When it comes to small towns in Tasmania, Forth definitely ranks as one of the most scenic, as well as one of the oldest. Nestled on the banks of River Forth, it is only a 13 kilometre drive from the city of Devonport. Being just 'up the road' from Devonport makes it a great place to kick off your exploration of the state if you are arriving by the Spirit of Tasmania.
Previously known as Hamilton-on-Forth, the village predates the larger settlement of Devonport. The village was laid out on 31st May 1854 by George Melrose who also named it. Why he selected the name "Hamilton" is not known.
George Melrose (1829-1903), who was born at Carrick-on-Shannon, Leitrim, Ireland, served in the Royal Sappers and Miners. In August 1851 Tasmania's Governor Denison requested a party under the command of a Royal Engineering Officer be provided by the British Government to carry out trigonometrical surveys in Tasmania. As a result, Captain John Hawkins RE and a party of fifteen Royal Sappers and Miners (including George Melrose accompanied his family) sailed from Plymouth on the convict ship, Lady Montagu on 9th August 1852, arriving in Hobart on 9th December 1852. The detachment was moved to Sydney in 1856 to make surveys of projected extensions to Sydney's suburban railways. George never returned to England. As the railway's Chief Surveyor he surveyed the railway line over the Blue Mountains including Lapstone Hill and the Lithgow zig-zag, and was responsible for the conversion of the old Devonshire Street Cemetery into the site of Sydney's Central Station.
Photo Matthew Brown, TAHO Weekly Courier 1913
The River Forth is said to have been named after a ship carrying new arrivals heading for the Van Diemen's Land Co.'s headquarters at Circular Head, which passed through Bass Strait in April 1832, however the name appears on Thomas Scott's Map of 1830, and also on a map by Joseph Fossey in 1827. In the winter of 1826, Fossey and the Van Diemen's Land (VDL) Co.'s agricultural adviser, Alexander Goldie, made a journey in a whaleboat for the Van Diemen's Land (VDL) Co. to examine the coastline and its rivers from the Mersey to Cape Grim in the winter of 1826. Goldie, a Scot, named the nearby Leven River after a river in Scotland, so it is likely he named the Forth also, after its namesake in Scotland. Godlie himself is remembered in the name of Wynyard's main street.
The initial auction for the sale of town lots at Forth took place in Launceston in January 1855, but the first house was not built until 18 months later, after a new bridge had been built by the government.
At the hub of Forth's history is the Historic Bridge Hotel, which is one of the town's oldest buildings and still stands in almost its original form. It was first licensed and opened in 1872, and has managed to retain the old world charm and atmosphere of those times. The building is heritage listed and regarded as a national treasure. It is also one of Tasmania's leading live music venues, with something always going on musically. It's a great place to grab a country cooked meal, enjoy a beer and a good yarn with your mates or the locals.
Having a population of just 350 people means Forth is the kind of town where everyone knows everybody and you will be made to feel extremely welcome. Many of the original buildings have been replaced since settlement, but there is still a strong sense of history about this old town.
Their village Markets feature many unique stalls with local goods and handmade crafts as well as new goods at bargain prices. It's also regarded as a social meeting point too, with morning teas, lunches and dinners available, so a trip to the markets is a good opportunity to meet and mingle with the locals.
Forth Valley Blues Festival
The village of Forth plays host to the annual Forth Valley Blues Festival. Held on a Saturday in mid-March and located at the Forth Recreation Ground, with entertainment from 12.30pm to 1.30am. The Festial features lots of great blues and roots bands, a bike show and stalls, hot food, bar facilities. There is free camping, and breakfast available Sunday morning. For more information phone (03) 6424 2286 or (03) 6424 9816.
Original Forth River Railway Bridge
The original Forth River Rail Bridge, alongside Bass Highway at Leith, was built in 1885, making it one of the oldest movable bridges in Australia. The bridge has eight metal girder spans totalling 135.4m and this is quite substantial, but the primary significance is the bridge's metal girder swing span, 2 x 12.8m. Of the movable bridges listed in the Register of Australian Historic Bridges only two existing bridges are older - at Bourke (1878) and (1883). Of these, the bridge at Bourke is a lift bridge and that at Sale, while a swing bridge, has trusses for its primary structural system. The old Forth River bridge is therefore the oldest remaining bridge of its type in Australia. It is also unusual for a movable bridge to be designed for railway use only. Most other movable bridges were either road bridges or combined road and rail bridges.
Completed in 1885, the bridge carried a single track railway on metal girders with spans 3 x 18.3, 2 x 12.8 (movable) and 3 x 18.3m, totalling 135.4 m. The ballasted deck is supported on deck-type metal plate girders throughout. Spans 2 and 3, and also 5 and 6 are continuous. The end spans are simply supported. All piers are of concrete and steel, the central pier being circular in plan to support the ring girder of the rotating span. The bridge was named by the men who built it in 1885 as the Forth Bridge, after its famous namesake cross the Firth of Forth in Scotland.
