The Old Bear

The new building is proposed to engulf Macquarie House. The Australian Heritage Places Inventory of historic cultural significance regards it as a rare remnant of an old Colonial Georgian building in the Hobart CBD. Here we have been given yet another reminder of the importance of our early built heritage, and how now, more than ever, such heritage needs protection.

There is renewed anger over another major modern high-rise building project impacting on a historic site in central Hobart. This time it’s a 10-storey tower blocked envisaged to climb above old Macquarie House (set back from 151 Macquarie Street and 3 Victoria Street).

Macquarie House was built in 1815, becoming a striking landmark in an early Hobart Town still of mostly ramshackle structures. It was not only the settlement’s first brick home but the first three-storey building in Van Diemen’s Land.

This grand manor was built for surgeon-turned-businessman Thomas William Birch, and to borrow from a well-known cliche, he would probably be turning in his grave at the prospect of the new tower dominating what was once his domain. Turning, that is, in wherever his remains might be . . .

For thereby hangs a fascinating but chilling tale from our early times. It’s recorded in David J. Bryce’s 1997 book Pubs in Hobart from 1807 (Macquarie House later became such an establishment, although upmarket from your usual pubs of the day).

When Birch died in 1821 he was buried in St David’s Cemetery, and a terrible deed followed.

Bryce tells us that the night after the burial, the grave was broken into, the robbers taking not only the other contents but removing Birch’s body as well. An advertisement in the Hobart Gazette of December 8, 1821, offered a big reward, of one hundred pounds, for the discovery and conviction of the burial bandits.

“Whereas the Vault, wherein the Remains of the late Thomas William Birch, Esq., were yesterday deposited, was last night, or early this morning, broken into, the body removed from the Coffin, and its Habilments, the Coffin Plates, etc., feloniously stolen and carried away, the above Reward will be given to any person or persons by whose means or information the offender or offenders may be brought to Justice – to be paid by us, the undersigned, on his of their Conviction.”

It was signed by the Executors, Robert Knopwood (the colony’s notable, some say ignoble first priest, Bobby Knopwood) and J. T. Watson.

Habilments were dress or clothes, so the robbers got away with everything of Birch. Were they caught? Bryce said history did not relate if the generous reward provided had the desired result.

Birch, born in 1774, had arrived in 1808 as a medical officer on a French whaler, and although he became one of three surgeons in the town it seems he didn’t pursue this to any great extent but turned his attention to other pursuits, initially whaling. He was the first Tasmanian settler in this lucrative business, with the brig Sophia, which he used for whaling and sealing. He also became a merchant, importing cargoes of goods, which he sold for high profit, as well as exporting oil and sealskins.

He had been given a land grant of three acres-plus in the town, and it’s worth contemplating that these grounds extended from Murray Street to Harrington Street and right down to the Hobart Rivulet (its water providing supplies for domestic use).

The imposing home he had built on this extensive property was called Birch’s Castle, because it originally had battlements and on the flat roof Birch mounted cannons, aimed at the Derwent. As he remarked: “Well, it might keep the French off a bit, if they come to these parts.”

He was also credited with introducing currants and gooseberries to the colony – those Froggies weren’t going to get their hands on his berries, let alone make a land grab.

Birch was not only a leading merchant and ship owner but also a shrewd building and land speculator – at times he leased his “castle” to Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell, and to Australia’s Governor-in-Chief, Lachlan Macquarie, who stayed there in mid-1820 while making an inspection tour of Van Diemans Land. He regarded Government House as too decrepit for his use.

In 1827 Macquarie House became the Macquarie Hotel (“Genteel and commodious accommodation. For Gentlemen and Private Families. Superior Wines and Spirits”) later a boarding house, and a school.

The new building is proposed to engulf Macquarie House. The Australian Heritage Places Inventory of historic cultural significance regards it as a rare remnant of an old Colonial Georgian building in the Hobart CBD. Here we have been given yet another reminder of the importance of our early built heritage, and how now, more than ever, such heritage needs protection.