This article was originally published in Fortean Times magazine in 2001.
THE WIZARD OF ROSS
Ross Bridge, Tasmania
Nowhere in Australia is the convict legacy more evident than in Tasmania, where the tiny midlands village of Ross has one of its strangest manifestations – a colonial bridge that kept a bizarre secret for 135 years.
The unexpectedly intricate keystone carvings impress any riverside observer. The longer you look the more you see, until wild patterns come alive with goblin faces, silent sentinels above the Macquarie River’s restless current.
Unique as such artistry is amongst convict-built public works, they received little or no scholarly attention until 1971, when an architectural study by Leslie Greener and Norman Laird boldly interpreted the bridge carvings as an array of pagan symbolism and political satire.
Less controversially, Greener and Laird also identified the long-forgotten convict sculptor, Daniel Herbert – a cultured ex-highwayman who, if their theory is correct, exorcised the demons of his transportation with an outburst of religious and political subversion that was in equal measures both daring and subtle.
Herbert’s education and family background are unknown. Born in Taunton Dean in 1797, he was clearly a talented mason but his only confirmed occupation in England was a signwriter in Leeds. On 24th March 1827 he was sentenced to death at the York Assizes for highway robbery. This was commuted to life transportation, and the following year saw him arrive in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), then the British Empire’s most remote penal colony.
Herbert endured the usual punishments over the next few years for such infractions as ‘being absent from muster’ and ‘not working’. He was flogged once (25 lashes) and did several three-to-seven day stints on the dreaded treadwheel. His luck turned, however, when the authorities decided to finish the much-delayed new bridge at Ross, then an important military outpost between Hobart and Launceston. In May 1835 he had arrived in Ross with another convict stonemason, James Colbeck, and the promise of an official pardon upon the bridge’s successful completion.
Working swiftly, the convicts carved 186 keystones by 14th July 1836, the day of completion. At least 87 carvings are by Herbert; the rest by others under his direction. The subject matter is astonishing.
Lion & Lamb
The six centre keystones depict devouring imperial monsters, including a crowned rat-creature clawing a human head, and a distorted (British?) lion crushing a lamb under its paw. Elsewhere, a lion-headed plant-bodied monster has, according to Laird and Greener, a double-sexed motif – a Jungian symbol of sickness and cure.
Queen & King
The face generally called The Queen has been identified as Norah Cobbett, the alcoholic wife of convict superintendent Jorgen Jorgenson. Herbert apparently surrounded her with androgynous healing symbols, as if to counteract the violence and misery of her short life. Jorgenson is also there, an imperious caricature resembling a playing-card king, befitting this former ‘King of Iceland’ – where in 1809 he led a coup and briefly held sole power.
Sir George Arthur (Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land 1823-37) appears as a grim, hatted caricature atop a skull, redolent of the suffering he presided over. No less remarkable is a foreboding John Calvin, the Puritan inspiration for Arthur’s stern rule. A lone Aboriginal face is accompanied by a flower, a soul archetype – rare compassion for a people already threatened by genocide.
Dense, seemingly abstract designs swirl about and sometimes engulf the figures. Laird and Greener see the symbolism as typically Celtic: circles (unity), double-roped spirals (rebirth), eight-petalled rose (regeneration) and horned deities (fertility and purification). Maternal wombs and vulvas reflect the creative aspect of the unconscious; snakes herald transformation. The theme, according to the 1971 study, is consistently oppression and death opposed by rebirth and renewal.
Ross Bridge from river bank
A stag with a hominid mask between its antlers may show the Celtic god Cernunnos in regenerative aspect. Dogs, linked with death and resurrection, appear four times, one with a Celtic horn. Herbert even included himself and his wife – he married convict maidservant Mary Witherington during construction – surrounded by unity and healing motifs.
If there is paganism and satire in Herbert’s work, it seems to have eluded his contemporaries. At least it passed without recorded comment. No-one else in the far-flung penal colony may have shared his grasp of mythic iconography or realised the implications of the stylised portraiture. The detail isn’t always clear from the river banks and the faces possibly went unrecognised as belonging to particular people amidst all that distracting pattern-work. An extant letter suggests the construction overseer, Major William Turner, admired Herbert’s craftsmanship without taking special interest in the nature of his creativity.
After his pardon, Herbert settled at Ross where he was buried in 1868. He was remembered locally as a mason, painter, violinist and the ‘artist of the bridge’. The intensity of the artist’s vision remained unexplored for a century.
The extent to which Herbert’s symbolism was conscious is debatable. Was he being merely decorative, seeking personal solace in beautifying the bridge with iconography that held no particular significance for him? Did the stresses of penal servitude release subconscious archetypes when his artistry was offered rare license? Obviously many of the symbols are unlikely to have been conscious articulations back in Herbert’s pre-Jung world.
While it stretches credulity to suggest his work reveals a pagan belief system, Herbert could be said at the very least to have expressed displeasure with Calvinist Christianity. It is a curious fact that the two apparently Celtic deities on St Luke’s Church at Bothwell (91 km from Ross) are unmistakably Herbert’s.
The darkness of Tasmania’s penal history touches Ross in many ways – there’s a ruined ‘female factory’ and several convict-built military structures nearby – but that shadow is cast most deeply by the mysterious legacy of Daniel Herbert.
NOTE: Known locally for superb bakeries, Ross (pop. 250) is 79kms south from Launceston or 120kms north from Hobart along the Midland Highway, set amidst picturesque wool-growing valleys and wooded hills. Accommodation includes the Man O’ Ross, an 1835 coachhouse. The touristy Wool Centre has a small bridge display including some casts of figures. The bridge is best enjoyed through binoculars, as much detail is difficult to fully appreciate from the riverside.
NOTE: My sources for Herbert’s birth and background (principally Greener and Laird’s Ross Bridge & The Sculpture of Daniel Herbert (Hobart, 1971) in this article are at odds with his entry in the online Australian Dictionary of Biography