Stephen Spurling, 'Launceston', 1879 (W.L. Crowther Library, SLT)

Launceston was a settlement hindered by indecision. Governor King of New South Wales, concerned with the presence of French explorers around Van Diemen's Land, urged the Colonial Office to allow a settlement to be established in Bass Strait, and Lt-Colonel William Paterson arrived in Port Dalrymple in November 1804. He established a settlement named York Town, but it suffered from lack of water and poor land. Paterson's exploration of the valley highlighted his concern for suitable land. This he found at Riching's Park at the confluence of the Tamar, North and South Esk Rivers. The settlement moved in 1806. During 1807, it disintegrated into anarchy. Many settlers, facing starvation, abandoned farms and hunted in the bush. Ten convicts escaped with arms and dogs, and Lt Laycock's intrepid expedition to Hobart was met with an inability to render assistance.

Governor Macquarie's administration from New South Wales hampered Launceston. Despite settlers' preference, he relocated the settlement to George Town due to unreliable water supplies and low-lying land at Launceston. After a succession of poor administrators he transferred administration of the settlement to the lieutenant-governor in Hobart. Commissioner Bigge's report conclusively recommended the Launceston site, and the settlement was reinstated in 1824.

Early industry focussed on whaling and sealing, active in Bass Strait since 1791. As land was cleared, wheat crops proved successful, and by 1830 wool showed promise. In 1813 free port status allowed trading vessels direct access to the port and the collection of customs duties. 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).

Entrepreneurs such as John Batman and John Fawkner looked to expand. In 1835 both made successful departures to Port Phillip to establish the village of Melbourne. Launceston grew, with the centre moving to Brisbane Street as shown in Smythe's map of 1835, the first urban survey map of its kind. In 1838, the Launceston Horticultural Society developed the area adjacent to Government Cottage as the People's Park. Dr William Pugh pioneered the use of anaesthetic at St John's Hospital in 1847.

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 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. The small Chinese population increased from the 1870s.

The financial troubles of the Launceston and Western Railway, completed 1871, reflected the economic lull prior to the discovery of tin at Mount Bischoff and gold at Beaconsfield. The resulting financial boom 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, inaugurated 1 January 1889.

The Bank of Van Diemen's Land became insolvent in 1891 and bankruptcies followed. The opening of the Albert Hall for the International Exhibition in 1891 was small relief. Parks too were developed including the Cataract Gorge on land made available to the city by William and Isabella Barnes. The Duck Reach Power Station was commissioned in 1893 and domestic electric lighting came to the city in 1895.

A new century heralded a new movement: 97 percent voted yes for Federation. Industry boomed and with it the expansion of the suburban areas of Trevallyn, Mowbray, East and West Launceston. In 1911 the first trams ran in Launceston to service these areas. As river trade expanded, the old wharves proved inadequate. Henry Hunter's report of 1912 recommended construction of a new wharf in Long Reach, a dry dock, dredging and altering the river's course. Although the wharf was later completed, the onset of the First World War retarded both public works and industry. In all, 1750 Launcestonians served in the war.

Recovery came in 1923 with two new industries, Kelsall and Kemp, and Patons and Baldwins. Employment eased the impact of the Depression. In the same year, a north versus south football match christened York Park (Launceston Football Club had begun in 1867). The 1929 floods dislocated 4000 people through Invermay, Inveresk and Margaret Street. Approximately 1000 buildings were damaged, causing an ill-timed repair bill. Yet it would be a decade of technology. In 1930, 7LA began radio broadcasting, in 1932 the Majestic delighted cinemagoers and the next year Ivan and Victor Holyman introduced commercial flights between Launceston and Melbourne.

Again the city was disrupted with the onset of the Second World War, but it provided the opportunity for many women to enter the work force. This was reflected in the election of Dorothy Edwards as Tasmania's first woman mayor in 1956. The Launceston Railway workshops in Inveresk were expanded to include both an ammunition and a tool and gauge annexe and to provide for the war effort.

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. The timely construction of flood levees between 1962 and 1965 by the Launceston Flood Protection Scheme reduced the impact of the 1969 flood but removed the river from the cityscape.

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.

Further reading: L Bethell, The story of Port Dalrymple, Hobart, 1980; The Cyclopedia of Tasmania 2, Hobart, 1900; J Reynolds, Launceston, Melbourne, 1969.

Anne McLaughlin