Van Diemen’s Cumbrians


    What is a bronze plaque depicting Cumbrian huntsman, John Peel, doing in a park in Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania? You might well ask. I did. But more of that later.

We had been in Tasmania little more than a couple of hours when Alan, with whom we were staying, suggested a drive to the top of Mount Wellington, which dominates all views of Hobart. From there, we gazed over the city and watched as yachts taking part in the Sydney-Hobart race sailed into the mouth of the River Derwent.

I assumed that, like most places here that commemorated the immigrant settlers‘ former homes, the river had been named after one of the Derwents in England, but which one? There is a Derwent in Derbyshire, another in Yorkshire, and yet a third marks the Durham-Northumberland border. But no. It turned out that Hobart’s river was named in honour of his local Cumbrian Derwent by naval officer and explorer, Sir John Hayes (1768-1831), who was born in the village of Bridekirk, that lies just north of Cockermouth. His father came from nearby Tallentire.

John Hayes went to sea as a midshipman in the Bombay Marine at the age of 13, and rose up the promotion ladder to become a senior officer. He distinguished himself in several military campaigns in theFar East, particularly in Java (1811) and Burma (1824-6). His connection with Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land, came as a result of an unauthorised voyage he led between 1792 and 1794.

Intending to sail to New Guinea, on a trading expedition, Hayes found his ship struggling against high winds, so he sailed around the south coast of Australia, arriving at Adventure Bay, Bruny Island, in April 1792. Having re-stocked with wood, fresh water and game, he sailed north into the River Derwent and navigated it for several miles upstream, unaware that it had already been mapped by French explorer, Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, after whom Bruny Island is named. The river itself, however, retains the apellation given it by Hayes, as do Risdon Cove and Cornelian Basin, upstream from the mouth.

Hayes continued his voyage through Indonesia, making a large profit on his investment, but receiving little recognition from the East India Company, as he had sailed without their sanction. He died in theCocos Islands in July 1831.

Adventure Bay image002

    John Hayes was not the only Cumbrian to land at Adventure Bay, nor was he even the first. That particular distinction, as far as records claim, belongs to a near neighbour. The stunning, and still largely wild and sparsely populated Bruny Island lies to the south of Hobart. Adventure Bay, on the east of the island was named by Tobias Furneaux after his ship, which became separated from Captain James Cook’s vessel during the latter’s second voyage to the South Seas in 1773. It became known as a safe anchorage for many ships venturing into Australian waters.

In 1788, HMS Bounty, under William Bligh, docked there on its way to Tahiti. The second-in-command on that voyage was Fletcher Christian, who hailed from Moorland Close, Eaglesfield, the same distance south-west of Cockermouth as Bridekirk is north of the town. Christian, of course, later to be portrayed on film by Errol Flynn (in his screen debut), Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson, went on, after leaving Tahiti, to lead the most famous mutiny in naval history. He died in 1793 on Pitcairn Island, which is still populated by some of his descendents.


   John Peel, however, never set foot on these distant shores. His effigy in Hobart is part of a monument, erected in 1958, dedicated to the memory of his friend, John Woodcock Graves (1795-1886). It was Graves who immortalised Peel by composing the now world famous song that has become the unofficial ‘national’ anthem of Cumbria.

Graves appears to have been a colourful but somewhat erratic character. Throughout his long life, he tried many different ways of earning his living, few of which met with success. He was born in Wigtonand served an apprenticeship in house-sign and coach painting with his uncle George in Cockermouth. This was followed by the acquisition of a woollen mill in Caldbeck, where he became a friend of John Peel. Graves later claimed that he wrote the words of ‘D’ye ken John Peel?’ to an old tune, ‘Bonnie Annie’, quite impromptu on a suggestion from one of his daughters, one evening in 1824.

Like most of Graves’s financial ventures, his woollen mill was a failure, possibly to some extent as a result of his neglect. He then turned to coal mining in Scotland, a scheme that ended in his loss of a lawsuit. Along with his highly reluctant second wife, Abigail Porthouse, also from Wigton, and six of their eight children, he sailed for Van Diemen’s Land in 1834. His attempts at making his fortune here brought no more success, and Abigail was forced to gain employment as a hospital nurse in an orphan school in Hobart, where the four youngest children were educated.

Cape Bruny Lighthouse image006

Graves was granted 640 acres of land on Bruny Island, but never farmed them. He also applied for the job of keeper of the Cape Bruny lighthouse on the south of the island. In 1842, following a spell of detention in the Royal Derwent Asylum in New Norfolk, the farthest point reached by John Hayes in his exploration of the river, he tried flax-growing in New Zealand. He returned to Hobart after three years and spent some time living with his younger son, Joseph, on the tiny Satellite Island, to the west of Bruny. He died in Hobart in August 1886.

Graves’s eldest son, also John Woodcock, born in 1829, while the family lived in Caldbeck, became a very successful lawyer, and built a house in Hobart that still stands. He named his house after anotherCumbrian river, the Caldew, which runs from its source on Skiddaw to a confluence with the Eden in Carlisle. On its course, it passes the edge of the Caldbeck Hills, where John Woodcock Graves Senior penned his song of friendship, that brought worldwide fame to an otherwise obscure Cumbrian farmer and huntsman.

 Back to Australia and Far East



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