[Editor: An article, by Ernest Favenc, about the explorer George William Evans. Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June 1905.]
G. W. Evans.
By Ernest Favenc.
It is not uncommon to find, in the making of history, that the men who bore an active and leading part were often too modest to claim their due share, and so, either through indifference, or a shrinking from publicity, drop into the background, and their names are passed over and forgotten by the after generation who benefits by their labours. Amongst those who have been rewarded by the gift of obscurity, George William Evans is a notable example.
The fact that most of his life, after the year 1820, was spent in Tasmania, may have led to his name not taking its proper place amongst his brother explorers, as also the fact that he wrote no extended journal of his own. In short, occupying a subordinate position to Oxley, his name was submerged beneath that of his leader. Yet he did most of the hard work of the expedition in scouting ahead, and it does seem hard that he should not have been allowed to follow up his own two discoveries by being placed in charge of the expedition. Unfortunately, then, the personality of Evans never comes prominently before us, and we do not know whether the view he took of the future of the interior was as gloomily despondent as that of Oxley. Evans lived in a time when official jealousies were common, and people not too careful of the justice or veracity of their statements when influenced by party rancour. Evans suffered in after life from the intrigues of a cabal, led by Governor Arthur, which, in the end, caused him to retire in disgust from official life. Whether anything has been done in the way of repairing his last resting place in the outskirts of Hobart I cannot say, but in 1881, according to the account of a friend (Mr. J. E. Calder), who then visited it, it was in a great state of neglect. I quote from an article in the Hobart “Mercury” of about that date. The explorer was buried in the burying ground behind what was called the orphan school at New Town, Hobart.
“After some search amongst a hundred monuments, all decent, but unpretentious, I came on one more rude and uncared for than any I had yet seen. Unlike the rest, it was wholly unenclosed, and the slight undulation of earth that rose above the remains of someone who lay below, was marked on the north by a humble headstone, once upright, but now ‘tottering to its fall,’ and leaning forward over the grave above a dozen degrees. A diminutive footstone with some initials on it terminated the scarcely perceptible mound at its other end. It was the grave I was in search of, but now so hastening to obliteration that very possibly this transitory notice may survive it, and soon the pilgrims to the tomb of the man who first penetrated the vast country that lay beyond the Blue Mountain barrier, which for well nigh a generation had repulsed all intruders from entering the magnificent region beyond, may search for it in vain. As I stood for a moment by the neglected grave of the veteran traveller into unvisited lands, I fancied myself asking if that fallen headstone, not worth five shillings, was to remain the sole memorial of the man who first removed the screen from the fair interior of the island continent, and whose name stands first on the list of the hardy and heroic explorers of Australia.
“If the monolith that stands about fifty yards off was raised, as its inscription tells us, by a subscription amongst Tasmanians to a public servant, of merit, no doubt — but not especial distinction — it might be hoped, so I thought, that some amongst Australians might be found to preserve the grave of one of their earliest benefactors from entire obliteration.
“In the same grave that contains the remains of Evans, are those of his second wife — for he was twice married — and the writing on the tablet commemorates the death of both. In its entirety it is as follows:—
To the Memory of
The beloved and affectionate wife of
GEORGE WILLIAM EVANS,
Warwick Lodge, New Town Bay,
who deeply deplores his painful loss.
She departed this life on the 17th day
of August, 1849,
aged 42 years.
GEORGE WILLIAM EVANS,
Died October 16 1852,
On the small footstone are the initials:—
L. P. E.
G. W. E.
G. W. Evans was born at Warwick in 1778, and that he always retained a kindly remembrance of his native town is shown by his perpetuating it on several occasions when naming places. Before he was twenty he went to the Cape of Good Hope where he obtained an appointment in the dockyard, which he filled until 1802, and where he married his first wife, Miss Janett Melvin. He came to Australia in the capacity of Deputy-Surveyor General in H.M.S. Buffalo in 1802, and at once entered upon his official duties, which were then rather arduous. During his youth he had been articled to an engineer and architect, and had also studied field surveying, so he was well equipped for his official work, and also for the grander work which fate had in store for him.
