Julia Farr and Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island is a small island in the Pacific Ocean (located between Australia, New Zealand, and New Caledonia) and is part of the Commonwealth of Australia. The evergreen Norfolk Island pine is a symbol of the island and thus pictured on its flag. Famous residents include the novelist Colleen McCullough, (The Thorn Birds, Masters of Rome series & Morgan’s Run), Helen Reddy (singer songwriter), and American novelist James A. Michener.

Norfolk Island was first settled by East Polynesian seafarers in the thirteenth century from the Kermadec Islands north of New Zealand

One of South Australia’s earliest women missionaries was Julia Coleridge “Ju” Farr, daughter of the well-known Julia Warren Farr (nee Ord) and her husband the Archdeacon George Farr, Headmaster of St Peters College. Julia was born at St Peters College, Adelaide in 1864, the fifth of seven children and a younger sister to Eleanora Elizabeth Farr (b1848) who later married Edwin Gordon Blackmore. Julia was named after her father’s cousin, her godfather Bishop John Coleridge Patteson, missionary Bishop of Melanesia from 1861 until he was killed during his missionary work in 1871.

In 1878, Patteson’s successor, Bishop John Selwyn stayed with the Farr family and this may have been a catalyst in Julia Farr’s subsequent visit to Norfolk Island in 1892 at the invitation of Selwyn’s successor, the Rev. John Palmer.

In 1894 at the age of 30, Julia returned to Norfolk Island and began six years working at St Barnabas as a nurse and teacher with the mission based on the island. It was difficult, as the only qualified nurse, coping with the physical work as well as personality clashes and a degree of discrimination as a woman.

Julia Warren Farr (nee Ord) and daughter Julia Coleridge Farr

In 1901 Julia Farr returned to Adelaide to care for her ageing parents but continued to work to support the mission.

Norfolk Island History

Captain James Cook first sighted Norfolk Island, on his second voyage of discovery to the South Pacific on HMS Resolution, on the 10th of October 1774. Cook landed at Duncombe Bay on the north side of the island and a party made their way to the highest point at Mount Pitt.

He named the island after Mary Howard, Duchess of Norfolk (c. 1712–1773).

Duncombe Bay

Cook thought the wonderful Norfolk pines would make ideal masts for ships while the New Zealand flax plant growing freely would also make good sailcloth, both of which Britain had to import from Russia. It was this knowledge that made the admiralty order First Fleet commander Arthur Phillip send a contingent to Norfolk in 1788.

The British first landed at Slaughter Bay (Kingston) on March 6th 1788, barely six weeks after landing in Sydney, making Norfolk Island Australia’s second oldest colonial settlement.

Slaughter Bay, Kingston Pier in distance.

But when Phillip’s protege, Philip Gidley King landed on the island with his new mini-colony, he found signs they were not the first humans to have arrived here. In 1793 he wrote to naturalist and Cook’s former sailing companion Sir Joseph Banks that he found a banana tree and canoe “when I first landed a feasible proof of the Island being formerly inhabited”. There were also stone tools and the Polynesian Rat which survived in Norfolk’s rich undergrowth. It was the Polynesians who brought flax to the island arriving by ocean-going canoes. Today an archaeological site exists behind Emily Bay which shows the Polynesian settlement site buried in the sand dunes. This was once a small village which existed from a thousand to 650 years ago. It is thought they arrived by ocean-going canoes and Emily Bay was an attractive site with canoe access, a protective reef, flat land close to the shore and plenty of fresh water and fish.

Slaughter Bay

The British were unsuccessful in using either the pines or the flax for naval hardware but the island settled down into penal colony and providing a food basket for starving Sydney with the fruit of its rich soil. But by the early 19th century, the colonists were concentrating their efforts on Sydney and Tasmania and the need for Norfolk Island, far away from any shipping lanes dissipated. The first colony closed down in 1814 and the buildings were all destroyed. Norfolk’s surviving convict heritage is from the second British settlement which restarted in 1824 as a deliberately harsh punishment site for the “doubly damned”, the worst convicts among the convicted.


