Just outside the Derwent Valley town of New Norfolk is the rural community of Back River. The Back River Chapel was once an old Methodist worshiping house. The cemetery grounds contain a number of First Fleeters from January 26th 1788, one being Betty King. Betty has the distinction of being the last First Fleeter to die (1856) in Tasmania and perhaps Australia.
Betty also has another incredible distinction. She claimed to be and indeed it is mentioned on her tombstone, the first white woman to set foot in Australia. Now I know there will be claims that a French woman who, it is said, dressed as a sailor on two French vessels that anchored off Reserche Bay (1792 and again 1793) who was the first to do so. Let’s be fair, however. Even if she was aboard there is no evidence she came ashore.
So was Betty the first? Well, we should look at her story. Admittedly there is no record backing up her claim, but as she was a convict this is not all unusual.
Betty arrived as a prisoner and a somewhat troublesome one. The surname King came later after she lived with a marine, Samuel King, when spending some time on Norfolk Island. There is debate what her real name was, Thackey, Thackay, Thakcery, Hackery or Hackley.
After many months at sea, the First Fleet under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Botany Bay 20th January 1788 and six days later Phillip journeyed to Sydney Cove with a permanent settlement.
Betty and Samuel arrived to Tasmania after she had gained her freedom and they were married in 1810 by pioneer priest, Rev Bobby Knopwood. They settled at Back River and called their property ‘Kings Rocks’’.
Samuel was to die in 1849 while Betty lived into her early 90s dying 7th August 1856. Before passing on Betty told her amazing story to the father of land owner, Henry Shoobridge. She said that at the time of arrival January 26th 1788 she was acting as a Lady’s Maid.
She related that it was to be the Officer’s ladies who were to set foot on land first of all. However, they did not like the look of the surf through which they were to be carried with the possibility of getting a wetting. Just to be reassured they asked that a maid (Betty) be carried ashore first as a rehearsal. This was apparently done and as it was only a preliminary trial there was no official record was kept of it. However, no official account alters the fact of the incident, which was that Betty was carried and dropped ashore. In a letter dated 29th Mary 1955 Henry Shoobridge states this. The story does indeed seem feasible.
So impressed was Henry Shoobridge he placed a tombstone near to the exact spot of her burial, it reading,
Near this spot
Was laid to rest
The first white woman
To set foot in Australia
I am constantly amazed how this most interesting and important historical feature is not better known or promoted. It is a gem.
Tasmania has of course quite a number of burial places for First Fleeters (including one of my own ancestors) who came on the first Australia Day, now 231 years ago. Our connection is quite significant.
From that beginning various colonies came together 1st January 1901 to form the new nation of Australia. It came not by violence, revolution or civil war, but the Mother Country saw it was time for their child to grow up and leave home and to go its separate way. It’s a marvellous story. Right from the start that was the case, embracing our own Constitution and signing the Versailles Treaty of WWI in 1919 as an independent country. We developed our own peculiar form of government, adopting the Westminster system of Mother Britain and as we were a federation, modelled the Federal Upper House on the American Senate which was promoted by our own Tasmanian, Andrew Inglis Clark.
The point is of course, there would be no nation of Australia without the first settlement on January 26th 1788. Everything has to have a foundation and the foundation of our nation, which is the envy of the world, was on that date.
Australia has changed over the last few decades, sometime for the better, sometimes not. I have stated in previous publications that we are no longer a united nation, but Australia Day January 26th is the day which can bring us all together regardless of social, racial, religious or political affiliation. There are cries every year to change the day, but a poll conducted last week by the Sydney research firm, Research Now has found 75 per cent of Australians want the date to remain. That is huge. A poll conducted by a publication (of a left wing persuasion) in January 2017 said the same, with new arrivals providing a higher per cent. Fifty per cent of those Australians who claim aboriginality voted to keep the day as it is. Jacinta Price, Aboriginal Councillor for Alice Springs stated on the ABC Drum last year we should keep Australia Day January 26th and that any push to change is divisive. Well known political aboriginal activist, Warren Mundane said there are much more important things to worry about if we are to solve aboriginal health and wellbeing. The late Sir Neville Bonner, the first aboriginal senator, agreed.
