Shining in the Sun

Since 1964, the Thornleigh big boatshed has stood facing the Lord Howe Island lagoon. Its doors have fended off countless storms, driving winds and flooding rains. Like so much of Thornleigh, the big boatshed is tough, weathered,  harbours a rich and storied history, and until recently stood in need of serious restoration work.

Thornleigh Boatshed Lord Howe Island
The Thornleigh boatsheds  and slipway in the early 70’s

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the big boatshed served as a stepping off point for all manner of island adventures. The slipway serviced the boat Centauri and other smaller vessels. Historical photos show a proud shed standing as an icon on the lagoon shoreline.

Thornleigh Farm Lord Howe Island
The view of the Lord Howe Island lagoon out the smaller of the two sets of rebuilt boatshed doors

The big boatshed is the largest structure on the lagoon. It is easily visible from landing aircraft, boats on the lagoon, and to tourists passing on the beach and foreshore walking trails.

Thornleigh Boatshed Lord Howe Island
The Thornleigh boatsheds and slipway in the early 1970’s

When the restoration of Thornleigh began, the big boatshed had fallen into a state of grave disrepair. The big doors had been removed, replaced by boards. The mighty hardwood batons that braced the doors against storms were gone. The shed’s iron cladding had rusted through, windows frames were rotting, and plants growing up against the walls. The slipway cradle had been broken into pieces and tossed aside.

Thornleigh Farm Lord Howe Island
Matt Retmock working to attach a brand new door to the big boatshed

Now the big boatshed is standing proud again. Entirely new iron cladding has been applied the whole way around the structure. Brand new doors have been constructed, new batons fashioned, and the slipway cradle pulled from the undergrowth and restored to its home. New timber-work abounds.

Thornleigh Boatshed Robert Jeremy
Robert working to save window frames on the big boatshed. Note the rust on the old cladding.

Much of the restoration of Thornleigh takes place hidden deep within the palm forest. Passing tourists and residents don’t often get to see the immense effort going into bringing the property back to life. Standing on the lagoon, the big boatshed is a very public example of the transformation that is occuring.

Thornleigh Farm Boatshed
The slipway cradle reconstructed and replaced astride the big boatshed

The original smaller set of doors have lived on. Among other restorations through the property, two farming sheds have been resurrected. One of them features the old boatshed doors.

Thornleigh Boatshed Lord Howe Island Robert Jeremy
Robert standing in the big boatshed, preparing to stack old family boats. Note the absence (now rectified) of the big doors on the left side behind him.

Inside the shed lie a diverse array of old family boats, each with their own stories of adventure. Pieces of the original slipway winch have also survived. Robert even found a bottle of scotch whiskey from the 1950’s.

Thornleigh Boatshed Lord Howe Island
The big shed with new doors, replaced cradle, and stacked boats visible inside

The restoration job is not quite done: We still need to paint the mighty new doors. Even with that task not complete, the big shed is standing proudly again.


This Land of Promise

This article is the third of six by Chris Murray chronicling the early history of  Lord Howe Island. It was originally published in the Lord Howe Island Signal on April 29, 2016.

Articles in this series:

  1. Discovering Lord Howe
  2. Blackburn’s Isle
  3. This Land of Promise

After the Supply had returned from its first trip to plant the new colony on Norfolk Island, having discovered Lord Howe Island en route, it was almost immediately ordered to return to Lord Howe to collect more turtles “to check the scurvy with which the people are affected, nearly 200 rendered incapable of doing any work”(HRA,136.) (Scurvy was a disease….) On the 14th May, 1788, at 10.00am the Supply arrived at Lord Howe for the second time, but soon found itself in a do-or-die battle with the elements.

Owing to the detailed bearings left by  David Blackburn, navigator and ‘master’ of the Supply, we know that the vessel likely anchored off Man of War Passage or South Passage in about 27 metres of water. The first map of the Island also shows bearings which indicate this was its favoured mooring point.   Ball launched the small ‘jollyboat’ to search for turtle, but by 4.00pm a severe south westerly squall had swept in and the Supply was in real danger of being blasted onto the reef. The sailors hurriedly “cut the cable” and “made sail” abandoning their anchor on the sea floor, and beating out against the wind to get into deeper water.  A recent Maritime Archaeological survey with magnetometer attempted to locate the wrought iron anchor which British naval records indicate to be 3.35 metres long and about 600kg in weight. Unfortunately, magnetic anomalies in the basalt underlying the area made the search more difficult than expected and to date the anchor has not been located.

