Cultural Artefact: Urbanisation


Tasmania is a striking exception to the dominant pattern of Australian urbanisation. Historians mesmerised by the glories of 'Marvellous Melbourne' and 'Emerald City', seldom pause to consider the distinctive qualities of an island-state with two strong centres, rather than just one; or of towns where emigration rather than immigration, stagnation rather than growth, have been the rule. In Tasmania, the primacy of the capital, Hobart, was more closely contested by the second city, Launceston, than in any other Australian state.

Chance, as well as logic, played a part in the foundation of Australia's cities. Hobart owed its primacy to a unique set of circumstances. When David Collins established a British settlement on the Derwent in 1804, he sought to forestall a potential threat from the French, whose navigators had been exploring the island's southern coast. He believed that the location he chose, athwart the southern seaway from Europe, would afford a 'port of shelter' for ships on their way to China and the Pacific. Yet, as Geoffrey Blainey has argued, Matthew Flinders' discovery in 1798 of a shorter and easier sea route through Bass Strait, might just easily have pointed towards a settlement on the northern coast. It was only because Collins had been deterred by the tortuous entrance to the Tamar River, and its unfortunate resemblance to the environs of his recently-abandoned settlement at Port Phillip, that he ignored the preference of his superior, New South Wales Governor King, to plant a settlement there. Eventually, with the opening up of Port Phillip and the discovery of gold on the Australian mainland, the Bass Strait connection became a stronger influence, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the northern ports, collectively, rivalled Hobart. By then, however, Hobart had too long a lead to be overtaken.

Founded to thwart the French, Van Diemen's Land was settled as a British penal colony, a development that also favoured its urbanisation. Many convicts had come from the towns and cities of Britain, and gravitated towards urban trades and ways of life. The penal administration also tended to draw population towards Hobart, the seat of government and site of the commissary. Convicts comprised about one-third of Hobart's population in the 1830s and freed convicts were almost as many more. The mutual suspicion of bond and free reached from the street and the workplace into the inner sanctum of the household. Colonial administrators feared the moral effects of concentrating so many vicious graduates of London's criminal underworld in the seaport towns. They sometimes looked for ways of dispersing them. Shortly after his arrival in 1824 Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur actually proposed to move his capital from Hobart, whose situation he regarded as 'exceedingly ill-judged' from both a climatic and strategic point of view, to New Norfolk, farther up the Derwent. Separating the convicts from 'the dissolute habits and associations of Hobart Town' would also assist their rehabilitation, he believed. But Arthur's superiors vetoed the plan and the capital remained in Hobart.

Town growth in Van Diemen's Land, as elsewhere in Australia, reflected the distinctive economic demands of the surrounding region. For the first half-century of Australian settlement, the towns looked outwards towards the sea, as much as inwards towards the bush. Maritime industries, such as sealing and whaling, contributed about a quarter of the colony's exports in the 1830s, and waterfront areas like Hobart's Salamanca Place and Wapping were dominated by wharves, warehouses, shipyards and the cottages of sailors and wharf labourers. Manufacturing industry was slower to develop. During the 1820s water-driven mills, breweries and distilleries sprang up along the Hobart Rivulet and at the mouth of Launceston's Cataract Gorge. Meanwhile agricultural and pastoral settlement advanced from both the southern and northern coasts towards the island's fertile midlands. Wool and wheat were the colony's largest exports by 1840. Towns and villages to serve the agricultural hinterland grew up along the valleys of the Derwent, Tamar, Macquarie, Esk and Ouse, their sandstone cottages, church spires and winding streets often reminding travellers of their English counterparts. New Norfolk, Longford, Oatlands, Evandale and Campbelltown were little more than villages (under 500 population). Hobart, the colony's largest town, with a population of approximately 6000 in 1830, was more than twice as large as the second, Launceston, with 2800.

Despite the convict presence, Van Diemen's Land's towns had a reassuringly English look. 'Hobart Town looks like a country village in England', GWT Boyes observed on arriving in 1826. 'It contains perhaps half as many houses as Petersfield [Yorkshire] and is spread over three times the space of ground, which is much more undulating. The houses in Macquarie Street are neat and handsome, generally of two stories and either whitened or in red brick, they are places some distance apart.' Hobart and Launceston were quick to take up the contemporary English enthusiasm for suburban living. By the 1830s George Arthur, following the example of his New South Wales superior Ralph Darling, was encouraging respectable colonists to flee the squalor of Hobart by occupying villa allotments on the town's picturesque north-western and southern fringes. 'The suburbs of Hobart have latterly undergone a marked and very decided improvement', the Hobart Town Gazette observed in 1832; 'handsome villas and enclosures occupying ground in every direction.'