Recently I was contacted by email regarding the fact that a number of people in London will also be celebrating Australia Day at the bust of Admiral Arthur Phillip (January 25th) which will be the 26th here. I was quite moved by this and they sent me a photograph of their observance for 2018.
We are a great country, despite our differences and problems. The question must be asked of everyone where else would you like to live? If of course you prefer somewhere else, then that is your right and choice and you have the option of leaving. Me, I chose to stay here.
The criticisms, indeed attacks on January 26th being Australia Day has already begun proceeding our national holiday for 2019. Charges from groups and individuals state it is offensive to a section of society and that it is quite inappropriate to hold it on the day the first British settlers arrived at Sydney Cove in 1788.
Councils nation-wide, even in Tasmania, have moved their citizenship ceremony from that date, Perhaps many of those Councillors are forgetting that they are there to represent the people as are all politicians and not themselves. They are as our representatives. Those Councils that have forced their opinion on the rest of their municipality have done so without their consent or support. There is an easy way of finding out the mood of the people and that is by a simply municipal referendum on the subject. Of course they would not want to do that as the result most possibly would not go their self-opinionated way. As one who is in favour of Citizens Imitated Referendum (CIR) this is one way to not only to let governments know what the people want but also a way to curb excessive government power and ambitions. That governments and politicians hate the concept means it has a lot going for it.
Back to Australia Day. There are those who say we should have the national birthday on the first sitting of Federal Parliament in Melbourne (May 4). Others say it should be January 1, the date of Federation. Under the previous Gray Tasmanian Government, Tasmania Day was inaugurated November 24, the day Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sighted our island. To have a national day on the date of sighting is unusual. Right across the world national days are usually held on the date of settlement or independence. Hence January 26th is most apt, the day Governor Arthur Phillip, half German half English, set foot on Australia’s shores which was the foundation of the nation.
From that humble beginning near 231 years ago (Jan 26 2019) settlements spread out across the continent. Towns and cities were established, farms and stations developed as did industry. Trade boomed, mining, communication with the coming of the telegraph, education, charities, churches and parliamentary democracy (to name but a few progresses) all occurred within those very first years. Self-governing colonies arose such as Tasmania (1856) just 53 years after Lt John Bowen’s raw settlement at Risdon Cove in September 1803.
Then the nation federated becoming one nation in 1901. Great strides rapidly eventuated with booming cities and centres, freedom of speech and movement, legal protections for the individuals and groups and we can go and on to the point where we were strong enough to fight successfully two world wars despite all their horrors. Post WWII saw a nation where, it would seem, most of the world wished to share our lifestyles and freedoms (although these are under threat from within). We have done something right. We have been successful even though there are those who are among us who criticise everything good about this country. Herein lies a truth; they can do so without any threat of persecution or even gaol. This fact is never admitted by those who wish to change society to their way of preference.
Unpalatable as it may seem to the critics, but a great deal of this heritage goes back to those beginnings of British settlement in 1788. Was it perfect? No it was not, but human nature is not perfect and those who again criticise, look at yourselves…are you perfect? Do you make mistakes? Do you error sometimes badly? Of course you do. Nonetheless, what developed from January 26th 1788 has been an outstanding success.
One must be blunt and again it will be unpalatable for some. The fact of the matter is if the British did not come here in 1788 or to Tasmania in 1803/4 none of us would be here, excluding naturally the full blooded aborigine; the government in Canberra would not be here (nor in Hobart), nor local government, none of our institutions; I would not be here (happy for some I suppose), our cities would not be here and so on, but perhaps one can get the point.
