Portrait of Lieutenant John Bowen


The Mercury

Friday 2 January 2004, page 10


January 2, 1804, Monday

Five months out from England, the whaler Ferret turns up in the Derwent River looking for wood and water.

To the great surprise of the crew, they find a British establishment there and from them, Lieutenant Bowen hears the news that England is at war again with France. Being a naval officer, Bowen realises that being where he was, he would be away from the action, promotion and possible honour if he stayed on in Australia. So, he writes a letter to Governor King stating he would prefer to be resigned from his present position because “I conceive it my duty, as an officer in the Navy, to re-turn to my profession''. But over the next few days, these lofty sentiments begin to compete with his conscience about the implications of him leaving a pregnant Martha Hayes behind. Mulling things over in his mind, he then comes up with a scheme which would, hopefully, satisfy both his sense of honour and the well being of Martha.


Sunday Tasmanian

Sunday 4 January 2004, page 18


January 4 – 7, 1804

Once again Surveyor Meehan explores the Rokeby area and the coastline of Ralphs Bay.

Authors note: Due to various as yet unresolved matters of interpretation of Meehan's survey notes of this and a few other explorations by Meehan around that time I have avoided giving more precise details etc.  While he was a superb bushman, Meehan's surviving notebooks are not always very clear about his location (how could he be!); he occasionally loses track of the date, while 200 years later his pencilled notes made during his wanderings (and later written over with ink) are at times extremely difficult to read and even more difficult to interpret -- and that is still putting it mildly.

Another difficulty is that while he is usually very precise with survey details such as measured bearings and distances etc, he occasionally interspersed these precise details with the remark that “then after walking for an hour we came to a hill'' from where he continues again with his survey observations.
(It is after reading lines like these that the modern researcher takes a coffee break . . .)
The intriguing thing is that when after his return to Sydney later that year Meehan compiled for the benefit of Governor King a large composite plan of his explorations made while stationed at Risdon Cove (now in the State Archives in Hobart), the actual detail as shown on this plan clearly suggests that every footstep he made in this frequently wild and rocky terrain was precisely measured on a step-by-step basis. Presumably it looked impressive when shown to the Governor.

While this last comment is not made to denigrate Meehan's tremendous performance in unknown, often difficult and potentially dangerous territory, it does give some indication of the problems and uncertainties that face those who want to retrace his steps during those earliest days of British settlement in Tasmania.


The Mercury

Friday 9 January 2004, page 19


January 9, 1804, Monday

After giving the command of the settlement to Lieutenant Moore of the New South Wales Corps (which involved the formal handing over of the General Order Book), Lieutenant Bowen leaves on the Ferret for Sydney in order to bring his prisoners to trial.  But, as it soon would appear, there were other motivations in the back of his mind when he made this decision.
When Bowen left Sydney a few months ago he knew that his girlfriend Martha Hayes was pregnant, and now wishes her mother (a convict in Sydney) to be with her in order to ensure her well being during the forthcoming confinement and after.  Taking his prisoners to Sydney is clearly thus a convenient excuse to at least meet Martha's mother again and, if possible, take her back with him to Risdon.  This he succeeded in, but not without a severe chiding from Governor King who was furious with Bowen for leaving his post.
This was because the main purpose of the Risdon settlement and his personal duty there was to assert a British presence should the French turn up and claim Van Diemen's Land as French territory.
That day, three sailors fail to board the departing Ferret and are left behind.  What happened to these deserters is officially unknown, although there are indications that they at first joined the population of Risdon Cove, but that after the arrival of Governor Collins they were transferred to Sullivans Cove as servants. Normally, deserting sailors would have been treated very harshly.  But in this part of the world their skills were worth infinitely more on a ship than in jail and so we see that at almost the first occasion when a new ship appears at Sullivans Cove, these servants quietly vanish again as far as the administration of Collins food store is concerned.


