Robert Tofts recalls the day he first met Heather Hemus, his future wife, and how she captured his imagination with stories of her childhood on a small island in the South Pacific. At only 18 years old, he listened enthralled as Heather recounted the island’s fascinating history. He watched in wonder as Heather showed images of her performing feats of acrobatic flexibility, and he dreamt of one day visiting her father’s house made of beer bottles. As Robert began to fall in love with Heather, he also became enamoured with the fascinating Norfolk Island she spoke so fondly of. Two years later, Robert, Heather and baby Helen moved to Norfolk to begin a new chapter in their lives. The island of Robert’s imaginings was as captivating as he had hoped, and it was not long before he became an integral member of the small community. His father-in-law, Bob Hemus became a lifelong inspiration, as it was through his example of hard work and determination that Robert learnt the value of what you can achieve your own two hands. One needs look no further than the extraordinary ‘Bottlehouse’ down Hemus Road to understand this sentiment.
The first reaction most people have when they step inside the Bottlehouse is of incredulous admiration. Firstly, the unusual visual effect steals your attention, and then the mind naturally begins to contemplate the work and patience involved in the placement of each and every one of the 36,000 bottles. Perhaps the most surprising feature of the Bottlehouse however, is that it is not just a house, but a warm and fully functional home – almost conventional were it not for the unusual choice of building material. The amber-coloured bottles, their round and slightly bulbous bottoms sparkling amidst light grey walls, are placed strategically in a repetitive pattern. Even underfoot, unseen to the naked eye, thousands of bottles line the floor of the Bottlehouse. When you stop to consider the ‘contribution’ of each person who emptied the contents of the beer bottles, you realise with a touch of humour that this building holds many memories of Norfolk’s past: particularly the trials and triumphs of island life. The years imprinted on the base of each bottle indicate the time when Norfolk Islanders began to drink in earnest, with most bottles dating from the 1960’s onwards. These drinkers were unwittingly responsible for supplying the main building material, though it was the vision of one man that ensured that these relics of Norfolk’s past lived to tell a story.
Bob Hemus was an amazing individual. He was strong willed and self-disciplined, yet was also a gentle family man well respected within the Norfolk Island community. Raised by his sister when his parents died young, Bob learnt early that hard work would help his good fortune. He laboured tirelessly to provide for his family in New Zealand, though it was a serendipitous event that occurred whilst on holiday to Norfolk Island in 1951 that changed the course of their lives forever. Walking past an island home with laden orange trees, Bob and his wife Winnie asked the owners if they could buy some fruit. When the friendly locals insisted they help themselves and take a bag of oranges home for later, it left a lasting impression on the young couple. In search of a healthy island lifestyle and a fresh beginning, Bob, Winnie and three of their five children moved to Norfolk Island in 1952. A daughter Sheryl was born on Norfolk a few years later. They originally purchased a property of 17 acres, where Bob defied the odds and grew an incredible 37 different types of vegetables and nurtured an array of fruit trees. He built his own boat to fish for extra income, became renowned on-island for his homemade wine, and was even known for his ability to bake and decorate cakes. He was the sort of man that would succeed in whatever he put his hand to.
When Bob’s daughter Lyla expressed an interest in learning acrobatics, he keenly accepted the challenge. As an extremely fit man and former gymnasium instructor, Bob trained himself, his two daughters Lyla and Heather and son Trevor to become a world-class act he named ‘The Trumps Present’. They were the youngest family ‘acrobatical troupe’ in the Southern Hemisphere, and Bob even toured briefly in Australia with Lyla. Bob dedicated much of his life to healthy living and was a fine example of flexibility and fitness – his ability to place both legs around his neck and play the harmonica at the same time made him somewhat of a local hero. Just one look at the incredible acrobatic feats achieved by the family speaks volumes for the determination and dedication that runs through the Hemus genes.
Bob was rarely idle – when the weather was fine, he worked the garden; when the weather was poor, he would build the Bottlehouse. There was not much money on Norfolk in those early years, however the Hemus family were resourceful and ingenious. They lived in tents for four years, then were able to build a small house out of recycled materials. Bob had an inventive eye and was never wasteful. When he saw the vast numbers of beer bottles being discarded and was even offered money to ‘dispose’ of them, he saw great potential, particularly as sand was virtually free and cement was inexpensive. Construction of the original Bottlehouse began in the late 1950’s, though a mild earthquake on Norfolk destroyed the foundations and revealed structural problems. Bob began again, more meticulous this time, and the surviving Bottlehouse – now almost 50 years old – is a testament to his unflappable resolve. The solid walls are 50cm (two bottle lengths) wide, with the base of each bottle exposed on the wall’s surface. The only touch of timber is the Norfolk Island pine that frames the doorways and alcoves, as Bob intended for the house to be fireproof.
When daughter Heather and son-in-law Robert moved to Norfolk Island in 1970, the Bottlehouse was fully operational and had two busloads of tourists visiting weekly. By this stage, Heather’s mother Winnie had moved back to New Zealand, and Bob had remarried a woman named Thelma. Together Bob and Thelma made the Bottlehouse their home, though construction was still underway. As age took its toll on Bob’s back he was unable to carry out many of the laborious tasks, and though he did occasionally enlist the help of local workmen the Bottlehouse never quite reached completion during Bob’s lifetime. Bob passed away in the early 1990’s, and his wife Thelma returned to New Zealand for medical reasons several years later, leaving the Bottlehouse vacant.
In 1999, on their 31st wedding anniversary, Robert and Heather were informed that their tender for the Bottlehousewas successful. They had sold their original Norfolk property to purchase the house and land, and spent every last penny on necessary reconstruction work. It was important to Robert and Heather to preserve both the house and the memory of the man who built it, so despite the hard work and dedication involved they feel it has been a rewarding project – and one they continue to love to this day. It is also a project they love to share. The Bottlehouse is officially open to visitors on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons though as Robert explains, now that he is retired, people can drop by any time.
It is Robert’s welcoming nature, so much like those Islanders who warmed the hearts of Bob and Winnie Hemus all those years ago, which ensures that this relic of Norfolk’s past continues to be a part of the island’s story. Today, there is a small fee of $5 to visit the Bottlehouse, which helps with the general upkeep of the property – though the warm hospitality is free and genuine. Now that Robert has finished full-time work, the extra time on his hands goes towards improvements and restorations. There is a pile of unused bottles that he has been keen to tinker with for some time, and also a beautiful ‘bottlebath’ that he hopes to bring back to life. This clever creation of Bob Hemus, made from heat-resistant cement and the rounded ends of beer bottles, no longer lives in the house though Robert feels it is worthy of admiration. A visitor suggested that with a glass top the bath would make quite a striking coffee table, and Robert is seriously considering the idea – for the bath, like the house it was fashioned after, deserves to be seen.
Robert Tofts may have been born in New Zealand, but his heart is full of Norfolk Island: its people, history and culture. He has written a book on Norfolk’s whaling era and one on the island’s shark tales, and co-wrote a book about ‘The Amazing Trumps’ and the Bottlehouse with wife Heather. Robert loves history, though what captivates him most are the great stories behind the facts. Given his interest in preserving Norfolk’s past, it seems entirely fitting that Robert would choose to save the Bottlehouse and restore it into the living relic it is today, yet for both himself and Heather the greatest motivation has been to keep alive the legacy of an amazing man. From the extraordinary work of Bob Hemus to his family’s achievements, the story that surrounds the Bottlehouse is inspiring – and Robert and Heather don’t want to keep all the wonder to themselves.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 03 Issue 02, 2013. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.