• Books and reading

    ‘Original sin’: ‘The Seven’ by Chris Hammer

    I read Chris Hammer’s first, best-selling novel Scrublands soon after its publication in 2018 and was taken by its visceral descriptions of an outback Australian community and landscape. Crime fiction must always be about more than the ‘whodunit?’: I like stories that transport me to a place and time, with characters that I come to care about, and Hammer’s stories fit the bill.

    ‘The Seven’ takes place in the western part of NSW, the region known as the Riverina. This was country made fertile by an ambitious and extensive irrigation scheme, the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, and Hammer has set his story in a similar, though smaller, fictional region, with the town of Yuwonderie at its centre.

    It was here that one hundred years earlier, seven founding families established the scheme, creating a network of companies and trading arrangements that fueled their wealth, prestige and power in the district.

    The story is told across various time-frames and points of view. There are letters from Bessie, an indigenous woman employed by one of the Seven households, just before, and during, WWI. In the 1990’s we follow Davis, a young man from one of the Seven families, on the edge of making a decision about his future. And in the present time there is Detective Sergeant Ivan Lucic, brought to the town with his detective colleague, Nell, to investigate the murder of Athol Hasluck, from another of the Seven.

    Ivan and Nell feature in two earlier books, but there is no need to have read those to enjoy this one. They are terrific characters: with strengths that complement each others, and their own weaknesses too, which seem to be a must-have in crime fiction!

    As I read this novel, I thought about the many country towns I have visited or driven through, and found myself wondering about their foundation stories and people. Certainly this is a solid thread running through The Seven: how the establishment of a town or farming community frames its future.

    The author makes the case here:

    He flipped to the first chapter, ‘Foundation.’ The text was heroic…no mention of any Indigenous people, no mention of how the Europeans had come to the district, no mention of any pre-existing ecosystem. But that in itself might prove useful: the document reflecting bygone attitudes, still alive, maybe even more so, by the 1970’s.

    The Seven ebook page 76 of 375

    In the case of Yuwonderie, its origins are mired in misdeeds that carry down to the present, where criminal activity, corruption and deceit lie at the heart of the current murder, and also an unsolved double-murder from decades before. We are indeed looking at ‘original sins.’

    The part of the book that didn’t work so well for me was the series of letters written in the early twentieth century by Bessie to her mother. The events and relationships related in these letters prove crucial to later events and I usually enjoy novels set over different time periods. It was something about the voice used in the letters that somehow jarred a little, drew me out of the story for a bit.

    Overall, however, I enjoyed this novel and the light it shines on essential resources and the role they play in communities: in this case, water, without which none of the Seven founding families would have been able to create or maintain their wealth and influence.

    See that line of trees, that grey-green line? That’s the river. The Murrumbidgee. That’s where the water comes from. And the money. Everything, really.

    The Seven loc 119 of 375

    Readers who like gritty crime fiction set in recognisable Australian landscapes will enjoy this one.

    The Seven is published by Allen & Unwin in October 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Picture book bounty

    One of the nicest ways to welcome a new baby into the world is to gift the start of a children’s book library. The four books mentioned in this post would all earn their place there.

    Board books are perfect for babies and very young toddlers. Robust, able to stand up to chewing, throwing, and dribbling, they offer hours of tactile fun, colourful pictures and simple repetitive text.

    That’s not my kitten, by Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells, is the newest addition to the That’s not my… series, and includes all of these features. Babies can see the five different kittens, touch a furry tongue, a smooth kitten nose, a shiny bell, rough paws, and a fluffy tummy, while learning to turn pages and recite the repetitive text along with whoever is reading aloud.

    Moving along in age, for older toddlers and pre-schoolers there is another in the Playschool series by Jan Stradling and Jenna Robaard, called Beginnings and Endings. The series helps littlies to explore feelings: in this case, sadness.

    Little Ted’s friends want to help him feel better when his pet goldfish dies. A special scrapbook of Swish memories, a picnic in the garden, spotting baby birds in a nest and flowers blooming all help, as do a hug and talking about Swish and his memories. The soft illustrations reinforce the gentle theme of the story, that life challenges are best tackled with friends by your side.

