One hundred and ninety years ago, in a lonely, remote, wind-blasted Tasmanian settlement called Circular Head, a 42-year old man met his maker. His name was Henry Hellyer and he died by having his head “shot to atoms” according to the official report.
The men who discovered him, co-workers at the Van Diemen’s Land Company, came knocking on his door because they were worried he would miss his ship. He was due to sail for Hobart, to take up a new, prestigious job with the State’s Surveyor-General. So finding him dead was shocking, to say the least.
Hellyer was a true pioneer and polymath. He was the first white man to locate and climb Cradle Mountain, he built the first navigable track into the wilds of Tasmania’s Central Plateau, he designed the magnificent Highfield House in Stanley, and helped manage tens of thousands of acres of pastoral land.
He was talented and well-respected.
His employers wrote of: “… his valuable services, his unwearied exertions for the company, his personal privation and risk in exploring the country, and his admirable maps and plans,” which drew positive comments from the Colonial government of the time.
Curious then, that such a significant man, one so well respected, widely valued, and destined for great things in the Surveyor-General’s office, should have died violently, alone, and be buried in an insignificant, pauper-style plot in the nearby settlement of Stanley. His simple gravestone carries just his name, age and “Obiit” (He Died, in Latin). Nothing more. No urns, no angel carvings, no portraits, no glowing obituaries.
Hellyer started work for the newly-established Van Diemen’s Land Company in 1826. The company was established by wealthy and well-connected English wool merchants to promote sheep farming in Tasmania’s central highlands. They hoped to corner the global market for fine, cheap Tasmanian wool. A unusually large grant of some 350,000 acres of virgin land was sought from a compliant governor’s office — and approved. Hellyer and his team (including convict labourers and the company agent, Edward Curr) were despatched to survey and establish pioneer settlements at Emu Cove and Circular Head.
Hellyer seems to have been something of a dynamo, writing that despite the “over-exertion and fatigue after some of my long excursions in the bush” he was excited to be an explorer in a newly discovered land. He kept himself busy every day exploring the flora and fauna, sketching topographies and animals, and regularly reporting back to the investors, from what they had described in their prospectus as “a land beyond the ramparts of the unknown.”
As part of this survey work, he was required to go bush for extended periods to seek out potential new stock routes and settlement locations. He would be away weeks on end, often with just a convict or two to carry supplies, and a mule to pack heavy items. He covered an astonishing amount of ground, out along the northwest coast as far as Cape Grim, right down the west coast to Pieman River, into the central tablelands around Cradle Mountain. All this he mapped meticulously.
One convict who regularly accompanied Hellyer on these remote trips was a man called Harley. Harley proved good company, and reliable too: so much so that Hellyer vouched for him to get his ticket-of-leave — that is, an almost-complete pardon. But according to some accounts, rather than prompt Harley to become a grateful friend, the gesture backfired. Harley began to abuse his new-found freedom, taking his pay but drinking to excess, malingering at work and talking back to Hellyer.
“You see to it that I get a bonus, or I will let the cat out of the bag,” he reportedly warned Hellyer after a row about pay. “I’ll tell the real reason why you got me ticket-of-leave,” he said. Not long afterwards, Hellyer was found dead.
In the room next to his freshly atomised brains, a suicide note was found, containing the curious sentence: “Alas my mother, in agony I fly to my saviour.”
On the strength of this, his death was put down to suicide; the result of a man with a tortured mind who had been driven by depression and ultimately, self annihilation. The authorities accepted that as motive, and hurriedly buried him — in a basic grave plot, with no ceremony or lasting memorials. Why? A talented man with a demonstrable joy for life, a keen, capable and enquiring mind, suddenly, and just before he was due to get a significant promotion, blows his own brains out? It made (and still makes) no sense.
There could be another explanation.
Shortly after Harley’s pardon, rumours began swirling that Hellyer had become more than just a friend to the convict during their long trips away, and that was why he had helped with the ticket-of-leave pardon.
This could also explain why Harley had become aggressively confident to the point of abuse. At that time, homosexuality was seen as something that only convicts engaged in; even the suggestion of an accusation could have potentially ruined Hellyer’s career. This added pressure might explain why Hellyer had decided to leave his post at Circular Head for another career in Hobart — where damaging rumours would not be circulating.
But what would Harley have thought of Hellyer’s move? If he had just learned that the person he regarded as his meal ticket was leaving town, it’s not inconceivable he would have lashed out (or got some of his convict pals to lash out) at Hellyer, with fatal results. That would make it murder, not suicide. Nonetheless, Harley’s threatening presence was seemingly ignored.
But even if it was murder not suicide, there is still the issue of the lack of recognition, and the pauper’s grave. There is there not a single contemporary portrait of him in the archives; his life story was almost completely erased.
One possible explanation is that, at the time of his death, many investment companies were still reeling from the effects of the massive 1825 Stock Market Crash.
Back in England, millions of pounds had been lost through bubble investing, fake country migration schemes and new and disruptive technology introduction. There was mayhem in money markets, the government was hugely in debt due to the Napoleonic Wars, and anybody with overseas investments would have been eyeing up the possibility of cashing out and hiding their gold under the bed.
Worse still, the Van Diemen’s Land Company had bet heavily on sheep, but all those hundreds of thousands of acres that Hellyer had explored turned out to be fit only for hardy cattle. Thousands of specially imported sheep died, Curr fell out with the colonial government and his directors in London grew impatient for returns on their initial investment. The pressure was on.
The last thing anybody needed was the suspicion of bad management or disloyalty — such as a talented surveyor leaving for another post. As for criminal behaviour, killing Aboriginals, unstable personality, or unseemly goings-on down on the farm, the less said about them the better.
Given these scenarios, the effect of a key employee having been killed in suspicious circumstances would have been a disaster. The fallout could have led to a disastrous flight of capital from the company, and severe losses or even collapse. Far better to hush everything up and pretend all was still well — and worth investing in — Van Dieman’s Land.
So as well as Harley, there could have been other people who were looking to keep the lid on things. People within the organisation maybe, and capable of forging a suicide note, perhaps.
Not long afterwards Edward Curr (who had by then established a reputation for careless cruelty) was given the sack and the company abandoned sheep farming altogether. They concentrated on raising beef in Tasmania’s remote north west. Hellyer’s name and efforts were largely forgotten. He vanished from the archives, along with most records of his life in Tasmania.
Curiously, his simple grave recently gained a bronze plaque.
“This plaque is in recognition of the pioneering work of Henry Hellyer as Surveyor, Explorer, Engineer and Architect for the Van Diemen`s Land Company in North West Tasmania between the years 1827 to 1832,” it reads.
Somebody still cares.
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