Apples of the Huon – Part One

The Huon River, the Huon River valley and the lands along the D’Encastreaux Channel are synonymous with Tasmania’s historic apple industry. The town of Cygnet (known as Lovett until 1915) is situated on the Channel Highway. Cygnet is about an hour’s drive south west of Hobart (depending on the route taken) and twenty minutes north east of Huonville.

For more than one hundred years Cygnet was at the centre of the apple industry. Not only were fresh apples exported to Britain, but apples and other fruits were processed and dried in the town. To understand the significance of this fact, it is helpful to consider the history of the settlement as well as the history of apple growing in the southern region of Tasmania. Many readers will be surprised to discover that Cygnet’s story starts well before the settlement of Melbourne and Adelaide.

The first apple tree planted in Tasmania
Captain Cook visited Adventure Bay on Bruny Island in 1777 on board the HMS Resolution. William Bligh was his sailing master.  Bligh returned to Adventure Bay with the botanist Nelson in 1788. As was the practice of many mariners, these men planted a number of small fruit trees and vines as a future food source. The plants had been brought from the Cape of Good Hope.

Four years later Bligh returned to Adventure Bay on the HMS Providence. He was on his way to Tahiti. He recorded in his log that one of the apple trees that he had planted had survived. The others had been destroyed by fire. The surviving tree was described as being green and slightly bitter.

The English and French Explorers
Using Captain Cook’s maps, the French explorer Brunei D’Encastreaux also visited Adventure Bay. The channel that bears his name was explored in 1792. It runs parallel with the Derwent River but is situated behind Bruny Island. The Huon River enters this channel as it passes Huon Island.

In 1793 D’Encastreaux sent his men to explore the mouth and lower part of the Huon River to see if there were any English settlements. He named the blind branch of the river about five miles from the river mouth le port des Cygnes after the abundance of black swans seen in the area. His men noted the possible water supply and that the port was sheltered from the winds. They were of the opinion that the land could be suited to agriculture once it was cleared of the tall timbers that came right down to the shore line.

Nine years later in 1802, and a year before the English settled in Van Diemen’s Land, Nicholas Baudin, another French explorer, instructed Louis de Freycinet and Frances Peron to enter the Huon River. They were to look for water at le port des Cygnes. The men hoped to capture black swans to take back to France.

When the crew members returned to their ship they described the beauty of the area and their friendly encounter with an aboriginal family.  The men also had samples of twelve bird species to take back to France. The pretty blue bird that they described is now known to us as the Fairy Wren.

While exploring the marshlands and river valley, trout were caught by stunning them with musket fire. The water way that enters the harbor was named River Fleurieu. Today it is known as the Agnes Rivulet.

The men decided that the marshy island with tidal waters was not suited to the collection of water. Little did they know that in time this land would be part of the town of Cygnet. The marshy island would become the site of an apple processing plant and a wood wool factory.

Hobart Town’s climate is similar to England.
Lieutenant John Bowen arrived at East Risdon on the eastern shores of the Derwent in 1803. When the British settlement was moved to where Hobart stands today, it was realized that the climate was similar to that of England. This meant that the land was suited to the growth of apples, pears cherries and other familiar crops.

Early Hobart settlers attempted to recapture memories of their life in England.  Fruit trees were ordered for delivery from Cape Town for the household and government gardens. The citizens shared (buds) scions for grafting from their fruit trees and cuttings from their garden plants.

The result was that a variety of apples and other fruits could be grown on one tree. It was not long before Hobart nurseries were advertising English fruit trees and garden plants for sale to the public. Settlers were astonished at the rate of growth of the apple and pear trees. So proud in fact that a small consignment of apples was sent to Scotland.

The Land Grants
By 1808 land grants were being given as rewards to hard working settlers and to convicts who had served their sentences. Over two thousand acres of land north, west and south of Hobart was granted and cleared using convict labor.  This allowed cropping to become established.

