News and Events
Seven Generations on Lord Howe Island
The following extract is from Kerry McFadyen's excellent book Pinetrees: A Brief History. Kerry is a marine biologist and medical doctor, as well as one of the 'Big Four' who ran Pinetrees from 1976 to 2013.
The contents of 2 old suitcases and some cardboard boxes were used as part of the material for this booklet.
Amongst the flotsam of previous generations, we found the family Bible containing the dates of birth of the 10 Nichols children born between 1864 and 1886. There were Thomas Nichols’ Master Mariner’s Certificate on parchment; Margaret Andrews’ Deed of Gift passing the property to her daughter in 1878; an original copy of the 1911 Royal Commission into the Kentia Palm Seed question; Dad’s diary of Lord Howe Island life in 1917 with his account of the wrecking of the Makambo, in addition to the diary of a visitor to The Pines in 1908.
More recent papers included old Pinetrees brochures, Garfield Barwick’s opinion on the land rights of Islanders and numerous newspaper cuttings of our father’s attempts to get title to the land, a majority of Islander seats on the Board and so on.
In my opinion though, the most interesting and important paper is the Statement made by our great-great-grandmother Margaret Andrews in 1890, a year before her death. In this simple outline of her life, she says 9 where she was born, how she met her husband and why they came to Lord Howe. She mentions where she lived on the Island and the birth of her daughter and heir, Mary, who eventually married Captain Nichols. I believe that everyone should write such a statement of their own and put it away in some old box to be found by future generations (who will no doubt think our humdrum lives are fascinating).
This booklet was conceived, researched and written in a few months, so it does not pretend to be a definitive history of Lord Howe Island nor of the Andrews - Nichols - Kirby families. It is written to celebrate 150 years of our family, who, together with all the other families and their descendants have taken their stewardship of the Island seriously. There are references in the literature to conservation measures taken by the Islanders as early as 1869. That is why this tiny Pacific jewel has remained in such pristine condition, which was recognised in 1982 when Lord Howe Island was registered on the United Nations’ World Heritage list.
I would like to dedicate this to Kate and Andrew, David and Dani - the next generation.
Lord Howe Island was discovered very early in Australia’s history thanks to the suggestion by Captain Cook that a settlement at Norfolk Island should be established as soon as possible after founding the colony in New South Wales. Governor Philip sent H.M.S. Supply, commanded by Lieut. Henry Lidgbird Ball to Norfolk. The spectacular mountains and Pyramid of Lord Howe were sighted on 17th February 1788, but no landing was made until the return journey a month later. It was uninhabited and there was no evidence of any previous human occupancy. David Blackburn, master of the Supply, praised the abundance of turtles, land birds and fish.
The Island was visited in the late 18th century to collect these turtles and birds for food until the settlements at Norfolk and Sydney became well established. In the early 1800s, whaling vessels called frequently to get water and, later, fresh meat after some pigs had been released to breed in the wild.
First Settlement - 1833
The first habitation of Lord Howe was in 1833 or ’34 when 3 New Zealand men - Ashdown, Bishop and Chapman with their Maori wives and 2 boys lived at Old Settlement. They supplied whalers with fuel, water and provisions and exported muttonbird feathers for bedding. Their business was bought out in 1841 for £350 by 2 Sydney men: Richard Dawson, ironfounder and Captain Poole, a retired military officer from Bombay. Poole later sold half his interest to Dr Foulis and they in turn eventually exchanged their holding to the Andrews’ family in 1848.
Our great-great-grandmother, Margaret Curry, was born in Co. Waterford, Ireland. In 1832, at the age of 19 she emigrated to Australia in the James Paterson. On arriving in Sydney she worked as Upper Housemaid to the wife of a Mr Evans, stationer, of George Street. During the voyage out she met Thomas Andrews, a seaman and crew on the James Paterson. They married in St Philip’s Church, Sydney in 1836 according to the Parish Register, though Margaret’s statement of 1890 says it was 1832.
The Harbourmaster of Sydney employed Thomas to moor the first floating lightship at the Sow and Pigs. For a while, the couple lived on board as lightkeepers then, having saved some money, Thomas bought a small lighter of about 12 tons. For several years they were employed by the owners of Walker’s and Moore’s Wharves in Sydney Harbour.
