The Libraries of Kingston: An untold story

February 2011 saw the opening to the public of the new Kingston & Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (KAVHA) Public Research Centre at No. 9 Quality Row in Kingston, Norfolk’s capital and the heart of the recently listed world heritage area.

The Centre, known by its acronym KPRC or, in Norf’k language, KSRS (KAVHA Salans Riiserch Senta), is both the culmination of many years planning and the most recent phase in Kingston’s history as a place of learning.

The earliest known research facility in Kingston was the library established in the vestry of St James’ Anglican Chapel in the Prisoner’s Barracks by Captain Alexander Maconochie in the early 1840s. This was a lending library for use by the convicts with about 500 volumes, and also held text books for the convict school. By the early 1850s this library had been moved to the Guardhouse near the Pier, and was later bequeathed to the Pitcairners. Mrs Sarah Selwyn wrote in her journal in 1857 of: “…reading Prasca Loupouloff, which I found among the prisoner’s library, to the young people, with a commentary upon Russia introduced scholastically, though it was rather a shame to dilute the pretty story. I regret there are not many books suitable to read to them – an audience would always be ready.” The story was about Russian convicts transported to Siberia.

Sixty years later, a visiting traveller Miss Bertha Murrell kept a diary of her rambling about the island. In January1915 she wrote, “I sit under my beloved pine trees, my ‘kit’ beside me with its variety of occupations to fit the mood of the moment, a book (“Historical Records of NSW from 1793 to 1795”), some knitting, needle and cotton await me when my diary releases me.”

Where Miss Murrell had acquired her copy of this pioneering archival reference book is not known, with its extensive references to Norfolk’s 18th and early 19th century history, but it seems historical research and interest on Norfolk was alive and well at the time.

By 1903 the Guardhouse had been burnt out, and it is not clear whether the library was also destroyed in the fire. At least some of the collection may have been moved to the school room after it was set up in the New Military Barracks in July 1856, as Mrs Selwyn recorded that she was given two classes of children and a large barrack room in which “we made a cosy establishment in one corner with maps and books”. The school moved to its present site at Middlegate in 1906, and by 1916 its library of 300 books was being used by students and the local community.

In 1939 research services returned to Kingston when a public lending library was established in the New Military Barracks’ Officer’s Quarters with support from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library and the Carnegie Trust. Within a year it had over 8,500 books, including 1,200 donated by the ANZCAN Cable Station. The Commonwealth funded the library until 1956 when control devolved to the Territory administration. In 1970 this library and almost all its books was destroyed by fire. For the fifth time a Kingston library was either fired, or relocated as happened later that year when a temporary library was set up at Burnt Pine. Renovations were carried out to the burnt out Officers Quarters in 1979, with the intention of returned the library to Kingston, however by the time the building was reconstructed the public library had acquired permanent premises in Burnt Pine.

A research facility returned to Kingston in 1995 when the Norfolk Island Museum established a research centre in the Guardhouse, reflecting its older use as the late convict/early Pitcairner era library. Although primarily for researching and supporting exhibitions and interpreting the museum collections, the Guardhouse also accepted research inquiries from scholars and the public, and for 16 years provided the only research facility in Kingston.

Recommendations for a KAVHA archive or library in Kingston date from 1988, and emphasised the need to preserve the records of one of Australia’s earliest heritage conservation projects, and to base interpretation of the Historic Area on scholarly research and documentary evidence. The adoption of a new conservation management plan for KAVHA in 2008, in preparation for world heritage listing, again identified the need for a KAVHA research centre and archive to be established in Kingston. This provided an impetus for action and planning, stimulated by the Federal government funding under its Jobs Fund program with a grant of $136,000 for the adaptive refurbishment of No 9 Quality Row as a research centre and archive.

No 9 Quality Row, Kingston is on land granted to Nathaniel Lucas in 1791, and is the largest of the stone Quality Row houses, being built in 1839 as the quarters for the Royal Engineer’s Officers (who designed most of the mid-19th century buildings in Kingston). It was later the home of the Rev George Hunn Nobbs and his family. The house was twice burnt out (1940 and 1951), reconstructed in 1968, and restored to its current form in 1999/2000 by the KAVHA team. The new refurbishment works were undertaken by the KAVHA team and local contractors, and generated important local economic activity through expenditure of the grant funding.

The KPRC|KSRS is intended for a diverse group of patrons: family historians and genealogists, scholars of the history of convictism and forced migration, historians of today’s Norfolkers and Pitcairners, teachers and students of Norf’k language, and others with a professional or amateur interest in the history and heritage of Kingston & Arthur’s Vale and Norfolk Island.

KPRC|KSRS collections will, in time, cover six main areas with a focus on Kingston & Arthur’s Vale between 1788-1914. Some examples of key records already acquired (through grant funding, a small acquisitions budget, and bequests from private donors) are:

  • British Parliamentary reports into the convict transportation and discipline in 1832, 1846, 1855, 1856 (including evidence from settlers, etc).
  • Colonial Office papers relating to the removal of the Pitcairners to Norfolk (1857) and the transfer of Norfolk to NSW (1897).
  • Colonial Office ‘Blue Books’ 1882-1885, containing the annual reports from every colony, including Norfolk Island (often with locals identified).
  • All of the NSW convict records held by State Records NSW, with extensive records for individuals (all on microfilm). SRNSW has also prepared a guide, available from the KPRC|KSRS, of all the Norfolk Island records in its holdings (these go well into the 20th century), as do some of the works in collections such as the 1920/21 Annual Report of the Pacific Cable Board (with references to the cable station on Norfolk).
  • The “Special Books” collection includes items such as The Pitcairn Island Register Book (1929 edition), Murray’s Pitcairn: the Island, the People, the Pastor (1860 edition), Tucker’s two volume biography of Bishop George Selwyn (1879 edition), and the LMS Tahitian and English Dictionary of 1851 (facsimile edition).
  • The complete 12 volume KAVHA Inventory (2002) of all known built structures in the Historic Area, and the 3 volume image inventory, is available on the open shelves.

There is a reading room with desks and comfortable chairs for patrons using paper records. DVDs and other AV materials are available for viewing such as film of the opening of the 1st Legislative Assembly session in 1979.

The KPRC|KSRS has research facilities at least equal to any other similar sized centre, including one of the newest ‘ScanPro 2000’ readers, on which microfilm, microfishe and other such materials can not only be read but printed, saved to a USB or emailed to your home computer; two public computers with extensive collections of links to other databases and digital records, such as the Archives Office of Tasmania. B&W and colour photocopying of KPRC|KSRS materials is available, as is Wi-Fi Hotspot for private internet access.

KAVHA achieved its world heritage listing on 1st August 2010 as one of the group of eleven Australian Convict Sites. Just seven months later, when the doors to the KPRC|KSRS were opened to the public, it heralded not only the launch of a new world-class facility for residents and visitors alike, and the enhancement of KAVHA’s already extensive heritage values, but also affirmed Kingston’s largely untold history as a place of learning with all of the possibilities that holds for the future.


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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