Dobbers and Cobbers


Dobbers and cobbers: informers and mateship among convicts, officials and settlers on the Grass Tree Hill Road, Tasmania 1830-1850: Peter MacFie: Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Vol. 35, No. 3, Sept 1988: 112-127


This paper outlines the construction of the Grass Tree Hill Road near Richmond, Tasmania. Using Richmond Police records and other colonial sources, the road’s construction is discussed and the longer-term implications of the road gang and convict system on Tasmanian and Australian society are considered. These effects were neatly paraphrased by Peter
Ustinov who, in reply to a journalist’s question at Sydney Airport, said ” I wouldn’t be worried about a society descended from convicts, but about a society descended from the guards.”

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Dobbers and cobbers

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Dobbers and Cobbers.pdf

Map of Grass Tree Hill Road Station.

By John Medbury, based on the field notebook of James Calder

Horse trough at Grass Tree Hill Road Station

(Photo Peter MacFie 2010)

Download drawing of Grass Tree Hill Road Station

Barnard sketch of Grass Tree Hill Road Station.pdf

Link to Simon Barnard’s book: “A – Z of Convicts”


Excerpt from “Dobbers and Cobbers”

The survival of the Richmond Police Magistrate records, Lands and Survey Department and other colonial correspondence allows the study of the Grass Tree Hill road gang. Intrigued with constant charges and counter-charges by convicts and overseers, in addition to official sparring, I was led to muse upon the impact of road gangs on colonial society, and by inheritance, 20th century Australia.

The other side of the mateship thesis of Russel Ward and others is a less likeable and yet equally strong and pervasive history of spying and informing. Generally known as “dobbing” or in union parlance, “scabbing”, fear of the traitor was all too real in Arthurian Van Diemens Land. Lt Governor George Arthur had introduced a system of “espionage”, as he called it, to de-stabilise any unity among convicts. Those forwarding information were rewarded with shortened sentences, tickets-of-leave, and positions as overseers and constables. The capture of absconders was especially rewarded with 10 pounds sterling the standard fee.[1] At Port Arthur, an allowance of tea and sugar was an incentive for overseers and artisans.[2]

Past interest in the Grass Tree Hill road has centred upon its title as the “Carrington Cut” and debate over whether the road was a whim of Lt Governor George Arthur. Louisa Ann Meredith traversed it in 1848 and commented only on the beauty of the view and the goodness of the road’s surface. Neither she nor later writers considered the impact on the individuals employed on a road gang or on the psyche of a society descended from overseer and convict.

The topography, land use and transport method dictated early routes. The low but rugged Meehan Ranges, separating the Derwent River from Pittwater and Richmond, proved an obstacle to both black and, later, white inhabitants. Tribal Aborigines were the first to move over the hills from Risdon to Pittwater. Bridle trails crossing from the Derwent were still often used well into the 20th century by farm-workers taking short-cuts over the Meehan Ranges. Perhaps the bridle trails followed the paths of the Aborigines? These trails may have been used by landed proprietors like Gregson, Knopwood and others crossing to the Coal River district for game hunting. Why would a hostelry at Dulcot on the road between Cambridge and Richmond be known as the Risdon Inn other than to signify the destination of the trail at Dulcot, a hamlet two miles from Risdon, on the other side of the Meehan Ranges? The exploitation of the Coal River Valley and the Pittwater district for cereals, potatoes and other crops, and livestock is well documented, as is the hunting of kangaroo and native emu. Evans and Knopwood reported on the sport, with two cart loads of kangaroos and emus being easily slaughtered before nine o’clock in a morning.[3]

The poor condition of the roads is commonly stated. In 1816, the Lt Governor was thrown from his carriage while travelling from Kangaroo Point to his Carrington property on the Coal River, causing him to be “considerably bruised.”[4] John Birchall and settlers from Pittwater were unable to deliver commissioned wheat to Kangaroo Point in 1816, owing to “the late heavy rains”.[5] Wade and other Pittwater settlers complained to Bigge in 1821 of the poor state of the road and the unreliable nature of shipping freights to Hobart, owing to fickle winds. Evans explains the delayed development of roads around Pittwater and the Derwent being due to the easy access to settlement offered by the waterways of estuaries. Evans describes the route to Launceston via “Kangaroo Point, the Coal River district and thence to the Plains of Jerusalem”, but indicates that the “best and general route” is via Austin’s Ferry, through Brighton.[6] At Risdon on the east of the Derwent, large farms were established, including Geils’ at Geils Town and Gregson’s at Restdown. Dr James Murdoch grew opium, rosemary, and camomile for medicinal use in the late 1820s.[7]

