George Town and District Historical Society Inc.
Promoting the History of the George Town District

Tamar Valley Tasmania

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Postal Address
310 Low Head Road
Low Head TAS 7253

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For 6 years George Town was the headquarters of northern Tasmania. Established by Order of Governor Macquarie in 1811, and intended as the headquarters for northern Tasmania, the settlement was occupied by the officers in 1819, and as soon as that occurred, there were official calls for the headquarters to be changed. George Town attracted only one free settler, and so disgusted was one medical officer with his appointment there, that he took himself off to Hobart Town to see Lieutenant Governor Sorell and have the appointment changed. He became the first Government official to be dismissed for refusing to take up his appointment in the town.

For the last sixty five years George Town has been an industrial town. Its factory workers and Housing Commission homes made it for many outsiders a not particularly nice place in which to live, let alone have a holiday. Yet for most of its existence that is what George Town has been - a holiday town for the people of Launceston and even further afield.

Immediately after the return of government headquarters to Launceston in 1825, George Town quickly gained a reputation as a holiday resort. It had three advantages. First was its location by the sea. Its weather in summer was much cooler than that of Launceston, something which the English officials and settlers appreciated. The sea air gave it a reputation as a place to which the sickly could repair to recover their health. The second was its prolific fishing. Thirdly was the availability of cheap houses. With the transfer of government officers and convicts, many buildings were unoccupied and were sold for a song. One described buildings costing over £100 to build were offered for sale at £2/10/-.

In January 1826 Balfour, the Commandant at Launceston and recently widowed sent his children to George Town for a holiday. He reported to Lieutenant Arthur,

I have arranged to send my young folks to George Town for a little sea Bathing, two of them appear to require it. Mrs. Walker has kindly offered to accompany them with her children as I cannot well leave this.

In the late 1820s and 30s, George Town became a resort for Government Officials and those free settlers who held sway with the authorities. The road from Launceston to George Town was little used and dangerous, as it passed mostly through forest and, until the late 1830s, there was always a danger of bushranger attacks. There was no regular boat service between Launceston and George Town. To get there one had to know ship’s captains, or be able to hitch a ride in a government boat.  The journey could rarely be completed in a day, and it usually involved an overnight sleep in one of the flea ridden inns, or in the open. This restricted visitors to a select few. Nevertheless during the 1830s four public houses were opened in the town to cater for the holiday makers. One, the Waterloo Tavern, advertised “containing suitable rooms purposely for the accommodation of Families, who may be inclined to visit the sea side for the purpose of Bathing in the summer season; and upon the most moderate terms possible.”

One who visited for a holiday was George Hobler, who owned the farm Killafaddy, on the banks of the North Esk River on the outskirts of Launceston. He visited George Town in 1831.

to find some cottage in George Town that I could buy for a trifle, as a change of air and scene, and salt water, for the children in the summer, and to enjoy a little of the excellent fishing to be had there myself.

Hobler spent a day fishing, and next morning bought a three room weatherboard cottage from an emancipated convict for £10, before returning to Launceston. On the journey to and from George Town Hobler was forced to spend a night sleeping at convict sawyers’ encampments. In October he took his family there, going with the Port Officer, Captain Welsh. Welsh was on his way to George Town “to put himself under Dr Smith hands for a month.” They stayed the night at Birrill’s public house, a dirty flea bitten hostel, where they had to provide their own bedding.

Even though the weather was unkind, the Hoblers enjoyed their holiday.

The children were delighted with a ramble on the beach and each filled his bucket with shells and sponges of different sorts, in the course of the week made up several picnics among the Visitors there, had a day or two's fishing catching gurnets, blue heads rock cod and flat heads and a few parrot fish.

George only stayed one week before returning to the duties of his farm. His wife Ann and the children remained for a month, returning with Captain Welsh. George visited them twice, each time staying only one night. The necessary supervision of convicts made it impossible to have larger breaks. The holiday over Hobler sold the cottage for £20, doubling his investment.

Hobler’s holiday was typical. Visitors spent their time fishing, walking and visiting the few settlers and officials at George Town and across the Tamar River at Kelso and Clarence Point. Taking the sea air seemed to be the most important advantage of the place. But there were dangers, especially in the late 1820s and early 1830s when bushrangers prowled the lower Tamar area. During the Brady scare of 1826 Colonel Balfour made a hurried trip to George Town to rescue his children and bring them back to the relative safety of Launceston. In December 1833 the George Inn was raided by bushrangers, who held the occupants captive all night, leaving with their booty before daylight.

In the latter half of the 1830s the land along the river’s edge between George Town and Low Head was sold for holiday homes or “villas”. The allotments were purchased by Midland graziers and Launceston businessmen but only one villa was built: Marion Villa, for James Cox of Clarendon. Launceston merchant Henry Reed also built a small cottage at Low Head. Others, however, owned houses in George Town which were used for holidays.

The second period in George Town’s history as a holiday resort began with the introduction of paddle steamers on the River Tamar in the 1840s. The first to operate regularly on the Tamar was the Gypsy, introduced in 1842 between Launceston and George Town.

At first the Gypsy operated weekend excursions during the summer months, leaving Launceston on Saturday afternoon and returning on Monday morning. This enabled the wealthier classes to spend time in George Town, or businessmen to leave families there during the summer months, and visit them each weekend. Occasionally there were Sunday trips, advertised to reach George Town in time for the church service, returning to Launceston that night. In March 1843 there was a special weekend trip for the horse races and regatta at George Town. A similar trip to the Regatta in February 1845, with the band of the 96th Regiment providing entertainment, attracted 170 passengers and accommodation in the village that weekend was taxed to its limits.

One unnamed visitor in December 1845 recorded his weekend in George Town. Arriving by the Gypsy on Saturday afternoon, he stayed at the Steam Packet Inn, near the wharf. An after dinner walk around the town that evening, was followed by an early morning swim at the hotel’s bathing house, and a long walk along the banks of the river to Marion Villa. He returned to the hotel for breakfast, changed for church, and in the afternoon took a stroll to the signal station on Mount George. A 3.30 pm dinner at the Inn was followed by an evening’s sail down the river.  Next morning he had another swim, a walk and a hearty breakfast before boarding the Gypsy for the return to Launceston.

The Gypsy struggled to make a living, but was withdrawn from the run after nine years. Thereafter a succession of operators tried their luck on the trade. Most failed within a year, but steamships more or less plied the Tamar on a regular basis, at least during the summer months, until the mining developments of the 1870s made the trade more viable.

Botanist William Harvey described a trip from George Town to Launceston in 1855 in one of these paddle steamers, the

Genl. Wynyard more commonly called ‘the Puffer’ because she is a little high-pressured low-power thing ... and travels at about 5 or 6 knots p hour, under the most favourable circumstances only. She never ventures to go against the tide. To-day we had both wind and tide in our favour and so performed the distance of 38 miles in the extraordinary short time of 6 1/2 hours!-It was a little tedious perhaps….

 As Launceston grew into a commercial and industrial town, a sizeable middle and artisan class developed. The monotony of regular hours of work and a 5½ day working week was relieved by the occasional public holidays, when the workers could escape the town for a day in the country. One venue was a day trip by steamer to George Town. The steamship companies relied on these excursions for much needed income. Boxing Day and New Years Day were especially popular.

The steamships plying between Launceston and Melbourne also joined in the excursion trade. On New Year’s Day 1864 the Tasmanian Steam Navigation Company’s new vessel City of Launceston took almost 700 passengers to George Town. It continued on to Lagoon Bay for a view of the Heads before disembarking the rest of the passengers. After three hours at George Town it returned to Launceston in 31/4 hours. The steamer was so crowded there was no room for dancing. The company regularly ran such excursions at Christmas or New Year until the 1880s, when vessels became too large to moor safely in York Cove. In 1880 more than 900 passengers made the trip on the Flinders

Passengers also boarded or disembarked at George Town on regular runs from Launceston to Melbourne, at George Town, and a special boarding boat operated between the ship and the shore. Thus George Town regularly had visitors from the Australian mainland. The hotels and lodging houses were kept busy well into February, and even as late as March.

The most bizarre of the holiday excursions were provided by Launceston entrepreneur Edward Ackerman. In the mid 1850s he salvaged the barque Earl Dalhousie from Whirlpool Reach, and converted it into a floating bazaar and bathing house, which he anchored near the Cataract Gorge. The hull contained a well stocked library and a large range of books, pictures and prints were for sale. On the lower deck were two swimming pools. In addition there were also mineral baths available.

For New Years Day 1857 Ackerman advertised that the baths would be towed to George Town and back. Up to 500 passengers read in the library, danced to the music of the German band and swim in the baths. These excursions usually organized by one of the Launceston Lodges, continued until 1860. However on the 26th December 1859 the baths, on their return trip from George Town, had to be run ashore because of fears the barque was sinking. While the baths were being filled, some boys had sneaked underneath and opened valves, which emptied the water into the hull. The Marine Board, however, certified that the baths were safe, and Ackerman announced they would no longer contain water while being towed. The already advertised trip for New Years Day 1860 proceeded, but it was the last. This, though, may have been due more to the costs of towing the baths, than passenger fears about their safety.

By the late 1870s there were many steamships on the Tamar, taking cargo and passengers to the mines at Beaconsfield and via George Town to Lefroy. They also serviced the North West coast towns and the tin mining ports of the north east. Many doubled as excursion boats on holidays. Despite competition from the railway, the excursions were popular. Clubs and church groups often would charter a vessel for a group picnic or for raising funds. On Boxing Day 1874 three steamships took some 450 passengers. Bands or portable harmoniums were aboard to entertain the passengers, and at George Town the whole population usually turned out to greet them. The excursionists would have from three to four hours ashore and would picnic along the beach, or in the village square. Some would walk along the shore, even as far as the lighthouse some three miles away. Some of the steamers would continue on past the Heads and out to sea, to give the braver passengers a “taste of the briny”.

