Bound for the Norfolk Plains

Remembering the Deportations of the Norfolk Islanders to a Lost World in the South

 The name ‘Norfolk’ is a prominent feature of the Tasmanian landscape.  Norfolk Bay in the south east and Mt Norfolk on the west coast were named by Matthew Flinders in 1798 when he circumnavigated Van Diemen’s Land in his Norfolk Island-built sloop “Norfolk”.  The town of New Norfolk was named for the Norfolk Islanders who were deported from Norfolk Island and settled there between 1806 and 1808, as were various Norfolk street names around the state[1].

But perhaps the most melancholy name recalls the last wave of Norfolk Islanders expelled from the island in 1813 and re-settled just south of Launceston in a district called the Norfolk Plains.  Norfolk Island was settled in 1788, abandoned in 1814 and then re-settled in 1825.  The connection between Norfolk Island and Tasmania’s Norfolk Plains has been obscured for many years until the recent World Heritage listing of the Australian Convict Sites shone fresh light on this lost world.

This is the map of Port Dalrymple displayed on...

This is the map of Port Dalrymple displayed on page 186 in The Life of Matthew Flinders by Ernest Scott. The image has been rotated 90° clockwise from the original. The caption reads: PORT DALRYMPLE. Discovered 1798 in the Norfolk Sloop by M. FLINDERS. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Norfolk Plains is a farming district surrounding the villages of Longford and Cressy on the floodplain of the Lake (now Macquarie), South Esk and Liffey rivers of northern Tasmania.  For several thousand years this land formed part of the country of the Palawa people.  In 1804 British colonization of northern Van Diemen’s Land began with the arrival of a party of officials, soldiers and convicts under Lieutenant Colonel William Paterson to establish the town of Launceston at the head of Port Dalrymple, as the Tamar estuary was then called.  Governor King in New South Wales, previously the founding Lieutenant Governor of Norfolk Island in 1788, had sent Paterson to begin the colonization, and within a short time his party had penetrated deep into Palawa land.  They found countryside that was lightly timbered, fertile and well watered, and in 1805 an area about 17 kilometres south of Port Dalrymple was set aside as a Crown reserve.

Typical forested landscape that the Norfolk Islanders encountered in 1813 on the Norfolk Plains: completely different to the gentle rainforests of Norfolk Island

Typical forested landscape that the Norfolk Islanders encountered in 1813 on the Norfolk Plains: completely different to the gentle rainforests of Norfolk Island

Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived in New South Wales in 1810 to suppress the Rum Rebellion, free Governor Bligh and re-establish the Crown’s authority.  He also received instructions to complete the abandonment of Norfolk Island that had begun in 1806.  In 1811 during his tour of Van Diemen’s Land he visited the reserve.  He noted the “fine extensive rich plains” and decided they would provide a convenient solution to his Norfolk Island problem[2].  He named the plains the Norfolk Plains, clearly intending to entice the Norfolk Islanders to this new home[3]. The very name Norfolk Plains conjured up an image of abundance and plenty with a reassuring touch of homeliness.

Despite a mixture of incentives and force, neither Governor King nor Governor Bligh had really supported abandoning Norfolk Island despite explicit instructions to do so from London.  Both men supported the Norfolk Island settlers and their desire to remain in the home they had spent nearly 20 years building.  Macquarie had no such affinities, and he placed Lieutenant Tankerville Crane of his own 73rd Regiment in charge of the island with orders to let the buildings and public works run down and to entice the islanders to leave. The last of the Islanders were not willing emigrants.

Macquarie instructed Surveyor General Meehan to mark out fifty farms of varying sizes at Norfolk Plains, and in 1813 the “Minstrel” and then the “Lady Nelson” arrived at Launceston with some 145 Islanders, who were taken upriver to their newly allocated farms on either bank of the South Esk River[4].

The Lady Nelson, moored in the Thames in 1803.  Image Wikipedia

The Lady Nelson, moored in the Thames in 1803. Image Wikipedia

The Islanders had been divided into three classes: first class contained the officials and ex-military settlers, second class the ex-convicts with large families and well managed properties, and third class all the rest.  Compensation for giving up their island home was to be given to the settlers, depending upon their class.  The compensation consisted of a sliding scale of land swaps, free convict labour and government rations, clothing and other stores, with first class receiving the largest share for the longest period.

The Islanders found that the compensation was not always available or not always adequate, and often sought a more generous settlement.  However, by the time they realized this they had already been relocated to their new farms, and found they had little bargaining power.  Relations between Norfolk Plains and Sydney were often strained and tense.  These settlers had remained on Norfolk Island the longest, evading earlier inducements to deportation, and resented leaving their island home.  It was not a good recipe for successful settlement.

Contemporary observers such as Commissioner Bigge, and some later writers, have blamed the islanders for their failure to thrive and prosper at Norfolk Plains[5].  They claimed that the island’s rich soil and gentle climate, easy access to government stores, failure to learn new technical skills, and lack of Aboriginal resistance had made them lazy settlers.  They failed to invest their compensation into improving their new properties, and came to rely upon hunting rather than farming to supplement their government rations.  Perhaps most damning of all, it has been claimed, their convict origins meant they lacked vigour and prudence and instead favoured a life of “indulgent idleness”.  They continued to associate with other ex-convicts, and the new values required for success on the frontier were stifled.

These reasons have been given to explain the apparent failure of the islanders to make a success of life on the Norfolk Plains.  The islanders were encouraged to grow wheat, which they did and initially received good prices, but the practice of continual cultivation without resting the land that was undertaken on Norfolk Island and in Britain lead by the early 1820s to declining soil fertility.  Smut, a fungal disease of grain crops, was also badly affecting their crops by 1819[6].  Declining crop yields followed the completion of the compensation arrangements, and combined with lingering resentment at their forced deportation from Norfolk Island saw some of the Islanders sink into a melancholic despair marked by drunkenness and neglect of their properties.

As early as 1813 other settlers were arriving on the Norfolk Plains and they began buying the properties of the depressed Islanders, or taking up their grants that had been resumed by the Crown as well as new grants of land, often extensive in area.

One of these new settlers was Thomas Archer, who arrived at Port Dalrymple in 1819 to take charge of the Commissariat Store.  In 1817 he had received a 320 hectare grant on the Norfolk Plains just south of the Islanders original grants, and by 1819 had built a large brick-nogged timber homestead named “Woolmers” overlooking the Macquarie River[7].  In 1821 he resigned from the Commissariat to devote himself to developing his expanding pastoral estates.  Within a few years he was a justice of the peace and a magistrate, and in 1826 became a member of Van Diemen’s Land’s first Legislative Council. Thomas’ brother William arrived in the colony in 1824 and acquired 420 hectares of land on the Macquarie River opposite “Woolmers”.  Some of this land was originally granted to the Norfolk Islanders who later returned it to the Crown, and he named it “Brickendon”.  He marked his field boundaries with hawthorn hedges, which 180 years later are still actively managed and form a feature of the landscapes of the Norfolk Plains to this day[8].

Woolmers, old wing of main house, built c1819, for Thomas Archer

Woolmers, old wing of main house, built c1819, for Thomas Archer

Brickenden, built for William Archer in 1828

Brickenden, built for William Archer in 1828

The Archer’s wealth was based upon pastoralism, and especially wool, unlike the Norfolk Islanders whose resettlement was based upon growing wheat.  The early descriptions of the Norfolk Plains as lightly timbered and well watered suggest their pastoral promise, as does the reliance the Islanders quickly came to have on hunting.  That the Islanders also realized the value of turning to grazing rather then farming is perhaps indicated by the conviction and hanging of several of them for sheep stealing by the early 1820s.  By that time, only seven of the original grants to the Islanders remained in the ownership of the Norfolk Island families.  The others had left the district, joined the local labour force or died.

Oak trees and hawthorn hedges: characteristic landscapes of the Norfolk Plains

Oak trees and hawthorn hedges: characteristic landscapes of the Norfolk Plains

It is a grim reckoning that within a decade only some 15% of the deported Norfolk Islander families had been able to realize the promise of the Norfolk Plains[9].  The rest have been harshly judged by both vocal contemporary critics such as Commissioner Bigge and by later historians who have all too readily invoked the convict stain as an easy explanation.

Map of the Brickendon Estate in the 1840s: some of these fields were originally granted to the Norfolk Islanders

Map of the Brickendon Estate in the 1840s: some of these fields were originally granted to the Norfolk Islanders

However, a more compassionate view of the Norfolk Islanders experience would understand the terrible impact of being forced to abandon a home they had spent two decades creating in a remote island wilderness, of seeing their farms and towns officially neglected and then hearing the news that they had all finally been deliberately burned in the great fires of 1814, forever destroying any chance of returning.  Twice exiled, they were transported to a land they first had to wrest from its Palawa stewards, then clear ancient woodlands, build roads, fences and houses anew, and suffer cruel winters so different to their sub-tropical island home.  Having been forced from their homeland they were then forced to take that of others.

Outbuildings (Bakehouse) at Woolmers, built c1840, on a frosty winter morning so different to the sub-tropical climate of Norfolk Island

Outbuildings (Bakehouse) at Woolmers, built c1840, on a frosty winter morning so different to the sub-tropical climate of Norfolk Island

Despite their weariness and resentment they tried to conform to expectations, following instructions to grow wheat on the Norfolk Plains then seeing their hard work dissipate before their eyes as plant diseases and soil exhaustion wreaked a slow catastrophe.  Some fell victim to melancholy and nostalgia as they saw friends and family succumb to alcoholism, carelessly accidental deaths, decaying farms, lassitude and crime while around them newer, more respectable emigrants rode the Empire’s rising demand for wool and the beginning of a wool boom that would last for decades.

Many of the Norfolk Islanders had been transported from Britain as convicts and had made an entirely new life for themselves.  Having to do it a second time at the Norfolk Plains was perhaps a step to far for some of them.  Even as they were fading from history’s page they witnessed the next phase in the convict system developing around them with the Assignment System.  The Archer’s estates at “Woolmers”, “Brickendon” and elsewhere on the Norfolk Plains prospered through the combination of wool pastoralism and cheap assigned mass convict labour.

The current chapel at Brickendon was built in the 1840s to replace an earlier chapel built for the spiritual reformation of convicts assigned to Brickendon Estate.

The current chapel at Brickendon was built in the 1840s to replace an earlier chapel built for the spiritual reformation of convicts assigned to Brickendon Estate.

Today, the name Norfolk Plains is largely forgotten.  By the mid-1830s it was reported there were 62 houses across the Norfolk Plains, and the toponym survived for a while as the name of official land, police and road districts and a parliamentary electorate[10].  But by the 1850s when Van Diemen’s Land changed its name to Tasmania to escape the opprobrium of the convict stain, the convict-tainted Norfolk Plains had been largely supplanted by the village names of Longford and Cressy.

The descendants of some of the Norfolk Islanders, such as the Saltmarshes, Coxes, Whites, Stevens, Claymores, Jordens  and other others did survive those early years and still remain in the district today, especially the Norfolk Plains East along the Pateena Road (the C531) between Longford, Perth and Hadspen[11].

Old Norfolk Islander families are still part of the Norfolk Plains: a rural letterbox on the Pateena Road

Old Norfolk Islander families are still part of the Norfolk Plains: a rural letterbox on the Pateena Road

View along Pateena Road in the heartland of the Norfolk Islander settlement on the Norfolk Plains

View along Pateena Road in the heartland of the Norfolk Islander settlement on the Norfolk Plains

The memory of the convict Norfolk Islanders and their ill-stared settlement at Norfolk Plains has been kept alive in family traditions and oral histories, while the convict powered estates such as “Woolmers” and “Brickendon” have captured the attention of historians.  Today Kingston & Arthurs Vale on Norfolk Island and Woolmers & Brickendon in Tasmania share equal billing as partners in the World Heritage listed Australian Convict Sites.  The stories of Norfolk Island, Norfolk Plains and Brickendon & Woolmers are part of the real stories of our shared convict past that still shape our convict-descended society today.

The Norfolk Plains and Woolmers & Brickendon Estates give us an insight into the workings of the convict system.  Rather than lurid stories of a cruel world dominated by the lash and chain, we can see a quieter but more enduring story of forced migration giving opportunities to some men and women for a new life they could never have experienced in Britain as they worked and developed the colonial and Imperial economies.   We can see the great costs and suffering of many of the Norfolk Islanders when forced to leave their island home.  We can see the movement of convicts and their families between the settlements, laying the foundations for new communities and eventually a new country.

The crest and motto ribbon used by the Archer family, and used today as the emblem of Woolmers Estate.  The motto means 'the end crowns the work.  William 'Harry' Archer of Brickendon Estate was later granted a coat of arms that incorporates these elements.  In contrast to the iconography of the colonial gentry, the convict and expiree families of the Norfolk Plains lacked any comparable symbols.

The crest and motto ribbon used by the Archer family, and used today as the emblem of Woolmers Estate. The motto means ‘the end crowns the work’. William ‘Harry’ Archer of Brickendon Estate was later granted a coat of arms that incorporates these elements. In contrast to the iconography of the colonial gentry, the convict and expiree families of the Norfolk Plains lacked any comparable symbols.

Their stories can seem contradictory and melancholic, but also foundational and full of potential.  History is so much more complex and interesting than the simple pieties of the lash and chain.  The slow but persistent deportation of the Norfolk Islanders to the south between 1806 and 1814 should be much better known and appreciated, as should the deep emotional connections their descendants maintain with their ancestral island.

Stimulated by the World Heritage listing in 2010 and the approaching bicentenary of the 2013 deportations, the lost world of the Norfolk Plains is awaiting rediscovery.

Emblem of the Archer's gentility: an old fashioned rose in the Woolmers gardens.

Emblem of the Archer’s gentility: an old fashioned rose in the Woolmers gardens.

Thanks to Launceston City Library (LINC) reference staff, Lorraine Green of North Midlands Council, Richard Archer of “Brickendon” and Liz McCoy of KAVHA Public Research Centre for their assistance with locating sources for this story.

Originally published in Your World Inflight Offshore (Norfolk Air), Issue 3, July-September 2011, pages 21-25

[1] Dennison, CJ, Where In Tasmania?, the Author, Glenorchy, nd (c1994):  70; Taylor J & Smith W, A Dictionary of Tasmanian Place-Names, unpub. MSS, 1993 (Launceston Library LSC Q919.46 TAY)

[2] Bassett, J M, Norfolk Plains: Exploration, Settlement and Development, 1805-1850s, unpub. Thesis, TCAE Newnham, 1979: 6 (Launceston Library, LSC 994.621 BAS).

[3] Calder, G., A Space for a Village: the founding of Longford, unpub. MSS, draft, copy provided by Lorraine Green 26th May 2011.

[4] Ibid: 7

[5] ibid: 10, 12-15, 22, 2369,

[6] ibid 14

[7] Brickendon World Heritage Site: William Archer and his family, brochure, 2011

[8] Map of Brickendon Estate, dated 1841, in possession of Mr Richard Archer of Brickendon, viewed 26th May 2011; see also Bassett, op. cit., 70-71

[9] Bassett, op. cit.; 15, 70; see also Calder, op. cit., footnote 5.

[10] Murray, H., The Encyclopaedia of Geography, Lea & Blanchard, London 1839: 139; Bassett, op. cit.: i.

[11] MacRae, M & Dadson, M, Pateena Road: Families and farms of the Pateena District, the authors, Longford 2008: 33-36, 39-44, 53-56, 61-64, 87-88.


The Seven Bridges of Kingston

Bloody Bridge, Bounty Street Bridge, Pier Street Bridge, Canal Bridge, New Bridge, Old Bay Street Bridge and Bligh Street Bridge.

Seven bridges, seven names that evoke almost every chapter in the long and romantic story of Norfolk Island’s capital and Australia’s second-oldest town[1].

Unlike the famous Seven Bridges of Königsberg[2], the less well-known seven bridges of Kingston are easy to take in on a gentle stroll through the Kingston & Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (KAVHA).

The most easterly is Bloody Bridge, tucked away at the eastern gateway to the Historic Area, on Driver Christian Road.  By 1790 the road from Kingston to Ball Bay crossed the creek here, running through a vale of vegetable gardens.  About 1832 construction of the bridge began, using convict labour.  A creek channel was defined, and the oviform (egg-shaped) vaulted bridge tunnel was built.  A coral stone wall was built on each side, each with six buttresses, and then the void was filled with rubble and soil[3].  Raised causeways connect the bridge to the adjoining roadway, so that the whole structure stands high above the little flood plain of Music Creek.  The road surface was sealed by the 1970s, keeping the carriageway between the grass verges that continue across the bridge surface.  These causeways and grass verges are characteristic of all the larger bridges of Kingston.  In about 1914 the western wall of the bridge collapsed, and was rebuilt in 1917 in the splayed or faceted form that still shows the extent of the collapse even today, and which reduced the width of the bridge deck by half.

Bloody Bridge, showing original form viewed from upstream side

Bloody Bridge, showing original form viewed from upstream side

The tunnel or channel beneath Bloody Bridge

The oviform vaulted tunnel beneath Bloody Bridge

Apart from its picturesque location in Music Valley, beside a grove of old Norfolk Island Pines that shelter a seasonal Bosunbird breeding ground, the name of Bloody Bridge always draws attention.  According to folklore the convicts building the bridge drew lots to murder their unpopular overseer, murdered him and buried the body in the foundations.  His blood stained the stone work and revealed their crime, after which the killers were sent to Sydney where justice was swift and ultimately fatal.  However, there is no record of any such event taking place, and a more prosaic explanation may be that it was named by Irish convicts after Bloody Bridge in Dublin[4].  The name and a story was probably told by the convicts to the Pitcairners in 1856, as described by a visitor on HMS Fawn in 1860 who wrote of the new residents telling visitors just such stories to illustrate the brutality that had shaped the convict landscape they inherited in 1856.  In 1885 John J Spruson published a history of Pitcairn, Lord Howe and Norfolk islands that contains the earliest published version of the convict murder story for the bridge’s name.

Bloody Bridge is the only bridge to feature in Norfolk Post’s 2011 stamp issue commemorating the first anniversary of KAVHA’s inscription on the World Heritage List.

Bloody Bridge features on one of a twelve-set stamp booklet produced by Norfolk Post in 2011 to mark the first anniversary of the World Heritage listing of the Australian Convict Sites.

Bloody Bridge features on one of a twelve-set stamp booklet produced by Norfolk Post in 2011 to mark the first anniversary of the World Heritage listing of the Australian Convict Sites.

Pier Street Bridge is the most westerly of the bridges.  It was built in 1831, and connects Quality Row to the Landing Place by a long causeway called Pier Street.  A ford had been built over Watermill Creek on this alignment by 1796 when the route was called the ‘Road to Phillipburg’ (now Cascade), and it remains one of the oldest roads still in use in Australia.  By 1829 Pier Street was following its present alignment, and construction of the causeway and the bridge began soon after.  The causeway sits two to three metres above the ground level and when completed provided for the first time dry all-weather access between the landing place and the rest of the island.  The bridge and street name indicates the importance of this connection, although the pier was not completed until some 15 years after the bridge.  Whether its convict builders ever gave the bridge a name is not yet known.  Pier Street Bridge, like Bloody Bridge, has a central vaulted channel made of massive coral stone.  The walls of the bridge and causeway are built of rubble coral stone, and infilled with more rubble and soil.  The roadway runs between grassed verges that cross the bridge, with regularly-spaced limber holes to drain rain water away from the road surface.  Unlike Bloody Bridge, no buttresses were needed to support these walls, possibly because they are not of such a great height, but they have a slight batter similar to the walls of the pier to deflect flowing water away from the causeway and through the bridge tunnel.

Pier Street Bridge and causeway, seen from Old Government House KItchen (also called the Surgeon's Kitchen or Wentworth Cottage).

Pier Street Bridge and causeway, seen from the Old Government House Kitchen (also called the Surgeon’s Kitchen or Wentworth Cottage).

Two hundred metres eastwards is Bounty Street Bridge, built about 1832 after the completion of Pier Street Bridge.  Whereas Bloody Bridge and Pier Street Bridge both have a round arch tunnel, Bounty Street Bridge shows a fine elliptical (a flattish curve) four-metre wide arch.  Unfortunately, the bridge has suffered much damage to its eastern face, which was largely rebuilt, probably in the late 1930s after flood damage, when the arch was replaced by a flat concrete lintel.  The western face still retains its original arch, with fine segmented stonework.  The street provided rapid access during times of trouble from the New Military Barracks on Quality Row to the Prisoner’s Barrack and the prisoner’s mess on Bay Street.  There was also a long terrace and several cottages around the northern end of the street for constables and overseers who also needed easy access to the convict quarter.  Its current name of Bounty Street dates from 1904, and reflects the later Pitcairner settlement of the town.  The causeway on either side of the bridge is very short in length.  In recent years the northern end of the bridge and its causeway have been sinking and is now over a metre lower than the southern end[5].  An ongoing monitoring program is currently in place to measure the bridge’s movements, and eventually to inform conservation works to stabilize and possibly reverse the sinking.

The eastern balustrade of Bounty Street Bridge, nearly sunken into the reed banks, looking eastwards from the bridge carriageway.

The eastern parapet of Bounty Street Bridge, nearly sunken into the reed banks, looking eastwards from the bridge carriageway towards Chimney Hill.

Another two hundred metres further eastwards and the creek channel dissipates into several channels, forming a sort of delta where the waters from Watermill Creek, Town Creek and Government House Rill meet.  During wet weather this area is a bird lover’s paradise, and a sense of the old primeval Kingston Marsh that once covered most of the Kingston Common can still be experienced.

The current formal entrance to Government House on Quality Row masks the existence of Bligh Street constructed in 1831.  The street formerly ran from Quality Row through to Bay Street, parallel to Bounty and Pier streets, and at least three crossings were needed for it to traverse the marshes.  The southern end of the street is probably really a long causeway with various stone-built crossings to allow for the passage of water.  The name Bligh Street Bridge today refers to the original stone bridge that can still be seen in place, near the ruin of another stone bridge that formerly crossed the Serpentine.  The causeways through the marshes around this area were formed by earthen embankments without stone retaining walls, perhaps due to difficulties in locating firm bedrock.  Bligh Street Bridge is built of rubble coral stone abutments with a large slab of massive coral stone spanning the channel.  Rubble parapets sit on the edges of this slab to provide sides to the roadway, which is now entirely covered with a thick layer of soil and turf.  Bligh Street runs directly from the Old Military Barracks entrance to Bay Street, and may have been first formed to move stone and lime from the quarries and lime kilns on Bay Street to the Barracks construction site.  Once competed, Bligh Street, like Bounty Street, provided rapid access for the military to the convict quarter along Bay Street, as well as from 1838 a new formal entrance to Government House.  Like Bounty Street, the name Bligh Street dates from 1904, and it is the only place name in Kingston commemorating a former viceroy.  It provides a street address for Australia’s oldest vice-regal residence, and is forms a name-pair with Bounty Street, commemorating the street and bridge names the legendary captain and mutiny of 1789.

Bligh Street Bridge is marked by the two stone parapets in the middle of the picture.  The Old Military Barracks terminates the northerly vista.

Bligh Street Bridge is marked by the two stone parapets in the middle of the picture. The Old Military Barracks terminate the northerly vista.

Bligh Street Bridge covered in flood waters after heavy rain

Bligh Street Bridge covered in flood waters after heavy rain, with only the parapets above water.

Another 20 metres along the channel is Old Bay Street Bridge.  Now a pedestrian timber bridge sits on the site, but evidence of the older bridge can be clearly seen in the rubble coral stone bridge abutments.  There may have been a ford at this site since 1802 when construction of Government House began.  It is located on the Old Bay Street embankment or causeway that curves northwards and runs along the base of Chimney Hill, across the marshes and up to Government House.  The street was raised on the earthen embankment that can still be seen, and the stone bridge abutments were built between 1825 and 1835, with a timber deck, presumably of Norfolk Island Pine, used to span the creek.  The lightest of the bridges, it was only used for a few years until about 1838 when the new Bligh Street entrance to Government House came into use, and this section of Bay Street was reduced to a lane for separate access to the stockyards and gardens behind Government House.

Old Bay Street Bridge in the mid-ground, with contemporary timber pedestrian bridge spanning 1941 channel in foreground.

Old Bay Street Bridge in the mid-ground, with contemporary timber pedestrian bridge spanning 1941 channel in foreground.

Bay Street had split into two arms at Chimney Hill, and while this northern arm became a back lane, the southern arm survives as Bay Street proper.  It had come into use in the 1790s when the quarry and lime kilns were being developed, and the first burying ground was set aside.  The first attempts to drain the marshlands began in the early 1789 when a channel was cut through the limestone saddle that connected Doves Plot Hill (the site of Government House) and the Chimney Hill ridge and then ran along its eastern side to drain into Emily Bay.  This separated the burying ground from the rest of the town, and required the building of a ford or bridge to re-connect them.  The channel was known as ‘the canal’, and the name of Canal Bridge reflects this earliest phase in the draining of the marshes.

Canal Bridge, spanning the canal reconstructed in the 1830s

Canal Bridge, spanning the canal reconstructed in the 1830s

The northern section of the canal running around Chimney Hill was filled in during the 1830s, while the southern reach was rebuilt and the current bridge built in about 1835, possibly incorporating the earlier 1789 bridge over the canal[6].  Like Bloody Bridge and Pier Street Bridge, a vaulted channel was built of massive coral stone, this time with a pointed arch, and rubble walls filled with soil to road level.  Two small buttresses support the bridge wall on its northern side, and the stone walls on the canal are connected to the bridge structure.  This is the smallest and narrowest of Kingston’s bridges, and it and the New Bridge are the only ones spanning a waterway affected by the ocean tides.

Just a few metres away is the New Bridge, adjacent to the old lime kilns.  As the name suggests, this is the newest of Kingston’s road bridges, dating from 1941.  The concrete-lined channel was built between 1937 and 1941 following severe flooding in 1936.  It provided a straight cut across the marshlands and through the southern end of Chimney Hill that was intended to quickly drain away into Emily Bay any build-up of water in the marshes.  The bridge consists of a reinforced concrete deck that sits directly on coral stone abutments formed by cutting the channel straight through the natural rock.  The timber rails that provide a safety barrier on each side have been replaced several times over the years.  The soil excavated for the channel was spread over the marshlands to raise the ground level, almost burying the Bligh Street bridges.  The channel and bridge show the earliest use of concrete on a large-scale public works project on Norfolk Island, and illustrate the changes in bridge building technologies since the 1830s.

New Bridge, showing 1940s concrete structure

New Bridge, showing 1940s concrete structure

New Bridge, from channel mouth

New Bridge, viewed from the 1941 channel mouth

These cameos of Kingston’s bridges indicate the scale of the public works around Kingston in the 1830s that could be achieved with unlimited and often well skilled convict labour.  They also tell us something about the Commandants and their vision for the town and its future.  Kingston’s history has been dominated by horror stories of the gallows, whip and lash, but the bridges tell us another story.

Lieutenant Colonel James Morisset of the 48th (Northamptonshire) Regiment commanded the penal establishment between 1829 and 1834.  And was responsible for the earliest of the bridges in the old swamplands.

Morisset’s successor as Commandant, the Scotsman Major Joseph Anderson of the 50th (Queen’s Own) Regiment, had the Bligh Street, Old Bay Street and Canal bridges built as part of his scheme for creating a suitably picturesque domain for the vice-regal residence.

Anderson’s successor Major Thomas Bunbury of the 80th (Staffordshire Volunteers) Regiment converted much of the domain into sporting fields[7].  He also demolished Irish Town behind the New Military Barracks, and by the time the regiment was withdrawn from the Island both Irish Town and the romantic serpentine had been replaced by manly, utilitarian grounds for sports and parades.

The bridges hint at a Celtic heritage in Kingston: Bloody Bridge, Irish Town, the supposedly dour Scotsman Major Anderson.  The convicts, the military and civil officials have for a long time been treated as an amorphous mass, a single story of brutality and harshness.  Walking the bridges of Kingston gives us pause to stop and look, and appreciate a rich landscape of many cultural layers and a shared history.

A Kingston bridges walk will reward the rambler with many different views across Kingston, a variety of environments from the open Common to elegant street vistas to the more intimate groves of Norfolk Island Pines, a mix of oceanic, wetlands and forest birds, and of course the ever-present Georgian townscape and the brooding ruins of another age.

Timber foot bridges spanning the 1941 channel, on alignment of Old Bay Street (mid-ground) and Bligh Street (far-ground), viewed from the top of Chimney Hill.

Timber foot bridges spanning the 1941 channel, on alignment of Old Bay Street (mid-ground) and Bligh Street (far-ground), viewed from the top of Chimney Hill.  These are not counted in the ‘seven bridges’.

It is possible to make a circuit of the bridges without every having to cross any bridge more than once – provided that you don’t stick to the sealed roads and can make a few cross-country diversions.  It shouldn’t present you with the same puzzle that the Königsbergers posed in the 18th century – unless you like to set yourself (or your friends or family) a real challenge!

This post was first published, in a slightly edited form, in Your World Inflight Onshore (Norfolk Air), No 4, October-December 2011, pages 34-39.

[1] For more information on each of the seven bridges of Kingston, visit the KAVHA Public Research Centre at No 9 Quality Row, Kingston and see the KAVHA Inventory volumes.  The relevant inventory numbers are: Bloody Bridge N1A, Bounty Street Bridge F18, Pier Street Bridge F19, Canal Bridge A11A, New Bridge J6A, Old Bay Street Bridge A5C and Bligh Street Bridge A4E.

[2] The Seven Bridges of Königsberg is the name of a famous mathematical problem that arose from attempts to solve a puzzle in the medieval German university town of Königsberg.  The city was located on an island in the Pregel River and by the 18th century had spread out across the riverbanks facing the island.  Seven bridges connected the island to its riverside suburbs, and the puzzle often posed was to find a way to walk around the town, crossing each bridge once and only once.  Visitors to the town, especially after a few visits to the local beer halls, were often challenged by the townsfolk to solve their riddle, but none ever succeeded.  In 1735 the Swiss physicist Leonhard Euler proved that there was in fact no solution to the puzzle, and this could be shown by a mathematical analysis focused on the sequence of bridge crossings instead of the routes between them (rather than the usual method of an erratic, beer-fueled walk!).  Euler’s negative solution laid the foundations for graph theory, which can be used to represent the structure of the world wide web (www), and topology, the study of properties under continuous deformation such a stretching which has created products like continuous-loop recording tapes.  Unfortunately, the city was the scene of vicious siege and battle near the end of World War Two.  It was captured by the Red Army, and today only two of the original bridges survive.  The city is now a Russian possession re-named Kaliningrad.

[3] Coral Stone is the name used on Norfolk and other Pacific islands for limestone, especially that found around the Kingston district.  Its scientific name is calcarenite, which is a type of limestone composed of broken corals, shells and sand formed by erosion of older limestones, with particle sizes of less than two millimetres.  ‘Massive’ coral stone refers to blocks of solid stone cut from the reefs in Slaughter and Cemetery bays and Nepean Island.  ‘Rubble’ coral stone refers to the loose rocks and stone pieces quarried from outcrops of sedimentary limestone.  The best known source is Chimney Hill, where the lime kilns were also located to produce quicklime by slowly burning the stone for mortar, plaster and lime washes, as well as limelight for lighting theatre stages such as in Kingston’s various convict theatres between 1789 and 1846.

[4] Bloody Bridge in Dublin, adjacent to the Guinness Brewery on the Liffey River, was officially named the Rory O’More Bridge/Droichead Ruaraí Uí Mhóra in 1939.  The current iron bridge was built in 1859 and named the Victoria & Albert Bridge, replacing an earlier stone bridge built in 1704.  That bridge was officially known as Barrack Bridge, and itself replaced an even earlier timber bridge that had been the scene of several deaths of rebellious ferrymen’s apprentices who tried to destroy the timber bridge in 1670.  The popular name Bloody Bridge commemorated the ferrymen’s violent deaths and was transferred by popular usage to all subsequent bridges on the site, regardless of their official names.  Bloody Bridge in Newcastle (An Caisleán Nua), County Down, on Bloody Bridge Creek, was the scene of the killing of Protestant prisoners during the Irish Rebellion of 1641 when the conflicts in Ireland first took on a Catholic v. Protestant character.

 [5] Hughes Truman, Structural Report Bounty Street Bridge, Kingston & Arthur’s Vale Historic Area Norfolk Island, April 2010: 5

[6] Australian Construction Services, The Swamp Creek and Serpentine Area Conservation Study and Interpretive Design, June 1994: 14.

[7] Bunbury quoted in Australian Construction Services, op. cit.: 20

Kingston Pier and Landing Place

Kingston Pier: Shooting the waves at Norfolk’s first Landing Place (A slightly edited version of this post was published in Your World Inflight Inshore (Norfolk Air), April-June 2011, pages 19-25.)

In March 1788 a small party of convicts and marines under Lt Phillip Gidley King was sent from Sydney Cove to settle Norfolk Island.  HMT Supply sailed around the island for nearly a week, looking for a landing place.  King was beginning to despair when he wrote in his journal on 5th March that

“The only prospect which was to search if a pafsage could be found through the reef which runs along Sidney Bay (which is ye name which I give to ye Bay in ye SW side of ye Isle) we went there and ye master was sent in ye boat to examine it & on his return he informed us that a landing was very easy as a small break of ye reef (large enough to admit two boats) was formed between 2 parts of it & boats might land on a sandy beach.  On his report, Lieut Ball & myself went to explore it & found it just as he had reported it.  We landed on a fine sandy beach or bay without any difficulty whatever – above this beach lay a bank ye edge of which was surrounded by ye large kind of iris, on pafsing through it we found a fine piece of ground … here I resolved at once to fix … as it was very late in ye evening we returned on board.”[1]

This is the earliest written description of the Landing Place.

The original Landing Place was here, a few metres seaward of the present sea wall.  Erosion, probably caused by the construction of Kingston Pier, has gradually obscured the site although the sea sand continually tries to reclaim the site.

The original 1788 Landing Place was here, a few metres seaward of the present sea wall. Erosion, probably caused by the construction of Kingston Pier, has gradually obscured the site although the sea sand continually tries to reclaim it.

He then described the next day “6th March at Day break I left the Supply with 2 boats, having in them all ye people belonging to ye settlement (except ye women) … which we landed with great ease…”  The next day presented a different view “It blew so very hard all day & so great a surf that no boat could land this day.”  This began a recurring theme in the history of the Landing Place, as becomes evident throughout King’s journal, which had a column for recording the conditions at the Landing Place.  A random selection shows the problem: 20th April 1788 ‘Landing not possible, the southerly winds are now become cold and raw which induces me to call this about ye commencement of ye Winter’, 24th May 1788 ‘A very great surf’, 7th August 1788 ‘Landing good’, and so on.

Phillip Gidley King, founder and namesake of KIngston, Lieutenant Governor of Norfolk island 1788-1790, 1792-1796, and Governor of New South Wales 1800-1806.

Phillip Gidley King, founder and namesake of Kingston, Lieutenant Governor of Norfolk island 1788-1790, 1792-1796, and Governor of New South Wales 1800-1806.

For 60 years this was the main point of arrival and departure on Norfolk Island, despite its unpredictable weather and fickle location.  Around here grew the old town of Sydney Bay or Kingston.  But then something happened that challenged this business as usual approach.  On the night of 8th May 1834 a tsunami flooded into Sydney Bay and rapidly inundated much of Kings Town around the landing place, causing significant damage to the buildings and the area and changing everything forever.

Between 1825, when Norfolk was re-occupied after being abandoned for some years, and the tsunami a decade later, the west end of the old town around the landing place had been the main quarter to be rebuilt.  Many temporary and ‘light’ buildings of wattle and daub and thatch were erected, often on the foundations and alignment of older buildings, and a variety of residential, storage and other uses.  Following the tsunami, many of these were abandoned or removed, leaving the newer late 1820s stone buildings used as stores and the new timber Surgeon’s Quarters on the rise behind the pier.  The ‘west end’ was largely abandoned in response to the tsunami, and new permanent stone buildings, also constructed partially on old alignments and foundations, were then developed on the eastern side of the landing place during the 1840s and into the early 1850s.  This ‘port quarter’ was built using some of the Old Town stone buildings such as the Guardhouse and the Double Boatshed (seaward side), and the new buildings were also built in stone.  Their uses related to port and security functions, and included a Police Office (now the Single Boatshed) and the Guard’s balcony or sentry post on the end of the Pier Store, as well as boatsheds on the western side of the Pier Store, and the Royal Engineer’s Office.  The only notable timber structures were three stockades beside the Police Office and visible from the sentry post that were used to hold convicts that had either just arrived on a ship or were awaiting shipment back to Van Diemen’s Land or New South Wales.  A blacksmith’s shop was also built in this area to be close to the stockades for quickly fitting or removing chains and irons.

The Single Boatshed, originally built as the Police Office, at the foot of Kingston Pier

The Single Boatshed, originally built as the Police Office, opposite the Guardhouse at the foot of Kingston Pier

The building of the pier, which began in 1839, stimulated the building of this port quarter and its more specialised uses.  Designed by the Royal Engineers, notably Lt Henry Lugard and RG Hamilton, construction proceeded during low tides and followed the western edge of the reef.  It was intended to curve around to a large coral outcrop known as the ‘nigger head’, but the strong surf during construction constantly washed away foundation blocks of stone, and construction work stopped in 1847 at its present length.  Metal clamps were used to fix the blocks together (another reason the old blacksmith shop and stoneyard was close to the pier), and the upper stone courses are keyed together using blocks perpendicular to the other stonework.  The eastern face was built with sloping walls to try and redirect the kinetic energy of the waves away from the structure, and the interior was filled with stone rubble.  Most of the labouring work was performed by the Gaol Gang (i.e. prisoners held in the gaol for offences committed on Norfolk), supposedly working up to the armpits in water while wearing heavy chains, although how they were able to work with heavy stone in such conditions is unclear[2].

The eastern side of Kingston Pier as it adjoins the eastern seawall, built by convict labour between 1839 and 1847.  Note the battered wall to deflect waves.

The eastern side of Kingston Pier as it adjoins the eastern seawall, built by convict labour between 1839 and 1847. Note the battered wall to deflect waves.

A timber slipway built in the 1830s was replaced in 1853 with the stone slipway for launching boats.  In 1855 the slipway was badly damaged in a storm, and had to be repaired.  The eastern stone seawall was built prior to the pier with an opening left in it, and was then joined to the pier, but a similar western sea wall was then demolished and apparently used to extend the eastern sea wall around the new blacksmith’s shop and stoneyard.

The slipway of the western side of Kingston Pier today, on the site of the original slipway built in 1853.

The slipway of the western side of Kingston Pier today, on the site of the original slipway built in 1853.

Construction of the pier changed the layout and land uses in the Old Town quarter of Kingston.  It was a major engineering and infrastructure project that lead to general renewal of the area.  Its more specialised land uses changed the landing place into a port: the ‘Port of Kingston’ became an imperial town, part of the Empire-wide shipping highways.  It increased the specialised character of the penal settlement, but retained fine grain of the Old Town townscape in contrast to the Roman grid style of the Royal Engineer’s designed New Town along Quality Row and Bay Street.  The stores, stockades, blacksmiths, stoneyard, police and guard outposts all indicate the main business of the port – the transportation of convict cargoes, and the need to maintain high security levels around such cargoes.

Despite the security, however, escape attempts and smuggling were also an integral part of the new port.  A practice was described in 1846 whereby joiners and cabinetmakers working in the Carpenter’s Shop, further along Bay Street, made ornamental writing desks, cigar boxes and so on from native timbers.  These were clandestinely traded with the boat coxswains for sale to crew and passengers on ships moored in the bay, and also used to smuggle tobacco and other goods into and out of the island[3].  Escape attempts were numerous, such as the convicts who overpowered another group of convicts waiting to take some officers fishing, and rowed across the bar and into the open sea.  Lt Lugard and two boatloads of soldiers gave chase and when they started to fire on the escapees, they surrendered and were made to row all the way back towing the two boats of soldiers[4].  Clandestine activities were perhaps facilitated by the quarter’s Old Town layout of narrow lanes and angled buildings, especially when enveloped by darkness and clinging sea mists.

In 1846 Magistrate Robert Stuart visited the island and reported back to Hobart Town on many things, including the conditions in the port just before completion of the pier:

“King’s Town”, the head quarters or principal station, is situated on the … shore of Sydney Bay, and little above the level of the sea. … A coral reef prevents the near approach of vessels to the settlement; and, as the anchorage is insecure, loading and unloading ships are tedious, being effected by boats, and crossing the bar, over which a very heavy surf generally rolls, is attended with great danger, as well from the surf on the bar, as from the intricacy of the passage, to avoid being thrown on a ledge of rocks immediately in front.[5]

Thomas Stewart reflected the sudden changeability of the seas around the Pier in a description written in October 1855:

“The barr was pretty smooth in the morning, I hoisted the red flag at the jetty F.Staff and the Ensign at G.H. F.Staff, and immediately after breakfast set out to the nearest point of land to ascertain for certain if it was the cattle ship … I could see the boat making for shore, hurried down to the jetty, but found the barr had become at times very rough, and at one of these times Capt. Raymond was within half a mile of the shore, but could not come nearer, turned and went back to the ship.”[6]

The inventory of buildings and structures that were to be transferred to the Pitcairners when they arrived included “Boat run, pier, etc.,  Stone pier running into the sea, with 2 flights of stone steps for landing, stone slip for launching boats, flagstaff, with stone work around the bottom.”

An old lighter on the Kingston foreshore: the design and materials for the lighters is similar to that of the whaling boats.

An old lighter on the Kingston foreshore: the design and materials for the lighters is similar to that of the whaling boats and lighters left by the departing convicts in 1856.

In June 1856 the Morayshire hove into view from the Pier, carrying the new settlers from Pitcairn.  The settlers were not very impressed.  Their leader, the Rev. Nobbs, wrote that they were: “…very much disappointed with its [the Island) appearance … a succession of hillocks and shallow ravines covered with short brown grass, but scarcely a tree to be seen.  Every face wore an expression of disappointment.”  The Reverend does not mention the pier or landing place, but his wife Sarah made a passing reference to it in a letter she wrote a few months later: “[We] land on Sunday, June 8th, amid squalls of rain, which thoroughly drenched us.”[7]  Despite his first impressions, by the end of that month Nobbs was writing of the island as a ‘goodly heritage’.

During the 1860s and 70s, the pier witnessed the arrival of the Melanesian Mission and the comings and goings of its staff and its students from islands to the north, as well as many visits by whaling vessels that continued from the convict era.  By the 1880s and 1890s the port quarter around the pier had become a hive of whaling activities, and Kingston had became one of the South Pacific’s whaling towns.

One of the many graves of the crew of whaling ships in Kingston Cemetery: Antone John of the ship 'California' who died 5th November 1878.

One of the many graves of the crew of whaling ships in Kingston Cemetery: Antone John of the ship ‘California’ who died 5th November 1878.

There are many newspaper reports of whaling activities around Norfolk during the 1880s and 1890s, with whaling ships coming and going, trading with the Islanders, and of many occasions embarking or returning Norfolker crew members.  Apart from the opportunities for adventure, travel, trade and income, another attraction may have been revealed when the American whaler Canton called at Pitcairn Island in 1881: “…as she had a boat’s crew of Norfolk Islanders on board, there was a joyful meeting.  Souvenirs and letters were bought from thence, which report domestic matters generally…”[8].

American crewmen often holidayed in Kingston, and Isaac Robinson was appointed US consul to look after their affairs[9].  In 1882 the death of one of his daughters was reported in the Sydney newspapers: “ROBINSON.-October 2, at the Pier, Norfolk Island, Alice Quintal, aged 17, eldest beloved daughter of Isaac Robinson, of  that place”.[10]  In 1889 Robinson was appointed as the United States consul on Norfolk Island.[11], and in 1900 the consulate was one of the places that flew its flag to mark the anniversary of King’s landing in 1788[12].  The Robinsons lived in the old Surgeon’s Quarters above the Pier, with a commanding view of all commercial activities around the pier and the port quarter including the whaling companies boatsheds, boiling pots and quarters.  This was a strategic location for a foreign consulate, and as United States influence expanded in Pacific Islands through Hawaii, Samoa, Guam and the Philippines, it is not hard to discern concerns in Sydney and London about American intentions on Norfolk during the 1890s when planning a new undersea telegraph cable to connect the Empire.[13]

The fear that drove the reinstatement of New South Wales administration of Norfolk Island: the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii by American planters in 1893, followed by US annexation in 1898.

Was this the fear that drove the reinstatement of New South Wales administration of Norfolk Island? –  the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii by American planters in 1893, followed by US annexation in 1898.

Hawaiian postage stamps bearing the portrait of the deposed Queen Liliuokalani, an honoured guest in London at Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887.

Hawaiian postage stamps bearing the portrait of the deposed Queen Liliuokalani.

Was the Empire port town in danger of following the example of Honolulu or Apia or Manila?  Whether the Pier was a scene for such imperial intrigues, the 1896 return of Norfolk’s administration to New South Wales was followed by substantial investment in Norfolk’s infrastructure.  Major repairs were undertaken on the pier in 1897 and 1898 to replace facing stone and rebuild the slipway[14].  The town was surveyed in 1904 with a town plan being drawn up showing lot boundaries and street names.  The newer Bounty Street, Pitcairn Street and Bligh Street, recalling an older British Pacific heritage that predated the whaling industry, joined the older Pier Street and Bay Street.  The opening of the Pacific Cable Station at Anson Bay in 1902 brought Norfolk firmly back into the imperial fold, although it was well away from the any prying eyes down at Kingston.

Whaling did not simply vanish. The whaling town was still evident in the early 1900s when Miss Florence Coombe came ashore, bound for the Melanesian Mission school at St Barnabas:

There is no harbour, and in the winter it is impossible for boats to get to land. … We have anchored on an early morning in September … Now the first whale-boat is put off from the shore.  In a few minutes a handsome, swarthy, bare-footed Norfolker, in shabby clothes, and a home plaited straw hat in his hand, is bowing before us with the grace and dignity of a Spanish nobleman, and in a soft, quaint drawl he bids the strangers “We-elcome to No-orfolk I-island!” … very soon afterwards, when the whale-boat has been crammed from stem to stern with boxes and packing cases of all sorts, you find a somewhat rickety perch atop a huge row of stores … the process of landing is not to easy, for these green rocks are as slippery as ice, and unless you are ready to jump at the moment the word comes, the opportunity is past, and a leap would be into the sea, instead of onto the land.  But don’t look around at the boiling surf.[15]

A cruise ship moored in Sydney Bay to disembark passengers at Kingston Pier

A cruise ship moored in Sydney Bay to disembark passengers at Kingston Pier

Cruise ship passengers disembarking from zodiacs at Kingston Pier - on a calm day!

Cruise ship passengers disembarking from zodiacs at Kingston Pier – on a calm day!