The bridge was seriously damaged by floodwaters and floating debris on 8th April 1929. Logs swept down the river damaged a pier, bringing down a fixed span of the bridge into the raging waters, though the rails and sleepers on the span remained intact. The cost of repairing the bridge was £17,000. The road bridge alongside the rail bridge sustained minimal damage in the flood.
James ‘Philosopher’ Smith, wife Mary Jane and children Annie (left) and Leslie (right) at their home near the Forth Bridge, 1877 or 1878. Photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
James 'Philosopher' Smith
Though relatively small and insignificant today, Hamilton-on-Forth was settled by a number of people who had a significant impact on the development of Tasmania and not just the state's North-West. One of these was James 'Philosopher' Smith, a Forth farmer and prospector whose discovery of tin reserves at My Bischoff in 19671 changed the course of history and Tasmania's fortunes. Born in Georgetown, Tasmania, and educated in Launceston, Smith like so many Van Diemen's Landers at the time, headed for the Victorian gold diggings in 1852. He had limited success finding gold but did return with a great knowledge of prospecting. He took up forested land at Westwood between the Forth River and Leven River, not with the intent of clearing it and establishing a farm, but to use it as a base for exploring and prospecting.
A natural explorer, Smith was not daunted by hardship and through himself into a search for northern Tasmania's mineral wealth. During the 1860s, he discovered gold on the Forth River, copper on the west side of the Leven River, and silver and iron ore at Penguin. On 4 December 1871 Smith discovered a large deposit of tin oxide near the summit of Mount Bischoff. His specimens when smelted yielded the first tin found in Tasmania, but it took some time for the importance of the find to be realised. In February 1878 Smith was publicly presented with a silver salver and a purse of 250 sovereigns; the Tasmanian parliament voted him a pension of £200 a year. The address which accompanied the gifts stated that as a result of his discovery commerce had developed, property had increased in value, and all classes of the community had been benefited. In 1886, he was elected to the Tasmanian Legislative Council but he resigned his seat in 1888. Smith, who was an excellent assayer and a close student of geology, continued his prospecting for the remainder of his life. Smith died at Launceston of heart disease on 15 June 1897 leaving a widow, three sons and three daughters.
James Fenton (1820-1901), born at Dunlavin, Ireland, is remembered as the founder of Hamilton-on-Forth. In 1833 his father decided to migrate to Van Diemen's Land; the family sailed from Liverpool in the Othello but in the Bay of Biscay the father died and was buried at sea. The ship arrived at Hobart Town in February 1834. 13 year-old James was sent to a boarding school near Hobart, and his mother moved with the rest of the family to Swansea where she had bought land. Upn reaching adulthood, James's brothers all moved to the mainland: his sister had married and settled on the north coast near Port Sorell. On a visit, James became interested in the area and in 1840, bought a thousand acres of heavily forested land on the Forth River.
At the Forth estuary, for the first time in Australia, he applied the technique of ringbarking for clearing forest land. The undergrowth was cut down and burned and, when the ringbarked trees died, grass and crops could be grown among them. He married in 1846 and moved onto his land. James and his wife Helena Mary Anne (nee Monds) had one son and three daughters. In 1852, James joined the exodus to the Vicorian gold diggeings. Like James 'Philosopher' Smith, he had little luck but the experience planted a seed in his mind that would eventually pay off handsomely. James realised that once all the gold had been found, most of the miners would eventually return to Melbourne and settle there, but at that time Melbourne was little more than a big tent city. He thought of all the timber on his land and the area around it and how it could be utilised in the construction of homes to house Melbourne's influx of ex-miners.
He quickly returned home, engaged men to fell and split the trees, and within a year had sold half a million palings to Melbourne's builders. With the profits he acquired more land at the Forth, Leven and Don Rivers, initially to exploit it for timber, and then once it was cleared, sell it as farmland. The tracks cut by his axemen for his bullock wagons became the area's roads. Some of his axemen became his first tenants; others moved into the area, took up the land and established farms as it was gradually cleared.
Part of the original headstone of James and Helena Fenton, Forth Congregational Cemetery
In 1879 Fenton retired from farming and built a home at Launceston where he wrote A History of Tasmania From its Discovery in 1642 to the Present Time (Hobart, 1884). In 1891 he completed Bush Life in Tasmania Fifty Years Ago, a first-hand description of a pioneer's life. His wife Helena died in 1892 and he died on 24 June 1901. They were buried at the Charles Street Cemetery, Launceston. A memorial comprising part of James and Helena's original gravestone is located in the Forth Congregational Cemetery, Forth, however the beautiful farm lands carved out of the north-coast forests are perhaps Fenrton's best monument.
Fenton's son, Charles Benjamin Monds, built a store at the Forth in 1869 and later farmed on the headland at Table Cape where as a guide to mariners he kept a large lantern burning each night and was later instrumental in having a lighthouse erected. He founded the Table Cape Butter Factory, and in 1886-96 represented Wellington in the House of Assembly. In 1869 he had married Rebecca Ditcham; they had eight children, many of whose descendants live in the districts pioneered by their ancestor. Fenton Street, a major street of Devonport, was named in his honour. Devonport grew into the largest city on Tasmania's central north coast as a result of it being the port through which Fenton's timber was exported. Devonport's Cemetery occupies one acre of land, granted to James Fenton in 1864.