The depression of the early 1840s described by Margaret Andrews as the great insolvency bringing ruin and disaster to thousands forced the Andrews to sell their lighter. Fortunately, an old shipmate of Thomas, who was in command of the Rover’s Bride at the time, introduced Thomas and Magaret to Captain Poole of Lord Howe Island. Poole engaged them as general servants for an initial 12 months’ stint.
Andrews' Arrival - 1842
The 48’ cutter Rover’s Bride was a trading vessel of 49 tons, built in 1838. Although only small, she made many long voyages including one to South America (in pursuit of a crooked auctioneer, who had absconded from debts of £50,000 in Sydney) and one from Tahiti to Western Australia. She later traded between the New Hebrides and Sydney, via Lord Howe.
On 2nd July 1842 she left Sydney with Margaret and Thomas Andrews, Captain Poole and his son, Messrs Clarke and Villiers on board with 6 passengers in steerage. They anchored in the roadstead off Neds Beach a few days later.
The Andrews worked for Poole for about 9 months with 3 other couples: Wright, Hescott and McAuliffe, then returned to Sydney for a brief period before making their home permanently on the Island, this time employed by Dr John Foulis. Meanwhile the Moselys had arrived. After the Andrews’ period of service had expired, the 3 men - Andrews, Mosely and Wright - formed a partnership to farm in the south end of the Island at the Big Creek, but this was dissolved shortly after by mutual consent. The Andrews’ only child, Mary, was born at Big Creek on New Year’s Eve 1846.
Acquisition of Pinetrees
When Dr Foulis left the Island in 1848, he exchanged with Captain Pierce, an American whaler, his holding for his family’s passage to Sydney. On the Captain’s return later that year, ownership of the buildings and land holdings around Pinetrees, plus the lands for a considerable distance to the north and south, were transferred to Thomas Andrews for the payment of 2 tons of potatoes. It is also said that when Captain Poole departed he left all his lands and gardens at Old Settlement to Thomas for use as he wished, but the deeds to this were lost in a fire at the house of Captain Nichols (his son-in-law) years later.
Marriage of Mary Andrews to Thomas Nicols
Thomas Nichols (T.G.C. Nichols), master of the whaling barque Aladdin from Hobart arrived at Lord Howe in July 1862. About the same time, his brother William came and resided to the east of Old Settlement Beach, where a descendant still lives. Shortly afterwards, the ship left with Mary Andrews and her mother for Norfolk Island where the Rev. George Nobbs married Mary and Thomas Nichols on 10th August 1862, after a courtship of one month. The first of their ten children, Albert, was born 2 years later. From that time onwards, Mary produced offspring every second or third year for twenty years (except for a six year period before our grandmother, Edith, was born), conception presumably coinciding with Captain Nichols’ returns to home port.
Thomas Andrews died of cancer in 1860 and was buried in the family graveyard at Pinetrees. Old Margaret Andrews willed all her lands, goods and chattels in a Deed of Gift 1878 to her daughter Mary Nichols. At that time, the family holding was approximately from the present café near the museum almost to Blinky Beach and Mary apportioned this land to her children as they married and left home. Edith and her husband were caretakers at Government House at the time of her mother’s death. It is said that Edith was her mother’s favourite child, which is why she acquired the family homestead at Pinetrees, then known as The Pines.
Whaling in the Middle Grounds
In the 1840s and 1850s the little community on Lord Howe was well served by ships from exotic ports in the U.S.A. or United Kingdom in addition to those from mainland Australia. The waters around the east coast were subdivided into the Northern, Western, Eastern and Middle whaling grounds. Lord Howe lay in the latter and great numbers of sperm whales and black whales were caught during their migration north from Antarctica. Many of the ships were out from their home ports of Nantucket or New Bedford for several years.
Dr Foulis, in his report to the Government in 1851, noted that 50 - 60 ships called in to the Island per year and wrote that it was not infrequent for the Island to get English news from an American vessel some weeks before the same was known in the Colony. Such an abundance of ships and crew must have been a tremendous boost to the Island’s economy. Over the next 2 decades, however, whaling declined until 1887, when the last American whaling ship arrived. The number of other vessels also declined; the Island was often 6 to 12 months without a ship at all and thus incredibly isolated.
