John McHugh: Early Life
John McHugh, like so many of our early Tasmanian pioneers, lived an extraordinary life during which he worked hard to provide for his family and to create wealth, employment and opportunities for others. Despite, or perhaps because of his humble beginnings, he was a fervent believer in education, especially for girls. Because his work was of great interest and importance to the local community his progress was widely reported in local newspapers. Much of his story in these pages is simply told by reproducing those articles.
His father was a true pioneer, the very first family to live at North Motton proper, initially with his wife and three children in a wattle and mud humpy at the Gawler from late 1859. In 1861, when John was aged about three, John Senior moved his family to land behind what later became the North Motton School which was built in 1885, closed in 1969 and destroyed by fire in 1988. Here he built a house, a pottery works and a kiln.
Life was not just primitive but also dangerous. On 21 March 1863 the Launceston Examiner reported:
At the River Gawler, Mr. John McHugh, a manufacturer of earthenware, was burned out by a bush fire. Some fallen scrub had been lit on an adjoining block which speedily spread to his land, house and crop. His house was saved from extensive damage by much effort from Mr. McHugh. His kiln was totally destroyed, filled with ware prepared to fire. Among Mr. McHugh’s wares, he manufactures some very respectable flower pots.
John was the first son of John and Janet McHugh, born just nine months after their marriage in 1857. John and his brother Hugh were both born in Launceston and the family then moved to the Gawler. Edward and Janet were born at North Motton but less than two years after the birth of Janet, on 6 Nov 1867, his mother died. The Burnie Advocate, in an article on the history of North Motton on 21 Jan 1922, said that her death was for the lack of simple medical attention; perhaps she was expecting a sixth child. She was buried in an unmmarked plot in the Methodist Cemetery, North Motton.
John was just a few months older than nine when his mother died so life must have become extremely difficult in such an isolated spot and it is no wonder that John Senior eventually moved his family to Launceston where he would have found it easier to get support for his family of five children. Janet, also known as Jessie, was less than two years old when her mother died and she was raised by North Motton couple John and Martha Eagle, who had no other children. John Senior quickly established himself in Launceston from about 1873, assisted by his sons.
The Launceston Examiner reported on John Senior’s progress on 5 Jun 1876.
Mr. McHugh’s Pottery
In a smaller way, but nevertheless with a considerable amount of success, Mr. John McHugh has carried on a pottery at the angle of Thistle Street and the Wellington Road, for about three years, a business which has more than once been favorably noticed by the local press.
At this establishment there is a kiln at the rear, a mill for grinding clay, a moulding wheel, and the necessary appliances for the manufacture of earthenware in every shape and form suitable for house and kitchen use, including bread pans, milk pans, teapots, cream dishes, jugs, jam and pickle jars, flower pots, and chimney pots, and even bricks, a large quantity of which were found in course of drying, when we visited Mr. McHugh’s the fineness of the clay required for some of these good was noticeable, we also remarked the exquisite finish by a peculiar kind of glazing, which Mr. McHugh appears to have brought to something like perfection, evidencing that he is a skilled and artistic operator in clay.
Perhaps if some classes of Mr. McHugh’s goods could be exhibited in a more central part of the town, there would be a more extended opportunity for admiring and patronizing such articles. By the machinery which McHugh possess, he is able to turn out pipes almost of the strength and consistency of flint.
He is assisted in his business by his sons.
John was 15 when his family returned to Launceston in 1873 and it is appears that John McHugh Senior abandoned his North Motton pottery works, although son John clearly remembered them because he later sough to return to the district to make his own mark.