History

  • Books and reading,  History

    Why I am a feminist: ‘Normal Women’ by Philippa Gregory

    Where to begin with this huge, sweeping non-fiction book? Perhaps with the title. In an interview I heard with the author (best known for her historical fiction featuring British royalty like the Plantagenet and Tudor women) she said that she wanted to write about the full gamut of women across 900 years of British history – from royal and aristocratic to peasant women. Because, at the times in which they lived, these were ‘normal’ women, doing what queens, noblewomen, tradeswomen and artisans and peasant farming women did.

    I found that a compelling argument; more so since reading this grand work of research and narrative.

    Why am I interested in the history of British women?

    Apart from the fact that I inherited my fascination with history from my mother; as an Australian woman whose ancestors were almost all from England, Ireland or Scotland, the history of Britain and its women is also my history.

    Also, my interest in family history is particularly focused on the women in my family tree, the people about whom it is most difficult to find information and records that extend beyond birth and baptism, marriage and babies, death and burial. I want to know what kind of lives they lived, what their likely interests or preoccupations might have been, what big and small events shaped them.

    Ms Gregory sums up her motivation for writing the book as follows:

    What we read as a history of our nation is a history of men, as viewed by men, as recorded by men.
    Is 93.1 per cent of history literally ‘His Story’ because women don’t do anything? Are women so busy with their Biology that they have no time for History, like strict timetable choices – you can’t do both?…
    Women are there, making fortunes and losing them, breaking the law and enforcing it, defending their castles in siege and setting off on crusade; but they’re often not recorded, or mentioned only in passing by historians, as they were just normal women living normal lives, not worthy of comment.

    Normal Women pp1-2

    The book begins with the Norman invasion in 1066 and ends at the modern era, in the 1990’s. In between it examines the lives of women over a range of topic areas, including: religion, violence, marriage, women loving women, women and the vote, prostitution, health, education, work, enslaved women and slave owners, single women, ideas about the ‘nature of women’, rape, sport, wealth and poverty, protest…It’s a huge expanse of information drawn from a wide range of sources.

    In the process the real reason for the beginnings of the gender pay gap is revealed; also how the patriarchal systems of law and inheritance were imported and formalised by the Norman invaders; how accusations of rape were dealt with in the legal system and how this barely changed over centuries; when businesswomen and tradeswomen gained admission to important guilds and how they were later excluded; how a queen became the first woman to publish a book in English in her own name; how women worked together and also against each other; a sombre roll call of women martyrs who died for their religious beliefs during the early modern period and another of women murdered by husband, boyfriend or family member in 2019.

    The author’s skill is evident in the way she has presented a mind-boggling array of historical facts and themes in a compelling narrative, with snippets of the names and stories of women across different circumstances that help to bring them to life for the reader.

    And there are some Oh My God moments. Here are some that stayed with me:

    • Sixteen year old Emma de Gauder holding out against William I (aka the Conqueror) at a Norwich castle for three months and later going on the First Crusade with her husband.
    • Roman Catholic churches in the eight century hosting same-sex marriages (women marrying women) which were entered in the parish records in the usual way.
    • The old Anglo-Saxon word for ‘wife’ meant peace-weavers and ‘spinster’ originally meant the actual occupation (a woman who spun yarn.)
    • The 1624 Infanticide Act meant that women who could not prove that a baby had been stillborn would hang. There was no assumption of innocence and no accusation levelled at the father of the baby.
    • The sentence of death by burning at the stake was still being applied for crimes such as the murder of a husband in the 1700’s. It mattered not how violent, cruel or abusive the husband was. Husband-killing was seen as ‘petty treason’.
    • Forceps for difficulties in childbirth were invented in the 1700’s but kept a secret for three generations in order to increase the profits of the medical family concerned.
    • Housewives living in poverty were blamed for poor sanitation and high rates of disease and child mortality.
    • Syphilis was thought to occur spontaneously in the bodies of promiscuous women (read: prostitutes) and passed on to men.
    • Rape in marriage was thought to be impossible as their wedding vows meant that women gave consent to sexual acts from that time on.
    • The widespread belief (even into the early twentieth century) that women would become infertile if they were more highly educated: to quote from the book, a statement by a neurologist – If the feminine abilities were developed to the same degree as those of the make, her material organs would suffer, and we should have before us a repulsive and useless hybrid. (p460)
    • Male students at Oxford University were so appalled at the proposal that female graduates should be awarded their degrees on completion of their course of study – in 1948 – that they attacked the college residence of women students.
    • and so on and so on…

    I dare any woman to read this book and not be thankful for feminism and the changes it has helped to bring about. But – it also highlights the fact that there is a long, long way to go before we can truly say we have achieved genuine equality for women of all classes, races, religious beliefs and family situations.

    Normal Women is published by HarperCollins in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Unlikely connections: ‘The Star on the Grave’ by Linda Margolin Royal

    Did you know that six thousand Jewish refugees were saved from murder at the hands of Nazis during WWII by escaping Europe via Japan? And that they were able to do so by the actions of a brave and committed Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who in defiance of his government’s express orders, wrote transit visas for desperate people trying to flee from Lithuania.

    He was helped in this by an official from the Netherlands, who supplied documents allowing refugees to travel through the Dutch colony of Curacao, and from there to Japan. From Japan, individuals and families found refuge in countries such as the USA and Australia.

    I had never heard of either of these individuals, whose courageous and compassionate actions have been lost in the stories of that terrible war. And the connection between Japan, Poland, Lithuania and Australia seems unlikely, doesn’t it?

    The Jews whose lives they saved included the author’s own family: her father and grandparents fled Poland to Lithuania, and were amongst those who owed their lives to Sugihara and the Dutch man Jan Zwartendijk. Rachael wrote this book, her first novel, to tell their story and that of the men who saved them.

    In the novel, the main character Rachel is a young nurse who lives with her widowed father and has a close relationship with her Polish grandmother, Felka, whom she adores. It is Sydney in 1968. Rachel has been brought up as a Christian, attended a Catholic school, and is engaged to marry Yanni, a doctor at the hospital where she works.

    When she tells Felka that she must convert to Yanni’s religion of Greek Orthodoxy on their marriage, her grandmother’s reaction is bewildering and confusing. Then Felka announces her plan to attend a reunion of friends in Japan, and asks Rachel to accompany her. She is puzzled. What is this ‘reunion’, and why Japan?

