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Finding a Sanctuary – Ruth Park on Norfolk

Finding a Sanctuary – Ruth Park on Norfolk

“I still dream about it – the sea mists drawing salt-scapes on the windows; the ferny-tasting water, the rainbows that seemed to be everywhere… [and] now that I live in the locked-up, barred, suspicious city I dream most of all of the marvellous nights, with all the doors and windows open, the sky powdered with stars… “  – Ruth Park

The notion of living on a small island – bounded by a vast ocean; a world unto itself – can be very alluring. Over the years, many people have come to Norfolk searching for a safe haven and hoping to enjoy a ‘sea-change’. In the early 1970s, a few years after her husband’s death, Ruth Park was looking for a new home; seeking an escape from bustling Sydney and her unresolved grief. She noted that: …a golden haze of romanticism settled over the idea of islands. I began to yearn for peace, silence, even solitariness. Ruth and D’Arcy Niland, both acclaimed authors, had been married for 25 years but his death in 1967 from a sudden heart attack devastated her. She was a widow at 49 – struggling to continue her career without a beloved confidant and partner – and sole parent to five children aged 16 to 24. 

Writing steadily for various projects, while ensuring her offspring were loved, supported and educated, Ruth dreamt of finding a sanctuary: My desire was for an island refuge both convenient and inconvenient, and so my mind had finally settled on Norfolk Island, only 1600 kilometres from the Queensland coast. A loved friend, long resident on Norfolk, had made a useful comment: ‘If you’re a visitor, the island is not remote,’ she said, ‘but it’s a million miles from anywhere if you live here.’ 

The ‘loved friend’ was a vibrant and outgoing lady, Wyn Simmonds, who worked at the Leeside dress shop. Wyn’s daughter, Carole Yager, remembers Ruth holidaying at her mother’s place in the late 1960s. These visits encouraged Ruth to make the move: I had often stayed with this friend, and so already knew the island fairly well. I liked the faded colonial splendours of its tragic early history, and the slow speech of the island women, like waves breaking on a still day…It was like a ship, all alone in the ocean, secure, well-found, never sunk yet, and its pines were ten thousand masts.

So, in 1973 – after finishing her book Companion Guide to Sydney, and satisfied the young Nilands were all settled and happy – Ruth arrived on Norfolk. She was ready for a fresh start and new adventures. Six years of sorrow, worries and responsibilities lay behind her but Park believed: …islands are symbols of something for which the human psyche longs – unity or completion…like all small islands [Norfolk] has magical completeness. Like the old sailor in Elizabeth Riddell’s poem, you feel it is a big green apple you can hold in your hand.

Although best known for two classic works: Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange and The Muddleheaded Wombat stories for children, Park wrote prolifically in many genres. From the 1940s, to her death in 2010, she produced a seemingly endless stream of articles, non-fiction pieces, film treatments, poetry, books, TV dramas, plays, serials and scripts for radio. Ruth was born and raised in New Zealand but emigrated to Sydney in 1942; marrying D’Arcy Niland, her pen-friend of many years, three weeks later. Both were dedicated to their craft, as Niland was also a master storyteller; winning acclaim for his short stories and novels like The Shiralee and Dead Men Running. Their joint aim, from the beginning, had been to: …earn our living at writing. 




Ruth kept up her prodigious literary output on Norfolk and spent much of her time researching, working on a variety of texts and enjoying a quiet existence. In response to the depression and sadness she felt after D’Arcy’s death Ruth became a proponent of Zen Buddhism and meditation – attracted to the concepts of being ‘in the moment’, detaching from troubles and accepting the ebb and flow of life. Eventually Ruth wanted her own little place, so Pieter Swynenburg constructed a hill-top cottage for her on Stockyard Road. She cherished this retreat, with its breathtaking outlook, and remembered it as…a lovely house, tightly built by a good Dutchman. Maria Swynenberg, Pieter’s wife, would later open a bookshop with Ruth on Norfolk.

There was, however, a downside to her home’s panoramic location: I wanted a 360 degree view, the two little mountains and their rainforest to the west and north, and the ocean and hills and dales to the east. Madness. Who wants to build on a hill on an island? You want to live in a crow’s nest on a mast, or maybe on the weathervane above the steeple…The winds sang around windows, under doors, and through the footings. There were high airs and low airs, some spiral, some as undulating as the sea, and they all found me.

Despite ever-present breezes, the cottage with its magnificent vistas, soothed and inspired Ruth. As she recalled: “Many things were written in that house, dozens of articles of one sort or another, some for the Sydney Morning Herald women’s page… There were also several Wombat books, and three books for teenagers, including…Playing Beatie Bow which won prizes and became a film…[and] the novel about the dwarf, Swords and Crowns and Rings, was written, and won the Miles Franklin Award”. 

The island’s beauty and colourful past stimulated Park’s fertile mind, and she drew on its history for imaginary tales and non-fiction. She enthusiastically studied the convict era to write Come Danger, Come Darkness – a children’s novel set during the brutal Second Settlement – and later did more research to produce a factual, and informative, guidebook: Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island. Ruth also wrote about her daily doings for various newspapers. In a piece for The National Times, she describes a morning ramble: 

“Low tide at eight, so decide to go down to the reef at Kingston and find enough winkles to make a hi-hi stew. The old ruined settlement exquisitely beautiful, and melancholy beyond words. A ship stands out in the dazzle between Norfolk and its companion the red-painted Phillip Island. Lightermen shuttling back and forth…wonderfully skilful – bringing in buses [and] huge earthmoving equipment…The reef stretches from one horn of the bay to the other [and] exhales the fresh, briny breath of all reefs.”

Almost fifty years later and Park’s words are still evocative; conjuring vivid images of Kingston, Slaughter Bay and Islanders unloading the ship. Her love for Norfolk was apparent in all her writings and the second volume of her autobiography, Fishing in the Styx, contains many lyrical passages about Island pines, cows, night skies, weather, customs and people. She wanted to contribute in some way and, although focused on her writing, Ruth always tried to promote learning and reading.

Kirsti Jenkins-Smith, Norfolk’s community librarian from 1973 to 1980, remembers Ruth generously giving a number of valuable books and rare volumes to the Public Library. In May 1970 a fire had destroyed much of the existing catalogue so, when Park arrived three years later, she wanted to help expand the local collection. Ruth served on the Library Committee and continued to donate books – particularly those written for children – which she purchased, or acquired, from her network of publishing contacts in Australia. 

Not surprisingly, Ruth eventually set up her own book store on Norfolk – Book Worm – in partnership with Maria Swynenberg. They also sold gifts, ornaments, caneware, stationery and diaries and Mary Christian-Bailey still treasures items she bought there in the early 1980s. Sadly, however, Ruth’s Island sojourn was coming to an end. In 1983 she had to leave Norfolk, and return to Sydney, but would fondly recall: …I went there…lived on almost nothing for two years, wrote a great deal, stayed ten years and would be there still if it had not been for an unpredictable illness.

Fate intervened but Ruth’s Island years had been productive and finally brought her emotional peace too. Grief for D’Arcy had continued to overwhelm her but, along with her Zen beliefs, the island’s serenity and beauty often provided solace. She wanted to feel his spirit fly away joyfully and remembered:

…years afterwards, on a sunny height in Norfolk Island, where he had never been, the lofty pines standing silent in the way they do, and the fairy terns flipping in and out of the boughs like snowflakes or falling flowers, I felt him close, and then gone forever. ‘Goodbye, darlen,’ I said. ‘See you morla!’ Which is the way Norfolk Islanders say goodbye, for they believe in tomorrow.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 06 Issue 01, 2023. 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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