This is the story of a simple writing desk which was crafted on Norfolk Island about 150 years ago. The desk would later be transported to England, and more than a century later, it would return to Norfolk Island. In that time, the desk belonged to and was used by a number of people, including two who were household names in their era.
In 2007, emails were sent from England to a number of somewhat random addresses on Norfolk Island. They were written and sent by a Mr Peter Winston, who was arranging for the auction of a number of items that had belonged to his late mother-in-law. Among them was a writing desk, whose provenance was well-known.
It was well-established that the desk had originally been made for Bishop John Coleridge Patteson on Norfolk Island, and that after his death it had been sent to the Bishop’s cousin, Charlotte Yonge, who was a famous British writer, benefactress and a lady of great influence in her time. Mr Winston was anxious that people who valued the historic connections associated with the desk should have the opportunity to bid for it.
A flurry of emails were exchanged with the Auction house, in a little village of Itchen Stoke in Hampshire. Photos confirmed that the desk was indeed one and the same as the desk in a photograph of Bishop Patteson’s study at the Melanesian Mission on Norfolk Island. This was confirmed by a piece of paper glued inside the top middle drawer. This contained the handwriting of Bishop John Palmer, who had succeeded Patteson, and a signature of receipt appears in the handwriting of Charlotte Yonge.
John Coleridge Patteson was the first Bishop of Melanesia. He was appointed by the first Bishop of New Zealand, George Augustus Selwyn, who had decided to ignore a clerical error in his letter of appointment, and included the islands to the north in his archdiocese. He established the practice of bringing young students from the islands of Melanesia down to Auckland to teach them basic skills and equip them to take the Christian message back to their home islands. The Mission work was facilitated by the use of the Mission ship, ‘The Southern Cross’.
When it became apparent that the Auckland climate was not suited for the health of the Melanesian students, the Mission headquarters were transferred to Norfolk Island. Here basic accommodation was built for the students and the Mission workers. A house for the Bishop was built very much on the site of the present Parish Centre, and this contained a small chapel with interconnecting doors to the Bishop’s study and sitting room. This was a decade before the present Chapel was consecrated.
The Bishop’s diaries and letters tell how he would work for long hours in his study, which also had glass doors to the verandah and garden beds outside. It would appear that the Bishop had commissioned a writing desk, using both imported and local Norfolk Island timbers. The top featured inlaid work that had been crafted by Captain Champion, who was the captain of the Southern Cross. Captain Champion would later marry into an island family. A photo taken of Patteson’s workspace shows a rather cluttered room, over-flowing with papers, books and pictures. There is a cane chaise longue, no doubt used by the Bishop when he was weary.
At his desk, Patteson would have worked at preparing his sermons, writing reports to Bishop Selwyn in New Zealand, penning letters to friends and family, and working on translations. Patteson was a gifted linguist, and mastered many of the languages of his students. It is said that as he worked at his desk in the evening, he would listen for the soft sound of students coming into the adjacent chapel, and he would go and sit with them, talk and pray with them, and become familiar with their native tongues.
The story of Bishop Patteson’s martyrdom at Nukapu in the Solomon Islands in 1871 is well known. The news of his untimely death was received with shock through the Christian world. The story was handed down that his study at the Mission was left undisturbed for many decades, but it would appear that this was not true. A later picture of the room shows a considerable re-arrangement of furnishings, and a different desk. At some stage, Patteson’s successor, Bishop John Selwyn (son of Bishop George who had appointed Patteson) had the task of carrying out the wishes in Patteson’s will.
Much of his estate was left to the Mission, but Selwyn did undertake to send the writing desk to England to the Bishop’s much loved cousin Charlotte Yonge. Yonge and Patteson obviously had a warm connection during his lifetime, and had exchanged many letters. Yonge would later use the material in those letters, and others written to his father, to write a two volume biography called, The Life of Bishop Coleridge Patteson.
Charlotte Yonge was a well-known figure in the Victorian era. As a writer, she was arguably more popular than Charles Dickens in her time. Her lifespan was almost identical to that of Queen Victoria, and pictures show a definite resemblance in style and dress.
Yonge spent most of her life in the small village of Otterbourne, but was a person of enormous influence. Much of her writing was directed at young people, with some of her stories being serialised in a publication called, The Monthly Packet. This was an era where education was being opened up to women, and the latest Charlotte Yonge book would have been the equivalent of the latest Smartphone for young ladies of the day. A very early edition of the book Little Women by Louisa May Alcott features an illustration of one of the main characters, Jo reading The Heir of Redclyffe, which was Yonge’s best selling book.