    When she is told the truth of her family, she is incredulous. Her father and grandparents were among those able to get out of Europe because of Mr Sugihara. And they are Jewish. The trip to Japan is for survivors to meet with Mr Sugihara, to thank him for their lives.

    Rachel’s shock and sense of betrayal at having been lied to her entire life are profound. Slowly, she begins to understand the reasons why her father and Felka did what they did: to protect her, so that she would never know the hatred and anti-Semitism that they had experienced.

    She travels to Japan with Felka and there, hearing the stories of the other people saved by Sugihara, she grapples with the questions of who she is and what the revelation of being Jewish means: does it bring a heritage of suffering and loss, or of family, tradition and deep connection? Or all of those things?

    And how has the trauma experienced by her surviving family members manifested in their personalities, their relationships and approaches to life?

    These are all deep, deep questions she must face, and all at once. It is difficult and painful. Through travelling to Japan with Felka, listening to the people she meets there, and reappraising her own beliefs, Rachel finds some acceptance and a strong desire to learn more.

    Initially, I thought Rachel’s ignorance of the events of WWII, the Nazi persecutions and concentration camps, the murders and unspeakable cruelties, was somewhat disingenuous. But I reminded myself that Rachel had come to adulthood barely twenty years after the war. She was taught the minimum details of the conflict at school, and not knowing of her personal connection to those events, did not seek to learn more. And many, many survivors, refugees and veterans, were reluctant to talk about their experiences, preferring to try to forget, to move on with life.

    The Star on the Grave is a moving story of one family, fictionalised but inspired by her own, in a surprising and little-known chapter of that global conflict. I found it absorbing, and I hope to read future works by Ms Margolin Royal.

    The Star on the Grave is published by Affirm Press in January 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Truth-telling: ‘Killing for Country’ by David Marr

    Squatter.

    If you are Australian, that word probably conjures images of sheep or cattle farmers on large tracts of land in the 1800’s. Men (always men) who heroically ‘opened up’ new territory, braving dangers and isolation, finding new and productive areas to settle. Improving the land: fencing, clearing, building homesteads and woolsheds. A national economy ‘riding on the sheep’s back.’ If you grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, you may even have played the board game by that name.

    Some of these things were true.

    But so many other things about squatters were resolutely ignored or buried, until relatively recent years. One of the distressing truths about squatters ‘opening up new land for settlement’ and other aspects of our colonial history, is that all this was accompanied by sustained campaigns of brutality and murder. This is the main topic of David Marr’s book Killing for Country.

    The subtitle is ‘A Family History’ and given that the narrative covers regions from the Hunter Valley to Queensland, the Gulf Country, the Northern Territory and the Western Australian goldfields, readers might wonder why. The reason is that the story is also about several of his ancestors: Edmund Uhr and his sons Reginald and D’arcy. Marr was shocked to discover that these forebears were officers of the ‘Native Police’, a brutal collection of militia groups under the direction of white officers, established to protect squatters and their livestock.

    This protection was provided by clearing squatters’ runs, or occupied lands, of Aboriginal people.

    To be blunt, clearing most often meant killing: men old or young, women, children. It also meant destroying or stealing property and campsites. It meant kidnapping and raping Aboriginal women, and sometimes children.

    I heard David Marr interviewed about his book on the Guardian newspaper Big Picture podcast on 10th October this year, and I knew I had to get a copy.

    Why? Because in my family history tree, one family in particular were squatters, firstly around Maitland and Singleton, then up in the northwest of NSW near the Namoi River. Regions where violence between black and white was bloody and sustained.

    When my copy of the book arrived in the mail, the first thing I did was check the index for that family’s name. It wasn’t there. I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment : relief that so far, I’ve not found evidence that my ancestors were – directly – involved in these war-like events; disappointment because I am seeking the truth and accurate sources are hard to find.)

    The second thing I did was to look through the book’s many hand-drawn illustrative maps of regions being discussed, for the area where my family had squatted and grazed livestock. On the map showing the lands of the Wonnarua and Kamilaroi peoples in the Hunter region, there are three marked sites of slaughter – one of them twice over. On the page showing the Namoi, Peel and Gwyder Rivers, there are eight massacre sites.

    If anything, the picture becomes even grimmer the further north the story goes. As the author describes events before, during and after the establishment of the new colony of Queensland in 1859, it is clear that the violence increased; the role of the Native Police and its officers grew murkier and more shameful as the weeks, months and years passed and the death toll climbed.

    There were protests about the increasing violence. There were settlers, journalists, missionaries, officials, even some squatters, unhappy about what was going on. For some it was for moral reasons – the violence was illegal and simply wrong. For others, it was because the actions of the Native Police all but guaranteed continuing problems, because raiding and killing by white men so often resulted in retribution in kind by black men, and vice versa.

    There was no empty territory for Aboriginals to retreat to. Everywhere was black country. For one people to move onto the lands of another was an unpardonable violation of law. Stay or go, the people…faced reprisals. Fighting to stay was the most honourable course.

    Killing for Country p179

    One of the most frustrating and distressing aspects of this story is that so often, the carnage could have been averted or reduced if there had been decisive action by authorities in Britain or the colonies. Time and time again, those who could have stopped it chose to turn a blind eye. A succession of weak, indecisive, or corrupt officials at all levels failed to act.

    The squatters wanted an empty landscape for sheep to graze. It was an article of faith…that peace was only possible if the blacks were gone. From time to time, squatters were reminded that the terms of their leases guaranteed the rights of the first inhabitants of the country to continue hunting and fishing on their land. This was ignored. Already it was being taken for granted in Australia that the men of the bush could decide which laws applied to them. Stockmen and shepherds were armed and put to the task. So were the Native Police.

    Killing for Country p272

    This is a big, masterful, detailed and grim book. It is not an easy story to read because the enormity of what happened in this country can come as a shock, including for readers like myself who have learnt something of the more shameful aspects of our nation’s history. When the appalling events are laid out over 400-odd pages, revulsion and dismay are natural responses.

    In his Afterword, Marr says:

    I have been asked how I could bear to write this book. It is an act of atonement, of penance by storytelling. But I wasn’t wallowing in my own shame. None of us are free of this past.

    Killing for Country p408

    I take heart from the fact that today, when I checked out the website of the publishers, Black Inc Books, this book was listed as ‘Out of Stock’. I hope that means many purchasers and many readers. Hard as it is, it is a story that needs to be told.

    Killing for Country is published by Black Inc Books in 2023.

  • Books and reading,  History,  Life: bits and pieces,  Writing

    The beauty of finding your ‘tribe’: Historical Novel Society of Australia conference

    I was craving connection with fellow lovers of historical fiction. To talk books, history, writing.

    In 2019 I’d found my happy place at the Historical Novel Society Australia (HNSA) conference, held at Parramatta. Two days in the company of my tribe: people like me who adore reading and writing stories set in the past. Here’s my summary post from that weekend.

    Then COVID. Say no more.

    This year, the conference organisers decided to make it a hybrid event (both in-person and online.) Thank you!! I was unable to attend in person due to a family medical circumstance, so thank you for making sure that I and others did not miss out.

    Okay, so online is not the same as being in the room. You can’t go to have books signed by your favourite author, or chat to another aspiring writer/dabbler in the coffee line. You can’t applaud vigorously to show your appreciation for a particular speaker or topic.

    But you can listen to two days of absorbing discussions and debates about all things history and books. Bliss.

    My highlights?

    Top of my list is the welcome emphasis on truth-telling and uncovering hidden or lost stories. This included a compelling Welcome to Country by Gadigal woman Madison Shakespeare, a discussion with award-winning writer Melissa Lucashenko, and listening to Claire Coleman (Noongar, Western Australia) and Monty Soutar (Maori academic and writer from New Zealand) on blurring the line between realism and fiction when writing about ancestors and First Nations experiences of colonial rule.

    There were some great tips on building memorable characters in the session called ‘Angels and Demons’ from Nicole Alexander, Kelly Rimmer and Victoria Purman. These authors, and others, work at bringing to life the stories of women in the past, which I particularly enjoy.

    This year’s Guests of Honour were Tom Keneally, Anna Funder, Judy Nunn and Melissa Lucashenko: all writers of absorbing, varied fiction.

    Some quotable moments:

    • Melissa Lucashenko: You think you know a place but maybe you don’t…As Aboriginal people, as we walk around in the contemporary world, we think of what was here before bitumen and skyscrapers. We always walk in two worlds, past and present. This (her latest book ‘Edenglassie’ about the origins of the Queensland city of Brisbane) is my attempt at telling an Aboriginal truth about what happened in the mid 1800’s.
    • Katrina Nannested (author of a trilogy for middle grade readers set in WWII Europe : It’s exciting for a writer to come across a story that hasn’t been told before…The real power of historical fiction is that a story can be the start of a journey of discovery and learning. (Yes! Every time I read a fiction book set in a place or time or canvassing events I’m unfamiliar with, I get busy with Google, to find out more.)
    • Jock Serong (author of trilogy exploring stories of colonial Tasmania): I was struck by how human behaviours keep on occurring and how we fail to learn.
      When I come across the ‘do not write this’ moment – it shows what people had chosen to write down or not. As a writer I want to restore that moment. It’s a kind of bearing witness. But the joyful process of being an historical fiction writer can become a very dark process.

    Thank you to the HNSA committee and the conference organisers for a value-and-ideas-packed, absorbing conference. Even though I could not be ‘in the room’ I was (at least virtually) in the company of my tribe.

    The 2023 HNSA Conference was held in-person at Sydney’s Hurstville, and online, on 21/22 October. You can find out more from the website and on Facebook to keep in touch with upcoming events.

  • History

    Travels with my Ancestors #13: Thomas Eather, Kentish man & Elizabeth Lee, Lancashire lass: pt 2

    This is the continuing story of my 4 x great-grandparents, Thomas Eather and Elizabeth Lee, who arrived in Australia on convict transport ships in the Second and Third Fleets respectively.

    You can read part one of their story here. This chapter finds them in the valley of the Dyarubbin, or Hawkesbury River, in NSW.


    Map of Green Hills (Windsor), redrawn by Bryan Thomas, 1981.
    The Eather farm is indicated by the arrow.
    Source: Hawkesbury City Council

    Thomas and Elizabeth moved to take up their land grant in the Hawkesbury area just a few years after the first British had ventured there. Many of those who’d first taken land along the river did so without official permission. Tales of the enormous promise of the district were told in Sydney and Parramatta, and convicts who’d served their time rushed to the new ‘land of plenty.’ As they spread further north, fencing land, clearing vines and casuarinas from the river banks, and trampling the native yams into the mud, the newcomers threatened the very existence of the Boorooberongal people of the Dharug nation, who had made the river land their home for thousands of years. They began to resist, waging armed warfare from 1799 to 1805.[1]

    Attacks on lonely cottages and farms were met with violent retaliation from settlers and authorities. Stories about these pitched battles made their way back to the Eathers and their neighbours in the more closely settled areas around Green Hills, later called Windsor. They had weathered so much already: now they were confronted by the risks of this frontier existence.

    Their allotment was thirty acres at Mulgrave Place, near where the wandering Rickaby’s Creek joined the Dyarubbin. It had to be cleared, ploughed and sown, just like the farms at Parramatta. They needed somewhere to live: together they built a wattle and daub hut as their new home, with a bare earth floor and window shutters fashioned of woven sticks.

    Life for most settlers around the Green Hills and beyond relied on self-sufficiency. There was little in the way of official control or help. There was no constable until 1796, no reverend to conduct worship, marriages or baptisms, and the soldiers sent in 1795 were there to punish the Boorooberongal, not impose order on settlers, who liked to drink, socialise, and avoid rules and regulations wherever they could.[2]

    For many convict farmers, being out of the gaze of officials was a boon, even though they had to work hard to establish themselves. The air was fresh and clean, the river flats productive, their labour their own.

    The Eathers had help from a convict assigned to them: a strange turnaround of fortune and status. Three years after they took up the land, they’d planted half of it with wheat and maize, and within two years they’d produced ten bushels of maize and purchased four hogs.[3]

    They could watch with pleasure as the ears of maize ripened, and the kernels on the sheaves of wheat became plump and golden. The hogs snuffled in contentment in their pen, eating whatever the family did not use. They had become self-sufficient in what they produced: off government stores for the adults, if not the children—an achievement to be proud of.