Sir Edward Braddon
Sir Edward Nicholas Coventry Braddon KCMG PC, an Australian politician who served as Premier of Tasmania from 1894 to 1899, and a Member of the First Australian Parliament in the House of Representatives, was also a resident of Hamilton-on-Forth. Braddon, then aged 48 and recently remarried after thedeath of his first wife, migrated to Tasmania in 1878 after serving in the Inidan civil service for 32 years.
Now living on a pension, Braddon chose to live in Australia's island colony rather than go to England and join London's high society or return to Cornwall, the county of his birth. He believed his experience in public service was just what Tasmania needed, and within a year, Braddon nominated for and was elected to the Tasmanian House of Assembly in the Division of West Devon, and he represented that constituency until November 1888. In 1888, Braddon represented Tasmania on the Federal Council, the predecessor to the Constitutional Conventions of the 1890s. After leaving parliament in 1888, Braddon was appointed Agent-General for Tasmania in London, a position he held until September 1893.
After returning to Tasmania, Braddon was again elected the member for West Devon, and again became opposition leader. In April 1894, Braddon became Premier, and held office until 12 October 1899, the longest term of any Premier up to that date. Braddon was re-elected at the federal election of 1903, as the first member for the Division of Wilmot, but he died suddenly at his home in Tasmania in 1904 before the parliament returned from recess. Braddon is buried at Pioneer Cemetery in Forth, Tasmania. Braddons Lookout, constructed on a corner of his property and not far from hisgrave, was erected in 2004 to commemorate the centenary of his death.
View from Braddons Lookout
Make sure you take the drive up Braddons Road to Braddons Lookout. This lookout offers stunning panoramic views over the Forth Valley and out towards Turners Beach, Leith and Bass Strait. Braddons Lookout was named after Sir Edward Nicholas Coventry Braddon who, after a long career in the British civil service, arrived in Tasmania in 1878, entered state parliament in 1879 and was premier from 1894-99. The lookout is built on the site of Braddon's home.
The Congregationalist chapel and manse at Port Fenton, Illustrated Melbourne Post, 18 February 1886. Estuary of Forth Tasmania by James Fenton - Libraries Tasmania LPIC-147-3-97w150
The wide estuary of the River Forth to the south of Bass Highway became known as Port Fenton, named after the area's pioneer settler, James Fenton. A small community grew on its eastern shore around what became Leith Road. In 1843, Congregationalist minister Reverend William Waterfield made an exploratory visit to the area, preaching in the open air and in settlers’s homes. A year later, Waterfield was invited to return by settlers with the support of the Colonial Missionary Society. A chapel was built in late 1844 and opened on 5 January 1845. It was built on an acre of land donated by Alexander Clerke and which included a burial ground as well as two acres for a ministers residence but on condition that a minister continue to reside at Forth. Waterfield took up residence there on its completion and became the chapel's first pastor.
After Mathison’s departure the story of the Congregational Chapel is one of steady decline. The church was eventually sold to the Methodists in 1945 who removed it to Abbotsham for reconstruction at a site opposite the Abbotsham State School. Church services ceased in 1958 and thereafter it was used as a barn. It remained at this site until about 2008 when the building was removed.
Forth-Sprent Regional Drive
As you enter Forth from Turners Beach, there is a road off to the right signposted to Kindred, a little village about seven kilometres away. Take this road and you'll find yourself on a delightful drive through lush farmlands and rolling hills. Before too long you will arrive at Kindred which, like many regional villages, could best be described as a string of farms scattered on either side of a few buildings that form the nucleus of the community.
In 1865 land here was donated for a church by John Arnold. The first building was constructed of palings and had a shingle roof. By 1866 there were 28 children attending Sunday school, but four years later the Church was closed for worship and relocated to Sprent in 1984. Kindred Community Hall is the most prominent building in the village today.
Kindred got its name because so many of the early settlers became related to one another through marriage. When they first settled there, the hillsides were nearly all covered in heavy scrub and dense bush. The soil is rich, though the country is steep in places and good crops have been grown.
Travel on another 6 km through rolling hills covered in a patchwork quit of multi-coloured field, and you'll reach Spent, a small village that has managed to survive, but only just. Though there are still plenty of farming families in the area to support a school, the village centre is these days a collection of mainly abandoned buildings, silent witnesses to the small but thriving community hub that once existed here. Two vehicles wait to be filled up at the long abandoned service station. Chances are neither of them with be going anywhere any time soon.
Sprent is named after a Scotsman, James Sprent, one of a team of surveyors who took part in the first trigonometric survey of Tasmania in the 1830s for the production of the first map of the whole island. Upon his arrival in Hobart in May 1830, Sprent had established a "public School for young gentlemen", and later lectured on astronomy at the Mechanics Institute. Sprent became the Surveyor-General in 1857. He died 5 years later, age 55.
Continue travelling north from Spent on Castra Road and you'll be taken back down to the coast and the town of Ulverstone 13km away.