A Momentous and Historic Event … with Ham for Dinner

Image above is “View from the top of Mount Nelson, with Hobart Town in the distance” by Joseph Lycett, 1823, courtesy of Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office.

Here’s an excerpt from the diary of the Rev Robert Knopwood. It is taken from March 1804, in the very earliest days of Hobart.



If it’s a little dull, please persevere, because, in a way, that’s my point. Buried among the reports of weather and ham, there is something dramatic and historically significant. Can you see it?

Monday, 26 A.M. At 11 Mr Humphry and self went in a boat to Risdon Cove, on a visit to Governor Bowen, and dind with him. Met Mr. Bowden with their dogs. They caught 6 young emews, about the size of a turkey, and shot the old mother. C. S. Kentuchy.

Tuesday, 27. A.M. At 9 Mr. Mountgarret, Mr. Humphrey, and Mr. Brown and servants, with 10 days provisions, to go to the head of the river. Mr. Wilson and Pt. Moore came and stayd the eve with us. C. S., Otway.

Wed., 28 A.M. Gov Bowen and self walked about the wood with our guns. At 4 p.m. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Moore came and took wine with us. C.S. Serle.

Thursday, 29 A.M. This morn Gov. Bowens young friend was confined to her bed. At 10 Lieut, Moore and self came to camp, and Mr M. dined with me. C.S. Towry.

Friday, 30, Good. A.M. … At 10p.m. it blew very hard which continued all night. C. S., Mann.

April, Sunday 1, Easter Day, A.M. … Lieut, Lord, Royal Marines, and Mr Harris, pertook of some Norfolk ham with me, the best we ever eat. At 4 p.m., Mr Bowden and self dind with Lieut. Lord, and was very merry. 

from Knopwood’s Hobart Town Diary, John Currey (ed) 2012, pp24-5.

[HINT: I don’t mean the cryptic codes that come at the end of every entry. These are daily “countersigns”, the passwords that soldiers and settlers used to identify themselves to the Night Watch in the tiny colony (Currey, 2012)]

In Knopwood’s entry of Thursday 29th March, squeezed between reports of hunting, wine drinking, windy weather and ham, is a record of the first European born in Tasmania.

“Bowen’s young friend” was Martha Hayes, a fourteen year old girl (Watson, 2017, Roar Film, 2012)*. Here she is giving birth to her daughter, Henrietta, in a rough hut among a huddle of tents on the southern edge of the known world, surrounded by thick virgin bush, mysterious aboriginal lands and miles and miles of empty ocean.

Risdon Cove by R C Harvey 1910 NS1029-1-269
Risdon Cove 1910, by R. C Harvey. Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office. NS1029-1-269

Risdon Cove

In September 1803, a small party, led by the twenty-three year old Lieutenant John Bowen, arrived in Van Diemen’s land, after sailing from Sydney. They settled at Risdon Cove on the eastern shore of the Derwent River.

Bowen's landing place Risdon NS1013-1-1859.jpg.crdownload
Stone jetty, built later, at the landing place of first settlers in Van Diemen’s Land 1803, at Risdon Cove

This was the first permanent British presence in Tasmania. In all, there were 49 people: free settlers, military men and convicts (of which 21 were men and 3 were women).

Risdon Cove by Gypsy Woman
Risdon Cove today, courtesy of pommepal

There were so many fine spots on the borders of the river that I was a little puzzled to fix upon the best place, but there being a much better stream of fresh water falling into Risdon Cove than into any of the others (Letter by Bowen quoted in Newman, 2001).

Conditions weren’t as idyllic as Bowen had made them sound. It was possible to collect water upriver, but at Risdon Cove the water was shallow and subject to the tidal flow of the Derwent. That year, conditions were too dry for grazing or growing grain (Watson, n.d.).

