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100 Years at Pinetrees

02-Jan-2018

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.

Mary Nichols

Before continuing the story of Pinetrees, a word should be said in recognition of the achievements of our great-grandmother. With grim countenance and stocky figure, Mary Nichols was a formidable-looking woman. She was a true matriarch, and the embodiment of the expression “a woman in a man’s world”. She made all the decisions when Thomas was away at sea, as he frequently was; she bore the children and reared them and ran the farm; she stood up to the authorities when she believed she was being victimised and she took her place with the Island men in important economic ventures such as the onion trade, the development of the palm seed industry and a partnership in a vessel (Dewdrop) to export seeds. Lastly, from the modest beginnings of accommodating the occasional visitors arriving by steamer, she started the business which has evolved into the major guest-house on the Island. It is open all year round, employs up to 25 people and caters for 85 guests at any one time, without changing the original character of Great-grandma’s hostelry.

The Fourth Generation – Gerald and Beth Kirby

Mary Nichols died in 1923, the same year as Mr Kirby the school teacher, leaving Gran a widow and the proprietor of The Pines. She went into partnership with Herbert Brearley, but the association did not last. Meanwhile Gerald (known as “Kirb”), her elder son, who had been educated at Newington College in Sydney returned to the Island for a while to help his mother. He had “the gift of the gab”, possibly due to his Irish ancestry, and became a successful assistant Sales Manager for Wunderlichs, a roofing tile company, in Sydney. He lived in Mosman and married Beth Singleton from Taree in 1930 at St Philip’s Church, where his great grandmother, Margaret Andrews, had been married nearly 100 years before. It is said history repeats itself. Margaret Andrews originally came to the Island to escape the great insolvency bringing ruin and disaster to thousands. Dad returned with his new wife in 1930 with the intention of staying just a few months until the terrible depression of the ’thirties improved and he could resume his career of salesman on the mainland. They never returned to Sydney to live.

As soon as Gran saw the young, energetic couple she promptly retired from the physical work of the guest-house. To quote Jim Whistler, the Editor of the Lord Howe Island Signal who kindly wrote Beth’s obituary in 1975:

For more than forty years Beth was hostess, employer and friend to Islanders. As a hostess she had the immediate effect of making one feel very welcome. Who will ever forget the evening meals, the barbecues, the dances, the tennis parties? Especially those from the pre war period and up to the late 1950s when Beth enjoyed that wonderful health that enabled her to work (and how she worked!) for endless hours a day, swim, play tennis, sew and raise a family...and whether she was meeting guests arriving on the flying boat at 6 a.m. or hostessing a dance until midnight she would always be glad to see you.

Pinetrees in the Thirties

For many years the S.S. Makambo carried on a regular passenger service and was replaced by the Morinda in 1932. The ship called in twice every six weeks - the “short” trip and the “long” trip. The former arrived on a Monday, off-loaded and sailed to Norfolk to return on Saturday. On the “long” trip the ship went to other islands after Norfolk, returning to Lord Howe a fortnight later. Norah Nichols, who worked at Pinetrees for 5 years from 1933, has given us many valuable details about the layout of the rooms and the day-to-day running of the operation.

Accommodation

There were 7 double and 2 single rooms, plus the block of 10 single rooms (5 back-to-back) known as “Virgins’ Alley” and “Bachelor” or “Rum Row” where our office now is. During the summer, beds would be put on the verandahs and some large tents pitched facing the cricket ground. One Christmas there were about 75 guests! The inmates of the tents were usually the rowdy legal fraternity, who used to come over each year for fishing and mayhem. Beth allocated them to the tents, because they had a tendency to break the fibro walls if given proper accommodation. Mr Justice Meares is still coming to the Island more than 55 years later! Kirb turned the south side of the boatshed into 5 rooms, which were assigned preferentially to the guests who snored. If there were any complaints by the spouse or neighbours, the guilty party was banished to the boatshed, where an unscored symphony could be heard in the early mornings.

