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Bill Thayer

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Part V
Chapter 5
This webpage reproduces part of
Angry Island

by Margaret Mackay

published by Rand McNally & Company,
Chicago • New York • San Francisco

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Part V
Chapter 6

Part Five
Change and Eruption

 p255  6 A New Life

Perhaps no tiny community's fate had ever before aroused such world-wide interest. Even the rich and sophisticated seemed fascinated, half envying such determined simplicity. The Tristanians themselves waited anxiously to know what the Government might propose on their behalf. They staunchly insisted on remaining together. There was talk of re‑establishing them on one of the remote Scottish islands, whose stone crofts and wind-bare life and traditions were not unlike their own. But they must go where there was work and housing.

To publicize the Tristan da Cunha Fund, the Daily Telegraph arranged for one of the four salvaged longboats, in which the islanders had fled, to be displayed at the Royal Exchange in the City of London. Eight Tristan boatmen bent to the oars at the opening, with Big Gordon Glass at the helm, all in long stockings and moccasins. They were then entertained at the historic Mansion House by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, Sir Frederick and Lady Hoare.

A few weeks later a longboat was conveyed by open truck to Buckingham Palace where a special delegation of Tristanians, led by Headman Willie Repetto and Headwoman Martha Rogers, presented  p256 it to the Queen. It is being housed at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

On January 23, 1962, all but a few of the refugees packed up and climbed into motor-coaches again, and were moved en masse to a semi-permanent home. This was a former Royal Air Force seaplane base on the south coast at Calshot in Hampshire, near the New Forest with its bright beechwoods and little wild ponies. The Tristanians were to occupy some fifty neat modern houses in the former Married Quarters inside the high-fenced compound. A reconnoitring party of islanders had been shown the place beforehand and accepted it with relief.

'We want to be near the sea,' they had kept saying.

Here — after generations of waiting for the cry of 'Sail ho!' — they could watch the great steamers of many lands floating past with the dignity of albatrosses, to dock — for sure — at Southampton.

In Britain, where there was mounting unemployment and still a big post‑war housing shortage, many couples living uncomfortably with their parents-in‑law of squeezing into shabby bed‑sitters, sighed when they saw the Press photographs of the Tristanian families settled into the tidy, pleasant little houses or bungalows with two or three bedrooms and tiny gardens. They were modern indeed after the stone cabins. All had simple, contemporary furniture, indoor bathrooms, electric light, hot‑water boilers, electric heaters and cookers, which the ladies of the local Women's Voluntary Services showed them how to use.

The WVS had arranged everything in the homes, even to hanging the curtains, making up the beds, and cooking the first meal. (The menu was brown stew and fresh fruit, at the Tristanians' request.) Each household was given four days' supply of provisions. The Tristan da Cunha Fund had provided enough coal for the whole winter. But nothing meant so much as the few old photographs and mementoes from home — a family Bible, an old‑fashioned clock here and there, rescued by the Leopard.

Three young couples — three Repettos, a Glass, a Green and a Swain — had got married before the move. One pair had been engaged for three years and the others for seven. Now they were able to settle into new houses of their own without waiting to collect driftwood.

There was a ready-made welcome in the neighbourhood. To know an islander was not unlike knowing a TV star (which they were, in a way). The camp had a recreation hall with soft drinks available. A record-player performed in the evenings for the Tristanian teenagers to  p257 do the twist — though at community 'dawnces' the older people still stuck to the Heel and Toe Polka and the old square jigs.

Experts buzzed around the evacuees like the greenbottles in a Tristanian summer. Professor Munch was back among them from an American university, preparing to publish a study on their adaptation to civilization. The Medical Research Council was deeply interested, among other things, in the data on a community freshly exposed to germs and viruses. The pessimists who for generations had deplored the inbreeding were proving right: unfortunately the eyesight was impaired in some cases, and there were two blind persons. Dentists wrote up the detrimental effects on the islanders' teeth after 'civilized' food had come their way with the cannery store since 1948. A scholar from London University, like Shaw's Professor Higgins, made tape-recordings of the Tristanian dialect, which most retained after many months in England.

