It’s night time on Red Chapel Beach and the birds are loud. There’s a crescent moon rising and out near the middle of the river the foreign vessel at anchor is barely visible. James Moodie and a mate or two are in his boat closer to the shore. They’re waiting for a fish to bite but that’s not all they’re waiting for. The conversation in the boat is quiet; sound carries over water. They have one eye on the ship. Up above the beach there’s a light shining from his cottage window.
A long boat leaves the ship and heads towards them. They raft up but from the shore you’d be hard pressed to know that business is being transacted. All done, Moodie rows ashore. The oars creak, there’s the small splash of water. The birds fall silent.
The boat, carried onto the shore by the quiet water, takes clearer form. It’s a heavy duty wooden rowboat. And those men are taking out boxes. There’s the sound of ceramic and glass. They push that boat right up the sand. Their accents are strong. There’s both glee and caution in their voices. The birds are on alert and the hillside is still and dark. The men are discussing how they’re going to get the sly grog up the hill. They know where they’re going to hide it. They’ve planned what they’re going to do with their share of the takings and Moodie is reckoning on a good profit selling it from his cottage to the passers by on the Sandy Bay Road.
James Moodie, back in England, was a highwayman who’d been jailed for robbing on the King’s Highway and for assaulting a Constable Jelly. For these crimes he was separated from his wife and children and deported after first spending two years in the misery of Guildford prison and more time amidst the filth and vermin of the prison hulk, Retribution out on the Thames. Lightfingered in NSW, he ended up in Van Diemen’s Land, where light fingered again, he nicked some rope. Illiterate but smart, he amassed sufficient wealth through money lending (at 12 %), hard work and dodgy deals to buy the land above the handy beach now known as Red Chapel.
At 55 he married Ann Barnes (27), had five children and began to gain respect as a carpenter and a farmer. He had a thing for rope because he learned how to spin native hemp and New Zealand flax together to make a high quality product he could sell, and he acquired further respectability with the building of St Stephen’s Church which would have been a place of community connection for the Norfolk Island convicts living in this area. It stood out as a landmark, his apparently pious act clearly evident for all to see.
When Ann died, his eldest daughter, Mary, 12, took on her mother’s household and parental role, but she married at fourteen, a dubious marriage that was not in her best interests. The tale deteriorates into one of financial and sexual abuse.
St Stephens Church holds summer memories for me. Occasionally I’d go down to this beach to absorb some of its serenity while music carried from the piano in the hall and little girls thumped the floorboards yearning for the day they’d dance on points.
I came back to this beach in August, many years after those tranquil afternoons. I stood in the small park and looked down at the moored yachts just offshore. The gate with its Parks and Wildlife sign had been left open by a careless visitor. There was the willow tree and the boat sheds. There were dinghies neatly stacked. There was no one else on this small, intimate city beach except me and a few ducks. When I looked up, there were the mansions but there was no sign of life behind the windows.
I walked along the northern rocks where they curve out around a garden wall. There’s a small sandy cove around there that looks to have been isolated by this garden. To reach the sand you have to scramble across the jetty of another boat shed. To the south the beach continues a little way below the headland. It’s been isolated from Nutgrove Beach, the next beach along, by sea level rise but once they would have been a continuous strip.
I came back again on my yacht. My friend had the tiller as we motored close to the moorings and I took photos and regarded the bay. From this perspective it’s clear that Red Chapel shares Sandy Bay (as in the actual bay) with Lords Beach to the north. In effect, they’re the same beach tied to each other by the stretch of rocks, the visible part of Manning Reef, below the seawall. The Mannings, also convicts from Norfolk Island, had land here once, and Manning Rivulet enters the river here. You would not know it existed. Its trapped in a stormwater drain. From the water you can look at the shore and imagine a different Sandy Bay – a more kindlier planned one where the rivulets run free and linear parks retain and support native fauna and flora.
‘How much water do you like beneath the keel?’ my friend asked.
‘Bit less than one now. We’re over the reef.’
‘Out we go then,’ I said.
Again I returned, talking on the phone to the little girl I’d waited for on the beach all those summers ago. She’s grown now and was in Sydney, in transit home from the UK. We reminisced. I told her there was, unusually, someone else on the beach. I said that three ducks sitting together observing the river were preventing me from walking around to the cove. I told her there were plovers nesting, that while one circled high above the other was dive bombing me then veering in a circle and flying hard and fast straight at my face.
I left the three ducks to their ruminating and respected the plovers wishes. The young boy on the beach had left the gate open again, only this time it was completely off its hinges.
Further information: Goc, N. 1997. Sandy Bay: a social history. Gentrx Publishing, Hobart.
Photographs from Tasmanian Archives
- St Stephens Church and the stretch of beach below the cliff
- St Stephens Church and the beach from the foreshore