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The Story of John Petchey  1792 -1850 (Chapter 2)

Early Days

After nearly four months cramped on board a cold, damp, smelly sailing ship with only a short break in Argentina, John Petchey and his 200 fellow convicts at last saw the coast of their new home, Van Diemen’s Land. It was so far south, next stop was Antarctica. It really felt like he was at the end of the world! But it was now October, which is springtime down under, so maybe the weather would be fine and he could at last have some decent food. But he was soon disappointed.

The ship Indefatigable docked in a bay that lay in the shadow of a tall, dark mountain that was later called mount Wellington. The little ramshackle town he was in was at first called Hobarton. No not Hobbiton, Hobarton. (That’s a joke and it was later just called Hobart)

He soon found out that in the whole of Van Diemen’s Land there was only about 500 people, except for the natives that is, and all 500 hundred had come from Australia less than 10 years ago. Half were settlers and the other half were convicts like him.

The wooden cabins were not much better than the ship and there were no supplies of food because of that war I told you about, with Bonaparte, so do you know what they had to eat? Kangaroo meat! That’s all the food there was and the kangaroos had to be hunted.

Well, despite the food, John was glad to be on solid ground again. All his fellow convicts that had come with him were glad too though some thought of trying to escape. They thought it would be easy to run because there were no prison walls.

However they were soon warned about this idea. After a few days settling in the governor in charge gave a speech.

“Okay you scum of the earth, now listen here. You might look around you and think what’s to stop me escaping? There are no walls to this prison. Well let me tell you clearly, Van Diemen’s Land is an island, it is surrounded by the ocean and apart from here in Hobarton it is just forests, mountains, rivers and natives who would happily cook and eat you,

that is if the creatures in the forests don’t eat you first. Now you might want to know what you will be doing here as you will not be locked up in prison cells. I will tell you. You are going to work! Some of you will be in the quarry gang, cutting stone out of the mountain, some of you will be in the timber gang felling trees and those of you who are lucky will serve the settlers here. They will put you to work building and farming. Now you may not fancy any of that but let me dangle a carrot. Once you receive your pardon, which if you behave well and work hard could be sooner than your sentence, you will be given some land of your own and some livestock and you can be a settler yourself.”

As John listened to this news he knew what work he would prefer. He had been a farm labourer all his life. He just hoped the officers knew that so he would get assigned to a settler. 

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Now at this point I must tell you another story. Back in England, before John was arrested and his adventures all began, there was this young man named William Gangell who joined the marines. (Marines are soldiers on board warships). In 1803 he was sent on a ship to a settlement in South Australia called Sorento. But then in February 1804 that whole settlement, everyone, were told to move and start a new settlement in Van Diemen’s Land. Now on board one of the ships that sailed there was a family of settlers, John and Ann Skelhorne and their baby daughter Mary. Sadly, in February of 1804, John Skelhorne died on board the ship and was buried at sea. When they arrived in Sullivan’s Bay everyone had to share rough shelters until they built homes to live in. William was put in with Ann Skelhorne. They must have got on really well because less than a month later they were married. In fact, it was the first ever marriage in Tasmania, on Sunday 18th March 1804.

So what has all this got to do with John Petchey? Well, William, now he had a family to keep, was discharged from the marines and given a lot of land to become a settler in a place called Clarence Plains. Later, even before John received his full pardon, he too was given some land in Clarence Plains and who did he come to know but William, Ann and Mary. By this time Mary Skelhorne was no longer a child but a beautiful young woman and John fell in love with her. On the 27th of September, 1814, they were married and lived in a house in Davey Street right next to the gaol where he worked. Over the next ten years Mary bore five children, though sadly most died while very young.

But whatever employment John was given when he first landed in Hobarton, he soon learnt how to make the most of his talents. He must have been industrious, as we shall see later, but that was not all. He also had a lot of charm and good looks because he became known as ‘Handsome John’. Charm and good looks can certainly help you get on in life and get on John did because he had hardly been in VDL a year when he was given an amazing job that earned him fifty pounds a year! He was made in charge of the Hobart Town gaol! Yes, he had to keep prisoners in prison!


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This might seem odd as he was a convict himself, but it was not a prison for convicts sent from England or Australia, it was for those who committed petty crimes there in Hobart. He had this job for the next seven years until in 1819 he was dismissed for negligence when 6 of his prisoners escaped. But that did not matter. By then he had land, cows and sheep and had many other business ideas that would eventually make him Tasmania’s first entrepreneur. But more of that next week!


Rebels Lane

Adventures of the Mind

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