Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Very Special Lamp

Late on a Friday afternoon a few months ago two visitors to the island called into my office asking to speak to me. Bob and Penny Burgess were here on holiday, but had also come to the island with the aim of arranging for a very special lamp that they own to come to Norfolk Island for an extended loan. The Burgess’ had been told that their lamp had been taken from Captain Bligh’s cabin just before the Bounty was burnt on Pitcairn Island in 1790. After having it hang in their house for over 20 years, they believed that it had such great historical and special significance that it should return to Norfolk Island for all to see. They generously offered for the museum to hold it for the next 5 years. 

 Bob and Penny were given the lamp about 1990 from the widow of Mr Ted (Edward) Winter. She and Ted were fairly regular visitors to Norfolk Island during the 1950's and 1960's. Ted worked in Sydney on Sydney Harbour possibly with the Maritime Services and when they visited Norfolk, Ted would do handyman work for Lavinia Christine (Donkin then Roberts) Nobbs, better known as Aunty Kit. She lived at Moira and together with her sister Val, ran the shop on New Farm Road. The Winter’s would stay with Aunty Kit on their visits and became quite friendly. She told them that the lamp was given to Fletcher Christian’s granddaughter Sarah who married George Hunn Nobbs and it was handed down through the Nobbs family until it came into Aunty Kit’s possession. At some time in the 1960s she gave the lamp to the Winter’s and they took it home to Australia with them. After Ted passed away Mrs Winter gave it to their friends Bob and Penny, who describe themselves as “collectors of everything!”  Bob and Penny have been wonderful custodians of the lamp as they have kept it safe and in very good order over the years.

However, it now appears that the lamp is not “the Bounty lamp”. Nigel Erskine, a former Norfolk Island Museum curator and someone very familiar with Bounty artefacts, inspected the lamp at the Australian National Maritime Museum, where he now works. Nigel dates it as mid to late 19th century and describes it as a high status lamp, unlike one that would be carried on a ship, but possibly could have been a church lamp. It is a very fine piece with three (originally four) glass panels that are flashed ruby/clear, most likely acid etched. The design on the glass includes a griffin – which is included in the Bligh family crest - another factor leading to a belief of ownership by Bligh. Another confusing feature of the lamp is that one of the glass designs includes a fleur-de-lis which is a French decorative item not usually found on English objects.

 This wonderful lamp has now come back to Norfolk Island and will be with us for the next five years. Its story is a mystery that we want to try and reveal. When did it first come to Norfolk Island and who brought it here? Perhaps it came with the building of St Barnabas or through other ecclesiastical contacts of George Hunn Nobbs? Perhaps it hung in Branka House when Fletcher Nobbs and Sarah lived there, or did it come to Moira at a later time? We will research to try and date it more precisely looking at details such as the making of the glass and its design elements. However it may be that there are people on the island who remember the lamp hanging at Moria or someplace else. We would be most grateful to speak to anyone who remembers it or has any information. Please call me on 23788 or 51434.

National and Commonwealth Heritage Listing for HMS Sirius Shipwreck Site

On Tuesday 25th October, on the 225th anniversary of her commissioning, the shipwreck site of HMS Sirius, here on the reef at Norfolk Island, was added to the National and Commonwealth Heritage Lists. This confirms the site as one comprising heritage values of great significance and value to the Australian Nation.

In 1787 the Sirius was the lead ship for the First Fleet of eleven ships setting out from Britain on the voyage to establish the first settlement in Australia. They landed at Botany Bay on the 18th January 1788 and soon after established the settlement at Port Jackson. Norfolk Island was then established as the second colony within the next few months. As the lead ship the Sirius was captained by John Hunter and carried Arthur Phillip the first Governor for the new colony. Her wrecking here was a devastating event for the fledgling communities. Of all the eleven ships of the First Fleet, we only know of the final resting place of the Sirius, the circumstances of the others being unknown. The image by George Raper of “The Melancholy Loss of HMS Sirius off Norfolk Island March 19 1790” (National Library of Australia), captures her stranded on the reef.