    One Little Duck by Katrina Germein brings memories of the children’s rhyme ‘Five Little Ducks’ but it’s a story with a twist. Instead of losing a duckling with each verse, in this story Mother Duck has forgotten how to quack, so each time she calls her duckling to her, she gains a new animal, until she has a menagerie following along. The rhyming verses invite youngsters to join in:

    One little duck went out one day,
    over the hills and far away.
    Mother Duck said…
    Moo moo
    moo moo,
    and Cow said,
    Wait! Now I’m coming too

    One Little Duck

    Danny Snell’s illustrations are sweetly humorous and children will enjoy Mother Duck’s dilemma as she finds new friends, and at the end is reunited with her baby.

    Two Sides to Every Story by Robin Feiner explores the many choices and dilemmas that life can present. Boiled or fried eggs? Meat or vegetables? Is a dog or a cat the best pet? History or science? Country or city? Jacket and tie or lucky T-shirt?

    Oscar has to decide on these and other choices in his day to day life, and deals with each one with his skill of ‘mental gymnastics’.

    Oscar had a special way of looking at things.
    He took his subject, he twisted it this way
    and that. He tumbled it all around…
    inside out, and outside in, exploring it
    every which way.

    Two sides to every story

    The illustrations by Beck Feiner are in bold, block colours and bring to life Oscar’s tumbling, turning way of looking at his world.

    If you are building a children’s library, these four books would make perfect additions.

    They are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in July and August 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for copies to review.

  • Books and reading

    Loss and hope: ‘The Ship’s Midwife’ by Peta Miller

    The premise and setting of this story, debut novel by Australian Peta Miller, has special significance for me.

    Those who have read my series of posts Travels with my Ancestors will know that I have several ancestors who emigrated as assisted and unassisted migrants, aboard sailing ships in the 1800’s. The bald facts of their journeys (name of ships, dates of arrival, etc) do little to convey the often-traumatic experiences they had and the risks they took in search of a new life in colonies of Australia.

    The Ship’s midwife tells the story of Sarah Harlow, who in 1850 sails to Brisbane aboard an immigrant ship. She is alone in the world and hopes to be able to use her midwifery skills in the colony to support herself.

    She becomes firm friends with her cabin mate, Bridie, a fiery and outspoken Irish girl, with midwifery experience of her own. Together they plan a life working together in the colony.

    On the voyage, typhus breaks out amongst the steerage passengers. A common shipboard illness caused by unhygienic and cramped conditions – and the abundance of lice, among other pests), typhus is highly infectious, and it cuts a vicious swathe through passengers and crew alike.

    Sarah and Bridie do their best to help nurse the sick, but little can be done to prevent its spread.

    The ship is a microcosm of Victorian-era society: the bulk of passengers from impoverished backgrounds, cramped together in ‘steerage class’ below decks; the ship’s surgeon and his son, ship’s master and senior crew in more comfortable cabins, and the bulk of the crew sleeping in hammocks. There are grievances and arguments as the long tiring voyage wears away at patience, but also kindness and generosity.

    Terrible events play out on the ship and to make matters worse, when they finally arrive in Brisbane, they are sent to quarantine at Stradbroke Island, which had been recently designated a quarantine station and was not ready or equipped to receive them. Sarah and the others must find the energy and grit to set up what is necessary to provide for all the passengers, until they can be received on the mainland.

    I remember several visits I made years ago, to the historic quarantine station on Sydney’s North Head. It’s wild beauty and amazing views of the harbour must surely have provided some comfort for those sent there at the end of their long voyages across the world. But the remains of the hospital building, and the names carved into the cliff near the landing dock, spoke volumes about the experiences of the people who found themselves there. Having endured months at sea with all its risks and discomforts, and so far from home, arriving at a lonely, isolated spot like this must surely have been the last straw for many.

    So it is with the characters in this book. People are people and there are those who will help others, who will do what must be done; and there are always those who complain and leave the hard work to others or fall prey to despair.

