Life on Christmas Island in 1946-1947

Here is a most interesting story documenting the everyday life and observations of a European woman living on Christmas Island just after World War 2. Names of old residents and details and locations of residences and businesses are also given and then related to the current places on the island in 1976.

All of the following text comes from the Christmas Island Forum Volume 2, No. 8 dated 13th April 1976. Many thanks go to Mitchell Brooks for providing a copy so I could re-publish it here. The story itself is actually an extraction from the “The Christmas Island Bulletin” of November 1961.

About our Island by Gwen Pettigrew

Looking back

Having heard how much grumbling is being done about things on the Island nowadays, I thought that newcomers would be interested to know what conditions were like 15 years ago in 1946-47. This was just after the Japanese occupation.

To begin with, the houses were not nearly so comfortable, with no electric stoves or hot water heaters and with very small inefficient Silent Night fridges (like the one that holds Cokes in the Trade Store). South Point had only ice boxes and Saturday’s delivery of ice never lasted over the week-end. Of course, everyone had a Chinese cook and he had to use a wood stove in the kitchen which was in the servants quarters and carry meals along the covered way and up into the house.He also stoked an outdoor wood burning boiler to provide hot water and when he had his half holiday there was no hot water for showers or baths – not that that was any hardship.

When the European women began doing their own cooking they had two alternatives. They could use the wood stove or buy a table model electric stove and use it in the kitchen and walk up and down the covered way umpteen times a day to the fridge and dining room. Or they cold install their little stove in one of the bathrooms (all houses had 2) and do the washing up in the wash hand basin. There were no stainless steel sink units, no built in cupboards worth mentioning and certainly no refinements like tiles and laminex.

There was no air-conditioning anywhere on the Island and no free electric laundry. The Chinese dhobi washed by hand and this was adequate at the time. He charged 5 cents an article and a minimum of £5 a month.

The new power station had not been built and due to war damage there was a very limited supply of electricity. This was cut off from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. nightly. So everyone owned a hurricane lamp for use if they wanted to stay up late. Occasionally, by special dispensation, the electricity was kept on till midnight for a dance at the club.

There was no company issue of lounge furniture, mattresses, mosquito nets, towels and bed linen. Nor were you lent curtains, crockery and cutlery when you arrived new on the Island or packing up for good.

As there were only 15 families with 8 children between them and 4 bachelors, there were very few houses. There were 3 at South Point, 1 at Drumsite, and 6 company houses and the District Officer’s house in Flying Fish Cove. The 4 houses now occupied by Powells, Hadleys1, Sherlocks2 and McSweeneys3 were in use then and there was also one (later called “White Ant Villa”4 for obvious reasons), about where McRaes5 and Hatfields6 now live. There were no houses from Howsons7 to Reeves8, nor from Pettigrews9 to the Manager’s and no single quarters, visitors quarter or Honeymoon Hotel10.

Rumah Tinggi was a private house and didn’t become the messroom till 1951. The bachelors slept in a row in what is now the Library (although the club still continued to be used as such), and ate with the Manager who lived in Forrester’s11 house, which was called “The Mess”. When Rumah Tinggi was converted into flats in 1947-48, the bachelors moved there. At first the bachelors ran their own Mess and took it in turn to be Steward. If anyone complained about the food he was made Steward until someone else complained and he could hand the job on again!

There was no European school land the 3 mothers of school-age children had to struggle with correspondence courses until their children were old enough to go to boarding school. The Asian school was held in what is now the Recreation Club.

There was only one doctor and no European Sisters. The present Sisters’ Mess was the home of the Singalese dresser and there was no covered way from his house to the hospital and no European wards or theatre block along it’s length. Sugar cane covered that area. There was no clinic either.

There was no Post Office and the District Officer dealt with mail. I can remember that once he emptied the bag of mail on the floor of the main office and we all dived in and sorted it ourselves!

The Trade Store Building was there but the only things I can remember being sold were sandshoes and laces, brown leather sandals and a few odds and ends. The first time dress material was available was a red letter day although each woman was allowed only 4 yards. A housewife had to make out a list of all the tinned and packet food she expected to need for 3 months.This was handed into the Storekeeper who added the orders together and ordered the food in bulk. The only thing the wife didn’t order was meat, fresh fruit, and vegetables. The cost of living was about a third of what it is now. A married couple could keep their Trade Store bill to $100 a month and if they were very thrifty they could get it down to $90.

There were no Chinese shops and no eating places like Ibrahim’s or the Mah mee joint12. The first shop was in a Chinese house at the foot of the Incline (where the power station now stands). Hence the name “Incline Shop” which confuses newcomers. But that didn’t come into existence till 1940. At about the same time Koh Ee Wee (Koh Wee Liat’s uncle) began a shop in his house, where Wee Liat now lives. Later these shops were moved into smelly little old wooden buildings where the car park is, above the present Chinese shops. When the present shops were completed the old ones were demolished late in 1959.