 The signing by Minister for Environment Tony Burke, formally adding the site to the Heritage lists occurred in a ceremony jointly conducted (thanks to modern technology) at the Norfolk Island Central School and the Australian National Maritime Museum. A video link up saw students from NICS together with students from Parramatta asking and answering questions about the Sirius and her wrecking prior to the official signing. Our Chief Minister David Buffett spoke about the friendships and benefits that have resulted from her wrecking here on Norfolk Island. Minister Burke said the Sirius tells an important part of Australia's story, "It is a critical part of the colony of New South Wales. It's a critical part of Norfolk Island and put together, it's a part of the heritage of the nation we all call home."

The site as it is listed covers all the areas that artefacts were found during the four official expeditions that occurred during the 1980s and the last one in 2002. Over 3,000 artefacts were recovered which are now exhibited and cared for by the Norfolk Island Museum. A number of objects are on loan to the Australian National Maritime Museum, including one of her anchors. 

 The video “Search for the Sirius” is shown at the Pier Store Museum where the artefacts are exhibited. This tells the story of the official expeditions and is well worth viewing. We also have a number of books for sale that tell the story of the life, wrecking and recovery of the Sirius artefacts. These are available at the REO CafĂ© and Bookshop and the Pier Store museum. Our web site launched in 2009 tells the complete story of the Sirius and can be found at           

On this small island so far from the major cities on the mainland our museum is responsible for, and displays the artefacts from Australia’s most important shipwreck. Alongside the Sirius collection, we have of course, the KAVHA collection – an array of over 6,000 artefacts that have come from the archaeological digs in World Heritage Listed KAVHA. Our own Norfolk Island collection includes artefacts from the Bounty (such as the cannon, kettle and plate), Pitcairn Island, the Melanesian Mission on Norfolk, the Resolution and other aspects of daily life on Norfolk since 1856. These are collections that visitors will travel to Norfolk Island specifically to see. We are indeed privileged to work with them on a daily basis and have them entrusted to our care.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ensign Best and the life of an Officer

When we think of the Second Settlement on Norfolk Island most of our thoughts turn to the terrible conditions of the convicts and the misery of their lives. However, while that was certainly occurring there was also another type of life happening for the officers, their wives and families.

Ensign Best served on the ship James Pattinson with the 80th Regiment and was on Norfolk Island from August 1838 until March 1839. He kept a diary which was intended to keep his family informed of his life away from home. For this reason perhaps it describes the books he read, a lot of fishing and hunting, cliff top walks, jolly evenings at mess and visits of fellow officers. Presumably he found it too distasteful or uninteresting to write about the convicts and his work with them. He mentions a severe military flogging with curt repulsion and just a few words to explain why it occurred. When he attends a court martial he describes in detail the journey riding to it but tells us nothing of the case or outcome. Best thoroughly accepted the view that convicts were there to be punished and did not dwell on their squalid and awful lot. The following entries are from his dairy:

25th September 1838. Was a great day of employment to us bachelors of Norfolk Island. We purposed giving a ball in the mess room the following day & determined to do it in a style hitherto unknown. A great quantity of evergreens were brought in and disposed around the room so as to make it resemble a shady bower. Over the Orchestra was a transparency expressing our welcome to our guests. The supper room was disposed as an armoury & and a transparency over the door inscribed with the words “Eat drink & be merry”.

26th Arose early, bathed and rendered what assistance I could to the committee of management; as soon as my services were dispensed with I went out shooting returning at seven P.M my sport was a wild cat. At nine the Company began to assemble and as ushered into the ball room expressed great satisfaction with the grace & beauty of its appearance…Dancing was kept up till midnight when supper was announced. The supper room afforded quite as much gratification to our guests as the Ballroom…A table in the form of a T occupied the centre & one end of the room bearing on it all the luxuries of Norfolk Island. When eating had ceased several toasts were proposed and songs sung. Dancing was then resumed until past five when the party broke up…

8th and 9th October.  As we proposed opening the cricket season on the 10th with a match between the two regiments I devoted these two days to getting the ground into some sort of order and practicing. The ground was in a wretched state cut up by carts and overgrown by weeds. This work, my garden and stockyard with my bathe in the morning, and evenings read, left me most anxious for bedtime which I make 10 o’clock.

