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I published this story in the Circular Head Chronicle on 21 May 1986. It was the first article in a series about illegal blackwood cutting in the Roger River area. One lesson from this tale is that you should never assume that business life in the old days was simpler than it is today.

Blackwood in Court
Part One: John Hilton Mackay, 1923

'Did you never hear of "dummying"? These timber wolves go to the limit in their own names and put up dummy agents to cover the rest. It's illegal, but what does that matter. They's no one ever asts questions so long as the rental and royalties and so on are paid regularly. The whole system is rotten to the core.'
[from Timber Wolves (1920) by Bernard Cronin]

Moore's lease

On the 4th July, 1918, a returned soldier named James Lorenzo Moore, late of the 3rd Light Horse, Australian Imperial Forces, wrote from St Leonards to the Lands Department in Hobart, requesting a timber lease of 500 acres west of the Roger River.

A week later, Secretary for Lands E.A. Counsel replied that the application would have to be refused, as the land in question was in an area that had been withdrawn from selection several years earlier.

On 30th August, Moore wrote directly to the Minister for Lands and asked that the Department's refusal be reconsidered. Moore was, after all, a returned soldier, and he hoped to erect a sawmill to work the lease.

The Department again declined to consider the application.

Moore waited a year, then reapplied. This time the Department offered some hope. On 30th July, 1919, Moore was advised that the matter would be referred to the incoming Minister, A. Hean, in August. Moore heard that consideration of his lease application was 'in process'.

In April of the following year, J.L. Moore was breeding and selling border collies on a farm at Westbury. At the end of the month, he received a letter from Secretary Counsel advising that the 500 acres applied for, which up to then had been part of a 1,500 acre block defined for leasehold purposes, were now being legally separated. The land would become available on 12th May, 1920.

On 13th May, Moore formally applied for a 21-year timber lease over the 500 acres. Shortly afterwards he paid the £18/12/- fee demanded for the lease to be officially surveyed.

On 24 July, having heard nothing further from Lands, Moore wrote to Counsel for permission to begin logging. The matter was urgent, as machinery was on its way from Melbourne to Stanley.

On 28th July, approval to log was given, subject to certain conditions. The approving official was Llewellyn Irby, Conservator of Forests in the newly created Forestry Department, which had taken over from Lands the administration of timber leases. Irby asked only that Moore promise to supply monthly returns of timber cut on the lease, and to promptly pay the royalties according to the gazetted schedule.

Moore never replied to Irby's letter. The fate of the urgently awaited machinery is unknown. Moore had his lease, more or less, but the 500 acres was to lay untouched for another two years.

What was going on?

Moore's Lease

Approximate locations of Moore's and Greene's leases at Roger River West.
Most of the leased land was later selected and is now private property.
(Satellite image from Google Earth)

The Mackay connection

When a request to survey Moore's lease was received by District Surveyor K.M. Harrisson in June of 1920, the existence of the lease came as a surprise. Nobody in Circular Head knew the land was available, according to a confidential memo from Harrisson,

...except perhaps Mr. J.H. Mackay, and those connected with him, who have been consistently dummying land and timber leases ever since their first arrival in the district.

John Hilton Mackay is nowadays remembered as the pioneer of the Roger River area. Formerly a Professor of Engineering at the University of Tasmania, he became a prosperous farmer and sawmiller in the Circular Head of 70 years ago. By 1920, according to Harrisson, Mackay controlled over 2,600 acres at Roger River.

Only a few of those acres were in J.H. Mackay's name. Most were owned by relations or 'associated' families: Lempriere, Kearney, Hill and Greene. The 2,600 acres were in 24 blocks ranging in size from 48 to 200 acres. Additional land was held at Trowutta and Edith Creek.

All the acreage referred to had been selected as private farm blocks. Settler's land was assumed to be residential, and the Crown had spent considerable sums providing roads to the Mackay lands, although few residences other than the Professor's house were in evidence.

