Discover the strange story of Port Arthur's elk this weekend
Port Arthur's agricultural heritage generally takes a back seat to its history of crime and punishment. But in the early 1870s Port Arthur was a productive agricultural settlement, with crops and livestock. That livestock included, for a few months in 1871, an elk!
Port Arthur's farming heritage is being celebrated the 2011 Tasmanian Heritage Festival in line with its theme 'Lamingtons to Lasers' with a focus on food, fruit and farming.
One part of the site which often goes unnoticed is Government Farm. The farm first appeared in official documentation on a plan of the settlement sent to London in January of 1854. The map showed a farmyard and a piggery.
By late 1859 dairy cattle were housed at the farm, their milk being supplied to patients in the hospital. During the next ten years, farming operations grew to include a machine to thresh grain more effectively and a new dairy was built, all of this done in the hope of making Port Arthur a self-supporting settlement.
By the close of 1869 in addition to the dairy, the farm was reported as having cowsheds, piggeries, stores for root crops, fowl houses and stables.
While little remains of the farm today, with the help of a site survey and some creative mowing and marking, we will highlight the main buildings of the farm for visitors to see this weekend. Silhouetted against the green backdrop of the farm are several animals which we know were present on the site during Port Arthur’s prime farming era, however, one of them stands out a little more than the rest!
The story of the elk - one of the largest species of deer in the world, native to North America and North East Asia - began when the Tasmanian Acclimatisation Society formed in 1862. Introduction, or acclimatisation, of exotic animals and birds occurred from early settlement for economic, sporting and nostalgic motives. Lieutenant Legge, an ex-pat Tasmanian in Her Majesty’s Service based on the island of Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, shipped three elk to Tasmania. A pair were located at Richmond Park the property of Legislative Councillor John Lord, and the remaining Buck was sent to Slopen Island off the Tasman Peninsula.
From there, the elk, according to reports published in The Mercury in June 1871, swam across the channel to what is now the Coal Mines and from there moved around the Peninsula until it arrived at Port Arthur later that same month, where further Mercury reports indicate it was welcomed by Commandant A H Boyd.
It appears that its welcome did not last long; further report in July 1871 describe a litany of damage to gardens and property around the settlement, including eating and trampling vegetable gardens and 'anterling' a priest's wheelbarrow into a creek. The Reverend made representation to the Commandant in hope that he would use his authority “to prevent the recurrence of a similar intrusion from so unwelcome a stranger”.
Records suggest that nearly two months passed before the elk was taken to the property of James Lord near Hobart on October 24th, 1871. What happened to the elk after that date is unknown.
There are a number of events at Port Arthur this weekend as part of the celebration of the Tasmanian Heritage Festival.
On Sunday May 22 at 11.30am, PAHSMA Gardens and Grounds Supervisor Naomi Jeffs will lead a once-only guided tour exploring and discussing the evolution of Port Arthur's kitchen gardens and broad acre agricultural sites. Meet at Trentham house and garden.
On Sunday May 22 at 2.30pm, historian Eleanor Cave will discuss horticulture for survival in Vandemomian penal settlements in a public talk at the Junior Medical Officer's Conference Room.
All weekend, visitors will be able to view the site of Government Farm, with its ephemoral living sculpture and, of course, its elk!
The activities are included in the cost of Site entry.
Bookings and inquiries Freecall 1800 659 101 or visit the Port Arthur Historic Site website