Sunday, 19 April 2015

Government Farm, Port Arthur

Port Arthur's agricultural heritage generally takes a back seat to its history of crime and punishment. But in the early 1870s Port Arthur was a productive agricultural settlement, with crops and livestock. That livestock included, for a few months in 1871, an elk!

One part of the site which often goes unnoticed is Government Farm.  The farm first appeared in official documentation on a plan of the settlement sent to London in January of 1854.  The map showed a farmyard and a piggery. The cottage was constructed in 1857 for the first Farm Overseer. This was done under Commandant James Boyd’s stewardship when he was intent on improving the inmate’s diets, especially those prisoners who were infirm.

By late 1859 dairy cattle were housed at the farm, their milk being supplied to patients in the hospital.  During the next ten years, farming operations grew to include a machine to thresh grain more effectively and a new dairy was built, all of this done in the hope of making Port Arthur a self-supporting settlement. The dairy was described as admirably fitted out with shelves on three sides for milk dishes and large cream pans. The most improved apparatus was used to turn the cream into butter. Excellent quality butter was produced and used in the hospital, lunatic & invalid establishments in the settlement.

By the close of 1869 in addition to the dairy, the farm was reported as having cowsheds which housed 140 cows, piggeries which consisted of 16 sties, stores for root crops, fowl houses and stables. The buildings had become dilapidated following the closure of the settlement and were offered for auction in 1884 with some remaining in use into the 20th century. Little remains of the farm today with only the Farm Overseers cottage and the dairy still in existence.  The cottage has been restored and its currently used for staff accommodation.

The interesting story of the elk - one of the largest species of deer in the world, native to North America and North East Asia began when the Tasmanian Acclimatization Society formed in 1862. Introduction, or acclimatization, of exotic animals and birds occurred from early settlement for economic, sporting and nostalgic motives. Lieutenant Legge, an ex-pat Tasmanian in Her Majesty’s Service based on the island of Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, shipped three elk to Tasmania.  A pair were located at Richmond Park the property of Legislative Councilor John Lord, and the remaining Buck was sent to Slopen Island off the Tasman Peninsula.

From there, the elk, according to reports published in The Mercury in June 1871, swam across the channel to what is now the Coal Mines and from there moved around the Peninsula until it arrived at Port Arthur later that same month, where further Mercury reports indicate it was welcomed by Commandant A H Boyd.
It appears that its welcome did not last long. A further report in July 1871 describe a litany of damage to gardens and property around the settlement, including eating and trampling vegetable gardens and 'anterling' a priest's wheelbarrow into a creek.

The Reverend made representation to the Commandant in hope that he would use his authority “to prevent the recurrence of a similar intrusion from so unwelcome a stranger”. Records suggest that nearly two months passed before the elk was taken to the property of James Lord near Hobart on October 24th, 1871.  What happened to the elk after that date is unknown.

Main Text & Information Sources – 
Interpretive Signs at the site
Port Arthur Website