A journey back in time to Australia's Norfolk Island

Jacqui Gibson meets one of Norfolk Island’s community treasures and takes a journey back in time

Heritage grounds of Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (KAVHA) on Norfolk Island (image care of Norfolk Island Tourism).

Heritage grounds of Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (KAVHA) on Norfolk Island (image care of Norfolk Island Tourism).


Marie Bailey never met the grandmother who finally made it ashore on Norfolk Island in 1856 after a gruelling month at sea.

By the time Marie was born on 28 November 1926, by now a second generation Norfolk Islander, her gran had been dead four years.

Yet it’s her grandmother’s impressive migration story – and the story of 193 people who travelled with her from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk – that Marie, now retired, spent a lifetime retelling as one of Norfolk’s earliest tour operators.

Not only is it a family story dear to her heart, says Marie during my three-day hosted tour of Norfolk, it’s also a story that gives outsiders a window into the latest chapter of Norfolk Island’s rich social history.

Pitcairn Islanders’ arrival on Norfolk Island

The story begins at Kingston Pier, Norfolk Island, on 8 June 1856.

One of four kids in the Christian family, Marie’s gran is just four years old when she leaps ashore amid squalls of rain.

The toddler's come 6,000 kilometres from Pitcairn to Norfolk at the invitation of Britain’s Queen Victoria, who, on hearing about the Pitcairners’ plight, gave the entire population the nod to relocate to Norfolk.

She even sent a boat to fetch them.

The islanders, all direct descendants of Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives, were growing in number and faced imminent starvation on their tiny, remote homeland. On Norfolk, promised the Queen, they’d receive livestock and supplies on arrival and be housed in Kingston’s abandoned convict settlement.

It was a generous offer – yet one that most Pitcairners, including Marie’s forebears, took up with some reluctance. Leaving Pitcairn was a hard decision, even heartbreaking for some. But the entire community did leave. And, by doing so, carved out the so-called fourth key settlement period in Norfolk’s history.

From Pitcairners to Norfolk Islanders

According to Janelle Blucher, acting director of Norfolk Island Museum, this settlement period started the moment Marie’s gran set foot on Kingston pier and extends through to today.

Like Marie, nearly half of Norfolk Islanders (about 900 people) are direct descendants of those Pitcairn migrants. And most still speak the native Pitcairn language, a combination of 18th century English and Tahitian.

But Norfolk Island’s fascinating human history didn’t start there, says Janelle.

Early Polynesian settlement

Excavations carried out between 1995 and 1999 throughout the Kingston area uncovered clear evidence of East Polynesian settlement dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries.

Archaeologists found remnants of a hut, ovens, refuse pits and postholes, adding to much earlier discoveries of stone adzes and the remains of a canoe.

They also unearthed evidence of the early Polynesian rat, rattus exulans, suggesting Norfolk was part of a Polynesian navigational route extending from Tahiti and the Cook Islands to New Zealand and the Kermadecs.

When and why the community died out or moved on is unclear, says Janelle. But researchers believe the island probably lay unpopulated for several hundred years before human habitation took hold again in 1788.

Norfolk becomes a penal colony in 1788

This time the 35 square kilometre island was taken into the new British colony of New South Wales, becoming one of its first convict settlements and only the second British settlement in the Southern Hemisphere.

By 1814, however, this phase in Norfolk’s settlement history had ended. The risk of shipwreck was high. The country’s natural bounty, the Norfolk Island pine, once thought useful for ships’ masts was found wanting.

Convicts and settlers alike were relocated to Australia. Homes, buildings and the gaol (jail) were raised to the ground. Norfolk was abandoned once more.

The island’s most brutal period

Until 1825, that is, when the former penal colony sprang back into life under its most brutal command. This time, torture, beatings and uprisings leading to hangings were reportedly common among the nearly 2,000 prisoners.

Norfolk’s second convict settlement quickly became known as one of the harshest in the British Empire. “While this period was undoubtedly grim,” says Janelle. “It’s also given us the incredible heritage landscape and collection of Georgian buildings you see today – much of it built by the hands of convicts themselves.”

"Dozens of buildings belong to this period," she says. Buildings such as Government House (one of the earliest and most intact remaining buildings of its type in Australia), the New Military Barracks, nine military and officers’ houses, hospital ruins (built on the remains of the first settlement) and a cemetery considered outstanding for its collection of centuries-old headstones set into a picturesque coastal landscape.

Norfolk’s heritage landscape gains UNESCO recognition

In 2010, Norfolk Island's heritage area was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List as one of Australia’s 11 outstanding convict sites.

“This period also gave the Pitcairn Islanders much needed shelter on arrival,” says Janelle. The two-storey New Military Barracks, constructed between 1835 and 1837, is case in point.

"Pitcairn families immediately moved in and set up a school on the second floor. Years later the ground floor became a courtroom. The new migrants also made use of Kingston’s other buildings, existing roads, bridges, wharves, cleared arable land, provisions, tools – and livestock," says Janelle.

Some moved into the four-room houses on a street called Quality Row. Museum records show that’s exactly what happened to Marie’s grandmother after her family won a lottery granting them permission to live at No 10.

Originally built in 1844 for a Foreman of Works named Thomas Seller, No 10 Quality Row was to be the Christian family home until the 1880s.

Who knows where Marie’s gran and her family lived next? Marie’s not 100 percent sure. But eventually Marie’s gran, Emily Wellesley Christian, grew up and married a British blacksmith named George Bailey.

Together in 1877 they built a homestead in Norfolk’s main village area of Burnt Pine and raised a family.

It’s in this home that Marie still lives today. She grew up there. She’s run a highly successful tourism business from there. And it’s in her grandmother’s living room that she points to a painting of the HMAV Bounty.

“It all comes back to that one big event – the mutiny on the Bounty. That’s how my descendants washed up on Pitcairn all those years ago. Eventually, it came time to move on and, with much thanks to Queen Victoria, that’s how my family washed up here on Norfolk.”

This story was first published in Food, Wine & Travel magazine.

Note, the writer would like to acknowledge the sad passing of Marie Bailey since this story was drafted and thank hosts Norfolk Island Tourism for hosting her and organising time with Marie.

Norfolk Island foreshore (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Norfolk Island foreshore (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Norfolk's Key Settlement Periods 

  • 1300-1500, Polynesian settlement

  • 1788-1814, First colonial penal settlement

  • 1825-1855, Second colonial penal settlement

  • 1856 -, Pitcairn settlement.

Take a Heritage Holiday

Tourism is central to Norfolk Island’s economy – and there’s plenty on offer. You can take the Historic Convict Tour of Kingston by bus in the evening for a terrifying re-enactment of the penal colony.

There’s Fletcher’s Mutiny Cyclorama, a 360-degree artwork illustrating the story of Fletcher Christian and the communities of Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands (the brainchild of Marie Bailey – look for her grandmother’s name ‘Emily Wellesley Christian’ in the roll call).

Take part in Bounty Day, a major anniversary event in June. You can even play a round of golf within the grounds of the historic Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (KAVHA).

The best idea, according to Janelle Blucher, acting director of Norfolk Island Museum, is to spend time in the main heritage area walking the grounds, taking in the sights and checking out the museums.

“Buy a museum pass, they’re valid for the entire duration of your holiday and provide entry into all four museums, access to the research centre and guided tours through the museums and collections. Interesting and great value!” she says.