In the midst of this drama, the crew of the Supply noticed another sailing ship, the Lady Penhryn, approaching the Island. Two days later (the 16th) they were joined by the Charlotte and three days later (17th) by the Scarborough. All three vessels had been transports with the first Fleet and were returning to England via China where they planned to pick up cargoes of tea for the British East India Company. Before the vessels left Port Jackson, they had agreed to muster for their voyage home at Lord Howe so “Suddenly the uninhabited Island had four square riggers anchored off its southern end!” (Lord Howe Island Marine Archaeological Survey 5.1.5)

Lidgbird Ball cordially greeted Captain Gilbert of the Charlotte and allowed his crew to proceed ashore in order to secure fresh supplies. However, this does not appear to have been in Ball’s instructions.  According to Captain Gilbert of the Charlotte he had been warned off Lord Howe before leaving Port Jackson:  “Fearing from a conversation I had with Governor Phillip when I took leave of him that Captain Ball had directions to prevent me landing on this newly discovered island of promise, for that is the way Lord Howe Island was described at Port Jackson…I hauled to the north in order the avoid the Supply, and at the same time to get into the latitude in which I supposed lay the island.” The fact that the Charlotte, Scarborough and Lady Penhryn were all East India merchant ships who had discharged their government contracts once the First Fleet had unloaded passengers and cargo at Port Jackson, may explain the apparent disobedience of their skippers, who had decided to rendezvous at Lord Howe Island despite Governor Phillip’s warning.

Another important factor behind the three captain’s strategy was the peril of the return voyage to England with crews already debilitated by scurvy. Captain Gilbert wrote “there were no charts to guide us, and dangers of which I was quite unaccustomed. Our ship was so small sized, and crew did not exceed thirty several being boys”. Prior to his departure he had written “The health of my ship’s company rendered it necessary that I should, if possible, procure a supply of fresh provisions and vegetables, especially as scurvy had begun to make rapid advance among them.”   Gilbert admitted he “had received only a hint as to [Lord Howe’s] situation” and he deliberately took a northerly route so he wouldn’t be shadowing the Supply (sighted briefly on the 12th May), so it took him seven days to find his ‘The newly discovered island of promise”. However, upon arrival he was “determined to surmount every difficulty and to land upon the island.”

Somewhere between leaving Port Jackson on the 6th of May and arriving at Lord Howe on the 14th, Captain Ball also appears to have conveniently forgotten Phillip’s directive. Instead of fending off fresh waves of scurvey-ridden sailors he summoned Gilbert aboard the Supply and “informed me that the island afforded plenty of fine turtles, fish, cocoanuts and cabbages.” Given Phillip’s threat, it is not surprising that Gilbert received this news “with great pleasure” and “resolved to land next day”. (The ‘çabbages’ referred to in these early journals were actually palm hearts, which had a cabbage-like flavour when cooked, but the coconuts remain a mystery – perhaps the presence of so many Howea palms led  the early mariners to expect coconuts?)

So instead of a naval stoush in which the Supply harried the other transport ships away from Lord Howe, Ball took the gentlemanly approach, possibly encouraged by the abundance of fish and fowl on the Island, and his own first-hand experience of the blight of scurvy. He still appeared careful not to accompany the other ships’ crews ashore lest it be “supposed that he conducted us to the island.”

The amazing abundance of nature which greeted these motley mariners echoes through every report. Coming ashore they launched themselves hungrily and brutally at the Island’s unsuspecting wildlife. On landing, Captain Gilbert was met with “a very agreeable scene” where there were “Great numbers of gannets, very large and fat, showing less fear than geese in a farmyard” and “large fat pigeons” which were “so tame  as to be knocked down with little trouble”.  Gilbert, who demonstrated considerable concern for the welfare of his crew, had no such qualms about the Island’s birdlife. He carefully recording the brutal means by which he bagged Woodhens which were “knocked down, and their legs being broken, placed…under a tree. The pain they suffered caused them to make a doleful cry, which brought about five or six dozen of the same kind of them, and by that means I was able to take nearly the whole of them” When he returned to the beach he “found the crew had collected …cabbages, birds and a great quantity of fish.” The foraging party was repeated again on the following day, only the turtles proving impossible to find.