In 1907 a whaling boat was setting out from the pier when it was capsized by heavy surf.  Another boat was launched to rescue the crew, one of whom, Tilly Adams, was badly hurt and the capsized boat was smashed to pieces on the rocks beside the pier.[16]

However, as petroleum oil began replacing whale oil, the use of the pier declined, and by 1914 when a visitor to the island described a fairly typical landing at Kingston there was no mention of whaling boats:

October 7th.  The great event of the Island, the arrival of the monthly steamer from Australia, drew us, with the rest of the population, to the landing place, which this month was the “Town” the wind being favourable. … the familiar old “Makambo” casting anchor on its none too smooth anchorage, two big row boats struggled off through the heaving surf to meet her, well before she got in and a long delay again before the medical inspection was over and the few passengers came ashore kept the crowd of Islanders intently watching  and waiting.  The scene was like a huge country picnic  … every inhabitant of the Island, apparently, waiting to receive this one connecting link with the outside world.”[17]

In 1914 Norfolk Island became Australia’s first external island territory.  New opportunities for customs and duty-free exports to the mainland opened up, and  the export of lemon juice, passionfruit pulp, bananas, oranges and other sub-tropical produce and fish boomed[18].  Every visit by a ship to the pier attracting the increasingly organised carrying of casks of produce by the island lightermen, utilizing skills and lighter designs descended from the whalers and the boats left by the convicts[19].

The Pier’s 20th century history is as rich and varied, and only briefly touched upon here.  By the 1920s when whaling resumed, it did so in Ball Bay, well away from the Pier and Kingston[20].  World War Two brought dramatic changes as Kingston again became a military garrison, with extensive gun emplacements and other defences overlooking the port and a steady stream of military transports to the Pier unloading heavy machinery and personnel.  Ironically, it was the war that ended the Pier’s pre-eminence as Norfolk’s gateway to the world.  All this war-time activity lead to the building of the aerodrome and the development of the new town of Burnt Pine[21].  The post-war focus has been on the development of air transport and air services.  Cargoes still arrive by ship and are unloaded by the local lightermen, and the occasional cruise ship and passing yacht calls in, but the Kingston Pier is now more the haunt of fishermen, tour guides, swimmers and strollers rather than the heavy commercial uses of the convict transports and whalers.

Another cargo is unloaded from the lighters, guided by the lightermen.

Cargo is unloaded from the lighters at Kingston Pier, guided by the lightermen.

Cargo is unloaded at Kingston Pier from two lighters lashed together.

Another cargo is unloaded at Kingston Pier from two lighters lashed together.

Once the lighters have been unloaded, the launch tows them back out past Kingston Pier to the moored ship for another load.

Once the lighters have been unloaded, the launch tows them back out past Kingston Pier to the moored ship for another load.

The Pier had a brief moment of royal glory in 1974 when the Queen made her first visit to Norfolk Island.  The visit was well covered by the Women’s Weekly, with a picture-spread titled “Queen Shoots the Waves” showing the launch from the royal yacht Britannia almost lost in “…cyclone sized seas” as it approached the pier, and then showing the Queen on a wave-soaked pier meeting the Federal Minister for Territories.[22].  After nearly 140 years, the adventure of landing on Kingston Pier had not abated.

Visitors today can still inspect the original stone walls of the pier, patched and repatched by many succeeding generations, still see the waves crashing over its embankments, still feel it shudder with every crash, still watch boats being lifted over its sides into and out of the sea, still watch a ship being unloaded, still witness the annual Bounty Day re-enactment of the Pitcairner’s migration in 1856.  There are plenty of spots to sit and take in the patterns of the reef, the colours of the landscape and the views back towards the town, or just feel the salt spray or experience a glorious sunrise or sunset.

Lighters ready for use, outside the boatsheds beside the pier in Kingston

The colours of salt, sea and sun: lighters ready for use, outside the boatsheds beside the pier in Kingston

There are also plenty of spots just to let the imagination run wild and see once again those earliest settlers on a virgin beach, or the prisoners in the stockades awaiting shipment, or struggling in chains on the fruitless task of trying to extend the structure, or a large whale being brought in my men in small boats for the bloody rituals of flensing, or glimpses of smugglers and spies vanishing around a misty corner, or intrepid travellers clutching skirts and hats as they leapt from rocking boats onto slippery steps to be caught by strong arms and welcomed with lilting Pacific accents.  Miss Bertha Murrell wrote in her tour journal in 1915 “In the days of its youth Kingston must have been quite a little town.”[23]  Kingston Pier still provides shelter for these memories of that little town, and many more.


Pier – a structure of iron or wood raised on piles and leading out to sea, a breakwater, a mole

Jetty – a pier or breakwater constructed to protect or defend a harbour

Breakwater – barrier built out into the sea to break the force of waves

Wharf – a level quayside area to which a ship may be moved to load and unload

Quay – a solid stationary landing place lying alongside or projecting into water for loading and unloading ships

Port – a harbour, a town or place possessing a harbour, esp. one where customs officers are stationed

Harbour – a place of shelter for ships

[1] King’s journal, digitized online copy, State Library of NSW, pages 112-114 (

[2] KAVHA Inventory, Items H17, H18, H19 and J1.

[3] Report, Stuart to Comptroller-General in Hobart Town, 20th June 1846, and letter, Stuart to Comptroller General, 23rd June 1846, in E.F., Norfolk Island: the Botany Bay of Botany Bay, Sullivan’s Cove, Adelaide 1979:42 and 69

[4] Smith, N., Convict Kingston, the Author, Norfolk Island 1997: 37

[5] Report, Stuart to Comptroller-General, op.cit.: 36

[6] quoted in KAVHA Inventory, H21 & 22+

[7] Nobbs, R., George Hunn Nobbs 1799-1884: Chaplain on Pitcairn and Norfolk Island, the Author, Upper Hutt 1984: 50-51, 54

[8] ‘Norfolk Island’, Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 1881: 7

[9] Tofts, R.G., Norfolk Island Whaling Days: Tales & Yarns, the Author, Norfolk Island 2010: 37-39.

[10] ‘Deaths’, Sydney Morning Herald, 5th December 1882: 1

[11] ‘Consuls and Consular Agents’, Maitland Mercy & Hunter River General Advertiser, 16th February 1889: 4

[12] ‘Norfolk Island News’, Brisbane Courier, 7th April 1900: 15

[13] ‘The Pacific Cable’, Brisbane Courier, 11th January 1895: 4; ‘Australia, the Islands and the East: Expansion of Messrs Burns Philp and Cos Shipping Trade’, The Queenslander, 25 March 1905: 28

[14] KAVHA Inventory, item H18.

[15] Coombe, F., School-Days in Norfolk Island, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London 1909: 12-14

[16] ‘Whale-Boat Capsizes: Narrow Escape of Crew’, The Argus, 24th July 1907: 6

[17] Quintal, S., (Ed), Norfolk Island 1914-1916: a visitor’s memoirs, OnLine Suppliers, Norfolk Island 2001: 16-17

[18] Ibid: 13, 20-21 27, 34, 49; O’Collins, M., An Uneasy Relationship: Norfolk island and the Commonwealth of Australia, Pandanus Books, Canberra 2002: 91-92, 101-103

[19] KAVHA Inventory H32 (2 x 15t launches and 3 whale boats transferred to the Pitcairners in 1856); ‘An Old Art Flourishes in Stockyard Road’, The Norfolk Island News, August 1976: 28

[20] Tofts, op. cit.

[21] Hitch, G., The Pacific War 1941-1945 and Norfolk Island, the Author, Norfolk Island 1992

[22] “Queen Shoots the Waves: Royal Visit to Norfolk Island’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 27th February 1974: 8-9

[23] Quintal, op.cit.; 37

Kingston Under The Ground

Kingston Under The Ground: some glimpses of the town beneath the grass

(original paper given at Rawson Hall, Burnt Pine, Norfolk Island, Saturday 26th November 2011)

The Kingston we see today is mainly the official town of the 1830s and 1840s, but it overlays the older 18th century town of Sydney Bay, as well as abandoned quarters of the 19th century town that are now little known.

The grand buildings and avenues of Kingston indicate the scale of the public works in the 1830s and 1840s that could be achieved with unlimited and well skilled convict labour.  It also tells us something about the commandants and their vision for the town and its future, and about the larger colonial and national forces that have shaped Norfolk Island’s history since 1788.

Kingston’s history has been dominated, in the recent past, by horror stories of the gallows, whip and lash, but archaeology can reveal to us another story, of men and women and children who have been born, lived and died here, struggled and laughed, been good and been bad, of a living community that can still be experienced.

The Town on Sydney Bay

The old town was born on 6th March 1788 when a party of convicts, officials and soldiers landed on the sandy shore, erected their tents and claimed the island for King George III.  Under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor Philip Gidley King RN, the town began to develop in a way that reflected many other coastal villages on rocky shores that the settlers were familiar with.  Although King had been born and raised in the Cornish town of Launceston, some 20 kilometres from the sea, his layout of the settlement reflected its English origins.  Just as Launceston was dominated by a castle on a hill, so the Government Houses of 1788 and 1792 were sited on a ridge overlooking the landing place and the roads that eventually lead inland to Ball Bay, Queensborough and Philipsburg, as well as keeping the whole settlement in view.

Plan of Kingston (then called Sydney or Sydney Bay) in 1793

Plan of Kingston (then called Sydney or Sydney Bay) in 1793.  Click on the map to enlarge it.

The Old Town was fairly compact, with the principal buildings in the area between the landing place and Government House along St George’s Street and Cascade Street (now Pier Street), and a hospital and several cottage-lined lanes, including Sirius Street and Cook’s Street, running off Church Street (now Bay Street) in the area now covered by the New Gaol ruins.  A major change to the town took place in 1804 when the third (and present) Government House was built on Dove’s Plot Hill, well away from the town but still close enough for its presence to be visible to any of the townsfolk.

As the town developed between 1788 and 1814, its growth occurred in two main phases.  The town really took shape around the landing place and along the beach between 1788 and 1796 under King.  The first courthouse, gaol, school, and church were located in this area.  In 1790 a hospital and hospital garden was built at the end of the cottage rows, between the beach and the swamps, anda year or so later lime burning had begun in the Chimney Hill area.  This established the town’s east end as the industrial quarter around the canal built in 1795.  It ran around the back of Chimney Hill to drain the swamplands. On the other side of the canal the Burying Ground was in place by 1796, marking the eastern limits of the town.

A second wave of building between 1800 and 1804 under Lieutenant Governor Joseph Foveaux of the New South Wales Corps produced a stout Gaol near the landing place and the present Government House (now the oldest operating vice-regal residence in the Commonwealth of Nations), as well as a number of new roads, bridges and seawalls, and a wooden-piped water supply to the town.  New lime kilns were built in 1802 to provide lime for further building works.  He also had instructions to build those essential 18th century welfare institutions, an orphan school and a workhouse, although it is not clear whether either was ever built.  After Foveaux’s departure, there was little new building work as arguments flew between Sydney and London over whether to close down or further develop the island.

The 1804 wing of Government House

The 1804 wing of Government House

Entrance to Government House cellars, beneath the 1804 wing.

Entrance to Government House cellars, beneath the 1804 wing.

Eventually the decision to close the island was made, and despite delays and dogged resistance from the settlers they were all eventually removed, and the darkest days of the town, which was by then known as Kings Town, came in the late summer of 1814.  A gang of thirty convicts and their guards rounded up the last of the stock, and killed and salted them for the deported settlers.  The last two remaining settlers, Thomas Ransom and William Hutchinson, then had to set the whole town ablaze.  As they sailed away on the Kangaroo on the 28th February 1814 from Sydney Bay for Port Jackson they left behind a smoking and silent town, populated only by the dogs that had been left behind to devour any remaining stock.  It must have been an apocalyptic site.

For the next eleven years the ruined town lay abandoned, although occasionally visited by passing whalers looking for water, and was even rumoured to be a haven for pirates.

When the convicts and soldiers returned in 1825, the town was covered by grass over two metres high growing among the chimneys and other ruins of the stone buildings.  Captain Turton of the 40th (2nd Somersetshire) Regiment reported back to Sydney that the town, although largely in ruins, retained plenty of stone buildings that could be restored, even for temporary uses.  The convicts included a group of mechanics from Port Macquarie, brought over for their building skills who were quickly put to work rebuilding the town.

Buildings that are known to have been restored or repaired (using the present-day names) include the Surgeon’s Kitchens (1792), the wards of the Civil Hospital (1793, possibly the church), the Guardhouse (1794, possibly the old bakehouse), the sea side of the Double Boatshed (1796), the Old Gaol (1801, demolished 1850), the Bakehouse (1794, demolished1848, possibly an old officer’s quarters), the Carpenter’s Shop (1790s, demolished 1849, now site of the REO Café), Government House (1804), the Chimney Hill canal and canal bridge (1795), the first hospital (1790, demolished 1828), the beach Lime Kilns and the Chimney Hill quarry.  Bay Street (formerly Church Street west), Pier Street (1788, formerly Cascade Street), Crankmill Lane (possibly part of St George’s Street), Middlegate Road, the Longridge Road (1792, formerly Queensborough Road) and the landing place (1788) also came back into use, as did the Arthur’s Vale Dam (1795).

Ruins of the Civil Hospital (1829), built on the foundations of the Barracks (1792), which was planned to be the Church of England.

Ruins of the Civil Hospital (1829), built on the foundations of the Barracks (1792).  The foundations were originally planned for the Church of England.

Arthur’s Vale was Kingston’s first country district, being used for growing food from the early months of 1788.  Field boundaries, altered creek channels, re-routed roads and the ruins of several buildings survive in the archaeological layer of the valley.

Alignment of old road around the top of Arthur's Vale joining the Queenborough Road and generally 'up country', and now called Country Road.

Alignment of old 1790s road around the top of Arthur’s Vale joining the Queenborough Road and generally going ‘up country’, and now called Country Road.

Many of the other buildings such as the old government houses, the school, the court house, and many of the cottages were originally built of timber or brick noggin and not rebuilt.  They survive, however, in an extensive archaeological layer just beneath the current land surface around the Pier and around Chimney Hill.  Car parking is restricted in the old St George’s Street area (now a grassy field west of the Crankmill), and around the old lime kilns, to protect this fragile resource from compression.  In both places fragments still come to the ground surface after rain, and bumps and depressions in the ground surface signal the ghosts of the old town below the grass.

Lane around Crankmill ruins, on general alignment of St George's Street, looking northwards from Land Place site.

Lane around Crankmill ruins, on general alignment of old St George’s Street, looking northwards from the Landing Place site.

Lane around Crankmill ruins, on general alignment of Church Street, looking eastwards.

Lane around Crankmill ruins, on general alignment of old Church Street, looking eastwards to the Crossroads.

The backways of the New Town

The canal had been built to drain the Kingston Swamps in 1795, but it was in the 1830s that the first serious attempts were made to drain and manage the wetlands.  Lieutenant Colonel James Morisset of the 48th (Northamptonshire) Regiment commanded the penal establishment between 1829 and 1834.  He lived in the restored 1804 Government House with his wife Emily and five young children, three of them born in the house, and was responsible for constructing much of the creek channel along its present straight alignment and the earliest of the bridges.

Morisset’s successor as Commandant, Major Joseph Anderson of the 50th (Queen’s Own) Regiment, and a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars in Spain, transformed the marshlands into a picturesque domain for Government House.  Anderson lived in Government House with his wife Mary, and six young children.  Major Anderson is to Kingston what Sir Christopher Wren is to London or Walter Burley Griffin is to Canberra.  His name adorns the pediments and plaques of several of the new town’s principle buildings.  Anderson introduced a scheme to transform the marshlands into a classical Arcadian setting for the vice-regal residence.