    My only criticism – and it is a small one – is the title. The working title of the unpublished manuscript was apparently Sing Us Home, which (in my humble opinion) is a resonant and beautiful title. There is a current trend in historical fiction publishing that novel titles take a certain form: The Resistance Girl, or The Librarian Spy, for example. I applaud the focus on the agency of the female protagonists, but…I do wish there was a little more variety – and that terrific titles are allowed to stand more often. Still, publishers know the industry and what sells, so who am I to argue?

    I very much enjoyed the research that has gone into the story of The Ship’s Midwife and I hope to see more historical fiction from this author in the future.

    The Ship’s Midwife is published by HQ Fiction in June 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for the copy to review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Beauty and love: ‘The Lucky Shack’ by Aspara Baldovino

    What a beautiful debut book this is.

    With lush, gorgeous illustrations by Perth-based Jennifer Faulkner, The Lucky Shack tells the story of a simple cottage by the sea, built and cared for by a fisherman.
    One day a frightening storm strikes and the fisherman does not return. The shack feels alone and neglected…until a fisherwoman finds it and once more, the place is loved and lived in.

    The story celebrates the colours, depths and beauty of nature, along with human connection and love.

    There is a wonderful assortment of vocabulary for younger readers to absorb, enriching the narrative and introducing beautiful new words to try:

    Boats pass me by.
    I creak my tired floorboards with loud groans,
    but they don’t stop.
    I flicker the porch light,
    like the lighthouse on the cliff
    sending codes in the night.
    I let go of a precious window shutter
    to send a message into the deep blue,
    to anyone who will listen.

    This is a gorgeous addition to any child’s bookshelf.

    The Lucky Shack is published by Working Title Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in July 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Perfect: ‘The Bookbinder of Jericho’ by Pip Williams

    Do you know the feeling when you treat yourself to a new book purchase and, because you have several other books to read first, it sits on your bookshelf or bedside table for a while? Every time you pass it, you have a warm feeling inside. I will get to you soon, you promise. There is often great pleasure to be had in the anticipation of pleasure.

    That was me with The Bookbinder of Jericho. I had (like so many others around the world) fallen in love with Pip William’s 2020 novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, and so I was very pleased when I learned she was writing a second novel set in Oxford in the World War I era. Having at last been able to read it, I can say with certainty that it will be one of my standout reads for 2023.

    Pip Williams writes the best kind of historical fiction: stories about real places and events, with characters to care deeply about. Fiction that tells us something about who we are today and how we got here. The past is the recipe for the present, whether we know it or not. These types of novels illuminate how and why.

    The Bookbinder of Jericho stands on its own as a perfect story; there is no need to have read the earlier book. It is not a prequel or a sequel, but a companion novel. Having said that, I did have little thrills of recognition as characters or references from the first book made brief but profound appearances in this new story.

    The narrative centers around the people in the ‘bindery’ of Oxford University Press: almost all women, they were the workers who gathered, folded and stitched the printed pages into books. This work is imbued with a grace and dignity; though never glamorised. In the early twentieth century, there was a steep price to be paid for being working class and a woman. Even as Britain moved towards women’s suffrage, this initially only applied for women who owned property or wealth.

    Peggy is one of the ‘bindery girls’ but she longs to be able to have the words in her mind as well as the papers in her hands. She is told more times than she can remember, Your job is to bind the books, not read them. Her twin sister, Maud, is special: a ‘one of a kind’, loved by her family and neighbours, though Peggy has moments of wondering what life would be like without the responsibility of caring for her sister.

    The sisters live on a narrowboat moored on the river, which sounds romantic but is also cold in winter, hot in summer, and very cramped.

    Their tiny home is filled with bookshelves installed when their mother was alive, containing bound and loose leaf printings of books or parts of books, collected by Peggy and her mother when rejected as ‘waste’ at the printer or bindery. The girls’ mother introduced them to classics and works of antiquity, such as Homer’s Odysseus. Peggy dreams of entering the women’s college of Oxford university, just across the road from the bindery where she goes to work every day.

    ‘I’m from Jericho, Bastiaan, not Oxford. I left school at twelve, and Homer was not in the curriculum at St Barnabas – not in English and certainly not in Ancient Greek.’
    ‘But why not in English?’
    ‘There was no point. Our destinies were too ordinary to bother the gods, and our journeys would take us no further than the Press.’
    ‘The same Press that prints Homer in English and Ancient Greek?’
    I raised my eyebrows and did my best impression of Mrs Hogg.
    ‘Your job, Miss Jones, is to bind the books, not read them.

