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The Spirit of a House: No. 10 Quality Row

The Spirit of a House: No. 10 Quality Row

If you believe in ghosts then the houses and buildings along Quality Row in Kingston would be the most likely of places to find them. Built during the infamous Second Settlement when the island was home to brutalised and ‘worst of the worst’ convicts, Quality Row (or Military Road as it was then called) was where the prison guards and military lived, alongside civil officers and their families.

The house at No. 10 Quality Row was completed in 1844 and still retains much of its original fabric. While the names of all the occupants for the next 140 years are known, it is the small but tantalising clues they left behind that give an insight into their character and lives. In a way, some of their spirit has been left in the air for those today who wish to breathe it in.

It is somewhat ironical that No. 10’s first occupant, Thomas Seller, who arrived on Norfolk Island as Foreman of Works in 1839 and was responsible for the construction of this and other Quality Row houses, had to live in a tent at the end of the road for five long years before he moved into his own completed house. Each of the houses were built for a particular person, so across the road at No. 11 was the Catholic Clergyman, next door at No.9 was the Royal Engineer, at No. 8 was the Commissariat Officer and so on down the road. Even though he was only to live in the house for two years before returning to his wife and family in Sydney, Thomas must have felt great relief at finally having four solid walls around him.

It’s perhaps easiest of all to picture Thomas – walking down the hall, eating at the dining table and entertaining fellow officers in his living room – as the house today is a museum furnished to the time of his occupation. A photo hanging on the wall shows him wearing a beret and looking straight into the camera, generally pleased with life. If you are able to glean the character of a person from their signature you can study his in a framed copy of a plan, drawn for Captain Maconochie of the gaol at Longridge. His flowing cursive script is elegant, quite tight and neat.

Thomas made a painting not long after his arrival revealing his artistic nature. His watercolour of the settlement from Flagstaff Hill, while far from perspectively perfect, is a detailed and beautiful work of art using gentle creams, blues and greens. It appears to have been the only painting of his to survive and is now in the collection of the National Library of Australia.

While Thomas left his family in Sydney he did not live alone at No. 10 as he was allotted a domestic servant. Convict William Jenkins most likely arrived with Thomas from Sydney and slept in the small side room in the kitchen annexe. Visiting the annexe today, treading on the same stone flagstaffs as he did, you can imagine his presence. Much of the rooms remain untouched and include items that Jenkins would have accessed undertaking daily chores such as the fireplace, boarding to hang the pots and pans and the oven. He would have kept the fires going most of the time and used the hot coals in the oven to bake his master’s food. Jenkins duties maintaining the house would have also seen him using the well and ash pit located in the garden just outside the courtyard walls. Little would he have realised that about 140 years after he emptied the rubbish archaeologists would be sifting through the remains discovering information about his and Thomas’ everyday life.

Vivid descriptions of the type of lifestyle the civil officers and soldiers led can be found in diaries and journals. Quarantined from the violence and misery experienced by the convicts living literally across the road, the Civil and Military Officers and their families led quite a social life with parties, card games, picnics and even balls. Thomas would have enjoyed many aspects of life here. Ensign Best, serving with the 80th Regiment describes these occasions in his diary such as card nights in the living room with food and drink being brought in throughout the night. A ball organised by the bachelors of the island was attended: “At nine the Company began to assemble and as ushered into the ball room expressed great satisfaction with the grace & beauty of its appearance… Dancing was kept up till midnight when supper was announced… A table in the form of a T occupied the centre & one end of the room bearing on it all the luxuries of Norfolk Island. When eating had ceased several toasts were proposed and songs sung. Dancing was then resumed until past five when the party broke up…”.

When Thomas left the island in 1847 he was replaced by Robert Orford who lived at No.10 with his wife and adult daughter. While we know little about the family the house would have undoubtedly had a softer look and feel with the influence of the women. Contemporary accounts describe the ladies of Quality Row doing their needlework on the verandahs in the afternoons. We know Mrs and Miss Orford were fond of needlework and can imagine a dog asleep at their feet (dog bones found in the ash pit tell us of their existence during occupancy).

For the women of the settlement ‘paying visits’ was expected as part of social obligations. Elizabeth Robinson, daughter of Gilbert, the Superintendent of Agriculture, says of visits to the Quality Row houses from their home in Longridge:

“…We wanted father to go with us to the settlement [in Kingston] to day for Mr Rowlands says the people are all wondering why we have not returned their calls…”. Such was the number of dinner invitations her father received he declared himself, “too busy to visit or return calls”.