Early Island Life
The population had gradually grown from 9 in 1833, to 16 in 1853, to 40 in 1869. To the left is a copy of an article from a Sydney newspaper written by E.S.Hill in June 1869, the original of which is in the Mitchell Library. It lists the inhabitants, their acreage under cultivation and their livestock.
Mr Corrie, a surgeon in the Royal Navy visiting on HMS Pearl in 1878, noted that there were 40 inhabitants in 15 dwelling houses, in addition to their granaries and piggeries. E.S.Hill (1869) gave the following description of a typical home:
The houses are built of palms, with two or three exceptions, and thatched with the same material. This thatching looks particularly neat. The frond of what is called the thatch palm is doubled and looped over a batten, secured on the roof for that purpose. The feathery spray on the outside and the stalk on the inside close together, forming a close row of ribs - the outer covering forming by this means a thickness of seven or eight inches, cool, comfortable, and impervious to wet, and which lasts about seven years.
There were also two or three rather more grand buildings raised on calcareous blocks, with walls of painted Australian pine and a galvanised iron roof. An entrance door led into a large central room with one or two small bedrooms either end, without fireplaces. The kitchen was detached and had a fireplace at one end, a larder at the other and a central large table for meals with long stools either side.
Mr Corrie remarked the houses were kept very clean and that he thoroughly enjoyed the kind and simple manners of the people of Lord Howe Island which were most winning; their extreme gratitude for any little attention or kindness was most marked and gratifying. Mrs Andrews (whom he befriended) and the other inhabitants were delighted with the tea, sugar, biscuit and soap sent ashore.
In the first few years of settlement, life must have been stringent. Early cultivation was in the poor calcareous soil of Old Settlement, but later gardens in the basalt soil, rich in humus and protected from the sea winds by forests of palms, grew a spectacular array of produce. (Bartering was a very common practice because there was little money in circulation. Produce was exchanged for tea, salt, clothing, etc.) Various early chroniclers waxed lyrical about the potatoes (sweet and Irish), plantains, bananas, mangoes, passionfruit, maize, watermelons, pawpaws, pomegranates, pumpkins, grape vines, coffee and tobacco plants that grew in profusion. Bush lemon trees were used for fencing and men took bags of lemons with them to quench their thirst whilst working away from home. Tahitian oranges were introduced by Thomas Andrews about 1860, pips having been planted on board an American whaler. One tree was said to yield 100 dozen in a year.
It was, however, the Lord Howe Island Red onion that was famous for its keeping qualities and exported to the mainland in large quantities, 30 - 35 tons being produced yearly. The industry started when Margaret Andrews found a few washed up on the beach about 1848 and 35 years later nine-tenths of the land under cultivation was occupied by onions. Later, unfortunately, the industry was severely damaged by smut.
Protein was obtained from fresh or cured fish, pork or goat meat. From late November on, there was an abundance of mutton bird eggs and the Islanders used to clear the nests every second day to be sure of fresh ones. Table birds available were the green dove, wild pigeons, woodhen and the wading birds.
Part of the demise of some of the land birds was caused by the release of black feral cats from a visiting ship about 1845. There were no rats until 1918, but mice were introduced accidentally in the 1860s and became a great nuisance (though it is said they were useful in preying on the large centipedes that swarmed over the Island).
Much of the day was occupied with gardening and tending the animals; a way of life that did not change much until tourism became the mainstay of the economy. In his diary of 1917, our father (Gerald Kirby) then aged 15, wrote of his daily chores: watering the cows, feeding the pigs and chickens, weeding the garden, topping the onions and cutting wood. The tasks were interspersed with activities like building a duck coop, finding 2 skeletons down south at Kings while shooting snipe with his mate Bill Baxter, going sailing or out in his canoe on the lagoon, fishing, pighunting or playing billiards or bobs at one of his aunts’ houses. It seems from the diary a great deal of time was spent boiling pig swill!
In the early days, pig hunting was a great sport and was still greatly enjoyed by the Island men until 1981 when these destructive feral animals were deliberately eradicated as part of the woodhen project. E.S.Hill in 1869 gave a graphic description of how “finder” dogs were used to round up the pigs, then the “holder” was released to grab the boar by the ear and hang on until the hunter could rush in, overturn the animal and cut its throat.
In the 1870s Mr Corrie, surgeon, wrote that the population appeared in good health, but some of the seafaring men had occasional rheumatism. There was no doctor or medicine chest then and Epsom salts seemed to be the cure for all ills. To the left is the inventory of the Island community medicine chest in 1882.
Mary Nichols, herself mother of eleven, was apparently one of the midwives. Family history has it that she turned a breech baby, but not before she had secured the mother’s permission in writing via the notary, so that there would be no repercussions if the manoeuvre was unsuccessful.
In all, Corrie wrote, the Islanders... lead moral lives. Bickerings and open quarrels are unusual and distasteful. Disputed questions are generally referred to a retired American whaling captain (Nathan Thompson) and thus settled amongst themselves. This contrasts markedly with the views of Captain Armstrong who arrived in 1878 and was appointed resident magistrate one year later.
Appointment of Resident Magistrate – 1879
In the history of Lord Howe Island to the present day there have been frequent instances where the Islanders have rebelled against the dictates of mainland authority. The problem stems from the paternalistic attitude that is sometimes adopted by the mainland administration which is resented by the people on the Island. This was neatly summed up about 1945 in an observation by our father that the only 3 bodies of people who were ruled by Superintendents were the Aborigines, the Insane and the Lord Howe Islanders!
Captain Richard Armstrong became Resident Magistrate in August 1879 (salary £180 p.a.), Forest Ranger (salary £120 p.a.), Coroner (fee £1 per inquiry), Postmaster (salary £5 p.a. plus 3% commission on stamps), Registrar of Births, etc. (fee 3s per entry) and a leaseholder of 100 acres with an annual rental of 5s for the purpose of working fibre from the leaf base of the Kentia palms. It can be seen from the above that he was a man of substance, making a very reasonable living on Lord Howe. He had the reputation of encouraging experiments with growing different fruits, vegetables and grains and was instrumental in building the school house and (according to his testimony) he had the welfare of the Islanders at heart.
Altercation with Authority – 1881
Unfortunately, many of the residents (led by Captain Nichols and Mary) who had been living on Lord Howe for 20 or 30 years without authority and used to settling their own affairs, took umbrage. In 1881, they petitioned the Government of NSW to recall Captain Armstrong forthwith, on the following grounds:-
That he removed plants and seeds from the Island for his own gain. That he failed to supply the Botanic Gardens for a pre-paid order of plants and seeds. That he did not account for the sum of £17.10s.6d in the building of the Public School. That on one occasion he failed to deliver the mail promptly.
The Nichols family also filed a few extra accusations viz. that he kept a private store selling wines, spirits and other commodities to the Islanders in effect running a sly grog shop. The store, they complained, traded with ships to the detriment of Islander-ship trade. Also, they said Armstrong refused to investigate the alleged attack on a nine year old girl by one of his workmen and that he caused a wind-break to be cleared, thus breaking an Island law.
Magistrate’s Counterclaim – 1881
Captain Armstrong denied all the claims and countered with some of his own which make fascinating reading. His opinions of great-grandma Mary Nichols and her husband were hardly complimentary. He said Mrs T. Nichols was a very vindictive woman who proclaims loudly against any interference of authority and he suggested she compromised her reputation with a whaling captain whilst her husband was away at sea. He accused Mr Thomas Nichols of deliberately wrecking a ship in Noumea, of being a lazy troublesome fellow, sea lawyer who drank heavily, had his own still in which he made a coarse fiery liquor from bananas and wild figs, made his children work very hard and withdrew them from school. Armstrong said he says he does not see the necessity of authority; and claims the island as his birthright, declaring that the Government have no right to disturb them and so on.
Outcome – 1882
In 1882, the Hon. J. Bowie Wilson was sent to the Island on the steamer Thetis, to head the Commission of Inquiry into Armstrong’s administration. He recommended that the magistrate’s appointment be terminated, though later two Select Parliamentary Committees exonerated Captain Armstrong from blame. Wilson’s report states with the inhabitants generally I have been most agreeably impressed: intelligent beyond their class, most exemplary in their conduct, and considering their isolated position and few inducements for exertion fairly industrious.
