East Anglian links to an island that became a hell on earth

PUBLISHED: 08:49 29 January 2018 | UPDATED: 08:49 29 January 2018

The gateway to the main convict jail on Norfolk Island. No-one ever escaped from the most feared penal colony in Australasia.

The gateway to the main convict jail on Norfolk Island. No-one ever escaped from the most feared penal colony in Australasia.


Don Black explores the East Anglian connections to the notorious Australian penal colony of Norfolk Island, once dubbed ‘hell on earth’.

Wortham church tower on a frosty morning, partly ruined but still impressive. Picture: Don BlackWortham church tower on a frosty morning, partly ruined but still impressive. Picture: Don Black

Captain James Cook discovered a then uninhabited South Pacific island on October 10 1774. “I took possession of the isle and named it Norfolk Isle in honour of that noble family,” he recorded in his log.

He predicted that the towering Norfolk pines would yield masts and spars for England’s ships, flax plants growing beneath them provide raw material for their sails.

Sadly, too many knots weakened the trees and the flax was inferior to home-grown varieties.

But the lonely island, a thousand miles north-east of Sydney and 50 miles north of Auckland, became ideal as a repository for troublesome convicts unwanted in New South Wales and Tasmania. Nobody ever escaped.

Joan Wood with her album of photographs she took on Norfolk Island. Picture: Don BlackJoan Wood with her album of photographs she took on Norfolk Island. Picture: Don Black

Norfolk Island held around 600 convicts, but its real use was to intimidate tens of thousands more. “If it was not demonic, it would have been as useless a deterrent as a gallows with no rope,” wrote Australian historian Robert Hughes in his seminal work The Fatal Shore.

Governor Ralph Darling planned the island to be ‘a place of the extremest punishment short of death’. Whipping bare backs was commonplace for misconduct such as swearing to guards, but death sentences followed more serious offences.

Fourteen men were hanged for leading a convict mutiny that began on January 15, 1834. The youngest was William Mculloch, who had just turned 21.

Being members of a relatively small clan, Mc (or Mac) Cullochs, are probably distantly related to the unfortunate William.

Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch, Suffolk-born Professor of Church History at the University of Oxford and an old boy of the former Stowmarket grammar school, acknowledges kinship.

“My family lore casts a blanket over the generation to which William belonged,” Sir Diarmaid told me.

“Norfolk Island may have been hell on earth, but Norfolk itself is God’s-own county, beside Suffolk, of course!” he added.

It’s a hard fact that Norfolk has a record total of some 600 ancient churches, Suffolk coming second with 500. And proportionately, clergy seem to have been as thin on the ground in and around Australia as they are in East Anglia today.

The execution of Norfolk Island rebels was delayed until September 22 and 23, 1834 so that two clergy – one Anglican and one Roman Catholic - could sail from Sydney to comfort the condemned men.

“Their lives were brief,” wrote one priest, “and as agitated and restless as the waves which now break at their feet . . .”

Fellow convicts carved headstones for their graves, six of which remain as a paradoxical reminder.

Outside the cemetery a mound is said to cover the mass grave of convicts hanged after they had murdered an overseer and walled up his body in a bridge. Only when blood seeped from the masonry was their crime revealed.

Relics of the island’s horrific past, as well as its enduring beauty, have been recorded by former nurse Mrs Joan Wood, of Debenham, near Stowmarket,

“The sub-tropical climate is tempered by a strong breeze, which blew papers for my attempted paintings all over the place,” she says. “I used my camera instead.”

Her late husband, Lt-Comm Bill Wood, was gunnery officer in a destroyer that helped sink a Japanese cruiser in waters north of Norfolk Island in the closing days of the Second World War.

Mrs Wood lent me her photo album and the rambler’s guide they used for exploring the island.

It has become a popular resort for holidaymakers seeking pollution-free relaxation in a setting that interests people who like to follow the tragic beginnings of Anglo-Australian history.

There’s no proper harbour, but a gap in the reef allows small vessels to land passengers from cruise ships. A small airport makes access easy.

The 1,750 present inhabitants include descendants of free settlers from Pitcairn, the tiny isle that was haven to the Bounty mutineers. But that’s another story…

Norfolk Record Office, based in Martineau Lane, Norwich, has compiled a leaflet on convict transportation from the county to Australia from 1788 and listing sources of more information in both countries.

Archives we have checked, however, all fall short of Norfolk Island… as if its past employment were a matter of shame.

Wortham, on the Suffolk side of the upper River Waveney and known for a church with the largest ancient round tower anywhere, is linked with both Norfolk Island and transportation to Australia.

Even that tower, almost 30ft across and partly ruined, had an unhappy origin. Its first floor entry confirms a defensive purpose.

John Patteson, who as the first Anglican bishop of Melanesia, made Norfolk Island his base and suffered martyrdom in his 80-isle diocese, was grandson of Wortham rector Henry Patteson.

Henry’s aunt Lucy married John Chevalier Cobbold, who more than anyone else changed Ipswich from a small town into a thriving industrial centre.

Young Pattesons and Cobbolds enjoyed the Wortham countryside, its church a mile from the village proper.

On one recent Sunday I was surprised to find about 25 cars parked outside for a service. The weather was cold and bleak, but the size of the congregation would have pleased John Patteson, who faced tough challenges in a warmer clime.

A tablet in St Barnabas’ Chapel, built in his memory on Norfolk Island, declares: “He displayed calm resolution in the presence of danger… his name loved through isles of the South Pacific until he fell by the hand of one who knew not what he did.”

It happened on Nukapu, in the eastern Solomon Islands, on September 20 1871, after Bishop Patteson went ashore from the sailing vessel Southern Cross and disappeared behind coconut palms fringing the beach.

His body, found with head crushed by blows, and legs pierced by arrows, was buried at sea. He had been bishop for 10 years.

Blame for his death was attributed to the practice of “blackbirding,” the virtually forcible recruitment of islanders to work on sugar plantations in Fiji and Queensland.

The Rev Richard Cobbold, succeeding Henry Patteson as rector of Wortham, meticulously chronicled the lives of his parishioners but inserted romantic fiction into his best-selling novel The History of Margaret Catchpole (1845).

She had been in the service of Richard’s parents at Ipswich until in 1797 she stole one of their horses and rode it to London, a crime for which she was sentenced to death.

Richard’s mother successfully pleaded for mercy and the sentence was commuted to transportation for seven years.

While awaiting shipment she escaped from Ipswich prison, was caught, and again sentenced to death. This time the sentence was commuted to transportation for life.

Margaret earned freedom and respect as a midwife in New South Wales. Thankfully the authorities did not send her to Norfolk Island.

Books we have found useful are The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, Cobbold and Kin by Clive Hodges and Parson and People of a Suffolk Village by the Wortham Research Group, edited by David Dymond.

Most Read

Latest from the Beccles and Bungay Journal

Hot Jobs

Show Job Lists