The ability of the printed word to effect change cannot be underestimated. Those who owned and controlled the young colony’s printing presses wielded an unusual power. Newspapers provided a popular voice, allowing a wide variety of ideas to be published – from government edicts to oppositional views. They were regarded as a tool of freedom. The printed word was also crucial in reinforcing the invasion of European culture into the island, overwhelming the oral Tasmanian Aboriginal culture.
This cast iron Stanhope printing press was manufactured in the 1830s, a time of great conflict between independent newspaper proprietors and Tasmania’s colonial government. Stanhope presses were invented by the British statesman and scientist, Charles, the 3rd Earl Stanhope (1753–1816) in 1803. They were a remarkable technological advance over the existing wooden presses, and resulted in sharper printing impressions and more efficient printing. Many Stanhope presses, including this one, were manufactured in London by Robert Walker and his descendants.
The museum acquired the press in 1931 after it had been found in the Hobart Gaol and exhibited in Launceston and Hobart. At that time and for many years hence it was thought to have been imported into the colony by Andrew Bent who arrived in Hobart Town as a convict in 1812 and established the Hobart Town Gazette in 1816. His career was marked by conflict with colonial authorities and innovation in publishing. He is sometimes called the founder of the free press in Australia.
Recent research, however, makes it highly unlikely that Bent ever owned this Stanhope press or printed a newspaper on it. Although its Tasmanian history remains shrouded in mystery it is a potent symbol of the importation of European culture and technology to Van Diemen’s Land. It is also emblematic of the dynamic nature of museum collections as continual research reshapes our understanding of both individual objects and the stories they tell.