On the return of Blaxland and party he received his instructions to follow up and elaborate their explorations, which he successfully did, and returned to report the discovery of the first inland-flowing river. His recommendation of the formation of a road over the mountains was speedily followed, and the real settlement of Australia commenced, such in short was the epoch-making result of his first public journey. But it is the man himself we are dealing with, not the now well-known story of his work. Beyond the letter which is appended to Oxley’s journal, the record of his work and the value of it remained almost unnoticed and unknown for long, long years. Evans’s journey was looked upon as a slight prologue to Oxley’s more extended tour. It was as if before commencing a long walk one had sent a man outside the door to look if there was any prospect of rain. And it was not until the papers were disinterred for the purpose of compiling the historical records that his diary became public.*
Unfortunately this diary, and all the personal writings we have of his, are bald in the extreme as far as reflection on the result of his success is concerned. Possibly he saw that his journey would result in the opening up of a vast territory for future generations to occupy; but curbed by the officialism of those days he did not put it upon paper; when it would only have been sneered at. What was wanted by his department was a plain account of his work and how he did it, and that was what he wrote. Yet some prophetic vision of the future must have hovered over his spirit as he gazed on the country before him for a last look before retracing his steps. Before him lay an untrodden continent. From where he stood on the head of a new river, flowing into the unknown, stretched the hidden mystery of a land of which all that was known was the fact that 2000 miles away the Indian Ocean beat upon a barren and stormy coast. Behind him was the Pacific and what lay between those two mighty oceans waiting for the coming of the white man, who could guess? Certainly no one in those days. And to add to the mystery with which they were surrounded, the land, as far as the native inhabitants were concerned, seemed lifeless; the rude savage shunned the white intruder on his haunts.
Whatever his thoughts were, Evans seemed to have quietly gone about his hard work of looking after the party committed to his care. Characteristically enough, his main thought seems to have been the ascertaining of an available road for the tread of the great multitude of the future that he surely foresaw would follow in his footsteps.
He was the first man to build a bridge in the interior of Australia, making one over Campbell’s River, that, crude though it was, was still the forerunner of many hundreds of others. And on the banks of the new-found streams he ate of a new species of fish, destined to become world-known as an edible fish. To show that he was no dawdler in the great work before him, look at the labour he performed during his two expeditions with Oxley. Always in the front and foremost in the work of travel, he found the Castlereagh while serving as second in command, and to his exertions much of the success of the expedition was due. Again, it is strange that from these two parties, conducted by Oxley, and in whose ranks were such men as Cunningham, Fraser, Dr. Harris, and Evans, we obtained such a gloomy and forbidding opinion of the interior. Amongst these exceptional men some must have been able to see with more discerning eyes. But what they thought, or hoped, or speculated, was not made public; Oxley’s opinion alone is given, and that, as we know, was a depressing one.
Returned from these explorations, Evans resumed his duties as deputy surveyor-general only until he was permanently settled in Van Diemen’s Land, where he remained in office until the year 1825, when he retired. In spite of his acknowledged services to the department, and owing to the intrigues of the before-mentioned official clique, an effort was made to deprive him of his well-earned pension, and Evans had to go to England, then of course headquarters, to defend his rights. In this he was partially successful. Only partially, for the pension, which it was understood was for life, was stopped in 1832. Evans returned to Tasmania, and passed the rest of his days at his residence of Warwick Lodge, at the head of New Town Bay. Singularly enough his death occurred at the age of 74, in Macquarie-street, Hobart Town, a name which he had immortalised in a far prouder manner than simply giving it to a street. Evans was a clever draughtsman, and some of his sketches of country are reproduced in Oxley’s journal, and specimens of his other clever sketches in Indian ink are still preserved by his descendants. He also published in 1822 a book, entitled “History and Description of the Present State of Van Diemen’s Land.” His talents as a draughtsman make it more to be regretted that he did not leave us some private illustrated journal of his explorations.
* Evans’s journal of his discovery of the Macquarie River was, I think, first published in the “Sydney Mail” by Mr. Bladen.
The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), 3 June 1905, p. 9