    The Bookbinder of Jericho p258

    Then WWI breaks out and life changes for everyone.

    This is the story of women’s work and their challenges; the prison that social class and gender expectations create for everyone; the way war both damages and destroys, yet can open new opportunities for some.

    Especially it is the story of people and relationships: how they can hurt and heal; how friendship and love can embrace and nurture even in the darkest of circumstances; how some injuries cannot be healed.

    For me, it is a perfect piece of historical fiction. I loved this book.

    The Bookbinder of Jericho was published by Affirm Press in 2023.

    Here is a little video showing the author folding, stitching, and binding her own printed book – just as the bindery girls did in the novel.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    For the dads: ‘Amazing Dad’ by Alison Brown

    A companion book to Amazing Mum, this new picture book by UK creator Alison Brown is a celebration of dads in all their various manifestations.

    There are dads who grocery shop, cook on the barbeque, use a wheelchair, play in the park. There are separated dads, same-sex couple dads, read books, and play guitar. All the dads and their kids are in cute animal form in the endearing illustrations.

    This one is perfect for Father’s Day and for reading aloud together.

    Amazing Dad is published by Farshore, an imprint of HarperCollins, in July 2023.
    My thanks for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Digging up the past: ‘Missing Pieces’ by Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar

    This evocative novel by Australian author Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar is a lively combination of historical fiction, multiple timelines, and a dash of magical realism, centered around the story of the Lewis Chessmen collection.

    The tiny chess pieces were discovered in 1831 on the remote Scottish island of Lewis. They have been dated to the second half of the twelfth century and were carved from walrus ivory and whale tooth.

    Images of some of the pieces can be found on the British Museum’s website here. If you have a look you’ll see how intricately carved they are, with quirky, individual expressions and postures. Some pieces were included in the exhibition History of the World in 100 Objects which traveled from the Museum a number of years ago; I remember seeing these little characters in Canberra and was quite taken with them. Some pieces are in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in Edinburgh.

    There is much about the chessmen that is still shrouded in mystery and history, such as exactly where they were made and by whom, why they were buried, and if there are missing pieces and if so, why?

    The author has made good use of the historical known facts and the remote location of the find, to weave an engaging story across three timelines and settings: Iceland in the twelfth century, Lewis Island in the nineteenth century and in 2010, and London.

    The main character is Marianne, a lab assistant at the British Museum, whose master’s thesis was on cultural and national issues around the repatriation of museum artifacts to their places of origin. She is being undermined at every turn by a toxic manager; also facing a restructure of the museum’s staff, the recent trauma of her father’s death, a complicated relationship with her mother, a sad secret from her own past, and a crushing lack of confidence in her own worth and abilities.

    She is sent (reluctantly) to Lewis Island to accompany twelve of the pieces from the BM, for an exhibition on the island on which they were found nearly a hundred and eighty years earlier. Here she meets several locals who give her a refreshing new way of seeing history, including her own.

    Marianne sank into a warm fog, letting the music wash over her. With it came a twinge of envy for the way the locals all seemed connected to each other and to the music, joined by their history and stories of their past. An ache inside her grew.

    Missing Pieces loc. 1187 of 3824 (eBook)

    The story caught my attention from the start, because of the chessmen at its centre, but also its focus on issues of return of cultural artifacts. It’s a topic which has been in the news of late, including here in Australia, as many Aboriginal objects of spiritual and cultural significance have been kept in museums overseas, including the BM.

    Also, I share Marianne’s mother, Shona’s, passion for family history research and was amused at the eye rolls it sometimes induces in Marianne – I am pretty sure my own interest elicits a similar response in all but fellow family historians. The time slip quality of parts of the novel appealed to the side of me that dreams of time travel (in a safe and totally reversible manner, of course!)

    Most of all I enjoyed witnessing the development of Marianne from an uncertain, often prickly young woman who often feels out of her depth, to someone with more confidence in her knowledge and views and the ability to decide on her own future.

    The characters are believable and relatable and the various settings of time and place brought vividly to life.

    Missing Pieces is a terrific read, one I thoroughly enjoyed. It renewed my interest in the Lewis chessmen and spurred me to read more about them, and the island where they were re-discovered.

    Missing Pieces was published by Midnight Sun in June 2023.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Bravery at all ages: ‘How Brave Can I Be?’ by Byll & Beth Stephen

    I wonder if any parent out there can read this picture book by the Stephen sisters, (aka the Teeny Tiny Stevies) and not feel a little wistful?

    As each double page spread charts a child’s growth and passage through their world, readers also catch glimpses of the emotions of mum and dad as they witness their daughter’s growing independence.

    There’s love, and pride, and satisfaction, of course – with a little nostalgia in the mix:

    Darling, I’ve been feeling wistful lately.
    I’m so proud of you, but I feel sad
    that you don’t need me.
    Can you stay where I can watch from the side?
    I won’t get in the way,
    I’ll just be thinking ’bout how time flies…

    …One day soon I’ll take the leap
    and let go of that
    tight grasp I keep.
    I’ll move away and say,
    ‘I’m OK, I’ve got this, I’ll show you how brave I can be.’
    Cause I had you to teach me.

    How Brave Can I Be

    The lovely thing about the illustrations by Simon Howe is that readers always know which character’s thoughts we are hearing, (mum, dad, or daughter) because the individual is highlighted in the picture. It’s a clever technique which underlines the contextual understanding of the words and pictures together.

    A lovely, lovely book, How Brave Can I Be? was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books with ABC Books in May 2023.
    My thanks for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Vivid and evocative: ‘Untethered’ by Ayesha Inoon

    A debut novel by Sri Lankan-Australian Ayesha Inoon, Untethered offers a vivid insight into the culture of a Muslim family in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the experiences of two people who try life as immigrants to Australia.

    The title evokes the dual meaning of ‘untethered’, conjuring both the sense of isolation from being apart from one’s homeland, and the possibility and freedom that can come from breaking with old behaviours and expectations.

    Zia, a young adult woman at the outset of the story, has her marriage to Rashid arranged by their families with the help of a matchmaker. It is fascinating to learn about the customary ways in which engagement and marriage are celebrated by some Muslim members of the Sri Lankan community. I enjoyed how the author effortlessly wove Sri Lankan words, foods, clothing, and cultural references throughout the narrative.

    As she waits for the ceremony to begin on her wedding day, Zia ponders the contrast between her childhood dreams and the reality of a wedding:

    She had imagined that was how she would feel when it was her turn.
    She hadn’t known that there would be hope but also fear, that there would be love but also doubt. She hadn’t known that the tools with which she had to build their dreams would be so fragile.

    Untethered p50

    The story is told from both Zia’s and Rashid’s points of view, allowing the reader to experience their life together as a couple, and the process of emigration, with each character.

    Especially, once they arrive in Australia, their differing expectations and experiences are stark. Rashid feels deeply the ignominy of being unable to find work commensurate with his Sri Lankan work experience as an IT manager; Zia feels lonely and isolated, missing her close family and friends left behind.

    The couple must traverse rocky ground and tragedy before the slow tendrils of hope appear.

    Immigration, it seemed, was the great equaliser – no matter where you came from or who you were before, you had to let it all go and reinvent yourself.

    Untethered p129

    Zia is young and somewhat naive at the novel’s start, but her self confidence grows over time. She is a sympathetic character whose awareness of the world around her also develops, allowing her to see and empathise with others who are in more difficult circumstances than her own. Both Zia and Rashid learn about other Sri Lankans held in offshore detention for years, after trying to reach Australia as refugees from the terrible civil war in Sri Lanka.

    On a personal note, Australia’s capital city, Canberra, is where the couple settle when they get to Australia. Having spent ten years there myself, I very much enjoyed reading about familiar locations and landmarks there; a story set in Canberra is long overdue!

    Untethered is a highly recommended read; I think it is a wonderful debut from an author with a promising future.

    Untethered is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of HarperCollins Australia, in June 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors #10: The Eastenders – William Eaton and Jane Lloyd Ison

    This is the tenth in the Travels with my Ancestors series. You may wish to read the first post for context. You can find it here.