Leycester Meares Recollections

Leycester Meares kindly wrote a statement for us about the early days. He first came in 1936 when the return fare on the Morinda was £10 and board at Pinetrees was £4 per week. The comfort of the tent accommodation was augmented by an open-air cold water shower nearby. Some of the ladies returning from Church across the cricket ground however, complained that masculine figures were recognisable in the distance, so in due course it was enclosed. Gran lived in her little cottage – the “I-glow” – where guests and Island people would call in for a gin or two throughout the day. Leycester remarked on the immensely strong personalities of Edie and her sisters Sue, Marty and Grace. For our parents he had an especially warm regard. He said that Beth was much loved by everyone and when she entered a room it was like the sunshine coming in. He wrote of Kirb’s friendship with his guests and his fights for land rights and sensible legislation for the island.

Visitors like Leycester came year after year because of the beauty of the environment, the fishing and their close ties with the Island people. In turn, the sometimes unworldly Islanders were privileged to have access to the very best legal minds whose advice was most welcome when it was necessary to challenge unwarranted mainland interference.

Amenities

It appears the guests never stopped eating. They were served an early morning cup of tea with bread-and-butter around 7a.m. followed by a full breakfast, morning tea with scones, lunch, afternoon tea with cream cakes, 3 course dinner (4 if fish was available) then supper of cream cakes and biscuits around 9p.m. No liquor was served, but guests could bring their own or buy a “bottle of Chops” from Phil Dignam, the butcher down the road. There was no electricity; Kirb put in the generators later. The ice chest ran on kerosene, there were pressure lamps for light in the main areas, chip heaters for hot water and pit toilets out in the bush. In addition, the double rooms had the luxury of facilities under the bed.

Entertainment

Dad used to take the guests on regular launch trips round the lagoon, fishing trips, coral viewing, aquaplaning, picnics to North Bay or Salmon Beach and (later) Island tours by truck. The boat was the Nerada which was replaced by the 30’ Albatross he commissioned in 1936. This was the largest boat built on the Island at the time.

Kirb's Boats

Unfortunately, Kirb could not resist a boat. In addition to the Albatross, we had a couple of 16’ inboard motor boats, several dinghies, a sailing skiff and an ex-US Navy barge he intended to put a glass bottom in and anchor in the lagoon, but that never eventuated. The ship’s wheel in the lounge room at Pinetrees is from the cargo vessel Jacques del Mar. He bought the wreck for £100 plus a case of whiskey. But it was the 72’ Fairmile Flying Cloud that gave him the most pleasure and the most anguish. He bought her in the late 1950s for tourist trips round the Island and to the Pyramid. At the time, the shipping service was unsatisfactory with up to 3 months between voyages. Although Kirb could bring freight for £14 a ton (versus £20 on the steamer) and could anchor at the jetty (thus eliminating the dangerous unloading by lighter), the venture was not a success. The cost of complying with Maritime Services and Union regulations regarding crew was prohibitive. In addition, the boat drew too much for the depth of the lagoon and gave him endless trouble.

As Jim Whistler wrote after Kirb’s death in 1960: Those closest to him know that he did not recognise adversity or hurdles – they were only stepping stones to greater things. What islander will ever forget that resolute figure, waist deep, pushing hopelessly against the beached Flying Cloud during those fateful days on the south end of the lagoon beach? How many times his workmen and helpers would have admitted defeat, yet several years later, “Kirb” was to twice direct the refloating of his beloved boat with no more sign of despair than others would show over a punctured car tyre. After he died it was sold for a fraction of the purchase price, but Beth was relieved of the millstone that had taken such a toll on Gerald’s health and finances.

Sporting Events Pre-war

Pinetrees hosted tennis matches every Sunday afternoon. There were also courts where the Post Office and the Doctor’s residence now stand. A cricket match was played on Friday afternoons and there was sailing every weekend. The bowling green had been open since 1922. Dances were held weekly in the old seed shed where the Public Hall now stands and both Pinetrees and Ocean View hosted dances for their guests and local people. Pinetrees staff have long been a source of spouses for the island people: Norah Nichols, Evie King, Lil Nichols, Jim Whistler, Judy Wilson are but a few examples.

