A Tale of the Tamar

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Clarence Begent

Clarence and Ann BegentClarence Arthur Begent was born in 1824 the son of Eli and Mary Begent, and lived in George Town on the mouth of the River Tamar in Tasmania. He spent his working life on ships in the surrounding waters and up and down the river between George Town and Launceston. In July 1850 he appplied for a position of leadsman with the Marine Board. Writing from George Town, he stated he was 25 years of age, 22 of which had been spent on the Tamar where "my occupation from infancy has been connected with shipping and boats". Clarence was appointed to the position, and from 1850 to his retirement in 1892 he was 'Captain Begent' pilot of the river. His pilot's license was issued by the Port of Launceston on 8th June 1869. He married Ann Rosevaer in 1860. Her parents owned the Rosevear Hotel on the River Tamar. They had 7 children.

Clarence Begent resigned his position on 30 April 1892 at the age of 68, after 33 years of service. The Master Warden of the Municipality said that he had "discharged his duties with diligence and fidelity to the satisfaction of the Head Office of his Department". The following article appeared in the Launceston Examiner in December 1892. Clarence died on Christmas day 1899. Ann died in St Mary's at her son's residence in July 1911, aged 78 years




When the veteran soldier, who has aided in making history by fighting his country’s battles, retires, covered with wounds and glory, upon his laurels, and a somewhat meagre pension, the story of his gallant deeds, the hurts he has sustained, and the hardships he has suffered is trumpeted forth for the delectation of his admiring fellow countrymen, and the worn out warrior sinks gracefully into obscurity amid hearty salvoes of consolatory Kudos.

So most it ever be barring, perhaps, the meagreness of the pension; and few will be found to deny that the tried and trusty soldier who has served his country long and well and faithfully is worthy of such need of enjoyment and repose as a grateful country sometimes, and sometimes only, deems it fitting to bestow.

But there are many also many other forms of service and effort, which being alike national in their scope and beneficial in their effect, are worthy of all praise and publicity as well as of such material rewards as fall to them. Of such is the work of the explorer and the pioneer, and most particularly of the men who go down to the sea in ships.

Such a man, one who has borne the heat and turmoil of the day in the port of Launceston for half a century, and who has finally retired from active duty upon the 30th day of November last, is the subject of the present paper Captain Clarence Begent, pilot, from whom a representative of this paper has obtained some interesting details connected with his service in the port.

Before, however, giving Captain Begent’s statements, it may be well perhaps to give a brief sketch of the general condition of things in the port a few years before the subject of the present sketch made its acquaintance.

For this purpose then let us take our stand on the roadway between Tynan’s Hotel at the foot of Tamar Street, and the Tamar Street Bridge; and look down the river. Behind us is the Ferryhouse Hotel, a rambling one-storeyed structure of shingles and weatherboards, kept by an old sea dog named Captain Daniels, who also keeps the ferry from which the house takes its name, and which is the only means of crossing to the northern bank, where there is nothing but the fringe of gums, wattle and tea-tree which lines the bank of the river. A few small coasting crafts(two or three) are lying by the southern or town side, and planks to get from the boats to the shore, supported on logs and tressle, have been laid over the fringe of rush covered swamp which occupied the space to be afterwards taken up by the wharves. Opposite the ferryhouse is a store kept by Mr James Reibey, and from the front of the store a causeway of stone runs down to low water mark; here the small crafts are loaded with wheat, which is the principal article of export, and is mostly sent to Sydney.

A goodly proportion of the inhabitants are gathered about Reibey’s and the ferryhouse. Portly men in blue swallow-tail coats with brass buttons, and wearing buff waistcoats, small clothes, and tops, are here with the ladies in dresses whose waists are under their armpits; and sailors in glazed hats and round jackets, and soldiers in pigeon-breasted coatees and stocks which threaten to cut their ears off. There is also a plentiful sprinkling of fussy officials, and in the distance is a party of scowling wearers of the broad arrow, the clank of whose chains makes rhythmic accompaniment to their step as they move unwillingly under armed escort to their allotted task.

A large cutter is known to be beating up the river. She has been signalled from Low Head to George Town, from George Town to Mount Direction, and from Mount Direction to the semaphore on Windmill Hill. Great interest is centred in the arrival of this boat, for she is the first vessel direct form the old country to enter the port.