    I’m in London, the final week of my Travel with my Ancestors journey. I’m heading away from the usual tourist haunts and grand palaces to the East End. In mediaeval times this area lay outside the city gates. It was home to successive waves of immigrants: Huguenots (Protestants) fleeing persecution in France in the late 1600’s who brought their silk weaving skills with them; Irish linen weavers; construction and dock workers; Jews escaping pogroms in Poland and Russia.

    During WWII London suffered greatly during the Blitz, and the East End and the docklands south along the Thames were among the most heavily bombed districts.

    Post war recovery was slow, with poverty, poor health and high crime rates. In more recent years, urban revival and new building projects have changed the face of the East End. A youthful, edgy and creative vibe attracts shoppers, foodies and music lovers.

    I’m here to explore where my 4 x great grandparents originated. They were William Eaton and Jane Lloyd Ison, and they lived in and around Bethnal Green and Spitalfields in the late 1700’s.

    The tale of a cheese

    William was born around 1769 and baptised in February that year at St Mathew’s church, Bethnal Green. I don’t know what his family situation was when he was a youngster. In later years he might well have admitted that the mistake he made when he was nineteen was the biggest of his life. He had tried to make away with a round of Cheshire cheese – which he dropped in full view of its owner. Of course, he was arrested, tried at the Old Bailey Court in 1788 and received a sentence of seven years transportation to NSW for his trouble – and no cheese.

    He was sent on a Third Fleet ship, the Admiral Barrington, sailing into Sydney in the winter of 1791.

    He did well after his arrival and in 1804 was granted fifty acres of Dharug land in the Nepean district. He called the property Eatonville; it lay on the banks of the Grose, not far from where the Nepean and Grose rivers meet at Yarramundi.

    In 1800 he married Jane Ison, whose story is a darker and more complicated one.

    A darker tale

    I find the church where Jane had been baptised in 1770: Spitalfield’s Christ Church. It’s an imposing building of smooth dressed stonework and graceful white columns. I imagine her parents, James and Eleanor, holding baby Jane at the baptismal font. What were their hopes for their little girl? Her father had a trade, either gunsmith and/or shoemaker, which meant he could offer his family a better life than some in the East End, but they were not comfortably off. What lay in store for Jane?

    She grew up amid the smells and sounds of Spitalfields. The Victorian era market building, now a popular spot for bargain hunters and hipster vintage lovers, stands on the site of the original thirteenth century East London marketplace, which would have housed stalls selling everything from live poultry to baked goods, flowers and sides of beef.

    Jane was not yet fifteen when she married Edward Jaggers. Her account of her first husband’s fate was vague: as she told it, she was widowed very young. Trying to make a living in the crowded city, young, inexperienced and unskilled, her options were limited: enter domestic service if she could find a position, sell her body, become a pickpocket on the streets, or join a criminal gang.

    She chose the last option and nearly lost her life as a result.

    By December 1792, she was in a crowded cell at Newgate Gaol ready to face trial at the Old Bailey, along with four other women. Any relief she may have felt at leaving the dirty, dangerous gaol vanished once she was in the court room, standing in the dock. In this daunting, unfamiliar place, surrounded by men wearing frockcoats or dark gowns and white wigs, she heard the charges against her and her companions read out.

    Their accuser, a Welsh drover named William Ellis, described what had happened to him. According to Ellis, Jane and several female accomplices had lured him to a house in Sharpe’s Alley, where he went upstairs on the promise of sex with one of the women for the price of sixpence.

    This alley no longer exists; but I know that it ran off Cowcross Street, which does still stand. The landscape is vastly different from Jane’s time: there are now clean paved streets, traffic signs and coffee shops. A few local names give a nod to how it looked back in the late eighteenth century, full of (mostly illegal) gin houses, the area known as a ‘rookery’ (a term used to indicate places known for prostitutes and criminal gangs: places where ‘respectable’ folk would not venture.)

    Once he was on the bed, two of the women took his purse and watch, when one of them (possibly Jane) bit him on the hand as he tried to struggle. After his assailants had run off, he made his way down to the street, ‘very much frightened’, and reported the assault and theft to the nightwatchman, who was next to testify.

