By Peter Cox
During the nineteenth century the streets around Regent Square were select places for living. If the cottages and mansions that once outlined the Square in Elizabeth, Cimitiere and Anne Streets could talk, their stories would be very interesting. Not least of them is “Ben Hyrons’ Cottage”, named after a man who spent little time in the town, but made a huge mark on the place in that short time.
Ben Hyrons was born in 1795 in Worcestershire, England. He trained as a shoemaker, but was arrested for having counterfeit coins and was sentenced to transportation. He arrived as ‘Benjamin Hines’ on the Lord Melville in Hobart Town in December 1818. He was employed in his trade and then assigned to shoemaker James Blay who had shops in both Hobart Town and New Norfolk. By 1827 Ben had his Ticket of Leave and set up his own business in Liverpool Street. As well as being a boot and shoe maker he was also a general trader and soon established a second shop in New Norfolk.
In 1831 he was granted a conditional pardon. This allowed him to hold a liquor licence. He moved to Launceston, where he purchased the “Spread Eagle Hotel” in Brisbane Street. It was the first of a long list of hotels he would operate in Launceston over the next 40 years. Along with his hotels, Ben also operated a number of coach services, using his hotels as departure points for the coaches with stables for the horses.
His first coach service was to Perth, which was later extended to Longford. He and his son operated that service for more than 20 years. In 1833 he began a coach service to Hobart, competing for many years against the existing operator, Mrs. Cox. He introduced larger and more comfortable coaches and reduced prices in an attempt to undercut the opposition. He drove the coaches himself, and was often criticised for his ‘furious driving’ and sometimes ended up in court. He successfully operated the service until 1848 when he lost the mail contract to Page’s coaches.
In the 1840s Ben took to horse racing. He set up his hotel as a refreshment place for the racing set. His horse “Saladin” competed in the Launceston races, winning the Galloway Stakes in 1843. He also took the horse to the Hobart races, but met with no success there. Another of his Launceston ventures was the Olympic Theatre, again part of his hotel. He organized the artists and directed the entertainment himself.
Ben managed several hotels between the 1830s and 1850s. Each hotel that he purchased became the Launceston depot for his coaches. He never kept the inns for long, regularly selling up, even announcing he was leaving the colony, only to re-appear as the licensee of another hotel a few months later. That would become the departure point for a revival of his coaching run, with new and better coaches and another tilt for the mail contract.
In 1853 Ben auctioned off his coaches, horses and his household effects and moved to George Town. He purchased a house in Wellington Street and a farm east of George Town which he named “Nine Mile Springs”. In 1854 he purchased the paddle steamer Governor Wynyard from Melbourne, and brought her to the Tamar to operate a passenger and cargo service between Launceston and George Town. In 1855 he built, the “Freemason’s Hotel,” which was opposite the present-day George Town Hospital in Anne Street. He joined the committee as Treasurer to manage the annual George Town Regatta. He also purchased a house in Wellington Street and a block on the corner of Cimitiere and Anne Streets.
It looked as if Ben was set for a lucrative time in George Town, but such was not to be. Every week he advertised in the newspapers, encouraging the people of Launceston to take a day trip in his paddle steamer to George Town and dine at his hotel before returning. However, the Governor Wynyard was not suitable for the run. Its engine was inefficient and not strong enough to operate against the tide. It was frequently breaking down.
The real problem was that the small steam-driven boats were not economic. The cost of coal and the need for a large crew meant they could not compete with the sailing ketches, which carried cargo at a much lower cost. There were not enough passengers to make this part of the service profitable and the larger and faster Launceston to Melbourne steamers also stopped at George Town for passengers.
Even the hotel caused him difficulties with the authorities. As he already held a licence to sell liquor at his hotel, he was refused a licence for the Governor Wynyard. He was also accused of selling alcohol on Sundays.
In 1857 he packed up and moved again. He put all of his George Town properties up for sale. He claimed to be making a voyage back to England, but instead he purchased another hotel in Launceston and operated it for a number of years. He did not completely abandon George Town. He kept the block in Anne Street and built a cottage there. He retired to George Town in 1870 and died in 1873.
It is ironic that Ben should be remembered more by his cottage than by his achievements. His restless spirit never brought fame or riches from his many enterprises. Yet, he set a standard for hospitality in his many hotels for forty years. He was a major pioneer of the coaching industry, and was responsible for making public transport affordable and comfortable.
By the late 1870s improved versions of steamships would be making daily trips between George Town and Launceston. On summer weekends and public holidays hundreds of visitors would be visiting George Town for the day. His ambitions for the little seaside village had been just twenty years too early.