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James Fenton (1820–1901)

by F. C. Green

This article was published:

James Fenton (1820-1901), by Thad. W. H. Leavitt, 1887

James Fenton (1820-1901), by Thad. W. H. Leavitt, 1887

Tasmaniana Library, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001124869736

James Fenton (1820-1901), pioneer, was born on 20 November 1820 at Dunlavin, Ireland, son of James Fenton, landowner. He was educated at a Protestant boarding school near the Vale of Avoca. In 1833 his father decided to migrate to Van Diemen's Land, probably because of a favourable report from his cousin, Michael Fenton; the family sailed from Liverpool in the Othello but in the Bay of Biscay the father died and was buried at sea. The ship arrived at Hobart Town in February 1834. James was sent to a boarding school near Hobart, and his mother moved with the rest of the family to Swansea where she had bought land from a son of George Meredith. There she built a home and lived until her death. The property was then taken over by Edward Carr Shaw who had married her daughter Anne. Shaw had come from Ireland in 1830 and was an uncle of George Bernard Shaw.

The Fenton brothers Michael, John and Charles moved to the mainland: Michael and John to Warrnambool in Victoria where Michael became mayor; and Charles to New South Wales. The eldest sister, Elizabeth, had married George Hall who had taken up land on the north coast near Port Sorell. James visited his brother-in-law and became interested in the district. All the lightly timbered country had been taken up between the Mersey River (Devonport) and Emu Bay (Burnie) where the Van Diemen's Land Co. had made a base in 1828, but the heavy forests west of the Mersey were deemed impossible for conversion into farms even with convict labour. In 1840 Fenton went to this area on the Forth River where he had bought a thousand acres (405 ha) from the government. He was the only settler in the district and the nearest post office was at Westbury fifty miles (80 km) away. He built a hut and made a canoe to cross the river but his greatest problem was the timber. At the Forth estuary, for the first time in Australia, he applied the technique of ringbarking for clearing forest land. The undergrowth was cut down and burned and, when the ringbarked trees died, grass and crops could be grown among them. In 1846 he married Helena Mary, sister of Thomas Monds; they had one son and three daughters.

In 1852 James joined the exodus to the goldfields of Victoria; leaving his family in Launceston he crossed to Port Phillip. On the Yarra he saw a city of canvas from which the male population had gone to the goldfields, and asked himself—'when they come back with gold where will they live?' He concluded that they would want timber for rough-and-ready houses and that it could be readily supplied from Tasmania's north-west forests. He returned home, engaged men to fell and split the trees, and soon sold half a million palings to Melbourne builders. With the profits he acquired more land at the Forth, Leven and Don Rivers; his first object in acquiring this country was to exploit it for timber. Tracks for bullock wagons had been cut by his axemen, some of whom became his tenants on small areas which they gradually cleared.

In 1879 Fenton retired from farming and built a home at Launceston where he wrote A History of Tasmania From its Discovery in 1642 to the Present Time (Hobart, 1884). In 1891 he completed Bush Life in Tasmania Fifty Years Ago, a first-hand description of a pioneer's life. His wife died in 1892 and he died on 24 June 1901. The beautiful farm lands carved out of the north-coast forests are his best monument.

His son, Charles Benjamin Monds, built a store at the Forth in 1869 and later farmed on the headland at Table Cape where as a guide to mariners he kept a large lantern burning each night and was later instrumental in having a lighthouse erected. He founded the Table Cape Butter Factory, and in 1886-96 represented Wellington in the House of Assembly. In 1869 he had married Rebecca Ditcham; they had eight children, many of whose descendants live in the districts pioneered by their ancestor.

Select Bibliography

  • Examiner (Launceston), 25 June 1901.

Citation details

F. C. Green, 'Fenton, James (1820–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Fenton (1820-1901), by Thad. W. H. Leavitt, 1887

James Fenton (1820-1901), by Thad. W. H. Leavitt, 1887

Tasmaniana Library, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001124869736

Life Summary [details]


20 November, 1820
Dunlavin, Wicklow, Ireland


24 June, 1901 (aged 80)
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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