The history of the Fingal Valley and East Coast of Tasmania can be traced back some 30,000 years when the area was an important part of the lives of the Tasmanian Aborigines. It was home to the Ben Lomond Tribe (Plangermaireener) and frequently visited by bands from other tribes, particularly the Oyster Bay Tribe (Parederme). They roamed through the plains and along the river banks as far west as the huge mountains of the Ben Lomond Range, hunting reptiles, kangaroos and other animals.
Then in winter they would venture east to the great Molar Tooth, or Lumera Genena Wuggelina, as they called the peaked mountain at the eastern end of the valley.
(The mountain we now know as St Patricks Head). The Molar Tooth gave them the landmark to take them down to the coast where shellfish were in abundance to fill their bellies and provide materials to make necklaces and other ornaments to colour their lives. In season, the Oyster Bay band would head south and join up with their main Tribe and feast on the rich swan eggs found around Moulting Bay.
It was a simple life of hunting, fishing and caring for their families, as they followed the laws of their ancestors in preserving the land and their food supply. It was a sustainable lifestyle and one that would have continued for centuries if Dutchman Abel Tasman, in his ships Heemskirk and Zeehan, had not discovered the southern tip of the Great South Land in 1642 and named it Van Diemens Land.
As Tasman turned east towards New Zealand he recorded seeing a round bald mountain which could well have been the Aborigines’ Great Molar Tooth. It was some 131 years later before the next recorded sighting of the Great Molar Tooth. This was by Tobias Furneaux in 1773, who was at the time Captain of the ship HMS Adventure and accompanying Captain James Cook, who was on board the HMS Resolution on his second South Pacific voyage.
The Adventure and Resolution became separated somewhere in the Southern Ocean and Furneaux sailed up the east coast of Van Diemens Land. It was on St. Patrick’s Day, 17th March 1773, when Furneaux sighted the Aborigines’ Molar Tooth and named it St. Patricks Head after the eminent Patron Saint of Ireland. It was also the first Irish place name to be given in Australia and following this the area in the vicinity became known as the St Patricks Head District.
In 1803, only fifteen years after Captain Arthur Phillip led the First Fleet into Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour), Lieutenant John Bowen was sent to Van Diemen’s Land to setup a settlement on the banks of the Derwent River. The following year Lieutenant- Colonel William Paterson was detached to follow suit at Port Dalrymple, near the mouth of the Tamar River in the North.
Whaling and sealing was dominant along the east coast from the 1790s and it was more than likely a number of vessels sent their longboats ashore at various places along the coast to re-stock their supplies, such as fresh water and meat. But it was Captain James Kelly, on his famous voyage around the Island in 1816, who recorded the first landing in the area by a European. Captain Kelly and his men hauled their whale-boat onto what was to become known as Mariposa Beach, just south of Falmouth, on the 25th January 1816 to shelter from a severe westerly storm.
It was 1820, however, before explorer Henry Rice, in search of more farm land for the influx of settlers coming to Van Diemens Land from the British Isles, came up the east coast as far as Falmouth. He then scrub-bashed his way over the tier, past St. Patricks Head and into what he reported as a fine valley with good flat grazing land with ample water. Rice continued to follow what we now know as the Break O’ Day and South Esk Rivers, all the way to the Tamar River and Launceston.
As a result of Rice’s report, in 1821, a number of land grants were given to settlers, with James Gilligan being the first to settle at “Clifton Lodge”, ten kilometres east of Avoca. James Grant was next to take up a land grant in what was to become the Fingal Valley and settled at “Tullochgorum” on the banks of the South Esk River. In 1827 he was followed by William Talbot, who settled at “Malahide” at the junction of the South Esk and Break O’ Day Rivers. Further east on the Break O’ Day River Robert Legge settled at “Cullenswood” and Dr Alexander Thomson settled on “Logie”. Dr Thomson sold “Logie” to Francis Groom in 1841 and the property was re-named “Harefield”
By the 1830s the eastern end of the Fingal Valley, now known as the Break O’ Day Plains, was becoming well settled, with Frederick Von Stieglitz at “Killymoon”, Thomas Ransom at “Millbrook,” James Gleadow at “Frodsley”, Donald Cameron at “Londavra”, and Michael Bates at “Woodlawn”.
It was a hard life for the settlers, but with the help of the convict labour supplied by the Colonial-Government, they cleared their land and constructed their homes and outbuildings. Soon the Fingal Valley communities took shape around villages like Cullenswood, Fingal and Avoca. Each village had their own churches, post office, hotels, blacksmith shop and store to service the settlers. Each settler would have had tenant farmers and employed blacksmiths, grooms, shepherds, dairymen, carpenters, labourers, cooks and servants.
