A Brief History of Betsey Island

On 30 March 1825 the Colonial Office wrote to Governor Arthur stating that a James King had written enquiring about the possibility of obtaining the use of an island on which to breed silver grey rabbits for the China fur trade. Governor Arthur replied suggesting that Betsey Island would be very suitable although he claimed that there was no fresh water on the island. (HRA, 3, IV, pp.244-5, 384)

On 17 June 1826 the Hobart Town Gazette reported that a settler on his way to the Colony had obtained a reserve on Betsey Island and was bringing out rabbits to breed there. James King and his son arrived on the Adrian on 9 September 1826 and by late October it was reported that he had discovered two springs of water on the island and formed a safe landing place. (Hobart Town Gazette, 16 September 1826 supplement, 28 October 1826)

King’s venture was apparently quite successful but in December 1831 the island and rabbit stock, part of the estate of the late James King, was advertised for sale. (Hobart Town Courier, 10 December 1831; Examiner, 20 June 1868)

It was purchased by a Captain Bell and Mr Crombie for £470 but was again advertised for sale in September 1840, complete with rabbits from which the advertisement stated: ‘a good income could be obtained.’ This advertisement also claimed the suitability of the island as a ‘fortress.’ (Hobart Town Courier, 7 January 1832; Colonial Times, 22 September 1840).

It was purchased in November 1840 by Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin for £910 but after they left the colony it was advertised for lease by their trustees, Edward Bedford and Ronald Gunn. (Hobart Town Courier, 26 October 1841)

The island was apparently quite deserted during the later 1840s and J. E. Calder, writing of a visit there in February 1848 stated that it was only occasionally visited by fishermen although he had found four deserters from the American ship Cicero hiding there until their ship left port. He also records that King’s stone house was ‘still good, although very dilapidated’ and that there were ‘still remains of some agriculture but very few rabbits. (Tasmania Tribune, 26 January 1876)

The island appears to have remained deserted but in June 1867 the Tasmanian Acclimatisation Society sent four pairs of rabbits from there to their counterparts in Victoria. (Mercury, 27 June 1867)

In November 1868 Jane Franklin granted the island back to the people of Tasmania to be used as a game preserve. It was to be held in trust for the Tasmanian Acclimatisation Society as long as this Society continued to perform work considered by the trustees to be beneficial to the general public. The trustees were the Colonial Treasurer, the Surveyor-General, the President of the Royal Society, Robert Officer, R. C. Gunn, Morton Allport, and John Woodcock Graves. (House of Assembly Papers No. 87/1868)

It appears that a game keeper may have been appointed in 1869 although it is not possible to confirm this. (CSD9/1)


In January 1890 enquiries were made of the Chief Secretary as to what was happening to the island, and the executors of R. C. Gunn’s estate were asked if they would be willing to convey the island to the trustees of the Tasmanian Museum. This they were willing to do if they were not put to any expense, and the Crown Solicitor was instructed to prepare the necessary papers. (CSD17/1/113)

For some reason, which is not recorded, this was not proceeded with until November 1903 and the island was then finally conveyed to the Museum trustees. A file note states that there was someone living on the island at this time. (CSD22/71/141/13)

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