Lieutenant Watts, who was aboard the Lady Penhryn, wrote “The inhabitants of this island were all of the feathered tribe and the chief of these was the ganet, of which there were prodigious numbers…Very large pigeons were also met with in great plenty, likewise beautiful parrots and parroquets; a new species of the coote, and also of the rail, the magpie and a most beautiful small bird, brown, with a yellow breast and yellow on the wing….”Watts also noted the vegetation “the chief of which is the large and dwarf mangrove, the bamboo and  the cabbage tree.”(Respectively pandanus, cane and Howea palm.)

However, the most eloquent description came from the surgeon of the Lady Penhryn, Arthur Bowes Smyth who came ashore with Captain Sever and Lieutenant Watts. Upon landing he encountered “great numbers of Boobies, Pigeons and many other birds”.  Watts and Sever soon returned to the ship, but Bowe’s Smyth kept hunting birds in the dense forest along with other members of the crew, “tearing the Cloathes off our backs” during “the sport…in knocking down birds” . Then they lit a fire and dined on broiled game. As Bowes Smyth drifted contentedly off to sleep “in thick great coats carried ashore on shore for that purpose, cover’d over wt. the leaves of the cabbage tree” he could not help meditating on a mythical age in ancient Greek legend when men and nature had lived in complete harmony: “When I was in the woods amongst the Birds, I cd. Not help picturing to myself the Golden Age, as described by Ovid – to see the Fowls or Coots some white, some blue and white, others all blue wt. large red bills and a patch of red on the top of their heads & the Boobies in thousands, together wt. a curious brown Bird abt. the size of a Land Reel in England walking totally fearless & unconcerned in all part around us…”

Not surprisingly, Lord Howe’s Golden Age turned out to be a very one sided affair, with three of the birds described by Bowes Smyth – the White Gallinule, The Lord Howe Pidgeon and the giant Tasman Booby (or gannet) – slaughtered to extinction by the  time of the first permanent settlers arrived on the Island in 1834.  As the bludgeoned birds had never encountered predators before, they “never made the least attempt to fly away & indeed wd. Only run a few yards, from you & be as quiet & unconcern’d as if nothing had happen’d.”

The loss of such extraordinary abundance through such brutal means led the poet Peter Bladen (who lived at the south end of Lord Howe in the late 1940s) to muse “what token will show that here in heart…[we seek]…the spring to restore, to compass a New Golden Age”  Although eight of the Island’s early bird species eventually became extinct through the predation of humans and rats, six of these have close relatives on other Pacific islands. Only the Tasman Booby and White Gallinule have not survived elsewhere. The generation of Lord Howe Islanders who eradicate rats will be able to restore Lord Howe’s lost Golden Age by reconstituting the original bird populations exterminated by people and rats – with the exception of the two species that have no close surviving relatives. The resuscitation of the Lord Howe Woodhen from the brink of extinction from 1979 to 82 has actually demonstrated the possibility of this new “Golden Age”, and so we are left to wonder what generation will ‘seize the day’, complete the job, and claim this remarkable prize?  Personally I hope it is this generation….

Discovering Lord Howe

This article is the first of six by Chris Murray chronicling the early history of  Lord Howe Island. It was originally published in the Lord Howe Island Signal on March 4, 2016.

Having just enjoyed our usual Discovery Day celebrations on February 17th, I was prompted to write something about the discovery (then settlement) of our Island. “Blackburn’s Isle”, a book by English historian, Derek Neville, mentions the serendipitous fact that 1788, the year of Lord Howe’s discovery, like our current year 2016, was a leap year with 29 days in February. In fact, the British First Fleet ship “Supply”, which had the honour of discovering Lord Howe Island on the 17th February 1788, was on its way to Norfolk Island where landfall was made on Leap Year Day – the 29th February.

