Tristan da Cunha: how volcanic eruption introduced brand new community to Surrey
Submitted by the South Atlantic Islands News Team (SAINT)
A volcanic eruption on Tristan Da Cunha in 1961 saw islanders leave their South Atlantic home to move to Surrey
An island volcanic eruption led to a new community of people arriving in Surrey in the 1960s.
Tristan Da Cunha, a British overseas territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean, is seen as the most isolated island community on the planet – as well as being a haven for wildlife including penguins and albatross.
People still live there in the modern day, but a natural disaster more tha
Richard Grundy, is co-chair of the Tristan da Cunha Association (TDCA), a recently registered UK charity, and has co-authored a book about the island called ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ – a story described as ‘far-fetched if it were presented as fiction’.
Mr Grundy, who is based in Glastonbury, said: “Tristan da Cunha is an extraordinary place – an extraordinary group of settlers there who went from the early 19th century. They formed this community that was pretty self-sufficient.”
The island was first discovered in the 1500s but was initially dismissed by some as a place to live, partly due to its rugged mountain landscape and no natural harbour.
The first British settlers are believed to have arrived in the early 1800s. But a volcanic eruption in October 1961 changed everything for the people that called the island home.
Mr Grundy explains: “There were earth tremors. And the administrator, who was a sharp chap called Peter Wheeler, he realised that these earthquakes were threatening the island. He didn’t have much help from the geology experts but he reckoned that a volcanic eruption was coming.
“One afternoon, the earth rose and clearly threatened their village. That night, that mound of earth exploded into what was obviously a new volcanic cone, and a decision was made to evacuate the island.”
Somewhat incredibly, everyone living on the small island managed to escape safely on two fishing boats. It was a small island, but managing to fit almost 300 people on two boats with no injuries would have still been a huge undertaking – Mr Grundy’s figures show 295 people were evacuated – 264 islanders and 31 expats.
They first arrived at Nightingale Island about 25 miles away, a then-uninhabited island. From there, they went on a Dutch liner going to Cape Town in South Africa.
Arrival in the UK
Mr Grundy added: “They were international celebrities of the time, this was one of the biggest news stories of the year! They couldn’t stay in Cape Town. South Africa had just introduced apartheid, they had just broken off from the commonwealth that year. So they were brought to England, brought to Southampton on November 3.”
Despite being a remote island the other side of the equator to the UK, the island was well-known by the British at the time. It was even visited by the Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip in 1957. Its main settlement is known as Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.
Mr Grundy says there was an incredible work ethic as they had moved to Surrey, largely going to work in the Reigate, Redhill and Bletchingley areas, as they lived in Pendell Camp nearby, before moving to Calshot, Hampshire.
He explains: “Most of the men got jobs in Surrey. They didn’t sit around and allow themselves to be spoiled, they expected to work. I’d argue they were one of the most welcome groups of refugees the UK has ever had.”
It would have been a huge culture shock for them – and few would have even seen a bus or train before arriving in the UK.
It was in phases that people returned to living on the island, helped by the houses on the island managing to remain undestroyed by the volcano.
It was that same decade that residents returned, and the economy grew quite strong in the 70s and 80s thanks to a harbour and fishing factory being established for trade.
Tristan Da Cunha today
A fishing factory and new harbour has helped the island thrive in the modern day
There is no significant Surrey community of Tristan Da Cunha still in the county today. On the island itself, there are slightly fewer islanders nowadays than there were prior to the time of the eruption. Recent figures show 242 live there as of December 2021.
Life on a small island like Tristan De Cunha has even come into its own in the last two years.
Mr Grundy said: “In the modern era, it is an incredibly successful, co-operative community. Where do you want to be in the Covid [pandemic]? Why not be on Tristan De Cunha. They haven’t had to have any Covid precautions on the island, no social distancing, no need for masks, no need to cancel any parties. It’s been a great place to be!”
‘Nothing Can Stop Us: Tristan da Cunha’s 1961 volcanic eruption and how its people handled their future’ by Richard Grundy and Neil Robson is available for purchase through tristandc.com