Living on Lord Howe Island


Is Pinetrees haunted?

Posted by Dani Rourke – Monday, February 09, 2015

Look out for some of our ancestors on Lord Howe Island

Whenever something spooky happens at Pinetrees we blame it on Captain Tom. Thomas Nichols, my great-great-grandfather, was the master of a whaling ship, Aladdin, from Hobart. In the one photo I’ve seen of him, he has a hairstyle and beard just like Ned Kelly’s.

For a short time in the 1840s and 50s, Lord Howe was a popular stop for whaling ships. Although there was never a whaling station at Lord Howe, the island had a good supply of fresh water, abundant gardens and fresh meat. The island had the added advantage of isolation – when whaling ships stopped to pick up provisions at any of the towns on the New South Wales or Victorian coast, the crews would often desert to go to the gold fields.

Captain Nichols arrived on Lord Howe in 1862, where he met the 16 year old Mary Andrews, one of the first children born on the island. About a month later, accompanied by her mother, they sailed to Norfolk Island to be married. They returned to settle on Lord Howe and later had 10 children (born over a period of about 20 years). We have always suspected – perhaps because he seemed to spend so much time away from home - that Captain Nichols had a second wife and another 10 children somewhere else, possibly in Hobart.

Captain Nichols is buried in the Pinetrees cemetery. By far the closest building to the Pinetrees cemetery is the Pinetrees staff accommodation. The old accommodation, known as “Anchorage”, a rickety old building with four bedrooms and an outside toilet full of spiders, was known to be haunted. There’s a huge community of former Pinetrees staff members and anyone who lived at Anchorage seems to have a Captain Tom story to tell. There were mysterious knocks on the window in the middle of the night, footsteps and spooky laughter at dawn, doors flung open by an icy breeze, and a young girl awoken by the sudden and frightening sensation that someone was trying to suffocate her.

On a lighter note, there was also an experienced Sydney bar manager called Nicola, who lived in the flat behind the office. She came to work all pale and shaky one morning with large dark circles under her eyes. She said with a sob that she had not slept at all the night before because some weirdo was standing just outside her bedroom window and she could hear him breathing heavily. She had been too terrified even to get out of bed and phone for help. My dad, Ed, is very brave and he offered to investigate. Taking Nicola with him, they walked around the side of her flat, towards the bedroom window, where they found several large cow pats and a broken fence.

My only first-hand experience with Captain Tom was a few days before Luke and I were married. We had been having sunset drinks on the Boatshed deck and our friends had gone back to Pinetrees for dinner. We were the last ones there and we were just closing the Boatshed and locking it up. It was, of course, very dark and there was no moon. The folding doors on the front of the Boatshed are old and the tracks don’t work very well. We had just managed to close them and lock them at the top and bottom when someone grabbed hold of the two door handles and shook them repeatedly. We shouted to whoever it was that we had locked the doors and that they should come around to the side door. We heard the footsteps on the deck, still not quite sure who was out there and then, with a gust of wind, the side door slammed and after a few seconds there was loud knocking on it from the outside. I yelled out that I would be right there and I opened the side door to find … no one.

Anchorage was demolished in 2010 and new accommodation with eight ensuite rooms was built – now known as “Manhattan” because of its two storeys. I thought that the Captain Tom stories would fade away, but instead they continued. One of the first inhabitants of Manhattan was Elmer, a chef originally from Peru. Elmer’s mother had a strong connection with the spirit world and Elmer had a little of her gift. When he left us, Elmer told us that when he walked out of his room one morning, there were a series of sticks in the shape of arrows that pointed him to the cemetery. Since then, we’ve had a few terrified staff members. Each time, I patiently explain to the poor frightened girl that there’s nothing to be worried about, and that it only seems scary because nights at Lord Howe can be incredibly dark and full of unfamiliar sounds - like a gale force southerly howling through the old Norfolk pines and a few lone muttonbirds crying. But even as I explain it all away, sometimes I wonder…

Captain Tom has been a bit cheeky this summer, perhaps encouraged by some of our regular guests, who know the stories and like to stay up late with a glass of wine and frighten each other. There have been a few smashed glasses and the coffee machine has been starting by itself when no one is around. One of the last jobs at night is to turn off the lights and lock up and there have been a few reports of lights switching on and off by themselves and doors opening and slamming unexpectedly, especially when you’re on your own in the dark and draughty laundry complex. Among the guests, there have also been one or two frightened teenagers insisting that they have to sleep in the same room as their parents.

A couple of days ago, when both Luke and Ed were away in Sydney, I had an early morning call from Ed who asked me to go up to his house and find a document on his (very neat) desk. Ed had been away for four days, but as I opened the door, I heard the unmistakable sound of the washing machine spinning. The washing machine is a Speed Queen – a no-nonsense commercial machine which takes less than 40 minutes to run. It couldn’t possibly have been started by Ed*.

* The washing machine was in fact started by Willow who cleans Ed’s house, as well as doing four or five other jobs, in true Lord Howe style. She had seen Ed’s car at the airport and, knowing he was away, decided to let herself in early so that she could get everything done. But why ruin what was (almost) a good ghost story with the facts?

Do you have any spooky ancestors? Any ghosts in the roof?

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About Dani Rourke

HELP! I have 2 children, 25 staff and up to 75 guests. I was a lawyer for 10 years, but escaped. My husband and I moved from Sydney to beautiful Lord Howe Island to run Pinetrees Lodge, which has been in my family for 6 generations. I'm writing about family business, island life and the whole work/family disaster. Did someone say balance? When I'm not writing, my lovely staff do it for me - they see more of the island than I do.

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