Image for A Tasmanian Murder Mystery: Who is Killing Ross?

The once palatial Horton College at Ross, is now no more than a crumbling brick entrance: how much of the heritage of Ross is doomed to follow? Image from here ~ http://www.tripmondo.com/australia/tasmania/mona-vale/picture-gallery-of-mona-vale/

As we prepare to seek National Heritage listing for the Ross Bridge on the Macquarie River, which is covered in amazing art by the convict stonemason Daniel Herbert, we are confronted by a tale of neglect, development vandalism and a failure to build a vision with teeth for one of the most important heritage towns in Australia. 

Murder mysteries are popular entertainment, whether one of the Miss Marple’s detective novels, or a Midsomer Murders episode set in a sleepy quarter of merry old England.

It is our civic duty in law to report the murder of someone, but if we discover a heritage town is being slowly killed, it is much easier to ignore the crime, avoid the trouble and let somebody else worry about the case.

Ross is a very popular visitor destination, but it’s not visitor numbers that are killing Ross.

The streets are wide and the old town plan is very large and underpopulated.

Ross now has about half the houses that were once found in this sleepy hollow.

Tourism is the main industry in Ross, but not enough is being done to protect the goose that lays the golden eggs.

The tree-lined main street of Ross is like an historic oasis, but add to Church Street the famous bridge and there is a town with heritage values that might even meet the World Heritage test.

A recently developed track takes the visitor on a walk through the historic landscape on the edge of Ross from the bridge, past the Female Factory, across the railway line and along by an old stone wall to the Old Burial Ground on the hill, where the tomb of Daniel Herbert, the carver of the Ross Bridge art, can be found among the gravestones.

Look back along the track and across the fields and there is a view to the Female Factory.

If parts of Ross were classed as World Heritage, the walk to Herbert’s memorial would become something of a pilgrimage through time and the surrounding landscape would be seen as an essential heritage field.

Many people sensitive to the history of Ross see the town and land in terms of World Heritage now, without having invested the effort to test if this is the case in fact, by seeking World Heritage listing, let alone National Heritage status, as nothing in Ross is on the National Heritage list.

Much of Ross is on the Tasmanian Heritage list, but to be eligible for World Heritage, a place must first be on the National list.

In an article in The Mercury recently, Debra Cadogan-Cowper, a resident of Ross for 26 years and manager of the Tasmanian Wool Centre, which has played a strong role in defending the heritage of Ross, spoke out on a housing development approved for construction by the Northern Midlands Council, right next to the Old Burial Ground, “It’s not sympathetic to the heritage values of the village. It’s quite a modern design. I’d prefer to see the owners compensated for the cost of the land and the land left to rest in peace, just like its neighbours.” [1]

Some people who care about heritage values in Ross screamed blue murder recently, when the colorbond house and shed that Mrs Cadogan-Cowper refers to was approved for construction by the Northern Midlands Council.

Mrs Cadogan-Cowper went on to say in the article, concerning the Old Burial Ground, “A development in front of it will completely take away the heritage values of the site.” [1]

Two residents are now appealing the Council decision in the Tribunal, which at best may vary the approval, but is highly unlikely to block the building.

If there is a battle to fight now for the disappearing heritage of Ross, it is on the field of public opinion over the piles of rubble of decades of lost opportunities.

It is a tough battle to fight for a heritage vision, when the field had been effectively surrendered to development.

I am personally very angry that the neglect of the heritage values of Ross has gone so far down the drain and have great sympathy for the owners, who bought the land expecting to build in the way it was advertised in the For Sale notice.

The ad read, “Yes this could be your beautiful resting place (if you know what I mean) & being next to the burial grounds, I guess the neighbours are quiet. Seriously though this is a beautiful Elevated Block, a popular photographic point, which has a lot of tourist interest, comprising almost 4000sqm, overlooking the Township & surrounded by loads of Ross History, it is a flat to gently sloping block, a beautiful location to build your dream home.” [2]

This is a battle that should have been fought many years ago, which now leaves the new owners of the land and new residents of Ross, caught in the horns of a battle-zone and left feeling very angry as their new dream home becomes a war zone.

I support the rights of the new owners to build their dream with a Council approval and I also support the rights of the people who seek to appeal the decision in the Tribunal.

In our democracy we have rights and development decisions can be questioned, but when a battle has been left to the last minute, there is little chance of victory.

If the grave-side development gets the stamp of approval from the Tribunal, the owners have every right to develop their home on the hill, but should they?

Is Mrs Cadogan-Cowper on the money when she calls for the land to be purchased, so that the heritage values of Ross can be preserved?

