Sunday, May 26, 2024

A sketchy history of Blackburn Island

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Chris Murray, The Lord Howe Island Signal

When English historian, Derek Neville, was researching letters written by David Blackburn, navigator and ‘master’ of the First Fleet vessel Supply, he was disappointed to discover that the small island in the Lagoon at Lord Howe had lost its original name – ‘Blackburn Isle’. This name had been given to it by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball in March, 1788, when the very first landing was made at Lord Howe.

Instead, modern maps showed ‘Blackburn’s Isle’ as ‘Rabbit Island’. Neville wrote to the Lord Howe Island Board asking the Board to reinstate the original name and giving detailed historical reasons for doing so. Indeed, he even published a 176-page, 17-chapter, book based on David Blackburn’s letters strongly arguing for the retention of the name ‘Blackburn’s Isle’. Derek Neville’s request was agreed to in a letter dated 8th June, 1973, written by K.W. Thomas, the secretary of the Island Board.

But who on earth was David Blackburn? The Australian Dictionary of National Biography describes him as “an uncomplicated, conscientious man”. Indeed, his personal modesty is evident in the account of the first place-naming ceremony at Lord Howe Island during which Ball named the prominent features of the Island after himself (Mt. Lidgebird and Ball’s Pyramid!), plus various luminaries back in England (eg. Mt Gower and Erskine’s Valley) but didn’t overlook his humble navigator – or ‘sailing master’ as the position was titled in those days. Blackburn’s self-effacing comment on hearing that the small Island had been named in his honour: “I was on Board whilst this ceremony was performing, or it should have been called Knight Isle” (after Isaac Knight, sergeant of marines, 8th Company, First Fleet).

Blackburn was one of only nine naval men of the rank of Master and upward who arrived with the First Fleet; it was he who navigated the Supply to Botany Bay with Governor Phillip aboard, arriving two days ahead of the rest of the Fleet; it was he who navigated the entire First Fleet into Port Jackson; and it was his navigating skill which set the Supply firmly on course for Norfolk Island leading to the discovery of Lord Howe Island on the 17th of February, 1788. Lastly, it was he who left us with the only detailed eye-witness account of the first landing on our Island – describing its stunning geography and prolific bird, plant and marine life.

What was Blackburn Island like when HMS Supply sailed in?

We have no detailed early description of Blackburn Island, but it was most likely forested with Greybarks, Blackbutts, Maulwoods, and maybe the occasional Howea palm. Indeed, it is classified in Pickard’s base-line vegetation survey, ‘Cunninghamia’, as Greybark forest. One photo in the Museum collection does show two remnant Greybark trees there, whilst another image shows two young lads on Blackburn Island holding a wedge-tailed shearwater with a Greybark tree behind them. However, the fact that the wood-eating Lord Howe cockroach, and another wood-eating beetle, which was discovered there recently by Saxxon Ellis, Ian Hutton and Chris Reid (the latter from the Australian Museum), strongly indicates a forested prehistory for Blackburn Island.

However, the reason it became denuded is no mystery at all, although the evidence is circumstantial. Wood cutting by foraging parties from sailing ships was commonplace – and devastating to the Island environment. When HMS Herald arrived in 1853 to chart the Island, a collecting party of four came ashore at Middle Beach on September 6th, where the group erected their tents “on top of a steep cliff-like limestone bank about 50 or 60 feet high, where there was a clearing of about an acre in extent made by the ship’s wooding party during her last visit”. An acre covers about 4000 square metres – about two thirds the size of our cricket oval – cleared during a single visit by foragers from HMS Herald! To add insult to injury, when a second ‘wooding party’ arrived from the Herald “they managed to set fire to the bush, threatening the camp”! It is, therefore, not surprising that a far more accessible Blackburn Island was stripped of its forest by these early ‘wooding parties’. Its subsequent name on an 1853 chart – ‘Goat Island’- provides another clue about possible eco-devastation by feral herbivores.

Blackburn Island nearly becomes a prison “Watch Tower”

After Lord Howe’s discovery, the first detailed reference I can find about Blackburn Island comes from the Voyage of HMS Herald, a survey vessel which surveyed Lord Howe between the 29th of April until the 28th of June, 1853, during which time it also visited and surveyed Middleton Reef. By this time, however, Blackburn Island had acquired another feral title, turning up on the chart created by the Herald as “Goat Island” (No prizes for guessing why!)

When Captain Denham of the Herald arrived at Lord Howe, he first had to set up an accurate set of triangulation points in order to anchor his survey. On the main Island these were established at Middle Beach and Blinkie Beach – but then extended to cover the whole Island and offshore islets including Muttonbird, Admiralty and Goat [sic Blackburn] Island.

A little over a month after returning to Sydney, on the 30th of July, Mr E. Deas Thompson, the Colonial Secretary, wrote to Captain Denham asking if he could supply a copy of any Lord Howe chart he had made, and seeking information about the suitability of the Island for a penal settlement. Denham duly supplied a copy of his chart, which was followed a few days later by a report from his ship-board naturalist, John MacDonald, about the environment and its capability to support further settlement.

Denham also commented that the Island had the resources to support a large population, with the added inducements that there were restricted anchorages, but clear views could be obtained to the horizon from elevated points on the main Island and from the offshore islets which would make it very difficult for convicts to escape. He wrote: “…to guard against escape of Prisoners as well as arresting any attempts to throw in mischievous supplies &c [Did he mean grog?]  it would be necessary to have an armed eight-oared galley stationed within the reef to pursue in the direction indicated by the three telegraphs, which would flank the whole accessible coastline if planted upon East Point, Intermediate Hill and Goat [Blackburn] Island…”  Imagine… Goat/Blackburn Island becoming a watchtower to help encircle a proposed Lord Howe ‘detention centre’!

Although it sounds far-fetched, there was even a revival of the penal colony idea during the “noughties” when the illegal arrival of asylum seekers into Australia by boat was a highly contentious issue. It was reported that Prime Minister, John Howard, had written to the NSW Government suggesting that New South Wales islands could be rezoned to accept ‘boat people’ arriving illegally – including Lord Howe! Not surprisingly, when our local state member at the time, Rob Oakshot, heard the news, he commented “It’s a completely ridiculous idea…” – and fortunately nothing more was heard of this proposal. (From “Port News”).

One fearsome feral follows another…

Back in 1853, the impetus towards a penal colony on Lord Howe rapidly subsided despite Governor Fitzroy’s “Executive Council” deciding to lay the documents before Parliament with the recommendation that a Select Committee be appointed to expedite the penal colony at Lord Howe. However, the matter does not appear to have been raised before Parliament, possibly owing to a rising tsunami of anti-transportation sentiment in New South Wales. Indeed, a large part of the population of Eastern Australia had become fed up with ‘convict dumping’. 

In 1869, Edward Smith Hill arrived with a government expedition aboard the Thetis and later penned a major report in which he very briefly mentions the arrival of a new feral animal: he wrote “There are a few rabbits, which fortunately are confined to a small island on the west side, between the shore and the reef”. Hill, however, makes no mention of goats on Blackburn Island. Sixty years later, another visitor, Mary Marlowe, in her notes on Lord Howe written in the early 1930s, said “Introduced rabbits existed for a time on Rabbit [Blackburn] Island but were never established on the main Island and appear to have died out.” 

The name, however, didn’t die with the rabbits, but it is a real mystery why we should continue to call our superb Lagoon landmark and wildlife refuge ‘Rabbit Island’ after a feral animal which continues to devastate Australia and which, fortunately, never gained a permanent foothold here.

Blackburn Island a focus for the shark fishing industry in the late 1920s/early 30s
(courtesy of Harry Woolnough with photos from the LHI Museum collection)

People often wonder what the residual concrete structure on the east (Lagoon) side of Blackburn Island was used for and so did I.  However, I learned of its origins when I decided in 1987 to record an interview with Harry Woolnough about the pre-World War II shark fishing industry. Regarding Blackburn Island, one could do no better than quote Harry:

“I came to the Island in 1931 and the shark fishing industry was established then because we were here on a pleasure cruise on a yacht and we went out several times with the boats when they went sharking. Just when it started, I don’t know but it could have been anything up to two years before that date…Herbert Wilson used to study the weather from his home, which is on the hill and, if he thought it was going to be a good day for fishing, he’d blow the ‘Boo Boo’. That’s a conch shell with a hole in it, and when you blow it gives a distinctive note and that could be heard by nearly all those who were directly involved in the actual fishing itself.

“Well, there were up to ten or twelve people at least, but they couldn’t all go together. Some days some went, and some days others went. We had about four in the launch and another six to eight in the sharking boats, the boats they mainly used for unloading cargo on the Island. They were double ended types similar to a whale boat. Sometimes one would go out, or two, depending on the number of people who turned up the meeting place…where the boats were housed at the jetty. Depending on the weather and the direction of the wind, if the wind was suitable, they could sail out on their own but, if the wind wasn’t suitable, they’d use the launch to tow them out.

“We had a bit of a concrete ramp to haul them from the water’s edge up where they were dressed, and the skins were cut off, and the fins and the backbones and the flesh were all dressed and prepared for processing. The skins had to be scraped, which was a rather tedious job, and then they were salted down and the flesh had to be cleaned. Shark flesh normally is not hard to handle and it had to be salted and dried by being put on racks and out in the sun. The fins were also cured…and even the backbones of the sharks were made into card counters. They were dyed various colours – card counters and necklaces – and you could even make them into a walking stick with a stiff bit of wire – you just threaded the wire through the discs of the backbone and there was very little of the shark that wasn’t used”.

“They built quite a big shed [on Blackburn Island], a corrugated iron shed, and Mr Cole was more-or-less in charge of the operations on the shore. They purchased in Sydney equipment for boiling down the livers and we had to obtain salt, of course, and the sharks were brought in and hauled out on the ramp. (Editor’s note: bony fish stay afloat with a swim bladder, whereas sharks use a large fatty liver to help with buoyancy.)We had a bit of a concrete ramp to haul them from the water’s edge up where they were dressed, and the skins were cut off, and the fins and the backbones and the flesh were all dressed and prepared for processing. The skins had to be scraped, which was a rather tedious job, and then they were salted down and the flesh had to be cleaned. Shark flesh normally is not hard to handle and it had to be salted and dried by being put on racks and out in the sun. The fins were also cured…and even the backbones of the sharks were made into card counters. They were dyed various colours – card counters and necklaces – and you could even make them into a walking stick with a stiff bit of wire – you just threaded the wire through the discs of the backbone and there was very little of the shark that wasn’t used”.

Harry explained:

(A) How the shark livers were rendered down: [The vat was] “…about 6-7 feet long and it was mounted on a brick foundation – firebricks – and it was just sitting on brick walls, like, and the fire was made up underneath. It was a half round, just like a steel trough, and the fire was built up underneath it. The livers were put in and rendered down accordingly, and then the oil would be drained off by means of a cock on the end of the trough”.

(B) Where they got the fuel from: “On Rabbit Island, very close to where the ‘depot’ was built, there was established many years ago a small quantity of coal…. if a ship ran short of coal, they knew there was a quantity to be had at Lord Howe Island. I can’t remember if it was actually ever used but, I don’t think so, because, at the time the shark ‘depot’ was established, apparently, the idea of any ship running out of coal was very remote, and they more or less went ahead and used the coal…”

(C) Why Blackburn Island was selected as the ‘depot’ for processing the sharks: “…because it was away it wouldn’t have caused a nuisance value of smell and possibly it was a wind-blown site and there would have been fewer flies there than what there would have been out on the main Island, and it was a very convenient place for that type of work…”

The multiple shark products were all shipped away, and Harry recalled that “… the skins were made into various things such as shoes, handbags, wallets and that type of article and, I also believe, they had quite a ready sale… We had them on the Island here. Some of the people here used to buy shoes and wallets which were for sale in the shops here…”

However, despite exporting so many shark products, the venture failed because no profit was ever returned to the Islanders: “Nobody was getting any money and the people concerned, especially the boat crews who were going out day after day according to the weather conditions, month in month out, and they weren’t getting any return for their labour as far as we could make out. The skins, after they’d been processed – tanned – and made into various articles, they were selling alright but there never seemed to be any money available to reimburse the men who engaged in it.

The popular story was that the returns from the sale of the skins – the tanned skins and the flesh …wasn’t sufficient to pay any dividends to the people concerned…We have no documentary evidence of what really went on. All we know is that we put in a lot of time catching the sharks and processing and sending the various products to Sydney and I think I was about the only person who was paid anything because I was the launch engineer and I used to get paid every little while, six shillings per day…”

Flying boat and sailing club days – Blackburn Island a real ‘windfall’

From 1942 to 1974, the Lord Howe Lagoon became the alighting point for flying boats. A commercial service commenced in August, 1947, renewing the prosperity of the Island after World War II by bringing a steady flow of up to 2,500 tourists per annum to the Island.

