The old house is somewhat off the beaten track, but well worth a visit from anyone who enjoys following narrow roads to discover a real Norfolk gem. Locals know it as Aunt Amy’s, but it was in fact the family home of George Frederick Howard Christian and his wife Dinah Amabelle (neé Quintal). Amy and Howard, as they were known, were from the first generation of true Norfolk Islanders, born in the early years after the arrival of the community from Pitcairn in 1856. At first the Pitcairners had settled into the penal colony houses in Kingston, which they called “town.” However, some of the younger ones and their offspring soon began building homes “up country” on their 50-acre grants.
Howard and Amy, with the help of friends and family, built a house that was largely modeled on the symmetrical floor plans of the Kingston buildings, with a steep-pitched roof, and verandahs all around. Instead of stone, they used timber, a material that they were more familiar with, and which was readily available on their farm. The carpentry skills of the community had been well developed and honed back on Pitcairn Island because of the constant need to provide housing for their growing numbers, as well as the necessity to build boats.
Howard and Amy used the finest Norfolk Pine, with barely a knot in them, and also used Kauri, imported from New Zealand. Many of the early homes were left unlined, for economy, with purlins exposed (providing narrow shelving as a bonus). The Ball Bay house, however, was fully lined with beautiful wide boards, painstakingly planed by hand. For the piers, chimneys and fireplaces, Howard and Amy had access to the stone from some of the Kingston buildings that had fallen into disuse.
We know that Howard and Amy had one child, who died in infancy, and a boy they later fostered also died young. The couple turned their attention to other interests and pursuits, as well as developing strong bonds with extended family members.
To this day, the house, and Aunt Amy’s name in particular, are associated with the “Clothing Club”, which was one of Norfolk’s first general stores. The Clothing Club operated in an annex that was built onto the house’s north side. It was run by a cooperative of Norfolk people for nearly three decades in the early 1900s, and was managed by Howard, and then by Amy after Howard’s death.
The store sold a wide range of goods for Norfolk households. As well as local produce, there were many items imported from Sydney firms such as Anthony Horderns and Grace Brothers. Old invoices dating back as early as 1907 list items such as pudding basins, boots, machine oil, canteens of cutlery, recipe books, laces and ribbons. It is amusing to note that there were frequent requests for hatpins, which were used not only to secure women’s plaited headgear, but were an important piece of household equipment to extract the flesh of hihis (periwinkles) from their shells.
It would seem that a trip to the Clothing Club was an important social outing, much like a modern trip to the mall. If you visit there today, and scrape away just a little of the dirt along the south side of the house, you will discover a row of limestone blocks, which have been hollowed out to catch water from the eaves to serve as drinking troughs, and there are also stone foundations for tethering posts, where customers’ horses would be secured, while their owners made important decisions about a new pair of shoes or the luxury of a tin of Australian jam or some embroidery threads. If you bend to peer beneath the Clothing Club annex, you will see the remnants of pens where animals were sold “on the hoof”. In the days before refrigeration, you could not get meat much fresher than that!
There was not a great deal of cash circulating in the community in these early days, and a degree of bartering took place. Customers also bought goods on credit. The story goes that the business reached a stage where a great sum of money was owed to the Clothing Club. At a meeting of the cooperative, a more affluent member suggested that, in view of the discomfort and ill-feeling this created, that they should close off the books, and make a fresh start. This proved to be very contentious, and there was a great deal of argument. Finally, one lady rose to her feet. “Mr Chairman” she said, “I propose that we close the meeting and we go home, because we are all too ignorant!”
Kik Quintal is one local who still has clear memories of Aunt Amy’s, because he spent a great deal of time there when he was a boy. It was his job to collect lemons in that area for the lemon seed industry. Amy had a plentiful water supply, which was useful for cleaning the seed. The old well produces good water to this day. Kik recalls Amy laying out hessian sacks under the mulberry tree to catch the fruit, which was used for jams, or in making the traditional island dish Mulberry Marie. One of Kik’s best memories is of boiled lollies that came from the shop!
A photo of Aunt Amy in her later years shows a lady with a weather-worn face, but the most generous of smiles. Her build was on the slight side, but you cannot help notice her large hands. These were the hands that scrubbed countless floors and tables, prepared and processed all sorts of produce, and carried out numerous other tasks in her house, garden and shop. These hands had also faithfully played the organ at All Saints’ Church each Sunday, and wielded the reins of the sulky when she drove to the home of friends or relations for the traditional Sunday lunch.
Kik told me about his last memory of Aunt Amy when he visited her in hospital, shortly before her death. Feisty to the last minute, she was sitting up in bed, her small “trademark” spectacles perched on the end of her nose, reading “The Auckland Star”, which was sent to her regularly by a friend in New Zealand. Kik noticed that newspaper was held upside down! The story goes that some time after her death, a practical joker had those spectacles in his possession, and slipped them into the lunchbox of a friend. When lunchtime came round, there was a great deal of puzzlement as to how they came to be there.
Over the years, the old house had a succession of tenants. The Cottage Pottery, now at Duncombe Bay, actually had its beginnings here back in 1970. At another stage, a tenant operated a small hairdressing business. In the 1950s, the south-facing kitchen was rebuilt, and the bathroom facilities improved. Those who have lived there often talk, perhaps tongue in cheek, about supernatural visits. Even in Amy’s lifetime, Kik says there was a somewhat eerie atmosphere at night time. No doubt the relatively isolated location, the creaking timbers, and the wind blowing in from the sea nearby were sufficient to set one’s imagination going. One thing is for certain, the only time anyone has actually seen anything unusual or ghostly was one evening about 1980, when a community organisation set Aunt Amy’s place up as a Halloween type haunted house for a fundraising activity.
The house is no longer lived in, but it is certainly not abandoned. I visited the old home with the present owner, Mat Christian-Bailey, who is a great-great nephew of Howard Christian. Gone are the wide verandahs where Amy would have sat watching for the whaling boats returning from the hunt. She would almost certainly have been one of those women who lit fires along the cliff to guide the men folk into Ball Bay below.
The Clothing Club annex and the rebuilt kitchen are somewhat unstable. They have not stood the test of time as well as the original central structure, where the beams and boards and other joinery are as strong and straight and sturdy as the day the house was built. We ran our fingers over the beautiful timbers, noted the square headed hand-forged nails, and looked up at the beams fashioned using the hand-operatedcrosscut saws. Through a gap in part of the ceiling, you can see some of the original hand-split shingles beneath the rusting roofing iron. The old weatherboards still bear traces of the old paint and sand treatment used in the past. The mulberry tree is gone, but some lemon trees are still there, as well as loquats and rose apples. Near a little stand of trees one can inspect the old long-drop.
Aunt Amy’s remains a tribute to the industry and enterprise of our forebears. Mat takes his role as custodian of this piece of family and island history very seriously, but his task presents difficult challenges. Unfortunately, earlier plans to restore the house as a visitor accommodation did not come to fruition. Now the question must be asked: How much should be preserved or restored, and for what future use?
In many ways it is amazing that anything remains after all these years. Is it because the house has such “good bones” and stands defiantly against any force of nature or human activity seeking to unseat it? I like to think that it is because the wonderful story of “Aunt Amy’s” still has a chapter or two to be written!
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V1 Iss2, 2008. 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.