The scope for urban growth was limited, however, by the size and economic prosperity of the colony's hinterland. In Van Diemen's Land the best farming and pastoral land was soon taken up and the opportunity to make new fortunes was limited. Even in the 1870s almost all Tasmania's landed wealth was in the hands of colonists who had arrived before 1830. Ambitious men began to look back across Bass Strait to the new pastures of Australia Felix. In 1835 rival syndicates headed by Launceston businessmen John Batman and John Pascoe Fawkner illegally seized the site of present-day Melbourne. Their audacity was a measure of the frustration generated by the closing of the frontier in Van Diemen's Land. For a time, the prospect of new lands across the Strait fuelled prosperity along the north coast, with local farmers and manufacturers helping to supply the needs of squatters over the Strait. Launceston, a trading port with a vigorous middle class of businessmen and shopkeepers, and strong links with the mainland, assumed a more open and democratic character than the southern capital with its more elongated social structure defined by a tight official elite, at one end, and a convict substratum, at the other. While Hobart tended to Anglicanism, paternalism and political conservatism, Launceston became the home of religious Nonconformity, self-improvement and political liberalism. It was also, not surprisingly, the birthplace and stronghold of the anti-transportation movement.

Port Phillip had begun as an outpost of Launceston, but its hinterland was larger, and, as it turned out, much richer. The discovery of gold in the in 1851 created new opportunities for Tasmanian merchants, farmers and pastoralists and fanned the light breeze of local commerce into a gale. Visitors to Hobart in the early 1850s found 'an opulent city' with an 'animation' and 'gaiety' that were almost 'exhilarating'. This, according to the historian Peter Bolger, was Hobart's brief 'golden age'. By the end of the decade that small window of opportunity slammed shut as Victoria built its own industries and erected tariff barriers to protect them. The welcome inflow of capital and migrants from the mainland was succeeded by a steady exodus of young Tasmanians, especially young men, to the golden metropolis across the water. The abolition of transportation began the removal of the stigma of convictism but also closed off one of the colony's oldest sources of wealth, the flow of funds from the British exchequer through the Hobart commissary. By the late 1850s the city had entered the 'Great Depression', a slump that would last another 25 years. A kind of lethargy seemed to descend upon a town now sometimes characterised as 'Sleepy Hollow'.

As the towns grew, so did the demand for roads, wharves, water supply, sanitation and other public improvements. In England, the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 offered a new model of how the towns should be governed and their development financed. This was the model adopted in turn by the towns of Sydney and Melbourne when they each became municipal corporations in 1842. The governors of Van Diemen's Land, however, were reluctant to confer the municipal franchise on the people of Hobart and Launceston, many of whom were still serving out their sentences, or had only recently completed them. For over a decade the towns' affairs were conducted by boards of appointed commissioners who, however, were severely hampered in their efforts by the reluctance of the government to grant sufficient funds and the citizenry to be taxed without elected representation. Not until 1857 were Hobart and Launceston placed on the same municipal footing as the other Australian cities, a delay which - in spite of the presence of some well-qualified experts like Hobart's medical officer Robert Officer - certainly retarded the cause of sanitary reform. Launceston did not get a modern piped water supply until 1857, Hobart until 1861. When Dr George Turnley was invited to report on the sanitary state of the two cities in 1875 he noted that Tasmania stood 'almost alone as a British Colony in having no legislative enactments nor any organization for the protection of the Public Health', except quarantine.

Between 1861 and 1881 the population of Hobart and its suburbs stagnated at around 25, 000. It was the only Australian capital city to grow slower than its hinterland. By 1891 its population was the most home-grown (almost three-quarters born in Tasmania), Anglican (54 percent) and elderly (10 percent over 55 years). During the 1880s, when mining generated new prosperity throughout the island, Hobart experienced a brief resurgence, increasing to around 33, 000. Launceston meanwhile grew from 10, 000 in 1870 to almost 18,000 in 1891, or 22, 000 if the suburbs are included. While Hobart continued as the administrative and political capital of Tasmania, Launceston had become its commercial capital, home to most of the new mining companies, and a port now handling more exports than Hobart. The colony's centre of gravity was moving north and west, as agriculture and pastoralism declined in the south and midlands, and new farming, forestry and mining regions opened up in the north. The colony's four largest country towns at the beginning of the decade (Longford, Westbury, New Norfolk and Campbell Town) were overtaken by towns on the mining fields (Zeehan, Beaconsfield) and in the new potato-farming, dairying and timber districts in the north-west (Devonport, Latrobe). Hobart, with only 22 percent of Tasmania's population in 1891, was the least dominant of Australia's capital cities (Brisbane with 24 percent was the only city to come close). But if Hobart and Launceston are regarded as sharing the functions of Tasmania's capital, the metropolitan share rises to 38 percent of the colony's population, similar to the ratio in the other Australian colonies.

Tasmania's towns were eager to acquire the symbols of modernity. A main railway line connecting Hobart and Launceston opened in 1876, although it was plagued by technical difficulties and poor returns until the 1890s. The 1880s boom generated a rush of grand projects: Launceston boasted that its Albert Hall ranked among the twelve largest in the world, and in 1893 it followed the example of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide in holding a Launceston Exhibition, designed to put itself on the international map. In the same year Hobart opened an electric tram service, the first in the southern hemisphere, and the only one in Australia to run with double-decker carriages. By bringing Sandy Bay and Glenorchy within easy reach of the city, the trams gave fresh impetus to suburban expansion.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Hobart's growth lagged even behind its modest nineteenth-century growth. In the 1920s it was growing at only half the rate of the other capitals. At the end of the decade an English visitor observed:

Hobart… has the air of an English country town that has shed its old houses and wandered down to the sea for a rest. Life runs placidly. You see the neatest gardens, the laziest dogs, the meekest cabs. Trains dawdle; and you could swear that the trams, as they turn the corner into Murray Street, near the cathedral - a windy corner - pull their skirts down over their ankles, the prudes.

