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Shards from Time: First Fleet china

Shards from Time: First Fleet china

Shards from Time: First Fleet china at Norfolk Island Museum.

The comforts of home are an important psychological necessity for most people, providing comfort, emotional security and a tie to loved ones. Whether moving next door or across the world, furniture, homewares and trinkets are a tangible link to a person’s past and are often an expression of identity.

This year marks 232 years since the First Fleet left Portsmouth destined for New Holland, now Australia, on 13 May 1787 after months of preparation.

The Fleet consisted of:

  • Two Royal navy vessels – HMS Sirius and HMAT Supply
  • Three store ships – Golden Grove, Fishburn and Borrowdale
  • Six convict transports – Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Lady Penrhyn, Prince of Wales and Scarborough

The fleet sailed first to Tenerife, Canary Islands then to Rio de Janeiro to pick up supplies. They then went east to Cape Town and finally Port Jackson, arriving over the period of 18 to 20 January 1788 and taking 252 days in total. Between them the ships carried 1,000 – 1,500 convicts, marines, seamen, civil officers and free people (accounts differ on the numbers), and a large quantity of stores. Many of these people had little expectation of returning home and had brought with them the trappings of their former life in Britain including clothing, furniture, linen and – the subject of this article – china.

Having established a fledgling colony at Port Jackson, Governor Arthur Phillip charged Lieutenant Philip Gidley King with settling a sister colony on Norfolk Island, hoping for it to become the ‘breadbasket’ of Sydney. King and 22 other brave souls (15 of which were convicts) landed on Norfolk Island on 6 March 1788, establishing the First British Settlement. The first Government House, and soon a second, was built overlooking the landing site at Kingston (the foundations are still intact and marked with an engraved stone sign), and a small settlement of timber houses, stores and huts with gardens grew around the Island, from around Kingston itself to Phillipsburg to the north, Charlotte’s Field (or Charlottefield, later Queenborough) in the West.

At the height of the First Settlement, the population numbered 1156 (as at May 1792) which included:

  • 86 civil and military personnel
  • 80 free settlers
  • 116 children
  • 266 female convicts
  • 608 male convicts

While technically a convict settlement, the nature of the settlement was more that of a colonial outpost, rather than the penal institution of the Second British Settlement on Norfolk Island, and as such the settlers lived a quiet agrarian lifestyle with cleared lands and comfortable homes. Ships manifests provide an indication of personal items that were brought to Norfolk Island during the First British Settlement, including bowls, plates, cutlery and linen, along with clothing, shoes and undergarments. Social niceties were observed on Norfolk Island, as they were in all British colonies, and Philip Gidley King records an example of this in his diary on Christmas Day, 25 December 1788: “it was observed as a holyday [sic]. The colours were hoisted at sun-rise: I performed divine service; the officers dined with me, and I gave each of the convicts half a pint of rum, and double allowance of beef to celebrate the festival…”

This first European settlement faced numerous hardships during its existence however, and in June 1803 Lord Robert Hobart, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, advised Governor King that the British Government had decided to move some of the population to Port Dalrymple in Van Diemen’s Land, and to wind up the settlement. Some of the reasons given by Lord Hobart for the decision were the expenses involved in Norfolk Island’s upkeep, its distance from Sydney and lack of safe anchorage. Due to local petitions and Governor King’s intervention, the first movement did not occur until August 1804 and it wasn’t until February 1814 that the last people remaining were returned to Sydney. In those intervening years, a concentrated effort to dismantle the settlement had been underway, with buildings destroyed, animals slaughtered and all belongings taken with the settlers upon their removal from Norfolk Island. The result is that very little remains from this period of Norfolk’s history. Small artefacts such as buttons, metal tools and shards of china and glass beads have been found by locals and concentrated archaeological digs, and these provide insights into what life may have been like for people living on Norfolk Island in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century.

The Norfolk Island Museums and Research Centre are fortunate to hold a number of these artefacts, which form part of the KAVHA Collection and are showcased in a permanent exhibition within the Commissariat Store. Examples of English ceramics found within the Museum’s collections include hand-painted earthenwares, black basalt-ware, cream-ware and feather-edge ware.

While only shards, these intricate pieces of china provide an insight into the lives of the military and free settlers living on Norfolk Island during the First British Settlement. They indicate that although now living on the other side of the world, settlers still enjoyed small luxuries and a continuation of British social activities. They also represent the growth and evolution of British pottery houses, and their popularity within the upper-middle and elite classes of English society.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 03 Issue 02, 2019. 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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