But the land owners of the Fingal Valley, unlike their colleagues who had settled near the rivers and coast, had a problem getting their produce to market. The only suitable way in or out was a rough track from the Main Road at The Corners (Conara) that was bad enough in the dry to negotiate with a horse and bullock teams, but almost impossible in the wet. Couple this with frequent flooding of the St. Paul’s River at Avoca, access to Hobart or Launceston was a continual concern.
For the settlers to survive, a more reliable access to the Valley was imperative. It was James Grant of “Tullochgorum”, however, who from early records, appeared to be the mover and shaker of the Valley. Around 1840 he took it upon himself to take up a petition and lobby the Colonial-Government of the day to build a road past St. Patricks Head and down to Falmouth where a rudimentary port operated.
Grant was obviously a persistent man and not without some influence, it would appear. In 1841 a Mr. Dawson surveyed a route on the northern side of St. Patricks Head which led to a convict probation station being set up in 1842 at Grassy Bottom. This was a grassy, flat area with plenty of water, on the foothills of St. Patricks Head. Once the Probation Station was built some 300 convicts were housed there. Another Barracks was established at Falmouth, housing another 150 and under the supervision of ex-naval officer, James Wheeler; work on the St Marys Pass commenced with a convict crew starting work at either end.
Construction was a hard slog of moving dirt and breaking rock and it took some 532 convicts, working long tiresome hours six days a week, almost four years to carve a route from the head of the Break O’ Day Plains to the Port of Falmouth.
But in 1846 when the Pass was opened the settlers of the Fingal Valley were rapt. They now had a reliable access to the coast, where their produce could be shipped out and reach their markets more quickly and much safer. The Colonial-Government was happy too; another area, only a short distance inland, could be made available to settle the influx of English, Scottish, Irish and German immigrants arriving to start a new life in the Promised Land.
The building of the Pass was a feat, to be sure, in the 1840s and proved to be a wonderful asset to the area. But the naming appears to be somewhat of a mystery with names you would think appropriate to the area overlooked for St Marys; a name, it seems, with an unknown origin.
Once the Pass was completed, the Probation Stations at Grassy Bottom and the Barracks at Falmouth were abandoned. A site a couple of kilometres west of Grassy Bottom on the banks of the St. Patricks Rivulet (now St Marys Rivulet) was favoured by many as a good place for a town. The Colonial-Government felt that with some twenty German families arriving on the ship America in 1855, on a government sponsored immigration program, introduced by England after convict transportation ceased to Van Diemens Land 1853, the need for another town to service the settlers and tenant farmers was necessary.
In 1857 a new township was surveyed by W. A. Tully. Blocks were put up for sale and with a large Irish population now living in the area, it was suggested that the Irish name themes of Avoca and Fingal continue and the Irish name Armagh be given to the new town.
But as the town developed with a police station and pound, Geo Mitchell’s blacksmith, a wheelwright business and a hotel built beside the rivulet, the common address was “Near St Marys Pass”. Consequently, in 1867, when the hotel was officially opened, it became known as “St Marys Hotel”.
The township continued to grow and soon replaced Cullenswood as the main service centre for the eastern end of the Valley. In 1878 the Elephant Pass was blazed adding another route to the coast and more areas like Gray, Irishtown, Germantown and Dublintown were all opening up. As time went by, some fifty small farms were established, all of which led to the start of a lucrative dairy industry, which in turn led to a creamery and cheese factory being opened on the 13th October 1894.
June 1886 saw, perhaps, the most significant event in the history of the Fingal Valley when the first steam train travelled from Corners (Conara) to St Marys on the newly constructed railway. Finally, the transport problem that had been a bugbear for the area was now solved. Farm produce, timber and the abundance of coal that had been found in the Mt. Nicholas Range could now be carried much cheaper, safer and quicker to market, creating a whole new way of life for the Valley and its people.
From the humble beginning of the Nineteenth Century the Fingal Valley grew and with it the townships of Avoca, Fingal and St Marys grew too and continued to be the main service centres for each community.
In the mid Twentieth Century the Valley was a thriving community. We saw farmers enjoying good wool, beef and fat lamb prices, as well as a lucrative dairy industry. Jobs both in coal and tin mining were plentiful, plus the timber industry was employing a hundred or so in some dozen sawmills throughout the Valley. To add to this the Council was based at Fingal and there were many more working in services like railway, banking, Hydro and PMG.
Sadly, the majority of these jobs are gone now and with more services and industries threatened our towns are struggling to survive. But the people of the Fingal Valley are a proud lot and have a proven record over decades of standing up for their rights. With this fighting spirit one can be assured that the Valley and its communities will survive and sometime in the future we will see it grow again.