Where the North Esk and South Esk Rivers flow together, they form the Tamar River, the lifeblood of one of Tasmania’s most popular cuisine destinations. Here, at the southern end of the Tamar Valley, lies Tasmania’s second city, Launceston.
Launceston is about 200 km north of Hobart and is connected to the Tasmanian capital by National Highway 1. This road also links Launceston to Devonport, about 100 km to the northwest. Because it’s the main city in the northern part of Tasmania, Launceston is also where several other major highways in the state meet.
As you drive into the city, National Highway 1 splits into Bathurst and Wellington Streets, which run parallel to each other in a northwest-southeast direction. Just before you cross the North Esk River, these streets join together again to form the A8, also called the East Tamar Highway, which takes you to George Town at the mouth of the Tamar River.
History Of Launceston
The original inhabitants of the Tamar Valley and the Launceston area were of the North Midlands Nation. The Letteremairrener band lived along the Tamar Valley while the Panninher lived to the west and the Tyerrernotepanner towards the south.
The first Europeans to visit what would become Launceston were most likely members of the Bass and Flinders expedition of 1789. George Bass and Matthew Flinders are known to have sailed up the Tamar to explore the river. Then, in 1804, Lieutenant Colonel William Paterson was sent to settle the northern parts of Tasmania. His ship ran aground at York Cove and he set up camp at what would become George Town at the mouth of the river. The settlement was soon moved to York Town and the next year, an expedition built a blockhouse at the southern end of the Tamar Valley. By 1806 the site had become Patersonia, which in 1807 was renamed Launceston in honour of the Cornwall birthplace of Philip Gidley King, whose tenure as Governor of New South Wales had just ended.
Paterson had moved the administrative power of the region to Launceston but when Lachlan Macquarie took over in 1809, he moved the seat of government back to George Town. In 1824, however, Launceston became the seat of government for Northern Tasmania once again. St John’s Church dates from this year, as does the Batman Fawkner Inn, originally known as the Cornwall Hotel and built by John Pascoe Fawkner. It was here that John Batman planned his voyage across the Bass Strait to found a new city known as Melbourne.
Its riverside meant that Launceston quickly grew into an important port from which wool and other agricultural produce could be shipped. By 1827 the town had a population of about 2,000 and by 1829 Launceston had its own newspaper, the Launceston Advertiser, owned by John Fawkner of the Cornwall Hotel.
Settlement of the Tamar Valley region had a devastating effect on the local Aboriginal population, especially the Letteremairrener and by 1830 they had been largely displaced. By 1837 the handful of survivors had been sent to Wybalenna on Flinders Island.
For the settlers however, life was good and Launceston continued to thrive. Many of the buildings constructed during the next few decades still stand, especially along St John, Charles, Brisbane, Paterson, William and Shields Streets. You can pick up a brochure with a map from the Launceston Travel and Visitor Information Centre or download it and go on a self-guided heritage walk around the city. Some of the buildings you can see along the way include the convict-built Paterson Barracks (around 1830), Macquarie House (originally a warehouse for Henry Reed, 1830), the unique Johnstone & Wilmot Store (1842), the Synagogue (1844), the Prince Albert Inn (originally the Dorset Hotel, mid-1850s), the Town Hall (1864), the Old Umbrella Shop (1860s), Custom House (1888), the Post Office (1888-1889) and the magnificent Albert Hall (1891-1892), in its day considered one of the largest public halls in the world and home to the Brindley Water Pipe Organ, the only working one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
Behind Albert Hall you’ll find the City Park, which was originally established in 1808 as a garden. Today it’s an oasis of 5 hectares with flower beds, trees, lawns, the Jubilee Fountain, a kangaroo enclosure and even a macaque monkey enclosure.