The area that is now the Kingston Oval was laid out as an extensive parterre garden called ‘The Boulevards’, with the creek diverted through a curving channel called ‘the Serpentine’ that, after flowing beneath several bridges passed through a grotto-like tunnel cut through the middle of Chimney Hill and into the re-built canal.  The channels were lined with loose coral stone rubble, and a timber sluice gate beside Old Bay Street Bridge maintained a constant water level in the Serpentine.  The military and civil officials and their ladies promenaded through the gardens on summery evenings, while convict gardeners laboured through the day to maintain this reminder of metropolitan glamour and sophistication.  Bligh Street separated the public gardens from the vice-regal domain.

The lines of the 'drains' built in the early 1830s, viewed from their convergence at the Chimney Hill tunnel or grotto.  The Serpentine is the dark green area in the centre, and the Boulevards and later sports fields were located in the greensward to the right of the Serpentine (this remains in use as Kingston Recreation Ground today, with cricket pitch).

The lines of the ‘drains’ built in the early 1830s, viewed from their convergence at the Chimney Hill tunnel or grotto. The Serpentine is the dark green area in the centre, and the Boulevards and later sports fields were located in the greensward to the right of the Serpentine (this remains in use as Kingston Recreation Ground today, with its cricket pitch reputedly the oldest in Australia).

Anderson left the Island in 1839, and his successor, Major Thomas Bunbury of the 80th (Staffordshire Volunteers) Regiment, instituted a more ‘practical’ approach to penal administration.  He considered the serpentine to be a sewer made to “fetidly meander” through the gardens, which he converted into sporting fields “for athletic pastimes and exercises such as cricket, quoits, bowls and footballs” that are still in use today.

He also demolished Irish Town, a hamlet of huts behind the New Military Barracks where soldiers and convicts traded in stolen goods and especially the illicit tobacco that was widely grown across the Island and also smuggled by trading ships in the harbour.  The quantities of clay pipes recovered from archaeological digs show the popularity of tobacco at this time.  The soldiers at first refused to destroy Irish Town, and fronted Bunbury with loaded muskets but he coolly stared them down.  The military were as rebellious as the convicts, and within months Bunbury and the regiment were withdrawn from the Island and sent to India.  The clandestine bazaars of Irish Town, along with the formal parterre gardens and the romantic serpentine and grotto, receded into memory.

The creeks in Kingston are, to a large extent, convict-made drainage channels built by Morisset and Anderson to drain the marshes, and were often marked on 19th century maps as simply ‘drain’, without individual names. By the 1860s the Melanesian Mission clergy were blaming “the large drain choked up, a dry season, so that the swampy ground near the settlement has been dry…” for an outbreak of typhoid among the Pitcairners.

The Pitcairners inherited the terminology of drains from the convicts and adapted it for their own use.  In modern Norf’k laengwij a watercourse or creek is known generically as a ‘drien’.  Specific names such as Wortamil drien, Taun drien and Myuusik waeli (Watermill Creek, Town Creek and Music Valley) date from the late 19th to mid 20th century, and speak of a more modern age that could use reinforced concrete, machinery and paid workers to tame the marshlands.

After drainage works to control flooding in Kingston were completed in 1941 Anderson’s Arcadian landscape almost completely vanished, and the area was the driest it had ever been for the next fifty years until it was partly re-constructed in 1994-95 by the Kingston & Arthur’s Vale Historic Area Management Board.  Archaeological investigations undertaken at that time revealed the extent of Anderson’s works and some of the stone bridgeworks can now been seen among the reeds and drienflaegs.

After heavy rain in August 2011, some idea of the extent of the original swamps and fens as they existed in 1788 can be imagined from this view at the southern end of Bligh Street.

After heavy rain in August 2011, some idea of the extent of the original swamps and fens as they existed in 1788 can be imagined from this view at the southern end of Bligh Street.

Another view of the wetlands after heavy rain, looking northwards towards the Old Military Barracks with Bligh Street marked by the line of Norfolk Island Pines on the left.

Another view of the wetlands after heavy rain, looking northwards towards the Old Military Barracks with Bligh Street marked by the line of Norfolk Island Pines on the left.

Protecting Kingston’s archaeology and artefacts

A number of archaeological investigations have been made in Kingston since the late 1970s, and the relics and artefacts recovered are now managed by the Norfolk Island Museums and mainly exhibited at the Commissariat Store Museum in Kingston.  A 1983 excavation inside the Guardhouse, possibly the Old Town’s bakery dating from 1794, revealed seven layers of occupation including evidence of the 1814 fire, pipe stems, fish and bird bones, hihi shells, shards of porcelain, pottery and glassware, nails, and a piece of human skull bone.

The convicts, the military and civil officials have for a long time been treated as an amorphous mass, a single story of brutality and harshness.  The archaeology of Kingston, and especially many of the artefacts that have been recovered over the years, give us pause to stop and look, and appreciate a rich landscape of many cultural layers and a shared history.

Kingston’s Old Town is today the largest landscape of 18th century buildings in Australia.  However, even more of the old town survives as an archaeological layer, especially around the Pier area, the Crossroads and around Chimney Hill.  The national and world heritage listings of the site provide statutory protection for these areas, but the full extent of the archaeological layer remains unknown.

The Crossroads, Kingston (formerly junction of Cascade Street and Church Street, now of Bay Street and Pier Street), site of gallows and, allegedly, burial place for executed prisoners.

The Crossroads, Kingston (formerly junction of old Cascade Street and old Church Street, now of Bay Street and Pier Street), site of gallows and, allegedly, burial place for  prisoners executed in the Old Town between 1788 and 1813.

The wetlands provide archaeological evidence of various attempts to tame and control this water body, as shown by investigations in the 1990s.  Irish Town will also survive in the archaeological layer, and archaeological research in that area would provide a real insight into Kingston’s unofficial Soho district of the 1830s.

Like all good stories, the history of Kingston has many more chapters yet to be explored and written.  The archaeology of the town is of the highest levels of significance in Pacific, Australia and Empire history, and its further investigation in the future is sure to provide insights into our colonial and convict history unmatched by any other historic site.

1, 2, 3 History: a tour of Kingston, Norfolk Island

 1, 2, 3 History: a tour on Friday 15th April 2011, in Kingston

(to be read in conjunction with the previous post on 1, 2, 3 History)

A visit to a number of sites in the KAVHA where the boundaries between the settlements are blurry and obscure and challenge the neat 1st, 2nd, 3rd Settlements descriptions.

Tour maps:

We will use the fold-out map in Issue 2 of Your World Inflight|Onshore magazine because:

  1. It shows a larger range of building dates than any other map,
  2. It is an example of how asking new questions about KAVHA’s history is beginning to influence how others are seeing the site’s heritage values.

We will also use the KAVHA fold-out map, 2nd edition (2010), because it is bilingual with Kingston’s place names written in English and Norf’k, illustrating a changing and more inclusive approach to interpreting the site.

Periods can’t be ranked

Stop 1:            No 9 Quality Row, Kingston

  • Land grant (Lot 33) to Nathaniel Lucas in 1791, surrendered to the Crown by 1814
  • Designed by Royal Engineers, built by convicts 1839-40, REO quarters until 1855, then occupied by transition staff (not sure which one, possibly William Waterson and his wife)
  • Balloted to Rev. George Hunn Nobbs and family 1856-1903, then returned to the Crown
  • Medical Officer’s Quarters 1903-1940
  • Burnt down 1940, rebuilt, burnt down again 1951, rebuilt 1968 by private lessee, reconstructed again 2000 by KAVHA
  • Lucas, Royal Enigineers, Nobbs were all significant in their day.  Can any one period really be said to be more important than another?
KAVHA Public Research Centre, 9 Quality Row, Kingston

KAVHA Public Research Centre, 9 Quality Row, Kingston

Impact of inconvenient history

Stop 2: Government House, Bligh Street, Kingston

  • On Dove’s Plot (proposed church site, after church site in Church Street was reallocated to the military) – hill was cleared and leveled: what does that description mean?
  • Kitchen – possibly Assistant Surgeon Jamison’s stone cottage of 1796?
  • Built 1803-04, renovated 1826-28, additional wings 1829-35
  • State Rooms, cellar and kitchen from earliest periods
  • The House is consistently presented as an 1830s building.
  • Span of famous residents: Major Joseph Foveaux, Captain John Piper, Captain Alexander Maconochie, Sir William Denison, Sir Charles Rosenthal – figures of national/international stature, not sadistic tyrants having their perverted ways, a stain on Australian history.
  • Orientation to both convict and military quarters is a 2nd settlement-centred interpretation – town layout in 1803 was different: views then were over town and to the islands: a ‘Country House’ outlook.  Quality Row built after renovations.
  • Prime example of an ‘inconvenient history’, the 1, 2, 3 method encourages interpretations of the House that are narrow and miss the strands of continuity.  Doesn’t stand up if looked at across all periods.
Government House, Kingston

Government House, Kingston, viewed from Quality Row

Bligh Street, Kingston, looking southwards from Quality Row

Bligh Street, Kingston, looking southwards from Quality Row

Transmission of knowledge

Stop 3: Chimney Hill, canal, and lime kilns, Bay Street, Kingston

  • Former industrial quarter of Kingston
  • Chimney Hill a vernacular place name since 1790s – how passed on?
  • Series of lime kilns in continuous use from 1790s to 1940s – how was operational knowledge passed on?  Only superseded by WW2 technologies and materials
  • Canal, built early 1790s around north of Chimney Hill to drain swamp, replaced early 1830s by Serpentine ‘grotto’ channel through Hill, then by 1941 concrete channel south of hill
  • Environmental change to swamplands and to bayside foreshore: show a story of humans shaping the landscape to their own ends.  The story can be read in the changes.  1, 2, 3 method separates each of these events so they appear unconnected.

    Chimney Hill (ridge on right) after after 150 years of quarrying for lime stone, with serpentine form of original entrance to Government House revealed by sequence of bridges from Bay Street, Kingston

    Chimney Hill (ridge on right) after after 150 years of quarrying for lime stone, with serpentine form of original entrance to Government House revealed by sequence of bridges from Bay Street, Kingston

Shared social values

Stop 4: Polynesian Marae site and Old Burying Ground, Bay Street, Emily Bay

  • Polynesian archaeology strongly suggests more than ‘occasional’ visits
  • No above-ground materials, very little documentary evidence – value of archaeology in the absence of built or documentary evidence
  • Old Burying Ground 1790s-1810s?  Dates uncertain.  Are graves still in situ?  Do pre-1820s headstones in present cemetery mark actual graves or are they moved from here – or elsewhere?  One used as a flagstone in 1840s renovation of OGH kitchen.
  • William Waterson returned, Norfolk King wanted to return, descendants still do – plenty of such stories: suggest strong genus loci or sense or spirit of place – something like the heritage list criterion of ‘social significance’.
  • This was the fringe of the Old Town, beyond the industrial area and across the creek [metaphorically, the River Styx].  King found Polynesian bones; other bones have been found in this area – Polynesian or European?  There is at least a ‘mortuary’ themed history of this area that would show attachment and settlement.  Other burial grounds across the island.  Is there is a sacred/spiritual aspect to such places that all communities have shared in some way.  1, 2, 3 method discourages exploring such histories.
Bay Street Bridge crossing canal, built early 1790s, connecting the Old Burying Ground to the left and the industrial area to the right.

Bay Street Bridge crossing canal, built early 1790s, connecting the Old Burying Ground to the left and the industrial area to the right.

Comparisons needed

Bay Street in existence since early 1790s – did it follow an even older abandoned Polynesian pathway?  Comparison: at the same time, roads from Sydney to Cooks River and to Parramatta following Cadigal paths.  Need more comparative work, as pointed out by many others, including Professor Nobbs.

Effects of 2nd Settlement Focus

Stop 5: The Old Town, Pier and Bay streets, Kingston

  • HMS Sirius site 1790 and causeway/stepping stones: metaphor for wider picture of known and unknown stories about same event and place.
  • Landing Place 1788 – ‘High Street’ – clue: building alignments – the Government Houses 1788/1792 (early layer exposed), OGH (Surgeon’s, Wentworth) Kitchen c1793, Civil Hospital Wards 3 & 4 c1793
  • Queensborough Road 1792
  • Surgeon’s Quarters 1826, US Consulate 1890s/1900s (whaling), Lions Club 1968
  • Guardhouse c1796/1841, Double Boatshed, seaside c1796/1841 (south wall scorch marks from ‘Great Fire of 1814’)
  • A focus on the 2nd Settlement in isolation has disconnected that period from roots in the older spaces of the Town of Sydney Bay, and in the very foundation of European colonization across Pacific Australasia.  The story of whaling and maritime activities is probably central to understanding the whole 19th century history of Kingston, across all periods.  The Localist historians have recognised the value of the whaling story, and the Academics have shown interest in maritime trade and voyages.
Bakehouse built c1793, later used as a Guardhouse in the 1820s, a library in the 1850s, and a boat shed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Pier Street, Kingston (Pier Store, built 1825,  in background).

Bakehouse built c1793, later used as a Guardhouse in the 1820s, a library in the 1850s, and a boat shed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Pier Street, Kingston (Pier Store, built 1825, in background).

Transmission of stories

Bloody Bridge, Gallows Gate, Murderer’s Mound, Quality Row? – early thanatourism from 1890s – ascribed a fantastic “history” to the site: where did these ideas come from – are they echoes of convict stories transmitted through the Pitcairners to the travel promoters??

Quality Row, Kingston, looking eastwards with Old Military Barracks on the left.

Quality Row, Kingston, looking eastwards with the Old Military Barracks on the left.

Bloody Bridge, at the eastern boundary of the Historic Area

Bloody Bridge, at the eastern boundary of the Historic Area

Murderer's Mound, outside the eastern boundary of Kingston Cemetery, reputed mass burial site of thirteen convict men executed after the Cooking Pot Riots in 1846

Murderer’s Mound, outside the eastern boundary of Kingston Cemetery, reputed mass burial site of thirteen convict men executed after the Cooking Pot Riots in 1846

Need for knowledge across periods

Stop 7: Pound Paddock, Quality Row, Kingston (depending upon time)

  • Town Creek or Soldier’s Gully Creek (layers of names) runs through here.
  • Tunneled/built over 1835, created Parade Ground.
  • Site of 1st All Saints Church 1870, destroyed in a cyclone 1872.
  • Church moved to Commissariat in 1874.
  • Old Military Barracks 3rd storey removed for Methodist Chapel 1884 – traces survive in interior gable ends.
  • St James Chapel Anglican 1842-1870, Methodist Chapel 1870s-1885 – 7th Day Adventist Church 1890s-1910.
  • 1908 Protest Burnings: Nos 1, 5, and 8 Quality Row, West Offices Old Military Barracks.
  • Missing buildings did not just vanish: they were quarried, recycled, parts still exist in other locations – connections to other local histories.
  • Pitcairner presence in the landscape is subtle, but it is not absent.  Often evident in what is no longer there.  That needs an understanding of what was once there, before jumping to any conclusions about motives.  Can’t address such a question without going beyond 1, 2, 3 method.
St James Church of England Chapel, built 1842, in north-eastern corner of the Prisoner's Barracks, view from Bounty Street, Kingston

St James Church of England Chapel, built 1842, in north-eastern corner of the Prisoner’s Barracks, view from Bounty Street, Kingston

Landscape is dynamic, not static.  It can be read like a document (e.g. new streets following old routes).  New chapters are always being written in the story of any landscape

The landscape fails to show nice, simple cleavages between periods: layers overlap, poke through into later layers, precise dating is uncertain.  Clean breaks between periods are not evident in the landscape – because they aren’t there.

“A historian of places needs a stout pair of boots” – an idea attributed to the great English landscape historian WG Hoskins, also to Australian historian Manning-Clark, also in the title of military historian Peter Stanley’s 2008 guide to visiting Australia’s overseas battle sites.

History is complicated and messy, just like real life.  Stout boots help us keep out feet on the ground – and encourage us all to get out there and explore our heritage places for ourselves, especially, as I hope I’ve shown you today, those places where the boundaries between the settlements are blurry and obscure and challenge the neat 1, 2, 3 method of writing Kingston’s history.