    In 1800 twin boys arrived, named Charles and Thomas.[4] By now Elizabeth was accustomed to the isolation of her new home, with few women for companionship. She had twin babies to care for, and toddler Charlotte around her feet. Ann and Robert, the older children, would quickly learn to help with the smaller ones and chores in the house and on the farm. The work was constant and tiring: keeping the cottage clean, fetching water from the creek, washing clothes and bedding by hand, baking bread or damper, cooking meals, feeding the babies, and hoeing, weeding, watering crops.

    Hearth at Lancaster Cottage Museum.
    Photo by author

    She may have had occasional, snatched moments of rest, to observe the subtle change of seasons in this new land—so different to the Lancashire frosts and damp summers of her youth—or listen to the unfamiliar calls of the wild birds that lived in the trees around their hut.

    Through all the hard work ran a seam of contentment and perhaps, a nagging fear that it could all be taken away in an instant.

    Still, Elizabeth had served her sentence by 1797 and 1802 brought another landmark: Thomas received an Absolute Pardon after completing his fourteen years of servitude.[5]

     He could not return to England, but why would he want to?  He and his wife must have sometimes longed to revisit familiar places and faces from their homelands. But they were finally free of convict shackles. They had land to farm, a home, and a healthy family. Their futures, that had once looked so grim, now beckoned with promise.

    Along with that promise, the challenges continued. Accustomed to the wetter, cooler English climate, they had to adjust to the extremes of summer heat, and a drought in 1798. When rains did fall, they were often torrential downpours that felt and sounded as if God Himself had opened the sky.  Then came floods in May 1799; followed by an even more shocking one the next year, and worse again the year after that. The river that gave them such fertile soil, could also sweep everything away.

    ‘Eather Farm’ near Rickaby’s creek was very low-lying and the floods destroyed crops and damaged their hut. The Boorooberongal had offered warnings to settlers about the river’s moods and dangers, but for many, the plentiful crops that could be grown on the silty soil that the floods left behind, outweighed fear. In those last two floods, the waters rose to 15 and 12 metres, and most thought that they would be the last of such high flood levels, at least for many years.[6]

    Some settlers had become so discouraged or frightened that they moved away, back to Sydney or Parramatta. But the Eathers stayed. They built another cottage, on higher land overlooking the farm, hoping to avoid disaster when the river next burst its banks.  When crops failed or were washed away by the river, the family had to go back on government stores, until they could produce enough themselves.[7]

    Joseph Lycett, ‘View of Windsor upon the River Hawkesbury’ 1824
    Source: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/media/1787

    In 1806 rain once again lashed the district. Torrents fell from the sky and the river became a roaring, rushing creature, sweeping away all in its path. The floodwaters spread out across both Hawkesbury and Nepean plains, turning the valleys into a vast bathtub.

    The Eathers fled their low-lying farm and took refuge on higher ground. During a long, terrifying night, they could hear voices crying out and the sharp echoes of musket fire, as frightened people, perched precariously on the roofs of houses and barns, signalled to the rescue boats that circled around the surging river.

    The Eathers lost their pigs and many of their crops, and spent the rest of that year slowly recovering. In 1809 Thomas leased part of his land to Andrew Thompson, convict, settler, constable, and landowner.[8] When floods struck again that year, at least this time he and Elizabeth did not have to bear all the losses.


    Two more Eather sons and a daughter arrived between 1804 and 1811,[9] completing the family of eight children. Unlike many settler couples, they did not suffer the grief of losing a child to injury or illness: all the youngsters grew into healthy adulthood. Their parents noticed how tall and bonny they were: the ‘currency lads and lasses,’ as those born in the colony became known, often outstripped their parents in height and sturdiness. The new environment was good for this next generation.

    Thomas petitioned Governor Macquarie in June 1820 for a second land grant[10] and was allocated fifty acres on the lowlands at Cornwallis, on the southern bank of the river just outside Windsor.[11] Then he purchased a block in Windsor’s George Street in 1818*, while son Robert, now twenty-three, bought an adjoining allotment. They built a five-roomed house, adding two small cottages behind, which they rented out.[12]

    Their bright star continued to shine. They were now landlords in a growing, prosperous town, living in a comfortable home, while continuing to farm. They could attend Sunday worship in Windsor’s beautiful new St Mathews church, walk to the shops in town and visit family who lived nearby. They could stroll to the river and along its banks, to watch the constant activity of small open boats, canoes, and sloops across, up and down the river.

    Windsor Church, Landscape Scenery Illustrating Sydney and Port Jackson [picture] : c1854 / Frederick Casemero Terry.
    Source: Hawkesbury City Library
    https://aurora.hawkesbury.nsw.gov.au/library/Gallery.aspx??showall=true&refinements=XLloc1#prettyPhoto

    Their older children were marrying and having families of their own, so they now had grandchildren to enjoy. They’d reduced their farming commitments by the 1820’s, giving away or selling the original ‘Eather Farm’ at Rickaby’s Creek, and opening a store in Windsor.[13]


    A settler dies

    In February 1827 Thomas made a will—perhaps prompted by premonition or ill health. Whatever his reason, it was timely, because just five weeks later he died, aged sixty-two. He was buried the next day in the grounds of St Mathews at Windsor.[14] **

    Elizabeth had lost her husband of over thirty-five years. She grieved his death, surrounded by their children and grandchildren. Thomas’ death left a gap in her life, but she did have the comfort of the close family they had made together. And his will meant that she was financially secure for the rest of her life. He had made provision for her in the best way he could:

    I give and bequeath to my dearly beloved wife Elizabeth all those three…dwelling houses situate in George Street in the town of Windsor…together with all horned cattle, carts, ploughs, harrows and all other implements there unto belonging. Also all household furniture, good and effects which I may be possessed of at the time of my decease for and during the term of her natural life and by her not to be sold or alienated.[15]

    He had also provided for their children after his wife’s death. The three cottages on George Street were to be divided into separate living spaces, and bequeathed (along with farm implements, furniture, and livestock) to their two younger sons John and James, and four of their grandchildren.