Prince’s Square is another great place for resting your feet. Originally known as St John’s Square, the land was a rubbish dump until in 1843 it was turned into a military parade ground. The bronze fountain here dates from the 1850s and the square was officially opened in 1869. Facing the square on the south side are Milton Hall (1842), Christ Church (1883-1885) and Chalmer’s Church (1860).
Across from Prince’s Square, to the southwest, is Morton House, which used to be St John’s Hospital. Here, on 7 June 1847, Dr William Russ Pugh performed two operations that today would be regarded as almost routine: He removed a tumour from a female patient’s jaw and then removed cataracts from the eyes of a male patient. What made these operations so remarkable was that nobody in the Southern Hemisphere had ever used anaesthesia for surgery until this day. There is a statue of Dr Pugh in Prince’s Square to commemorate his historic feat.
Launceston has been home to several other historic firsts: For example, the urban land-use plan that Henry W.H. Smythe drew of Launceston in 1835 was the first of its kind in the world. In the same year, the Launceston Bank for Savings was established and later became Tasmania Bank and then Trust Bank, making it the oldest bank in the Commonwealth outside of Britain. The Launceston Church Grammar School was established in 1846 and is Australia’s oldest private school still operating.
In 1851, the city that would become the birthplace of Australian cricket legend Ricky Ponting hosted the first recorded intercolonial cricket match, when Tasmania played Victoria. Tasmania won by three wickets.
Firsts For Launceston
Some of the more mundane but no less important firsts connected to Launceston include Australia’s first underground sewerage system, dating from 1860, and the first use of a telephone in the country, in 1871. In December 1895 Launceston also became the Southern Hemisphere’s first city to be lit by hydroelectricity.
Launceston was declared a city in 1889. Today Greater Launceston is home to about 107,000 people, nearly 70,000 of whom live in Launceston itself. Agriculture is still a major industry here and the Tamar Valley is especially known for its wines, with more than 20 cellars to choose from. Foodies also flock to this part of Tassie for the fresh produce and Boag’s Brewery, which was established in 1883.
More and more tourists are also coming to Launceston for reasons other than food and wine. The city’s old-time character resonates with those who have a passion for history and culture. The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery is the largest of Australia’s museums not to be located in a capital city and dates from 1891. Another popular museum in Launceston is the National Automobile Museum of Tasmania with its collection of antique and vintage cars and bikes. To the south of Launceston is the stately Franklin House, a Georgian mansion built in 1838 and furnished much like it was back in the day. If you’d like to learn about Launceston’s history in a different way, you can also go on a hair-raising ghost tour at night.
About 18 km to the north of Launceston in the Tamar Valley is Tasmania Zoo, where you can see native animals such as quolls, wombats and of course Tasmanian devils, as well as a range of exotic species. It’s the only fully accredited zoo in Tasmania.
Attractions In Launceston
Penny Royal World, once a major attraction in the city, is being redeveloped and expected to reopen in December 2015 to feature theme park rides, rock climbing, a zipline and restaurants showcasing local fare. The Country Club Casino was Tassie’s second licenced casino and is a major entertainment complex in Launceston.
Launceston has also become a favourite base for active travellers and nature lovers. From here it’s easy to access national parks and reserves such as Ben Lomond National Park while the South Esk, North Esk and Tamar Rivers provide plenty of opportunities for walking, rowing, fishing and even river cruises. A great birdwatching spot is the Tamar Island Wetlands, only about 10 minutes from the city centre and along the Tamar River.
Probaby Launceston’s most popular attraction though is Cataract Gorge, only about a 15-minute walk west of the city centre. Here you’ll find spectacular views of the South Esk River flowing between steep cliffs, a lovely Victorian garden, several hiking paths through bushland, a footbridge over the Gorge, the historic Kings Bridge which dates from 1867, an acclaimed restaurant, a cafe and picnic facilities and a swimming pool. The highlight at Cataract Gorge is the chairlift, which takes you over 450 m across the gorge. Its central span stretches over 308 m, making it the world’s longest single span chairlift.