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Former convict Jonathan Griffiths: Launceston seaport pioneer

Two hundred years ago an ex-convict named Jonathan Griffiths arrived in Launceston, with three of his sons, to take up 150 acres of land on the banks of the North Esk River.

He was 49, the father of at least nine children, and an enterprising and adventurous man, who had made a success of his opportunities after completing his seven-year sentence on Norfolk Island.

There wasn’t much to Launceston when Jonathan Griffiths arrived in 1822 in his ship Maid of Richmond.

Over the next decade he oversaw the construction of a wharf, warehouse, grain mill and shipyard that helped establish Launceston as an important seaport.

The population of northern Van Diemen’s Land at the beginning of the 1820s was a little over 1,000 persons, only half of whom were free settlers, but that was about to change.

A report on the Australian colonies by British Government commissioner John Bigge in 1820 had recommended that the military and administrative headquarters of northern Van Diemen’s Land be located in Launceston.

George Town had been selected by NSW Governor Lachlan Macquarie for its military advantages but better fresh water supplies and better land for stock and cropping was around Launceston.

A number of former convicts like David Gibson and William Field and free settlers like James Cox, Thomas Reibey and the Archer brothers were already building large pastoral enterprises.

While there are some discrepancies in the historical record on Jonathan Griffiths it seems clear that he came to Launceston to develop port facilities, support his whaling and sealing expeditions and build ships.

He was already familiar with the Tamar River.

Between 1816 and 1818 he had provided ships to pursue escaped convicts, sent whaling and sealing crews to Bass Strait, Kangaroo Island and New Zealand and made trading voyages to northern Van Diemen’s Land.

Born near Bristol in England in 1773, Jonathan Griffiths was orphaned at the age of 10 and seems to have been sent to live with his maternal grandfather, who was a boat builder.

In 1788 he was arrested with two other youths for stealing a box of clothing and sentenced to seven years transportation to NSW.

He was put aboard the Scarborough, part of the Second Fleet, which set sail for New South Wales in January 1790.

He was then sent to Norfolk Island, where he served out his sentence and entered into a relationship with fellow convict Eleanor McDonald.

In 1797 Jonathan Griffiths was granted 100 acres of land at Richmond in the Hawkesbury region where he farmed and built ships.

In Van Diemen’s Land, his sons farmed at Norfolk Plains and Legana and in 1833 second son John Griffiths built the first Tamar Street Bridge that served Launceston for nearly 70 years.

John Griffiths established the Tamar Brewery nearby in 1855 with his son-in-law John Scott.

Jonathan Griffiths was also involved in the development of Port Fairy in Victoria, where he died in 1839.

IMAGES, TOP: North Esk wharves in the 1880s. Jonathan Griffiths arrived in Launceston to develop port facilities, support his whaling and sealing expeditions and build ships. (On The Tide, Launceston Library Collection). MIDDLE: Coming alongside the North Esk wharves. (Weekly Courier, January 23, 1910). BELOW: Scott and Griffiths’ Tamar Brewery. (Weekly Courier, December 17, 1904).

(Written for the Launceston Historical Society and published in the Sunday Examiner

on 17 February 27, 2022)


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