Nevertheless, Bowen undertook a program of exploration and organised the building of huts, which he described as ‘very comfortable’, and a stone storehouse (Newman).

hut risdon cove
A brick hut built much later, in 1812, and still standing above Risdon Cove. Courtesy of Australia For Everyone

Among the group was Martha Hayes, a young girl who had travelled from Britain to New South Wales with her convict mother, Mary. On the journey she met Lieutenant Bowen and she lived with him in Sydney before sailing to Van Diemen’s Land. In 1804 Martha was around fourteen years old, and pregnant.

Up until this point in her life, we know very little about Martha at all.

“The elucidation of her early life was not without complications; proof of her existence before May 1803 is not available  (Bolt, 1979).

Knopwood Arrives

In February 1804, only a few months after the Bowen party settled, Lieutenant-Governor David Collins arrived in Van Diemen’s Land, with a letter from Governor King in Sydney giving him command of Van Diemen’s Land. Collins decided that the settlement should be at Sullivan’s Cove.

The Rev. Robert Knopwood was one of Collins’s party, appointed as chaplain to the new colony, and his diaries form one of our best sources of information about the Risdon Cove and Sullivan’s Cove settlements in these, the earliest days of Hobart.

Collins Camp NS1013-1-1634
Collins’s Camp at Sullivan’s Cove. TAHO. NS1013-1-1634

Why Was Knopwood So Dismissive?

The birth of Martha Hayes’s baby, the first European born in Tasmania, was by any standards a momentous one. It was also, no doubt, difficult and dramatic for the women involved. Today Knopwood’s diary entry seems startlingly dismissive, even a bit callous. But a few things need to be pointed out.

Firstly, Knopwood wasn’t the kind of diarist who reported anything in detail. “Private matters were ignored or alluded to only with great circumspection” (Currey, p9). He says very little about women at all and, with the men, even though he was no doubt witness to jostling for position, political posturing, indignation and squabbling among the soldiers and officials, he doesn’t report on any of these personal interactions.

Knopwood TAHO NS1013-1-1820
courtesy of Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office NS1013-1-1820.

Knopwood simply recorded his own activities, which were mainly hunting, walking, drinking wine and dining. He wrote bare facts: dates, times, equipment, destinations and lists of people, carefully recording all the men’s titles and statuses. Again, for the times, there’s probably nothing unusual about this.

Nor could you say Reverend Knopwood an unkind man. There will be another post about this soon.

So if Knopwood’s report of the birth is brief, this is, perhaps, understandable. It doesn’t necessarily imply that Knopwood considered the event to be unimportant. It’s probably safe to assume that he simply didn’t consider a birth to be within his sphere of duty. And it wasn’t customary to record such events in any detail.

There is no suggestion that Martha was badly treated.

Lieutenant John Bowen was reported as ambitious, but he seems to have done everything he could for the welfare of Martha and their baby. Martha lived with him in a tent, then a wooden hut, then in the first “Government House”, a wooden house half a mile away, overlooking the old hut and the Parade Ground.

Bowen's first Government House Risdon AB713-1-8163
courtesy of Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office AB713-1-8163.

The foundations of this are still present, hidden in the dry grass of Risdon Cove (Watson, 2017).

Martha’s parents were with her. Before the baby was born, Bowen sailed to Sydney, and Martha’s mother, Maria, returned to Van Diemen’s Land with him, in time to be present at the birth. Martha’s father, Henry, had come to Australia as a free settler and had continued on to VDL in Collins’s party.

Bowen is Forced to Leave

When Collins began establishing the settlement at Sullivan’s Cove, Bowen came under increasing pressure to abandon Risdon Cove and return to Sydney, but he stayed for several months to settle his ‘private concerns’ (in Bolt, p158).  Martha, her mother Maria and her baby Henrietta stayed with him until July when the settlement was closed down (The Mercury, 2004). Maria went to join Henry and other settlers, who were setting up farms across the river from Risdon in New Town Bay. Bowen had built Martha a house on Prince of Wales Bay (The Mercury, Bolt).

In August 1804, Bowen was finally forced to leave. Before he left, Bowen arranged for Collins to declare Martha a settler, which meant she was entitled to government rations, a grant of land, convict help and seed and livestock.  He asked Knopwood to concern himself with the young family’s welfare, which Knopwood subsequently did.