    The will was an expression of Thomas’ love for wife and family and his duty as husband, father, and provider. It was an achievement to be able to leave property and income to those he left behind—something his own father and grandfather back in Chislehurst had not been able to do. His sons and daughters could look with pride at what their parents had done since arriving here in chains.

    Not all convict partnerships and marriages lasted; some couples paired in haste for practical reasons, and regretted their choice very soon afterwards. Elizabeth and Thomas’ relationship had lasted the distance. They had shared the difficulties of their years of convict servitude, the challenges of being among the earliest British settlers in the valley, and the traumas of successive floods.

    If Elizabeth experienced loneliness in the coming years, she did not remarry. She stayed living in the George Street home, taking in boarders to earn extra income. Younger son John, who never married, continued to live with her and work the remaining farmland they owned. There were weddings to attend as grandchildren came of age, and great-grandbabies born.

    The passing of a generation

    As Elizabeth aged, she had need for more care and company. In her seventies or early eighties, she moved to Richmond to live with one of her children, either Thomas and his wife Sarah, or one of her daughters.

    There, she looked her last on the valley that had been her home for nearly seventy years, marvelling at the changes she had witnessed there: from a small settlement at the place where the continent’s ancient history collided with its future, to a collection of growing towns and spreading farmland. Her own transformation was also remarkable: the frightened young servant girl and convict, alone in a strange land, had become a wife, farmer, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. She was leaving a large, loving family who would mourn her, but she could do so knowing that she had lived a good and productive life, here in the valley of the Dyarubbin.

    She died at the grand age of eighty-nine on 11 June 1860, and was buried in the grounds of St Mathews church at Windsor, where her husband also lay.[16]


    Commemorative plaque for Thomas and Elizabeth at Windsor’s St Mathews church
    Photo by author


    [1] Karskens, Grace, The Colony, p.128

    [2] Karskens, Grace; p12

    [3] Flynn, Michael, The Second Fleet: Britain’s Grim Armada, p258

    [4] The Sydney Morning Herald Monday 29 Nov 1886, Death notice for Thomas Eather

    [5] New South Wales, Australia, Convict Registers of Conditional and Absolute Pardons, 1788-1870, State Records Authority of New South Wales; Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia; Card Index to Letters Received, Colonial Secretary; Reel Number: 774; Roll Number: 1250

    [6] Karskens, Grace, People of the River, p.100

    [7] St Pierre, John, The Eather Family: 200 Years in Australia, p.25

    [8] St Pierre, John, p31

    [9] Australia Birth Index, 1788-1922: John Eather (1804 Volume Number V18041478 1A), Rachel Norris nee Eather 1828 New South Wales, Australia Census (Australian Copy), James Eather (Australia and New Zealand, Find A Grave Index, 1800s-Current), 1828 New South Wales, Australia Census (Australian Copy) State Records Authority of New South Wales; Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia; 1828 Census: Alphabetical Return; Series Number: NRS 1272; Reel: 2554. Via Ancestry.com; Accessed July 2023

    [10] New South Wales, Australia, Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 1788-1856 Series: NRS 899; Reel or Fiche Numbers: Fiche 3001-3162. Via Ancestry.com. Accessed July 2023

    [11] St Pierre, John, p36

    [12] John St Pierre, pp.36-37.
    *The blocks of land were located at 210 George St, between Suffolk and Fitzgerald Streets, backing onto O’Brien’s Lane (which did not then exist.) In recent years, the block has been variously occupied by a Coles Supermarket, then a Target and later a Kmart store.

    [13] St Pierre, John, p39

    [14] Australia and New Zealand, Find A Grave Index, 1800s-Current, for Thomas Eather 1827. Via Ancestry.com
    ** There is no headstone showing the exact location of Thomas’ grave, but a plaque has been erected in the church grounds, commemorating Thomas and Elizabeth’s lives

    [15] St Pierre, John, p42

    [16] Australia and New Zealand, Find A Grave Index, 1800s-Current, for Elizabeth Eather, 11 June 1860. Via Ancestry.com

  • Books and reading,  History

    Why I am thankful for feminism: ‘Restless Dolly Maunder’ by Kate Grenville

    Kate Grenville’s latest offering is a novel woven from family stories of her grandmother, who was born into rural poverty towards the end of the nineteenth century.

    Readers of The Secret River will recognise Dolly as the granddaughter of Sarah Wiseman, the daughter of that earlier book’s fictionalised protagonist based on Solomon Wiseman. Solomon, the author’s ancestor, was an emancipated convict who settled in the upper reaches of the Hawkesbury River in a spot later named for him – Wiseman’s Ferry.

    The novel describes in painful detail the restrictions on women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially (but not exclusively) for poor women.

    The small worlds they inhabited, the never-ending chores it was assumed they’d be responsible for simply because they were born female; the limited options for their futures – marriage, or spinsterhood while working as a nurse or teacher.

    Girls were of no account, you learned that early on. Good enough to make the bread and milk the cow, and later on you’d look after the children. But no woman was ever going to be part of the real business of the world.

    Restless Dolly Maunder eBook location 14 of 293

    Dolly is born wanting more, wanting movement in her life when the world tells her she must be still, be satisfied with her lot. Whip smart yet denied an education past 14 years, and lucky to get that, being young enough to benefit from new government laws that required all children under 14 to regularly attend school.

    As always with this author, the prose is uncannily evocative: Grenville has the ability to climb right inside her characters’ heads and make the reader feel they are there as well. Simple language but always the exact right word chosen for the right moment in the story.

    Dolly is a prickly character, not particularly likeable at any point in the story. But the author’s skill is to make us care about her anyway. There is an especially poignant moment in her author’s note, describing a childhood encounter between the young Kate and her grandmother, where she looks back with empathy and wishes in retrospect that she had responded differently. I am sure we have all experienced such moments, haven’t we?

    Dolly experiences the ups and downs of economy, drought, commodity prices, war, Depression; all of which impact on her and her family.These are factors beyond her control but she brings to bear her characteristic decisiveness (and restlessness) as she tries to respond to these big picture challenges.

    All you could say was, you were born into a world that made it easy for you or made it hard for you, and all you could do was stumble along under the weight of whatever you’d been given to carry. No wonder at the end of it you were tired, and sad. But glad to have done it all, even the mistakes.

