The Denison Canal is the only purpose built sea canal in Australia. When the famed colonial explorer, Captain James Kelly, was undertaking his 1815 circumnavigation & mapping of much of the Van Diemen’s Land coastline, he had to have his small sailing vessels hauled across the East Bay Neck area in order to avoid having to undertake the voyage around Cape Raoul to Storm Bay and the beginning of the Derwent estuary which was often a stormy and hazardous voyage.
As the years progressed, isolated settlers who had moved into the region had no connecting roads to the markets in Hobart and were dependant on sea transport involving the long and difficult passage around the Tasman Peninsula. The first known suggestion that a canal should be dug across the area that was known as East Bay Neck seems to have appeared in print in the Hobart Town Gazette around the 1830’s.
It was suggested that convicts who were being used by the Government of the day to work in most of the public works and infrastructure projects should be used to do the work of constructing the canal. At one point in the 1840’s, while the canal had yet to be started or even planned, convicts had been used to build a wooden railway which included a rail truck to carry boats across the isthmus. All the time, the local settlers were continuing to pressure the government to build the canal and link Blackman Bay & Norfolk Bay.
Sir William Denison, who was the final Lieutenant Governor of Van Dieman’s Land looked to revive the idea in 1854 when he asked for a report into the viability of the canal but the idea was shelved, either because it was considered too expensive at the time or because not long after he commissioned the report, Denison was transferred back to NSW. Local residents continued to petition the government for the canal to be dug through the 1870’s but the suggestion continued to fall on deaf ears.
It took until the turn of the century for the concept to be revived and despite the Premier of the day, Elliot Lewis reportedly being against the project, the project was commenced in 1902. As the construction went forward and the excavation got below sea level and the original wooden/steel swing bridge was in place, the water was allowed to enter the new canal.
Dredging in the two approach channels to the canal produced over 37,000 cubic metres of material. If all this material was made into 1 cubic metre blocks, they could have been laid in a double line for the entire length of the Tasman Highway from Sorell to Port Arthur and still had 25,000 blocks left over. Construction was virtually complete, and the canal unofficially in use, by March 1905.
The original bridge was swung open, much as it does today, by pivoting from its eastern end. In the early days of the bridge, it was hand cranked with a removable crank handle that was located directly above the bearing on which the bridge turned. It is reported that it took 28 turns of the crank handle to open the bridge to allow traffic to go through.
The Governor of Tasmania, Sir Gerald Strickland, performed the official opening of the canal on 13th October 1905. The SS Dover was charted in Hobart to bring a party of 70 to the opening where they attended a luncheon banquet in a marquee at the Dunalley Hotel. On the official invitation to the opening of the canal, it was described as the “East Bay Neck Canal” but at the official opening ceremony, the Governor declared the canal open and announced the name as “Denison Canal”.
The canal is still an integral part of the community life and the bridge was upgraded to a full steel structure and its operation electrified in October 1965.
Main Text & Information Sources –
Interpretive Signs at the Site
“Dunalley Hotel 1866…and the township of 1857" – Walter B. Pridmore
Located at the corner of Patrick Street and Market Place is St Michael and All Angels church which was built in 1891 by the stonemason Thomas Lewis using local stone. You can enter the church and admire Lewis's particularly beautiful stone staircase and the simple, elegant stone seats in the porch. It is a comment on Tasmania's weather that one of the most appealing aspects of the church is the fire place on the western wall which is used to heat the church on winter nights
The Anglicans, with financial support from Mrs William Nicholas of ‘Nant’, built their own church in 1891. St Michaels and All Angels Anglican Church was built owing to disputes and differences between the Anglican and Presbyterian congregations, who until this time had to share the one building. Designed in the French Gothic style by Alexander North in 1887, this small country cathedral was built by Lewis & Son and Hallet from locally quarried sandstone by stonemason Thomas Lewis, St Michaels and All Angels Anglican Church was consecrated by Bishop Montgomery in 1893.