Now her white sails show beyond the point, and a battery of brass telescopes is levelled at her as she tacks and makes a board from the Tamar into the North Esk. A raking looking craft she is with tall tapered mast and clean cut graceful lines to her hull. Smartly and swiftly she comes to her moorings, a gang of willing hands swiftly place the planks in position, and a burst of hearty cheering takes place as the owner of the craft, Mr Effingham Lawrence, steps ashore.

The new arrival is the Lord Liverpool, which sailed from England on the 16th of May 1822. She is captained by George Coulson, and the names of her crew are Samuel Budge, J.W. Bell, John Jacobs, James Edgar and Andrew Taylor, with in addition a carpenter: who bears the name of William Carpenter: and her cargo consists of manufactured goods, ironmongery, furniture etc. The cutter is 71 tons but then, and in her wanderings since leaving the old country she has created some little sensation, having more than once been held in doubt in Spanish American ports, as to whether she were not something in the pirate line.

When this boat arrived Launceston was a very small place indeed; for eight years after, when the first newspaper was started in 1834 by a man named Terry, the population of the place was only 2,500 souls. The Government hospital at that time was a wooden building in Cimitiere Street, and the military barracks stood where now stands Trinity Church. The barracks were afterwards removed to where the Invalid Depot is now, the old buildings being converted into a penitentiary, whilst the hospital became a blacksmith’s shop. The first brick houses in Launceston were the Cornwall Hotel and a cottage in Cameron Street, and Edginton and Co’s old store, which was pulled down some years ago. This place was built by Mr Joseph Banby, Government Storekeeper. Captain Banby, as he was generally called, had a town residence at the back of the Bank of Australasia; next to the house occupied by Mr Joseph Archer, the Commissariat officer. Thus much by way of preface

Captain Begent, questioned as to his career and services on the island and on the Tamar, at once courteously assures his interviewer that during the whole period of his active life he has been so busy minding and doing his own business that he has given no thought to the storage of reminiscences.

"I am now", he says, sixty-eight years of age, and all my energies have been given to the performance of my duty. I was born in Hobart and came up to Launceston with my parents when three years of age, and when 11 years old I started working about with boats on the river.

" We went to George Town(the Captain continues) shortly after coming up from Hobart Town. The military were there then, and the place was quite busy. There were barracks and commissariat stores, and police there too. But all those buildings have been pulled down now there’s only one house and part of the police station still standing. The town has been entirely rebuilt, from George Town to the lighthouse".

"I worked as a boy (continues the Captain) on board a packet boat, under a son of Dr. Smith, who was the Government Doctor and a JP, and had charge of the hospital. We worked between George Town and Launceston. During this time I recollect the Government survey brig-Beagle coming in to refit in Briant’s Bay, below Beauty Point Either the 11th or 96th Regiment was at George Town at the time. After that I went to Melbourne and Adelaide, trading in the coasting craft."

" Were you ever in difficulties in the water, captain?" the interviewer queries.

" I was once" "was the answer, "In the water for two and a half hours". I can recollect being capsized off Garden Island out of a boat, my father and myself were in the boat and I lost all I had except a double-barrelled gun and a spyglass. The custom house boat picked me up. I was holding up my father until I was picked up, and it was blowing a gale of wind. A squall took the boat over – that and a whirlpool. There were two men in the customs boat, Nat Wicks and Locky McIntosh. Locky poor fellow, was afterwards killed in the bark rookery, by a button block striking him on the head, and he now lies in the Scotch Cemetery."

" When did you obtain your first appointment under Government?"

" In 1850" is the reply. "There is the notifications", says the captain, producing a faded document, which by permission is copied.

Mr Clarence Begent, George Town. Post Office, Launceston, 26 October, 1850

Sir, - I have pleasure to inform you that his Excellency the Lieutenant Governor has been pleased to appoint you a leadsman on the River Tamar in the room of MR Williamson dismissed; with the authorised salary of £250 per annum, to take effect from the date that you commence your duties.

On the arrival of the buoy boat you will be good enough to take charge if the same(until further orders), in the place of Mr Lambert, promoted and give him a receipt for all her stores, which he has been instructed to turn over to you. – I am sir your obedient servant,

MAT. CARLEN FRIEND, Port officer.

