Friday, April 25, 2008

On this Anzac day of 2008, one naturally thinks about those who were very much "in the thick" of danger and sacrifice during the war. When we honour those veterans who march today, we are not just honouring a group of elderly men and women, we are really honouring a large number of very young men, only some of whom had the chance to grow old.

During World War 2, our home here at "Devon" was actually the headquarters for the N.Z. 36th Batallion, who were stationed here on Norfolk Island. There were also personnel from the Australian Department of Main Roads, working on the airstrip and also representatives from the U.S. forces, who had been the instigators of the idea that an airstrip was needed on the island for tactical reasons.

The New Zealand Colonel lived here in our house, and there were encampments in our woodland in front. If you scrape around, there are still old bottles to be found there. Along our driveway, there is a very old pine tree, and halfway up it there was a lookout and some phone/radio equipment, and the wires were still dangling from it until recent years. Next door at Devon Cottage, the drains and greasetraps of the "Mess" can still be seen.

The "Lookout tree" -sadly showing signs of age. We may need to bring it down soon.

From the valley behind us, water was actually pumped right up to the base of Mt Pitt, from which it was gravity-fed down to various encampments around the island. Only a couple of years ago, while mowing near our washing line, we shaved off a little more than usual, and revealed the old metal pipe that had been used. This seems amazing nowadays, because we do not have any town water system, each household providing their own from rainwater tanks and wells.

The Devonwoodland today - the site of great activity in wartime days

When the NZ contingent arrived here, they were looking around for a suitable house to commandeer for the headquarters. Evidently, the choice was narrowed down to either "Hillcrest", which belonged to great-aunt Maria Heaps, and which is to the back of us, and "Devon." Bernie's sister Norma tells how she was staying overnight at Hillcrest with Aunt Maria, and they were eating scrambled eggs at breakfast time. They saw the Colonel walking down the path, and Maria, who feared losing her home, said "Oh dear, I cannot eat any more....I feel sick!"

Maria Heaps in younger days - a true "lady."

Fortunately the news was good for her - the choice had been the Devon house. Devon, which had been built in the early twenties, belonged to her sister Charlotte, but had always been let, mainly to Burns Philp managers. I believe she received a rent of 15/- a week for the property while it was occupied by the army. Charlotte had continued to live in the old family home "Greenacre" over the road. After the war, she actually moved into one of the old army huts in the Devon grounds, and this was modified into a modest but comfortable cottage for her, and became "Devon Cottage" where our son John now lives.

Charlotte Bailey outside Devon Cottage, which was created from an army hut. To the left of her is "Tiri", who lived for a while in the woodland in a hut that was probably left behind afer the war.

Another army hut was also placed right beside Devon, and after the war was incorporated into this house. One of the rooms is now my sewing room, and the other is the laundry!

Devon homestead in earlier days, before the army hut became part of the house known as "the annexe".

Devon was first occupied by Colonel Barry, and later by a Colonel Cockerell. Two or three years ago, during our Annual Readers' and Writers' Festival, Bernie and I donated sponsorship in the form of a week's accommodation at Fletcher Christian. Our sponsored writer turned out to be a Rosemarie Smith, who is the granddaughter of Colonel Cockerell, and who lives in the South Island of New Zealand. While she was here, she also did some research into a convict forbear, who had received his freedom and also received a grant of land while he was here. Amazingly, the grant of land had encompassed the very land where Devon is now! So not one, but two of her antecedents had a very special connection with this place.

I should also tell you more about Maria, who was able to continue living in her lovely home at Hillcrest. Now Maria and Charlotte's father George Bailey was English born, and after moving to New Zealand, had come to work in the Melanesian Mission here in the 1870's and had married an island girl Emily Christian. The girls had been brought up to be "ladies", having learned things like music, painting and needlework as girls. That is not to say that they did not know anything about hard work. Cousin Marie clearly remembers Aunty Maria carrying big bundles of haygrass to feed the house cow, and saying with a sigh "So much work, and only one pair of hands!"The Hillcrest Homestead- sadly this burned down about 14 years ago.

Maria and her husband Dick knew how to entertain elegantly, and there would be wonderful afternoon teaparties in the grounds of Hillcrest. She delighted in inviting the army officers to tea or dinner at her home. She became a great favourite among them as did a number of island ladies who were able to provide a homely atmosphere and some home comforts to these men who wer so far from their own homes, not least the opportunity for them to sample their fine home cooking as a change from uninteresting army fare.

A teaparty at Hillcrest in grander and more elegant days

When the troops put on entertainments, it was an opportunity for them to return the favours. Along the road, nearer to Fletcher Christian, there is a sort of natural amphitheatre. Two large army lorries would be put end-to-end to provide a makeshift stage, and they would put on Variety concerts. A staff car would be sent to Hillcrest, and Bernie remebers her sitting up in the car "like the Queen of Tonga" being transported to the concerts.

Nowadays, I often look out to the woodland, and can imagine it as a hive of activity, the misty figures of those young soldiers wandering around, busying themselves or just relaxing. I can imagine small groups of them up the pine tree, from which there would have been a view of Kingston to the south. Perhaps they were also thinking of home, several hundred kilometres further to the south east. It is said that it was a good place to "escape" and have some "time out." I think about Bob Selby, who only died fairly recently. He met his sweetheart here on Norfolk Island, and returned here to live later. He used to tell me how he rode into Devon on his motorbike to deliver messages and cables.

But when I think about wartime sacrifice, I also think about the sacrifices made by others too. The parents, spouses and families left at home, often without news for long periods of time. And those whose lives and homes were taken over for war purposes. Now Aunt Charlotte and Maria fared fairly well, and the presence of the army personnel provided quite a bit of life and variety to their rather isolated existence on this remote little island. Many consumer goods were probably in short supply, as in other places, but there was still land and rich soil to cultivate and fruit to pick, and the fact that the island could still feed itself as well as large numbers of troops says a great deal about hard work and hospitality in this community.But here on Norfolk, many had their homes and lands taken from them for the building of an airstrip. The building of the airstrip - the first aircraft landed on Christmas Day 1942 - brought enormous changes to the island, some good, some bad. What was certain was that life would never be the same again.

"Devon" - temporary Force Headquarters and home for the Colonel

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