1937 - A History of Circular Head

The following article is from the Examiner Saturday 30 January 1937. It contains some historical inaccuracies which are observed in the footnotes. Overall, the broad sweep of the article is essentially correct, and it serves as a useful albeit compressed introduction to the history of Circular Head.



The history of the Circular Head district goes back to the days of Bass and Flinders, for it was these two explorers who discovered and named what they at first thought was a flat-topped island in 1798. Thirty years later the Van Diemen's Land Company had established itself here with a grant from the Home Government of 250,000 acres. Such was the beginning of the district which to-day seems to be in another part of the world, it is so different and so far removed from the rest of Tasmania. Out of an area of more than a million acres farmer-settlers have chosen many miles of land admirably suited to the growing of root crops, while in several parts of the municipality large timber mills deal with millions of superficial feet of hardwood, blackwood, myrtle and celery-top pine every year.

MUCH early history of the Circular Head district 110 years ago, when settlement was first being [established] and the Van Diemen's Land Company had commenced to explore the land taken up by them on the far north west corner of the island, has been written by some of the first visitors to this part of Tasmania. The first sight of the rugged country in those early days was a great disappointment to voyagers with the purpose of advancing agriculture on the "Caroline". Mrs. Rosalie Hare records that when the vessel arrived at Circular Head on January 19, 1828. "all were displeased" with what they saw. The Head, justly called Circular, presented a rather desolate sight. Here were plenty of trees, but they were of Stringey-bark. However, after she had spent a few days at the settlement Mrs. Hare wrote of the beauties of the place, praising the climate and the beache, and describing the bronze pigeons, native bread, black swans ("numerous in the river not far off the settlement"), the blue crab of ultra-marine colour, and the ferns which overran the settlement and had to be burnt before the land could be cultivated.

The First House

"A few minutes walk from Highfield," she continued, "were two beautiful ravines and many lagoons. The green hills with the straggling Ashec and the sea at the foot look beautifully picturesque. The new settlers, before we left, had a very good house built for four famlilies. Many of them, with the surgeon, proceeded to Emu Bay - another of the company's settlements."

Bass and Flinders discovered Circular Head in 1798, On December 5 of that year, when their boat, the Norfolk, was making slow progress along the north coast, they sighted what appeared to be a small flat-touped Isaland. A closer examination showed them that it was not an island but was connected with Tasmania and they gave it the name of Circular Head. A closer projection of jagged appearance they called Rocky Cape, and a steep cliffy head, still nearer to them, Table Cape, because of its flat top Flinders was particularly struck by the peculiar shape of the first head land, and describes it thus: "Circular Head is a cliffy round lump, in form much resembling a Christmas cake, and is joined to the mainland by a sandy isthmus. The land at the back is somewhat lower than the head, and is formed into very gentle slopes. A slight covering of withered grass gave it a smooth appearance, and some green bushes scattered over it much resembled at a distance a herd of seals basking upon a rock."

Formation of V.D,L, Co.

The pioneers, who in the early days had naturally to contend with many difficulties and drawbacks, met with instant success under the improved conditions established by Governor Arthur, and an era of prosperity set in. It was not to be expected that indications of their good fortune could long remain at home, and a company was formed in London under the name of Van Diemen's Land Company for the purpose of advancing agricultural and pastoral pursuits in the colony. In May, 1821, the company resolved to apply to the Home Government for a grant of 500,000 acres in Van Diemen's Land.1 Earl Bathurst, in April, 1825, partially acceded to their request, but in making them a grant of 500,000 acres asked a quit rent of 30s per annum for every £100 of the value of the good and produce land comprised in the grant. Some poor and unproductive land appears to have been given in. The Circular Head settlement comprised 20,000 acres. Of this sum 6000 acres were contained in the "Christmas Cake" peninsula, the rest forming a tract immediately continuous on the mainland and extending from Black River to Deep Creek. Starting from here, the officers of the Van Diemen's Land Company surveyed and explored many parts of North-Western Tasmania, and gave to various portions of it the names they bear to-day. Few schemes of colonisation in southern waters afford more interesting reading than that of the V.D.L. Company, which still flourishes.