The situation was a scandal. On 27th June, 1920, Harrisson wrote to the Minister,

...I should recommend you to get a comprehensive report from the C.L. [Crown Land] bailiff, as besides evading the spirit of the C.L. Act, it is having a serious effect upon the district, although those in question may be raking in large profit from the expenditure of public money.

J.L. Moore, the timber lease applicant, had first come to Tasmania after the war as an employee of J.H. Mackay. He had selected 200 acres at Roger River as a returned soldier, but had never lived there. The land was sold to the wife of George Greene, a relative of Mackay's. An adjoining lot had been selected by Mrs E. Vance, who was J.L. Moore's sister and who had never set foot in Circular Head. That block, too, had been sold, this time to F.E.R. Greene, another non-resident.

In a second confidential letter to the Minister, dated 10th July, 1920, Surveyor Harrisson summed the matter up as follows:

There is not the remotest doubt in the face of the facts given in my letter that Mackay is using his soldier friend Moore to get land which he cannot get himself, and Mackay has already done more harm in stopping progress in this district than any other individual, as he has never worked either his timber leases or his selections in a bona fide way, and but for the greatest leniency the leases would have been forfeited over and over again.

The Minister answered Harrisson on 14th July:

In reply to your letter of the 10th instant in re the above, the Crown have gone too far now to be able in honour to draw back. Moore must get his lease, and if he does not work it in a bona fide manner, it can then be forfeited.

Two weeks later, as already noted, Moore's lease application was approved. The adjoining 1000 acre lease was granted to a Mr George Greene.

Hidden logging

Conservator of Forests Irby visited Circular Head during the second week of January, 1923. One of the stops on his tour was Mackay's Roger River mill. Here the Professor himself told Irby that blackwood logs in the millyard had been cut on Moore's lease in the previous month, December. Two other visiting foresters were told that a large, recently arrived log was the first from Moore's lease in 1923.

Irby wired his Hobart office from Smithton. Had Mackay sent in returns from Moore's lease for December? A reply wire advised that no returns had been received, nor had Moore's lease been formally issued. Mackay had no authority to cut there.

A contemporary county chart shows the 500 acres as available for selection from 19 April 1920, and names J.L. Moore as lessee for 2½ years from 1 February 1922. It's not clear why the Forestry Department in Hobart believed the lease had not yet been granted.

Three days after Irby's visit, J.L. Moore wrote to the Conservator from Launceston. He claimed to have spent money looking for timber on the 500 acres, but no large quantity of blackwood had been found. Furthermore, the lease was very wet; logging would be difficult. To erect a sawmill on the lease would therefore not be justifiable. Would Irby object if Moore either (1) leased a Mackay mill, (2) contracted the sawing to Mackay or (3) operated Mackay's mill himself? Incidentally, added Moore, Mackay had cut a few logs on the lease. Would the Forestry Department please determine the royalty payable?

Irby presumably smelled a rat, but decided to proceed cautiously. On 5th February, he replied to Moore that either (1) or (3) would be acceptable, provided that Moore apply for an 18-month Exclusive Forest Permit. The E.F.P. system had superseded the old timber lease arrangement early in 1922, and Moore's entitlement (assuming it existed) needed formalising.

Moore forwarded his E.F.P. application two weeks later with the requisite 5 pound fee. He also enclosed a letter from Mackay to Moore agreeing to option (1). Mackay would lease his sawmill to Moore at a charge of 1/- per 100 super feet cut, plus labour and fuel expenses. Moore's timber would thus be cut separately from Mackay's own intake, occasioning (said Mackay) some inconvenience in operating the mill.

Meanwhile, Irby had been hearing from Smithton. His forester there, Samuel Moore, reported that Mackay had submitted a December return showing a cut on Greene's lease, but none on Moore's. Mackay denied, furthermore, having said on 9th January that blackwood had been obtained from Moore's lease in December.

