Unofficial Settlers - Holmesby pp. 30-31

We have referred at times to the "Unofficial Settlers" as we have liked to call them; they are those men who arrived on the Island during the thirty years or so prior to the official landing and described by various authorities such as Jean Nunn, Wynnis Reudiger, J. S. Cumpson, Dr W. T. L. Leigh et al. They had various backgrounds, and although they would have had the opportunity to forsake the harsh living, for many there would have been the over-riding desire to be divorced from "civilised" society and perhaps the limb of the law. Some acquired "wives", generally unwillingly, by raids on the Tasmanian north-west and the local mainland areas near Encounter Bay.

Because they spent most of their lives on the Island, originally in very primitive conditions, the activity of three of these Islanders have been examined by us. Even though the advent of the "official" settlers would have disturbed their way of life, they adjusted themselves to the new conditions and were valuable members of the community. The first of these is Nathaniel Walles Thomas, (known as Nat). Reference has been made to the several plaques which have been placed to the memory of him and his two wives. The latter was named Betty, Bet or Betsy, who was aboriginal. After her death in 1878, he married Sophia Newcombe, a white woman in 1879. There seems to be several versions of whence he came, and how, and since Betty was a Tasmanian it seems most probable that his sojourn on the Island started also from that area. Although he appears to have spent most of his time in the Penneshaw/Dudley Peninsula area, he proved to be very helpful to the officials at Kingscote, including the first Manager, Samuel Stephens. As stated, his contribution to the early progress of the Island has been adequately recognised by the Association.

The first of the Islanders, as they became known, to make contact with the official settlers was the self-styled Governor Henry Wallen who had the celebrated meeting with Samuel Stephens several days after the landing, resulting in him graciously relinquishing his title in favour of Stephens. But the latter was not so gracious when he demanded that Wallen give up his farm "compensating" him with ridiculous payments for his property and farm products at Cygnet River. Wallen, who had teamed up with a man named Day, and female aboriginal companions, became disillusioned with his situation and moved himself to the Dudley Peninsula where he set up a new farm, successfully enough to give his son an education at Hobart. But Wallen died on a visit to Adelaide in 1856, and his body was brought back to the Island and buried in the Pioneer Cemetery, the plot enclosed by an iron grille and a headstone erected. While in 1985 the grave was in reasonable condition, our insistence to the Council resulted in that body giving it a significant upgrading. Part of the inscription on his gravestone states: "Affectionately known as Governor, the first farmer in South Australia."

The third member of our little group of Islanders to claim our attention is George "Fireball" Bates, who deserted from the ship "Nereus" in the early 1920s, with a companion. He was born in London in 1800 and so it could be claimed that at the time of his death in 1895 he was the oldest person on the Island. In his first twenty or so years more than half was spent at sea and unlike some of his later Islander mates, he had no criminal record. He acquired the soubriquet "Fireball" due to his hirsuit appearance, not his demeanour.In 1826 he found that he was able to reach the mainland and that the hunting was good. In the process he discovered Lake Alexandrina which contained fresh water. He was able to pass the information to the captain of a visiting ship, who, on his return to Sydney, notified the authorities. This intrigued Captain Charles Sturt who led an exploration down the River Murray, reaching the lake in February, 1830. During one of the trips that Bates made he was invited by a native tribe to join them and, against the advice of his friends, he accepted, staving with them until he lost the ability to hunt for himself. In 1830, with two companions, Randall and Nat Thomas, he was successful in stealing a number of mainland lubras, having the company of one for several years.

In 1931, Captain Collett Barker, investigating the Murray mouth and Lakes area, failed to return to his party who had to accept that he had been the victim of foul play by the natives. No trace of his body was found, and some time afterwards Bates and Wallen were invited to help in the search for him They surprised a native camp and captured a young female who told them that he had been killed and his body hidden in the scrub. (There is another version but it confirms that he was killed by the natives). Bates was commended for "his essential service" in the search.

Like his fellow Islanders Bates spent his time in sealing, and whaling, salt collection and trading in kangaroo and wallaby skins. On occasion, he acted as a "bush doctor". He helped with the building of huts for the new arrivals and advised Colonel Light on his coastal surveys as well as tending his vegetable garden at Rapid Bay. He had a friendly reception from Samuel Stephens who presented him with a Bible. He married an English lady, Elizabeth Maidstone in 1848 by which time he had, like Wallen, moved to the Dudley Peninsula (Hog Bay) both building stone houses. It is believed that the couple had a son but there is no record of his fate. Bates and his wife fell on hard times in 1870 and she went to Adelaide to the Destitute Asylum, being readmitted in 1889, finally dying there in 1892. He was forced to the same path shortly before she died, and he also passed away there on 8th September 1895. His body was returned to the Island and buried in the Penneshaw Cemetery through donations by some of his old friends, the grave protected by an iron grille and with a ground level gravestone which has the following inscription (still decipherable):


On the centenary of his death, at the invitation of the Curator of the Migration Museum, the Association mounted a display illustrating the life of Bates, mainly, arranged by President, Neil Waller and opened by the Archbishop of Adelaide, the Right Reverend Ian George. It was followed by an address by the Curator, Ms Christine Finnimore, in which she described the conditions of the original Asylum and the occupations in which the inmates were engaged, such as boot and shoe making by the men and laundry and sewing by the women. In the year under review, the men had made 182 pairs of men's boots,76 pairs of women's boots, 53 pairs of slippers and repaired 554 pairs of boots, for a profit for the Asylum But a most important function of the establishment was the Lying-in Hospital where many women came to give birth. In that year there were 63 deaths but 57 births from a total of 358 inmates. During an official visit Lady Audrey Tennyson, wife of the then Governor, was taken to a special part set aside for unmarried girls and "was horrified to find there 19 either with their babies or waiting for them, one a girl of 14".

Archbishop George spoke appropriately for the occasion and congratulated the Association for its enterprise. The association, with the aid of a State Heritage grant, and at the instigation of Mr. Graham Rees, has, in 2004, totally restored the grave of George (Fireball) Bates. There was generous support by Sealink Ferries, and Messrs. Graham Lloyd, Don Baker, Terry Wilsch, and other Islanders. The KIPA Co-ordinated the project.

Besides these three Islanders (Thomas, Wallen & Bates), there are a number of others of which there is some knowledge, but they did not have much influence on the establishment of the first official settlers.

During the First Meeting, in discussion of the restoration of graves, the question was raised by a Powell, descendant as to the location of the grave site of Charles Bendin Powell as it did not seem to be known. However, the difficulty may have come about because he and his wife are buried in the same plot in the North Road Cemetery but although the location is known the grave is unmarked. The grave could also come under the edict of being reused, as the lease has run out. Recent discussion with other descendants has revealed that they have the matter in hand.