The Nichols Children – The Third Generation
Even Captain Armstrong had a kind word to say when it came to the children, but it was qualified by a thrust at their parents. In a letter to the Minister for Public Instruction (1881), he said the children of the Thomas Nichols family, though promising and well behaved, were the most backward on the Island because their parents only want them to work the farm and object to any Government interference, etc.
Albert (1864 - 1912) was the first born. He was not fond of his parents and actually testified against them in a letter to Captain Armstrong. Family history relates that he kept a bonfire set ready to be torched at Blinky Beach. Sometime when older than 18, on seeing a ship, he lit the beacon and told the longboat crew who came in that he had been shipwrecked on the Island. This is a more romantic version than the one passed down through his brother George’s family. George said he was on the Lower Road with Bert one afternoon when they saw a ship out to sea. Bert hurried ahead, saying he would meet George back at home. In any event, he left without saying goodbye to his family, married in England, became the boatswain of the Titanic and perished in 1912.
The cause of death of the infant Thomas (1865 - 1867) is not clear. It has been suggested he died of measles brought to the island by some Pitcairners from Norfolk Island, but that epidemic occurred in 1868.
Of Charles (1867 - ? ), not much is known. It is said he married several times and settled in the National Park area, south of Sydney.
George (1869 - 1947) was a farmer and remained on Lord Howe all his life. He first cultivated the area where the café on Lagoon Road now stands. The family lived in the house next door that is well set back from the road. He was also one of the original group of seed exporters, and was appointed Island Director to represent the Island shareholders when the Kentia Palm Seed and Plant Co-operative Company Limited was formed in 1906. He married and had 4 children. He was a widower for 20 years, living first with his sister Martha and, in later years, with his son Edgar (Mick) and his wife Norah. Mick was an observer with the Bureau of Meteorology for 30 years and his descendants live on the hill opposite the airstrip.
Mary Challis (1871 - 1933), the first Nichols girl, was christened by the chaplain of HMS Pearl that visited the Island in 1876. “Challis” was the name of the mate on board. Her sister Grace, christened at the same time, took the name of the vessel. Mary married William Retmock from Emerald, Queensland and lived at the site of the present Doctor’s residence. She was always said to be good fun and fond of dancing and at parties it was hard to get her to go home. Like her sisters, she was a great fisherwoman. Her Island nick name was “Tete” and the fishing spot “Tete’s Hole” at Middle Beach is named after her. Their son Charles was postmaster here for eleven years and his children remain on the Island. Mary Challis died of cancer and is buried near her grand-daughter, Juanita, in the family graveyard.
Grace Pearl (1873 - 1953). Her husband was Scotsman Hector Innes who had been shipwrecked when the Zeno sank at Lord Howe en route to New Zealand with a cargo of coal in 1895. He stayed behind when his shipmates were repatriated. Grace believed she was clairvoyant. Whilst resting one afternoon she felt or saw a shadow fall on her and she called her family together to tell them that Thomas, her eldest son, had died at the Somme in France. (Eight other Island men also enlisted in the First World War). The official news of his death did not reach the Island until 14th June, 1918. This was noted in Dad’s diary, as it was the day the S.S. Makambo ran on the rocks at Neds Beach resulting in the loss of one life and the advent of rats which later had such an impact on the economy of Lord Howe Island.
Hector died of peritonitis just before their daughter Jean was born in 1906. Jean later married Herbert Brearley, a planter from the New Hebrides, 22 years her senior. This caused much vexation to our then widowed grandmother Edith, who had been in partnership with him at The Pines and had earmarked him for herself. She refused to speak to her niece Jean Brearley for 10 years, (and unkindly referred to Grace and Jean as “The Two Fats”). Successors of the 2 other Innes children - Maggie and Alec - continue to live on the Island.
Edith (1879 - 1964), like all her siblings, was born on the Island. Education at that time was intermittent. Although the new school house had opened the year that she was born with T.B.Wilson as the first teacher, he resigned the following year. Average attendances at the school were very low (e.g. 3.7 pupils for the December quarter, 1882). This was allegedly due to apathy on the part of the parents and possibly because of the necessity for the children to work on the farms.
The school was closed down 4 times between 1879 and 1902 with long periods when no tuition was available. The next generation of school children was more fortunate.