The Mercury

Wednesday 21 January 2004, page 18

Bowen out of Favour


January 21, 1804

The Ferret arrives in Sydney with its passengers from Risdon Cove.
Lieutenant Bowen presents himself to an astonished Governor King who soon realised the real motives of the journey, especially when he discovered that Bowen's personal belongings were still at Risdon, and clearly expected thus to return there. King was furious, and ordered him to stick to the instructions contained in his letter of November 26.
This letter, which King had sent with the Ocean to Port Phillip (and which Bowen therefore could not have seen as yet) instructed Bowen that he should “immediately resign the Command of the Settlement at Risdon Cove to Governor Collins'' should Collins indeed decide to move his ill-fated settlement from Port Phillip to the Derwent. King had good reasons to be frustrated with Bowen because he knew that Collins right at that very moment was in the process of making these decisions, and therefore ordered Bowen to return immediately in the Integrity to the Derwent via Port Phillip, just in case Collins would still be there.
With regards to Bowen's wishes to return to England to take part in the war, Governor King was happy to oblige (anything to get rid of this seemingly not-very-clever officer), and instructed Bowen to return to Sydney immediately with the Integrity after having handed over the command of the settlement to Dr Mountgarret until such time that King can make other arrangements. And yes, Bowen can also take the convict parents of Martha Hayes with him to the Derwent, but “go, go, go!''
The Integrity, launched shortly before, left Sydney early in February but when it arrived in Port Phillip on the 23rd of that month it appeared that Collins had indeed already left from there just over three weeks ago.
Given the urgent instructions by Governor King to Lieutenant Bowen to return to Risdon Cove as quickly as possible it is unclear why the vessel nevertheless stayed at Port Philip for six days. As it was, they left from there not until the 29th, but on their way south to Risdon Cove the Integrity struck problems with her rudder and became stranded in the Furneaux Islands.
Here, the American Captain Delano found them and kindly helped out -- at a price -- but what with all these delays it meant that in the end Bowen did not return to the Derwent until March 10, by which time Governor Collins had already installed his people on the shore of Sullivans Cove, thus making the very existence of the settlement at Risdon Cove and Bowens command of it totally irrelevant.



The Mercury

Tuesday 27 January 2004, page 14

Pegging out old Hobart Town


January 27, 1804

Surveyor Meehan ends a survey of the western shore of the River Derwent, which he commenced a few days ago at what is now Cartwright Point at the northern end of Taroona.  From there he worked his way along the waterfront, and reached the mouth of the Hobart Rivulet on the 26th where he blazed a tree with a survey marker, and one which he would use again in 1811 when he surveyed the Hobart Town settlement as it was at that time.  He then ventured a few miles up the rivulet itself, from where he crossed the Davey Street ridge and came down again on the other side towards the Sandy Bay Rivulet and its outlet at the end of Marieville Esplanade. From there he rounded Battery Point and came back to the blazed tree on the sandy beach at the outlet of the Rivulet (a spot nowadays right in front of the front door of the Hope and Anchor Hotel), little suspecting that it would be here that in another few weeks the Collins expedition would land at that very same spot to establish what is now Hobart, the capital of the State of Tasmania.
His party then went upstream along the coastline to New Town Bay, spent the night there, and during the last day worked their way along the New Town Creek, then climbed uphill towards what is now Augusta Road, and from here turned eastwards again back to the river, from where at the end of the day a boat from the Risdon Cove settlement picked them up again.  Even for modern bush walkers with proper gear, these four days must have been quite a strenuous exercise through what was then wild bush country (mostly bad as he noted in his notebook), and altogether indicative of the physical effort that Meehan and his small band of chainmen and carriers were able to produce.

Note: James Meehan was one of the more interesting figures popping up in the story of the events on the Derwent in 1803/1804. He was born in Ireland in 1774; exactly where is not known, although his parents came from Coolderry, a small village near Shinrone in Kings County. He took part in the Irish rebellion of 1798, was convicted and arrived in Sydney in February 1800.

