There’s one thing visitors often comment on walking into the expansive space that is George Town’s Bass and Flinders Centre, one attempting to share some of the story behind the Tasmanian efforts of British navigators George Bass and Matthew Flinders: the size of the ship.
“It’s the size thing,” the centre’s chief executive Peter Hale chuckled, his voice echoing up toward the high ceiling. “Everyone goes, ‘oh geez, that’s pretty small’.”
The boat in question is a wooden one, with large burgundy sails, moored among a sea of blue chairs against a replica wharf. The word “Norfolk” painted in black letters near the bow.
This ship, too, is a replica. And though small, the original carried a crew of 10 – including Matthew Flinders, George Bass and Bungaree, a Kuringgai man from the Broken Bay area of New South Wales – on the first circumnavigation of Tasmania, proving for Europeans the existence of what is now known as Bass Strait.
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A glance around reveals a number of other wooden vessels resting on the polished floorboard shore, or suspended, as if in flight, in the air above it. Maps and other historic items also fill the space.
Though history isn’t the only thing that happens here. The centre has hosted weddings and funerals, birthdays and political party meetings.
“We had the Folk Festival in here [last] weekend, so we use it for all sorts of things,” Hale said.
“We had the Folk Festival so we had the bands set up here that were playing – there were two different groups there. It’s a function centre as much as a museum.
“We also run a couple of films – one that’s on at the moment is physically building the [Norfolk replica] that people can sit and watch and learn how they built the boat. And there’s another one that’s about Flinders’ life.
“We find most people come in and spend... they’re rushed if they don’t spend an hour, and some spend two, easy.”
The Norfolk, the centerpiece of the space, was built by Bern Cuthbertson AO and a team of volunteers near Ellendale in the state’s South.
Most of the ship’s details are the same, though Tasmanian Huon and celery top pine replace the Norfolk of the original – plus a few details to meet safety criteria.
“He did the recreation of Matthew Flinders’ voyage, particularly going around Tasmania and proving Bass Strait,” Hale explained.
“And also went up the east coast of Australia. So that boat has done everything that the original has done.
“At the end of it, he wanted it to come to George Town. In principle it discovered George Town, it came into the Tamar and spent some time there.”
At the time there were no buildings suitable for such an endeavour and Hale began investigating down by the waterfront, though starting from scratch looked likely to be expensive.
It was then the old Gaiety Theatre on Elizabeth Street came up for sale.
Most people would come and and go, ‘you wouldn’t think George Town would have something like this’. And, fair comment, but it’s our history.Peter Hal, Bass and Flinders Centre chief executive
“It had been deserted for years literally. So we threw some funding at the government of the time and we managed to get funding to buy the building.
“And we did it up, the main part being this raised roof, and obviously everything else as well to clean it up and tidy it up.
“It was one of those places that was a picture theatre originally and then became a skating ring, then a slot car track and indoor cricket, it did all of those things. We were just sort of lucky it was available.”
The tricky part, he says, was getting the boat in. A feat that would eventually be carried out by crane.
Hale, who describes himself as more of an engineer on the project than a historian, drew some basic layouts to discern how it might all work.
“And in a typical, what do they say, Murphy’s Law ... we got it in, sat it down on the floor ready to put the roof on, and it rained for three weeks straight. We couldn’t do it.
“Everyone just loves it; the main reason they love it is because you can get on the boat and go in and feel the ambience.
“You get the woodworkers come in and they look at that and say, ‘my goodness how does somebody do that’. And it’s true, it’s a work of art. It’s absolutely a work of art.”
From its beginnings in 2006 not much has changed for the centre, though they are looking to expand their offerings. “What I’m trying to do at the moment is make some changes.”
“We’ve just set up a shop for example. That’s early days, we’ve got to buy more stock.
“We’ve got a movie night planned at the end of the month. We do that generally over summer because it’s a bit cold in winter.
“Most people would come and and go, ‘you wouldn’t think George Town would have something like this’. And, fair comment, but it’s our history.”
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