    Restless Dolly Maunder loc 281-282

    This book made me feel, once again, deeply thankful for the achievements of feminism that have allowed women in the western world, at least, to move beyond the small worlds prescribed for them.

    She thought of all the women she’d ever known, and all their mothers before them, and the mothers before those mothers, locked into a place where they couldn’t move. My generation was like the hinge, she thought. The door had been shut tight, and when it started to swing open, my generation was the hinge that it had to be forced around on, one surface grinding over another. No wonder it was painful.

    Restless Dolly Maunder loc 281

    We have a long way to travel yet, and so many women around the world still experience difficulties and disadvantages because they are female. Restless Dolly Maunder shows us why that is not acceptable.

    Restless Dolly Maunder was published by Text Publishing in July 2023

  • Books and reading,  History

    Connections: ‘The Remarkable Mrs Reibey’ by Grantlee Kieza

    I’d added Grantlee Kieza’s biography of the woman on the Australian $20 note to my ‘Must Read’ list from the moment I heard about it.

    The reason?

    Apart from the obvious (my abiding interest in Australian history and especially women’s history), I have three points of connection with the subject, Mary Reibey:
    1. She hailed originally from near Manchester in England, where my ancestor Elizabeth Lee was also born and raised,
    2. Like another of my ancestors, Mary’s crime which had her transported to Australia was the theft of a horse, and
    3. She was a contemporary of yet another ancestor, Jane Longhurst. Like Mary, Jane was an emancipated convict in early colonial Sydney who ‘made good’, managing business affairs and a large family within the male-dominated world of nineteenth century Sydney.

    Mary showed her redoubtable spirit from an early age, running away from a position as maid in a boarding school and in a flight of youthful fantasy, stealing a horse which she thought would be her ticket to a financially independent life.

    Of course she was discovered, arrested and tried for the crime; at first receiving the death sentence, later commuted to transportation to the penal colony of NSW. The startling thing about her time in gaol was that she’d been dressed as a boy – and she managed to keep her sex hidden from her male cellmates in a crowded prison! In my view that would take some chutzpah, not to mention ingenuity.

    She arrived in the colony full of trepidation as to what life in this frightening place might have in store for a youngster just fifteen years old.

    The author paints a fascinating and vivid picture of convict life in Sydney and Parramatta : housing, clothing, rations, and living and working conditions, along with the many larger-than-life characters that peopled the early days of the colonial period.

    The class system of Britain was transported here along with their unwanted criminals, and this is seen in attitudes by free settlers towards the convicts.

    Also, people in authority struggled to understand many behaviours of the convicts; why did they make such poor choices (such as getting drunk and fighting) which they must know would result in punishment? To middle class eyes this was inexplicable. Why would people jeopardise their futures in this way? To convicts, most of whom came from dire circumstances, having a good time while one could grab it was entirely sensible. Who knew when the next catastrophe could strike? You could die of a disease, accident or violence tomorrow. May as well enjoy tonight while you could.

    Mary, however, kept her head down and out of trouble. She married Tom Reibey, a free settler with an entrepreneurial bent, who was involved in trade and real estate. They had a large family together, but Tom nominated his wife to manage the business dealings during his long absences from the colony on trading voyages. She was wife, mother, and trusted co-manager of the family’s business affairs.

    After her husband’s death, Mary continued with the various business interests, shipping and trading, buying, selling and leasing real estate, amassing an even greater fortune.

    She is the ‘remarkable’ Mrs Reibey because all this activity was at a time when work options for women were severely curtailed and no women were expected to see the inside of a board room or business negotiation. Much to the surprise of her fellow settlers, ‘Mrs Reibey’ proved to be a shrewd negotiator, driving a hard bargain, with a nose for the next opportunity. This was how one survived – even thrived – in the cut throat world of the colony.

    I got a thrill from seeing my ancestor, Jane Roberts (nee Longhurst) mentioned along with Mary in the section describing the formation of the Bank Of New South Wales – the first bank in the colony. Jane and Mary were among a handful of women investors in that early bank, much to the surprise and confusion of their male counterparts, as the concept of women investors was a foreign one.

    There are moments that made me smile, such as Mary answering a charge by a debtor that she was ‘no lady’ by hitting him over the head with her parasol!

    There are also tender, heartwarming moments in the book, as when Mary fulfills a long-nursed ambition to make a return visit to her homeland, with emotional reunions with family members in the ‘old country.’ I found myself wondering how reunions between my convict and immigrant ancestors may have played out, should any of them had the wish and the resources to return to England.

    The Remarkable Mrs Reibey is a comprehensive and engrossing portrayal of a colonial women who surely deserves her spot on the $20 note. Her portrait, depicting a grandmotherly round-faced woman with spectacles and a lace cap, belies the adventurous and headstrong spirit of the younger Mary, with the endurance and smarts to not only survive, but thrive, in a colonial environment that was well and truly stacked against women.

    The Remarkable Mrs Reibey was published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2023.



  • History,  Writing

    Travels with my Ancestors #12: Thomas Eather, Kentish man & Elizabeth Lee, Lancashire lass

    This is the third chapter in the story of Thomas Eather, convict, farmer, husband and father – and my 4 x great-grandfather. You can read chapter one here and chapter two here.

    In this chapter, Thomas meets Elizabeth Lee, a young woman from Lancashire in the west midlands of England, who was also transported to NSW as a convict. You can find the first part of Elizabeth’s story here. She is my 4 x great-grandmother.

    When we left Thomas, he had arrived at Sydney Cove aboard the death ship Neptune, and wondering what lay ahead, now that he had survived that hellish voyage.

    In 1791, Elizabeth arrived on the Third Fleet’s Mary Ann, wondering the same thing.


    By the time the Third Fleet arrived, most new convicts were being sent to the little settlement of Rose Hill, later called Parramatta. It was here that Thomas and Elizabeth’s paths first crossed.

    Thomas had been first assigned to work in Sydney Town, on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

    The area around the Cove, known as Warrane to the original inhabitants, had already been changed beyond recognition: the First Fleet arrivals had cut native trees and cleared vegetation, planted gardens and sown crops, erected shelters and trampled the sides of the waterway they dubbed the ‘Tank Stream’ to a muddy mess.