The Chinese houses were all wooden, similar to the few left opposite the power station, and flanked the settlement road from the foot of the incline to the Mandors’ 2-storied block. The cinema was a tiny area where the new butcher’s shop stands, and there was no Asian pool “40 houses” and only 1 or 2 Asian teachers’ houses.

There were no Cocos Malays here and the Island Kampong was only half it’s present length. It was extended when 2 European  houses wee removed sometime in 1949.

There was no water in the swimming pool until 1946. Everyone swam at the Cove through the break in the reef called the “boat channel”. The new jetty now occupied this good swimming area.

The Police Station and jail were tiny buildings where the carpenter’s shop now stands and the police had little to do as there was practically no crime. No one locked their houses (they couldn’t as there were no doors). If anyone left their watch in the changing room at the swimming pool they could go back next day and it would still be there.

There were no senior staff members and no man dreamed of wearing a jacket in the evening. Standard evening dress for men was a long sleeved shirt a tie, long trousers and possibly a cummerbund. Ladies wore long dresses for dances or dinner parties.

One bright spot was the lack of transport as there were only 3 private cars. 2 motor bikes (the storekeepers and the District Officer’s) and a few bicycles. The doctor was issued with one and rode it. He had nothing else! There was a utility van (rather like the present vauxhalls) which had 2 benches in the back and was used when necessary. But there was no regular bus service.

There was no road to South Point – only a narrow track for a motor bike and, of course, no road to Drumsite. If you wanted to go to Drumsite you either walked up the incline or rode on the “rake”. This was a bench large enough for 6 people which was mounted on a wheeled platform built to run o the incline rails. The bench was screwed at an angle to the platform so that it was horizontal on the incline slope. From Drumsite to South Point you travelled either in the railcar (like a tram) or in a boxcar on the train.

Looking back, I think that, in spite of the lack of amenities, the community was a happier one. Life was quiet and leisurely.

(Extracted from “The Christmas Island Bulletin”)
November, 1961.

See Appendix

*************

  1. Hadleys …..Deales
  2. Sherlocks ….. Empty (ex-Hohnen)
  3. McSweeneys ….. Frasers
  4. White Ant Villa ….. Old-type house similar to 3 above **
  5. McRaes ….. Kerrs
  6. Hatfields ….. Baileys
  7. Howsons ….. Cheethams
  8. Reeves ….. Ridges
  9. Pettigrews ….. Griggs
  10. Honeymoon Hotel ….. Blk of flats near mess, facing sea
  11. Forrester’s house …..Old house behind C.I. Club
  12. Mah mee joint ….. Chinese Tea Gardens in Settlement

** McRaes lived in White Ant Villa before the white ants decided to move in with them. The house in which the Kerrs now reside was built next to the White Ant Villa and upon completion the McRaes moved into it. White Ant Vill and the white ants (we hope) were then demolished. The house in which the Baileys now reside was then erectedon the old site of White Ant Villa. (The first five house numbered 1 to 6 above – excluding the White Ant Villa, all face the sea in Rocky Point Crescent

*******

To clarify a few other points (in brief):

The “new” Power Station referred to is now the “old” one in Settlement.

The Trade Store building mentioned by Gwen is now that part of the Hardware store occupied by the Hardware Store Manager and his staff.

All money referred to in dollars was then MLY currency in general use on C.I. – value approx. 6 1/2 dollars to our then Australian pound.

House owned by Koh Ee Wee and later occupied by his nephew, Wee Liat and his family, is now part of the Trade Store complex next to the Trade Store.

The “new Butcher’s Shop” is that small building on your right (near basketball court) as you drive in to the Trade Store Car Park.

The first Island Kampong was in Flying Fish Cove, and nowhere near as large or modern as it is today.

The four old-type European houses in the Cove when I arrived on the island in 1961, have now been demolished and the new Kampong flats erected on the site.

The Chinese houses “opp.the Power Station” and the “40 houses” nearby, have all been demolished, and a rather promising “Community Park with Bar-b-q facilities” taking shape on that site.

The Asian Teachers’ houses are those houses now occupied by members of the C.I. Police Force and their families.

The Asian School was only “temporarily” quartered in the Recreation Club (the building now used by the C.I. Youth Club), and they returned to what is now the Marine Dept. Offices in Flying Fish Cove until 1951, when they moved up to the building now known as “The George Fam Secondary School”.

When the European children of school-age numbered eight, a teacher from The W.A. Education Dept., came to the Island. Helen (now Forrester) conducted classes in what is now the Billiard Room under the C.I. Club until the building, which is now part of the C.I. Area School, was erected in the Settlement.

Thanks very much Jeanne and Dave for “jogging my memory” and supplying many details regarding Island Personalities and residences on C.I. before my time.

Jackie Kerr