George Massy Kirby, from Ireland, arrived about 1900 having been persuaded to come to Lord Howe by a shipmate, William Whiting. Great-grandmother Mary decided he was the most eligible male around and informed him he would marry her favourite Edith, which he did in January 1902. They had two children - Gerald (our father) and Ron.
The current Visiting Magistrate, Mr Farnell, appointed him school master from 1902 until his retirement in 1922. A visit from an inspector reported Mr Kirby was a man of more than ordinary intelligence and ability, with a good secondary education and a wide and varied life experience. He possesses a large fund of general knowledge as well as a considerable degree of literary culture and ‘savoir faire’. He was a formal man, usually dressed in a white suit and straw hat and smoked a pipe. He played the piano well. The Royal Commissioner in 1911 said the Islanders are fortunate indeed in having a gentleman of Mr Kirby’s attainments to fill that position. The oldest people now on the Island were taught by him and all spell well and write with a fine hand. He had a profound influence during his twenty years of service. George died in 1923, aged 47, of a disease causing rigidity of the spine.
Edie and George were caretakers at Government House across the cricket ground while Mary lived at the family homestead The Pines built about 1884. In her old age, Great-grandma apparently used to sit on the verandah (near where the bar is presently located) in her rocking chair with a shot-gun over her knees. If the workmen gardening in the fields beyond stopped for a breather, she would fire over their heads to get them moving. Likewise, Gran used to sit on her verandah under a cascade of Bougainvillea and keep a very close eye on the activities of the guest house.
Edie was a keen gardener and kept the Pinetrees grounds in good order, with beds of colourful annuals and neatly raked paths. As soon as we grand-daughters were old enough to hold a rake we were put to work, but she did reward us with an occasional fishing expedition or a game of cribbage in the evenings.
Martha (1882 - 1945), known as Marty, lived at La Meurthe (named after an old French warship wrecked on the reef). The house was near the lagoon end of the airstrip and has since been demolished and rebuilt. She was a beautiful woman, by all accounts. There are stories of a Frenchman who committed suicide because of unrequited love. She had 3 husbands (the first from the Orkney Islands, the second from the USA, the third from Victoria), but no children. There are rumours of several affairs and it is said she used to fly the national flag of the current incumbent from the flagpole at her home.
Susan (1885 - 1968) had an exotic life. She met William Whiting when he came to Lord Howe for the first of several visits, in 1897. For a lark, the Island teenagers used to hide in the palms, dart out as a sled with a young passenger on it went by, drag them off and then retreat to the undergrowth, laughing uproariously. Sue did this to Will, who chased her and gave her a good spanking. Shortly afterwards he returned to China, where he was manager of a Depot that sent coolies to work in the mines of Witwatersrand in South Africa. He and Sue corresponded for a few years, then he sent the money for the fare to Great-grandma who took her daughter to China to be married. Their only child, Cecil, was born in 1909, a year later. Not long afterwards, they returned to Lord Howe and eventually built Palmhaven - the first architect designed house on the Island, with a guest-house annexe. To us children, the house was fairyland. There were 2 huge carved ebony chairs inlaid with mother-of pearl in the hall. The walls were hung with paintings of elderly mandarins and decorated with scimitars. She had cloisonné bowls and enormous blue-and-white Chinese vases, all reputed to have been acquired during the Boxer Rebellion.
Unfortunately, the guest-house venture was unprofitable and they went broke. No doubt part of the problem was that Sue was a perfectionist and could not tolerate mediocrity. Her verandahs were always scrubbed white, the silver highly polished and if the cherries in the cake were not exactly aligned, she gave it all to the chooks.
Will, aged 79, was eventually bitten by a red-backed spider and retired to bed saying his time had come. He died 6 months later. Sue survived him by 12 years, chopping the wood and feeding the hens until the last few years. On the dining room table at her 80th birthday there were no presents of lace hand-kerchiefs or lavender sachets, just cartons of cigarettes and bottles of whiskey! She was very gregarious and would always invite us to come in for a “little spot” and a chat about the old days.