10th There was great excitement; in the Barracks men rushing violently about and betting figs of tobacco on the result of the game, on the cricket ground a pitching of wickets and tents. At half past twelve the playing commenced and lasted till five when the 50th were declared victorious. This was a result I had expected, few of our men having taken a bat in hand since leaving England…A pig with a soaped tail was then turned loose and afforded great amusement after which the men ran races in sacks. All these diversions having ceased we returned the men with the pig to their barracks and we to my room where dinner was ready; when this was disposed of we adjourned to the mess room and danced all night…

31st Bathed at six. Wrote till breakfast. Took my gun up to Long Ridge to shoot pigeons only killed two. Arranged with McLean that Storey should go out with me at five next morning…

Thursday November 1st. I was up and ready to start at five…We went to Steeles Point for White Swallows they were too wild however to allow themselves to be knocked down and out of four I shot only one was fit for stuffing…I shot a pair of slate coloured birds and a mutton bird. Ascending the cliffs with our game we went to the camp of the charcoal burners for water to take a snack of what we had brought in with us. In another attempt I killed the Wood Quest and put him on a stick...

2nd Took my gun and went to Longridge...then I walked to the Ansons Bay Hut. From Ansons Bay we went to Duncombe’s Bay where we cliffed to the bottom…here was the island where we hoped to get many birds. Storey and myself swam over, the distance was not great but the current was very strong. We remained hunting the birds for about two hours but they had done hatching and were so wild that we only got three black and white swallows a pair of mutton birds and a young gannet…

6th February 1839…While sitting at luncheon Mr Hayne commander of the ‘Alice’ joined our party. He is quiet and gentlemanly and one of the handsomest men I ever saw. We soon dispersed in search of various amusements and assembled again at seven to dinner. We sat late and heard some good singing from Mr Turner, he has a good voice and some taste but wants scientific teaching. Towards four in the morning some of the party waxed boisterous and chairs flew like flies about the room to the infinite danger of the spectators of the fray. As soon as the storm had passed and the principles carried off to bed the rest of the party dispersed…

Captain Alexander Maconochie

The Norfolk Island Museum is fortunate to have a copy of statistics and comments written by Captain Maconochie, Commandant of Norfolk Island from 1840 to 1844. His paper is titled as “Criminal Statistics and Movement of the Bond population of Norfolk Island to December 1843” and has been reproduced in the Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Vol 8, No. 1 – March 1845. Most of the 50 pages are devoted to statistical tables but these are interspersed with enlightening comments on all aspects of convict life on the Island during the years Maconochie was in charge.

One subject that he wrote about was the religious life (or lack of it) amongst the prisoners and he found that the younger English prisoners were far better educated than the Scotch or the Irish.  Also married men were found to be “well conducted” and stayed away from the groups of convicts who had sunk to the depths of a despicable way of life.

“This degree of education among the English prisoners is higher than among the older ones.  When they read or write, they do both better than the others.  Their minds are generally more active, they covet a better class of books and more readily acquire general, though superficial, information from them.  On the other hand, these same young English prisoners, who are thus distinguished among us for superior education and educability, are not less remarkable for indifference to their religious duties and careless of religious instruction.  The older prisoners, without being always the better men for it, are peculiarly accessible to religious exhortation and impression and show much respect to religious addresses.  They thus come readily to church, they listen with extreme attention to any sermon in the least suited to them and they are frequently even deeply moved by one bearing on their individual circumstances.”

Maconochie discusses some of the reasons for these differences in attitude to religious instructions but fails to come to a conclusion except commenting upon the differences in the degree of education.  He goes on to say “I have frequently seen even very bad men exhibit considerable religious sensibility, not hypocritically or ostentatiously, but striving to conceal it and perhaps the first to laugh at it, to escape the jeers of, at the moment, their less sensitive companions.  But, as a class, the young English prisoners exhibit their appearances almost the reverse of these.   They come unwilling to church; they not unfrequently misconduct themselves there.  I have had occasion to sentence many to sit for different periods on the front benches, immediately in my own view and several have even been brought before me by their better – minded companions for arguing that religion was a hoax, supported by the better classes in order to control the lower.”

It can be seen from these comments that Maconochie was intensely interested in the character, conduct and upbringing of the prisoners and obviously had their well-being in mind – not everyone in charge of the prisoners took the time to study their faults and failings and ponder over their life before becoming a convict and the ramifications of confinement for years with the prison system.