1, 2, 3 History: Norfolk Island’s inconvenient history

Some thoughts on writing KAVHA’s history, originally presented at the KAVHA Public Research Centre, No 9 Quality Row, Kingston on Friday 15th April 2011, for National Heritage Week 2011

 Bruce Baskerville explores the ways in which histories of the Kingston & Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (KAVHA) have been written and used, with a focus on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd Settlements method (‘1, 2, 3 history’) of organising history, and whether it is time to look at writing history in different ways.


I grew up on the Abrolhos Islands off the coast of Western Australia.  My father was a crayfisherman.  The islands are wind-blown low lying rocky outcrops surrounded by numerous coral cays and reefs, perfect crayfish habitat but very dangerous for shipping.  The name Abrolhos comes from a Portuguese phrase meaning ‘keep you eyes open’.

Typical scene of fishermen's jetties and rocky coast, Big Pigeon Island, Wallabi Group, Abrolhos Islands

Typical scene of fishermen’s jetties and rocky coast, Big Pigeon Island, Wallabi Group, Abrolhos Islands

The island are littered with shipwrecks, and it was just a short ride from Big Pigeon Island, where our camp was, to the site of the Batavia shipwreck, a Dutch East Indiaman wrecked in 1629 just as a mutiny was about the break out.  The little island where the survivors straggled ashore was known as Batavia’s Graveyard, not just because of the shipwreck but because of the subsequent insane and gory massacre that took place.  When Dad was at a loose end we would all pile into the boat and go over to the now more prosaically named Beacon Island to see ‘what the museum are up to’.  There were always artefacts undergoing conservation work or being packed up to be sent to Fremantle.  At other times we would go over to West Wallabi Island in the dinghy and play in the ruins of ‘the Fort’, to where some of the survivors had escaped the bloody regime on Batavia’s Graveyard.  At over 350 years old, the little fort is the oldest European structure in Australia, and as a boy I often day dreamt about the struggles it once witnessed.  The Batavia shipwreck site is now listed on the National Heritage List (NHL).

'The Fort' on West Wallabi Island, after heavy rain, built by survivors of the Batavia shipwreck and massacres in 1629, the oldest European-built structure in Australia.

‘The Fort’ on West Wallabi Island, after heavy rain, built by survivors of the Batavia shipwreck and massacres in 1629, the oldest European-built structure in Australia.

There is a close connection between the Abrolhos and Norfolk.  In 1822 Captain Philip Parker King, born here in Kingston in 1791, was in charge of a surveying expedition circumnavigating the continent.  He visited the Abrolhos, and the Wallabi group in particular, noting the many dangerous rocks and channels.  In fact, his mastheadman had mistaken the islands for a cloud shadow[1].  The next day he visited the adjacent mainland, and named Mt Fairfax and Moresby’s Flat-Topped Ranges after Commander Fairfax Moresby, a man who would later play an important role in the Pitcairner’s emigration to Norfolk.  PP King was the first Australian-born Admiral in the Royal Navy, and a speaker at last year’s history conference nominated him as the Norfolk Islander who has made the greatest contribution to Australian history.

Phillip Parker King, c1816.  Image State Library NSW

Phillip Parker King, c1816. Image State Library NSW

Today I work in another NHL site by the sea, but now in the Pacific rather than the Indian Ocean.  I wonder now was it Batavia’s Graveyard that stimulated my interest in history?  Or perhaps it was my great-grandfather Harrison, the son of a convict, who was completely blind but always had an endless supply of stories about the ‘olden days’.  Who can ever really know, other than that somewhere in that long-ago almost forgotten boyhood I was bitten by the history bug, and have remained well and truly bitten ever since.

National Heritage List (NHL) Values

KAVHA’s National Heritage List statement of significance is infused with history.  It is not listed specifically for its ‘history’ as such, but historical values permeate the statement of significance.

Criterion A “Events and processes” refer to its landscapes shaped by convict and Pitcairner settlement, the role of penal systems and changes in penal philosophy, its role in the development of NSW and VDL, an example of a place of severe punishment and in fuelling the anti-transportation movement.  Criterion B “Rarity” refers to a “distinctive Polynesian/European community” and the Norf’k language.  Criterion C “Research” is about the museum collections, archaeology, and documentary archives.  Criterion D “Principal characteristics of a class of places” covers the architectural styles, the ruins, and the ‘town plan’ of Kingston.  Criterion G “Social value” covers traditional practices such as the continuing use of the cemetery as well as sporting and recreational activities across the site, and Criterion H “Significant people” lists associations with Philip Gidley King and Alexander Maconnochie.

The word ‘history’ rarely appears in the statement of significance, but all of these values are shaped by historical processes.  They span the Polynesian, convict and Pitcairner periods without distinguishing between them: they all contribute to KAVHA’s national heritage values.

The ways KAVHA’s history has been written

Historiography is the study of historians and the ways they write history.  It is about the history of the ways history has been written.  It is a history of writing history, and the study of the changing interpretation of historical events in the works of individual historians.

Any student enrolling in history at university will be introduced to historiography in the first year, and be able to enrol in ever-more detailed study of this subject as they progress through their course.

Some people find this idea quite confronting, that history is a product created by historians rather than a set of concrete scientific facts that can be discovered.  This is a huge area of debate among historians, and there are many contending schools of thought[2].  In a very general sense, there is a basic division between those who regard history writing as an art that is conveyed by story telling, and those who regard history as a science based upon statistical analysis.  In reality, there is probably no historian who belongs exclusively in one camp or the other, as all rely upon some sort of verifiable research for their information, and use some sort of story telling to make their research available to readers.

I gravitate towards the end of the ‘history is art’ part of the spectrum, to the view that narrative and story telling are central to the historians work, but that story must be drawn from and seek to explain good verifiable research.  There is no doubt in my mind that, after looking at many of the histories written about Norfolk Island, telling a good story has been upper-most in the mind of many of Norfolk’s historians or history writers.

Histories come in many forms.  There is the conventional ‘history book’, as well as in more recent times films, radio, television, videos, DVDs and so on.  Histories also come in the form of pamphlets and brochures, catalogues and guides, museum exhibitions, public artworks, websites and so on.  A heritage historian will also say that the landscape and everything in it is a history text, if you know how to read it like a book.

I have analysed 43 written histories for this paper (I know there are more, but I think that’s a representative sample), published between 1860 and 2009.  Some of them you will know, such as Lady Belcher’s The Mutineers of the Bounty, and their descendants in Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands, published in New York in 1870, or the several editions and revisions of Merval Hoare’s Norfolk Island published in Queensland between 1969 and 2003.  Others are relatively unknown, such as Florence Coombes’ School-days in Norfolk Island, published in London in 1909.  Others again may not be usually considered as ‘history’, such as Alice Buffett’s Speak Norfolk Today: an encyclopedia of the Norfolk Island language, published on Norfolk in 1999 and Sue Draper and Tracey Yager’s Fletcher’s Mutiny Cyclorama exhibition booklet published on island in 2004.  The least known, but possibly the most radical, is Professor Raymond Nobbs’ unpublished Historical Review written in 1992 for the first KAVHA Interpretation Plan.

Overall, these publications can be talked about in several ways.

Chronologically, five predate 1914 when Norfolk Island became an Australian territory. Eleven pre-date 1979 when Norfolk achieved self-government.  The great majority (76%) have been published since 1980.  Eleven have been published since 2000 – the same quantity in the last decade as in the whole of the period before self-government.

Where have they been published?  All of the pre-1914 books were published in London, California or New York, by missionary or religiously-oriented publishers.  The pattern doesn’t really change up to the Second World War.  The first publication here on island was Britts’ The Commandants: the tyrants who ruled Norfolk Island in 1980, although the first printing of a history book on Norfolk seems to be Beryl Nobbs-Palmer’s Dictionary of Norfolk Words and Usage in 1986.  The publication details in locally published and/or printed books since 1980 don’t follow a consistent format, but I’m guessing from these details that it is in the mid-1980s that the technology and materials for printing and binding books first became available on Norfolk?

With the majority of Norfolk’s history books published since 1980, it is useful to ask whether they all tell the same story or are there particular approaches or themes that predominate.  The question is easier to ask than answer.  Based upon the content of each book, I have divided the authors into four groups: Norfolkists, Australianists, Localists and Academics.

Norfolkists tend to focus on the distinctiveness of Norfolk, especially its Pitcairner culture, and its separateness from Australia.  Australianists tend to focus on Norfolk’s connections with Australia.  Localists tend to focus on details of Norfolk’s history, often in small or discrete periods (e.g. Norfolk language, the cemetery).  They are most like local historians in mainland communities.  Academics, like the localists, have tended to focus on discrete events and studied them in their own right (e.g. the Sirius shipwreck).

The output of these groups is not even: Norfolkists account for 36% of Norfolk’s history books, Localists for 33%, Academics for 20% and the Australianists for 11%.  The ‘contest’ for readers, so to speak, is not between Norfolkists and Australianists, but between Norfolkists and Localists.  This suggests that Norfolk’s version of the history wars is being waged between two different versions of Norfolk Island history, rather then between pro-Norfolk or pro-Australia histories as might be generally supposed.

The Norfolkist histories dominated the early 1980s to the early 1990s, but have very gradually been superseded by the Localist histories in the late 1990s and late 2000s.  This trend is illustrated by looking at three key historical events.  The Bicentennial in 1988 resulted in four histories being published: one Norfolkist, one Australianist, one Localist and one Academic.  A decade later and the Centenary of Federation in 2001 saw two Localist and two Academic histories.  A half-decade later and the Sesquicentenary of the Pitcairner migration in 2006 saw two Norfolkist histories.  Apart from another Norfolkist history in 2008, the decade was dominated by Localist and Academic histories, in contrast to the Norfolkist 1980s and early 1990s.

This gradual change also reflects a change in who publishes the history books.  The Norfolkist histories tend to have been published and printed by commercial off-island publishing houses, whereas the Localist histories tend to have been self-published by their writers and printed on-island.

Coming back to the National Heritage List, it could be expected that the Australianist histories would have featured more prominently.  Why is it that, in fact, they are the smallest group of written histories?  Why do they all take a single basic form: a guide to Government House?  One of the Academic histories, Maeve O’Collins’ An Uneasy Relationship, looks at the evolution of the federal administration on the island between 1914 and the 1930s.  The Australianist histories, generally speaking, look at political power, and how it is displayed and acted out.  There is very little writing about the role of the Norfolk Island-born in Australian history, or vice versa.  Philip Parker King is emblematic of this situation, but just to mention the men and women who served during two world wars, or the aviatrix Bonnie Quintal, merely hints at a wealth of unexplored histories.

I believe there is one history book that is the key to understanding history writing on Norfolk, and that is Merval Hoare’s Norfolk Island: an outline of its history 1774-1968.

First edition of Merval Hoare's Norfolk Island, published in 1968

First edition of Merval Hoare’s Norfolk Island, published in 1968

The book is divided into four sections, each covering the a distinct period between 1774 and 1945, with a fourth period ‘The Postwar Years’ covering 1946 to the present day.  Mrs Hoare is the first writer to use the terms ‘First Penal Settlement’, ‘Second Penal Settlement’ and ‘Third Settlement: The Pitcairn Islanders’ to label the sequence of periods covered by the book.  Others had used the terms before, but usually vaguely and often only to distinguish between two convict periods.  No previous history book was organised according to this 1, 2, 3 structure.

Presumably Mrs Hoare had read many of the earlier histories, and had become accustomed to these usages.  Perhaps the idea helped her arrive at a convenient structure for her book.  Her book is notable for its time.  It was comprehensive in its coverage, it was easily readable and accessible in paperback form, and it was contemporary, bringing history right up to the present day.  Mrs Hoare had been a student at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, and brought a scholarly rigour to her research that contrasts with earlier publications.  She sought to tell a whole or complete story of Norfolk Island, which again contrasted with earlier writers.  And, with a retail price of just $3.95, it was bound to be influential.  That influence can be seen in many subsequent histories.

Both the Norfolkist and Australianist historians adopted Mrs Hoare’s first, second, third settlements structure.  An early example is a journal article by R. Nixon Dalkin published in 1971 called ‘Norfolk Island – the First Settlement 1788-1814’[3].  This structure shapes all the versions of Government House guidebooks, and also the writings of Professor Raymond Nobbs, most notably his history trilogy of First Settlement in 1988, Second Settlement in 1991 and Third Settlement in 2006.  The leading Australianists and Norfolkists both use this approach.  The Localist and Academic historians, in contrast, have not paid so much attention to this “1, 2, 3 History”.

The ways that 1, 2, 3 History has been used

The PHA (NSW) held its silver anniversary conference, Islands of History, last year here on Norfolk Island[4].  One of the speakers was Babette Smith, author of Australia’s Birthstain and several other books.  Babette’s conference paper was titled The Handover: a glimpse of men and management in the penal colonies.

Babette Smith in Kingston, April 2011.  Photo Robin Nisbet

Babette Smith in Kingston, April 2011. Photo Robin Nisbet

It is the conclusion to Babette’s paper that has captured my attention:

The end of the Norfolk Island penal colony and the arrival of the Pitcairn Islanders have traditionally been treated as two separate stories. In this they are a metaphor for the disjunction in Australian history between the first half of the nineteenth century and the second. It is a gap that has allowed distortion about the convict era to flourish and so prevented Australians from achieving a realistic and profound understanding of our own society.[5]

Several issues leap out at me: the idea of two separate histories, the idea of Norfolk Island as a part of Australian history, the idea that our understandings of the convict era are distorted.  But for now, I’d just like to explore that first idea of separate histories.

This idea of separate histories is represented here on Norfolk by two forms: the periodisation of 1st, 2nd and 3rd settlements, and what might be called the ‘1855 or 1856 Disjunction’.

In 1938, the Archbishop of Sydney, Dr. Howard Mowll, in a radio broadcast to the island from St. Andrew’s Church of England in suburban Summer Hill, repeated what seems by then to have been the accepted version of the island’s history:

In 1826, convicts found guilty of additional crimes while serving sentences in New South Wales were transported there.  Like animals they lived and like animals they died.  In 1855 the second settlement was evacuated from the island and a year later the Pitcairn Islanders settled there.”[6]

You will note he said that the penal station, which he identified as the ‘second settlement’, was closed in 1855 and a year later the Pitcairners arrived in 1856.

A reading of the documents from the period reveals a different story to that given by Dr Mowll.  On 7th May 1855 the Lady Franklin and the mission boat Southern Cross left for Hobart with a large group of convicts and soldiers, leaving behind a small party of officials and convicts to maintain the island until the Pitcairners arrived.  Over a year later, they did arrive on the Morayshire, and on 8th June were greeted on the pier.  For another 2½ weeks the Pitcairners and the convicts lived together as the island was gradually handed-over to the newcomers.  On 26th June 1856 the convicts and officials sailed for Hobart on the Morayshire.  Perhaps this had been a brief, but uneasy and sullen time that the Pitcairners had not wanted to recall in their histories?  Well, what did they say about it at the time?

A seaman who attended the funeral of the infant Phiebe Addams on 15th June wrote “Every body on the island was present, and the scene was very affecting and nearly all the Europeans present were in tears[7].  The Pitcairner’s leader, Reverend George Hunn Nobbs, wrote in his journal with some empathy after burying the baby, that …we committed the mortal remains to its parent earth in that graveyard, where stands the record of many whose crimes banished them from country and friends...”[8]  Reverend Nobbs asked Governor Sir William Denison if one of the convicts, William Fields, could stay with them, but Denison refused the request[9].  Lt Howard of HMS Herald wrote in his journal that “The convicts behaved very well in the fortnight they were with the natives, teaching them to manage the stock and to plough, work the mills, drive bullocks etc. and considering the strange things horses, ploughs etc. are to people who never saw them before, they learnt a good deal.”[10]  John Buffett wrote in his journal that ‘We were treated with great kindness by the Constables and prisoners.’[11]

So, not only did the Pitcairners and the convicts live together, learning skills and making friends, but they actually seemed to enjoy their time together.  Their actual experience wasn’t one of separation and dislike, but of sharing and socialising, and formally and informally transmitting a knowledge about the island that continues to be reflected in, for example, the survival of many of the convict era place names to this day.