Anne, the youngest child, (1886 - ?) left the Island early, supposedly smuggled onto a ship by her siblings to escape parental authority. She had a chicken farm somewhere in the southern Sydney region. Also there was a boy, born between Martha and Sue, not named or name unknown, but noted in the siblings column of the Lord Howe Parish Register of Births. Unlike the others, he is not recorded in the family bible. Mary Nichols, in her statement to the Royal Commission 1911, declared she had had 11 children, 9 living.
The Lean Years
As whaling and other shipping declined after 1856, the future of the Island farmers seemed bleak. Mr Corrie (1878) noted that some of the inhabitants were almost in a state of starvation. Onions and potatoes were rotting in the store-houses, and as there had been no ship for several months there had been no exchange for tea, sugar, salt, clothing etc.
Likewise, in the report by J. Bowie Wilson on the State and Prospects of Lord Howe Island (1882), he commented that the Islanders were compelled to sell their produce at ridiculously low prices when a ship did call in and he cited the example of how recently all the onions on the Island were sold to an Auckland schooner for less than half their value. In addition, the goods bartered in exchange for produce were often valued at exorbitant prices.
When Captain Armstrong was dismissed on Wilson’s recommendation, the Island was supervised by visiting magistrates of varying calibre: Mr Henry Wilkinson, Mr Icely, Mr Brodie and Mr Frank Farnell. Farnell, in his deposition to the Royal Commission on the Control of the Kentia Palm Seed Question 1911, said that on his first visit to the Island in 1900 he found the Islanders poverty-stricken,...and bearing evidences of the neglect of the Government to take any interest in the Islanders. Farnell did not accept the £400 salary plus £100 expense account his predecessor received and succeeded in getting small grants to build a jetty, make roads and clear recreation grounds for the betterment of the Islanders.
The Palm Seed Industry – 1870s
The export of the seeds of the Kentia palm (Howea forsteriana), endemic to Lord Howe Island, started in the late 1870s. It is not known who was the first to export, but Ned King and William Nichols have both been mentioned, with many of the Islanders believing it was Ned. Certainly he had a stencil plate for his seed bag which read E. King, the oldest established seed and plant merchant in Lord Howe Island. In 1880, the Director of the Botanic Gardens requested some seeds from Captain Armstrong to send to London and to supply local nurserymen. Also in that year, T.B. Wilson sent a parcel of seed to England, with a letter of introduction to his brother-in-law there and to the Curator of Kew Gardens in London.
Mr Farnell in 1900 realised that the Islanders were an unworldly group of people, who were not getting proper returns for their labours. They were selling seed for 2s. 6d. per bushel, whilst in England a bushel was worth between £2.10s. - £3. The Islanders were not paid in cash, but with goods given inflated value by the middlemen (mostly seedsmen in Sydney), or not paid at all. Also they were often called upon to replace so-called defective seed and pay the shipping costs.
The Cooperative – 1906
In 1906, the Kentia Palm Seed Co-operative Company was formed, with Mr Farnell as Chairman of Directors and George Nichols as the Island Director. 1740 “A” shares were allocated to 21 Islanders in parcels varying from 135 to 25, the number of shares being based on the interest the parties had had in the palm seed business when the Company was formed. 660 “B” shares were allotted to C.J.Symonds, a seed merchant from Sydney. The output in 1909 and 1910 was 1,872 and 2,039 bushels, respectively, of which only 250 were for the Australian market. The palms were tremendously popular in the drawing rooms of Europe and America and are seen in old Humphrey Bogart movies and the like. Farnell resigned in 1910, but during his term the position of the Islanders had vastly improved.
Destruction by Rats – 1918
After the First World War, the palm seed industry declined due to less demand from overseas and the sabotage of seeds by rats and weevils. Endemic weevils bore holes in the seed and attack the kernel and used to be controlled by the long-billed Silver Eye, now extinct.
Destruction by rats began after they invaded on the jettisoned cargo of the S.S. Makambo and rapidly colonised the whole island. Rats are also blamed for the virtual disappearance of the native land snail, the extinction of a phasmid insect and some bird species. A bounty of 6d. per tail was paid and an average of 2,400 tails was collected per month around 1936. A reasonable living could be made ratting with a couple of terrier dogs and a shot-gun. Now, poison stations in the bush are used to control the population.
