The change room at the Western Mine could hardly contain those assembled. With much hand shaking and back slapping, the group of men wished their two colleagues the best of luck – give it to them warm, stay alive and come back to us. There was a call for quiet, moderating the din. Mr Deakin spoke on behalf of the mining company, and collective silence filled the room, interrupted only by the occasional murmur of approval when he voiced the admiration for the volunteers. He then presented a silver pipe to Maurice Keys. And to Victor Peers, a gold medal, a fine piece of local workmanship made by Mr Wathen of Main Street.
The two were members of the Zeehan Rifle Company, part of the Tasmanian Volunteer Rifle Regiment, who responded to the call for infantrymen. Three others from Zeehan were also selected. Australia’s colonial governments sought volunteers to fight for Britain in their war with the Boer Republics. It was 1899, over a year before federation and still four years before the new Commonwealth raised a combined defence force. The Tasmanian government promised eighty soldiers, so five from Zeehan was an admirable number from a small mining town on the west coast. It was an honour for miners from the Western to have two among them. The gathering ended with three cheers for the two men and three cheers for the Queen.
Victor was eager to show his medal to his sweetheart, Belle. He had met Belle Myles, daughter of Zeehan’s blacksmith, at an outing on the slopes of Mount Zeehan. Named after one of the ships commanded by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, the mountain, with several others, surrounded the town like an amphitheatre. Magnificent tree ferns adorned the gullies, watered by steady rain, almost five feet a year. Mount Zeehan was the ideal place for the local residents to picnic, a stark contrast to the harshness of the mine mullock heaps.
Belle was the fresh start that Victor needed. He had been unsettled for 10 years, ever since his mother died. It was about the time he finished school at Black River, to the north. At a loose end, he went back to his home town of Deniliquin, New South Wales to work at a printing office. There he lived with an uncle but returned to Tasmania after his father, the local headmaster, received a transfer to Zeehan. Victor began mining and was a student at the School of Mines. It seemed he had begun to settle down, promised in marriage to Belle, when the call came for men to go to the Transvaal.
That evening, after Victor had received his medal, the exclusive Zeehan Club treated all five of the volunteers to a farewell, hosted at their spacious Social Hall in Frederick Street. Once the speeches had finished, some of the men present performed various musical selections with Mr Moore presiding at the piano until early hours of the morning.
It was only hours later that Victor lined up with the Zeehan Company of about 30 men at their drill hall. The officers gave the command to move, and led by the local band, the group marched down Main Street, left, right, left, the men proud to have the five in their midst. Those gathered on the verandah of McLennan’s hotel heard the sharp sound of the trumpet and the low beat of the drum, and when the volunteers came into view, they urged the men on with waves and cheers. Cheers that echoed at each corner as more well-wishers took up the cry, many of them merging in at the end of the procession after it went past. By the time the parade reached the railway station, hundreds of supporters had joined. Hundreds more waited at the station to farewell their intrepid heroes.
The soldiers were ordered at ease and the departing volunteers said their last goodbyes to family and friends. Women took handkerchiefs from their pockets and purses to wipe the occasional tear when they realised the imminent departure of their men to Tasmania’s first war. The guard whistled, and to the strains of “Rule Britannia,” the train steamed off.
Zeehan Railway Station
It wouldn’t be the last of their farewells, though. The public couldn’t get enough of their brave men. At Strahan, the harbour town so essential for the mining areas of the rugged west coast, the patriotic songs of the local school children greeted the train. The Zeehan Quintet, their new name, were cheered as they arrived and then again when they caught the steamer to Hobart. Here, in the colony’s capital, they underwent medical examinations, were sworn in and had daily drills. Then it was on to Launceston in the north of the state en route to Melbourne. At each Australian place, they paraded before the community, where thousands turned out to farewell their heroes.
The band of the Second Tasmanian Battalion leads the First Tasmanian Contingent to the Boer War past the crowds around the custom house at the Esplanade in their farewell parade through the streets of Launceston.
(This item is in the Public Domain)
On the 27th of October, 1899 the Tasmanian and Victorian contingents departed Melbourne on the Medic, just two weeks after the war had been declared. By the time the Medic arrived in Cape Town four weeks later, troops from South Australia and Western Australia had joined them. Before Cape Town’s mayor could give the men his planned welcome, Victor Peers and his fellow soldiers boarded a train for Orange River. Their war had begun.
The Medic moves off
See an earlier post about Victor Peers (and his son), when he lived in South Africa.
1.Archives Office of Tasmania. https://linctas.ent.sirsidynix.net.au/client/en_AU/tas/search/detailnonmodal/ent:$002f$002fARCHIVES_DIGITISED$002f0$002fARCH_DIGITISED:75541/one [back]
2. DOWN THE BAY. (1899, October 30). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article9035885 [back]
“Au Revoir.” (1899, October 20). Zeehan and Dundas Herald (Tas. : 1890 – 1922), p. 3. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article84664502
Barker, W. F. “Victor Stanley Peers – conservationist and cultivator of South African plants.” Veld & Flora 66, no. 1 (March 1980): 25-28.
Black River Notes. (1891, August 8). Wellington Times and Agricultural and Mining Gazette (Tas. : 1890 – 1897), p. 3. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article65248594
Bufton, John. Tasmanians in the Transvaal War. Newtown, Hobart, Tas.: S.G. Loone, 1905.
Murray, P. L. Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa. Melbourne: A.J. Mullett, Govt. Printer, 1911.
Pope, Georgina Fane. “Nursing in South Africa during the Boer War, 1899-1900.” The American Journal of Nursing 3, no. 1 (1902): 10. doi:10.2307/3401849.
The Zeehan Contingent. (1899, October 21). Zeehan and Dundas Herald (Tas. : 1890 – 1922), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article84667239