Government land grants on the Huon River at Garden Island Creek, Randalls Bay, Abels Bay, Deep Bay, Lymington and in the Cygnet area kick started the timber and horticultural industries. Land was granted to former convicts and freemen (the children born to convicts while their parents were incarcerated). Maps produced at the turn of the century show that the land varied in size from twenty acres upwards, most being around fifty acres. This land of course was covered in timber and had to be cleared.

The first white settler on the Huon
The first permanent white settler on the Huon was William Nichols. He was initially granted land in 1821 at Browns River (near Kingston). He raised his family and farmed potatoes on this land. He also continued to build boats.

Nichols applied for and received a grant for three hundred and twenty acres of land on the north side of Port Cygnet in 1829. After the land had been cleared and accommodation built, Nichols moved his family to this property. At the time the property was only accessible by a walking track from Browns River or up the river by boat.

The first apple exports and the establishment of orchards.
Apples grown at Rokeby were exported from Hobart to Edinburgh in 1828. Commercial quantities of apple trees for the establishment of orchards did not however become available until the end of the 1830s. Mr. Williams of Garden Island Creek (near Cygnet) took up the challenge and was the first on the Huon to establish an orchard in 1838.

He planted Ribstone Pippins, Scarlets, French Crabs, Stone Pippins, Alexanders and Prince Alfreds. Mr. Garth quickly followed and planted an orchard at Police Point.

Lady Franklin’s lease for purchase scheme
Lady Franklin, wife of the Governor traveled to the Huon in the 1830s. She visited the Nichols family at Cygnet. Aware of the lack of employment, poverty and increasing crime in Hobart she devised a lease for purchase land scheme.

Using her own financial resources she purchased 640 acres of timbered land and ti-tree swamp along the Huon River in the area that is now known as Franklin. Lady Franklin’s aim was to give poor Hobart citizens the chance of owning land and to lift their families out of poverty through hard work. Lady Franklin interviewed the applicants for the scheme. She then keenly followed their progress as they cleared their land, built accommodation and planted crops.

This lady also rolled up her sleeves and personally collected local soil samples. These were sent to Kew in England for analysis. Again this was at her own expense.  Once it was known that the soils in the Huon River area would be ideal for small fruits, berries were planted to make jams.

The first apples at Franklin were planted in 1839 and in time apple orchards stretched along the river as far as Geeveston and into the Huon Valley. Many settlers planted just one tree of each variety of apple to get their crops started.

Timber was the main source of income on the Huon
From the beginning of European settlement in Port Cygnet until the end of the 1850s, timber was the main source of income as land was cleared. Timber was exported from the area for firewood, house building and fence palings. Garden Island Creek with its sheltered mooring had one of the biggest timber mills in the area. Customers were found in Hobart, Melbourne, and Adelaide.

Boat building was established at Cygnet and Dover. Enterprising settlers became exporters of timber on boats that they hired or had built for the trade. George Abel, a freeman was born to his convict parents on Norfolk Island. When the penal colony closed, his parents were relocated to New Norfolk north of Hobart. His father became a publican.

George as a young man helped build the Lady Franklin Hotel at Franklin. He was a publican there before he started trading timber to the Melbourne market. George and his  brother Thomas each had land grants of fifty acres at Abels Bay which is situated between Garden Island Creek and Cygnet. A number of children were born there. Eventually he took his family to Hobart where he was a publican and timber merchant.

The Convict Probation Stations
While the transport of convicts to New South Wales ceased in 1840, convicts continued to arrive in Van Diemen’s Land until 1853. From 1845 to 1848 the men placed in the Huon probation stations played an important role in the development of Port Cygnet.  They cleared land, built roads and constructed buildings. Port Cygnet was surveyed and land advertised for sale to the public in 1848.

Regardless of how they came by the land, the early settlers of the Cygnet area worked hard to fell the timber. In their spare time they planted crops including orchards that would in time provide a sustainable income. They were assisted in this work by convicts from the probation stations. These were situated on Huon Island (near Garden Island Creek) at Nichols Rivulet, Lymington and Port Cygnet. After gaining probation passes, the convicts were free to move on to private employment.

