The secret beach

In the 19th-century, if someone broke a plate they threw the pieces down the earth closet in the back yard. And when people graduated to pan toilets, with the night-cart calling once a week, they did the same thing. Chucked whatever they didn’t want into the dunny. Out of sight, out of mind.

. . .

The secret beach wasn’t really a secret. Whatever time of day I went, tramping across the strip of private land and over the headland, I’d often find someone there before me.

But the name suited it all the same. There was a mystery to it. A hint of lost treasure. A sense that only the select few knew about it.

I used to spend an hour or more walking up and down that narrow crescent of sand, eyes fixed on the ground. All I’d hear was the water lapping against the shore, and the cry of the oystercatcher, and my own crunching footsteps. Then I’d see something glinting in the sunlight, and I’d dive on it, and put it in my pocket with the other treasures.

Delicately patterned shards of porcelain, coloured glass, clay pipes, limbs from china dolls. All of them made strange and beautiful by the action of the sea.

I used to take those treasures home. Lay them out on the hearth. Glue them into a mosaic. Spread them on a table in the back yard for the neighbourhood kids to play with.

Dream about where they came from.

My friends had various theories. A plague in Hobart that resulted in all the crockery being shipped across the river for safe burial. A tip for the hospital that private hotels and guest houses sneaked their rubbish onto.

I went looking for my own theory, and found an old bloke called Vic Richardson.

Vic’s father, Ab, once owned the farm that included Maria Point, just south of the Secret Beach. According to Vic, Maria Point used to be a dumping ground for Hobart’s sewage.

“Dad used to let them come down there with the night-soil,” said Vic. “They had big trenches dug, maybe 20 feet long and six feet deep.”

Vic was just a nipper at the time, but he remembered the boat, a steamer called the Skipjack, coming down the river and around the point to the little jetty that was protected from the south-westerlies.

There was a railway line up from the jetty, and a horse would drag the loaded trolley up the rails. Then the men would pull a lever and the whole stinking mess would tip into one of the trenches.

But what about the china, the glass? How did that get there?

Vic shook his head. “I can only think that people used to drop it down the toilet.”

He was probably right. In the 19th-century, if someone broke a plate they threw the pieces down the earth closet in the back yard. And when people graduated to pan toilets, with the night-cart calling once a week, they did the same thing. Chucked whatever they didn’t want into the dunny. Out of sight, out of mind.

It wasn’t just the remains of the dinner set either. According to Vic, the night-cart men found the body of a new-born baby once. He didn’t see it himself, but he remembered the fuss, his father fetching the police. “There was a really big kick-up over that,” he said.

The tip closed in about 1915.  A few years later, businessman Robert Nettlefold bought the farm, dug up the trenches, sieved out the rubbish and took the now sweet-smelling manure for fertiliser. Vic thought most of it went down the Huon, where they were setting out orchards.

So much rubbish came out when they sieved it, he said. There were old purses that they’d click open and whatever was inside would turn to dust and blow away. And pennies. “They’d get dozens of pennies in a day, screening.”

Most of what was sieved out was turfed over the edge into the water. Once, Vic was fishing down beside the old jetty and put his foot on a gold sovereign. He took the sovereign home and his son asked him where he found it, went straight down there and found another one in almost the same spot.

But the most sought-after prize from the old tip was bottles. In 1925 Ab Richardson bought the farm back, minus the four acres that included Maria Point. Eventually Vic took over from his father.

“People used to come to the farm and tell me they were going down fishing,” he said. “But they weren’t. They were after the bottles.”

Gin bottles, ale, castor oil, ginger beer from Kelly and Co and the Cascade Brewery, glass and penny inks – you could find them all at Maria Point.

By the time I got there, the whole place had been dug over, and the good bottles were mostly gone. But I wasn’t there for the good bottles. I was there for the rubbish, for the pieces of porcelain and glass that had been rolled by the waves until the edges were worn away, then cast up onto the sand.

I was there for the mystery. For the dreams …

These days it’s a lot harder to get to the secret beach. The land was sold a while back, and the new owners put up fences. The only way to reach it now is by boat, or a long, hazardous rock-hop.

As for Vic, he died years ago, taking the rest of his stories with him.

But north of Maria Point, the waves are still turning shards of porcelain into treasure. And in certain houses around Tasmania, those fragments of long-ago lives can still be found on mantelpieces and hearths. Or glued into mosaics. Or spread on a table in the back garden for the neighbourhood kids to play with.


Lian Tanner has been dynamited while scuba diving and arrested while busking. She once spent a week in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, hunting for a Japanese soldier left over from the Second World War. She likes secrets, old bones, and animals that are not what they seem.

Tanner’s best-selling Keepers Trilogy has been translated into nine languages, and won two consecutive Aurealis Awards for Best Australian Children’s Fantasy. Her second series, The Hidden, is published in Australia and North America. She is currently working on a new fantasy series for children, The Rogues.

More about Lian Tanner, and her writing, can be found at liantanner.com

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