Tamar Middens

By Nigel Burch

In early 1801 Philip King, now Governor, decided to establish a government coal mining operation at

Newcastle. Although the expedition was nominally under the command of another officer, it included William Paterson, newly appointed as Lt-Governor.

The expedition had an immediate and unexpected success when Paterson discovered vast Aboriginal shell middens of a size “beyond conception” on the Hunter River, the burning of which became an enormous boost to lime production in the colony, thus converting the culture of one to the need and greed of another.

Coincidentally, in 1804, when Paterson arrived in Tasmania, he discovered another midden at Redbill Point (at the north end of Beauty Point). He recorded it extending for a quarter mile, 3-4 feet (75-100cm) deep, and noted in his journal that at George Town: “The Limestone on burning has not turned out so good as was at first expected… I have therefore given up the Idea of using any of the Stone while Shells are in such abundance.

Once again, the evidence of one culture was converted to the needs of another. Lime was essential for mortar in brickwork and for making cement.

I have walked the beaches around Beauty Point to ascertain exactly where Paterson’s shell midden could have been. He found extensive mud flats with shellfish exposed at low tide around Redbill Point, and was struck by the cold wind that appears to blow across this area from the west for most of the year. In my view, someone collecting shellfish would have looked for a sheltered and warmer place to sit and eat. The east side of Redbill Point fits the bill perfectly, for as a local lady walking her dog informed me, if she is wearing a jumper on the west side of the Redbill Point peninsula, she has to remove it on the east side. The eastern side of the Point comprises a pretty little sandy beach that is frequented by the locals because it is warmer and sheltered, and it would comfortably contain a 400-yard (360m) long shell midden such as Paterson described in 1804.

Although no record is readily apparent, Paterson’s shell midden at Red Bill Point near York Town was rapidly dug up and burnt to supply mortars and renders to the growing colony. In 1805, in anticipation of the exhaustion of this supply, Paterson sent convict William Kelsall off with the task of finding a limestone deposit.

Kelsall failed to find limestone, but did find a substantial new supply of shells in another midden at Kelso, just a short distance north of the York Town settlement. This is recorded as being a quarter-mile long drift between 3 and 4 feet deep (75-100cm) – an identical measurement to the shell midden found by Paterson at Redbill Point.

Kelsall was permitted to settle (and was the first settler) at the Kelso midden site he found, where he became responsible for burning the new supply of shells and shipping the resultant lime to George Town and York Town to supply their building programs.

A local history buff at Greens Beach on the mouth of the Tamar, Mr Rod Stone, says William Kelsall found more middens on the west bank of a little creek below the Greens Beach golf course, known locally as Squire’s Creek. In the old days this was fed by a freshwater lagoon about 200m up, which has now been filled in. Mr Stone believes Kelsall exploited this supply when the Kelso midden became exhausted and even built an oxen-driven tramway the 3km from there to his home.

I looked at the midden site with Mr Stone, who remembers from his childhood seeing a large mound of shells still there. However it has since become covered by sand dunes and cannot be seen. The mobility of the dunes at Greens Beach is readily apparent from old photographs. An oxen-driven tramway would explain why Kelsall had such a need of oxen that he later forged a document to acquire them from the government – a fact that resulted in his disgrace and forfeiture of property.

If these alleged Greens Beach middens could be located and dated, they would assist with an understanding of the history of the original West Tamar peoples. It is reasonable to assume they would serve as a proxy for the middens now destroyed by lime burning, and be of similar age and used by the same Aboriginal people.

The midden-shell lime burning operations established by Paterson continued over a period of years and were the origin of the Government Lime Works (1804-33).

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