The Military Settlers
In 1849 the British Government sent retired soldiers from British and Indian armies to Van Diemen’s Land. It was intended that by having these men merge with the general population there would be a sense of law, order and comradeship. Part of the bargain was that the men would be given a small plot of land, something that would have been impossible back in the home land.

Title to the land would be granted after seven years of occupation. The soldiers were also allowed to keep the bedding issued on board ship where they worked as convict guards. There was no further expenditure on their account.

Accompanied by their wives and children, the military pensioners arrived with the convicts. Many of the men were in poor health. Convict labor was made available to clear the granted land and to build accommodation.

Seventy pensioner guards were offered land in the Port Cygnet area. Each received nine or ten acres of land in the valleys and hills alongside the Agnes Rivulet. Most of the families settled along Slab Road. Others lived on the road to Cradoc.

These poor families experienced the baptism of fire. Devastating bush fires ravaged the area, destroying their homes, potato crops and timber resources in 1853 and 1854.

To add to their misery, floods followed just months later destroying the town’s saw mill.  While some sold their land and moved away, most stayed, rebuilt and eked out a poor existence replanting their crops and fruit trees. Others used skills such as shoemaking, butchering, carpentry, sawmilling, and shoeing horses to support their families.

Indentured Immigration
The fledgling settlement of Port Cygnet also benefited from the Indenture system of immigration that brought English, Irish and German speaking immigrants to the area in the 1850s. Those with money paid a fee on arrival in Hobart and were free to settle where they chose. The poorer immigrants had to work for a year for the employers who had sponsored them.

Port Cygnet changes its name to Lovett and then to Cygnet
The increasing population meant that Port Cygnet expanded from being a small settlement to a township with stores, hotels, schools, postal amenities, telegraph and a savings bank. A Constable was appointed for law enforcement. In 1853 the town was renamed Lovett, with the name of Port Cygnet being retained for the bay and port area. The name of the town changed from Lovett to Cygnet in 1915.

Timber and Apple processing industries
For over one hundred years Cygnet was the site of a number of fruit processing businesses. The development of the jam and apple export industry meant that the timber mills had to provide the materials for apple boxes and wood wool packing. In combination these industries provided employment, economic stability and prosperity that developed and expanded the community.

The availability of gooseberries, raspberries, black currants and apples provided the perfect ingredients for making jam. The inclusion of apples in the mix meant that the jam would set. Jam making started as a home industry and before long had reached commercial proportions.

Burton’s Reserve and Peacock’s Jam Factory
Factorys for the manufacture of jam, apple processing and dehydration, as well as the manufacture of wood wool were built on the land now known as Burton’s reserve. This is the triangular piece of land explored by the French. It is situated where the Agnes Rivulet enters Port Cygnet.

George Peacock arrived in Hobart in 1850. Initially he made jam at the back of his grocery and fruit shop from apples and small fruit. As the demand increased he expanded his business. In 1859 he sold his store, to open Tasmania’s first jam factory under the name of Messrs Peacock and Johnson. He also preserved fruit and made pickles.

It was not long before Peacock was exporting apples on behalf of growers as well as the jams he made to mainland cities, New Zealand, and Mauritius. He also set up jam factories in the bigger cities on the mainland. George Peacock made jam at Cygnet from 1863 until 1885 when he suddenly pulled out of the area.

In 1875 he had built the first steam operated jam manufactory outside Hobart at Cygnet as well as a similar building at Franklin. Jam production peaked at 330 tons of jam per year. The Ann Allen, built by John Wilson at Port Cygnet was one of the ships that took Peacock jam and apples to Hobart returning with sugar imported from Mauritius and jam tins. These were square shaped, not round for easy packing in to boxes.

