Estancia Harberton History

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On Wednesday 27th September 1871 a twenty-eight year old fair haired lady with blue eyes stood with her husband on the deck of an 88- ton schooner. Holding on tightly, for she was too weak to stand, she looked across the water and said 'Dearest you have brought me to this country and here I must stay, for I can never, never face the ocean voyage again'. They had arrived at Ushuaia (via Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo and The Falklands). 

Her new home was to be Tierra del Fuego and she had come from Simmonds Farm* here in Harberton. The journey had taken almost two years.

Consequently Thomas and Mary Bridges became the founding family of the present day community of Tierra del Fuego, the most southern part of South America. A wild desolate hard land with an unkind climate and long dreary winter nights, cut off from civilisation.

Thomas Bridges met Mary Varder at a meeting of school teachers in Bristol in 1869. Five weeks later, on 7th August, they were married in Harberton and two days later embarked on the S.S. Onega as missionaries to the cannibal Indians of Tierra del Fuego. Mary was one of six daughters of Stephen and Ann Varder of Harberton. A younger sister of Mary, Joanna Varder, joined the settlement at Ushuaia in 1874 - who having spent much of her life on the farm in Harberton had become an authority on the preparation of butter, junket, cheese, jam, and strawberries and cream; and an expert at rearing chickens, ducks and geese. The Yahgan Indian word for "aunt on the mother's side" is yekadahby, which means literally "little mother". Hence Joanna came to be known as Yekadahby.

On 31st December 1874 their third child, E. Lucas Bridges, was born. He was christened Stephen Lucas, but being an Argentine citizen by birth, later adopted the Spanish translation Esteban Lucas. Lucas Bridges went on to write 'Uttermost Part of the Earth' - a detailed account of the family's life amongst the local Yahgan Indians.
[This book is available from Devon libraries (shelved at Exeter Library). Check their online catalogue.]

Thomas Bridges aged 25 (1)

The Bridges family in England, 1880 (2)

Mary Bridges after returning to England (3)

(Photographs 2 and 3 probably by Elijah Yeoman)

Thomas Bridges resigned as the Superintendent Missionary but decided to settle in his adopted country. In 1886 he met Argentine President General Roca in Buenos Aires who said to him "How can my government compensate you in some measure for the life of self-sacrifice you have led, and the humanitarian work you have accomplished?" Thomas Bridges replied "By giving me a piece of land where I can settle and make a home with my children, born in the country".

He came home to Harberton and at Simmonds Farm he prefabricated a large wooden frame house. He chartered the 'Shepherdess', a brigantine of 360 tons, to take it back with other cargo. This consisted of local bricks, limestone, a young South Devon bull, four Romney Marsh rams, a couple of Devonshire pigs, and two collie dogs. Two local carpenters accompanied him.

On the precipitous coast in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, the family established a new settlement in 1887 and called it Harberton.

In 1898, Thomas Bridges, aged 56,  suffered a severe haemorrage and died in a friend's house in Buenos Aires on the 15th July.

Mary Bridges nee Varder and her sister Joanna returned permanently to England in 1912. Mary died on the 28th December 1922 and was buried alongside her sister Joanna (who had died 18 months previously) in the churchyard of Shipbourne near Tonbridge in Kent.

Today five generations later there is a thriving and large family in Harberton Tierra del Fuego.

(This text is based on a text prepared by the Revd Peter Willis for the Flower Festival held in St. Andrew's Church around 1990.
* Ed. Symon(d)s or Simmons? - two different farms, most likely the latter because of the Yeoman connection )

An interesting snippet or two

In April 1880, Mary's next younger sister Honor was married in Harberton, Devon to the well-known photographer Elijah Yeoman from Barnard Castle, Co. Durham. This picture of the Yeoman family, the only one found so far, taken in the north of England, came to light in Harberton - not Harberton in Devon however, but Harberton on the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, in South America – but that’s another story!
This information courtesy of the Bowes Museum (Barnard Castle, County Durham) website at

Lucas Bridges returned to England to join the Army for the First World War. After being demobilised in 1919, he decided to go to South Africa and was accompanied by John Yeoman, son of Elijah and Honor Yeoman, where they set up the Devuli Ranch.

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