Thursday, December 4, 2014

Thomas Rossiter donation

The museum received a generous donation this week from Peter Rossiter, great-grandson of Thomas Rossiter. In 1859 Thomas was the first ‘outsider’ to be appointed on Norfolk Island by Governor Denison when he took up the position of government Storekeeper and school teacher. There are a number of descendants of Thomas and his wife Charlotte Bissox on Norfolk Island today as two of their sons married two of Isaac Robinson and Hannah Quintal’s daughters. There are also today descendants of Thomas’s sister Jane on Norfolk, who came here with him and married Franklin Bates. 

Nancy and Peter Rossiter with Museum curator Lisa Richards
Peter was born on Norfolk and spent most of his school years here until moving away soon after the War with his family. He and wife Nancy now live in Ballina and have regularly visited the island over the years. A number of years ago they donated the surveyors chain used to mark out much of Norfolk Island and especially the Mission land; and a steelguard used by Isaac Robinson to weigh things such as bags of wheat etc. Peter’s donation this week includes important original documents including Land Grants, Supplementary Instructions to Thomas’ role; and the 1871 certificate appointing him as Registrar of Norfolk Island, issued by Samuel Richard Earl of Belmore Governor and Commander of Norfolk Island.

Thomas’s job would have been a difficult one. Not only did he initially conspicuously reside in Government House, but he was paid substantially above anyone else on the island. He had to displace George Hunn Nobbs as schoolteacher and undertake duties as custodian of property. Denison required him to implement a “marked and precise line of demarcation between public and private property”, which included animals as well as structures. There were many actions that he had to take that would have been unpopular, however he was a good teacher and hard working, and was eventually accepted by the islanders. Today we especially remember him for his role in starting an agricultural competition that became part of our annual Agricultural and Horticultural Show.

The “Supplementary Instructions to Mr Rossiter” is an interesting document. It is undated and initialed JY at the bottom of each page, no doubt being Sir John Young who became Governor after Sir William Denison in 1861. It is likely that this document was drawn up in the mid 1860s. It begins with the statements: “The Instructions given by Sir William Denison are to remain in force with the trifling exception hereafter mentioned which is adopted at the insistence of the several parties concerned but I think it necessary to add in order to avoid any ambiguity as a misapprehension that the phrase ‘Government property’ signifies property belonging to the Crown…The cattle, sheep, horses, houses, tools etc. etc. in trusted to the Storekeepers care must therefore be considered as the property of the Crown..

Young outlines that monies accrued from fines will remain in the hands of the Chief Magistrate and be expended in the repair of the piers and bridges. He then goes on to answer specific questions that Rossiter had put to him. The first query asks if the repair of Government House, the Church, School House, Shearing Shed and the Cemetery should be from the Public Funds. Young confirms that they are, which includes the buildings and fences, and that Rossieter will be responsible for having the work done economically and well. “The Chief Magistrate may select the workmen in the first instance, but he may not select any whom Mr Rossiter objects, or whom he thinks unlikely to work diligently or efficiently”.

In answer to the next question it is also confirmed that the roads and drains should be kept in repair at the community’s cost and royalties charged on the sale of sawn timber in the former crankmill will be put to the upkeep of the piers and bridges.

An interesting question asked of the Governor is for approval of a proposition put forward by the Chief Magistrate for the “consideration of the people by Bishop Patterson respecting a Melanesian College or school..”. The answer comes back “I am not in favour of it – any such proposition should first be submitted to the Governor before it is proposed to the people. The Chief Magistrate should not submit any proposition of so great importance to the formal vote of the people without previous communication with the Governor, and receiving his sanction to that effect”.

Rossiter’s powers as invested from the Governor as spelt out here indicate the authority he would have had over many aspects of life on the island. This is an import historical document in itself, and together with other documents, letters, Land Grants, sale and lease of land documents, make for an important addition to our collection. Thanks to earlier donations by Peter and also from Jill McDowell of a large number of items owned by one of Thomas’ daughters Ethel Rossiter (nee Robinson), our museum is fortunate in having a large collection of Rossiter artefacts and stories.

Our sincere thanks to Peter for donating this further material.

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