Van Diemen's Land Company


Van Diemen's Land Company's establishment at Emu Bay, 1832 (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

Nineteenth-century British businessmen were interested in developing colonial resources, and the Van Diemen's Land Company was formed in May 1824 to ensure a cheap supply of wool for British factories. The colonial experience of William Sorell and Edward Curr was enlisted. Directors sought a 500,000 acre land grant and Sorell suggested land between Port Sorell and Cape Grim. An 1825 Bill granted only half this area, 'remote from settlers'. No thought was given to the dispossession of Aborigines. A vanguard of officials left England in October assured of a company Charter, which was issued in November 1825. The chief agent (Curr), with Stephen Adey (superintendent), Alexander Goldie (agriculturalist) and Henry Hellyer (surveyor and architect), accompanied by surveyors Joseph Fossey and Clement Lorymer, arrived in Hobart in March 1826. Lt-Governor Arthur's reception was encouraging; however Arthur and Curr soon squabbled over the remote location of the grant.

The imminent arrival of the Tranmere carrying indentured servants, livestock and supplies pushed Curr into settling at Circular Head. The vessel arrived at George Town and awaited favourable winds. Meanwhile, convicts were assigned and sawyers were hired. The Tranmere arrived at Circular Head in October 1826. In atrocious conditions a small band struggled to unload cargo and erect primitive shelters, but the weather forced the Tranmere back to the Tamar. It was a month before she could return.

In December convicts refused to work and Christmas saw a brawl between convict and free servants after rum went 'missing'. Curr received news of 'insurrection' and found convict complaints justified due to no bedding, ragged clothing and poor rations. Adey's management was blamed and Curr acquiesced with a London request to reside at Circular Head, arriving in November 1827.

During 182627, Fossey, Lorymer, Hellyer and Goldie, with convicts and Company servants, climbed mountains and forded rivers in the search for suitable land. Goldie and Adey explored the coastline by sea and the colourful Jorgen Jorgenson attempted to find an overland route from Hobart to Circular Head.

From 1828 the Surrey and Hampshire Hills were developed as the principal sheep, wool and grain production centres. Woolnorth (established 1829) and Circular Head were only farms on a moderate scale. Two farms in 'settled districts' were used as stock depots.

In October 1827, the Company's grant was split with an added 'allowance' for 'useless land'. It ultimately comprised 100,000 acres at Cape Grim and 26,725 acres on nearby islands; 20,000 acres at Circular Head; 150,000 acres at Surrey Hills and 10,000 acres at the Hampshire Hills, 10,000 acres at Middlesex Plains, plus a 50,000-acre strip along the Emu Bay road. A track from the Emu Bay store to the Surrey Hills was in place by February 1828, followed by a long stock road from the Western Marshes.

Company establishments in 1832 consisted of Surrey/Hampshire Hills (population 62 men, 7 women and 10 children) with merely a store at Emu Bay; Woolnorth (24 men, 11 women and 25 children) and Circular Head (45 men, 11 women and 25 children). After Curr was convinced that Hampshire Hills was more picturesque than practical and Surrey Hills was not even 'second rate' sheep pasture, Circular Head was developed as the principal establishment.

Although imported stock bloodlines were a success, the prime purpose, wool production, was a failure. Thousands of sheep were lost during 183133, and revenue from wool sales realised just £20 000 from 1829 to 1852. The Company turned to cutting expenditure and seeking profit from land. Curr's reign was coming to an end just as the township of Stanley and the tenant farm allotments of Burnie were developed during 184142. Abrasive relations with Arthur and Franklin led to Curr's dismissal. His successor, James Gibson, also incurred displeasure for offering tenants a fixed price for crops. In 1842 there were 241 tenants, but by 1851 numbers rose to 846. The Company's farming operations were leased around this time.

Two controversial and complex matters created problems for the Company: their relations with Aborigines and their own servants. Firstly, the supposed humanitarian sentiments of directors towards Aborigines are often deemed mere outward show, especially in the light of violent acts by Company personnel. After early skirmishes, with huts burnt and sheep speared, three Aborigines were killed at Ritchie's stock hut in 1827. At Cape Grim, when shepherds attempted to 'take liberties' with Aboriginal women, a convict was speared in the thigh and over one hundred sheep were killed. Reprisal by shepherds on 10 February 1828 saw about thirty Aborigines killed. The despicable murder of an Aboriginal woman at Emu Bay on 21 August 1829 saw Arthur thwart justice and explain away the affair under the guise of martial law and personal disputes. The period 183642 saw the last free group of Aborigines faced with spring-loaded guns or man traps in huts that they had habitually plundered. The sad story of Company race relations saw at least two white men and possibly 36 Aborigines killed.

Secondly, Curr admitted being a 'coercive master' who doled out strict justice and discipline. Despite the benefits of rations, wood and water, differences between Company and colonial wages led indentured servants to abscond or seek legal loopholes to escape Company servitude. Such problems led Curr to proclaim that the Company 'owed everything we are and have' to the favour of convict labour. While settlers clamoured for convicts, the Company was (by deduction from quit rent) theoretically paid for taking them. Moreover, arrangements were made for agricultural workers sentenced in England for protest activities to be assigned as Company convicts. When convicts were no longer assigned, the Company still pressed for special consideration. As regards numbers, these ranged from 35 convicts in 1827 to a peak of 117 in 1835. Although Company convicts had a good reputation, incidents such as the escape of six convicts in a sealing vessel in 1828 or the 1835 plan to capture Circular Head and seize the Company schooner Edward are worthy of note.

Changes to the 1825 Act in Britain gave greater flexibility to the Company. Significant steps included the development of subsidiaries, such as the Emu Bay and Mount Bischoff Railway Company Ltd (1875, 1882) or the Burnie (Tasmania) Timber and Brick Company Ltd (1908). Flocks and herds were restored to take advantage of the west coast mineral boom. British domination was broken in 1954 when CC Busby, an Australian, became a director. A decade later Victorian grazier Alan Ritchie became Governor and was succeeded by his son in 1975. A Melbourne solicitor, GW Duxbury, was Governor for a decade or more in the 1980s. International influence was then exerted by Italians, including Count Giam Paolo Cicogna. A resurgence of English interests took place before Tasman Agriculture Ltd of New Zealand became the parent company from 1993. The main thrust of present policy concerns extensive dairy activities, sheep, beef, prime lamb and tourism at Woolnorth.

Matters of current interest include archaeological work at Burghley (formed 1828) undertaken by a team from La Trobe University; development of windfarms on Company lands; a Baseline Air Pollution Station at Cape Grim; conservation measures and presentation to the public of the former Company headquarters, Highfield, as well as custody of voluminous Company records.

Further reading: G Le Couteur, 'Colonial investment adventure', PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 1978; A Meston, The Van Diemen's Land Company, Launceston, 1958; H Stokes, 'The settlement and development of the Van Diemen's Land Company grants', Honours thesis, UT, 1964; K Pink, A history of north-western Tasmania, Burnie, 1990.

Geoff Lennox