In her lifetime, Yonge produced more than 250 books and articles. The proceeds and royalties from her writings funded many charitable causes, including schools for girls, and the Melanesian Mission. The Willis Organ in the Norfolk Island St. Barnabas Chapel, was funded by Yonge from the proceeds of her popular story The Daisy Chain. A picture of her study in her house ‘Eldersfield’ shows the desk clearly beneath a window. This is indeed where she sat to produce that large volume of work and the many letters she wrote in pursuit of the causes to which she had committed herself.
After her death in 1901, Yonge’s popularity waned just a little, and writers such as Dickens, who had travelled more widely and knew more about the seamier side of life grew in popularity. Even in the 1950s it would seem she remained a household name and appears in Noel Coward’s 1954 song, What a Century It’s Been.
In her will, Yonge bequeathed the desk to the Rev Henry Bowles, Vicar of Otterbourne, who was married to Charlotte’s niece Alethea. Alethea bequeathed the desk to her daughter Cicely Saunders. We understand that Cicely had a kind landlady, who nursed her through a serious illness, and out of gratitude, the desk was given to her as a gift. The landlady was a Swedish lady who had been in the Red Cross, and was one of the first people to enter Auschwitz after it was liberated. It was this lady’s daughter Agneta and son-in-law Peter Winston who arranged to auction some of her belongings after her death. Peter Winston told us that his mother-in-law had used the desk for 45 years, and that it had always been known as, “The Bishop’s desk.”
And so it turned out that in late April 2007, the Wardens and Trustees of the Church of England on Norfolk Island were gathered around the phone at midnight during the auction in Itchen Stoke, Hampshire, on the other side of the world. The auctioneer had been instructed that if the connection failed, he was to bid on their behalf up to 3000 English pounds. As the auction proceeded, it was apparent that there was one other determined and enthusiastic bidder, and the price rose rapidly. The price reached the agreed amount, and the competing bidder dropped out.
It was discovered that the competing bidder had been a representative of the Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship, a large British wide group of people committed to honouring the memory of the writer. The auctioneer put the Trustees of the Church of England on Norfolk Island in touch with them, and while they were a little disappointed not to have obtained the desk, they said they really had nowhere to put it on display. They were delighted to know it would be returning“home”, and declared that if they had known the Norfolk Island church was bidding against them, they would have dropped out of the process at a much earlier stage. Bernie and Mary Christian-Bailey were made honorary members of the Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship, and the connection remains. One of their members, a Rev Hugh Prosser kindly donated an early edition of the ‘Life of John Coleridge Patteson’ (1874) to be stored in a drawer of the desk. This gentleman had hoped to actually deliver his gift personally, although he reached Auckland where he fell ill and was advised to return to England.
Incredibly, after the auction formalities were complete, the desk took just six days to arrive back on Norfolk Island. What a contrast to what would have been a long sea journey followed by a ride in a bumpy cart all those years ago! It came in three parts, and the workers from JCB Cabinets re-assembled it in just minutes, with no screws or nails involved. As well as the imported kauri, John Christian-Bailey was able to identify Norfolk Pine, White Cedar and Blackbean among the timbers used in the desk.
A welcome function was held soon after out at St. Barnabas Parish Centre, where the community had an opportunity to view the famous desk and welcome it home. The historic writing table now sits in the Patteson Room, in almost the identical spot where it had begun its existence back in the late 1860s.
Inside the top drawer, in somewhat tattered condition and partly illegible, is the paper that reads:
“…went down with Bp Patteson to NI, and has been with…on and off ever since. The top and part of the drawers are of yew and mottled kauri. The sides are made from a log of cedar which John Adams found on Phillip Island. The top was inlaid by my father’s old captain Champion who now…on Norfolk Island and who took infinite pains with it.”
In a different hand – that of Charlotte Yonge. It reads:
“Made on Norfolk Island. Received May 188(?) From the Bishop of Melanesia. Chl Yonge (signed in her hand)
When you see the desk, it is hard to resist running your fingers over the surface with its warm patina. At the back of the drawers you can still see the pencil marks of the unknown carpenter who worked with Captain Champion. There are many timeworn ink stains, and watermarks perhaps from spilt teacups or vases over many years. The drawers still glide smoothly and the joinery is sound. An old English Penny stamp remains in the top drawer. What stories this desk could tell about the people who have used it and the places it has been.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 04 Issue 01, 2020. 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.