The Morayshire, as depicted in a large mosaic panel telling a story of Norfolk's history located in the Norfolk Airport Terminal.

The Morayshire, as depicted in a large mosaic panel telling a story of Norfolk’s history located in the Norfolk Airport Terminal.

Perhaps Dr Mowll just made a slip of the tongue with his dates?  An easy thing to do, but I think not.  It is an enduring view, repeated in many other written histories since then, that the convicts left in 1855 and the Pitcairners arrived in 1856.  It emphasizes separation and difference, and stresses a lack of continuity and commonality.  It was most recently restated this month in the preamble to the governance reform document agreed between the Federal and Territory governments.[12].

The 1855 or 1856 Disjunction is important because it shows that trying to set up separate, self-contained periods is fraught and not really achievable, even when the events that mark either side of that boundary between the periods appear at first glance to be so clear.

Dr Howard Mowll, Archbishop of Sydney 1933-1958

Dr Howard Mowll, Archbishop of Sydney 1933-1958

Dr Mowll also referred in his radio broadcast to the ‘second settlement’.  This division of Norfolk’s history is usually expressed as 1st (1788-1814), 2nd (1825-1855/56) and 3rd (1856- present) Settlements.  The break between the 1st and 2nd settlements has been strongly enforced by the heritage histories of Kingston written from the 1970s onwards.  Government House is a prime example.  The original house was built in 1804 and burnt out in 1814, then ‘renovated’ (the word used at the time) between 1826-28 and occupied in 1829 by Commandant James Morriset and his family.  The State Rooms, the kitchens and the cellars all survive from 1804, with 1820s Norfolk Island Pine joinery, but every written history dates this building to 1828 or 29.  It has been labeled in the Government House guidebooks as the 4th Government House, preceded by the 1st (1788-1792), 2nd (1792-1804), both behind the pier, and the 3rd (1804-1814) houses.  For me, the house dates from 1804 and it is time to accept that and tell its larger story.  Trying to shoehorn it into the ‘2nd Settlement’ period is only useful for maintaining this periodisation, and actually serves to obscure its earlier history just because it is, quite frankly, an inconvenient history.

These attempts to impose tidy chronological periods on Norfolk’s history, with each period distinct and hermetically sealed from each other are, I believe unsustainable.

History is messy and untidy, as revealed by the attempts to deal with the island’s Polynesian history.  Polynesian artefacts have been recovered on the island for many years.  Lieutenant Governor Phillip Gidley King noted in 1788 evidence of earlier Polynesian settlement in the form of banana groves and buried canoes, and the two Maori men, Tuki and Huru, who he brought here in 1793 recognized many of the objects that littered the landscape[13].  During the 1990s extensive archaeological excavation revealed evidence of a substantial Polynesian village behind Emily Bay.  Some writers have tried to re-label the periods as 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th, others have thought to collapse the two convict periods into one period to preserve the 1, 2, 3 arrangement, but neither approach has really caught on.  To add to the confusion, information was given to me last year by Dr Tim Causer, a London-based speaker at the Islands of History conference, who has found instructions to ship captains from the period between 1814 and 1825, when the island was supposed to be ‘abandoned’, to avoid the pirates based on Norfolk Island![14]  Merval Hoare wrote in the final paragraph of the First Settlement section in her Norfolk Island that “The crews of casual ships calling during the next eleven years found an empty island, quiet except for the bird song…”  So, she writes that ships called in – what for, who were they?  Perhaps we should now be talking of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th settlements?

Dr Tim Causer in Kingston, April 2011.  Photo Robin Nisbet

Dr Tim Causer in Kingston, April 2011. Photo Robin Nisbet

The 1, 2, 3 method of organising history

Breaking up the past into periods or blocks of time, and giving them names or labels, is called periodisation.  This is a way of trying to set out a framework for understand the past, such as the Tudor Dynasty or the Jurassic period.  History is a long continuum, or perhaps cycle, and in that large scale all systems of periodisation are arbitrary, often overlapping, and continually being challenged and changed.  However, periodisation is useful because it provides a tool for describing and analyzing small chunks of the past, and interpreting that past on a human scale.

Just talking about a method of periodisation makes us think about it, and whether it helps us answer the questions we might be asking.  Periodisation as such can be a useful tool for understanding the past, provided that it does not become rigid and set in stone, and used to obscure or prevent historians from researching and writing about the past in other ways.

The NHL Statement of Significance refers to the 1, 2, 3 periods, but not in a rigid way.  Historical events and processes are described to illustrate the significance of the site, but we don’t end up with anything like the first settlement being significant against one criterion and the third against another.

As I have argued, the importance of the 1855 or 1856 Disjunction is that it clearly illustrates a major problem with the 1, 2, 3 method: just when does each period begin and end.  It may be easier to consider the whole of the 1850s as a decade of change across Australasia.

As is alluded to in the Babette Smith quote, the 1850s is an important period in Australasian history.  In Victoria and New South Wales, the gold rushes of the early 1850s have the iconic role of terminating the convict era and issuing in a new era that is supposed to be the foundation of contemporary Australia. Norfolk of course lacks a gold rush period, but its place is taken by the departure of the convicts and the arrival of the Pitcairners in 1856.  In Western Australia, it is the end of the free enterprise Swan River Colony in 1850 and the arrival of the imperial convict establishment.  In New Zealand settler self-government from 1852 and the Maori King movement between 1853 and 1858 mark the period.  New Caledonia became a French penal colony in 1852.  Clearly, the 1850s was a momentous decade all across Australasia, but whether it is a distinct ‘period’ should still be regarded with a critical eye.

the 1850s began with a new colony being created by separating the Port Phillip District from New South Wales, heralding the beginning of a momentous decade of change throughout Australasia.  Image My Place

The 1850s.  Image My Place

The apparently neat periodisation of 1st, 2nd and 3rd settlements that has been used in writing Norfolk’s history by Norfolkists and Australianists actually masks a richer, wilder, more fluid and interwoven history.  How is the Polynesian period to be accounted for – do we even know if there was only one period of Polynesian settlement?  Perhaps there were more than one?  Once the periods are questioned, other questions arise.  Are the convict periods really one or two?  Does the Pitcairner period end when the majority of Pitcairn descendants are born on Norfolk rather then Pitcairn?  And so on.  Are these 1, 2, 3 periods still helping us understand the past in the early 21st century?

After I read Babette Smith’s book Australia’s Birthstain I came to different questions about the convict past and especially the invention and imposition of the convict stain.  Did the 1850s really mark the end of convictism in eastern Australia, and its commencement in Western Australia and New Caledonia, or does it mark another phase in the same story.  As transportation ended the convicts did not simply disappear.  Instead, they became the skeletons in the community closet, the measure of shameful ancestry and doubtful national characteristics, romanticized as innocent hanky-stealers or disparaged as useless dregs of the Old World.  It is a painful story than can be lost, unable to be confronted and at least some of the distortions revealed and despatched, if the past is divided into separate and unconnected periods.

Babette Smith argues that the separation of convict and Pitcairner history on Norfolk is a metaphor for a distortion in Australian history that separates the convict era from everything that follows.  The 1855 or 1856 Disjunction, and 1, 2, 3 history, are both markers of this distortion.  It is also reflected in the obscuring and even denial of earlier, non-second settlement, dating of buildings and structures such as Government House, and the ambiguity shown towards the Polynesian period.

Mainland reviewers of Norfolk histories, although few and far between, have also remarked upon these distortions.  A reviewer of Merval Hoare’s Norfolk Island (1977 edition) wrote last year that

There are surely not many places on earth where a local history can be divided up so neatly into self-contained epochs, with virtually no strands between each era. Norfolk Island was uninhabited until the Polynesian diaspora around 1100 until approximately 1400.  Interestingly, Hoare’s book does not address this phase at all, … Over half of this book is devoted to the third settlement, which is after all, the longest phase of white settlement on the island.   At times I found myself wishing that the author would draw breath and move away from the narrative a little.  For example – how did Norfolk Island intersect with the passing Pacific traffic? What was the nature of the contact between Sydney and Norfolk Island in the first and second settlements?  There are obviously sensitivities that she is tip-toeing around: the eviction of the Pitcairn/Norfolk Islanders from the abandoned Crown buildings at Kingston; the reports about homosexuality that expedited the closure of the second settlement. … I read the second edition of this book, which has an additional chapter added onto what had clearly been the conclusion.  There has since been a third edition which has no doubt added an extra chapter again.  That’s the problem with this approach- it tends to result in more farewells than Melba, or perhaps the third book of the Lord of the Rings.[15] 

Another reviewer, and biographer of Major Foveaux (the first resident of Government House), after reading Peter Clarke’s Hell and Paradise became quite irritated and wrote:

Those who have read Robert Hughes’s Fatal Shore, which I described at the Australian Identities Conference in Dublin as ‘a fine novel loosely based on history’, will recognize the name of the monster of Norfolk Island.  Riddled with emotional adjectives, Hughes’s bestseller contrives to link disconnected events, misrepresent the routine as exceptional (and the exceptional as routine), and in the case of Foveaux, create a monster worthy of Dr Frankenstein. … Hughes is matched if not outdone by Peter Clarke’s elaborate coffee table book entitled Hell and Paradise: the Norfolk-Bounty-Pitcairn Saga.  This includes a verbatim transcript of a curious passage entitled ‘Recollections by a Commandant’s Wife’, which appeared in John McMahon’s 1913 work Fragments of the Early History of Australia from 1788 to 1812.  You will also find it quoted as fact in the Norfolk Island cabaret show ‘Trial of The Fifteen’. … Now the acceptance by McMahon and later Clarke of this as a factual document, relating to Foveaux, presents us with a number of problems … [The passage is] actually an extract from an 1859 novel by George John Lang … originally published as a series of short stories in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words.  Dickens was obsessed with Botany Bay, and had an important role in shaping perceptions of the colony through his entirely fictitious accounts.  Much as with modern film or television depictions, fantasy became reality.[16]

Cover of Hughes' The Fatal Shore, with Bradley's 1790 illustration of the wreck of HMS Sirius off Kingston on the cover (and yes, it is meant to be upside down).

Cover of Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, with Bradley’s 1790 illustration of the wreck of HMS Sirius off Kingston on the cover.

Periodisation is not the only culprit at play here, but 1, 2, 3 History encourages the periods to be pitched against each other.  Third is better than first, which better than second, and so on, as shown by a 2008 publication which reads “[the] 6 June 1825 – a settlement date that is not celebrated on Norfolk Island…[17]

This has been taken on board by others, as illustrated by these two quotes.  A New Norfolk tourist website in Tasmania writes on their history page that:

Over the next two years more than half the island’s population were evacuated and by 1814 the settlement on Norfolk Island was abandoned, and all buildings were destroyed to discourage unauthorised occupation of the Island.   Norfolk Island was to remain uninhabited for the next 11 years, until the second settlement, but that is someone else’s story….. [18]

The Society of Pitcairn Descendants take a slightly different tack on their website:

During the first and second occupations of Norfolk Island, the island was part of the colonies of New South Wales, and later Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). However, in 1856, the Pitcairners having arrived on Norfolk Island, Queen Victoria ordered that it be a separate colony of the British Crown.[19]

The Tasmanians (that is, ‘first settlement descendants’) separate themselves from the other settlements.  The Pitcairners (that is, ‘third settlement descendants’) also separate themselves from the other settlements.  Both groups rather unwittingly assume a use of the 1, 2, 3 method.  They have both accepted, perhaps innocently, the method without question, and developed a view of the past that maintains a certain status quo and is unwelcoming of any attempt to explore what the settlements, or the people of these settlements, might have in common, such as this place Kingston that they have both shaped and been shaped by.

There is some irony in that it is the ‘second settlement’ history, apparently so reviled and unworthy of commemoration, that is the focus of the site’s World Heritage values.

If 1, 2, 3, history is no longer a sustainable method for really understanding Norfolk’s history, then what alternatives are available?

Is it time to write KAVHA’s history in different ways?

I said before that possibly the most radical of Norfolk’s recent histories is Professor Raymond Nobbs’ unpublished Historical Review written in 1992 for the first KAVHA Interpretation Plan.  It may seem that I am contradicting myself, having identified Professor Nobbs as a leading exponent of 1, 2, 3 history.  However, his unpublished history features another aspect of Merval Hoare’s Norfolk Island that tends to get lost in the 1, 2, 3 method.  While Mrs Hoare presents the first and second settlements in a rather monotone way (in that they are only about the convict experience), her treatment of the third settlement is broken up into a number of chapters covering events such as whaling, education, and laws & administration, or places such as the Melanesian Mission and the Cable Station, or phases such as turn of the century and World War Two.  She allows for a more diverse history during the third settlement, and uses themes and places to tell those stories.

Professor Nobbs attempted to take this a stage further.  His 1992 work was structured around a set of 12 themes such as the natural environment, penology, the early Pitcairners, the sea and religion & education.  He rather summarily dismisses the Polynesians by assigning them to a preliminary discussion on ‘brief encounters and visitors to Norfolk Island’.

In an inversion of Mrs Hoare’s approach to the third settlement, Professor Nobbs then subdivides each of the themes into first, second and third settlement histories.  The opportunity for using a thematic history of, say, the sea to explore the many ways people have travelled to and from the island and lived from its marine resources between 1100 and the present day was not taken, and so to the potential move beyond a periodic history was not entirely realised.

Professor Raymond Nobbs.  Photo Odyssey

Professor Raymond Nobbs. Photo Odyssey

However, Nobbs in a brief discussion on why Kingston is the focus for Norfolk’s history, stated that in writing any history of Norfolk Island “…certain essential points must be born in mind.”  These are:

  1. All time periods need to be covered beginning with volcanic activity that created the island 3 million years ago,
  2. The whole island should be covered,
  3. There is scope for local histories to be developed, especially around the Mission Lands, Anson Bay, Cascade and the National Park,
  4. All sources, including archaeology, should be used,
  5. Need to understand why the surviving structures in Kingston are mostly those associated with authority,
  6. Be aware of the wider context of British and Australian history, and
  7. There is a need to overcome an undue emphasis on the second settlement.

These ‘essential points’, combined with a thematic approach, set out an agenda for historical research and site interpretation that, had it been explored in the early 1990s, may have lead to a different historiography to that I have explored today.

By the time the final version of the KAVHA interpretation plan was prepared in 1995, the 12 themes had been reduced to four storylines: Natural & Built Environment, The Penal Environment, Island Life and Industrial & Commercial Activity.  Unfortunately, the final plan was never adopted, and this work has instead been left to gather dust.  It is perhaps ironic that nearly 20 years later the KAVHA interpretation plan currently being prepared, by a very different method of analysing the several statements of significance for the site, arrived at a set of storylines for telling the stories of the place across time that are not dissimilar: Island & Sea, Voyaging, Hell & Paradise and Living Traditions.  These storylines, however, are not subdivided into first, second and third settlement periods.  Instead, it is proposed to explore these stories through biographies and events.  I think that the 18 Days in June 1856 is a prime candidate for exploring these themes.

Which, of course, leads us back to KAVHA’s statement of significance for its entry on the National Heritage List.

Professor Nobbs, in his unpublished Historical Review, commented on the role of Kingston in Norfolk Island history:

Kingston with Arthur’s Vale is indeed the appropriate area from which much of Norfolk Island’s past can be told and on which much of its history should focus.  So much either actually occurred here, or was the place from which many events emanated, thus determining the activity on the rest of the island.