What occurred January 26th was the foundation of our nation. From that date developed, albeit slowly at first, then very rapidly a nation which is the envy of the world. For me, I would not have wanted it any other way. Those who have come to our shores know and appreciate this fact. Very few of our new arrivals are calling for the abolishment of our national day or for the abolishment of our national institutions, symbols and traditions. The call for change come from a very well-oiled and funded (mostly with tax payer’s money), often over educated with plenty of time on their hands.
I would like to answer the question why January 26th?
Many people may think that January 26th was the exact day the British arrived in New South Wales for the first time. Well, actually the British arrived at Botany Bay on the 18th January, after the eleven vessels sailed from England, 13th May 1787. We can only imagine the difficulties and challenges which faced all on that eight month voyage and admire the fortitude and endurance of our early settlers.
Upon arrival at Botany Bay, Governor Arthur Phillip was disappointed in what he saw. He had been instructed to go there on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society, when he had accompanied Captain James Cook to the area. Convinced that Botany Bay was unsuitable, after the rest of the fleet arrived, Phillip set off to explore together with David Collins, who was to play a major role in Tasmania’s history and John Hunter, later to take over from Phillip as Governor, a spot just north of Botany Bay. There he discovered Port Jackson which he described: “the finest harbour in the world in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security.”
Well satisfied with the choice he immediately returned to Botany Bay and transferred all to the new site. At sundown on January 26th, 1788 a simple ceremony took place at Sydney Cove. The English flag was raised, toasts were drunk and volleys were fired. The other ships came in soon afterwards and next morning the transfer began of men and tents, equipment and stores.
Thus was the birth of the Commonwealth of Australia. From this settlement of New South Wales, came firstly the colony of Van Diemen’s Land (1803) then all the others. As time progressed they became fully separated colonies from New South Wales, Tasmania in 1825, South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1850, and Queensland in 1859. The colony of Western Australia – independent from New South Wales - was formed in 1829. From the 1880s there was a concerted effort to bring all the colonies into one new nation and on the 1st January 1901, the colonies became States of the new nation of Australia.
So why not the 1st January 1901 for Australia Day? It is not unusual for a State or nation to celebrate its birthday on the date of settlement, so January 26th is apt indeed and from those very humble and harsh beginnings came Australia!
So how long has January 26th been celebrated as our birthday?
By 1808, January 26 was being celebrated as “First Landing Day” or “Foundation Day” with drinking and merriment. Thirty years after the arrival of the First Fleet, in 1818, the Governor of Australia, Lachlan Macquarie, ordered a 30-gun salute, hosted a dinner ball at Government House and gave government employees a holiday. In the following years, employees of banks and other organizations were also given holidays. In the following decades, horse racing and regattas were popular activities on January 26.
In 1838, Foundation Day was Australia's first public holiday. It was also the occasion of the first public celebrations of the founding of Australia. The shores of Sydney Harbour were crowded and there was a firework display. By 1888, January 26 had become known as 'Anniversary Day' and was celebrated in all colonies except Adelaide. In 1888, the centenary of the arrival of the First Fleet was celebrated with ceremonies, exhibitions, banquets, regattas, fireworks and the unveiling of a statue of Queen Victoria.
By 1935, January 26 was known as Australia Day in all states except New South Wales, where it was still called Anniversary Day. In 1938, large scale celebrations were held. These included a re-enactment of the landing of the First Fleet.
From 1946, January 26 was known as Australia Day in all states. However, the public holiday was moved to the Monday nearest to January 26 to create a long weekend. Since 1994, the Australia Day public holiday has been on January 26 in all states and territories.
We should be proud of the accomplishments of our people and of the nation. This why we celebrate our nation’s birthday on January 26th....
The Palace has announced that there will be no public events to mark the occasion, but there is no doubt there will be many private functions to recognise the anniversary.