The Sirius and the Supply were the only two naval ships in the First Fleet. The other vessels comprised six transports and three store ships, all privately chartered via an English ship-broker. The First Fleet departed from Portsmouth, England, on 13th May 1787, and sailed for over 7 months via Teneriffe, Rio de Janeiro and Capetown and did not reach Botany Bay until the 18-20th January, 1788. The Supply, which had Governor Phillip aboard, was the first vessel to arrive, but less than a month later – 14th February – it sailed to Norfolk Island on the orders of the Governor.

The Supply was an armed ‘tender’ of 174 tons, a mere 24.2 metres long and 6.9 metres wide.  When it left Port Jackson it must have looked like a miniature Noah’s ark, as live sheep, pigs, poultry, plants and seeds were all jammed on board, plus 15 convicts, two marines and an assortment of farm tools. Historian David Hill (author of the book “1778”) commented that it was “perhaps the smallest party to establish a colony in the British Empire.”

Cook had ‘discovered’ Norfolk on the 10th October, 1774, though recent archaeological evidence proves that Polynesians had previously settled the island, but may have departed around 1450 AD. Owing to Cook’s observation of large pine trees and native flax plants growing on Norfolk, a proposal was made in 1785 that the British East India Company should start a trading post there. Flax was used to make canvas and sails, and timber was needed in large quantities to build or repair sailing ships. Nothing had come of the East India Company proposal but when the Supply departed Sydney, it had two free men on board – Roger Morley, a master weaver and William Westbrook, a sawyer – who were equipped to exploit these natural resources, and both men were later commended in despatches to Governor Phillip. Interestingly, however, the flax plant proved elusive, taking a full twelve months to find and “it in no manner resembles the flax in Europe.” Despite the inducement it had offered, it never became a significant crop on Norfolk Island.

The new Norfolk ‘Commandant and Superintendent’ was Lieutenant Gidley King, who hastened to assure the nine male and six female convicts aboard the Supply that they would be well treated if they behaved themselves. One of the convicts was certainly very well treated: Ann Innett became King’s housekeeper and mistress, and bore him two sons, named ‘Norfolk’ and ‘Sydney’. However, marriage to Ann was out-of-the question for a Lieutenant Governor, as she had been condemned to death by a Worcester court before having her sentence commuted to seven years transportation. (Her heinous crime had been thefts totalling less than a pound: a petticoat, two aprons, a pair of shoes, five handkerchiefs, and some other clothing!)

Some two years later, King married Anna Coombe during a visit to England, and Ann Innett in turn married a convict, Richard Robinson. As King was Governor Phillip’s adjutant on the voyage to Australia (and a protégé of Phillip’s on previous naval commands) it was no surprise that Phillip granted Ann Innett’s new husband a pardon just eleven days after their marriage – no doubt relieving King of a considerable social liability in the form of his old mistress. However, King continued to care for his first two children, educating them in England, where both eventually became naval officers. (Indeed Norfolk King was the British Navy’s first Australian-born officer.)

The Supply’s Captain was Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, and its crew comprised 6 mariners including navigator and ‘master’, David Blackburn.  Ball and Blackburn (like Phillip and King) had both served together in the British navy prior to joining the First Fleet. Shortly after leaving Port Jackson on February 14th, the Supply was battered by a gale which King described as a “perfect hurricane with a most tremendous sea” and he “often thought the vessell was in a critical situation” but fortunately the gale abated at 2.00am on the 16th. At this point, Ball’s entries in the ships’ log book are cryptic:  February 17th – “At a quarter past 5pm, saw two islands bearing E.S.E at 13 or 18 miles distant….the largest was named Lord Howe’s Island, and the small one Lidgbird Island”; February 18th – “Found the land seen on the 17th to be only one island.”  Apart from Ball’s log, we have two eye-witness accounts of this first encounter with Lord Howe: King’s journal and Blackburn’s letters. However, as King remained to superintend the new colony on Norfolk, we only have Blackburn’s account of the first landing which took place about three and a half weeks later when the Supply returned to Lord Howe.

