This is a guest post from Warren Bishop, a direct descendant of James Smith, who built Tasmania’s famous ‘disappearing house.’
The Disappearing House at “The Corners” Conara
Standing at the turnoff to St Marys at Conara, the so-called “Disappearing House” earned its name by the illusion of its sinking into the ground as travellers approached along the main road from Hobart to Launceston, due to the peculiar conformation of the landscape. On the old road the house would “vanish” as you descended one hill, the other seemed to rise up in front of you and the house would “disappear” behind it. Then as you ascended the next small hill, it would miraculously reappear.
Conara was originally known as Humphreys Waterholes, after a policeman who ran a station there. The land occupied by the Disappearing House was originally owned by R. H. Willis, and is likely to be the origin of the property’s early name; Willis’ Corner. This area was also known as Epping Banks and simply “The Corners”. The location became known as “The Corners” because it was at the intersection of the main highway between Hobart Town and Launceston and the road to St Marys (in those days called Break O’Day Road). In more recent times the road course has been changed. The main road now bypasses Conara and the house is approximately 200 metres from the highway. The Conara Junction Inn has been known by many names over the years – originally The Corners Inn, it has also been called Cleveland Inn, Epping House, Smithvale, Breffni – and the most common name to many Tasmanians – The Disappearing House!
The land was acquired by James Smith in the 1830s, an emancipated convict from London, who built the house in 1839-40 to replace his early wooden structure after being asked to do so by the Government in order to provide an overnight stop for the Hobart Town – Launceston – return coach route. The Corners Inn became a stagecoach stop for the coaches on both roads and remained so until the railroad arrived. It was considered to be one of the best known hostelries in Tasmania at the time. Coaches would gather at the inn and then travel in convoy through nearby Epping Forest as protection against bushrangers. There were stables at the rear of the house and relief horses for the stages were kept there. It is understood that the Smith family were not averse to helping out fellow members of the community including several “desperadoes” of the day. One story often told was that when the bushrangers Ogden and Sullivan were in the area, members of the family would deliver bundles of food to the base of a well known black stump.
The house itself is Georgian and rather gaunt in appearance, and is rumoured to be haunted. A grand-daughter of James and Catherine Smith always believed that she witnessed the sight of a ghostly apparition ascending the second staircase. Also, while one of her cousins was sleeping in the third story bedroom the covers would fall back from the child as though someone was removing them, no matter how often they were replaced. It is a fact that after bushrangers attacked a coach one evening, one man, critically wounded, managed to make his way back to the Inn. Unfortunately, he was too badly injured and died there. Perhaps this is the source of the apparition.
James’ son Thomas Smith also lived at Smithvale with his family. They shared many wonderful stories of The Corners. Thomas Smith’s girls – Mary, Maud, Connie and Minnie, told how they peeped terrified around the shrubs at a convict left securely in the coach while the driver and members of the “force” had food and drink at the inn.
When the railroad came in the 1870s, the inn was closed and the house became the homestead of James Smith’s grazing property and the name was changed to Smithvale. Smithvale had grown to become a vast estate by the time of James’ death in 1891.
The Smith family were wonderful horsemen and women so it is easy to understand how John (son of James) was so incensed at the coming of the automobile. He would stand by the road throwing stones and any other missile he could get his hands on at what he called the “invention of the devil”.
Published in various newspapers in the weeks after his death in 1891, including “The Launceston Examiner”, “The Tasmanian”, and others, the following articulates James Smith’s notoriety and the property he built. A Conara correspondent wrote – “How many times this place has changed.” remarked a weary old traveller to me the other day. “When I first knew this place it went by the name of Humphreys Waterholes, as Mr. Humphreys, the Police Magistrate, had a police station and tried cases for the district. Then this place was named Epping Banks, thirdly Willis’ Corner and lately Conara. “Now the last of the very old residents, or king of the district, died a few days ago – Mr. James Smith, Snr. who had been a resident here for the last 67 years. He was well known as a farmer and stock breeder and bred some of the finest horses, cattle and sheep ever raised in Tasmania. As far back as 1840 he was known to have had many deals for blood horses with those well known sportsmen, Walter G. Schene of Quorn Hall and Mr. Baynton of Bramletye, also cattle from the herds of Staynes and Trays and R.H. Willis and merino sheep from Furlong and Pearson’s flock etc. Mr. Smith was said to be about 97 when he died and his memory was very good to the last. He was excellent company and could tell many an interesting tale of this colony and the early settlers.” Note: James Smith was 91 when he passed away.
Trove Digitised Newspapers
Personal research of Richard Woodman and Beryl Bailey
Thanks so much Warren.
I was fascinated to read a report by ‘Peregrine’ in The Mercury (November 19 1949 ) about another strange aspect to Conara.
It is possible of course for plants such as trees and shrubs to shift their quarters, but before referring to the kinds that do this I would allude to a curious illusion which never fails to intrigue me on the Main Road approaching Conara, just as the celebrated ‘Disappearing House’ here disappears for the last time.
On the left side, seven or eight pine trees were planted some years ago as part of the Pioneer Ave. They are in line at right angles to the road edging the brow of a hill, so that they are seen as a silhouette, one behind the other and separated by chain or two.
But the silhouette effect is not apparent until you approach fairly close. Until you reach a certain point in the road the trees are still merged with the background of Epping Forest. Then, on coming to this point, their dark forms become detached from their background quite suddenly, and as you proceed the trees seem all at once to be moving in line up the edge of the hill as though they are walking.
Of course, the effect is caused by the fact that you are passing them, but they are so situated that the movement seems to be with them, not with you, and for this reason I have called them ‘walking trees’ which perhaps is in keeping with the phenomenon of the house that disappears, round the next bend.
I wonder whether anyone remembers the ‘walking trees’? I certainly don’t.
Pioneer Avenue was begun in the 1930s. It consisted of thousands of trees of many varieties, planted along the Midlands Highway from Launceston to Hobart. There is a small monument celebrating the Avenue.
ANOTHER TASMANIAN STORY WITH A MIDLANDS FOCUS.