Russian Wharf in Launceston

My last holidays were spent in Tasmania, driving around the little island at the end of the earth.  It is a beautiful place with amazing nature and mouth-watering local produce.  As always, I got interested in all things Russian.

Russian imprint on Tasmania

1823 was the year when the first Russians stepped on Tasmanian soil.  Captain Lazarev arrived as part of the first official Russian visit in 1823 (ships Kreiser and Ladoga), which was later followed by the Boyarin (1870), a Russian naval squadron (1882) and the Vestnik (1886).

In 1823 Captain Lazarev reported that four Russians lived in Tasmania with one who was transported as a convict from England in 1804. Their names are unknown and no records survived to prove it. The fifth resident became the ship’s helmsman Stanislav Stankievitch, who jumped ship after an unsuccessful attempt at mutiny and joined the local Bushmen.

In late 1850s a pair of Russian cannons, trophy from the Russo-Turkish war, arrived to Anglesea Barracks in Hobart and City Park in Launceston.  They are similar to the ones in Centennial Park in Sydney, but built much earlier in 1840. The photos were taken in Launceston.




Nothing is known about possible arrivals of Russian immigrants during post-1917 -the mid-1930s period.

After World War II Australia launched a large scale immigration program and in 1950s there were about 60 Russian families living in Tasmania.  Some were descendants of earlier settlers and the rest came from post-war Germany. Amongst them were a Russian-born doctor from Sakhalin, Constantine Constantinovich Petrovsky, who became a General-Superintendant at Launceston General hospital (1952-1972) and Ivan Yakovenko, who had a studio in Hobart in early 1950s and specialised in portrait photography.  As I have learned later many Russian migrants, who arrived to Tasmania after the end of World War II, worked on government contracts by building the roads at Bruny Island.

In 2004 there were about 200 people, who consider themselves still Russians, with 48 coming from 1996–2004. The total number of Russian origin descendants living today in Tasmania could be around 1100.

Russian wharf mystery

The most intriguing thing about Russian Tasmania is the Russian wharf in Launceston.  It existed only for 80 years, disappearing presumably in the floods of 1929, and therefore not many people know about it.  It has been forgotten. At least, there is no information about it.

Launceston’s early bustling trade activities were built around the port.  In 1813 free-port status allowed trading vessels direct access to the Launceston port and the collection of customs duties.  Launceston’s position as an exporting port also stimulated a shipbuilding boom in 1840s.  Early buildings, breweries, stores and flour mills were located in close vicinity to the port. It was the riverfront which was developed in Launceston first.

Queen’s wharf, Market wharf (at the end of Charles street), King’s wharf- this is where all the action was.  Russian wharf was no exception. Many interesting things happened at this wharf over the years.

The first time the name “Russian Wharf“ appears in local newspapers is the year 1849. Someone called J &J Bellion advertised his business (“selling fire wood –gum, oak and wattle, cut into lengths and made on order “) for the whole year. Three years earlier in January 1846 he advertised himself at Burke street house at Cataract hill.

Through research I have found that Russian wharf is not the official name of the wharf but simply the name given by people of the town nearly 200 years ago to a specific beach.  No one ever was able to ascertain the reason it was named for: not Henry Button in his 1909 memoir “Flotsam and jetsam”, nor journalists, nor historians.

Russian ships which visited Tasmania for the first time in 1823 stayed at Hobart and never ventured to Launceston. The place where first four Russian-born settlers lived in Tasmania is not known either. What was the event which happened between  early 1820s and 1849 to prompt people start using “Russian wharf” in relation to this beach? What was special about it? These questions remain unanswered.

View from Trevallyn Bridge showing toll house near Gorge and old Launceston Gaol in background
View from Trevallyn Bridge showing the exact location of Russian Wharf.

Finding the location of the Russian wharf was easy. To establish the exact coordinates of the wharf I have turned to Trove library.

 “.. the beach known as Russian’s wharf , within few yards of the mill shutes” – The Cornwall Chronicle, 7 December 1853

 “…property of William Barnes, Esq; fronting on Patterson street, and, running to the river, bounded on one side by the vacant space formerly known as the Russian Wharf, on the other side by land at present in the occupation of the Penal Establishment as a garden”- Examiner,  2 August 1870

To be exact it is the riverfront at the south end of the Margaret Street.

From what I was able to find -the site at the end of the Fisherman’s creek was a mud flat, a swampy area subject to flooding with no drainage.  You can see it on the photos.  The place where the river ended in a small sloping gravel beach was called Russian Wharf.

