Sunday, July 31, 2011

Up-Town Presence

In the midst of the downturn in tourism on Norfolk Island over the last few years, the Museum has been quietly going against the trend of dropping sales. Despite lower visitor numbers to the island we have seen an increase in sales of our Museum Pass and bookings for the Cemetery Tour “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. We think that one of the reasons for this has been that we are offering visitors what they want – a flexible experience that is ‘do it when you want’ and of high quality. Of course as more visitors come to the island to experience our heritage and culture through World Heritage Listed KAVHA, we are well placed to provide the content they are after.

 Over the last few years Baunti Escapes has been enthusiastically selling all our tickets and tours and we have also jointly brought our ‘products’ together. For example we have put together a Traditional Dinner and Play Combination where visitors see The Trial of the Fifteen play and then go on to a traditional island dinner at the REO Café provided by Baunti. Late last year Baunti provided a wonderful opportunity for us to have an up-town presence by providing valuable and extensive space in their offices to display information about the museums, our tours and tickets. This has been fantastic for us – we had long desired a place in town to be able to sell our tickets as there is nothing worse that meeting a visitor at one of our museums on the day before they leave who tells us “we just didn’t know you were down here”. Now we have a much greater chance to catch them early in their stay to tell them all about what we have on offer down town.

And Baunti has now made our up-town presence even greater with a great big sign displaying our Museum logo placed on their awning. We couldn’t hope for a better opportunity to catch the eye of visitors as they wander through town. Have a look next time you drive past – I’m sure you’ll agree that it offers a great chance for us to attract even more visitors down the hill to Kingston to see the museums.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Miriam Christian

In the annexe of our house museum at No. 10 Quality Row we have a display of the various inhabitants and restorations since the house was built in 1844. It was built to be the residence of the Foreman of Works, the first being Thomas Seller. On arrival of the Pitcairners in 1856 Isaac and Miriam Christian and their children moved into the house. They eventually raised fifteen children together before Isaac’s tragic death in a whaling accident in 1877. While the house is presented as it would have been during the time of Thomas Seller, the presence of Isaac, Miriam and all those children can also be felt.

Included in the display is a copy of a poignant letter written by Miriam to her mother Elizabeth Young. Elizabeth had been part of the group of 26 who left Norfolk in 1863 to return to Pitcairn Island. They were the second group to return after dissatisfaction with the arrangements on Norfolk and an enduring homesickness for Pitcairn.

Group of Pitcariners 1857, Miriam is thrid from left top row. National Library of Australia
January 9th 1873.

My dear beloved mother,

The arrival of Russell and Stanley and old Mr Buffett took us quite on surprise. they arrive here in October last and oh how glad we are to hear that you are all quite well, especially you dear my dear mother. we are all quite well at present. Hunt & Parkins is gone away in a schooner to the Fiji. Isaac & Leonard came home a week ago. Godfrey is gone third mate of the whaling barque Fanny Fisher with Capt West. we are verry sorry indeed to hear how poorly off you all are in clothing and other things that you find it hard to get on Pitcairns Island. the community in general has raise a subscription for you all and given into the hands of Russel and Stanley for the good of our Pitcairn friends. I hope it will be received with thankfull hearts. I hope dear mother that you will come back again to us a Norfolk Island. poor old Arthur Quintall has gone the way of all the earth. he died about a month after Russel and Stanley came here. dear mother I send you a box of things by Russell and some other things in it for those whose names are writen on the parcels. the rest is for you dear mother one parcel for Agnes Warren from Mr Rossiter her friend. We send an album containing the likenesses of our family. you will find four bars of soap in the chest for you mother. when you give out the parcels with their names on it the chest belongs to you. it was Godfrey’s chest therefore I send it to you. everybody is sorry to part from Russell and Stanley. tell Robert to take Lydia and you and come back to Norfolk Island for we have a good doctor here. if the letters that I see come from Pitcairns Island which someone wrote saying that the people on Norfolk are a verry wicked set of people and courting the Scriptures as they do thinking that they were perfect and without sin. I would wish them to bear this in mind. Let him that think he stands take heed lest he fall. Doras is still living with us but not married yet. Mr Nobbs is getting to be very old. Jacob and Marias children are verry sickly. they lost three since you left us and another one now is verry ill and is not likely to live long poor little Lucy. we got three more since you left us. one is dead and two alive. at one time Isaac, Hunt, Godfrey, Leonard, and Parkins all gone to sea. Hunt and Godfrey has been living in Fiji a long time and Isaac, Leonard and Parkins has been whaling out of Sydney. dear mother Russell says that someone on the Island is always quareling about lands. my lands dear mother I leave it into your hands to give it to those that look after you and Isaacs lands he give to Margarett and Thursday. and now I wont write any more for they will tell you all about us. and now dear mother I hope and pray that if we don’t meet you on earth we may meet each other in heaven above. goodbye mother, farewell      Your daughter   Miriam Christian
My husband sends you his best wishes

The photograph is of a group of Pitcairn Islanders on the verandah of one of the houses on Quality Row in 1857 and is from the National Library of Australia. Miriam is third from the left in the back row.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Longridge Agricultural Settlement

Last week I wrote about Elizabeth Robertson, the daughter of Gilbert Robertson Superintendent of Agriculture between 1845 and 1847, whose grave is in the Norfolk Island Cemetery.  Many thanks to Peter Guile for contacting me to let me know that Elizabeth and her family did not live at Branka House as I had stated, but in a house that was located across the road in the area which is now the southern end of the airstrip.

There is a wonderful plan of the Longridge Agricultural Settlement produced in 1846 by W.T. Montney and with the help of Peter and Mudgi I was able to make sense of where the buildings lay in relation to current day roads and houses. The plan is on-line at the State Library of NSW and it is fascinating viewing. The direct link is: Today, while there are a few ruins still left to see across a number of properties, it is easy to forget the extent of the buildings that existed.

The plan shows a collection of 35 buildings including stable, barn, store house and shed, wool store and corn shed, yard, prison, officers’ quarters, police hut, prisoners’ barracks, well, cook house, bakehouse, prisoners’ gardens, overseers’ huts, boilers, slaughterhouse, pig yard and sties, paddock, bullock pen, airing ground, Superintendent of Agriculture house, gardens, office and stables, dairy, hut stock yard, cow shed, government gardens, lumber yard and workshop, privy and new coffee plantation. In Raymond Nobbs’ book “Norfolk Island and Its Second Settlement” he describes the range of buildings: “Many of the structures were constructed of rubble calcarenite and plastered with sills, head stones and thresholds of massive calcarenite…The Prisoners Barracks consisted of three buildings with a total capacity for 167 prisoners. The buildings were timber framed and weatherboarded set on a stone foundation”.

Branka House is the prison identified in the plan (no.7). Commandant Alexander Maconochie developed both Longridge and Cascade as agricultural outstations as he wanted a place to keep the newly arriving prisoners away from the influence of the old hands in Kingston. The Longridge settlement created work for convicts in tending crops that provided essential food for the island. The prison was built for Maconochie to test out his ideas for rehabilitating prisoners. It had a single pitch roof and contained twelve solitary confinement cells built at ground level. The only access was through a hatch on the second floor which was divided into two and where a Protestant and Roman Catholic clergyman would sit and read to the convicts from the Bible. In evidence he gave to the Select committee on Prison Discipline in 1850 Maconochie was asked how long he kept the men in separation. He replied that he kept one man in for six months and deeply regretted it as “he became nearly helpless and was a very different man afterwards from what he was before”. 

It was not until George Hunn Nobbs converted the prison into a home in the early 1880’s that the double gable that Branka House is known for today was built. The structure now called the Arches or Stables is the most intact one left in the area. Its origins have been described as unknown however on Montney’s map it appears as the middle section of the three winged prisoners’ barracks. Remains of the bakehouse can be seen at the top of Rocky Point Road and others such as the cookhouse and well remain, but cannot be seen from the road. Unfortunately we have no artefacts from the Agricultural Settlement in our collection and overall there is still much to be discovered about this intriguing settlement.

Of course, with the building of the airstrip the home of the Superintendent of Agriculture and Elizabeth Robertson was demolished. How lovely it would be to be able to wander through that house today and imagine Elizabeth sitting beside a window, writing her letter to her dear sister Fanny.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Elizabeth White Robertson

During “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, the cemetery tour we conduct every Tuesday and Friday, we usually stop at the grave of Elizabeth Robertson. Elizabeth was the adult daughter of Gilbert Robertson, the Superintendent of Agriculture between 1845 and 1846, and mother Agnes. Together with their four daughters and a son, the family lived in Branka House at Longridge. 

Amidst the grisly tales of mutiny and murder of the convicts and their overseers, Elizabeth’s story provides the opportunity to talk about the lives of the women in the Second Settlement. With nearly an entirely male convict population, the majority of the women here were the wives and daughters of the officers and civilian men. Through a series of letters Elizabeth wrote in a diary form to her sister in Tasmania, we have the chance to peer into their lives. Her diary is a popular seller in our REO Café and Bookshop, titled simply “Elizabeth Robertson’s Diary, Norfolk Island 1845”. It covers a six week period commencing just weeks after her arrival on the island.

