Hobart Town in the 19th Century

This historical perspective of The Mercury's early days of publishing is by authoritative Mercury journalist, MIKE BINGHAM

What kind of a place was the place we call home when the Hobarton Mercury first hit the streets of the colony 140 years ago?

There are no tape recordings, no videos, no one still living to whom we can turn for a first-hand account.

And yet we hardly need them, for here at 93 Macquarie St and at the State Library are preserved those first newspapers and their bi-weekly record of what occurred both in Tasmania, the other Australian colonies, and overseas.

On the political front, democracy was stirring, but women were still a long way from gaining the vote. That's why when Abraham Rheuben, a candidate for the Hobart municipal elections, took out an advertisement headed "Citizens of Hobart Town." he addressed it to the gentlemen.

Rheuben's plea for votes was so fulsome it would probably embarrass even modern politicians.


"Gentlemen, I can no longer resist the solicitions of so many of my fellow citizens to allow myself to be named as a Candidate for the office of Alderman at the approaching election. Were I to consult my own feelings and convenience, they would at once lead me to prefer the quiet prosecution of my business avocations without any additional burden. But there are times, (and I feel they at present exist), when the call to duty however onerous, can neither be honourably or safely shunned."

(It worked. He almost topped the poll).

And what of the other advertisements? Our ancestors who felt off-colour, perhaps after reading Mr Rheuben's call for support, were urged to turn to Holloway's Pills at 1/3d a box. They were sold by "all respectable druggists and dealers throughout the - civilised world" and the promise was that they would work wonders with just about any complaint. Asthma, blotches on the skin, constipation, dropsy, fits, indigestion, piles, rheumatism, ulcers, venereal infections, worms of all kinds, and weaknesses from whatever causes, all were no match for Holloway's Pills.

Toothache? No, there was no mention of toothache, but why worry when Hobart Town could boast such practitioners as Gustav Gabriel, the surgeon and mechanical dentist of Murray St.

He was constantly in receipt of large supplies of artificial teeth of the best English manufacture, which were so well known as to render comment unnecessary. Mr Gabriel was sure of his skills, and declared that teeth would be "extracted with the greatest ease and every operation performed satisfactorily to the patient, or no fee demanded."

The courts were a rich source of news in a town where many of the citizens had firsthand experience of the legal system both here and in the old country many still called home.

Pity poor Henry Charles Billing, of Brisbane St, a victim of domestic violence. He complained of an assault and the threatening of his life by his better half. The defendant appeared at the bar with an infant in her arms and pleaded not guilty.

Mr Billing said his wife had beat him with a stick, and threatened to take his life with a knife and he was afraid that she would do so. Mrs Billing was ordered to find two sureties of 100 each for six months, or go to jail.

News from further afield took a long, long time to reach Macquarie St and was culled from foreign newspapers carried by ships. Thus, on Friday, January 5, 1855, was published a casualty list of officers killed and wounded in a battle in the Crimean war on September 20, 1854. In all 26 were killed and 76 wounded.

A week later, the following paragraph appeared: "Our indefatigable Launceston correspondent has put us in possession of a Melbourne Argus of the 8th instant, from which we lay the following highly interesting and important news before our readers." Again, it was all about the Crimean war.

On the sporting front, T. Mollor, owner of the Duke of Clarance, advertised a shooting contest at the Prince Albert in New Town with the prize being an elephant. The elephant had been imported to Hobart from Calcutta a short time before, and landed at Constitution Dock.

Some of what passed as sport was vicious and cruel, and the editor wasn't afraid to say so:

"A congregation of blackguards assembled last Thursday to do honour to a dog fight at Glenorchy near the Traveller's Rest. These barbarous brutalities should be put to a stop to, to which end a week on the treadmill for those who participate in them would very materially contribute."

On the industrial front, the Colony promised every assistance to trade and commerce. "We are pleased to find that American whalers are again visiting our port; there are two now in the harbour, namely, the Sheffield and the Ocmulgee. The advantages of this Port as a berth for foreign vessels, and particularly whalers, are very great. They can now be readily victualled at a cheap rate and obtain men should they require any, at reasonable wages, while the facilities afforded by the police for the apprehension of deserters, or the punishment of other delinquents, are exceedingly accessible."

The Hobart Council won some praise for at last doing something about behaviour on the streets.

"Pigs and Goats. We are glad to perceive that the Municipal council has taken into consideration the nuisance and mischief caused by these destructive animals, by being permitted to walk about the streets without control, by passing a bye-law to fine persons who permit such a nuisance. With respect to pigs, we may add, the town swarms with them."

One thing that does quickly become apparent from an hour or two browsing the pages of our early history through the eyes of the first reporters on the Hobarton Mercury is that life was hard, very hard, for the poor and the old.

The following item occupied just eight lines at the bottom of a page:

"Woman found dead in the street. On Wednesday evening, a poor old woman, whose name is unknown, was found dead near the Waterman's Arms in Liverpool St. The poor old creature was seen sitting on the pavement a few minutes before she died. The general opinion is that the deceased died from starvation."