George Town and Beaconsfield

George Town sits on the east bank of the Tamar River near its mouth on the north coast of Tasmania. It was a short drive for us today to explore this area and its history. The town is now a modern administrative centre but historically it was an important place – the third oldest British town in Australia – with convicts, overseers and a vital role in the development of the colonies of Van Diemen’s Land and Victoria. 

Bass and Flinders sailed into the river in 1798 during their circumnavigation of Tasmania that proved Tasmania was, in fact, an island. The settlement on the river was originally named Port Dalrymple and the location that would become George Town was referred to as Outer Cove. A  preferred town was established some 50 km south, named Launceston. When, in 1811, Governor-In-Chief Lachlan Macquarie toured Tasmania, he moved the settlement back to Outer Cove and named it George Town after King George III. The populace were reluctant to relocate and building the town there in earnest did not begin until 1819. Maintaining a defensible position at the mouth of the river was important and the George Town area has been continuously occupied since 1804, making it the third oldest town in Australia.

The impressive Pier Hotel was first opened in 1856 as a single story building. From 1900 to 1920 a coach service was started with horse-drawn vehicles and later motor buses from the hotel. They ran between George Town and Low Head, meeting the ferry steamers from Launceston, and also the coach service to the gold mining town of Lefroy. The original building was demolished in 1902 and was replaced by the two-story weatherboard building that serves drinks and meals today.

In 1808, a ship, the Hebe, was wrecked on the rocks at the mouth of the Tamar River. Altogether, a dozen ships were wrecked in the Tamar over the next 100 years. As a result, a pilot and a signal station was established at Low Head (Georgetown) in 1805 and is Australia’s oldest continuously used pilot station. The current buildings date to 1838.

I enjoyed pottering around the grounds of the old pilot station looking at some of the historic items on display. I had a connection with one of them. It was a rather unique aluminium lifeboat from the ship, Jeparit. At one time, this ship was part of a lifeline for me. I found it quite incongruous to find a relic from the ship that was connnected to an earier part of my life here at an historic pilot station in northern Tasmania.

Jeparit was a rather humble freighter that was  chartered from ANL (Australian National Line) by the Department of Shipping and Transport to transport equipment and supplies from Australia to South Vietnam for the Australian Task Force. The ship’s cargo usually consisted of vehicles (including Centurion tanks), ammunition, civil aid program stores and supplies for the Australian Services Canteen Organisation (ASCO). In 1967, the Seamen’s Union of Australia declared that it would not provide crews for further voyages to South Vietnam, so while the Jeparit remained under ANL’s control, it sailed with a mixed crew of 20 merchant seamen and a  navy detachment of an officer and 17 sailors. 

The ship made 25 return trips to South Vietnam with this mixed crew between 1967 and December 1969. After a period of negotiation, the ship was eventually commissioned into the RAN as HMAS Jeparit. The ship’s master was appointed Jeparit’s commanding officer on the next day and received a commission in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve, but the ship continued to operate with a mixed civilian-naval crew. HMAS Jeparit continued to travel between Australia and South Vietnam as a ship of the Royal Australian Navy. These voyages were generally uneventful. Jeparit completed her 43rd and final trip on 11 March 1972, when she returned to Sydney with the last Australian troops and equipment from South Vietnam. Jeparit was decommissioned on 15 March and returned to ANL. She continued in ANL service until September 1979 when she was sold to the Greek company Massis Charity Shipping and renamed Pleias. She was later renamed Celestial I in 1984, Maria M. in 1987 and Sea Coral in 1988 and was broken up in early 1993.

After a review of pilotage into the Tamar in 1827, it was resolved to build a lighthouse at Low Head. The tower was built in 1833. It was constructed of local rubble with a coat of stucco to make the structure durable and to provide a worthwhile landmark. The crown was built of freestone from Launceston. The keepers’ quarters consisted of four rooms attached to the base of the tower – the only case of the quarters being attached at any Tasmanian lighthouse. The tower was 15.25 metres high from top to bottom.

I was lucky to come across one of the volunteers who had opened the building in which an enormous foghorn was situated. It is sounded each Sunday at noon. This foghorn is a unique piece of Tasmania’s maritime history. It  was installed in 1929 and decommissioned in 1973 and then restored in early 2000 by a group of volunteers. It is the only operational G-type diaphone in the world. The building also houses a very rare Gardner model 2 kerosene engine that powers the compressor Under ideal conditions, the Foghorn can be heard about 30 kilometres out to sea. It was synchronised with the light of the lighthouse to sound three blasts every minute, just as the light flashed three times per minute.

We returned to Launceston across the Batman Bridge and Beaconsfield.

The Batman Bridge crosses the Tamar River at a narrow point about 30 km north of Launceston. It was opened on 18 May 1968. When it was built, it was one of the first cable-stayed truss bridges in the world. Providing access between the north east and north west of Tasmania, it was named after John Batman, a Tasmanian pioneer and the founder of the city of Melbourne.

The bridge is held up by cables connected to a 96 metre high ‘A frame’ tower on the west bank. This tower is not straight, but leans 30 metres out over the river. The bridge is 432 metres long. The main span over the river is 215 metres and is elevated 29 metres above the high water level. The steel deck has room for two lanes of traffic and a walk way for people on both sides.

Just a little way up the road from the bridge is the gold mining town of Beaconsfield. It is a small town on the main road that runs up the western side of the Tamar River. Although the town has struggled with problems of underground water seeping into the mine shafts, it still can claim that, at its height, it was the third largest town in Tasmania. Its gold production helped the economy of the island in a significant way. Today the main highlight of the town is the Beaconsfield Mine & Heritage Centre.

Australians will remember that the Beaconsfield gold mine collapsed on 25 April 2006. Of the seventeen people who were in the mine at the time, fourteen escaped immediately following the collapse, one miner (Larry Knight) was killed, while the remaining two (Brant Webb and Todd Russell) were found alive by a rescue team of miners.  They were found alive on 9 May, two weeks after being trapped nearly 1 kilometre  below the surface.

There was a good lookout (Brady’s Lookout) on the way back to Launceston, that gave us some good views along rhe Tamar River. It was named after Mathew Brady who was originally sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing food. He received 350 lashes for attemting to abscond from prison but escaped from Sarah Island with several companions. He became what we we would now call a bushranger and was ultimately hanged at Hobart Jail in 1826 for several crimes that he committed while on the run.

Tomorrow is our last day in Tasmanai and we will drive back to Devonport to catch the ferry back to Melbourne on Saturday morning.


One thought on “George Town and Beaconsfield”

  1. What a wonderful trip. you missed one of the treats in George Town, the Sea Horse farm. Our Mate Neville told us some funny stories on visiting it with is nieces and nephews. Next time. Safe journey home.

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