The last of the Tulipwood

Lauren was recently contacted by descendants of Warder Andrew Craigie, a warder appointed to St Helena Gaol on the 19th November 1867. 

The conversation goes a bit like this:

(Craigie) …have stories but don’t know what is true or false.

(Lauren) We’ll try and sort it out….

(Craigie) … family has some wooden chests made from timber on St Helena.

(Lauren) OMG! Do you have photos? (I think it was OMG, but knowing Lauren it may have been something else. Allow me a bit of licence here!)

Andrew Craigie inlaid box closed
Timber inlaid box made by Andrew Craigie. Image supplied by John Craigie.

One of the timbers prized in the inlaid woodwork of the warders was Tulipwood or Harpullia pendula, a small to medium sized rainforest tree from Australia. The inner timber has a stunningly rich warm tone of orange and brown, while the external appearance is a bright and appealing tree. This stunning sketch of the fruits is expertly drawn by my cousin Paula Peeters, ecologist, artist and writer of ‘The Paperbark Writer’ blog. Thankyou Paula for being part of this community and for capturing the vibrancy and beauty of this beautiful tree.

Tulipwood Paula
Sketch of the fruits of the Tulipwood Harpullia pendula, hand drawn by Paula Peeters.

I recollect being told that tulipwood, to the value of about £2000, was cut down and burned off on our island of St Helena before the nature of the wood was discovered.’  Archibald Meston, 1889 

It’s easy to see why some warders took quick action by rescuing the tulipwood logs after the wholesale clearing and burning of the forest on St Helena.  Perhaps it was the Head Carpenter, Peter Brown, the subject of my last blog post “Whittling away the hours,” who was able to recognise the value of this timber for something other than firewood. Regardless, though the timber disappeared, the woodworking warders continued their craft. And the group continues to grow.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 9.33.12 pm
Wednesday 21 July 1880, Brisbane Courier

Along with Peter Brown, Samuel Olson and James Aird, Andrew Craigie saw the beauty of the timbers disappearing from the island. Arriving in 1867, he would have witnessed the wholesale clearing of the native forest and obviously decided to utilise the timbers as best he could.  Apart from the wooden box, Mr Craigie also created and exhibited an inlaid card table at the exhibition in Brisbane in 1880, which was described as ‘a very fair specimen of amateur work.’  

By 1880, Peter Brown and James Aird had left the island and Samuel Olson transferred to Brisbane Gaol that year. It seems there were only 2 of the wood crafters left on the island, Andrew Craigie and William Bowden. Mr Bowden joined the ranks of St Helena Warders in 1871 and a decade later, he was awarded the ‘fourth order of merit to W. Bowden, St. Helena, for an Inlaid writing desk and table of woods grown at St. Helena.’

07 Beitz 33 1894 Prison Warders row by EH Adler
Warders at the St Helena Penal Establishment stockade. Source: Merv Beitz Collection.

These two warders may have been the last of the wood working warders. The tulip wood mentioned was all but gone. In discovering these hidden stories and artefacts, I’ve also discovered the ingenuity of the pioneer warders, who worked in isolated, difficult circumstances building a prison and guarding its inhabitants. Not all warders enjoyed their time on the island and some left quickly. But some of the long term warders adapted to their new and unusual surroundings and filled their long leisure hours with creativity and craftsmanship. On St Helena Island, they found camaraderie in a community of men who shared and learnt the skills of creating inlaid wood furnishings.  And we continue to appreciate and treasure these labours of love long after.

These stunning inlaid items keep appearing. My question is, are there any more out there?

Inlaid box image supplied by John Craigie

Feature Image: Tulipwood Harpullia pendula sketch by Paula Peeters, ‘The Paperbark Writer.’

A Meston,Wednesday 11th September 1889, Brisbane Courier,

4 thoughts on “The last of the Tulipwood

  1. Fascinating Belinda! Thank you for telling the stories of people that created beautiful things many years ago. I’m sure there must be more artifacts out there, waiting to be discovered.

    1. Oh yes, they just keep on emerging. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces coming back together – the whole story can only be found when we rediscover the parts. 🙂

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