Whittling away the hours

If I asked you to describe a wooden inlaid box, it might not be something that you can automatically envision. Nowadays, fashioning 2000 individual pieces of timber into an aesthetically beautiful and appealing pattern atop an ornament or furnishing is not how many of us commonly spend our leisure time. But on St Helena Island, the very earliest warders created their own unique pastime to help them while away their leisure hours isolated on a prison island for many weeks at a time.

Small box
Inlaid wooden box, created by Warder Samuel Olson on St Helena Island. Box donated by Amos family, Image from Qld Parks and Wildlife Service

Mr Samuel C. Olson, one of the very first turnkeys (warders) on St Helena Island during the 1860’s and 1870’s, was the subject of my last blog post ‘3 Scottish men and a world of adventure.’ Olson received high praise for his inlaid woodworking efforts at an exhibition in 1876:

… ‘is really an artistic piece of workmanship. The wood principally used is a kind of tulipwood, peculiar to St Helena, but of which none now remains on the island. The grain is mottled and very beautiful. The work box deservedly received a first prize.’ 1

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Writing desk made by Samuel Olson. Image courtesy QPWS

The work box, pictured above, and an equally beautiful writing desk were returned to St Helena Island in 2007, courtesy of a family that once knew Warder Olson. It’s hard to imagine such fine workmanship and exquisite details in the patterns and designs, being created on an island where they had only the crudest of tools, poor lighting from kerosene lanterns and the most basic of dormitory accommodation in which to work.

Interestingly, in the very next year, another similar item surfaced – from one of his fellow Scottish compatriots. Warder James Aird was a fellow officer in the Glasgow Police Force and the Qld Water Police, as well as a warder on St Helena Island from 1867. Sandra Eaton, great grand-daughter of Aird contacted us in 2008, and the valuable information she shared included a photo of their intricate and richly pattered inlaid table carved by James Aird. Aird recounted that Governor Bowen of Brisbane, offered to buy it for £70, but he refused and it remains in the hands of his descendants today.

One other valuable item shared by Sandra Eaton was a personal diary written by James Aird. In 1871, Aird clearly describes the large scale clearing of native timber forests and scrub that took place from 1866 through the early 1870’s, making way for a prison stockade, livestock and cropping.

‘…making good sugar on St Helena from Ribbon cane grown on a sandy flat which scrub grew 4 years previous.’ 2.

It seems these men saw a moment of opportunity to utilise the island’s timbers as they were cleared and  burned.

I suspect that it was the Gaol carpenter and trade overseer, Peter Brown, on the island from 1868, who possessed the wood working skills needed to shape these beautiful objects and to teach others his craft. He may have been the one warder who understood the value and potential of the different species of timber that were fast disappearing.

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Brisbane Courier, 13 May 1871

On the 13th May 1871, the Brisbane Courier reported ‘an ugly piece of blundering’ with regard to the International Colonial Exhibits in London. It seems, due to bureaucratic red tape, that Queensland only had one entrant ‘from Peter Brown, St Helena of the inlaid writing desk.’ 

Exhibiting his exceptionally skilled work was obviously something undertaken with great regularity, as a journalist visiting in 1873 wrote

 ‘I was ‘shown some cabinet work made by Mr. P. Brown (a trade overseer) consisting of desks and workboxes, of colonial woods. In one beautifully grained desk in particular, the blending of the tulip, iron, and blackwood, displayed taste and judgment. For the lid, wood from six different trees was used. One of the workboxes, of which I became the possessor, was exhibited, and greatly admired, at the last Intercolonial Exhibition, held at Sydney.  3

I’ll leave it up to you to decide who is responsible for the final work, mentioned below in 1873, because I have no name attached to it. But I have to include it not only for the exquisite details of the intricate carvings, but because it tells us the labour of love that was devoted to this unusual pastime. 5 years of leisure hours were devoted to creating something of great beauty from an environment that was changing rapidly. In a prison setting of discipline, routine and regulations, the warders established a creative pastime that was and is still greatly admired.

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Warder standing in sugar crops and vegetable gardens at St Helena Island Penal Establishment. Image sourced from QPWS

‘We had the pleasure of inspecting, yesterday, a desk and a work-box intended for the School of Arts Exhibition. They are the result of the labour during the leisure hours of five years of one of the warders at St. Helena, and are made of the woods that grow on the island at the time it was being cleared for the cultivation of sugar-cane. The desk and work box, both within and without, are ornamented with admirably executed inlaying or mosaic work, including specimens of all the indigenous woods referred to, and consisting of geometric figures and representations of birds, beasts, reptiles, insects, and other objects of natural history, the whole so well put together that the work has the feel and appearance of a solid surface. These specimens of industrious and ingenious skill cannot fail to command attention and admiration when they are shown at the School of Arts Exhibition.’4

  1. Brisbane Courier, 26 August 1876
  2. James Aird Diary, entry on 6 July 1871
  3. Australian Town and Country Journal, Sydney, NSW 5 July 1873
  4. Brisbane Courier, 4 October 1873

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