Francis Chichester – 1931

In 1931, Chichester in a Gypsy Moth, a fragile wood and fabric sea plane, crossed the Tasman from east to west, calling in for fuel at Norfolk and Lord Howe. Young Phil (Tid) Dignam told us he was fishing near Rabbit Island at the time and could not believe his eyes: a biplane, the first plane most Islanders had ever seen, landing on the lagoon between squalls and gusting winds, as dusk fell and the weather closed in. Chichester stayed the night with Tid’s father, Phil, but in the morning the plane Madame Elijah was capsized in Sylphs Hole.

Salvage, Repair and Success

An efficient salvage job was done by the Islanders and the engine was stripped. Chichester decided to repair the plane on the spot despite the lack of machinery, materials and expertise. From the Islanders there was plenty of enthusiasm and offers of help. The women, including Beth, sewed the fabric back on the repaired wings. The men helped with all aspects of rebuilding the plane and reassembling the engine. Dad was allowed to paint the registration marks ZK-AKK on the wings. Nine weeks later, Elijah took to the sky and completed the epic journey. When the book was published our father was portrayed as a red-haired, somewhat pompous know-all who was always berating Chichester for not doing things properly, when in fact they were friends and got on well together. When asked why he did it, Chichester replied: All good yarns have to have a villain and, sorry Kirb, you’re it!

Second World War and Air Services

With the outbreak of war, the tourist industry virtually ceased. Shipping was irregular. Twenty four Island men enlisted and those left grew acres of tomato seed for the war effort. During the war, catalinas flew to the Island occasionally. Kirb saw the potential and led a delegation to the Government, resulting in Trans-Oceanic Airways beginning its operation in 1947. This service was joined by Qantas (who later retired), then Ansett-ANA in the early 1950s. Kirb saw the writing on the wall for the Sandringhams and began agitating for an airstrip - writing letters to Ministers and making representations to Mr Reg Ansett in Melbourne, but with no success. The airstrip, which was essential to provide the lifegiving air link to the mainland, was eventually built in 1974 by the Royal Australian Engineers.

Development of Pinetrees – 1950’s

With increased numbers of guests arriving regularly by flying boat, more accommodation was being built on the Island. Pinetrees was the first guest-house to install septic tanks, then Dad took the unprecedented step of building 5 architect-designed units with private facilities. Despite dire warnings from the rest of the Island that visitors would not pay extra for their own bathroom (£3.10.0 per day instead of £2.10.0 in 1959), this became the prototype for all later guest-house Island development.

Our Family

Beth and Gerald Kirby had 4 daughters; Ruth, Jenepher, Kerry and Anne (known only as Pixie). We were all born on the Island and went to primary school here before being sent off to boarding school in Sydney, then later tertiary studies. To be honest, our parents worked very hard and any money they made went into our education. We often saw our mother nearly fainting with tiredness, setting the bread near the fuel stove last thing at night, having cooked all day for say 65 people, met 20 new guests from the flying boat and in between managed to go to some community event like a Bring and Buy for the local church, or visit someone who was sick. Dad worked equally hard. He was very gregarious and did a lot of the entertainment that was a large part of an Island holiday then - such as organising the picnics by boat to Salmon Beach or dragging the aquaplane behind the Albatross all morning. He also did the dirty work e.g. pulling down the generator engines or digging septic tanks when necessary. Like all old Islanders, he never threw anything away, because you never knew when it may be needed. Some of the older buildings are made of packing cases and the bar contains timbers that were washed ashore complete with ship’s worm.

One of Kirb’s more disconcerting habits was to keep bookings in his head, instead of in the booking book. That is why whenever a small house was built for our family at Pinetrees, we did not occupy it for long as it soon became accommodation for overbooked visitors. As children, we mostly lived in rented premises away from the guest-house.

All 4 daughters married mainland men (thus enlarging the gene pool) and had 2 children each. Beth was visiting Ruth, who lived in France, when she died in 1975. She left Pinetrees equally to the 4 daughters. It was decided that Kerry and Pixie would buy the shares of their 2 older sisters. Having done so, in 1976 they returned to the Island with their respective husbands Bruce McFadyen and Ed Rourke and children Kate and Andrew, David and Dani.