Despite the briefness of this first brush with the Island, it appeared to make a memorable impression. King noted “two immense high rocky mountains, on ye South point of an Island” and “a deep bay in which appeared to be good Shelter”. He also marvelled at a “singular rock [rising] perpendicularly from ye Sea in the form of a Pyramid, to a very great height” The Supply headed on to Norfolk, sailing between Lord Howe and the Pyramid. Coincidentally, our very first image of the Island, painted in 1790 by Supply mid-shipman, George Raper, captures this scene perfectly.  Blackburn’s account is enumerated in two letters – one to his favourite sister, Margaret, and second to a good friend, Richard Knight, both of whom lived in England. In his letter to Margaret. Blackburn recalled that “as the wind continued fair we put off an examination of the island until our return.”

The Supply sailed on to Norfolk where it remained until the 9th March unloading passengers and stores. After seeing “the colony settled in their tents on the 9th in the evening” Blackburn wrote, we “took leave of them and now steered for our new discovered island which we made on the 12th”.  Again Ball’s cryptic log records that the Supply anchored at 2.00pm off the south-west of the Island, but Blackburn provides all the detail: “ 4 in the afternoon [we]  displayed the English colours on shore and took formal possession of the island in the name of his Brittanic Majesty.”   Blackburn carefully described the geography of the Island “in the form of a crescent. It is about six miles long and one mile broad. At the south end stand two very high mountains covered at the top with cabbage tree [palms] and shrubs”. He also recorded the various beaches and bays and the naming of prominent landforms including Mt Lidgbird, Mt Gower and Erskine’s Valley; “The island is uninhabited, but we found plenty of the finest turtle I ever saw…some of them weighing upwards of 500lbs…The bays abound with excellent fish and the island with pigeons, a kind of quail and some other birds peculiar to the place”.

In his longer letter to Richard Knight, Blackburn gave the first detailed description of Lord Howe’s rarer birds:  “a land fowl of a dusky brown about the size of a parrot a bill four inches long legs and feet like a chicken” (Woodhen); “remarkably fat and good plenty of pigeons” (the Lord Howe Pigeon – now extinct); and a “white fowl something like a guinea hen with a very strong thick and sharp pointed bill of a red colour stout legs and claws” (the White Gallinule – also extinct). Blackburn was particularly intrigued by a “web-footed fowl….its bill two inches long straight but suddenly bent downwards at the end very sharp and strong its tail three inches long” which  the sailors caught “burrowing in holes like rabbits”. (Likely, the Wedge-tailed shearwater.) By the time the Supply set sail for Port Jackson, it had taken “on board eighteen turtle of near 500 pounds weight each” and Blackburn was also struck by the “beautiful pyramidal rock” which was “About thirteen miles in the south east direction from Howe Island” which had earlier been named Ball’s Pyramid. Ever the navigator, he noted the precise location of Lord Howe at 31˚36’S and 159˚.04’E longitude, and estimated its distance from Port Jackson at 389 miles (actually about 484 miles).

The crew arrived back at Port Jackson on the 20th March, but the Supply returned to Norfolk Island on ten subsequent occasions and to Lord Howe on six, becoming the main link between the Port Jackson and Norfolk convict settlements. After the ‘Sirius’ was wrecked at Norfolk Island on March 19, 1790, the Supply became the only link between the two convict settlements and the outside world, sailing to Dutch-held Batavia for emergency supplies in April, 1790. Whilst there, Ball fell ill with a fever, and Blackburn took command of the Supply, a post he kept for a further two voyages to Norfolk Island.  (On a separate occasion, he also captained another vessel, the Golden Grove, to Norfolk.)

After some four years of sailing tirelessly at the behest of the colonies at Port Jackson and Norfolk, the Supply had become quite dilapidated (at least according to the reports of the carpenters who maintained her) so she was despatched on a return voyage to England in November, 1791, arriving in April the following year.  Of those involved with the discovery of Lord Howe, Philip Gidley King became third Governor of NSW (1800 to 1806), Henry Lidgbird Ball served with distinction against the French navy in the Napoleonic wars and was made a “rear admiral of the blue” in 1814; but sadly David Blackburn died of consumption (turberculosis) at the Haslar Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, on January, 10, 1795, about three years after returning from Australia. His death devastated his sister, Margaret, to whom most of his letters had been written – including the one dated 12th July, 1788, which superbly described the discovery of and first landing at Lord Howe Island.

The next article in this six part series is available on the Thornleigh Farm blog: Blackburn’s Isle