The elegant stone-faced interior incorporates a large fireplace at the west end, double-arcades screening the transepts, with carved column capitals in Oamaru limestone, and a low stone wall screening the chancel which links to a stone pulpit containing a mosaic made by J.F. Ebner, London representing the Saviour preaching the sermon on the mount..
The fittings are to North's designs, including the stone font and the carved kauri choir stalls incorporating stylised fleur-de-lis ends in the shape of fern fronds, a feature also to be seen at St Mark's Church, Deloraine. The windows incorporate plate tracery and include the work of stained glass artists Brooks Robinson & Co., and William Montgomery, both of Melbourne. The tower was added in 1923, though not completed until 1929 and includes a stone staircase.
The organ built by Samuel Jocelyne in 1862 is one of two surviving organs of this type in Australia. The organ has a very fine case in Australian cedar (Toona Australis) and incorporates splendidly carved details. Its overall shape is reminiscent of a fairly standard 18th century English style of organ case, with three major flats and intervening smaller 'harp' shaped flats.
The design and workmanship is comparable with another Joscelyne organ, said to have been built for his home, later in Burnie Baptist Church, and now in St James-the-Great Anglican Church, East St Kilda, Melbourne. The drawstops have script engraving. The organ was moved into the present church for its opening in 1891. Sadly its placement in the base of the tower is not ideal for acoustical projection.
The Children’s Fountain was originally purchased in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee with the idea that it would be presented to the city by the children of Launceston. The Children’s Fountain was cast by McFarlanes in the Saracen Foundry in Scotland.
An illustration from a 1880’s catalogue shows that originally the fountain had small cups attached by chains to the central tower. The cups could be pressed against a valve stud which then released water. The catalogue subsequently promoted the benefits of public drinking fountains. “A supply of drinking water to the outdoor population and also to the lower animals, is now acknowledged as a necessity of the changed circumstances of the times and the growing intelligence of the community, encouraging habits of temperance and humanity and promoting the moral and physical improvements of the people”
However, difficulties arose when the raising of 200 pounds was required to install the fountain and as a consequence the installation was delayed. As part of the fund raising efforts and as a way of involving children, a Juvenile Industrial Exhibition was held in the nearby Albert Hall. The exhibition included examples of handwriting, plain sewing and darning and fancy work by students plus displays by a variety of manufacturers.
The fountain was finally installed outside the main gates of City Park in 1897 as part of the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It stood in this position until 1908 when it was moved inside the park itself. You can still see the hexagonal pattern of bluestone blocks set into the ground outside the gates which indicates the original location of the fountain.
The fountain still stands in its 1908 location in the park, still providing the community with a source of clean, fresh water.
On 15 November 1831, James Burnip, a retired Sergeant, wrote in a letter to His Excellency Colonel George Arthur, Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land:
“Since my discharge from thence [ The Royal Veterans Corp, brought to the Colony as convict overseers] I established myself at Pontville at which place I have erected a large stone house which is licensed as an Inn and also a Blacksmith’s shop in which I carry on the business of a blacksmith. Both these buildings were erected solely at my expense on an allotment of Ten Acres of Land Your Excellency was pleased to grant me…”
This is one of the first public records of the coaching inn described in 1860 as “one of the best roadside houses in the Colony”. It was known first as The Blacksmith’s Arms, and successively as The Castle Inn and Brighton Hotel (1835), the Tasmanian Inn (1853), The Epsom Hotel (1860) and, now, Epsom House. Colonial records show Burnip being granted a liquor license in 1830, suggesting that the Inn was probably built in 1829.
During the restoration of the house the cover of Burnip’s diary, a gift from his daughter Sarah, was found behind a cupboard where it had lain undisturbed for more than 150 years. It’s now preserved in the house Museum Cabinet. Also found in a wall cavity behind the same cupboard were a “Shoes and Bones” charm, an old English folk custom designed to ward off witches, now preserved in situ in the Honeymoon Suite.