Elizabeth was homesick for Hobart and especially missed her married sister Fanny. It seems clear that she knew that her illness, tuberculosis, was serious as she is haunted by premonitions that she may never see Fanny again: “when I look round and miss the dear faces that I have been accustomed to – the thought comes into my head that I may never see them again and I can scarcely refrain from tears..”. She also tells us about the violence of the settlement. The period the family were on the island includes during the terms of the notorious Commandants Major Childs and his successor, John Price. She was here during the infamous Cooking Pot Riot, a number of escape attempts, executions of convicts, convicts attacking other convicts, an accidental self-shooting by an officer – plus much more: “there are two bushrangers out just now they have been out for four days – yesterday there was a gang of men beating their overseers – fired a pistol and then drew another there was a terrible uproar..”.

Intermixed with her descriptions of the news of the convicts and their conduct, we also gain a glimpse of the social comings and goings – the visits of the ladies and the gentlemen. Elizabeth is not shy in describing her contempt for a number of the men – “he is as great a Jackass as ever I met” and her frustrations with visits on a Sunday which she feels should be for quiet and contemplation. We also get a feel for the organisation of social calls - “We wanted father to go with us to the settlement to day for Mr Rowlands says the people are all wondering [why] we have not been returning their calls – but he will not go till he has finished sheep washing”.

In a lovely surprise, last week we received an email from a descendant of Elizabeth’s father Gilbert. She has sent us the transcript of a letter Gilbert wrote to his wife Agnes, in January 1847. By this time Gilbert had resigned his post on Norfolk after coming into conflict with John Price, had left his family behind and travelled ahead to Hobart to seek new employment and make arrangements for them to follow. When he left Norfolk in late 1846 Elizabeth’s illness was much worse. So very sadly, his letter is written without knowing that his daughter died ten days earlier – “May God in his mercy assist and direct you in the very trying circumstances in which you are placed and may he grant that my dear Lizzie may be restored to such a measure of health as will enable her to accompany you with comfort..”. He is hopeful that Elizabeth may have been wrongly diagnosed as he talks of having set up doctor’s appointments for her: “from what I hear of two cases very similar to Lizzie’s I am in hopes that the Doctors may have quite mistaken her complaint”. 

However Elizabeth did not live to see Hobart again and died on January 14 1847. Her grave is close to the front fence in the Norfolk Island Cemetery – looking over a magnificent view of the bay. Around her are the graves of so many others from that period – military, civilians, convicts. It is over 164 years since her death, yet through her diary we can still get to know a little of her and life on this island during that tumultuous time.

Elizabeth Robertson’s Diary is for sale at the REO Café and Bookshop or on-line through the Shop section of our web site at

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Opening of Meralda Warren Exhibition

It was such a cold and blustery night last Tuesday however in the R.E.O. Café and Bookshop there was a wonderfully cheerful and warm atmosphere at the opening of the Exhibition of New Work by Pitcairn Islander, Meralda Warren. As Meralda’s many friends welcomed her back to Norfolk the room was filled with chat, laughter and overwhelming praise for her art work. 

 The exhibition which runs till Friday 8 July includes six of Meralda’s latest works. All are painted works on paper bark cloth or tapa that Meralda has made. The scenes depicted are all based on themes that come from Meralda’s Pitcairn Island home including whales, turtles, the Bounty and the island itself.

Meralda says: “The art of making Tapa was prohibited by the missionaries 75 years ago until the challenge of not losing that side of our heritage became too strong for me to let go. Discovering how to make Pitcairn Tapa Cloth in 2007, I was encouraged by the Ahu Sistas and my mum Mavis. I have gone forth to discover when to harvest the Aute plant. How to strip the outer bark from the inner fibrous paper mulberry bark using a sea shell. Soaking the bark in citrus juice instead of water to finally beating the bark out into a piece of workable beautiful cloth over a wooden log using a beater that I have carved out of wood called an Eeí. Once dried and I am satisfied with the texture, I seal the piece using Arrowroot cooked to the right consistency”.
Keepers of the Sea

The revival of tapa making by Meralda on Pitcairn is important. She is reviving a part of the culture that was considered to have been lost forever from the mid 1930’s. Tapa making provides one of the only means of understanding the lives of the Tahitian women who married the Bounty mutineers including their role in enabling early survival on Pitcairn. However not only has Meralda revived this lost skill and mastered it herself, she has been passing on that knowledge to the next generation of Pitcairn Islanders. Included in the exhibition are four works by Meralda’s grand nieces and nephews aged 9, 10 and 11. By teaching the children she is ensuring that the heritage of their foremothers will not be lost to future generations of Pitcairn Islanders. We are all enriched by that.

Amongst those who came to the opening it was especially good to see Alice Buffett who made a special effort to attend. What a treat, and thanks to Kath and Matt for making that possible. Please come down to the REO Café between 9.00am to 3.00pm from Monday to Friday 8th July to see this wonderful exhibition, it is well worth it. 
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