Norfolk’s reputation of terror comes from this period with a succession of cruel tyrants in charge of the island including James Morriset, Foster “Flogger” Fyans and Joseph Childs. Their abysmal treatment of prisoners and liberal use of the lash led to a number of failed rebellions including the “Cooking Pot” uprising of 1846 when convict William “Jackey Jackey” Westwood led a spontaneous riot against Commandant Childs’ inhumane regime. Fellow inmate Martin Cash wrote that Westwood had been “flogged, goaded and tantalised until he was reduced to a lunatic and a savage”. The riot was sparked by the sudden removal of convict billies and kettles which the prisoners had made themselves. A group of angry prisoners armed with staves and bludgeons stormed the barracks stores to retrieve the kettles. It took only 20 minutes for soldiers with fixed bayonets and muskets to restore order though four men, including Irish free overseer Stephen Smith died. “Jacky killed Smith with a single blow of the cudgel on which the gang again returned to the lumber yard”, wrote Cash. Westwood spattered the brains of a watchman and killed a constable with an axe. Though in the end he killed three of the four who died Westwood was just one of 12 prisoners hanged on October 13 for the mutiny. Childs ordered them to be buried in a mass grave outside the cemetery known as Murderers Mound.

Cemetary Bay

By the 1850s Britain was tiring of its Australian transportation experiment, particularly after the Victorian gold rush made the antipodes no longer a deterrent. In 1847, Secretary of State to the Colonies Sir William Denison informed the Governor of New South Wales that the penal settlement on Norfolk Island was to be closed By October 1854. Only 119 convicts remained on the island and the last convicts left a year later.

Cemetary Bay

In 1856 a new set of colonizers came to the island, the descendants of the Bounty Mutiny, which took place in 1789, a year after as the First Fleet’s arrival in Australia. Today you can find many mentions of the Bounty in Norfolk Island as well as its chief mutineer Fletcher Christian, though the Bounty’s commander William Bligh is less prominent. Surprisingly neither Christian nor Bligh, nor the Bounty ever visited the island. While Bligh made a remarkable escape via longboat 3000km to Timor, Christian led his mutineers and their Tahitian wives to the even more remote island of Pitcairn. In 1856 almost 200 Pitcairners left their island to begin a new life at Kingston Pier.

Kingston Pier

The new arrivals took the big houses on Military Row (later renamed Quality Row) and spread out across the island grazing and growing crops as below at Arthur’s Vale. But many preferred the life of whaling and the island drifted in penury until the 20th century when Australia made more concerted efforts to increase its governance.

Kingston Pier

The Melanesian Mission

In the late 19th century the British allowed more settlers onto the island at the Melanesian Mission centered at St Barnabas Church. From 1865 the mission farm became profitable and the island became a benevolent church dictatorship surviving on free labour or “field hands for the Lord”. The Mota language, adopted from the mission based in the New Hebrides, was used as a lingua franca for education and worship. English church rituals were transplanted but the increased reliance on English staff stymied an independent indigenous church.

Patteson Memorial Church, St Barnabas, Norfolk Island

During her first nine months at St Barnabas in 1892, Julia took an active part in the life of the small community, part visitor and part helper. She helped Mrs. Comins look after the ten girls who lived in her house, gave lessons to some of the young Palmer children, took classes in arithmetic and scripture for some of the boys, taught writing to some
of the girls, helped with the mending and sewing, occasionally took Sunday School
and Bible classes in “town,”i.e. with the Norfolk Islanders, and cared for two young
Melanesian children, Carrie and George. She began learning Mota, the lingua franca
of the Mission. She looked after Alice Comins who was often unwell, did baking,
made marmalade, gardened, arranged flowers in the chapel, wrote letters, and went
to chapel services. She visited and socialized with a number of the “Norfolkers”,
played tennis, went riding, driving, sketching, on picnics. At Easter she was present
at the baptisms of a number of Melanesians and was godmother to one. In July she
described a wedding party when three couples were married. Two Melanesians died
and she attended their funerals.

Julia stayed for a time with Alice Comins, wife of the Rev. Richard Comins. In addition to the wives of missionaries, there was also Mrs Elizabeth Colenso from New Zealand, who joined the Mission in 1876.

When Julia returned to Norfolk Island in 1894 to take up a permanent position for six years at St Barnabas Church, her work fell into three main categories. First, she taught Melanesians in the “sul” or school. Each year she taught girls and boys (in separate classes) reading, writing, arithmetic, English and singing. She also frequently filled in for other women if they were unwell or away. She assisted with supervision of the Melanesian girls and took particular responsibility for the
married women. Secondly, Farr participated in the sewing that was a large part of the
“women’s work”. Each year when the Southern Cross arrived back from the islands all
the new scholars had to be clothed. The girls’ clothes were usually provided by
friends of the Mission but the boys’ clothes were made at St Barnabas. Missionary
women and Melanesian girls together operated what was virtually a “clothing
factory” where they annually made up to 1600 garments. Sewing took up to three
hours a day and one day a week was set aside for mending.
Teaching and sewing were secondary to Julia’s main work of nursing and as
she was the only trained nurse there was plenty for her to do. When necessary she
could call on help from Dr Metcalfe, government appointed doctor to the island. Most
cases however she handled on her own.