The Best of the Coast

Writing of the district in 1821 , Mr. Edward Curr, of the company, stated: "Upon the whole, I am decided that Circular Head is the district on which we should commence. Circular Head is the best portion, I believe of any on the north coast. The good land there is almost continuous to the port, a great advantage." Mention of the V.D.L. Company and the explorative work of its officers would not be complete without mention of Jorgen Jorgenson, a Dane who penetrated much of the north-western part of the state to and beyond the Great Lake. On May 21, 1830, the company made definite arrangements with the Home Office intending to accept selections totaling in all 350,000 acres. During 1827 two new establishments were formed, one at Emu Bay and the other at Woolnorth. To the latter, in the Circular Head district, were sent some of the valuable fine-woolled sheep upon which the V.D.L. Company set such store. The establishment is described as "merely a sheep station " Shepherds were placed in charge of it, and the sheep sent there seemed to thrive. Around Cape Grimm, however, the natives were "a powerful, fine looking race of men," who a little later proved themselves very troublesome. In December, 1827 they made an attack upon the flocks at Woolnorth. Driving the sheep into the bend of a steep cliff overhanging the sea, "spearing some and beating others to death with their waddles, they killed 116 in all." A few months later the company withdrew all their sheep from Woolnorth for a time at least.

Came in Schooner

In 1826 a man named Adle arrived at Stanley in a whaling boat, and a few months later a schooner brought the first settlers and officers of the V.D.L. Company. At first the company merely leased the land to settlers, and it was not until recent years that blocks were sold. Michael Medwin was the first man to take up land outside the V.D.L. boundaries. He settled at Black River about 90 years ago, and was succeeded by his son, the late Fergus Medwin, at one time a member of the house of Assembly.2 The property still remains in the family. Highfleld, the site of the first settlement by the V.D.L. Company was at the Stanley end of Green Hills, a beautiful stretch of agricultural land that required little clearing. All the necessary tree-felling was done in the early days, and the land was used as a sheep run; nowadays it is fine dairying country which is also used for fattening cattle and potato growing.

Highfleld House is still occupied. A lot of the original glass is still intact in the windows, and until recent years, when the Ford family were in occupation, some of the original furniture was being used. This, however, was taken away when the Fords left for the mainland. Mr. H. F. Ford's grandfather came out with one of the company's first expeditions, and it was his son (the late F. W. Ford), who became lessee of Highfield. Stanley was settled a few years later than Highfield. and it was not long afterwards that vessels traded direct from Europe to the old wharf at Stanley.

Built 300-ton Schooner

Close to this old wharf a 300-ton schooner was built and launched by the late H. J. Emmett, son., father of H. J. Emmlett, who died a little more thlan twelve months ago. When Mr. Emmett, sen., was a police magistrate at Stanley he entertained Sir John Franklin at his home on one occasion. There is in the possession of the Emmett family now a rare document - a convict's free pardon.

Stanley was never a convict settlement, but the V.D.L. Company used to get convicts from the Government for work at Circular Head. In return they had to keep the convicts, but In addition the company received a small remuneration annually for looking after them. Help, however was forth coming by the establishment of a soldiers' barracks, the remains of which can still be seen on the Green HIlls, and sufficient soldiers to watch the convicts. Charles Darwin, after whom the electoral division of Darwin was named, visited Circular Head and Hlghfield in the thirties, and in 1837 wrote a book called "Origin of Species." The navigator of the Beagle. the vessel which brought Darwin to Tasmania, was Commander Stokes, R.N., who later wrote a book. "'The Voyage of the Beagle." in which he mentioned Highfield several times.

