No. 598 - Lawitta - The Back River Methodist Chapel

Back River is an area close to New Norfolk that includes the ‘suburbs’ of Lawitta and parts of Gretna. The Back River rises on the western side of Mount Dromedary and flows into the Derwent River about 2 kilometres west of New Norfolk. The area was settled by small landholders who had been moved from Norfolk Island and were given allotments between New Norfolk and Back River.

The Wesleyan-Methodist church at Back River is one of the oldest in Tasmania and its opening in 1837 coincides with the start of Queen Victoria’s reign. The reach of the Methodist Church first extended to the Back River district in 1820 with lay-preacher Samuel Dowsett conducting a service in one of the settler’s homes. In the following year Rev. William Horton, who was resident Methodist minister in Hobart Town, extended his ministry to the Derwent Valley, and he occasionally visited Back River. Reverend Nathaniel Turner, who was on his way to New Zealand in 1822, and was detained In Hobart Town owing to the Maori wars, spent much of his time visiting the people of the New Norfolk and Back River districts. After his departure regular services ceased for the next 12 years. 

By 1834 interest in the Derwent Valley was revived and two lay-preachers, Abraham Biggs and William Barnett made fortnightly visits to the district from Hobart Town. After 1835 New Norfolk became a part of the Hobart Methodist Circuit and regular services were provided by Reverend Joseph Orton and Reverend William Butters. The settlement at Back River developed rapidly during the early 1830's and staunch Methodists including Samuel Dowsett, William Jackson, James Roach, and Ebenezer Shoobridge were instrumental in getting churches built at New Norfolk in 1836 and at Back River in the following year.

I have been unsuccessful in finding a record of the Back River church’s opening however the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone on 19 September 1836 is recorded by the Hobart Town Courier:

“The first stone of a very handsome little chapel at this place to be raised principally out of the voluntary contributions of the inhabitants in the neighbourhood, was laid on Monday in the presence of the whole population of the township. As an indication of the good feeling of the district, and the moral and religious improvement that has taken place in the last few years, we look upon this as most gratifying. The Rev. Mr. Butters addressed the meeting in an eloquent discourse on the occasion, the ceremony of laying the stone being performed with the masonic rule by Mr. Lightfoot”.

At the church’s centenary celebrations in 1937, Reverend Hugh Small wrote about the church’s opening:

“The church was officially opened on 30 November 1837 by Rev. Joseph Orton. It was of plain design and built by Mr James Turnbull. The Interior, however, had the quaint charm of the 19th century chapels of English Methodism, and all the first furnishings and fittings were in cedar. There were special family pews, and one near the pulpit was known as the mission or minister's pew. In the centre of the church a space was left, and it was in this part that the old fashioned tea meetings were held. On Sundays the centre space was filled with forms, and these were known as the "poor seats." Each pew had a door attached to it, and a pew rent of 1s. 3d. was charged. A small iron stove stood in the centre space in the early days of the church to provide warmth for parishioners. Two brass candlesticks of rare design stood on either side of the cedar box-like pulpit, and every alternate pew was fitted with a wooden candlestick. The church furnishing remained in this state for 87 years as a monument of the consecrated zeal of the early pioneers”.

On 12 September 1924 disaster struck when the church was partly destroyed in a fire. The caused of the blaze is not known but it was believed to have started near the old stables at the rear of the church. The Hobart News reported that “a motor car had pulled up some time before the fire, and it is surmised the picnickers had made a fire”.

The building was insured and the four solid stone walls of the church remained intact allowing it to be restored back to its original appearance and it reopened in July 1926. The Back River church became a part of the Uniting Church in 1977 and for a time services were held once a year and for special occasions. At the time of visiting the church it had clearly not been used for some time and its status is not known. The cemetery is also the site of the Lawitta Grasslands reserve which preserves natural grasses which were abundant in the area before development.

The Back River Methodist cemetery and Betty King

There are approximately 150 headstones in the cemetery as well as a number of unmarked graves. Some of the headstones date back to the 1830’s and are remarkably well preserved. At least two members of the First Fleet are buried here including Betty King who it is claimed is the first white woman to step ashore in Australia. There is no definitive evidence to support this claim however she was the last known female survivor of the First Fleet. She passed away on 7 August 1856 aged nearly 90.

The most interesting article I have come across regarding Betty King was written by historian Greg Watson and which was published in the Tasmanian Times in 2014:

“Betty died in 1856. The Hobart Town Courier reported: “THE FIRST WHITE WOMAN IN NEW SOUTH WALES – Mrs Elizabeth King the first white woman that landed in New South Wales, died this week at the Back River, New Norfolk.” (7th August). She was aged 92 years.

Mr Henry Shoobridge, did not know Betty King, but his father, William, did meet the lady when she was 90 years old, two years before her death. The memory of meeting her was impressed upon his mind, passing the story to his son, Henry. Many years later, Henry was moved to have Betty remembered.

Betty was a convict. She was sentenced at Manchester 4th May 1786 for seven years transportation for stealing two black silk handkerchiefs and three others. She was then known as Elizabeth Thackery (later referred to as Thackary, Thackey, Hackery and Hackley). It is recorded that she was wife of Thomas Thackery, soldier, 15th Foot. Her maiden name is not known. She was born; it is believed, in 1767.