1895 was a difficult year for Farr. It began with an epidemic of influenza in
January. School had to be stopped and for some weeks all was confusion but there
were no deaths. In the second week of Lent there was another bout of illness and two
Melanesians died. The Bishop decided to try the experiment of having a woman work
among Melanesian women in the islands and Helen Rossiter agreed to marry Dr.
Welchman and to live with him at the new station at Siota. Farr was anxious for the
scheme to succeed but she may well have been disappointed that she was not to have
the opportunity to go to the islands. Although “Miss Farr’s house” had been opened
she was still living at Mrs. Colenso’s and her work was unchanged.

From June to November 1895, Julia’s father, Archdeacon Farr visited Norfolk Island for 5 months accompanied by his wife Julia Warren Farr (nee Ord), Julia’s unmarried sister Gertrude Margaret Farr (b1862) and his grandson, Master E (Edwin Ord) Blackmore (b1848). For most of that time her father and sister were ill and she was very anxious about them.

Miss Julia Colridge Farr, Mrs Comins, Miss Gertrude Margaret Farr, Mrs Julia Warren Farr (nee Ord), Master Edwin Ord Blackmore, Archdeacon George Farr.

Things did not improve in 1896. As the year went on Farr was depressed and tired, worn out with nursing, and anxious about Gertrude who had stayed on with the Metcalfes after her parents left
and was very unwell. She was upset by various incidents, especially a violent fight
among the boys, “the worst outbreak of passion ever known on the Mission”

In November 1901 Bishop Wilson accepted Farr’s resignation. Her father’s
health had not improved and both her parents were distressed by the recent death of
their elder daughter Nell (Eleanor Blackmore), who had been Secretary of the Mission in Adelaide.

Farr did not lose all touch with the Mission as for a number of years she was its
Organizing Secretary in Adelaide. Archdeacon Farr died in 1904, followed by Mrs.
Farr in 1914.

Farr then went to Christchurch to act as housekeeper to her younger
brother, Dr. Clinton Coleridge Farr, a professor at Canterbury University College.
There she was active in the Christchurch Melanesian Committee. She was on the board of Te Wai Poumann, The Maori Girls College in Christchurch.

‘Garden party!! St Luke’s before Clinton Coleridge went to England’ shows Mrs Julia Farr (seated), Clinton Coleridge Farr and Julia Coleridge Farr standing, and another sister (probably Gertrude Margaret Farr) playing with the dog, ca.1887

Julia Farr returned to Adelaide five years before her death in 1951 at age 87.

The Melanesian Mission closed in 1920.

The Norfolk Island Museum Archive includes copies of diaries kept by Farr during her years on Norfolk, letters to her from Mission staff as well as copies of family letters, photographs and prayer books in the Mota language.

Norfolk Island Today

In May 2015 the Australian Parliament abolished the self-government on Norfolk Island and transferred Norfolk Island into a council as part of New South Wales law. Residents of Norfolk Island previously did not pay Australian federal taxes, which created a tax haven for locals and visitors alike. As there was no income tax the island’s legislative assembly raised money through an import duty, fuel levy, medicare levy, and 12% goods and services tax. The introduction of income taxation came into effect on 1 July 2016.

A recent audit report showed the state of the council’s finances. Council’s operating result before capital items deteriorated in 2019/20 to a deficit of $1.8 million while revenue dropped by $1.7 million for 2019/20, primarily due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism. Council’s percentage of outstanding rates and charges of 18% for 2019/20 did not meet the industry benchmark of less than 10% and is forecast to significantly worsen in 2020/21. Probably not that good but lets not look at the books of the State Governments.

Today Norfolk Island is almost entirely dependent on its tourist income which suffered dramatically during the first few months of the Covid 19 pandemic. For many years Norfolk Island was a popular tourist destination for all age groups, however in later years, as other tourist destinations competed for the younger, active generations, it was nick named for “the newly wed or nearly dead”.

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