Martha had a second child to Bowen after he had departed. Bowen later married but had no more children. He made several applications to return to Van Diemen’s Land, without success. Martha married twice more and went on to live a comfortable and prosperous life (Bolt).

Distance and Detail

If Knopwood’s diary entry seems strangely brief to us today it is really because of a difference in perspective. Knopwood thought he was doing his duty in recording weather, passwords, movements and meals, no doubt never dreaming that future generations would pore over his words for glimpses and insights into the life of the embryonic colony. He would have thought it inappropriate to concern himself with the details of a birth.

Today we see things differently. For me the most important story from Van Diemen’s Land in March 1803 is that of the young girl, Martha, crossing the ocean on a convict ship, then travelling, pregnant, to an empty cove at the ends of the earth, suffering the hardships of deprivation, heat and cold, and of Maria, sailing from Sydney in time to help with the birth of her grand-daughter.


Lieutenant John Bowen and party arriving at Risdon attributed to Thomas Gregson ca 1860 TAHO
Lieutenant John Bowen arriving at Risdon, attributed to Thomas Gregson ca 1860. Courtesy of Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office


* There seems to be some dispute about this. Bolt records Martha’s date of birth as 1876, making her seventeen on the birth of her first child

References and further reading

Bolt, F (1979) Female settler Martha Hayes 1786-1871. Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, 113. pp. 155-167. ISSN 0080-4703 http://eprints.utas.edu.au/14179/

Currey, John (2006), “David Collins”.  Companion to Tasmanian History. Hobart: Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies. http://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/C/David%20Collins.htm

Currey, John (2012), “Introduction.” Knopwood‘s Hobart Town diary 15 February 1804-28 February 1805 / edited, with an introduction by John Currey. Malvern, Vic. : Colony Press, 2005.

Hudspeth, Wilfred H. (1949), “The Story of Mary Mack and her Daughter Elizabeth Mary Mack”. Papers and Proceedings, Royal Society of Tasmania, pp 77-81. http://eprints.utas.edu.au/13672/1/1949_Hudspeth_story_of_Mary_Mack.pdf

Knopwood, Robert (1977), The diary of the Reverend Robert Knopwood, 1803-1838 : first chaplain of Van Diemen’s Land (Facsimile ed.), Nicholls, Mary (ed).Hobart: Tasmanian Historical Research Association.

The Mercury, Newspapers in Education (2004), “Special Deal for the Hayes Clan: August 3, 1804” http://www.mercurynie.com.au/resources/tasmania%20200/august.htm

Monks, Linda(1967), ‘Knopwood, Robert (Bobby) (1763–1838)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/knopwood-robert-bobby-2314/text3003, published first in hardcopy 1967,

Newman, Terry (2001), “Parliament History Project: Bowen Refuses to Bow Out” http://www.parliament.tas.gov.au/php/Bowen.htm

Rienits, R. and T. (1965), “Some Notes on the Ancestry and Life of the Rev. Robert Knopwood”, Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), vol 12, no 4, Apr 1965, pp 114-18

Roar Film (2012) “In the Colony She Was the First”, Founders and Survivors Storylines. With help of TAHO, UTas and  Tasmanian Family History Society among others.  http://www.founders-storylines.com/accessible/index.php/storyline/id/firstinthecolony/person/john

Savery, Henry (1964), The Hermit in Van Diemen’s Land. Hadgcraft, Cecil (ed). St Lucia: Univeristy of Qld Press.

Schaffer, Irene (2005) “Hobart Town, 1804 – 1820” http://www.tasfamily.net.au/~schafferi/index.php?file=kop73.php

Watson, Reg A. (n.d.), “British Heritage of Tasmania”. http://members.iinet.net.au/~rwatson1/britishheritage/BRITISH%20HERITAGE%20OF%20TASMANIA.pdf

Watson, Reg A. (2017), “The Prettiest Violet: Martha Hayes Quinn, 1789-1871”, Newsletter of Hobart Town (1804) First Settlers Assoc. Inc. March 2017.




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