Jessie Devlyn, Post Mistress

Kay Koenig

In 1949, the Hobart Mercury recorded the death of 90-year-old Jessie Devlyn. In an age when married women dedicated their lives to the care of their families, Jessie was different.  She was a much-loved mother, grandmother and great grandmother. In addition, she had a career that lasted over 35 years and was a pioneer in many organisations that provided vital emergency care and still do today.

Jessie was the fourth child of James Thorne and his wife Mary Mogford.  James was born in Tiverton, Devon, England in 1832. The town was a centre of the wool industry and famous for its lace manufacture.  James laboured in the town gas works.  He and Mary married in the early 1850s. Their first four of eleven children were born in Tiverton. Then the family migrated to Australia.   Jessie Annie Thorne was a one-year old infant when the family sailed from Plymouth on the clipper ship ‘Flying Cloud’ on October 10, 1862. Daughter, Alice, was born, during the voyage, in the Bay of Biscay. James, Mary and their five children arrived in Brisbane on January 13, 1863. Five months later they sailed to Geelong. They would try their luck in the Victorian goldfields.

For close to twenty years the Thorne family lived near Daylesford, about half way between Ballarat and Castlemaine, Gold had been first found in the Daylesford district  during the initial frenzied mining boom in 1851-52.  By the time the Thorne family arrived in 1863, the rush at Daylesford  had subsided. However, the nearby diggings at Blanket Flat on Deep Creek persisted. Blanket Flat became the Thorne family home for ten years.  Another six children were born there. As the riches of Blanket Flat declined,  the family moved to Barry’s Reef, further south near Blackwood.

Many miners made little from gold. As the readily available alluvial deposits were mined out, most diggers sought employment with the companies that mined the gold reefs far underground. James Thorne must have been one of the lucky ones. He acquired a large enough nest egg to establish a business in the wilderness of western Tasmania.

Tin was discovered at Mt Bischoff in 1871. By the time the Thorne family arrived in 1880, Mt Bischoff was the largest tin mine in the world. The town of Waratah was established to support the mine. It wrapped itself around the alluvial workings. The waterfall, which provided water for the sluices that miners used to recover the valuable alluvial cassiterite (tin oxide) was and still is in the centre of the town.  James Thorne opened a grocery store in Main Street, Waratah. He operated it for the next thirty-seven years and was still working in the store until shortly before he died in 1924.

Jessie Thorne opened a private school in the town. In the days before Waratah had a public school, hers was one of two institutions to educate the town’s children.   Jessie was active in the local drama club. No doubt, it was there that she met another amateur thespian James Power Devlyn.

James was an American, born in Boston Massachusetts in July 1852. He migrated to Australia in the 1870’s, possibly as a ship’s crew member. There was a James Devlyn on the ‘Cambridgeshire’ when she was wrecked on Night Island, near Preservation Island in Bass Striate in 1975.  James was one of the earliest residents of Waratah in north western Tasmania.  As a miner, he took a great interest in issues affecting the miners and the residents of the district. He was active on several committees advocating town development and improvements to the working conditions at the mine and was involved in left wing politics and in the movement, which eventually led to the formation of the Labour Party. He also fought for universal suffrage in Tasmania in the 1880’s. This was finally achieved for men in 1900 and women in 1903.

Jessie Thorne and James Devlyn married in 1881. They were an influential couple. He, in politics, championing the rights of the common man; she, in the community, as a member of organisations that cared for women and their families.

A son was born to Jessie Devlyn in 1882.  That was the year the post office opened in Waratah. Jessie found employment in the Post Office and continued to work in the postal service for the next 40 years.

In 1879, alluvial gold was found along the tributaries of the Pieman River on the mid-west coast of Tasmania.  Before long several hundred miners flocked to the area, looking to make their fortunes.   In 1881, a store was built and a post and money order office was established about 5km from the mouth of the Pieman River. This became Corinna in 1882. About 1887, Jessie Devlyn became postmistress at Corinna.  She not only provided postal and banking services, but was also the government official responsible for issuing a miner’s right to every miner who searched for gold in the district.

Somehow Jessie found time for her family. By the time they arrived in Corinna, James and Jessie Devlyn had two young children and a baby. Another child was born in 1888. Altogether six children were born at Corinna. Sadly, one died. Eighteen-month-old Andrew Kennedy Devlyn drowned in the Pieman River while playing with his older brother and sister in 1890.

The village of Corinna served a far-flung goldfield. Some diggings were along creeks, that flowed through dense forest, over 20km away.  The river became a highway.  James was a guide in the bush and a waterman on the river. Access to the goldfield was via a windy track from Waratah to the north or from Queenstown to the south. The latter journey required crossing the Pieman River. James Devlyn held the licence to operate the river ferry. He charged 6d a crossing for those on foot and 1/6 for wagons. Because there was no hotel in Corinna, travellers were often accommodated at the Devlyn home.

By the turn of the century the hydraulic sluicing that had operated in the goldfields through most of the 1890’s had petered out. In February 1903, Jessie Devlyn passed the Public Service Examinations for the Post Master Generals Department. She was transferred to Mathinna with a salary of £110.  At the time of her transfer, The Examiner, Launceston reported that ‘during the time Mrs Devlyn was at Corinna she earned the respect of all prospectors, travellers and residents, always courteous, obliging and kind. Many a poor weary swagman has been glad of Mr and Mrs Devlyn’s hospitality, which was never refused.—————and the Devlyns have fairly earned their right to a promotion. in leaving Corinna —-they carry with them the wishes of the Waratah people especially those older residents here and in the lonely bush town of Corinna…..’ ( 9th November 1903.)  

Mathinna was in the far north east corner of Tasmania. During the 1890’s it became a boom town in a goldfield second only to Beaconsfield. Mathinna had a population of over 5000 at its peak towards the end of the century. Jessie Devlyn served as postmistress of in the town for nine years. Again, she was also responsible for issuing mining licences.

In July 1908 her annual salary was increased to £160.00 per annum and Jessie was transferred to the North Hobart Post Office. Before she left Mathinna, the town came together to thank her for her service. Jessie had been a very popular postmistress and a pillar of the local community. The Daily Telegraph Launceston reported on the 4th July-‘Mrs Devlyn, the postmistress at Mathinna, —has been the recipient of many congratulations on her advance in the service. Her courteous manner and business capacity are duly appreciated locally, and it is pleasing to note her ability has been the means of well merited promotion’

After one and a half years at North Hobart, Jessie was transferred to Cygnet on the Huon River 56km south of Hobart. She was postmistress in Cygnet 12 years and continued to live there until well after World War II.

            Shortly after her transfer, Jessie was an inaugural member of the Bush Nursing Association of Australia. The Association began in Tasmania when the first branch was formed in Launceston in 1910. At that time medical care was rare in remote areas of Australia. The Bush Nursing Association provided midwifery and nursing care in farming and mining in outback Australia. Nurses also provided information on nutrition and ensured that babies and young children were healthy. Initially Bush Nursing Branches were managed by voluntary committees. The committees also raised the funds for the Association from membership subscriptions and nursing fees.

Jessie was a member of the Bush Nursing Association well into the 1940’s. Often she was the president of a branch in Cygnet.  During the First World War I, she  also involved with the Red Cross and the Comforts Fund.

Most families sent husbands or sons to the war. The women left behind also wanted to contribute to the war effort. Wanting to support their men folk in a practical way, they sent them books, magazines, newspapers.  tobacco, condensed milk, biscuits and socks; thousands and thousands of socks.  The trenches on the Western Front were muddy and wet. To keep their feet healthy, soldiers needed dry socks. In 1916, this willing army of women became the Australian Comfort Fund.  Jessie was a keen member of the Fund during World War I, and as a woman in her eighties, during World War II.

World War I was a sad time for the Devlyn family. Three sons enlisted. Two served overseas and Victor, the youngest member of the family, died of typhoid fever whilst he was undergoing training near Hobart in 1918. Jessie was informed that her son was sick and in hospital. She was travelling to visit him when he died. Ironically, his father had stipulated that Victor should not be sent overseas until he was 19 years old. So the war would have been over before he was deployed. In the early 20th century, life was tenuous. Diseases such as typhoid and tuberculous caused many to die young. Walter Devlyn died in Hobart in 1915. He was 17 years old.

Jessie’s two soldier sons returned from the war. One moved to New Zealand the other lived near Cygnet. He became a successful fruit grower.

During the 1920’s Jessie retired. James Devlyn died in 1924 age 71.  Jessie continued her voluntary work.   When the Country Women’s Association formed in 1923, she was an inaugural member. She served on the Cygnet CWA committee, often as branch president.

During the 1930’s and 1940’s Jessies commitment to the health and welfare of the local community continued through the Depression and World War II.  She died in 1949.