Being familiar with surveying, he was assigned to Charles Grimes, the acting Surveyor-General. He accompanied his bosses on several expeditions, visited King Island and Port Phillip in 1803, and soon performed most of the departmental duties as a conditionally pardoned convict.  In September 1803 he was sent to Risdon Cove to reconnoitre the countryside around this settlement, and with this knowledge was able to advise Collins on the merits of the mouth of the Hobart Rivulet as a place to settle. He then surveyed the first land allocations in the Moonah area to the first settlers there, and in 1811 and 1813 came back to survey the Hobart settlement, mark its first streets, and also did some work in Northern Tasmania.  In 1806 he received an absolute pardon and from then onward served in the Surveyor-Generals Department in Sydney and in later life was one of those who received invitations to Government House during the term of Governor Macquarie.
During the deposition of Governor Bligh in 1808, Meehan kept well out of the way of what went on, and when after these events his boss, Surveyor-General Grimes, was sent to London with dispatches, Meehan promptly became his deputy.  However, Grimes did not like Meehan (probably a case of professional jealousy) and besmirches his name in London, as a result of which naval surveyor John Oxley used his influence there to grab this position.
Meanwhile, Macquarie had been appointed as Governor and to salvage the situation within the department and its output, Macquarie then appointed Meehan to the position of Deputy Surveyor-General and various other related positions.
In 1821 Meehan retired as a result of the hardships, privations and difficulties, and died at his farmstead Macquarie Fields on 21 April 1826, after an illness of some weeks. The Sydney Gazette describing him then as one of the primitive (i.e. earlier) Europeans of the colony, and formerly an active official in the Surveyor-Generals Department.
The officiating Roman Catholic priest at his funeral was Fr John Joseph Terry, the founding father of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia, who also spent some time here in Tasmania when Fr Connolly faced difficult times (1838-1841). 
Unfortunately, there is no known painting or other image of James Meehan, while even his gravesite in Sydney was later covered by Sydney's Central Railway Station.  About Meehan's private life little is known. He cohabited with Ruth Goodair, who had been convicted at York in 1804 for stealing. She arrived in Sydney in 1806 and via the Female Factory finished up in Meehan's house, presumably to do the housekeeping.  They had a son Thomas (1808) and a daughter (1810), who died at a young age. Their mother Ruth Goodair died in 1842. Thomas had two daughters, and their descendants are still living in NSW.
The significance of Surveyor Meehan within the history of Tasmania is firstly that he used his professional and private initiative to survey much of the environment of the Risdon settlement, as a result of which it was he who was able to advise Lieutenant Governor Collins on the opportunities for a successful settlement to be found at and near the mouth of the Hobart Rivulet, and secondly as the surveyor who pegged out the first allocations of land for settlers. They were in the area between the Moonah shopping centre and the Brooker Highway, a neighbourhood where even today many streets still reflect the first property boundary lines ever surveyed in Tasmania.
Finally, in 1811-1812 he also surveyed grant boundary lines around New Norfolk for those settlers who had just arrived there from Norfolk Island.


The Mercury

Friday 30 January 2004, page 22

Leaving Port Phillip Bay


January 30, 1804

Having made all the preparations and last-minute arrangements, most members of the Collins settlement at Port Phillip had over the past few days re-embarked on the Ocean and the Lady Nelson, and very early that morning the ships raised their anchors to depart for the Derwent in Tasmania.   They safely made it through the Rip out of the harbour, but then took a day or two to find the right wind to make the crossing of Bass Strait.
Due to the absence of the much larger ship Calcutta with its spacious holds, a substantial quantity of freight and baggage had to be left behind for collection when the Ocean would return to Port Phillip, together with a number of soldiers who stayed behind to guard these goods.   Because of lack of space on board the small Lady Nelson, a number of settlers also had to stay behind, to be collected when the Ocean would call again in a few weeks time.
Little did these people know that it would be nearly half a year before they also would finally reach Tasmania, and that during that journey they would come within a hair's breadth of having the ship sink from beneath them during a violent winter storm south of Storm Bay.