    What Thomas and his companions from the Second Fleet saw was a muddle of uneven tracks between tents, a jealously guarded government storehouse, military huts, and rough shelters housing groups of convicts. A larger brick residence, set on a hill overlooking the harbour, was where the Governor lived. There was a burial ground and, of course, gallows—they were not allowed to forget that further crimes could be fatal. Having escaped the noose once, Thomas was not eager to test the limits of His Majesty’s mercy a second time.

    It was a largely unplanned, chaotic space in which convicts were expected to labour to construct the site of their own imprisonment, shelter, and sustenance.

    Sydney Cove. William Bradley, From ‘A Voyage to New South Wales’, 1786–1792.
    Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

    The Gadigal, and other Eora tribes around the new settlement, continued to fish in the harbour and its many coves and inlets; their slender bark canoes, or nowies, dotting the waters. They could often be seen walking around the township. Governor Phillip had issued orders that they were not to be harmed, and for the convicts and their guards, the dark skinned, often naked men and women had become a common sight.

    With his experience of rural labouring work, Thomas was a good candidate for assignment to the government farms. Early attempts at farming around the settlement were only partly successful, and the Governor was keen to find land that could produce the quantities of grain crops needed for the colony’s survival.

    There was talk in the camp about Rose Hill, later called Parramatta (from Burramattagal, the name of the first inhabitants.) Some said the new settlement promised better soils and more land to spread out.  June 1790 saw Thomas working there on the government farm. He lived with other convicts in a large tent hut, one of several spread out like a barracks. Life was messy: convicts fought amongst themselves, some tried to evade the labour demanded of them. They had to prepare their own food from the paltry rations they were given. There were plenty who, unlike Thomas, had never worked on a farm or milked a cow.

    During each long day they cleared the land, dug the soil, planted wheat and maize. It was exhausting work, all done by hand without aid of horses or bullocks. He was used to hard physical labour, although getting over the weakness and illness caused by six months on the Neptune slowed many of its survivors. Each man was expected to hoe or cultivate a set amount of land per day. There was a military guard to protect the farm from theft by convicts, or attack by the Burramattagal people, who were being squeezed out from their traditional country, sacred places, and livelihoods.

    View of Governor’s House, Rose Hill, ca 1798. Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales

    Once the Government farm began producing, they were allowed to labour for themselves for part of each day, after they’d completed their assigned workload.  Gradually, Parramatta became the planned, secondary settlement which the Governor hoped would become more manageable, more civilised than Sydney.

    The convicts did not care about civilised. There was always the threat that rations would be restricted again if the farms did not produce enough. The ‘slops’ clothing issued on the transports was now threadbare. They cared more about the quantity of meat, flour, tea and sugar they were allowed, and where they were to sleep at night. Any dreams for the future were secondary to the business of survival.


    It was to this fledgling community that Elizabeth was sent. Given her previous work in Manchester, she would be assigned work as a servant to one of the officials or government employees. She’d spend her days working at cleaning, cooking, laundry work; whatever tasks she was directed to do by her master or mistress.               

    She met Thomas very soon after her arrival and they began living together. There were plenty of couples joined in ‘Botany Bay marriages’: either common law ones or bigamous ones (after all, the other spouse left behind in Britain could hardly protest.) Neither had been married before, and their union was genuine, even if they didn’t have a formal marriage record. And there were real advantages for both in becoming a couple.

    For one thing, they were allowed to move to a small hut, rather than share the larger communal quarters reserved for single men and women. Being one of a couple gave each an ally, a support during continuing hard times. For Elizabeth, it also helped her move away from the label of ‘whore’ or ‘prostitute’ given to all the female convicts by many of the men in the convict huts—and by some officials, to whom they were either ‘married’ or ‘concubines.’

    Wattle and daub hut (detail from Panoramic views of Port Jackson, c.1821). R. Havell & Son, engravers: after Major James Taylor. Museums of History NSW.

    Both were young, unlikely to ever return home once they’d served their time. They had to establish a new future here. And the Governor and Reverend Johnson were forever encouraging folks to marry and live respectably.

    They’d watched St John’s Church being built across from the military barracks, and it was here that their first child, Ann, was baptised in April 1793. Elizabeth had given birth in their tiny hut, panting through the pain of labour, with no more than another convict woman to offer words of encouragement and her hand to squeeze. And, like all female convicts, she had to manage pregnancies and childcare around her work duties.

    Church Street and St. John’s Church, Parramatta, from a copy of a steel engraving, 1853
    https://stjohnscathedral.org.au/about/history/

    The little girl was followed by a son, in April 1795. He was named Robert after his Heather grandfather back in Kent. (Robert is my 3 x great-grandfather.) Thomas had grown up with the family tradition of naming first-born sons Robert: it had been that way since the first Robert Heather made his home in Kent, long ago in the early seventeenth century.

    They ignored the tales of escapees: convicts who stowed away on departing ships; made a run for the bush; or the Bryant couple who (with others, including a fellow Thomas knew from the Neptune) had escaped on a stolen government boat. Most escapees were recaptured, forced back to the settlement by thirst or starvation, or perished in the alien bushland. The Eathers were having none of it, preferring to keep out of trouble.

    They’d remember 1797 for three reasons: Elizabeth completed her sentence and became a free woman; daughter Charlotte was born; and in recognition of good behaviour, Thomas was granted land in the Hawkesbury by Governor Hunter, who had replaced Arthur Phillip.[i] The couple could scarcely believe their good fortune. After their traumatic start in this strange, wild place, they could dare to begin to think about a future here.

    To be continued


    [i] The first of many land grants given to Newton ancestors. It’s important to remember: this was land that was not the Governor’s to give. It was the land of the original peoples of Australia, and was never ceded.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Realities of Renaissance royalty: ‘Young Queens’ by Leah Redmond Chang (audiobook version)

    Can you imagine being a 14-year-old girl, sent to a foreign country to marry a prince who you have never met? On your wedding night, your father-in-law stays in the marital bedroom, to ensure that the marriage is consummated.

    Such were the realities of life for Renaissance royals.

    In Young Queens, Leah Redmond Chang tells the intertwined stories of three very different women living among the great powers of Renaissance Europe in France, Spain, and Scotland.

    It begins with orphaned eleven year old Catherine de’ Medici hiding in a convent from soldiers intent on capturing her and thus seizing power in Florence. She is later married to the French king; after his death, she becomes the power behind the throne as the Queen Mother, at a time when France is convulsed by religious wars and civil unrest.

