Among the recorded stories of Australian history is that of a remarkable woman named Eliza Forlong. Eliza emigrated from Scotland to New South Wales with her husband and two sons, and a plan to farm sheep. Husband John stayed at home to run the business, while Eliza began a tour of Saxony (now part of Germany) to source their flock from among the merinos there. Having studied sheep and wool production in Leipzig, Eliza began her incredible project: walking more than two thousand kilometres across the continent, selecting and purchasing her sheep. She was often by herself, shepherding the flock on foot to the port of Hamburg.
From there, in 1829, Eliza’s son William boarded a ship for New South Wales, along with their flock. This ship visited the port of Hobart Town en route to Sydney. The sheep were so fine that they caught the eye of Tasmanian Governor Arthur, who promptly offered William Forlong 1100 hectares of land if he would settle in Tasmania. It was an offer too tempting to refuse.
By 1831, Eliza and the rest of the family were settled at Kenilworth, just north of Campbell Town in Tasmania’s midlands. The Forlong family didn’t stay long, but when they sold the property in 1835, the saxon merinos stayed. In Campbell Town there is a statue of Eliza bearing this inscription:
Direct descendants of Eliza’s sheep still roam the pastures in the Campbell Town district. They produce some of the world’s finest wool, for which the Midlands of Tasmania has become famous.
Merino sheep are indeed well-established in Tasmania. I spent some time at an old farmhouse in the Central Highlands last week, and there was a small group of eleven cautious ewes there. We nodded to each other sagely. I think they could tell I was wearing merino.
I wonder what goes through the mind of a sheep. Whether they are aware of the great beauty of their environment. Certainly, these eleven were spoiled with a stunning location at the edge of Lake Sorrell.
Whatever passed through ovine consciousness, I was left marvelling again at the strength of Eliza, and others like her. While tending the three fireplaces we needed to keep the farmhouse warm - even in early spring - it was hard to imagine what life had been like for those establishing farms in the 1830s.
And their legacy, while complex, is something I can appreciate.
Much of the detail for this post was gleaned from Evan McHugh’s 2015 book The Shearers: The story of Australia, told from the woolsheds.