It is likely that No. 10 Quality Row was unoccupied for a time after the Orfords left in 1855 when the penal settlement finally closed. Owing to the grace of Queen Victoria in allowing them to relocate here, the Pitcairn Islanders arrived on 8 June 1856 having outgrown their own small island home. The ghosts of these people, descended from the Bountymutineers and their Tahitian wives, are no doubt also all around the Quality Row houses as they became their homes for over the next fifty years.

The array of buildings they found here would have been bewildering. Mrs George Hunn Nobbs records:

“Everything was so strange, the immense houses, the herds of cattle grazing, and in the distance the gigantic Norfolk pines, filled us for the moment with amazement. I was conducted by Mr Stewart to the Government House, and seated by a good fire in the drawing-room (I have learned that name since), which was the first fire I had ever seen in a dwelling house, and an excellent addition to my previous ideas of domestic comfort”.

No doubt Isaac and Miriam Christian and their children would have felt quite unsettled spending their first night at No. 10 Quality Row. By way of ballot they were allotted the house for their family and eventually raised fifteen children there.

Miriam’s spirit in the house must be still strongly felt. Life for her would have centred around the domestic arrangements of raising all those children. A piece of a yolla (grating stone made of basalt) found in the garden, tells of her labour grating green bananas, sweet potato or yams for traditional islander dishes such as mudda and pilhi. Flattened kerosene tins used in a few places to fill gaps in the floor (still remaining today) may have been placed there during this time when cash was limited, materials scarce and everything was re-cycled.

Miriam’s mother had returned to Pitcairn in 1864 along with her husband and others dissatisfied with life on Norfolk and homesick for Pitcairn. In a letter written to her mother now on display in the house, the difficult life that Miriam and the other women faced is clear: “Dorcas is still living with us but not married yet… Jacob and Maria’s children are verry sickly. they lost three since you left us and another one now is very ill and is not likely to live long poor little Lucy. we got three more since you left us. one is dead and two alive. At one time Isaac, Hunt, Godfrey, Leonard, and Parkins all gone to sea”. Hunt, Godfrey, Leonard and Parkins were four of her sons.

An 1857 photograph of Miriam sitting amongst other women on the verandah of one of the houses along Quality Row, clearly shows her Tahitian heritage. It is hard to determine if her slim face looks shy or apprehensive but she appears less relaxed than the others. On top of the loss of a baby she also faced the death of her husband Isaac in 1877 in a whaling accident.

If you know where to look, you can see that one of Miriam’s grandsons Thomas E. Christian, has left a little graffiti. Thomas lived in the house with his parents and etched his name into one of the panes of glass in the front window. He must have done this before the age of fifteen, the age he was in 1890 when the house became the home of Church of England chaplain’s. Perhaps before he left Thomas was also responsible for a piece of graffiti found hidden behind one of the drapes in the study. A beautifully rendered drawing of a ship was found under layers of paint on the original timber surface during restoration work. It is difficult to date – perhaps it was left by Thomas Seller, but more likely was drawn by Thomas E. Christian or one of those fifteen children of Isaac and Miriam’s.

The Church of England vicars left their mark in the architecture. In the 1890s they had a walkway erected between the back of the house and the annexe, enclosed the verandah with lattice fencing and put a door between the two front easterly rooms to create a study. All these features still remain.

Later occupants to the house made other alterations, most of them unsympathetic to the original Georgian architecture and removed in the 1980s restorations. Perhaps for that reason it is a little harder to conjure the spirits of Ernest Stephenson, Registrar and Collector of Customs who lived in the house for ten years from 1926 and a succession of Official Secretaries to the Administrator between 1937 to about 1960. The most notable of them was Charles ‘Potts’Buffett – the only local to have ever been appointed to the position. It was most likely his teenage son Peter who left his mark – engraved initials ‘PB 1955’ are etched deep into the sandstone on the east verandah wall. Police Sergeants became the tenants for the next twenty five years until finally the last resident was Systems Analyst, Phil Munnings and his family who lived there for only one year until 1985. It was then restored and became a house museum for the Norfolk Island Museum. This house clearly has many stories to tell. A visit will perhaps provide contact with the spirit of those who have lived here and give some appreciation of all the living that has occurred at No. 10 Quality Row.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 02 Issue 03, 2012. 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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