The Islanders, looking for renewed recreational opportunities after the war, also started an Aquatic Club about 1974 which regularly held sailing races on the Lagoon in small dinghies.

Flying boat

The windsock on Blackburn Island was a pivot for all these events, giving clear indications of wind direction and strength, thus allowing strategic planning to take place regarding the use of the Lagoon for these various activities.

 Later wind and kite surfing became popular, with the gear needed for these activities often stored in the Aquatic Club boatshed. For flying boats, dinghy sailors, and wind and kite surfers, the windsock on Blackburn Island was (and still is) an iconic weathervane for Lagoon activities. The windsock is currently maintained by the Lord Howe Island Aquatic Club.

An island ark and scenic lookout

More recently, Blackburn Island has attracted attention as a wildlife ark and a refuge. In Hank Bower’s words “Blackburn is really important for the gecko, the skink, the centipede and the woodroach, and the two newly discovered beetles thought to be extinct. It is already a premium nesting site for Wedge-tailed shearwaters but – once revegetated – it will likely support other nesting seabirds such as the Little Shearwater, Black-winged Petrel and Brown Noddys etc. The ultimate goal is to leave the hill around the windsock as grassland but replace the exotic Rhodes grass with native species and low shrubbery downslope.”

After the Board successfully applied for Environmental Trust funding, thousands of small seedlings were planted, but these were compromised by the two worst drought years on record, by Cyclone Uesi, by the salt spray, and by being smothered by five-leaf morning glory.  Hank adds, “There have been many people involved in the revegetation including staff from Taronga and Melbourne’s zoo’s, conservation volunteers; residents employed during Covid lock downs; and the Friends of Lord Howe Island have also provided regular help during their visits. The Lord Howe Island Environmental Unit at the Board has continued to allocate resources to continue the revegetation effort. The initial funding application to revegetate the island was focused on reconstructing suitable feeding resources for a potential Phasmid translocation. Our focus now is more for the two critically endangered beetles that were recently discovered there. Blackburn is a really important ‘insurance policy’ in case rats, mice, snakes or other pests escape onto the main Island. It provides a ‘back-up’ population for those species that either currently live or have been reintroduced out there.”

And, lastly, let’s never forget Blackburn Island’s scenic amenity, summed up perfectly by Geordie Tennant on the Pinetrees Lodge website:

“At only 32 meters high, it takes no more than five minutes to reach the yellow windsock on Rabbit [Blackburn] Island’s hilltop. From here, you’re treated to a 360-degree view from where you can survey almost the entire lagoon, which is hugged by the crescent-shaped west coast of Lord Howe. You can trace all seven peaks of the Island from this vantage point. From the bare, craggy tip of Mt Eliza, across to Kim’s Lookout and Malabar, over the undulating green of Transit and Intermediate hills, and finally rising skyward to the imposing, cloud-capped summits of Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower. To the west, past the whitewashed fringes of the reef and beyond the cobalt horizon of the Tasman Sea, lies mainland New South Wales almost 600 km away”.

Thank you to Hank and Sue Bower, the Lord Howe Island Board, Ian Hutton and the Friends of Lord Howe, Taronga Zoo and local volunteers who have all helped in the effort to restore Blackburn back to its original condition.

Thus ends our sketchy history of Lord Howe’s most accessible offshore island: from moated feral animal enclosure and proposed prison watchtower, to shark fishing ‘depot’, wind and weathervane, and finally to Island ark conserving endangered species, this icon in the centre of our Lagoon has seen significant change in the past 250 years. If you have any further anecdotes or information about Blackburn Island, please contact me on 6563 2403 or email, as I’d love to include these in an updated edition of the Blackburn Island story.


– “The Voyage of HMS Herald” – Andrew David
– “Blackburn’s Isle” – Derek Neville
– Lord Howe Island Report  – E.S Hill (Sydney Morning Herald, 12/6/1869, P. 7)
– Mary Marlowe – Personal Papers held by the NSW State Library
– Pinetrees Lodge website/Geordie Tennant quote (courtesy Luke Hansen)
– Photos courtesy LHI Historical Society & Museum, Bill McDonald, Frank Chartres & Ian Woodforth

LHI Signal 30 September 2022

This article appeared in The Lord Howe Island Signal, 30 September 2022.


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