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Travel: In Hobart, history whispers from every corner

The former whaling colony has retained its colonial air while repurposing colonial era building to modern uses

Hobart's picturesque city centre is a reminder of its past as a hub of the whaling trade.
Hobart's picturesque city centre is a reminder of its past as a hub of the whaling trade. (Michael J. Fromholtz/Wikimedia Commons)

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During the week, Salamanca in Hobart in Australia’s island state Tasmania, is bustling with cafes, restaurants and bookstores. It’s the city’s hub for both work and play, hipsters as well as older visitors sharing space comfortably. On Saturdays, its streets transform into an open-air market with fresh produce on sale and buskers and jugglers showing off their skills. It’s always been a hub—but in the early 19th century those four-storey sandstone warehouses, now home to boutiques and offices, once stored whale oil, grain, and apples.

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Hobart is Australia’s smallest and second oldest capital city, and was once a penal colony for convicts from Britain and Ireland, thanks to its extreme isolation. Surrounded by river and ocean, Hobart grew because of its significance in the whaling and seal trade of the South Pacific. The ships for the whalers were built in its shipyards and whale oil was an important export. The town grew outwards from its docks with a rough population of seafarers. Today, its Georgian and Victorian buildings are far more peaceful and hark back to its penal history and nautical past.

History whispers from every corner of this gateway city. In the distance looms Mount Wellington, known as Kunanyi in the aboriginal language. The hotel I’m staying in, The Tasman, which opened in 2021, was once St Mary's Hospital, a mix of Gothic and Tudor architecture. It was a hospital between 1847 and 1860, and later housed government offices. It has been renovated into an atmospheric hotel with accommodation in three wings—Art Deco, Heritage and modern, with Tasmanian art on its walls.

My guide for the day, Justin Johnstone, a former actor, says that the early colonists, who arrived in 1804, wanted to recreate Britain and built houses that reminded them of home. Most of the buildings that emerged were in the Victorian, Regency, Gothic or Georgian styles, and remain so to this day.

Hobart's streets are a charming mix of colonial and contemporary buildings.
Hobart's streets are a charming mix of colonial and contemporary buildings. (Courtesy Kalpana Sunder)

“The city was built on the backs of whaling. The colony’s blue gum timber was ideal for shipbuilding and there was a great demand for trading and whaling vessels. When whaling declined, many of the warehouses became used by the fruit processing and jam producing factories,” explains Johnstone.

Walking past Constitution Dock, which is the epicentre of this port town, and where the annual yacht races from Sydney to Hobart end, we take a look at the fishing boats and swooping sea gulls overhead. We reach Hunter Street near the waterfront where the Henry Jones IXL Jam Company building from the 1830s has been regenerated for restaurants, bars and hotels. The jam factory was named after Jones, who dropped out of school at age 12 to stick labels on jars, and ended up owning owned the factory by the time he was 30. When he died in 1926, he was the richest man in Tasmania.

We have dinner at Peacock and Jones, tucked away in one of the industrial warehouses of the old jam factory, which now has wooden beams, a fireplace and cosy seating. It serves seasonal Tasmanian produce paired with an array of wines. In the same complex is the Henry Jones Art Hotel with more than 400 pieces of Tasmanian art displayed in its lobby, restaurants and bars. They have an in-house curator who offers art and history tours. Around the corner is MACq 01 hotel, with a Scandinavian vibe, a former wharf building, that is centred around storytelling, with rooms named after characters from Tasmania’s history, the Old Wharf restaurant, a nod to the city’s whaling past and the Story bar decorated with news clippings from the past.

Johnstone tells us colourful stories of convicts, brothels and shady characters from the city’s history—Old Ma Dwyer who ran the Esplanade Hotel aka the Blue House in Salamanca Square, and was famous because of her colourful language and the fights that broke out there. Hundreds of convicts quarried the cliffs behind Salamanca Place, cut the stone and built the row of sandstone warehouses. This old quarry with tall sides, has become the Salamanca Quarry Square, with a fountains, gardens and swish apartments called The Mews.

To wander through the narrow lanes and streets of historic Battery Point is to take a journey back in time. The fashionable suburb, which derives its name from a gun battery that stood here in the 1800s to protect the town, has sandstone buildings and weatherboard cottages that were once homes for mariners. Colonial townhouses with arches, shallow eaves and fanlights sit beside beautifully restored cottages that were among the earliest built in the city.

Nearby, David’s Park dotted with blackwood trees and wattle, is a popular green space, where the gate is mounted with two stone lion sculptures that were once part of a bank’s entrance. “David’s Park was once the main cemetery for the town where prominent citizens were buried. It was called the Garden of Sleep but was unsuitable as the Derwent river would flood it,” says Johnstone. By the 1870s, it became an unkept wilderness which was later converted into an English style walled park. The park is still dotted with memorials and grave stones, including that of Lieutenant Governor David Collins, who founded Hobart. On one side is a memorial wall with original headstones from the park, and many are of children whose life expectancy in those days was not high. “At least 900 people were buried under this green turf once and today the ground is bumpy because of rotting graves below. Some were reburied at Cornelian Bay but many still sleep under your feet,” says Johnstone. The Supreme Court Building next to it is in stark contrast, built in the 1970s and designed by British migrant architect Peter Partridge.

On Macquarie Street, Johnstone shows us the Town Hall that sits at the intersection of Church and Bridge streets, where the landmarks on each corner have been humorously dubbed Salvation (the Catholic Church), Temptation (Hotel), Damnation (the old jail), and Recreation (the Town Hall). Each building on the street is of a different era and architectural style, from the Art Deco Mercury building with its narrow bay windows, the 1938 Colonial Mutual Life Building with gargoyles to the Edwardian Baroque GPO building with its tall tower and cupola. Johnstone has an eye for the smallest details: he points out a perfectly preserved painted antique sign for the Bank of England, Scotland and Australia before it became ANZ, that lies unnoticed in the narrow space between buildings.

“In Hobart, you see buildings with new facades on one side but when you see their other side, you are in for a surprise,” he says, leading us to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, which has a decorative Victorian façade in front but is austere and practical behind, built by convicts in the past.

By the end of our walk with Johnstone, we are looking with new eyes at this town with a dark history and rich architecture where the past co-exists with the present. It’s a city that highlights the idea that “we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us”.

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GETTING THERE: Fly Singapore Airlines to Sydney and connect on Virgin Australia to Hobart

STAY: Stay at The Tasman, which has three wings heritage, modern or Art Deco, in the centre of town

DO: Visit MONA, the art museum, and the Cascade Female Factory

BUY: Local art and wine

Kalpana Sunder is an independent journalist based in Chennai.

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