The Queens has served her people well, even republicans admit to this. On September 9th 2015 she became the longest serving monarch in British history, breaking Queen Victoria’s 63 year old reign. It was unlikely that she would become Queen at all. In 1936 with the unexpected abdication of her uncle King Edward VIII had the crown pass to her father, George VI thus paving the way for Elizabeth to ascend to the throne. On February 6 1952 she and Philip were in a remote part of Kenya when the news came through of the death of her father who had been ill. Queen Elizabeth II (although technically speaking Queen Elizabeth I for Scotland) was crowned Queen, June 2 1953. A young lady had inherited enormous responsibility, yet she did not shun the prospect.
On taking her oath at the coronation she promised to “govern the people” of her various realms, not the Government of the day nor to serve the Government, but the “people”. Her role is an independent identity. She finished by publicly stating, “The things which I have before promised, I will perform and keep, so help me God.” She certainly has fulfilled her oath. How many governments, politicians, public officials have done likewise? She serves her people.
Her and the Prince’s relationship with Tasmania came very early in 1954. Indeed, she was the first resigning monarch to embark on a tour of the crown’s expansive Dominions. First it was to Fiji in the Pacific and other British possessions, then an extensive tour of New Zealand. Aboard the royal yacht Gothic they sailed into the Tasman Sea where the Royal Australian Navy vessel, HMAS Australia took over escort duties sailing first into Sydney Harbour and elsewhere on the mainland.
Then it was Tasmania’s turn, when on February 20th the Gothic glided into Hobart. After the vessel’s berthing, the Royal couple were taken to the Town Hall to be met by the Lord Mayor of Hobart, Sir Richard Harris, the Governor of Tasmania, Sir Ronald Cross and Premier Robert Cosgrove. It was notable the first official gathering in their Australian tour was in Hobart when 22,000 school children gave a display at North Hobart Oval.
In my possession I have a beautiful glossy red-covered souvenir of the “Opening of Parliament by The Queen 1954.” It was presented to me by the late Dr George Howatt, an American Political Scientist who was a great admirer of Constitutional Monarchy. It is an attractive presentation A4 size which gives a detailed account of the historical occasion. The Royal couple then toured Tasmania and eventually left our shores.
Since then of course there has been substantial changes throughout the world. Worse of all was the “dark decade” in which Charles and Diana divorced (1996) followed by Diana’s death (1997) and before that the burning of Windsor Castle (1992) the year when looking back was described by the Queen as her “annus horribilis”. Yet come 2017 the Queen is greatly revered world-wide, a lady who has fulfilled when she promised to “sincerely pledge myself to your service…throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.” (Coronation Day Speech, June 2, 1953). How many politicians have said that and if they have, fulfilled their pledge?
Over the decades since 1954 there have been a number of visits by the Royal couple to Tasmania, 1963, 70, 77, 81 and 88. The last being the year 2000, but can I add just this? This last time one of Prince Philip’s functions was to unveil a plague to our naval history at Anzac Park, Lindisfarne at which I attended. I noted however, those loyal subjects such as I, together with my friend, the late Michael Hodgman were held back from the event by barriers. The Prince then arrived to do the honours accompanied by officialdom who were by reputation, republicans, I mused about the comical situation of it all….loyalists held back, while republicans were in the official party. There is no doubt in my mind, the Prince was very aware of this….the first thing he did when alighting from the car, was to turn and wave to us….I still l have the photograph.
The Royal Couple’s devotion to each other and their belief in the institution of marriage sets an example to all. When in Australia near 50 per cent of marriages fail and their average span is twelve years, it is important the example they have set is recognised. When the two Fabian Socialists, Gough Whitlam and Lionel Murphy brought in the Family Law Courts, Murphy boasted that “this will destroy the family”. Now couples can be divorced after just twelve month’s separation and neither party are required to give a reason why they wish to divorce. Made all too easy.
Reg A. Watson is a Tasmanian historian and author and Tasmanian Convenor for Australians for Constitutional Monarchy.