" My next appointment was an extra pilot the captain goes on to say, and this I obtained in April, 1855 from Lieutenant Governor Sir Henry Edward Fox Young. But before this I had a turn at the diggings. A party of four of us – Patrick Egan, my brother and myself, and Mr Smith, a brother in law of Mr Charles Honty’s went over in the Yarra Yarra paddle steamer, commanded by Captain Gilmore. We didn’t do well there. We went up to Bendigo and stopped there several months, paying through the nose for everything and finding nothing."

" You’ve been about the North-West Coast?" "Took Bishop Nixon, Captain King, of the Royal Navy, and Mr Power, the Surveyor-General, all round the rivers and ports as far as Circular Head in the schooner Beacon, in 1854. Gave up the schooner at Circular Head and returned to my own post at Low Head in the steamship Titania," the captain replies – "Called in at the Mersey to lay the buoys that trip," he continues. "There was no township there then, just a few huts and tents, but a lot of trade was doing with Victoria and Adelaide in timber, palings and such like."

" You recollect the Cataract bridge being placed, captain?"

" Yes, I was mate of the Tamar tug at the time, and the bridge was towed across on the floating dock. There was a heavy fresh came down the gorge next day; we had just got the frame in its place. The old dock itself was built at Swan Point, and towed up by the Gipsy tug, commanded by Captain McCall. I recollect the Duke of Edinburgh going up the gorge when he was here. There was a procession of boats, and I had charge on one of the harbour boats and crew. Saw him turn the first sod of the Launceston and Deloraine Railway, too."

" There were some whalers trading from this port years ago?"

" Yes; in my day there were the barks Lady Mary Pelham, Lady Rowena, and the old Socrates, and tenders, the Elizabeth schooner, and the Eagle brigantine, and the last fitted out was the Fox brig. She got stranded on Garden Island reef; she missed stays and went ashore one moonlight night. A man named Leonard Low was her captain. She was brought back and broken up. The oil was shipped away in the traders. I recollect on of them, the Honduras, getting shore on a rock just below George Town. She was brought into George Town, hove down and repaired by the late Mr John Griffiths and then reshipped her cargo and went on to London. The rock is now named the Honduras after her."

" Recollect any vessels being lost in the river, Captain Begent?"

" Yes, the Petrel schooner went down in the Whirlpool Reach some twenty years ago, a few years after I received my last appointment as pilot from MR Richard Green, who was then Master Warden, in 1869. I have been a pilot for over thirty years continuously under the Marine Board."

" You remember the departure of the troops from the north?"

" The troops left here in two ships called the Radcliffe and the General Hewitt. One ship lay in Lagoon Bay and the other in Briant’s Bay, and the men were taken down in boats."

" Was it difficult to get vessels up to the wharves before the river was dredged?"

" I have brought vessels of 330ft in length up to the pier before the river was dredged beyond the bar; and the present harbour master, when pilot, brought up the Glengoil, a steamer doubtless over 5000 tonnes and 335ft long; and the Cape Clear and Gulf of Carpentaria and others came up before any dredging had been done below the bar."

" You’ll recollect something of the man of war that landed here?"

" I recollect, " the captain answered, "the Wolveren being here in 1880. She came up to Town Point, and I piloted the Pearl up with Commodore Goodenough, she anchored at the Quarantine Ground. Then there was the Europa and Italian transport. I brought her in and out again. The Italian crew was a decent and smart lot of fellows, I was treated very well by them, and was offered a round turn with them by the captain. This boat took the exhibits from the first Melbourne Exhibition back to Italy. Then there was the Curacoa, she only came as far as Rosevear’s, and the new cruisers, the Katoomba and Ringarooms, but of course you know all about them."

" You’d probably have had a hard knock or two in your service, captain?"

In reply the captain places his hand upon his right shoulder. "You see that lump he said." " Well years ago I fell overboard off the Tamar steam tug, and broke the blade bone, besides sustaining other severe injuries. I suffer from them still."

" You’ll know the Tamar pretty well by now?"

" Yes (is the emphatic answer). I should not care, so far as my own action was concerned, if there was not a buoy or a beacon in the river; and talking of beacons (the captain adds), there’s rather a peculiar thing at Nelson Shoals. There was a set of fingerposts on the beacon, with ‘this way to Launceston,’ and ‘this way to George Town’ upon them."

And thanking the genial captain for the patient courtesy, which had been extended, his interviewer bids the veteran goodbye wishing him a lengthened enjoyment of his well-earned rest.


Information kindly provided by Charles Horace Begent of Tasmania, and Carole Begent of Nottingham, England

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