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Branka House: Layers of living history

Branka House: Layers of living history

Norfolk Island is well-known as the site of a British penal settlement in the 18th and 19th century, and the remnants of that era located at Kingston have now come under World Heritage listing.

However many visitors may not realise that there were also secondary settlements in the Cascade area to the north east and the Longridge area in the South West of the island. In these places, there are still some freestanding stone ruins, while others have been incorporated into private homes and gardens. One of the most visible reminders of those days is Branka House, although it has undergone more than one transformation since that time.

Longridge was a centre of agricultural activity for the penal colony. It was of particular importance in the time of Captain Alexander Maconochie, a well-known penal reformer who was in command of the settlement between 1840 and 1844. At this time, some hundreds of prisoners were actually housed at Longridge in temporary timber buildings, and plans were drawn up for a large stone prison. In the meantime, Maconochie had built a smaller prison block where he wanted to test out some of his ideas for rehabilitating prisoners. The block contained twelve solitary confinement cells built at ground level, with the only access to each cell being through a hatch on the second floor of the building. This second floor was divided into two rooms, one for a Protestant clergyman and one for a Roman Catholic. The idea was that someone would sit in the upper room and read from the Bible and other edifying
material to the prisoners below.

Maconochie’s reform methods met with a degree of success, but in a short time his ‘soft’ approach fell out of official favour and he was recalled. Little more than a decade later, the penal colony was closed down, and the buildings that remained were adapted for use by the Pitcairners. Some of the Longridge settlement land was included in the original 50-acre grant to Fletcher Christian Nobbs, who was among those Pitcairners who come in 1856. At first they lived at Kingston, and farmed their lands ‘up country’ but as families grew, many moved to their grants and established homes there.

A visitor to Norfolk Island described Nobbs as ‘the best-to-do’ man on the island. In 1875, he had served a period as Magistrate. Around 1880, Nobbs decided to establish for himself a larger dwelling for his growing family. It is possible that he also felt the need for a residence befitting his standing in the community. He utilised the skills of William Taylor, a stonemason who had been responsible for the stonework in the recently built St Barnabas’ Chapel. Taylor was called upon to convert Maconochie’s stone prison into a family home. We are not sure of the condition of the building at the time, but the dividing walls of the cells were removed, as was the floor of the second storey. Then the front section of a surrounding outer wall was cleverly incorporated into the house, creating two more large rooms at the front. A magnificent steep double gable was created, and this is still an outstanding feature of Branka House today. Meanwhile the back wall was used to enclose a lean-to type kitchen and ablutions area. At a later period a front and side veranda were created, using more of that hand-hewn stone.

We know the Nobbs family settled happily into their home, and the house later passed to the youngest son Brancker, when it became known as ‘Brancker’s House.’ As time passed, the penal origins of the building were overlooked, and although history recorded details of Maconochie’s model prison, the exact location had been forgotten. Meanwhile, the Nobbs family, along with other Pitcairn descendants, farmed the land around. It is said that one of those main rooms was used for sorting bean seed in the season.

The old home eventually passed to Brancker’s son Adrian. Sadly, he went missing in action during World War II. The house became part of a family trust. A brother lived in one small corner of the building for a time, but after his death, it fell into a state of disrepair. The bush grew up around it, but the steep twin gables were clearly visible, and visitors who approached out of curiosity could still see poignant evidence of former habitation through the salt and dirt encrusted windows.

In 1972 an entrepreneurial couple, Art and Jean Mawson, who had recently taken over one of the island’s hotels, purchased the property. At first they planned to restore the property to live in it themselves. Then they felt they would like to make it available for the enjoyment of the island. Art Mawson had a background in producing stage sets, and the resulting restoration was often described as somewhat theatrical, with linoleum and leather board on the walls, and a different garish carpet and paint finish in every room. Nevertheless, credit must be given to the Mawson’s for rescuing a lovely old building and returning it to a sound condition. The name was modernised to ‘Branka House‘ and it has stuck with a comfortable familiarity. Branka House was leased out and used as a function centre. The traditional “Island Dinner” which for many years had been staged for tourists at ‘Moira‘ was now brought to this new venue.