After Federation, Tasmania's potatoes, hops, timber, butter and jam gained freer access to mainland markets but so did mainland manufactures to the Tasmanian market. Without a strong industrial base, the state's leaders believed, its towns and cities would slowly wither and die. Since early colonial times Tasmanians had utilised the streams running through Hobart and Launceston to power flour and timber mills, but the establishment in 1910 of the Hydro-Electric Power and Metallurgical Company represented a new phase in the state's industrial development. Hydro-electricity, a cheap and apparently inexhaustible source of power, could be conveyed by high-tension power lines to wherever it was needed to run assembly lines, refine metals or pulp paper. In 1929 the state government brought the power industry under state ownership; the Hydro-Electric Commission would become the most powerful of several state bureaucracies influencing the pattern of industrial, and indirectly of urban, development. It did not produce a clear shift in the pattern of urban development, however, until after the Second World War when Risdon, Burnie, Rosebery, Devonport and Ulverstone were among the most rapidly growing centres.

The Second World War marks an important threshold in Tasmania's urban development. The war stimulated agricultural and industrial growth, generating employment and lifting wages. Under the uniform tax legislation passed in 1943, surrendering income-taxing powers to the Commonwealth, the stream of commonwealth funds to the state also began to grow. Over the following half-century state projects, often directed to political ends, were arguably among the most potent influences on urban development. Prosperity promotes urbanisation, by stimulating both the production and consumption of the more specialised products and services that cities are best able to supply. For the first time in half a century, the growth of Hobart and Launceston in the 1950s and 1960s matched that of the other Australian capitals. About a quarter of Hobart's population growth between 1947 and 1961 came from overseas migration, mainly Britons, the group best matched, culturally and climatically, to this most 'English' corner of the country. In the late 1950s the state established an urban planning authority for southern Tasmania and a draft metropolitan plans was completed in the 1960s.

The map and look of the cities were changing. The car was enabling the cities to spread wider: the construction of new bridges across the Derwent (1964) and, to a certain extent, the lower Tamar (1968) opened up new suburbs to development. Here as elsewhere in Australia, the cities grew mainly by suburban accretion rather than extensive redevelopment at the centre: in the early 1960s approximately a quarter of Hobart's 1840s building stock was still intact. The historical phases of urban expansion were now clearly legible in bands of sandstone (early colonial), brick (late colonial), weatherboard (early twentieth century) and brick veneer (1960s-) construction. Shingle and later iron roofs were more common than tile. Gradually the shapes of late twentieth century civilisation - the motel, the service-station, the fast-food outlet, the convenience store - were being superimposed on the landscape.

Since the mid-nineteenth century cool summers, clean air and spectacular scenery had made Tasmania - the 'Sanatorium of the South'- a popular holiday destination. Well-to-do colonists with a week or two to spare would board the Taroona at Port Melbourne for a tour of the Apple Isle. By the 1960s tourism was already one of the state's major industries. Both major airlines had ran regular services from the mainland and from 1959 visitors could bring their cars on the Bass Strait ferry Princess of Tasmania. Many of the tourists were drawn by Tasmania's natural beauty, but by 1960, when a Tasmanian branch of the National Trust was formed, appreciation of the state's heritage of historic buildings and landscapes, including its cities, was also growing. The conflicts between modernisers and conservationists over Lake Pedder and the Franklin River were also being fought over plans to redevelop historic precincts like Hobart's Battery Point. Sluggish urban growth had preserved Tasmania's towns and cities from the ravages of twentieth century development, although many locals were more embarrassed by their shabbiness than proud of their historic ambience. What tourists wanted, they felt, was not more local colour but more international sophistication. In 1968 Tasmanians voted to allow Federal Hotels to redevelop the city's Wrest Point Hotel as a casino, Australia's first.

Cheap air travel and the electronic revolution may be changing the pattern of Tasmanian urbanisation once more. By the early 1990s a large gap had opened up between average house prices in Hobart and Launceston and in the mainland cities, especially Melbourne and Sydney. A trickle of retirees, attracted by the scenery, the leisurely lifestyle and affordable housing, began to settle in the picturesque towns of the east coast and the lower midlands, as well as in Hobart and Launceston. Artists, writers and self-employed intellectuals whose work allowed them to live where they pleased reinforced the trend until, by the turn of the century, the state was experiencing a real-estate bubble. For two hundred years Tasmania's cities have suffered, and enjoyed, the distinction of remoteness. Now the world is closing in, savouring the very sense of isolation that locals once longed to overcome. Mass nostalgia could yet be the making (or unmaking) of the place.

Graeme Davison

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