Monday, 17 March 2014

52 Ancestors #13 Thomas Birch

Thomas William Birch is the first member of my family to voluntarily come to Australia. Thomas is thought to have been born in 1767 at Kingston upon Hull in Yorkshire, England. If so, his parents may have been John Birch (born 1742) and Mary Thompson (born 1745). However I have seen articles that give his year of birth as 1774. We do know that he came from England and that he was a surgeon.

In May 1808 Thomas arrived in Hobart aboard the whaler, Dubuc. Whaling was a profitable industry operating in the south seas in the early 1800s and Hobart was well placed as a port for whaling. The whales were hunted primarily for oil. One assumes that Thomas had been ship surgeon for a number of years before the trip to Van Diemen's Land. The Dubuc was an English ship weighing 306 tons. The ship was to return to England laden with whale oil but started leaking near Kangaroo Bluff in the Derwent River and was declared unsuitable for sailing. The ship returned to Hobart where the cargo of oil was saved as months later transferred to the convict ship, Aeolus, which, in April 1809, called into Hobart on the return journey to England. Thomas decided not to return to England but instead was to make a new life in the new colony in Van Diemen's Land.

On  12 September 1808, Thomas Birch married Sarah Guest at St David's Church, Hobart. Sarah, aged 16 when she married Thomas, was the daughter of convicts George Guest and Mary Bateman. Sarah's family had transferred to Tasmania from Norfolk Island three years earlier. Thomas and Sarah had seven children - Samuel (born 1809), Ann Riley Birch (born 6 October 1810 died 24 April 1811), William (born 1812), Sarah (born 1814), Eliza (born 1816), Henry (born 1818) and George (born 1820).

Hobart was founded in 1804 when the initial settlement at Risdon (1803) was moved to Sullivan's Cove where there was a good supply of fresh water and the area was suitable for establishing a port, essential for supplying the needs of the new colony and for trading. Sealing and whaling were the first industries. With such dependence on the port and the distance from Sydney and the rest of the world, shipbuilding also soon became an important industry. In 1808 Thomas was one of three surgeons in Hobart Town but he seems to have left this part of his former life behind to concentrate on making the most of new opportunities.

In 1812 Thomas Birch had had built the small ship (60 tons), Henrietta Packet, which made its first trip to Sydney in April 1813. The ship carried passengers and cargo and when it was sold in 1818 it was renamed the Young Lachlan. At the same time, Thomas also acquired the brig, Sophia, (100 tons) which normally carried passengers and cargo and was was at times leased by the government. When the Sophia was sold to the Government in 1822 the ship was renamed the Duke of York. James Kelly worked for Thomas as master of these ships. In 1815 Kelly was employed by Thomas Birch to explore the Tasmanian coast in another small ship called the Elizabeth. A number of locations were named by Kelly including Port Davey and Macquarie Harbour. Birch Inlet and Sarah Island were named after Thomas and Sarah. For these endeavours Thomas Birch was given twelve months exclusive access to the area around Port Davey and Macquarie Harbour in regard to trading and also the gathering of timber from the area, especially Huon pine.

Having spent years working aboard a whaler, it is not surprising that he became involved in this industry as well as in sealing. Whale oil and seal pelts were major exports from the colony. A newspaper report in 1817 stated that the Sophia immediately required 'six fine young able bodied seamen' for a sealing voyage and in March 1818 the Sophia returned to Hobart from a sealing voyage along the New Zealand coast with 3,000 seal skins. In September 1818 it was reported that the Sophia returned with six whales caught in the river.

Ships arriving in Hobart usually had cargoes for sale and Thomas quickly established himself as a merchant selling goods from his property in Macquarie Street. Trove has digistised newspapers for Hobart from 1816 and many issues list the goods that are available from the premises of Thomas William Birch. The lists are interesting, not just for the items that Thomas purchased but as an indication of goods required by the settlers in the new colony. There were goods for the house which might include kitchen utensils, crockery, eight-day clocks, table linen, pillow and bolster covers, bed furniture, bed ticking, sheets and blankets, carpets and rugs, iron pots, frying pans, lanterns and cottage stoves. Imported foods such as capers and pickles, herrings, Gloucester cheese, tea, sugar, butter, barley, rice, Lisbon wine, sherry, brandy and Jamaica rum, old port and Madeira, as well as spices such as ginger, pepper, cloves and cinnamon were also sold. Building supplies were needed in the colony and included masons, carpenters, joiners and cooper's tools, turning lathe and tools, window glass, sheet tin and lead, locks, bolts and hinges, iron wire and paint brushes. Sail makers' tools were also available as well as canvas and rope. Farming supplies included wood and iron ploughs, axes, turnip drill harrows, winnowing machines, scythes and sickles, reaping hooks, hay forks, garden rakes, hoes, saws, spades and sieves, horse harness, best saddles and bridles, curry combs, twine, wool hooks and bagging for wool plus churns suitable for a dairy. And of course there was clothing for men women and children as well as a wide range of assorted fabrics. Other essentials included sealing wax, marble paper, quills, books, paintings and playing cards. Double and single barrel guns, powder and shot were also available for sale. Payment for goods was in money or wheat valued at 10 shillings a bushell.

Thomas and Sarah and their family lived in Macquarie Street, Hobart, first in a wattle and daub house but in 1815 a three story brick building was built for the family at 151 Macquarie Street. As well as the family home the building would have stored the goods available for sale. Parts of the building still exist and it is listed in the Australian Heritage Database and the Tasmanian Heritage Register. Thomas Birch owned a brick field between Collins Street, Hobart, and the creek and these bricks were used for the building.
View of the original building among more recent additions
The house would have stood out from the other buildings in the town and was grander than the official government buildings at the time. In 1817, when Lieutenant Governor Sorrell arrived in the colony, the Birch house was leased by the Government until repairs could be made to Government House. Three years later when Governor Macquarie revisited the colony the Birch house was once again used as his residence during the three month visit.

The Macquarie Street property was part of 100 acres of land, bordered by Macquarie, Liverpool, Goulburn, Davey, D'Arcy, Adelaide and Anglesea streets, owned by Thomas in Hobart. According to Australian Dictionary of Biography Online, Thomas Birch also owned land at Richmond, Hollow Tree, Jericho, Cambridge and Lovely Banks. Articles in Hobart newspapers refer to property he owned at Duck Holes near the Coal River which would have been the property at Richmond. Thomas regularly supplied meat and wheat to the Government Stores. When he died the properties were believed to have been worth more than £40,000.

In December 1819 Thomas William Birch was appointed to the Lieutenant Governor's Court of Civil Judicature. He was also Treasurer of the Auxiliary Branch Bible Society of Van Diemen's Land from its formation in May 1819.

Thomas William Birch died on 1 December 1821 and was buried at St David's cemetery on 7 December. The following day the Hobart Town Gazette & Van Diemen's Land Advertiser reported that overnight the grave had been robbed with clothing and grave goods removed. A reward was offered but no further information appears in the newspapers.

Thomas William Birch lived Hobart Town for only thirteen years but in that time greatly contributed to the development of the new settlement as well as providing for his family.The decision to remain in the new colony instead of returning to England appears to have been a good one.

Thomas William Birch was my great (x3) grandfather.

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