Moreover, nothing else on this scale provides such tangible evidence of the past, and nothing else so excites a feeling for the history of the island.  All three settlements had their origins here, and anyone passing through Norfolk normally disembarked here.[20]

Nevertheless, he cautioned against putting all the history eggs in one basket.  Some parts of Norfolk’s history could be better told in other places, such as St Barnabas and Cascade.  Other districts on the island should not have their own local history obscured by regarding Kingston’s history as being the same things as Norfolk’s history.  Or, to put in another way, denying that there are other local histories or indeed other ‘whole of Norfolk’ histories centred on, say, Burnt Pine or Steele’s Point or Longridge, will not increase Kingston’s significance.

The ruins of the Longridge Agricultural Station, while part of the mid-19th century convict system, also signal the possibilities for exploring local histories on Norfolk Island in their own right.

The ruins at Longridge symbolise the possibilities for exploring local histories on Norfolk Island in their own right.

The Localist historians and researchers have been quietly working in this very area of research.  Examples include Gil Hitches The Pacific War, which contains a history of early Burnt Pine, Robert Tofts’ Whaling Days which looks at a single industry from the 1790s to the 1960s without needing to use a 1, 2, 3 structure, Helen Sampson’s Over the Horizon which reveals a distinctive Polynesian history for Emily and Cemetery Bays, and the two cemetery histories by R. Nixon Dalkin and Shane Quintal that provide Kingston’s east end with its own special character.

These histories have all avoided the 1, 2, 3 method, showing that it can be done.  At the local level, inclusive histories have been and are being written.  Perhaps what is needed now is a local history of Kingston & Arthur’s Vale that can draw out its several hundred years of human activities.  A thematic approach would help to rescue the town from bearing the burden of telling all of Norfolk’s history.

The convicts and the Pitcairners did share this place, especially Kingston and presumably at least Longridge and Cascade as well, even if only for 18 days, and they enjoyed and learnt from that time together.

Norfolk Island was once central to writing about Australian history, but over the last three or four decades it has simply vanished from the gaze of Australian historians (with the regrettable exception of Robert Hughes’ Fatal Shore, still echoing Dr Mowll’s fanciful view of ‘like animals they lived, and like animals they died’)[21].  My hypothesis is that the rise of 1, 2, 3 history, while potentially giving everyone their own segregated ‘patch’ of the past to write about, has actually deterred historians from considering the inclusion of Norfolk Island in a bigger history.  Instead, they have avoided an apparently exclusive history, possibly in some cases by a sensitivity to what they perceive to be the cultural mores of a ‘foreign’ society.  For example, is the historical knowledge that women on Norfolk had the vote between 1856 and 1897 adequately explained by saying “we did it first”, or could that story be explored to see whether it influenced the gaining of votes by women in New Zealand in 1893, South Australia in 1894, Western Australia in 1899, and eventually New South Wales and the Commonwealth in 1902?  I earlier referred to Philip Parker King, the armed forces and Bonnie Quintal as islanders influential on a national scale.  This is a hypothesis to be further explored.

KAVHA’s NHL statement of significance provides a set of values that can be tested using a thematic approach to history and story telling.  Doing this in a way that avoids the 1, 2, 3 method is the challenge.  It provides us with a research agenda for the future.

History writing in Norfolk and the rest of Australia has given us a distorted view of the past that now needs to be challenged if history is to be a part of, as Babbette Smith says, “achieving a realistic and profound understanding of our own society”.  And, I would add, the possibility of Kingston being the site of a new and inclusive way forward.

[1] Captain Phillip P. King RN, Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coats of Australia performed between the years 1818 and 1822, Vol. II, John Murray, London 1827: Chapter 4 passim, especially entries for 17th and 18th January 1822.

[2] For a recent example, and good summary of these debates, see Ann Curthoys and John Docker, Is History Fiction?, UNSW Press, Sydney 2006/2010.

[3] Dalkin, R. Nixon, ‘Norfolk Island – the First Settlement 1788-1814’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 57, Part 3, September 1971

[4] “Islands of History”, 25th Anniversary Conference of the Professional Historians’ Association (NSW), Governer’s Lodge, Norfolk Island, 18-25 July 2010

[5] Babette Smith, The Handover: a glimpse of men and management in the penal colonies, unpub MSS, paper presented at ‘Islands of History’ Conference.

[6]‘Norfolk Island: Progress Over 150 Years’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7th March 1938: 8

[7] Quoted in Shane Quintal, The Pitcairn Islanders of Town Cemetery Norfolk Island, the author, Norfolk Island 2008: 15

[8] Quoted in Raymond Nobbs, George Hunn Nobbs 1799-1884: Chaplain on Pitcairn and Norfolk Island, The Pitcairn Descendants Society, Norfolk Island 1984: 53

[9] Quoted in Nobbs: 64, 75

[10] Quoted in Quintal, op.cit: 10.

[11] Quoted in Smith., op. cit.

[12] Norfolk Island Roadmap, printed paper, dated 2nd March 2011, tabled in Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly, 9th March 2011

[13] Helen Sampson, Over the Horizon: the Polynesian settlement on Norfolk Island, the author, Norfolk Island 2005: 1

[14] pers. Comm., July 2010

[15] The Resident Judge of Port Phillip, review posted 17th November 2010, at accessed 11th April 2011.

[16] Whitaker, Anne-Maree, ‘From Norfolk Island to Foveaux Strait: Joseph Foveaux’s role in the Expansion of Whaling and Sealing in Early Nineteenth Century Australasia’, The Great Circle, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2004: 51-59

[17] Hubber, Brian, A Place of Angels and Eagles: the story of Norfolk Island, Norfolk Island Museums, Kingston 2008: 16

[18] ‘New Norfolk, Capital of the Derwent Valley’, History page,, accessed 11th April 2011.

[19] ‘Norfolk Island: The Website’, Government page,, accessed 11th April 2011

[20] Nobbs, op. cit.: 2

[21] for example, articles about Norfolk Island history published in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society increased then declined from 3 before the centenary of the Pitcairner migration in 1956, to 4 between 1956 and 1969, then none since, despite the foundation of the Norfolk Island Historical Society in 1964 and its continuing affiliation with the Royal Australian Historical Society.

‘Yes-No’ South Sydney: the federation referenda of 1898 and 1899

‘Yes-No’ South Sydney: a brief study of how the people of South Sydney voted in the two federation referenda of 1898 and 1899.

 A Centenary of Federation 1901-2001 essay

Looking back, it all seems so inevitable. Federation. Could we imagine the Australian continent divided into six separate countries – a Republic of New South Wales, a Dominion of Western Australia, and so on? Could we imagine an Australia without the Anzacs?, without Qantas? Could we imagine a national flag without the southern cross and federation star? Could we imagine a country without a capital named Canberra? Could we imagine border disputes, perhaps even wars, between say New South Wales and Queensland over land use in the headwaters of the Darling River? Could we imagine that the word ‘Australia’ was merely a geographical description? Federation – it seems so sensible, so logical, so inevitable. But, was it always so?

‘Yes-No South Sydney’

The men of what is today the City of South Sydney voted for delegates to a Federation Convention in 1897 and in two referenda in 1898 and 1899 on the question of whether to federate. Women in New South Wales did not gain the vote until 1902. The results of the men’s voting suggest the possibilities of alternate histories, of federation today not being at all inevitable, of there being no Commonwealth of Australia.

English: Boundaries of the City of South Sydne...

Boundaries of the City of South Sydney (1989-2003) at the time of the Centenary of Federation in 2001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The New South Wales Premier of the time, George Reid, was nicknamed ‘Yes-No’ Reid for his equivocation over whether to recommend a yes or no vote in the federation referendum of 1898. It is an epithet that could perhaps also be applied to the male South Sydneysiders of a century ago.

George Reid (Australian politician)

‘Yes-No’ Reid – New South Wales and later Federal politician George Reid: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is interesting to consider some of the referendum results of 1898 and 1899. In 1898 the ‘no’ case in South Sydney won the day with 51% of the vote, while in 1899 the situation reversed when the ‘yes’ vote just reached 52%. Between the two referenda the ‘yes’ vote increased slightly in each of the South Sydney electorates except Redfern where the ‘no’ vote increased and Paddington where it stayed equally divided 50:50. The most consistent ‘no’ voters were in Erskineville, Newtown-St. Peters and Woolloomooloo, while the strongest ‘yes’ vote (of 57%) was recorded in Darlinghurst in the 1899 referendum. Generally, the more working class the electorate, the more likely it was to vote ‘no’. Thus, Woolloomooloo recorded a 54% ‘no’ vote and Newtown-St. Peters recorded a 58% ‘no’ vote in the 1898 referendum. In contrast the ‘yes’ votes were concentrated around the university in Campderown, the wealthier heights of Darlinghurst, and the city side of Surry Hills. The biggest change between the two referenda was in Waterloo, where a 54% ‘no’ vote became a 53% ‘yes’ vote.

Why two referenda, and why such results? The first question is fairly straight-forward to answer, the second rather more complicated. Voters in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia voted in a referendum on 3rd June 1898 on whether to accept federation. In New South Wales the parliament required the ‘yes’ vote to be greater than 80 000 for the referendum to pass. In the event, the number of ‘yes’ votes was only 71 595 – although 5 300 more than the ‘no’ vote. Following the failure of the referendum the colonial premiers met in secret and agreed to several changes to the proposed federal constitution. These changes included more power for the House of Representatives relative to the Senate, and locating the federal capital somewhere in New South Wales. The New South Wales parliament removed the 80 000 votes requirement, and a second referendum was held in five colonies (this time including Queensland). On the 20th June 1899 the referendum passed in NSW, 107 420 ‘yes’ votes to 82 741 ‘no’ votes.

The second question of why such results in South Sydney is a little more complex to answer, and involves issues of labour and capital, catholic and protestant, votes for women, and white Australia. South Sydney is one of the birthplaces of the Australian Labor Party, and the 1896 party conference called for election to the proposed House of Representatives and the Senate to be on a population basis, and was critical of the proposed equal representation of the states in the senate as being undemocratic. In 1897 the party called for a single chamber federal parliament, and the use of the citizen’s initiative referendum. The party ran candidates for election to the Federation Convention in 1897 but, like the catholic candidates, failed to have any elected. It then campaigned for a ‘no’ vote in the 1898 referendum and, although Premier Reid succeeded in having the proposed constitution amended to reflect some of the Labor Party’s concerns, it also campaigned for a ‘no’ vote in 1899.

This badge from 1906 shows the use of the expr...

This badge from 1906 shows the use of the expression “White Australia” at that time (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Party was, however, supportive of the possibility of extending the colonial white Australia policies across the whole continent by a federal government. They particularly criticized the immigration and use of coloured labour in Queensland and the pearling industry of northern Australia. There was a constantly reiterated fear of coloured labour being paid lower wages than white labour, and thus driving white wages downwards. Keeping Chinese and Pacific Islanders, in particular, out of Australia was argued as the best way of raising white wages. All of the elected Convention delegates subscribed to a White Australia Policy for this or other reasons.

At least two of the Convention delegates favoured votes for women. Action to achieve such a goal in the proposed federal constitution was spearheaded by the Women’s Federal Leagues. The League had been founded during the 1898 referendum campaign in Sydney by Maybanke Wolstenholme, and early in 1899 a second branch was founded by the Lady Mayoress of Sydney, Mrs Helen Harris. How much the functions and activities of the Leagues influenced the votes of the men of South Sydney requires further research, but it may be relevant to note that the two supporters of women’s suffrage at the Federation Convention where amongst the five delegates who also supported restricting the powers of the proposed Senate – a goal of the Labor Party.

The respectable women of the Women’s Federal Leagues, however, were also supported to varying degrees by the liberal, middle class men of the Australasian Federation League and the Young Men’s Federal Convention. The Federation Leagues had begun in the Riverina border towns in the early 1890s, and when a meeting was called to form a League in Sydney Town Hall in mid-1893 it was disrupted by Labor Party leaders who attempted to have a resolution made supporting a ‘democratic republic’. The Young Men’s Federal Convention had originated in the St. Paul’s Young Men’s Union in Redfern, and its convention in Castlereagh Street in early 1897 drew about 250 professional men aged under 30. Their Convention argued for the Crown, for two houses of parliament and a strong senate, for the federal capital to be in Sydney, and for federation to go ahead without Queensland if required. These men generally supported a strong senate with equal representation from each state, which distanced them from the Labor Party goals.

Thus, when the men of South Sydney voted in 1898 there were clear divisions between the working and professional classes. They all supported a White Australia (for different reasons), but differed on most other issues with the powers of the proposed senate being a symbol of those differences. Following the failure of the first referendum Premier Reid had succeeded in having the proposed federal constitution amended to reflect some of the Labor Party concerns regarding the senate, and to have the capital located in New South Wales as advocated by the Young Men. These changes appear to have influenced at least some of the men of South Sydney to change their vote. It is notable that the ‘yes’ vote in the city side of Surry Hills increased from 51% to 56%. This was the location of Sydney’s Chinatown at that time and, despite the threat of a continental White Australia Policy under federation, the Chinese men were reported to favour federation as it would remove the harassment they continually faced at the inter-colonial border posts.

A complex web of motivations can be seen here influencing how the men of South Sydney cast their votes in the federation referenda. The change between the two referenda was not great, although it changed the balance from narrow support for the ‘no’ case to narrow support for the ‘yes’ case. This contrasts with the strong support shown in the border districts and the north coast where the ‘yes’ vote reached into 80 and 90 percentage points. The men of South Sydney, working class and professional, did have an influence of the shape of the federal constitution in areas such as the powers of the senate and the location of the new federal capital, and early Commonwealth legislation such as the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 which implemented a national White Australia Policy and the Franchise Actof 1902 whereby white women gained the vote nationally and in NSW.

Federation Monument, Grand Dr, Centennial Park...

The Federation Pavilion in Centennial Park, Sydney enclosing the ‘Commonwealth Stone’ on the site where the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed on 1st January 1901.  (Photo credit: trent shepherd)

The South Sydneysiders of a century ago were not whole-hearted federalists and many were no doubt attracted to the rival proposals by the nationalists for NSW to be a separate country, and the unificationists for New South Wales and Victoria to merge as a single nation without the rest of the colonies in Australasia. In the end, the results were accepted, and South Sydneysiders were no doubt heavily represented amongst the 250 000 people who lined the great parade route through the city and into Centennial Park where the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed at 1pm on the 1st of January 1901.

The new Commonwealth established some of its first functions in South Sydney: the High Court sat for the first time in 1903 in Darlinghurst Courthouse, the first headquarters of the defence forces established in 1901 was in Victoria Barracks, Paddington, and the Commonwealth Pensions Office was first located in Chalmers Street, Surry Hills. Interestingly, these were the ‘yes’ vote areas.

Darlinghurst Court House, Sydney

First seat of the High Court of Australia: Darlinghurst Court House, Sydney (Photo credit: State Records NSW)

It is important to understand, therefore, that federation was not inevitable. It is a historical processes that continues today, and it has many varied causes that can be explained and understood. South Sydneysiders today may be more enthusiastic about federation (or at least, about being Australian) but history shows that we cannot inflict that enthusiasm on our forebears, but instead must strive to understand their motivations in their times for what was simply one of several alternate futures.

Premier ‘Yes-No’ Reid probably reflected the mixed attitudes of ‘Yes-No’ South Sydneysiders a lot more than he realised.


This essay was written by Bruce Baskerville, and presented at a public forum organised by South Sydney Heritage Society Inc. and South Sydney City Council as a Centenary of Federation event, at the new Florence Bartlett Library in Kings Cross on Saturday, 20th January 2001.

The right of Bruce Baskerville to be identified as the moral rights author of this work is hereby asserted in accordance with the Copyright Act 1968 of the Commonwealth of Australia.