Extract from: The Naval Engineers of Garden Island 102 Years of Naval Management 9th February, 1889 to 15th February, 1991
Most people associated with Garden Island have felt at some time during their career that the title applied to them, however the really forgotten men of Garden Island are the three crew members of H.M.S. SIRIUS, flagship of the first fleet, who carved their initials and the date 1788, on the rocks situated on the western side of the northern hill.
The initials WB, IR and FM, are the oldest evidence of British settlement in Australia, and are usually attributed to sailors from the SIRIUS, who first landed on the Island on 11th February, 1788 with the objective of establishing a ship’s garden. They certainly achieved their objective, which in turn gave the Island its name, Sirius Garden Island, which, after the loss of the SIRIUS at Norfolk Island on the 15th March, 1790, and the handing over of the garden to the crew of H.M.S. SUPPLY (II) in 1795 and ships that followed, became simply Garden Island, by which name it has been known ever since.
The Island is reputed to have had the Aboriginal name of Booroowang, which means fishing place.
For a number of reasons I have never believed the initials to be the work of the sailors employed on gardening duties. At that period, it was the exception rather than the rule, for common seamen to be able to read and write; their childhood was spent over a hundred years before the passing of the first compulsory education act in England. To be literate was to be either privileged or fortunate. That three such fortunates should have been thrown together by chance is beyond the bounds of probability.
Allowing for the fact that some illiterates undoubtedly did master the art of writing their names, this still does not explain why of all the sailors who tended the garden or lived on the Island to protect it, only three carved their initials.
Of all groups of people, sailors past and present are most susceptible to peer influence – tattooing, smoking and drinking are but a few examples of this. One would have expected therefore, to have found many more initials carved on the rocks, particularly as the Island changed stewardship and friendly inter-ship rivalry became a factor.
Could it be that the initials had a much more serious purpose than mindless graffiti? I considered they did and decided it would be appropriate if I could solve the mystery before Garden Island’s own Bicentenary on the 11th February, 1988, which was actually celebrated on Sunday, 14th February, 1988, a non-working day.
For reasons referred to later, I failed to arrive at a conclusion in time for this historic event and for a while I appeared to have reached a dead end until a clue from an unexpected source enabled me to eventually determine a plausible solution.
The following is an account of that process and reasoning:
The earliest reference to the initials IR and FM appeared in a newspaper article published just prior to December 1922 and referred to by the Reverend V.W. Thompson, M.A., R.A.N., Chaplain of H.M.A.S. PENGUIN 1921-1922 (at that period depot ship at Garden Island). In his unpublished manuscript, “A Short History of Garden Island” dated 4th December, 1922, the Reverend Thompson attributes the initials “IR” and “FM” as being the handiwork of SIRIUS’s gardeners and identifies “FM” as Frederic Meredith, thereby initiating a popular belief which has persisted.
In arriving at his conclusions, however, the Reverend did not have the benefit of a vital clue which was not discovered until 1964 when the initials “WB” were uncovered nearby.
The slightly elevated position and detachment of these latter initials relative to the others, coupled with their sophisticated style, conveys a distinct impression of authority and purpose, suggesting perhaps the presence of an Officer.
What manner of Officer would want to carve his initials in such a place, and for what reason?