Stokes' writing was to cause argument in later years, for he spelt Hlghfleld 'Hyfleld." The Admiralty adapted this spelling, and it is only within the last ten or twelve years that residents have been able to obtain official recognition of the original spelling "Highfield." The district which Is now the Circular Head Municipality was governed by the Horton and Montagu Road Trusts before the inception of local government In 1907. The Circular Head Council was established at Stanley, the first Warden being Mr. H. G. Spicer, and the first council clerk Mr. W. T. Brown. Mr. B. Young occupies the position of Warden now, and Mr. M. Brumby has been council clerk since December 1918. In 1923 the headquarters of the Municipality were removed to Smithton, and back again to Stanley the same year, but only for a short time. The council chambers were then permanently established at Smithton. The municipality has no water scheme, but at present a retention scheme from creeks at Irish Town is under consideration for Smithton. Stanley had a town board just before the inception of local government.

Local Electric Light

A local electric light scheme was installed at Stanley in 1927, a crude oil semi-Diesel generator being used and the whole town served. This remained in operation until 1931, when it was superseded by the Hydro-Electric Commission's supply which was extended to the far North-West Coast where it now serves Stanley, Smithton, Irish Town, and Forest. The Municipality is one of the biggest in Tasmania having an acreage of 1,164,000. The annual value of ratable properly is £65,901, and the Population approximately 6700. District centres, apart from Smithton and Stanley, include Detention (or Rocky Cape), Black River, Mengha (or South Forest), Irish Town, Montagu, Marrawnh, Mount Balfour, Roger River, Montumana, Mawbunna, Nabageena (or Redpa), Trowutta, Edith Creek, Lialeah, Alcomnie, Broadmeadows, Mowbray Swamp, Mella, and Leesville. In addition to these places the municipality includes Robbins, Watkins, Hunters, Trefoil, Perkins, and the three Hummocks Islands.

Costly Timber

Every time a tree fell it cost him £. This statement was made by the late Fergus Medwin when referring to the big timber at the Forest, the district beyond the V.D.L. Company boundaries, the whole of which was originally referred to as the Forest. In the first days of settlement in this district more than 80 years ago, all the small timber was cleared and the big trees were ringed. These old giants of the forest remained for many years and then commenced to fall, one by one, and each time it cost Mr. Medwin £1. to remove them.

Among the early settlers who took up land were the Kings, whose descendants still reside in the district. The original members of the famlly who came to Tasmania arrived with the Van Diemen's Land Company's expeditions. The Hortons, after whom the road trust was named, and the O'Hallorans are other well known families.3 The original Mr. Breneny had the hotel at Stanley, and it is recorded in the old Police Court files that he brewed his own "grog" and thereby evaded the duty. His descendants also are brewers and live in Victoria. Other early farmers included the Anthonys, the Borrodales (the original member of whom kept the only chemist's shop in Stanley), and the Fergusons. The first Mr. Ferguson kept a hotel and also preached in the Presbyterian Church. It is recorded that he made a good job of both of them. Stanley has only three hotels now; formerly it had seven and a brewery, the latter being conducted by a man named Pegg, a returned soldier from the Napoleonic wars.

Church at Highfield

The local church in the district was Roman Catholic, and was built at Highfield in the days when Mr. Edward Curr was manager of the V.D.L. Co. The building is still used, but not as a church.

There is more to add from this article.4

  • 1. George Arthur was appointed governor in 1823 and took office in 1824 so this article is not chronologically correct.
  • 2. In fact Fergus Medwin was the son of Mathias Medwin who was in turn the son of William Medwin, pioneer settler of Circular Head.
  • 3. The Horton Road Trust was named after the district of Horton (so not after the local Horton family) which in turn was probably named after Sir Robert Wilmot Horton, see The Horton District forum topic for more information.
  • 4. "FAR NORTH-WEST SETTLED BY V.D.L. COMPANY." Examiner (Launceston, Tas. : 1900 - 1954) 30 Jan 1937: 2 Edition: DAILY, Section: SPECIAL SATURDAY SECTION. Web. 10 Aug 2014; http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article52121904.