Betty spent her first year in prison hulks, but when the First Fleet set sail she was aboard the vessel, Friendship. She proved to be a troublesome prisoner and at the Cape of Good Hope she was transferred to the vessel Charlotte. Betty was a problem for the authorities. In July 1787 she was handcuffed to Elizabeth Pulley (Pooley), (who had her death sentence commuted to transportation), for making their way to the seaman’s quarters. This did not deter Betty as she repeated the performance. She was then handcuffed to Elizabeth Barber. Lt Ralph Clark wrote: “The damned whores the moment that they got below fell a fighting amongst one another – and Captain Meredith ordered the sergeant not to part them, but to let them fight it out, which I think is very wrong in letting them do so.”

After many months at sea, on the 20th January 1788, “Land Ho” was shouted. At long last Botany Bay was sighted. On 26th January, Governor Arthur Phillip, the principle officers and other marines gathered around an erected flagpole and history was enacted.

There is no documented evidence to state that Betty was indeed the first white woman to set foot on Australian soil. However, the story told to Mr Henry Shoobridge’s father by Betty herself is that she was, by the time of arrival at Botany Bay, acting as a Lady’s Maid to the Officer’s wives.

It was related to the late Mr Shoobridge that the Officer’s ladies were to be the first white women to land. They did not like the look of the surf through which they were to be carried, with the possibility of getting a wetting. Just to be reassured, they asked that a maid (Betty) be carried ashore first as a rehearsal. This was apparently done and as it was only a preliminary trial, there was no official record kept of it. However, no Official account could alter the facts of the incident, which was that Betty was carried ashore first. (Shoobridge letter 29th May 1955).

The story seems feasible, but not proven; but neither disproven. From Sydney, Betty was transported to Norfolk Island. Trouble followed Betty as she was given 25 lashes for being absent without leave from the settlement. In mid June 1794, however, we find her living with settler James Dodding. In 1800 we find Betty, now free, buying ten acres of land on Norfolk Island from Samuel King. Dodding was to go to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) with a wife, but not with Betty.

Samuel King was an ex marine who took to farming on Norfolk Island and was married. Yet, when he arrived in VDL in 1808 aboard the City of Edinburgh he came alone. Betty was now an independent woman and like many Norfolk Islanders she too arrived in VDL. Both Betty and Samuel had been given land grants at New Norfolk (Back River) and on Saturday 28th January 1810 they were married by pioneer priest Rev. Robert (Bobby) Knopwood. Samuel was described as a ‘widower’ and Betty as ‘single woman’. Both signed with an ‘x’ and witnesses were Susana Mitchell, thought to be a friend of Betty’s and Thomas Stacks who officiated on many such occasions for Knopwood. The Kings called their property “Kings Rocks”. Nothing remains today.

Samuel died 21st October 1849 and is buried at Back River. There is no marker. In her Will dated, 16th November, 1855, Betty left her property to Ebenezer Shoobridge. It was Mr. Shoobridge’s descendant, Henry, who went to lengths more than a hundred years after her death to erect a tombstone to her memory. This was done by the permission of the Trustees of the Back River Methodist Church. The exact spot of her burial place was not exactly known, so the tombstone was erected “near this spot”. A latter owner of “King Rocks” said that Betty was buried in the corner of the cemetery, about 20 yards beyond the location marked by the headstone and plaque.

Was she indeed the first white woman to set foot in Australia? Possibly; but as we have learnt there is no official documentation of it. She is, however, the last known female survivor of the First Fleet. Certainly a distinction – and if she was not the first female arrival, then certainly it can be said that she was ONE of the first”.

All photographs are my own.
Please report errors. Additional information and sources are most welcome as all articles are updated. I can be contacted through this page or my Facebook page "Churches of Tasmania" which is linked here: Churches of Tasmania

The Hobart Town Courier, Friday 24 November 1837

The Back River Cemetery


The Hobart Town Courier Friday 23 September 1836, page 2
The Hobart Town Courier, Friday 24 November 1837, page 1
Mercury, Saturday 13 September 1924, page 7
The News, Monday 15 September 1924, page 1
Mercury, Wednesday 1 October 1924, page 3
Mercury, Wednesday 28 November 1934, page 10
Mercury, Saturday 6 November 1937, page 11
Mercury, Monday 8 November 1937, page 5
Huon and Derwent Times, Thursday 11 November 1937, page 8

Stansall, M. E. J and Methodist Church of Australasia Tasmanian Methodism, 1820-1975 : compiled at the time of last Meeting of Methodism prior to union. Methodist Church of Australasia, Launceston, Tas, 1975.


  1. I was looking for the grave stone of George Nisbet died 1860 & buried in Back
    RiverChapel Cemetary


  3. Hi Duncan. I had only recently discovered my 6th Grandmother and is buried at back river. She is Eleanor Gay (sic). It is actually Guy and is buried with her husband Thomas Guy. Headstones erected by daughter Ann who was born on Norfolk Island. Thomas & Eleanor were on Norfolk Island when they were transported to Van Diemans Land. Eleanor was in deed a first fleeter, but Thomas arrived in 1791. Thanks for the photo's


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