A fleet of privately owned steam launches added to the holiday makers. By the 1890s the Tamar River boasted nine such launches, which gathered regularly in York Cove at Christmas and Easter. On Maunday Thursday 1893 a fleet of these steam launches gathered at Launceston’s Town Pier preparing for the Easter break in the lower reaches of the Tamar and even further.

The steam yacht Nellie was freighted with her captain’s family, friends, children’s perambulators, toy carts, shovels, buckets and etceteras, obviously intended to be made use of to excavate the East Beach sand hills. The Ione was next armed from stem to stern with rifles, guns, duck punts, duck decoys, and as many mre cunning devices which foreboded destruction to the wary duck intending to view Easter from the Tamar banks.

There were also those who spent their holidays in George Town. Sir Hudson Fysh later wrote of holidays at the turn of the 20th century, in the family cottage on the village square. Another was John Orchard, who spent many a happy vacation in his uncle’s holiday cottage on the banks of York Cove, boating, swimming and fishing. He also engaged in the illegal harvesting of oysters from the rocky shores of Bell Bay. The oysters were placed in a hemp bag over the stern of his boat: if anyone caught him, the evidence could be quickly disposed overboard. Elsie Sutton kept a diary of her holiday at George Town in January 1903. This is a more sedate vacation than the boisterous activities of John Orchard. She recorded visits to the wharf to see the steamers arrive and depart, swim’s at Mr. Widdowson’s private bathing house, games of ludo and draughts and preparations for the local Methodist church Sunday School Anniversary and picnic, which marked the climax to her stay.

The early 20th Century saw three major developments which changed the pattern of holidays. The first was the motor car, which allowed a far greater range of venues for holidays and day trips, and challenged the viability of the river steamers. New resorts such as Bridport and Greens Beach developed.  The second was the development of camping, which made the holiday maker independent of the hotel or guest house. Both of these changes while increasing competition from other resorts made George Town more accessible as a holiday venue.

The third was the advent of the surf and the beach as the main attraction for holiday makers. Low Head with its river beaches at Lagoon Bay and Pilot Bay and its surf at East Beach, became increasingly popular, and the emphasis gradually shifted from George Town to Low Head. The first holiday homes at Low Head had been built in the 1870s but from about the turn of the century Launceston businessmen started to adopt it as their holiday venue. There was intense competition to hire the buildings on the Pilot Station and cottages were built beside Pilot Bay. Families would spend the summer there, with the men returning to Launceston to work during the week. Preparation for the holiday in a small hamlet, where there was no electricity and with limited access to shops was quite a business.

In addition Low Head became very popular for day trips. As roads improved and cars became more ubiquitous an increasing number travelled on weekends and holidays to swim at Low Head.

The mixture of the old and the new can be seen from a newspaper description of the Christmas-New Year holidays of 1921-22.

During the past week George Town has been inundated with visitors, every hotel and boarding house being taxed to its utmost, besides numerous tents in various localities. There is also quite an army of people living on the water in motorboats, yachts, etc. Every year finds new faces visiting George Town, which now claims to be the premier seaside holiday resort in Tasmania. All kinds of sports have been indulged in during the past week, including bathing, picnicking, cricketing, and impromptu dances,...

On Friday night last a concert and dance were held in the local hall, which was packed to the doors,...

On Saturday both the river and road were well patronised with travellers making the George Town and the Heads. In the evening a dance was held in the hall... The Rowitta arrived on Sunday with a fair complement of passengers.  On Monday the Town was very lively with motor cars and bikes running to and from the Heads, the great majority being bound for East Beach for surf-bathing.  The Rowitta arrived about midday with a fair number of passengers, and left on return at 3.30 p.m., when a general exodus took place.  There are still a great many families staying in George Town and this state of affairs will more or less exist until well after Easter.

As river steamers gave way to motor cars, camping and holiday shacks replaced the hotels and boarding houses, and seaside activities changed from sheltered bathing spots to surf beaches, George Town’s pre-eminence ended. New resorts such as Bridport and Greens Beach developed, and the greater proportion of visitors were day trippers in cars, travelling to the Heads. After 1924 only one steamer, the Rowitta, remained in service, being withdrawn in 1941. Construction of the aluminium smelter at Bell Bay in the 1950s finally changed George Town from a holiday and fishing village into an industrial town.

Industrialisation did not put an end to holiday making at Low Head. In fact the number of shacks increased. Judicious subdivision by the larger land owners prevented Low Head from being swamped by the urban development of George Town. Today Low Head still is a holiday centre, and its beaches and heritage maritime buildings are major attractions for day trippers and tourists. With the advent of the Sea Cat in 1991, George also began to receive numbers of holiday makers. Perhaps it too is gradually returning to the economic base which has characterised most of its life.


Peter Cox

George Town and District Historical Society Inc.


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