While continuing to help, the Government was hoping that in time they would be normally self-supporting. The wage-earners were initiated into National Insurance and income tax.

About ninety per cent of the employable persons were soon placed in jobs. Some of the young men became deck-hands on the liners sailing to South Africa or elsewhere from Southampton. Women and girls worked in factories, canteens and stores. The jobs were necessity unskilled. The men's only experience was in fishing, 'farming' (as they still like to call it) and making crude things by hand. No one had ever used more than simple manual tools.

Some employers praised the people's diligence. They were astonished at the clan loyalty whereby, if a member of a family fell ill, a relative turned up to deputize for him or her at the job.

The chief problem was the fact that very few had ever worked indoors. Furthermore, as diarists and researchers had been pointing out for decades, the people had never lived, worked and eaten by the clock. It was a struggle against all experience to catch a bus and to check in regularly as a whistle blew; not to be free to down tools and wander off to gaze or chat. They had been used to working when they needed food — more like people on tropical islands; sometimes toiling very hard for long hours; but between times they were their own masters. That, perhaps most of all, was the key phrase. Even the lobster-packing jobs had been, after all, part-time. It seemed like slavery to work day in and day out for someone else.

On the whole they were eager to make good, to pull their weight, to  p258 be independent. But a few appeared to be more or less unemployable. Despite the publicized homogeneity of the group, one remembers that on the island too there were 'rich' and poor, thrifty and shiftless.

Most men seemed to earn around £9 a week — which, with the subsidies, went much farther than the comparable Englishman's wage. With the traditional large families, often several older children were all employed, so that a substantial sum came into the house each week and a good part could be saved. The Government 'child allowances' helped to support the younger children.

From the bank in South Africa, the Tristanians' savings from the former cannery jobs, totalling about £2,000 in small sums, were transferred to the British Post Office Savings Bank.

Just as at Tristan different voyagers had viewed the islanders either as idyllic Arcadians or as grasping beggars, so in England they were both admired for their insistence on the simple life and criticized for not making the most of their advantages. Jobless and homeless Britons grumbled that they would not begrudge them the taxpayers' help if they appreciated being pampered. But as the seemly period of homesickness waned, the discontent appeared to wax. A few peevish hints began to discolour the reports about this so‑called 'fabulous' community.

The Tristanians had got used to reading their bulky Press notices and fan‑mail with numb incredulity, mulling them over with the knitting needles or the evening pipes of tobacco. They persisted doggedly in being polite, though uncommunicative — in being 'wery grateful'. But almost, if not quite to a man, they wanted more and more to go home.

They had had a bad shock not long after they had settled at Calshot. On the island Big Gordon Glass had still been a hefty and self-respecting helmsman and boat builder in spite of his 62 years and his one arm — the other having been lost when it was caught in a machine belt at the cannery. (Sandy and rather Scots-looking, he was one of the last strong links in the direct line to old Governor Glass.) He had got a job as a night-watchman near the camp, looking after the red lanterns which marked a road reconstruction. One night, as he sat outside his hut, two teddy-boys sneaked up on him, beat him up and searched him. He had nothing of any value except his old family watch. One youth snatched it off, flung it on to the road and smashed it with his heel. Then they ran away into the darkness.

 p259  No personal calamity had ever upset his fellow-islanders more. It was incredible that this million-to‑one chance had happened to a Tristanian, of all people: 'Tristan luck,' one is almost tempted to call it. The community had heard and read of such dreadful crimes with a sort of detached head-shaking — for still, as at home, most were very little interested in the Houtside Warl’. But now assault seemed to lurk for everyone in every shadow. More than ever the crime-less, police-less, jail-less island appeared to be a paradise lost.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20