Since then, we have tried to run Pinetrees in the time-honoured manner: to know the guests and personally make them feel welcome and continually to make improvements in the accommodation, amenities, food and service whilst keeping the atmosphere of an earlier, less complicated time. In short, to try and keep up the traditions of Gerald and Beth, Edie and Great-grandma- Nichols (but without the shot-gun).

Postscript 1996-2006

This year we will have owned and managed Pinetrees, the last of the traditional full-board guesthouses, for 30 years. The family has been on Lord Howe Island since 1842. We came from diverse backgrounds — Ed is a pharmacist, Pixie a travel agent, Bruce an architect and Kerry was a university tutor in Biology (later qualifying in Medicine). We knew little about running a guesthouse, but our varied professional experiences helped a lot. When we took over in 1976, Pinetrees was somewhat dilapidated. Beth had felt that the future of the Island was very uncertain due to indecision about whether there would be an air service, and so she was reluctant to spend money on renovations. When the Army built the airstrip in 1974, the flying boats ceased, giving way to small planes. Various airlines started, and then went broke. Fortunately for us all, QantasLink began in June 1991, and we are now serviced by regular 32-seater Boeing Dash-8 aircraft.

At Pinetrees over the years, we’ve built several new motel-style units, the bar, dining room and verandah extensions, 5 free-standing garden cottages and the boatshed overlooking the lagoon, all designed by Bruce. Anchored nearby is the 70 year old Albatross, which was extensively restored and is now on the Australian Register of Historic Vessels. The kitchen, water supply and drainage systems have been upgraded, and a large utility complex containing a commercial laundry has replaced the coppers and mangles we used in earlier times. We’re proud of the energy efficient solar hot water service installed in 2002 that has cut our use of diesel by 50%. The tennis court was fitted with a synthetic grass surface. Unfortunately, this had to be replaced after the flood which inundated most of Pinetrees in 1996, due to 450 mm (18 inches) of rain falling in about 6 hours! Pinetrees Lord Howe Island Travel is a licensed travel agency in Sydney, a member of IATA and a wholesaler for QantasLink. We started the business in 1989, and it has proved very useful and efficient in booking guests into Pinetrees. So far, the Island has resisted mobile phones. We still don’t have TVs, radios or phones in the guest rooms, but we’ve had to accept phones, email and the internet for bookings. It doesn’t seem so long ago that we were pedalling bikes to the Post Office to send telegrams.

We stay open all year round. Ed instigated a programme of live jazz over three months in winter, and we also have groups of regenerators who come to weed the bush and enjoy the unique Island flora and fauna. They make a welcome contribution to the maintenance of the Island environment. We’ve had our share of happy times and times of great sadness. Our children grew up almost as one family, enjoying the life that Kerry and Pixie had had in the 50s — swimming, fishing, surfing, bicycling and attending the local school barefooted. They went to secondary boarding school (sometimes with reluctance). Subsequently, Kate gained a BA. Hons. degree in English and Australian literature; Andrew got a coxswain’s ticket (as did David) enabling him to run a fishing boat charter on the Island; David studied in Bluche — a Swiss hospitality school — and had extensive post-graduate experience in first-class hotels worldwide; Dani had a brilliant university career, is now a highly successful lawyer in Sydney, and is engaged to be married this year. Tragically, David (‘Harry’) died in a motor bike accident on the Island in May 2002, aged 29. He is buried in our family cemetery, next to his grandfather, Kirb.

People often return year after year, and sometimes we get couples returning to celebrate their honeymoon up to 50 years previously. Also, these days we get parties of several generations because the grandparents want to introduce their children and grandchildren to the type of holiday they enjoyed years ago. We’ve met many great people and made some deep and lasting friendships. Also, we’ve been blessed with loyal, hard-working staff, both on the Island and in the Sydney office, many of whom have worked with us for 10 to 20+ years! They are the backbone of the business. A heartfelt thank you to them and to all the guests who have visited us over the years. We are privileged to have known you.

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