A route existed from Kangaroo Point (Bellerive) opposite Hobart to Port Dalrymple, the first northern settlement in the island. However, the commercial use of this route, and the development of Kangaroo Point as an industrial centre for transhipment of convicts, cattle and a slaughter house, as well as shipyards may indicate why the more genteel residents of Hobart Town preferred a more salubrious crossing point up-river at Risdon. The inspection of stock coming and going on the Port Dalrymple road to prevent cattle stealing slowed the sale of stock. In 1817, because of the difficulty of stockmen bringing cattle to Kangaroo Point from Port Dalrymple, stock owners were allowed to slaughter their own animals until the slaughter house at Kangaroo Point had been completed.[8] In the same year, Lewis, the auctioneer and owner of Llanherne advertised the sale of cattle at Kangaroo Point “now on the road from Port Dalrymple”. (The droving of stock from The Point to Tea Tree Bush may explain the two backroads crossing from Richmond. In 1819, 149 convicts per Lord Melville were landed at Kangaroo Point “the body of which went off direct for Port Dalrymple”.[9]

In addition to the industrial nature of Kangaroo Point, other reasons for seeking an alternative route into the interior included the unpredictable winds on the Derwent, which claimed lives in the early years of settlement, and the subsequent search for a narrower site over the Derwent. Pontoon and other bridge types were suggested during the 1820s and 30s and refer to the area now straddled by the Bowen Bridge. Across the Derwent, the upper-class residential district of New Town was situated. The Risdon ferry connected the genteel traveller to the macadamised surface of the Grass Tree Hill Road. Louisa Ann Meredith’s use of this route in 1848 is indicative of the kind of traveller using it. Was the road’s construction adjacent to New Town purely coincidence?

Construction of the Grass Tree Hill Road began in 1833. Despite Bryan’s accusations concerning the Grass Tree Hill Road being built to speed Arthur’s travels to his farm Carrington near Richmond, public meetings were held in Richmond to discuss the line the proposed road would take. These discussions followed agitation for improved roads in the district in the late 1820s. The demand by influential settlers for better roads indicates that roads were (and are) built to fulfil economic needs. The impact of roads and the motivation for their construction is an aspect of history ignored. Convict road gangs were apparently placed where commercial needs dictated. The particular line a route might follow was, however, fickle, and influenced by local pressures. Conflicting interests may result in a poor line of road, and not one an engineer may have chosen. (Arguments over the Main Line Railways route indicates the problem is perhaps typical for all communication routes.) In the 1840s attempts to economise by the Government forced land-owners to contribute to the cost of locating gangs performing road-building which benefited an individual. In 1844 Askin Morrison contributed toward the housing and maintenance of a probation gang at Parsons Pass, near Black Charley’s Opening on the East Coast Road.[10]

Indecision and poor planning is indicated by the fact that in 1836, three years after the start of the Grass Tree Hill Road, the public were invited to comment upon the line adopted by the Surveyor-General.[11] The slow progress of the road forced Arthur to consult with Cheyne, the Surveyor-General, who in 1835 was asked to survey three lines of road. The second was from “Grass Tree Hill to Richmond and then to Ross, with a branch to Oatlands and a branch to Little Swanport, Spring Bay etc”. (The other lines were to Sandy Bay, and from Sandy Hill to Reiby’s Ford (Hadspen), and New Norfolk to Hamilton).[12]

The Grass Tree hill route appears to follow that decided at a public meeting in April 1832 prior to gangs first arriving; the route proposed was from Derwent Park to Richmond at the narrowest point between Risdon and Geilston, then to Richmond, Jerusalem Plains (Colebrook), Flat-topped Hill and west of Blue Hill to Oatlands. However, further meetings continued to debate the virtues of various routes during its construction.[13]

End of Excerpt

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Footnotes from the excerpt

[1] Heard, D. The Journal of Charles O’Hara Booth, Hobart. 1981, P.22

[2] Heard, ibid, P.30.

[3] G.W. Evans. Descriptions of V. D. L, 1822, P.89.

[4] HTG August. l8l6 P.2, C.2

[5] HTG.31 August, 1816 P. 1,C. 1.

[6] ibid P.72.

[7] “Murdoch Centenary Publication”. 1922., Tasmaniana Library

[8] Hobart Town Gazette, 6 Sept. 1817

[9] HTG, 2 Jan., 1819 P.2, C.2

[10] Miscellaneous microfilm 62/3. A1091, 1st Oct. 1845. Archives Office of Tasmania

[11] Hobart Town Courier, 29 Jul., 1936 P.4, C.4

[12] Lands and Survey Department, 1/78/3, 22 Apr., 1835

[13] HTC, 19 Sept., 1837 P.2, C.3.