The Burgess family is one of Tasmania’s best-known seafaring families. Richard Burgess, a Devonshire seafarer, came to the colonies in the early 1800s and set up trading between Tasmania and Port Jackson, NSW. They built and crewed on some 150 vessels with such evocative names as Water Lily, Waterwitch, Welcome Home, Good Intent, Morning Light and Dawn of Hope, as well as Mary Burgess, Ada Burgess and Julie Burgess, named for family members. The family were eventually to operate on virtually every type of vessel, including cutters, ketches, schooners, brigantines, paddle-steamers, screw-steamers and yachts in the role of owner, master, or crew.
The Burgess family were involved in industries which were key to opening up Tasmania’s economy. Richard’s son John carried cargoes for the Van Diemen’s Land Co. settlement at Circular Head, Woolnorth, and Emu Bay from the 1830s. The Burgess family were also to pioneer commercial fishing in the waters off Tasmania, and were to single-handedly create the Tasmanian crayfishing industry. The Active, built at Henry Bennet’s shipyard at Penguin in 1869 for James Burgess, one of the Burgess brothers, helped open up the tin mines of the North East Coast by freighting ore to Launceston.
In 1857 brothers William and John Burgess settled at Sulphur Creek. Early-on their intention was to set up as shipbuilders, and with an abundant supply of local timber readily available they built ketches and cutters at their Sulphur Creek yard. Once a year William and John would walk to Launceston, hire a boat and sail supplies to Sulphur Creek, and return the boat to Launceston before walking back home again. Eventually tiring of the walk to and from Launceston John build a small boat, the Rainbow, which could carry 25 tons.
The brothers and their families took a fourteen-year lease on Three Hummock Island in 1884, clearing land and building homes. However, when the lease was up for renewal bidding rose to a figure they were not prepared to pay, and the family moved to Stanley. Their operations were centred on the North West Coast and they operated trading vessels to Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.
One of John Burgess’s sons Richard, a master mariner, also took a lease on Three Hummock Island in the late 1880s with his wife Mary and family. They built a homestead and jetty and raised livestock and crops. In between farming, Richard and his sons built two ships on the island, the 50ft Lady Brassey and the 80ft Mary Burgess. Richard had five sons – Harry, Jack, Joe, Jim and Bernard – and eventually each of them were to have their own boats and spend most of their lives at sea.
The depression of the 1890s caused a significant downtown in the Burgess family’s trading business and with the added issue of no demand for their livestock or produce they turned to catching crayfish and shipping them to Victoria to sell live at the markets. Although crayfish were well known in the waters around Tasmania, they had not been fished commercially and the Burgess family’s successful crayfishing business actually came about by accident. The Lady Brassey was sheltering from rough weather at Three Hummock Island when a change in wind direction caused it to move to a position off Hunters Island. When the winds lessened the crew found themselves becalmed, so to pass the time they set their nets and within a couple of hours had brought up more than 800 crayfish.
When the Burgess family left Three Hummock Island one of the sons, Harry, fished out of Melbourne on the Ada Burgess. She was eventually driven onshore on the Victorian Coast in 1934 and in 1936 Harry was to have a new vessel built at the Launceston shipyards of Ned and Eddy Jack, who had built the Ada Burgess. Harry designed the new 64ft Huon pine ketch with a width of nearly 5 meters, much wider than usual, and a well in the middle of the ship which could hold approximately four thousand crayfish in water. Ned Jack was initially unwilling to build the boat to this new design but was eventually convinced and by 1937 Harry was once again fishing in his new ship the Julie Burgess, named after his wife. The crayfishing enterprise became so successful that in the early 1900s Richard Burgess moved to Melbourne to manage the sale of crayfish caught by his sons. Harry Burgess continued fishing until he died on board the Julie Burgess in 1956.
Harry’s son Dick (Richard) great, great grandson of the original Richard Burgess continued the family tradition, playing a leading role in the seafaring life of Tasmania. Dick sailed with his father for around fourteen years, and took over the Julie Burgess at Harry’s death. He continued fishing for crayfish from the Julie Burgess until he retired in 1987 after forty-four years at sea. His life on the sea was not uneventful, as he is known to have been involved in the rescue of ships caught in gales and to have carried out mercy dashes to people on islands in Bass Strait. After his retirement Dick took up the position of Master Warden of the Port of Devonport Authority and was instrumental in the move to stop an amalgamation of the Port of Devonport Authority with the Launceston and Burnie ports to create the Northern Port Authority. Dick and his wife Deda still live in Devonport.
Reminiscences by Captain Richard Burgess, BSMC 2011.2.2, 2011.2.3:1-16, Bass Strait Maritime Centre file: The Burgess Family
The Burgess Family of Tasmania – The Story of a Pioneer Maritime Family in Northern Tasmania, Fred Steven, notes in Bass Strait Maritime File: The Burgess Family
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