On 19th February, Sam Moore returned to Roger River in company with the Burnie District Forester, Edward Julius. Mackay handed them a return for January, showing what he said was the first cut of blackwood from Moore's lease: 20,756 super feet.

Moore and Julius went on to inspect the lease itself the same day. Here they found contractor Charles Lockly at work with two men, 10 bullocks and two steam winders. Some 50 chains of tramline had already been laid in the lease, much of the work looking suspiciously old.

Unaware of Mackay's earlier statement, Lockly told the foresters that more than 200,000 super feet of blackwood had come off the lease since the previous June, plus quantities of celery-top pine and myrtle. The contractor handed over his log book, from which Moore and Julius copied the measurements of all logs taken to date.

Forester Moore reported these findings to Irby in a letter written late on the 19th. Two weeks later he filed the calculated log volumes: 250,698 super feet of blackwood, 37,296 of celery-top pine and 7,450 of myrtle. As of 2nd March, furthermore, Mackay had paid no royalty on the January return of 20,756 super feet.

Moore completed his investigations in the second week of March. To complement Lockly's records, he and Julius had carried out a stump assessment in the lease, and were now able to provide their own estimate of timber removed. Julius reckoned that up to 5,000 super feet of blackwood were being cut each day during the latter part of February.

When Sam Moore visited Mackay's mill on 8th March, he was handed a return for February showing no timber at all cut on Moore's lease. The forester refused to countersign the return.


Developments were slow between March of 1923 and June, when Mackay was summonsed. The Forestry Department appeared reluctant to take strong action, while Mackay seemed determined to complicate the affair, as will be seen.

Logging, meanwhile, was continuing on Moore's lease, which was finally gazetted as an E.F.P. on 20th March. Trees were being felled and crosscut by Lockly and two bushmen, who used a team of bullocks to haul the logs to a skidway by a tramline. A fourth man led a horse team which pulled log-laden tram wagons direct to Mackay's sawmill.

Lockly revealed that blackwood had been removed from Moore's lease even before the tram had been constructed. Some 80,000 super feet had been pulled in June to a paddock on a Mackay block adjoining the lease. Presumably this timber was sent to the mill when the tramline reached the paddock.

It became known, too, that Mackay had distanced himself from the contractor. Lockly had been financed by a Mr R. Kay of Irishtown, to whom Mackay apparently sent all cheques for logs delivered.

Forester Sam Moore was keen to halt Lockly's operations and seize the logs on which royalty hadn't been paid. Head Office advised otherwise. So long as J.L. Moore permitted Mackay to log the lease, and so long as Moore accepted responsibility for royalty payments, nothing so drastic as an embargo could be contemplated. Moore's first royalty cheque, for the 20,756 super feet claimed for January, had arrived in Smithton on 14th March.

Mackay delayed further royalty payments by saying he genuinely had no idea how much timber from Moore's lease had been received at the mill. Through much of 1922-23 he had been cutting blackwood from his own lease and from private property. The Moore logs had been heaped at and near the mill during a February shutdown for repairs. Was Mackay expected to roll the logs out of the heaps just to measure them?

The Forestry Department responded by reminding Mackay that all logs, by regulation, had to be branded and measured before they left the bush. (Mackay could have argued that branding and measuring were Moore's responsibility as E.F.P. holder. There is no record that Mackay did so.)

On 11th April, Mackay was handed a royalty demand for £372/12/10, representing all timber cut on Moore's lease to 31st January, with a deduction for the '20,756' payment. The sawmiller said he thought Julius' stump assessment figures were 'excessive'; he would study the demand.

A week later he said he had an accurate tally for the period to 31st December, but no certain knowledge of blackwood volumes between 1st january and 31st March. Mackay, therefore, accepted the Forestry figures and declared Julius' blackwood estimate and his own pine and myrtle tallies (which, incidentally, were significantly below the Department's estimates). This declaration, said Mackay, was the cut to date.