Present Returns – 1991
All palm seed grown on the Island is now the property of the Lord Howe Island Board. Currently the 1991 seeding season produced 1038 bushels: gross sales were $1.5 million yielding a profit of about $600,000 for the Island. All the seed is germinated in the Island nursery then exported in the following approximate ratios: Belgium/Holland 60%, Canary Islands/Spain 20%, Italy 10%, USA 5%, Asia 4%, Australia 1%. The previous 1990 season was exceptional giving a profit of $1 million, which unfortunately will probably not be repeated.
Board of Control – 1913
In 1912, a second Royal Commission was held into the condition and welfare of the Islanders. It was recommended in 1913 that a Board of Control consisting of 3 Public Servants be appointed to manage and direct the business of the palm seed company and to manage the whole of the affairs of the Island for the Government.
Islanders received 25 shares in the palm seed industry when 21 years old and 25 more aged 31 years. A married man received 10 shares per child. The Board had the power (which it exercised) to withhold the proceeds of seeds to any Islander whose conduct did not please them and to take out any levies before payment.
Also, the Board was to be vested with a permissive occupancy of the whole of the land of the Island and it was suggested all previously existing permissive occupancies should be cancelled. They did, however, magnanimously allow the current residents to occupy their present holdings for the time being.
Title to Land – 1953
In the early 1950s, our father Gerald Kirby and some other Islanders started to agitate for title to the land to add to the many pleas the Government had received on this subject, lodged from 1871 onwards. He sought an opinion from the eminent constitutional lawyer Garfield Barwick Q.C (later knighted). In Barwick’s opinion, there was no authority in the Executive Council to create the Board of Control in 1913, nor to give it any of the powers it possessed. He stated that it was his belief that freehold title should be granted to any persons who could prove continuous possession of the land for 60 years. Unfortunately, the opinion was not tested in the High Court, and in 1953 the Lord Howe Island Act was passed, resulting in a system of Perpetual and Special Leases only for Islanders (i.e. no freehold title after 105 years of continuous occupancy in the case of our family).
Tourism - 1900
No title meant that any improvements to the land were a gamble, because occupancies could be resumed without notice. Nevertheless, about the turn of the century, Mary Nichols had built some accommodation and began to take in visitors. Burns, Philp and Co. established a trade by steamer between Lord Howe and Norfolk about 1893. Later, a regular service to the New Hebrides left Sydney on the 1st of each month, dropping off passengers at Lord Howe, then calling in on the return journey about the 19th.
The Expedition -1908
We are very fortunate to have amongst the family papers, an extraordinarily detailed lighthearted account of a collecting expedition in 1908. The party of 10 included the famous conchologist Charles Hedley and Allan McCulloch from the Australian Museum (who had been to the Island previously and whose memorial now stands on Signal Point). The diary was written by Mrs Hedley, who gave some wonderful descriptions of everyday life on the Island and the activities available to visitors in those tranquil days.
Arriving at Lord Howe
She started the narrative with 21 /2 days of hell on HMS Tambo which only ended when the passengers and cargo were landed by sling into open boats, manned by an island crew of 3 rowers, plus one to steer. On reaching shore, the crew went overboard and carried to the beach first the men passengers on their backs and then the women in their arms. The visitors walked, or rode on the horse-drawn sleigh through magnificent palm glades back to The Pines. She drew a map of the accommodation there - the northern end of the lounge room was the main guest bedroom and Great-grandma lived in the present liquor store opposite the bar (see previous page).
Then followed 16 days of bush walking, fishing, “conchologizing”, hunting for fossils of the extinct horned turtle and bathing in the lagoon. There were picnics to North Bay in a leaky dinghy, excursions to Rabbit Island and the Admiralties (to collect buckets of wideawake eggs) and the men climbed Mt Gower. The evenings were spent visiting the homes of Mrs Nichols’ numerous offspring, who all produced some sort of musical entertainment, cocoa and cake. Otherwise bridge, euchre or dominoes in the “Club House”, followed by the inevitable cocoa and cake seemed to be the order of the day.
The expedition ended by saying goodbye to good, kind Mrs Nichols, then another heavy, rolling, pitching, tossing voyage to the mainland on the S.S. Malaita accompanied by the stench of 300 tons of copra. The resolution and willpower needed by those early travellers to cope with such conditions is to be admired.
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