In 1977, the lease was taken over by English couple Peter and Mudgi Guile, who had previously managed the restaurant at Hillcrest. This was the start of a new ‘hey day’ for Branka House, and it became the first choice of venue for many a celebration or special occasion. The Guiles also used the large kitchen for some outside catering, as well as providing meals and refreshments for Marie Bailey’s Island Tours.

In 1983, Peter and Mudgi had the opportunity to purchase Branka House outright. The whole island applauded their decision. At last they were able to carry out some changes, which would restore this lovely building to a quieter dignity. Carpets were replaced, and internal timber walls were stripped. A ‘Wake’ was held for the linoleum on the walls, with friends and clients being invited to help remove it, and celebrate its demise. It should be noted however, that this unusual wall covering had served to protect the old walls of soft calcarenite, which reached up to above head height, to the level of the ceilings of those original cells. The Guiles replaced the linoleum with beautiful timber panelling, a reminder of their English roots.

Branka House continued to be a popular venue, and the Guiles gradually moved towards more a la carte dining. However the ‘good times’ continued in this warm and welcoming house! Locals have special memories of Bistro Nights, Musical evenings and Melbourne Cup luncheons.

It was during a particularly Happy New Years’ Eve Party, when, according to Peter, “there was a great deal of stomping going on”, that it became apparent that the floor was not very stable in the main room. Obviously some major renovation work was called for. However, no one anticipated what was to follow. The floorboards were lifted, and there, clearly visible, were the foundations of those twelve convict cells together with the holes for their individual privies. Experts were invited in to record and document the discovery, and one archaeologist said there was evidence of First settlement occupation of the site, although this has not been verified. At last, the location of Maconochie’s model prison was discovered.

The footings were replaced and boarded over, and the story of Branka House continued. After a time, Peter’s health problems led to a decision to make Branka a lunchtime restaurant only. It proved a wise and welcome move. Lunch at Branka House was like a’trip to the country’, and it was not uncommon for people to linger over their meal until late in the afternoon, enjoying the ambience and relaxed atmosphere.

In recent years, the Guiles began to feel it was time to retire, but were unable to find anyone to step into their shoes, and give the old place the love and attention it deserved. Reluctantly, they have closed the restaurant, sold their own house just along the road, and have now re-invented Branka once more as their own home. No doubt Branka’s old clients will be curious about the changes that may have taken place. They need not worry. It has been done with admirable taste and feeling. The front room has become a bedroom. The bar is their library/study and the shelves that once held bottles and glasses now support Peter and Mudgi’s book collection. The main room at the centre is divided into a dining and lounge area by clever placement of furniture. Meanwhile the glassed-in side veranda, where we enjoyed long and leisurely lunches, is a beautiful conservatory area, with a day lounge, informal seating and a small dining setting.

The kitchen is just as it always was. “Why change it?” says Peter. “It works, and I have many happy memories of creating dishes here!” The only alterations that are remotely structural are the ‘His’ and ‘Hers’ bathrooms where the old toilets were. The house is filled with the historical items with which we were all familiar, but has been further enhanced by the Guiles’ eclectic collection of personal bits and pieces. The result is homely and comfortable. Nevertheless, the Guiles are keen for us to be aware of what Mudgi calls the “layers of living history”. As you enter the dining area, you can still see the incredible thickness of the original prison walls, and there is a corner in the library where you can glimpse some of Art Mawson’s leather board and linoleum. It is all part of the story of this house that has undergone so many transformations.

The Guiles are proud to be part of that story, but are disappointed that the historical value of the Longridge area escapes official recognition. However, fascinating items from past eras still turn up regularly in the dirt of the garden, and are lovingly cleaned and displayed. Thanks to Mudgi and Peter, the Branka House chronicle will be preserved for future generations.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 01 Issue 02, 2011. 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.


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