Forester Moore rejected the declaration, since it didn't include blackwood cut between Julus' assessment and the end of March. Mackay provided the make-up figure, 71,208 super feet, to a dubious Moore. The sawmiller had now declared totals up to 31st March of 383,104 super feet of blackwood, 50,550 of pine and 6,679 of myrtle. The royalty payable was approximately £450. When J.L. Moore's next cheque arrived, on 26th May, it was for only £300/9/6.

Throughout March and April, Mackay contended that the best practice was not to measure a log until it was actually on the sawbench. That was his practice, and he intended to follow it despite Forestry insistence that it ran counter to regulation. On 1st May, Mackay further clouded the issue by proposing to pay royalty on sawn output, beginning 1st June. The Department strongly objected for the obvious reason that such a scheme left it up to the sawmiller to determine what part of his output came from Crown logs, on which royalty was payable, and what part from private property logs, obtained by private sale. Nevertheless, on 1st June, Mackay sent in a return for April based on the sawn output from Moore's timber.

Three weeks earlier, Sam Moore had reported a discrepancy between timber removed and timber declared for March on a lease held in Mackay's name. By June the Department had had enough, and John Hilton Mackay was summonsed to appear in court at Stanley on 3rd July, 1923.

The trial

The Forestry Department initially considered bringing action against J.L. Moore as well as Mackay. The plan was dropped after Moore wrote a personal letter to Irby pleading that criminal proceedings would adversely affect Moore's business reputation; additional royalties were paid the same day. Mackay, furthermore, agreed to accept all responsibility in the matter.

The case was adjourned twice at the request of Mackay's solicitors, one of whom was another Circular Head sawmiller, K.C. Laughton. A month before the third scheduled date, 4th September, Mackay wrote an extraordinary personal letter to Irby asking him to defer or withdraw the proceedings. Among the excuses offered for Mackay's actions is the following:

I might mention as an extenuating circumstance, however poor the argument, that I never expected Lockly to get any logs off J.L. Moore's, I thought he would get a few handy logs off 970/T [Greene's lease], get paid for them and abandon Moore's owing to its being wet and difficult.

The case was adjourned a third time at the Government's request until 18th September. Mackay again wrote to Irby, complaining that he would be unable to be in Stanley on the 18th; he would seek a further adjournment. In this letter Mackay also disclosed, frankly, what his defense would be in court. He claimed to have written to Irby on 1st December, 1922, asking for advice on when a return should be submitted, given that J.L. Moore was away in Victoria. Mackay would say that Irby hadn't replied.

I looked carefully for this 1st December letter in the relevant files in the Archives Office of Tasmania, but was unable to locate it.

The case was heard before Police Magistrate F.N. Stops at Stanley on 31st October, 1923. A variety of complaints were made and among the witnesses called by the prosecution was Charles Lockly.

Stops found John Hilton Mackay guilty of submitting a timber return on 19th February, 1923 which was false in a material particular, namely that 20,756 super feet of blackwood were declared, while the actual cut had exceeded 60,000 super feet. Several other complaints against Mackay were dismissed by the magistrate on the grounds that the Forestry Department regulations seemed 'loose'. Further charges were withdrawn by the prosecutor, a Mr Clark of the Crown Law Department, who said (according to a contemporary newspaper account) that the Government

...had no intention of being harsh, but wished to secure a conviction in order to show sawmillers in general "the error of their ways".

A conviction was recorded, and Mackay was ordered to pay witnesses' expenses and other fees amounting to £7 and 8 shillings.

Sources: The documents quoted and referred to above are contained in Forestry Department files in the Archives Office of Tasmania, item number FC1/1/108, F743/23: Blackwood removed from J L Moore's lease. Litigation: Department vs MacKay. More about Mackay's trial can be found in the Circular Head Chronicle for 7th November, 1923.