    While the women escaped, they were identified and arrested a day or so later. And so Jane and her accomplices faced the court in December 1792. Several of them tried to lay blame on the others, protesting their innocence, but the evidence against them was damning.

    I know that the Old Bailey court is no longer the same building as the one the women were tried in, but I still want to see where it all happened, so my next stop is to the Central Criminal Court building on Old Bailey Street, in the City.

    The building that stood here in the 1700’s was a crowded and cramped place, with a passageway from Newgate Gaol around the corner, allowing easier access to bring prisoners from their gaol cell to the dock. Newgate is no longer there, and I’m certain that the many thousands of prisoners who languished there along with the rats, fleas and lice, would not regret its loss.


    Because the charges against the women involved violent assault as well as robbery, and stolen property worth well over £31, they must have known that if they were found guilty that day, their sentences would be harsh.

    Even so, nothing could have prepared them for hearing the ‘guilty’ verdict from the jury for all but one of the five; followed immediately by the sight of the judge placing the dreaded black cloth over his wig and solemnly pronouncing a sentence of death for the four guilty parties—Jane included.

    She was twenty-two years old.

    The four women were returned to the teeming gaol cells. It seemed that the only way out would be via the gallows. Jane could not claim pregnancy, the most common plea for mercy by women. Would she be hung at the public gallows just outside the gaol, for all to come and gawk as she took her last breath? Perhaps she’d hear the execution bell toll its mournful warning on the night before her execution. How long would it take for her to die once the trapdoor was released beneath her by the hangman? Would she disgrace herself or die with dignity? These thoughts preoccupied all those facing the death sentence.

    Three months after the trial, she heard that she and her accomplices had been granted mercy. They were not to be hung after all, but rather transported ‘to the eastern coast of NSW for the term of their natural lives.’ Relief and trepidation were mixed as she contemplated the meaning of this new sentence.

    In February 1794, she was put aboard the Surprize, anchored on the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge. For nearly two months the business of provisioning the ship went on, while the convicts accustomed themselves to the routines of shipboard life. They set sail in May. Her three partners in crime sailed along with her; whether they wanted to speak to each other after all the accusations they’d hurled during their trial was another matter.

    The Surprize docked at Port Jackson in October, a time of warm spring sunshine and cooling sea breezes in the upside-down seasons of the place.

    Her fortunes took a turn for the better when she met William Eaton, already three years into his sentence. Sydney Town was a small settlement and the two met there; a daughter arrived in May 1800, and three months later the couple were married at St Phillips’ church, on the same day as their baby was baptised. As convicts, they did not have the luxury of choosing the date and circumstances of such major life occasions.

    William and Jane had seven children together and lived at Eatonville at Yarramundi where William established a productive farm on his land grant, growing wheat, barley, fruit and vegetables: all essential produce to feed the infant colony. He also had two horses (costly and sought after animals), cattle and hogs, two convicts working for him, and he kept his family off the government stores—quite an achievement for someone born and raised in the crowded poverty of eastern London.

    In 1823 he was widowed, still with young children. A year later he married another Jane. He shared sixteen years with her at Eatonville until her death in 1840. The two Janes were buried in the same vault at St Peters’ Richmond, where William himself was buried in 1858 at the very grand age of ninety years.

    That’s the story of William and Jane, and my search for their beginnings in the seedier parts of eighteenth century London. I find myself wondering: if I could meet them (assuming time travel is a thing) would I like them?

    Possibly. William’s crime seems so quirky, even amusing (and I confess to a little sympathy with his evident clumsiness in dropping that cheese!)

    Jane, I am not so sure about. She was a young woman of her time and place in history; perhaps neither especially good nor especially bad, although a little of my sympathy here also lies with the gormless Welsh drover, who was clearly thinking with a part of his anatomy other than his brain, when he agreed to give Jane or her accomplice sixpence for sex and go upstairs with them.

    I am glad to have found some of the places of significance for these people, my 4 x great-grandparents: these Eastenders.

    All photos by author.
    Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more Travels with my Ancestors, you can subscribe to my blog.