there is a rich deposit left at the York Town site because of the limited development in the area. Three primary sites have been excavated: Riley's cottage, a building at the Soldier's camp, and Government House.

Government House, the residence of Lieut Col William Paterson and his wife Elizabeth, was the most significant structure at the settlement. Although local lore has it that a cellar existed at Government House, no evidence of such a structure has been found. Thin glass fragments, clay pipes, buttons and other artefacts indicate a lifestyle in keeping with Lt Col Patterson's status and the importance of Government House.

Launceston, 1806

Launceston was originally called Patersonia after Lieut Colonel Paterson, the founder and first commandant, but after a short time he changed it to Launceston in honour of Governor King whose birthplace was the Cornish township of Launceston. Thus commenced a long association of the new Launceston with the ancient English township.

The small settlement at Outer Cove at the mouth of the Tamar River was renamed George Town (after King George III) in 1811 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Macquarie determined that George Town would be better than Launceston as the main centre in Tasmania's north and in 1816 the town was laid out. Few of Launceston's residents wanted to move to George Town, and those who did, did so reluctantly. The first occupants were a military station, a female factory and a few settlers.

Macquarie returned to Britain in 1821 and by the time of his arrival there, many of George Town's residents who had moved there from Launceston at Macquarie's insistance had already moved back to Launceston and re-established themselves there. The Bigge report of 1825 reversed Macquarie's decision to make George Town the administrative centre instead of Launceston.

In the 1830s George Town was an embarkation point for settlers moving to the Port Phillip district (e.g. Dutton, Henty and Batman).Although Macquarie's orders to move headquarters to George Town were never fully implemented, t The town continued as an administrative post and today has the distinction of being the oldest town in Australia.

Launceston gradually grew from the first ramshackle shelters that were built along a dirt track where Cameron Street is today. Roughly built dwellings, many were made of clay with walls reinforced by small branches and twigs to form a wicker-work plaster. 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. Tin was discovered at Mount Bischoff in 1871 in north-western Tasmania, starting a minerals boom. Gold mining commenced approximately 50 kilometres away in Beaconsfield in 1877. The town's prosperity peaked in the 1870s when gold, silver and coal were discovered in Northern Tasmania and many of Launceston's large and grand buildings were erected during this period.