The Heritage Highway stretches from Hobart to Launceston, but the coolest and most significant places along it are Kempton, Oatlands, Ross and Campbell Town.
The township of Oatlands was established in 1821. Oatlands is located on a turnoff from the Midlands Highway, some 85 kilometres north of Hobart. Governor Lachlan Macquarie named Oatlands because the area reminded him of the grain producing areas of Scotland.
Grand Plans for Oatlands
Similarly to Kempton, Oatlands was a key station for horse and cart, merchants and travellers between Hobart Town and Launceston.
At one point in the mid 1800’s, Oatlands was considered to be the location for the future capital of Van Diemen’s Land. Large scale plans were drawn up, but those plans, along with the development of the town never quite came to fruition. I wonder if Oatlands had been made the capital how the north-south divide would have fared?
Today, the town is quietly going about its business. Townsfolk are greeting one another on the High Street, three motor cyclists are enjoying a beer in the sun out front of The Kentish Hotel. Shoppers are entering and exiting the local IGA supermarket. Tourists are setting up photo opportunities and talking about lunch options elsewhere.
I am standing opposite the former Midland Hotel. Half daydreaming about crossing the road. Wondering if a horse and cart would be out of place in this setting. I surmise it would not. Although, I’m not sure if a cart could be repaired as quickly as it could in 1849.
Sandstone and Punishment
Given its central location Oatlands was utilised as the central policing and military force for the midlands. Chain gang work was prominent in the district and most of those convicts were held in Oatlands, requiring increased police and military presence. The town was a key location in the Black Wars. In the 1840’s the district was a target of several insurgences from bushrangers.
Did you know that Oatlands has the largest collection of intact sandstone Georgian architecture in Australia?
Sandstone quarries provided the community with ample and easy access to quality sandstone. Convict labour built most of the structures in the town, namely the Supreme Court, the soldiers’ barracks, the gaol and the gaoler’s house.
The Supreme Court was initially built by two convicts in 1829. The cottage addition along with other classical improvements were designed by architect to the Van Diemen’s Land stars, John Lee Archer. The enhancements brought a level of splendour worthy of a supreme court. It is the oldest regional supreme court in Australia. It operated as a court until the mid 1880’s.
18 death sentences were ordered by the Oatlands Supreme Court. All eighteen men were hanged by the colony’s hangman Solomon Blay. Executions were a public display, including 4 simultaneously in 1848. Most sentences handed down at the court resulted in hard labour at Port Arthur.
The military precinct has remnants to point to what it once was, with several stone and brick walls of the 1830’s still visible. Most have been demolished to render in a new generation of buildings.
The gaoler’s residence is the sole remaining building of the gaol complex. Externally the sandstone house looks grand, save for the eroded staircase leading to the front door.
Solomon Blay resided here. He also travelled to Hobart and Launceston (mostly by foot) to perform his duties.
The gaol was the largest regional gaol in Van Diemen’s Land. It was the largest building in town with 9 metre high walls. The gaol could hold 270 prisoners. Male and female convicts were kept here. Sadly, the gaol was demolished in the 1930’s. The community swimming pool has been built where the gaol yard once was. Some original outer walls remain around the site.
Callington Mill is perhaps the most synonymous structure with Oatlands nowadays. The mill stands proudly above the town skyline. Built in 1836 it was regarded as leading edge windmill technology at the time of completion.
It operated as windmill for 60 years. However, it had long fallen into disrepair and doldrums. A fire in 1910 destroyed all but the stone tower. For most of the 20th century it was used a water tank. Only refurbished in 2011. It is the only one of its type in the southern hemisphere.
High Street Business
The High Street is littered with sandstone dwellings. Many are now privately owned residence or accommodations.
The inns in Oatlands have chopped and changed over the years. It is difficult to keep track. Some fell with the sands of time including the York and Albany Inns, and the Oatlands Hotel where the local police station now is. Other hotels have been kept pace with the ages, but no longer resemble what they once were such as The Kentish Hotel. There have been multiple incarnations of Midland or Midlands Hotel over the generations.
One version of the Midland Hotel (now the Oatlands Coach House) are externally as they were in their golden era.
The High Street was quite the shopping haven for its time. General stores aplenty on the high street offering all ranges of shopping needs and desirable items for the community.
John Robinson owned and operated one of the general stores and was a merchant able to procure all sort of high end or practical items for his clientele. Robinson parlayed his business interests across many fields.
Samuel Page began by running the Oatlands Hotel. At one time or another he owned and operated each of the hotels in Oatlands. He bought in to the coaching services between Launceston and Hobart. Oatlands was the centre of his business empire. No town on the Heritage Highway benefitted more from the stagecoach industry than Oatlands. Page also co-founded the Tasmanian Racing Club.
George Aitcheson was a convict turned stonemason and stagecoach inn keeper. He built /constructed several inns including the Lake Frederick Inn (also known as the Lake Dulverton Inn and White Horse Inn), the now demolished York and Albany Inns and St Peter’s Anglican Church.
Walking the High Street, especially the “Launceston end”, is a time-warp experience. From grand looking lodgings to more basic single story brick residential buildings, Oatlands high street is not far removed from the 1800’s.
Oatlands is a picturesque step back in time with an array of impressive sandstone buildings and history that sculpted the story of Van Diemen’s Land.
After all, life is great in Oatlands. Cue eye roll.