An aerial view of Launceston's King's Bridge and the Cataract Gorge. The Weekly Courier, February 3, 1921.
An aerial view of Launceston’s King’s Bridge and the Cataract Gorge. The Weekly Courier, February 3, 1921. Russian Wharf is on the left side of the bridge.

 Margaret street’s sewage “charging its freight of excrement and filth on to the mud flats at the Russian Wharf” wrote Daily Telegraph on 29 January 1885.

Here small boats came to repair or paint their bottoms or schooners have been placed on the hard for overhaul. Here in 1867 an infamous in Launceston Mr. Ackerman had moved his floating dock from the Charles street jetty.

“..and there was the floating bath at the Cataract, and the gridiron at the Russian’s Wharf on which small craft could be repaired — the last two appliances having been converted out of an old English trading barque, the Earl Dalhousie, which was razed for the purpose “,

wrote Henry Button in his book “Flotsam and jetsam, floating fragments of life in England and Tasmania; an autobiographical sketch, with an outline of the introduction of responsible government (1909)”. 

Colonial Times published an article on 27 March 1849 telling about a man, who created a new invention in “science of boat building” and who had a small vessel constructed after a model of his own and had it “lying off the Russian’s wharf, near the Cataract”.

Boats used to race from the Russian wharf down to Tea-Tree and back and junior sailors used to start at Russian Wharf, go round buoy at Cattle Jetty, finishing at the bridge. Around 1856 fire brigade used to do monthly exercises of the engines at the Russian Wharf.

The article in Examiner on 17 February 1912 writes about the 28ft long whale that stuck in the river in 1844 and was eventually killed at Stephenson’s Bend and towed up at high water to “what was known as Russian wharf”.  The tent was erected over the whale and people could view the mammal at a small charge.

The most controversial news surrounding Russian wharf floated around 1870-1890s.  This was the time when a decision was made to build public baths at the wharf and probably is the reason why the name stuck to the place for such a long time.

Having a hot shower every morning, we forget that our ancestors did not have such a luxury and used to go to public baths once a week or simply swam and washed themselves in the river. The problem was that “bathers indulge in the forbidden but healthful exercise near the Russian wharf, not far from where two main sewers empty their unsavory contents into the river”.

A need for bathing places became apparent as early as in 1857.  In October that year the water was brought into Launceston from St Patrick’s river. Shortly after a meeting of citizens was held in the Council Chamber it was resolved that public baths should be established.

“Youngsters learnt to swim at the Russian Wharf and swimmers made use of the Cataract unobstructed, until a clergyman taking up some ladies in a boat complained of some youngsters acting indecently, so our city fathers practically put a stop to swimming in the South Esk, a place which is naturally the site for the recreation of the citizens, and there could be no better use or pleasant sight it could be put to than a place for bathing, which need not offend the most modest.” -Launceston Examiner 17 January 1895

Municipal council inspected “the Russian Wharf, at the end of Margaret-street, and are of opinion that if 100 square feet were fenced off in this locality, and a small dressing shed erected, sufficient accommodation for the contemplated” (Launceston Examiner, 9 August 1870). However the public bath question was not a simple one.

By January 1880 the Council was still undecided about the appropriate place for the public bath. Margaret street sewer was completed at the south end of the street (known as Russian wharf) in 1882.  However, the Council continued “throwing a lot of public money into the river” and nothing has been done about baths by 1897.

“Mayor went through the farce of putting a hewn stone upon about six more, and declared the foundation stone laid.” Launceston Examiner 3 July 1897

In 1899 a question of building an Esplanade was raised “along to what is known as the Russian Wharf. This will enable people to walk from the termination of the Market Wharf into Margaret-street, a “short cut” the advantage of which would be much appreciated”. (Launceston Examiner , 28 February 1899)

As mentioned before the area at Russian wharf was subject to flooding. Floods damaged the wharf many times.  In September 1870:

“Water gushed through Cataract Gorge with rolling waves hitting the sides of the ravine with an unimaginable roar. Hundreds of people would come to the bridge to watch the turbulent waters and trunks and branches of the streets wracked at the rocky outline of the Russian wharf” (Launceston Examiner, 10 September 1870)

However, during the worst ever flood in Launceston in 1929 the wharf met its fate. It completely disappeared and was never rebuilt.  Russian wharf has been forgotten.


Trove library

2 thoughts on “Russian Wharf in Launceston

  1. Rosemary Sharples Reply

    I think the book you want is entitled “The Russians in Hobart 1823” by Glynn Barratt, ISBN 1 86295 126 8

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