    Her daughter, Elizabeth de Valois, is sent to be the teenage bride of King Philip of Spain, a widower and much older than his new young queen. Despite an unpromising start, Elizabeth grows into her role, but tragically dies in childbirth, still only in her early twenties.

    Connected to both Catherine and Elizabeth through the complicated marital arrangements of royal families, young Mary, Queen of Scots, grows up at the French court as the promised bride of the young Dauphin.

    This is a meticulously researched and beautifully told story of the fluidity and pitfalls of the role of queen and how it always differed from that of a king. A king’s role generally lasted a lifetime. For a queen, the role could change over her lifetime, depending on whether she was Queen Regnant, Queen Consort, or Queen Mother.

    In Renaissance times, princesses and queens inhabited bodies which were traded between families and across borders for the purposes of dynastic continuity, international treaties and alliances. These women lived in jeweled cages: surrounded by luxuries, riches, fine gowns and servants, they rarely had choice over their own bodies and futures. They were essentially bargaining chips to further the power and security of their family or nation.

    The three queens of the book had lives that were dependent on the shifts and turns of the political landscapes of Europe. Accidents played a role, too, twists of fate such as the death of one king or the birth of another.

    Against that backdrop, the author illuminates the three queens as women with personalities, strengths and foibles that also played a part in the trajectory of their lives. They were not merely blank slates for men to draw dynastic futures upon. They wielded varying degrees of power, both personal and political, in the ways available to them and with varying degrees of success. Their power took a different shape than that of their men, but it was power nonetheless.

    There is poignancy in many of the letters and missives explored, especially those from Catherine to her daughter Elizabeth, worrying and fretting over her daughter’s uncertain health and her failure to fall pregnant with a Spanish heir. (As an aside, I am very glad not to be a Renaissance European princess with fertility problems, as apparently a common ‘remedy’ for this was a monthly dose of donkey urine!)

    I enjoyed the narration by Olivia Dowd; her voice is clear and authoritative, with appropriate expression and emphasis; she also has excellent pronunciation of the many French, Spanish and Scottish names in the text.

    I found this audio-book engrossing and very informative; a real insight into the lives of women who lived in a world and at a time far removed from my own.

    Young Queens is published in August 2023 by Bloomsbury Publishing, and audio-book by RB Media Recorded Books.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Revelatory: ‘Reaching Through Time – Finding my Family’s Stories’ by Shauna Bostock

    The photograph on the cover of Shauna Bostock’s story of researching her ancestors is indicative of the book itself: compelling.

    I am going to begin my discussion of the book with this: if you are a family historian or at all interested in Australian history, this book is a must-read.

    The author, a Bundjalung woman who began researching her family story for a PhD in Aboriginal history, has skillfully woven together various strands of her exploratory processes in archives, libraries, and interviews, with the stories of her forebears. In doing so, she has created a vivid and multi-layered picture of Australian history, especially the experiences of First Nations Australians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

    There is so much in this book that made me stop, turn pages back and forth to the meticulous referencing, to the photographs, or to previous pages. As someone passionate about uncovering my own family stories from the past, there were many moments of recognition in Ms Bostock’s research journey: the thrill of discovering a previously unknown fact; the way that serendipity or fate so often plays a part in the process; the coincidences of meeting someone or stumbling upon a document that hold the key to the very nugget of information you are seeking. The indescribable feeling of viewing an archival document from the past that tells you something about your ancestor, or an old photo that brings them to life.

    As any family historian will tell you: family history research requires patience AND perseverance.

    Especially so in this case, as Ms Bostock found when she experienced road blocks to accessing important archival information, and evidence of the mind-numbing level of bureaucracy that Aboriginal people have endured since colonisation.

    The book begins with the shocking revelation that the non-indigenous ancestors in her family tree were descended from English slave traders – a huge irony given that one of them arrived in Australia as a convict, having been arrested on slavery charges in the late 1700’s.

    From there, the narrative traverses key parts of the colonisation experience for First Nations: frontier violence and killings; theft of land, livelihood, spiritual and cultural connections; the precarious nature of life on Aboriginal reserves; the deceit and hypocrisy of the various government bodies set up to ‘protect’ and control Aboriginal people and the enduring damages inflicted through practices such as the forced removal of children from their homes and families.

    rural and urban Also looming large are the ugliness of apartheid-like segregation and racism within communities; indenture of young children into service of white families or farms (often akin to slavery); increasing control and surveillance of every aspect of Aboriginal lives.

    I could go on.

    What distinguishes this book is the author’s research and how she has woven together the experiences of the colonisers and the colonised – including of course her own family members:

    To use a photographic analogy…I felt like a photographer adjusting the focus of the lens. I have ‘zoomed in’ with a microcosmic focus on the individuals and the reserve/mission space – and then I have ‘zoomed out’ to capture the macrocosmic bureaucracy of the Australian Government’s Aborigines Protection Board.

    Reaching through History p174

    There are stories of defiance and resistance as well, which the author rightly points out are important for all generations of Aboriginal people to know about.

    I enjoyed the later chapters where she outlines the many creative and artistic ways in which her family members have expressed defiance and worked for change.

    On a personal note, I had a little thrill to realise that several of the author’s close family members were instrumental in producing the excellent documentary film Lousy Little Sixpence, in which elders discussed their experiences as stolen children, in the homes set up supposedly to ‘care’ for Aboriginal children, or working as domestic servants or rural labourers for white people in the first half of the twentieth century. I used this film as a resource many times in my teaching during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and I now see that it was one of the earliest publicly accessible resources telling the stories of the Stolen Generations.

    There is so much to think about in this book. Please buy a copy or borrow it from your local library. It is such a rich resource on our nation’s history. And for family historians, surely we must all resonate to the author’s final words:

    The history of Aboriginal people in this country is also a ‘living wound under a patchwork of scars’ but the process of truth-telling creates healing. By reaching through time and pulling our ancestors’ files out of the archives we restore their humanity…
    Ruminating on the slavery theme, I wondered if family history research was the key to emancipation, because researching my ancestors’ lives has spiritually unshackled them.

    Reaching through Time p319

    Reaching Through Time is published by Allen & Unwin in July 2023.