Blackburn’s Isle

This article is the second of six by Chris Murray chronicling the early history of  Lord Howe Island. It was originally published in the Lord Howe Island Signal.

Articles in this series:

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

When English historian, Derek Neville, was researching letters written by David Blackburn, navigator and ‘master’ of the First Fleet vessel Supply, he was disappointed to discover that the small island in the Lagoon at Lord Howe had lost its original name – ‘Blackburn’s Isle’. This name had been given to it by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball in March, 1788, when the first landing at Lord Howe had been made. By this time most of the prominent parts of the Island had been named by Ball – either after himself or after naval and government luminaries back in England.

Instead, modern maps showed ‘Blackburn’s Isle’ as ‘Rabbit Island’.  Neville wrote to the Lord Howe Island Board asking the Board to restore the original name, and giving detailed historical reasons for doing so. (Indeed he even published a 176 page, 17 chapter book based on David Blackburn’s letters strongly arguing for the retention of the name ‘Blackburn’s Isle’.) Derel Neville’s request was agreed to in a letter dated 8th June, 1973 written by K.W. Thomas, the secretary of the Island Board.

Lord Howe Island Map
Earliest Map of Lord Howe showing Blackburn’s Isle in the Lagoon

By way of acknowledgement, a group of English subscribers funded the construction of a solid oak bench seat by master carpenter, Joe Dawes. The seat was shipped all the way from the village of Corpusty in County Norfolk to Lord Howe Island. It was Neville’s hope that the seat would be located on Flagstaff Point overlooking ‘Blackburn’s Isle’ in the Lagoon. However, owing to concern about possible weather damage, the oak seat was eventually placed in the airport terminal. Supporting information about David Blackburn was provided by the Lord Howe Island Historical Society. In 2015, the seat was briefly moved to the foreshore, then returned to the airport after signs of serious weather-damage started to appear.

Lord Howe Island Joe Dawes
Blackburn Seat with Master Carpenter, Joe Dawes

Current maps now show the correct geographical name of ‘Blackburn’s Isle’, but our local usage remains ‘Rabbit Island’.  It is certainly strange to have a part of the World Heritage Lord Howe Group named after one of the most damaging feral animals ever let loose in Australia, which was fortunately never introduced to our Island. Despite its small size, ‘Blackburn’s Isle’ is biologically significant, being an offshore refuge for the indigenous Lord Howe gecko, skink and wood-eating cockroach, populations of which have almost been wiped out on the main island by another feral juggernaut – Rattus rattus.

Many of Lord Howe’s most prominent landmarks remain named for Englishmen who never visited or even sighted the Island: Lord Howe (First Lord of the Admiralty); John Leveson Gower (Marquess of Stafford, Rear Admiral of the Fleet); and Thomas Erskine (Lord Chancellor of England). And Henry Lidgbird Ball, Commander of the Supply, wasn’t hiding modestly in the wings when he named Mt Lidgbird and Ball’s Pyramid after himself.

Lord David Blackburn
A silhouette is the only surviving image of David Blackburn

The Australian Dictionary of National Biography summed up David Blackburn as “an uncomplicated, conscientious man”. His personal modesty is evident in the account of the first place-naming ceremony at Lord Howe Island during which Ball named the prominent features of the Island including ‘Blackburn’s Isle’:  “I was on Board whilst this ceremony was performing, or it should have been called Knight Isle.”

Yet Blackburn was one of only nine naval men of the rank of Master and upward who arrived with the First Fleet; it was he who navigated the Supply to Botany Bay with Governor Phillip aboard, arriving two days ahead of the rest of the Fleet; it was he who navigated the entire First Fleet into Port Jackson; and it was his navigating skill which set the Supply firmly on course for Norfolk Island leading to the discovery of Lord Howe Island on the 17th February, 1788. Lastly, it was he who left us with the only detailed eye-witness account of the first landing on our Island – describing its stunning geography and prolific bird, plant and marine life. All these considerations should lead us to consider adopting ‘Blackburn’s Isle’ in common usage – not just on maps. Indeed, why would we call our superb Lagoon landmark and wildlife refuge ‘Rabbit Island’ after a feral animal which continues to devastate Australia and which was fortunately never introduced here?

References: “Blackburn’s Isle” – Derek Neville