In the Wake of the Hodgetts

by Penelope Kerr

 

Two of my ancestors Thomas Hodgetts and his wife Harriet arrived in Australia on the Second Fleet, Thomas as a convict on the vessel Scarborough; Harriet took up the Government's offer of free passage to the Colony on the same Fleet and travelled on the Neptune. The conditions on the Second Fleet were grim. Of 1,006 convicts on this voyage 26% died on the voyage and nearly 40% were dead within eight months of landing.1

 

Thomas worked as a blacksmith in the colony and he and Harriet lived in Sydney Town(1790- 1800 and 1806- 1816), Norfolk Island (1800 – 1806) and Pitt Town (1816-.1819). In February 1819 they sailed for Launceston to join John, the eldest of their nine Australian- born children. All their surviving children except Maria Mary travelled with them. Maria by then was married to Thomas Graham and stayed in Wilberforce.

 

For some years I have wanted to travel to Tasmania to visit Longford and the Hodgetts' graves. As I am descended from Maria Hodgetts who stayed in NSW it was mainly Harriet and Thomas who drew me as there are no other Tasmanians amongst my direct ancestors.

 

In recent years we have sailed extensively through the Pacific visiting the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia, but this year we were setting out for another major adventure, the crossing of Bass Strait. Sailors respect (even fear) this crossing and the accepted wisdom is that it is necessary to wait in Eden for the right weather so that wind and seas are both of manageable proportions. On that shallow body of open water a strong wind can blow up the waves to dangerous heights, as the disastrous 1998 Sydney to Hobart race proved. As cruisers rather than racers, we try to steer clear of these conditions.

 

On Sunday February 1st 2009 my husband and I set out from Broken Bay, north of Sydney, on our 11.1 metre (36 foot) yacht. We had decided to take it slowly, sailing by day rather than overnight where possible and stopping along the NSW South Coast when the weather was unfavourable. As it turned out we had prolonged periods of very bad weather. For most of February strong winds were blowing from the south, so we would be sailing directly into the huge seas they whipped up. On some days the waves were up to three metres high, with a swell in addition of up to three metres. Sailing in such seas is unpleasant for the crew and demanding for the boat so we did not venture out then but instead enjoyed exploring the ports along the way including Jervis Bay, Bateman's Bay and Broulee. When the weather allowed we sailed very comfortably and relatively quickly, though compared with other forms of travel the pace we set is very slow. For our yacht “quick” means averaging about 11 kilometres an hour (6 knots).

The advantage of sailing is that we have plenty of time to enjoy the sights along the way, on this trip including seals, dolphins and a huge variety of sea birds. Sunrises and sunsets are magnificent and there is great joy in being on the waves enjoying the quiet and peace. The cliffs are rugged, the headlands forbidding but true to their names, like “Point Perpendicular” Mossy Point” or “Green Cape”. At night- time on this trip the skies were lit by the glow of Victoria's devastating bushfires.

 

We try to avoid using our engine, but it is there as back- up when required. We can prepare meals, read books, listen to the radio (as we were always near the coast) and of course sleep if we are sailing overnight. Night-time brings its own joys of the phosphorescence, the stars and the moon. In our small boat my husband and I tend to spend most of our daytime hours time on deck rather than below, as we enjoy the sense of being part of our surroundings.

 

It took two weeks to reach Eden, the last stopping point before the crossing of Bass Strait. At that time we had a set- back when an oil- line in our engine broke and consequently missed a “weather window” which would have allowed us to sail across the Strait. It was thirteen days before the next chance came to set out for Tasmania, and even then we did not have time to go all the way. We had to stop at Deal Island in the Kent Group, half way across Bass Strait, otherwise we would have been caught in gale force winds which would put our yacht in danger.

 

So we set out at last from Eden, and sailed for 40 hours in seas which were rising all the time. We sheltered at Deal Island for four days then sailed for the Tamar River, another 16 hours away, arriving just in front of an even stronger gale which had all shipping taking shelter for several days. Because of the timing we entered Low Head in the blackness of a cloudy, wet night with a developing sea, so there were moments of concern as we identified the beacons which guide shipping into port. This entrance is so tricky that large boats must be brought in by a pilot.

 

Once on the Tamar River we were in sheltered waters so much less at the mercy of the winds, but here the tide had to be taken into account. There is little point in sailing against a strong current, and at low tide there is the extra problem of water which is too shallow, especially close to the head of the River near Launceston where significant silting has occurred. In several places it is possible to get through only at high tide. Sailing ships like the “Sinbad” which brought Thomas and Harriet to Launceston would have had an even more difficult time of it- we made extensive use of our engine on this section, they had no such luxury. The river twists and turns; the deep parts are sometimes right up against one or other bank, sometimes in the centre of the river. Navigation is demanding even now with excellent beacons and first class charts. In the early 19th century, it must have taxed all the skills of the crew. Wonderfully descriptive names remind us of how the ships' captains viewed the landmarks, names such as “Devil's Elbow”, “Rapid Point” and “Whirlpool Reach”.

 

So, taking full advantage of the tide, we sailed into Launceston on Friday March 6th, almost five weeks after we left Sydney. We were able to get a berth at the historic Tamar Yacht Club which dates back to 1832, and were at the spot where the Tamar and North and South Esk Rivers come together. We were close to the Pennyroyal Mill, and had a view straight along the magnificent Cataract Gorge.

 

So, steeped in reminders of the Launceston which the Hodgetts would have known, we hired a car and drove to Longford where we visited Christ Church Cemetery and immediately discovered a Rose Garden where the historic graves have been assembled. The gravestone of Harriet Hodgetts was very prominent, and Thomas was acknowledged with a brass plaque. The gravestones of other Hodgetts were nearby together with other pioneers of the area, enclosed by a low wall and made more attractive by the roses which were in bloom.

 

Our trip to Tasmania has made me reflect on yet another aspect of our ancestors' lives. I very much enjoyed finding the gravestones, but even more I appreciated the chance to think about how they might have experienced the journey to Tasmania. According to Richard Hodgetts' “The Brave Old Pioneers”, Harriet and Thomas left Sydney on February 27th, and unlike us sailed straight down the coast and across Bass Strait, arriving just before the birth of grand-daughter Mary Ann Maria Hodgetts (March 4th) – almost exactly 190 years before our trip. We took five weeks; they took about five days. For them, none of the luxury of waiting out bad weather or sheltering from gales. No doubt they had no choice about whether or not they spent time on deck. It must have been a daunting trip, especially as both had experienced the horrors of the Second Fleet journey from England. I hope they had a chance to enjoy the birds, the dolphins and seals, and to take in the rugged but interesting Southern coast line.

 

The trip up the Tamar would have been a welcome relief for the Hodgetts as it was for us, especially since they would not have been worried by the concerns of navigation. They would have enjoyed travelling on a ship that was no longer rocking and pitching wildly in the seas, and would also have appreciated the very pretty Tamar Valley, with magnificent hills in the distance to both West and East, green foothills in the foreground. Their arrival at Kings' Wharf, Launceston, would have been an exciting moment as they started a new life on an Island much more like their English home, with a son and daughter- in- law to welcome them and a new baby arriving any day.

 

Photos of our trip, including those of the Hodgetts graves in the Rose Garden at Longford, can be viewed in the photo gallery on this web site in the collection entitled “Sailing to Tasmania, 2009” .

1Michael Flynn: The Second Fleet (Library of Australian History, Sydney 1993) p. 1.