Reverend John West, minister of St John’s Square Independent Chapel and writer, played a large part in forming the Australasian League to present a united front against transporting convicts to Australia.
News of the abolition of transportation came from England on the ship Harbinger and later with the arrival of the Yarra Yarra in Launceston from Melbourne on April 26, 1853.
Within minutes the bellman announced that Van Diemen’s Land was a free colony. The people were jubilant and the newspapers called for day of celebration.
A public holiday declared for August 10, 1853 allowed everyone to take part in the ‘Demonstration’.
“The approaches to the town on all sides thronged with country people, on foot, on horseback, and in vehicles of every kind, and several wagons crammed with children came into town," wrote the Launceston Examiner on August 13, 1853.
"The country coaches came in almost breaking down with the loads, and with horses decorated with blue ribbons, flags flying, and horns sounding merrily; a very attractive turn-out being a blue coach driven by Thomas Lawson… The town was all alive, but St. John’s Square was the great centre of attraction.”
A large central arch and two smaller ones, constructed of native shrubs and surmounted by flags, spanned St John Street.
The formal part of the proceedings began with services at the various churches and chapels. Politicians and aldermen enjoyed a luncheon with Mayor Henry Dowling, afterwards following a band to St John’s Square.
Richard Dry gave an oration and the crowd sang the Jubilee Anthem; it was also 50 years since the colony was first settled.
A long procession wove its way around the streets and back to St John’s Square where the children were given a ticket entitling them to a commemorative medal. A public meeting adopted an address to Queen Victoria acknowledging her “gracious attention to the petitions of her Australian subjects for the cessation of transportation.”
In the evening bonfires lit up the hills, tar barrels blazed, rockets fired and almost every house displayed patriotic illuminations.
People promenaded, St Joseph’s band played, and gentlemen born in the colony enjoyed a sumptuous dinner at the Victoria Hotel.
The last convict ship to Van Diemen’s Land, the St Vincent, arrived in Hobart on May 26, 1853 with 207 men.
On Friday March 15, Her Excellency, the Governor, Kate Warner will present the annual John West Memorial Lecture on Transportation re-visited: lessons for modern penal policy?