In Search of Hobart by Peter Timms

I’m feeling homesick for Tasmania. I had a trip planned ‘home’ for October but then COVID-19 happened and our travel plans were shelved. Back in February 2013, I wrote this review. Since then I’ve been to Hobart a few times, stayed at Battery Point, walked around the inner city, visited some of the sights and enjoyed (always) the Salamanca Market.

‘What a place to be!’

Hobart, the state capital of Tasmania, is Australia’s smallest, second oldest and most southerly capital city. Greater Hobart had a population of 216,276 in 2011, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. As a consequence of its geographic setting, it’s both a long narrow city and a beautiful one. Divided by the Derwent River and overlooked by Mount Wellington, Hobart has a character all of its own.

In this book, Peter Timms explores the history of Hobart from the settlement at Sullivan’s Cove in 1804 to the present. This is less a history than it is a commentary on the influences that have shaped both Tasmania and Hobart (both good and bad) and what it is like to live in Hobart.

‘Tasmania, along with Outer Mongolia and Timbuktu, has long been seen a symbol of remoteness, whether of the mysterious, the enticing or the cruelly comic kind.’

While Tasmania is comparatively less remote these days because travel by both sea and air is less expensive than it was in the past, it is still an island some 240 kilometres (at its narrowest point) from the Australian mainland. Bass Strait can be both a physical and a psychical barrier to travel.

‘Hobart’s great paradox is that most of what people admire about it today is the result of poverty in the past.’

How true: many of Hobart’s public buildings would have been replaced in larger cities, which would be a great shame. Many of the small cottages of the 19th century are now regarded as highly desirable residences. And yet, there is a clash between old and new, and some of the new buildings are not at all sympathetic to their surroundings.

Hobart has the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and the University of Tasmania (one of Australia’s Sandstone Universities founded in 1890). Hobart also has Constitution Dock where the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race ends each year, the amazing Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) and a couple of terrific independent bookstores.

This is more an introduction to Hobart than it is a guidebook. It gives context and explanation rather than grid references and ratings. Peter Timms touches on Hobart’s suburban sprawl, and the problems created in some areas where public housing is concentrated.

I found the book very interesting. The narrative is supported by anecdotes and interviews. Although I grew up in Tasmania, like many from the north of the island I spent very little time in the south. Hobart was seen as the seat of government, a source of bureaucratic interference, a place to be avoided rather than enjoyed. I visited Hobart briefly last year, and this book confirms what that visit hinted: I need to spend more time in Hobart both exploring the past and enjoying the present. It’s not the city I remembered from the 1970s: it’s a more diverse and interesting place.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith