Daniel Herbert (1797-1868), stonemason

Danial Herbert was the talented stomemason who is remembered for his exquisite stone carvings on Ross Bridge. Afer completing work on Ross bridge, Herbert was given a pardon. He had married in 1835 and he and his wife, Mary Witherington, remained in Ross, where he was prosperous as a stone mason until his death in 1868 at the age of seventy one. Mary lived on until her death in 1890 at the age of eighty five. Their handsome tomb, carved by Herbert, is in the old cemetery at Ross not far from the bridge that won him his feeedom.

Danial Herbert, the talented stomemason who is remembered for his exquisite stone carvings on Ross Bridge, was born in Taunton, Somerset, England, in 1797. Daniel later moved with his mother to Leeds and worked as a signboard writer, apparently unable to find permanent employment as a stone mason. Later he moved to his parents' native town of Manchester after the break-up of his marriage. He involved himself in four hold-ups, was and was charged. Herbert had already served part of a seven-year sentence for stealing in a dwelling house; he and his co-accused pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to death on 7 April 1827. ‘All I longed for was peace of death. But they wouldn’t grant me even that’, he is believed to have said when he received news he was to be transported for life to Van Diemans Land.

He arrived in Hobart on the convict carrier 'Asia' in December 1827. As a stonemason, he was placed in the Engineer's Department and for the next seven years was employed on government projects in Hobart, including the new female factory at Cascade. Following various misdemeanors, he gained a little respect as an overseer at the building of the new Customs House in Hobart (Tasmania’s Parliament House today). He was sent to Ross on the orders of architect Lee Archer to work on the new Ross Bridge with fellow convict mason James Colbeck, against the wishes of Superintendent of Convicts Josiah Spode, who reported ‘… He spent the night out; tread wheel seven days … found in Devine’s Public House after hours; treat wheel and a month in irons … absent on the 18th … twenty five lashes’.

Knowing the road he travelled down that had brought him to Ross, it is likely that the carvings were an outburst of subversion, an unspoken expression of displeasure towards an unfair society, the cruelty of the British colonial penal system and perhaps even Calvinist Christianity, which numerous of the bridge's celtic symbols seem to be mocking. Herbert learnt his trade in Somerset, a centre of Celtic culture in ancient Britain. As he learnt stonemasonry, he would also have become familiar with Celtic imagery and religious beliefs that had become part of the mason's code, and were often expressed in the ornate stonework they created. Ross Bridge was his chance to shout back at the world, but in such a way that would not invoke more punishment, pain and misery from his oppressors.

There are 186 icons, one on each of the voussoirs forming the six arches of the bridge, There are 186 carvings in all, 31 over the top of each arch. Many are not directly representational but give impressions of rural activity with stylised wool bales and wheat sheaves. On the key-stones, and elsewhere also, are depictions of animal and human figures. Celtic-derived carvings are interspersed with small icons believed to be of persons living at the time. The theme, according to a 1971 study, is consistently oppression and death opposed by rebirth and renewal.

Four years in construction and built of stone quarried locally by convicts and completed in 1836, Ross Bridge, across the Macquarie river at Ross, is unquestionably one of the most picturesque and unusual bridges in Australia. The ornate carvings on Australia's third oldest bridge are the work of Daniel Herbert. Afer completing work on Ross bridge, Herbert was given a pardon and continued to live in Ross where he died a free man in 1868. James Colbeck, another stonemason who worked alongside Herbert, also received a pardon for his work on the bridge.

This intrepretation of the meaning of the carvings is explained in our feature stort on Ross Bridge.
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