Joseph and Robert Harvey
Joseph Harvey, an ex convict, recognized the potential of the apples and fruits around Port Cygnet. He was a store owner and then became the agent for Peacock. He developed a sound knowledge of the jam making business.

His son Robert, took over the store and became a general store keeper. His large store was situated close to the port. Harvey also had a bakery and butchery. Robert Harvey not only supplied Cygnet’s residents with provisions but he also purchased and processed all of their locally produced fruit. In time the coal mine and a timber mill were also controlled by this man.

Apples and small fruits were processed at Harvey’s factory situated at the head of Port Cygnet. Nothing was wasted. Fruit left the factory as jam, in a dehydrated state or was exported fresh to markets both interstate and overseas. Even fruit skins and cores were used. They were dried and exported to Europe.

Harvey supported the apple growing families who turned to him for help when money was short. He took fruit as payment for goods from his stores. Many residents of Cygnet as well as orchard owners had mortgages with him rather than with the banks. Robert Harvey died in 1933.

The Packaging Industry
A wood fired steam engine stands at the side of the road just as you leave Cygnet on the road to Huonville. This engine was used at Olbrich’s Mill to slice timber for apple boxes. Between fifteen and twenty thousand apple boxes were made in Cygnet per year. Production stopped in 1964 when cardboard boxes cut the demand for the wooden crates.

Export quality apples were protected within the wooden boxes by wood wool. This was manufactured at Burton’s  Wood Wool factory. The factory was situated in the same precinct as Harvey’s factories at the head of the bay. Initially willows were used to make the wood wool packing.

Then it was found that the young thin swamp gums were more suited. Logs delivered to the factory were cut by machines into fine slither strips. After drying on racks the fibers  were condensed into bales four feet by three feet in size.

When required the fibers were cut into smaller lengths and wrapped around the apples in the boxes. The apple box lids were then wired to the cases. Each apple box had its own  colorful label and brand. This label identified the grower and place of the orchard.

As a five year old child in New Zealand in 1948, one hundred years after the first apples were exported from Tasmania to that country, the author saw beautiful red apples packed in their wood wool nests. These apples were displayed in a grocer’s store in Wellington. “Do swan’s lay red eggs she asked her mother? “ The label on the box showed a picture of swans and stated that the apples had come from Cygnet.

The Fruit Evaporation Factory and the Cider Making Plant
Robert Harvey had the foresight to purchase the Austral Fruit Preserving Company in Hobart. This gave him access to the fruit drying technology as well as new export opportunities. The drying of fruit gave Tasmania the opportunity to take the British market away from the Canadians.

Harvey built his fruit drying factory at Port Cygnet in 1895. The dehydration process was suited to most fruits and vegetables. Dehydrated apples, plums and potatoes were exported from Cygnet in 25 lb boxes. They were in high demand in the other mainland colonies.

Before the existence of the evaporating plant inferior apples were wasted. As there was no market for them they were just left to rot on the ground. The addition of a cider making plant at Harvey’s factory meant that all fruit could be utilized.

After just four years of operation the dehydration and cider factory was burned down in 1899.  The replacement plant was built on land leased from Peacock on what is now Burton’s reserve. The evaporating factory and the pie apple plant were destroyed by fire in 1928. Five thousand cases of apples, two thousand cases of dried fruit, thousands of tons of firewood and thirteen tons of peelings were also lost .

The Cygnet community was severely affected. Jobs were lost and there was no outlet for second grade fruit.  The factory took two years to rebuild. Disaster struck again in 1936 when the neighboring wood wool factory was destroyed by fire. The apple factory was still on the site of Burton’s reserve in the 1970s. Today the Weighbridge Cottage and the machinery shed are the only buildings from the apple era still on site.

The apple industry once established grew rapidly along the Huon. New varieties of apples were developed to replace the older trees. These were imported from England and South Africa.

…To be continued…

(Special thanks to Jan O’ Connell for reminding us that Bligh returned to Adventure Bay in the HMS Providence, not the HMS Bounty.)