It was London, 1949, when—over a lunch of oysters, caviar and champagne, Eleanor Alliston agreed to leave the security of the civilised world.
The same morning, she had stood beneath the glittering chandeliers of Buckingham Palace and watched King George VI present her husband John, a retiring naval officer, with prestigious war medals. Lunching together at The Berkeley later that day, they decided on the wilds of Tasmania to begin their new life. The juxtaposition of the pomp, opulence and glamour with their dreams of remote island adventure must have etched this moment deeply in Eleanor’s memory.
‘Incessant partings, so much a feature of life in the Navy, had made us want to cut loose and search, preferably to the ends of the Earth, for somewhere permanent,’ wrote Eleanor, explaining that they were determined to create a life where they could be together, work hard and raise their family ‘in rebellion against a bumper-to-bumper existence’.
‘That day we made our choice between Chile, Tasmania and New Zealand, all on the 40th parallel, with a similar climate, one which was particularly favourable to living, loving and working.’
Two years later, Eleanor and John and their two children moved to the isolated paradise of Three Hummock Island, a granite island in stormy Bass Strait, more than 30 kilometres from mainland Tasmania. It was a place that fulfilled John’s dream of living on a farm with a river, a mountain, a house on a slope overlooking the sea; and Eleanor’s desire of being at the ends of the earth. Its landscape was stark and windswept with granite boulders, waterfalls and dense bushland, and the island brimmed with multiple species of birds, penguins and wallabies. Even today the area is known for having the purest air in the world.
John had visited the island on an earlier reconnaissance mission, reporting that the house was an old white weatherboard. ‘Rather neglected, but could be nice.’ As such, Eleanor had visualised a picturesque Cape Cod cottage, which would need just a few clever touches here and there to get things to her liking. When she arrived she saw something else.
‘Yes, white weatherboard it was. But inside there was such a conglomeration of murky furniture, articles of farm equipment, dark layers of linoleum, and a general airlessness that my heart sank. I could not see where I should begin, if I were to retain the essentials and discard the rubbish. This was my inheritance. Two wallaby carcasses hung from the ceiling. Flies abounded.’
The interiors were the least of her worries when, less than a week after their arrival, their seven-month-old baby nearly died with a blockage in >
his bowel. After a desperate day spent lighting bonfires to attract a passing fishing boat, Eleanor and her son were picked up from the jetty and taken to a doctor. Her baby survived but it was clear remote island life was not all paradise.
Eleanor did not shy away from the hardship. Armed with only a well-thumbed copy of Home Doctor to refer to for advice on treating ailments, the dangers of living in such isolation faded as Eleanor’s confidence grew. She gradually lost that consuming fear of accidents and sickness in the wilds. ‘I was beginning to believe that I would be given strength to deal with them.’
Eleanor and John raised four children on the island: Venetia, Robert, Warwick and Ingrid. The children were educated by correspondence and then went to boarding school in Victoria for their later school years.
While living on the island, the family experienced many challenges including witnessing shipwrecks, losing beloved animals and making dangerous sea journeys. They relied on infrequent air and sea dispatches for supplies and medical assistance.
Although Eleanor was in charge of the house, she preferred being outside. She wrote that she ‘regarded a house merely as a place which one must enter after dark, the mind and body still hankering for the skies and the hills and the lovely living earth beneath one’s feet’. She often came home at 3 am with flounders slung over her shoulder after a solo spearfishing expedition. Her daughter Ingrid recalls that her mother did not like housework very much. From her Hawthorn home in Melbourne, Ingrid said that Eleanor thought ‘life is too short to worry about the dusting’.
Eleanor would read the Paris newspaper as she did the washing-up. She got the whole family learning Spanish via Linguaphone courses while they ate their meals. They listened to symphonies while weeding the carrot patch and absorbed some of the latest in poetry and literature as they waited for the billy to boil on the camp fire.
Eleanor wrote two books about the family’s life on Three Hummock: Escape to an Island and An Island Affair. She dictated romance novels while walking on the beach and typed while standing at a bench, decades before standing desks were a thing.
A quest to live a remarkable life, instead of an ordinary one, was what called Eleanor and John Alliston to Three Hummock Island. And it was a quest realised. Eleanor and John Alliston lived on Three Hummock Island from 1951 to 2002. Eleanor died in 2003 and John the year after.
Today the island offers eco-accommodation and is accessed only by charter flight or boat. It’s an experience for those looking to escape the ‘bumper-to-bumper existence’, if only for a few days. ■
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