The killing of Ross began many decades ago and can be read of in Marjorie Bligh’s life story, ‘Life is for Living’, where she describes how a leading sheep grazier in the Midlands of Tasmania, Sir Don von Bibra, who lived just south of Ross at Beaufront and served on the Ross Council, before it was merged into the Northern Midlands Council, had a vision for the heritage of Ross which, if realised, would have preserved a great deal more of the heritage of Ross than now survives. [3]

In a short biography of Sir Don, John Taylor writes, “A councillor (1948-79) and warden (1979-82) of Ross Municipal Council, and active in the Midlands group of the National Trust of Australia (Tasmania), he worked tirelessly, raising funds and generating publicity for the preservation and restoration of historic buildings and other structures, including the Ross Bridge.” [4]

Sir Don’s vision for the future of Ross did not save Marjorie’s childhood home, which was an old sandstone cottage that was empty, was vandalised by kids and then ordered demolished by the Council.

How many other old buildings in Ross have followed a similar path into oblivion?

An historic search and archaeological digs can reveal the number, but that knowledge cannot bring back living heritage.

Perhaps a book can be compiled one day of the ghost houses of Ross, from the long lost palatial Horton College, to the small sandstone childhood home of Marjorie Bligh.

In comments following a recent article in the Tasmanian Times, one resident and owner of an historic house in Ross, Andrew Petrie, referred to the house approved for construction next to the Old Burial Ground, complaining, “This is not the first ridiculous building approval in Ross by the Northern Midlands Council. Have a look at the tin shed they put between three of Ross’s most significant buildings. The building I mention is located in the main street of Ross between the old Ross village bakery, the Anglican church and the Old Rectory… Opposed by the Council’s own town planner and the Tasmanian Heritage Council, yet it still got approved???” [5]

Since the large tin shed was built a’midst historic Ross buildings, a fire-damaged sandstone house a few doors along the street from the Old Rectory has been demolished, which could have been restored.

Now a colorbond shed and house is approved for construction up against the graves of the Old Burial Ground, that if built, will further damage the heritage identity of Ross.

Captain Samuel’s Cottage and Cupid’s Nest in Church Street was once a tumbling down derelict building, which was restored and is now a most attractive part of the heritage-tourism economy in Ross. [6]

A tumble-down derelict cottage in Park Street is currently being restored by a new owner, which hopefully shows that all is not lost.

In Ross, heritage is the foundation of the tourist economy of the town and creates work for people.

If Sir Don’s vision for Ross had been given greater strength, Ross as a town might by now have become World Heritage, along with the Cascades Female Factory, Port Arthur and the Brickendon farm village.

What will be lost next in Ross, through fire or by the ravages of wind and rain?

There is an old derelict house behind a wooden fence along the main street in Ross, which could be restored, if the will, interest and motivation were there.

Will this house be next to fall to the development vandals in Ross?

Across the Midlands Highway from Ross there are old farm buildings with the roof removed.

How long will those buildings last before crumbling into dust to be lost in time?

Once gone, the heritage of Ross is dead and buried, and that which remains, shrinks in value in a heritage town with a tourist economy.

At a time when the Tasmanian Government are ripping heritage-listed buildings out of the State Heritage list, it is a particularly tough environment in which to raise the need for a heritage vision for Ross.

It is much easier to step back and let the town be murdered, cut by vicious cut and demolition hammer blows.

What if the town store closes and petrol can no longer be bought there?

What if the Man O’Ross Hotel shuts down, which did happen in 2012, and next time stays closed? [7]

The Man O’Ross is for sale at present.

Will future visitors to Ross find a ghost town of empty, burnt out, vandalised and crumbling buildings?

This could become the future of Ross, way too easily, if good people step back and allow the heritage to be murdered by a thousand cuts and hammer blows.

As a town Ross can survive as a satellite suburb of Campbell Town, ten kilometres to the north, but at present there is a very high risk of never realising the full potential of the town’s tourist economy, if there is no heritage vision that is fought for and cherished.

The magic of Ross could be lost.

Green Bans by the Builders Labourers Federation in Sydney once saved the historic Rocks from becoming history beneath the juggernaut of modern development. [8]

Would a form of Green Ban save Ross heritage and its tourist economy?

The Rocks are now a hub of heritage tourism.

What could the heritage driven tourism future of Ross be, if the town’s heritage values are fully protected by people who really care about this magical village?

When I discovered that the Ross Bridge was not on the National Heritage list in September 2014, the matter was raised with the Ross Local District Committee, which is an unelected form of mini-Council in Ross, set up to advise the Northern Midlands Council.

Elected Councillors look to the Ross Local District Committee for direction about Ross and as a consequence, take less interest in the town, and this could be part of the heritage problem in Ross.

It is reported that a sitting Councillor sold the land next to the Old Burial Ground, promoting it as a fantastic house site with spectacular views. [2]

National Heritage listing was seen as appropriate for the Ross Bridge and was on the Northern Midlands Council agenda for every meeting for over a year, but when the time arrived to do the work, the Council decided not to work, claiming a lack of funds, even though they had money in the kitty from the sale of the old Ross school in 2015.

The old Ross school had once been mooted as the home of a college of stonemasonry by the Tasmanian sculptor Stephen Walker, but this vision was never realised and the school remained empty for over a decade.

Should the old Ross school have ever been sold, when it could have played a vital role in building a living heritage vision and vibrant tourist future for Ross?

By its actions, the Northern Midlands Council cannot be considered friendly toward Ross, with the demolition of historic buildings over decades, inappropriate development approvals and a lack of action with heritage and tourism, the historic village of Ross is being slowly murdered.

At a time when Tasmania attracts over a million visitors a year, many of whom are drawn to heritage like that found in Ross, it is quite amazing that the State Government and the Northern Midlands Council have not worked as one to drive a vision for the future of Ross, with much stronger protection of the heritage, which would strengthen the tourist economy of Ross and which would also create work, which is so much needed in Tasmania.

Death by a thousand cuts is still murder, just as much as being killed by a single hammer blow to the head.

Ross is located in the heart of Tasmania, but perhaps it is a little too distant from the seat of Council power in Longford and the seat of State Government power in Hobart, to attract the level of care needed.

Rather than remaining a managed town with diminishing historic values and with a heritage future at risk, it is now up to the residents of Ross and friends of Ross, wherever they be, to fight for a vision for Ross and create a future for the town, where heritage values are the foundation of a thriving tourist economy that creates work.

Some local residents have accepted the challenge of seeking National Heritage listing of the Ross Bridge, with applications due by 18 February 2016. [9]

I hope we can rely on the Council for at least a letter of support.

We will be looking for support from all who love Ross in preparing this application.

Focusing on the heritage needs of the Ross Bridge, we have come to see that there is a greater need for a heritage vision for Ross.

To consider how this may happen, we have been discussing the founding of a new group in Ross at this time, called the Friends of Ross, to bring together people who care about Ross, both near and far.

If we suspected that a murder is about to happen, do we stand idly by?

Maybe people prefer waiting for a Miss Marple or an Inspector Barnaby to come along later to solve the crime.

After the crime, it is too late to save the heritage and when the foundation of history crumbles in Ross, tourism suffers and work is lost.

If we want heritage identity of Ross to be safe and the tourist economy to be vibrant, we must act to save Ross.

Silence may simply deliver the precious heritage of Ross into the hands of the Grim Reaper.

This article has presented a few clues as to who is behind the murder of Ross.

If the reader would like to prevent the murder of a heritage town, they could join the Friends of Ross and help save this amazing little village.

The Friends of Ross will need to sharpen a heritage vision with teeth, if they hope to succeed in the face of neglect and ill-conceived planning decisions.

There is less glamour in preventing a crime, but in the case of Ross, murder is under way, with a heritage crime which needs to be stopped.

Success will help improve Tasmania’s heritage-based tourist economy and that will create work.

All who join the investigation can receive the Heartland newsletter.

Help stop the heritage criminals.

Join the Friends of Ross ~ .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

What did happen to Horton College?

In 1917 it was torn down so the materials could be sold. [10]

References ~

[1]‘Village split over house by cemetery’
Jessica Howard, The Mercury, 21 December 2015, page 7

[2]  For Sale & Sold
41 Park Street Ross Tas 7209
http://www.realestate.com.au/property-residential+land-tas-ross-200040941   

[3]‘Life is for Living’
Marjorie Bligh, 1986, page 58

[4]  von Bibra, Sir Donald Dean (1905-1982)
by John Taylor, Australian Dictionary of Biography
http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/von-bibra-sir-donald-dean-15885

[5]  ‘A Grave Matter in Ross’
Andrew Petrie, Comment 4
http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/a-grave-matter-in-ross/show_comments

[6]  Colonial Cottages of Ross
http://rossaccommodation.com.au/dev/

[7]  ABC Northern Tasmania
FaceBook comments
https://www.facebook.com/abcnorthtas/posts/10151025704513734

[8]  Green Ban
Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_ban

[9]  ‘Ross Group Calls for Heritage Listing Bridge’
The Examiner, 20 December 2015
http://www.examiner.com.au/story/3591495/ross-group-calls-for-heritage-listing-bridge/?cs=133

[10]  Horton College
Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horton_College

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