However Burnip proved an unsuccessful businessman and in 1839 lost the hotel to J&J Solomon, Spirit Merchants, who supplied him with liquor. Judah Solomon installed his son-in-law, John Davis, as Licensee, which he remained for the next twenty years. Davis also ran The Regulator coach service to Hobart.
Epsom quickly became the social hub of Pontville because of its large ballroom on the first floor. It was the venue for the first marriage in Pontville. It served as the Methodist church, despite being a pub. It hosted the Southern Hounds and pre-hunt balls.
In 1855 the ballroom was completely re-furbished with its walls raised about half a metre and the present tented ceiling installed. Its grand opening was reported in the "Hobarton Mercury" of 23 May 1855, “On Wednesday evening a ball took place at Mr Davies’s, the Tasmanian Inn (now Epsom House), Pontville which was attended by all the elite of the neighborhood, and by several visitors from Hobart, including the officers of H.M.S. Fantome.
The new Assembly Room was opened for the first time on the occasion, and brilliantly lighted by handsome chandeliers and candelabra: the supper was excellent and very elegantly arranged, greatly to the credit of the experienced Host and hostess. Altogether the affair was such as has not been witnessed before in this colony." In 1875 a concert and dance was held in the Ballroom which was attended by 360 people – presumably not all in the ballroom at once.
Epsom offered elaborate facilities for coaches. The coaching stable had 16 red cedar stalls and there was also an elegant stone and timber stable for racing horses. Epsom also supplied provisions to the village. Somewhere between 1839 and 1843 Davis extended the original façade of the building to the south by the addition of a shop. In 1843 one William Cook was tried for his life in the Supreme Court of Van Diemen’s Land before Justice Montagu for the theft from Davis’ shop of 71 silk handkerchiefs, valued at 17 pounds. He escaped with his life because the judge found that Davis had put temptation in his way by failing to properly supervise his shop. Cook’s sentence was commuted to seven years in the penal colony at Port Arthur.
When Davis tried to recover his costs the judge refused, noting that Cook’s theft had been the third or fourth larceny from the premises in recent months. Davis’ argument that “there was hardly a constable in the settlement for the protection of its inhabitants” received short shrift from his Honor: “You leave your store without even a bell or a dog to protect during the time that you are dining in another room… Contiguous as is your store to a public-house about which men are continually prowling, it is natural that a knowledge of the little vigilance which you bestow on the protection of your property, should act as an incentive to the perpetration of crime”.
The Solomon family owned the property and ran it as a pub through successive licencees until 1896, when it was de-licensed and bought by the Johnsons. The photo above clearly shows the store in the early 1870’s, when W Bullen was the licensee. The poster inscribed “WAR”, affixed to the water barrel in the foreground, probably refers to the Franco-Prussian war. The property was operated in the 20th century as the Epsom Store, run by the Johnson family. Many locals still remember buying lollies in the 1960’s from Miss McGrath, housekeeper and companion to Harry Johnson. Sadly, the store was demolished in the 1970’s though its convict-hewn stone, abandoned on the site, was recovered and used in the restoration.
Epsom has now returned to its origins as a venue for public entertainment. In 2006 the restored ballroom hosted the Australian String Quartet for what appears to have been the first public performance in 100 years. It again holds a liquor licence with Geoffrey Robertson joining a long line of former licencees. Current owners, Geoffrey & Jacqui Robertson, stated on the Epsom House website “Epsom’s history continues to be fleshed out as people with a family and social connection to the house contact us with their stories. To them we owe knowledge of the “Bushranger’s Hide” in one of the bedrooms, the site of the Freeman and Convict Tap rooms and the location of the cellar. We hope that the restoration work we have done on the house and the history which animates it will ensure it continues a vibrant piece of Tasmanian and Australian heritage.”
It is certainly a beautiful building and a credit to the efforts of the Robinson’s to bring the place back to its former glory.