The Plague of Blackberries

Settling new country was seen as a heroic act by the early Europeans in Australia, and there were few more heroic in that mould than James Fenton of the Forth. He was brought out on the Othello by his father, James Fenton snr., who was following his cousin Michael to Van Diemen’s Land.

The “Fighting Fentons” (as they charmingly called themselves) were Protestants from Ireland, their family of French ancestry. Michael had served in India and Burma before coming to Van Diemen’s Land in 1828, and reported very favourably of it. They left Liverpool in 1833; James snr. died at sea. James jnr. and his mother and brothers arrived in Hobart Town in February 1834.

Soon after, the eldest sister had married and taken up land on the north coast, west of the Tamar. Visiting, James took great interest in the country further west, which was still covered in heavy timber, an intricate ecosystem of wet sclerophyll. Anywhere with slightly less forest had been taken by the Van Diemen’s Land Company. Yet in 1840, James Fenton delved into the depths of this country, and bought a thousand cheap acres from the government on the Forth River. He was the only settler in the district; the nearest civilisation was about eighty kilometres away.

Fenton’s technique of land management was unique and innovative. In 1846, now in his mid-twenties, he married Helena Mary Monds, the sister of successful settler capitalist Thomas Monds. (Fenton and Monds would go into business in the 1850s, exporting palings to Victoria for accommodation on the burgeoning goldfields.) They were exposed to threats: for example, when the felonious personalities Dalton and Kelly appeared off the beach near the mouth of the Forth.

Gradually, other settlers entered the region. Fenton had helped and housed explorers such as Nathaniel Lipscombe Kentish as they tried to push back the unknown parts of the region. In the 1850s, settlements pushed further west than Fenton had, adopting his system of ring-barking old growth trees and burning the undergrowth. Fenton’s techniques became the model for the new pioneer community living on the north-west coast.

Removing the forests had revealed surprisingly rich, ruby-coloured basaltic soil, ideal for farming. Berry bushes and fruit trees were planted; Fenton later confessed to have introduced blackberries to that part of Tasmania. “I trust the gentle reader will not throw up the book when he discovers that the writer…was one of the miscreants who inflicted the blackberry plague on the district,” he worries in his Bush Life in Tasmania, which today remains a wonderful read on the European settlement of the Forth country.

Of course, we know that Fenton’s career in Forth country wrought irrevocable changes. He notes in his pioneering memoir that although a previous explorer had frequently seen emus, he never saw a single one. Henry Hellyer had been able to ‘rout’ emus, Fenton reflects, almost constantly. “It is a very singular fact that those emus have all disappeared from some unknown cause.” It seems almost wilful naiveté to us.

Fenton briefly left the Forth to try his hand at the Victorian goldfields in 1852, but returned quickly, and didn’t leave again until 1879, deeming himself too old for farming. He retired with his wife to Launceston and began to write. A drawing of James Fenton in this time of retirement – in his late sixties – shows him with thick features, kind eyes, and a mighty beard.

James Fenton and Helena Mary Monds had three daughter, and one son, Charles Monds, who opened a store at Forth in 1869: a sign of the times, of the development of the region and the growth in settler population there less than three decades after his father had adventurously decided to move there.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says of James Fenton jnr. (1820-1901) that “the beautiful farm lands carved out of the north-coast forests are his best monument.” Looking out of the patchwork of poppies, potatoes and pyrethrum, the apples and cherries and carrots, all the cows and sheep, one can read the land in a variety of ways. Ultimately, they are the remembered and recorded map of this era of intense change of landscape management on the island.