Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nobbs, George Hunn (1799–1884)

by H. E. Maude

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

George Hunn Nobbs (1799-1884), schoolteacher and pastor, was born on 16 October 1799 in Ireland; according to his own statements, he was the unacknowledged son of the marquis of Hastings and Jemima ffrench, the daughter of an Irish baronet. Nobbs's childhood was spent near Yarmouth with the farmer whose name he assumed. When 12 his mother's friend, Admiral Robert Murray, procured him a position in the navy and in 1813 he was appointed to the storeship Indefatigable in which he visited New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land. The following year he joined a ship belonging to South American patriots and, although captured by the royalists on three occasions, he continued to serve with the insurgent forces for six years, being commissioned a lieutenant in the Chilean navy in 1820 for his part in the capture by Lord Cochrane of the Spanish frigate Esmeraldas from under the Callao batteries.

In 1822 Nobbs returned to England at his mother's request and before her death later that year she urged him to settle in some remote part of the world where the wrong done her would be forgotten; her dying injunction was 'Go to Pitcairn Island, my son, dwell there, and the blessing of God rest upon you'.

After a period in the merchant service, including visits to West Africa as chief mate and captain of the Gambia, Nobbs accordingly left for Callao where he met an American, Noah Bunker, who possessed an eighteen-ton cutter in which the two sailed for Pitcairn. They landed on 5 November 1828 and were welcomed by John Adams, the aged patriarch who had largely handed over the spiritual and temporal care of his community to the Bristol shipwright, John Buffett. Though Buffett had been five years on Pitcairn Nobbs's superior education and stronger character enabled him to assume the position as pastor and schoolteacher, albeit not without friction, which continued after Adams's death four months later.

On 18 October 1829 Nobbs married Sarah, granddaughter of Fletcher Christian, and in 1831, when the islanders were removed to Tahiti, he asked to stay behind with his family. Deferring to popular pressure, however, he accompanied the community, and his ministrations at Tahiti, particularly to the many who fell sick, resulted in his being requested to return with them to Pitcairn 'as their sole teacher and minister'. Tahiti had weakened the community both morally and through the deaths of a fifth of its members, and after their return in September an anarchic period set in during which the distillation of spirits prohibited by Adams was recommenced, Nobbs's own position being weakened by his occasional lapses from temperance.

In October 1832 Joshua Hill, who arrived on Pitcairn claiming to be a representative of the British government, succeeded in supplanting Nobbs as pastor and teacher and in March 1834 forced him to leave the island. He thereupon settled as a missionary on Mangareva until, with Hill's exposure, the community requested him to return, which he did in October.

Although in 1838 Pitcairn was given a Constitution and code of laws, with an annually elected magistrate, Nobbs became in reality the leader of the community through his acknowledged talents and record of service. For over twenty years he taught the youth, ministered to the sick (augmenting by experience his rudimentary knowledge of medicine and surgery) and consoled the dying. In return he was spared many of the routine manual tasks of the islanders: as pastor his house was kept in repair; as surgeon he was given three acres (1.2 ha) of land for cultivation, and as schoolmaster 1s. a month for each scholar, from those who could afford it.

In 1852 Admiral Fairfax Moresby arranged for Nobbs to visit England, where on 30 November he was ordained and licensed as chaplain of Pitcairn Island by the bishop of London and appointed a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel at a salary of £50; before returning he had an audience with Queen Victoria.

Four years later, and largely on the advice of Moresby and Nobbs, the community elected to migrate to Norfolk Island, where they arrived on 8 June 1856. Although Norfolk was a disappointment to many, Nobbs's exhortations and example prevented all but a few from returning to Pitcairn. He continued his former work as pastor and teacher until 1859, when Governor Sir William Denison sent Thomas Rossiter to act as schoolmaster and store-keeper and increased Nobbs's salary as chaplain by an annual grant of £50 from the island revenue. From about 1870, with increasing age and deafness, Nobbs gradually took a less active part in community life, though he continued to act as chaplain. He died at Norfolk Island on 5 November 1884, leaving a widow, 10 children, 65 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.

Nobbs's arrival on Pitcairn was providential for the community, arresting the demoralization and disintegration which followed the patriarchal rule of John Adams. He served the islanders with singleminded devotion both on Pitcairn and Norfolk, advising and guiding successive generations as they changed from a small adolescent and unsophisticated family to an adult community able to face the increasing pressures from the outside world with assurance. Though on Pitcairn he had to face criticism from island factions, especially from Hill's supporters led by Edward Quintal, and on his arrival at Norfolk from Bishop Selwyn, he received the constant support and friendship of Moresby and Rev. T. B. Murray, secretary of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, and in his declining years enjoyed the honour and respect of the entire community.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Nobbs, A Sermon [on Rev. xxii. 17]. To Which is Added an Appendix Containing Some Brief Notices of Mr. Nobbs and his Flock [on Pitcairn's Island] (Lond, 1852)
  • T. B. Murray, Pitcairn: The Island, the People, and the Pastor (Lond, 1853)
  • D. Belcher, The Mutineers of the Bounty and Their Descendants in Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands (Lond, 1870)
  • C. P. Lucas (ed), The Pitcairn Island Register Book (Lond, 1929)
  • G. H. Nobbs papers, 1836-79 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Pitcairn Island Recorder, 1838 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • minutes and correspondence (SPCK archives, London).

Citation details

H. E. Maude, 'Nobbs, George Hunn (1799–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nobbs-george-hunn-2510/text3391, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Birth

16 October 1799
Ireland

Death

5 November 1884
Norfolk Island, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation