• History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors #6: Kick-ass Jane-The Longhurst and Roberts families

    Tiny Ewhurst, a village in a narrow parish in the south of Surrey, was almost left off the Travels with Ancestors itinerary. I had somehow forgotten to include this, the birthplace of Jane Longhurst, my 4 x great-grandmother, who I can only describe as my most ‘kick-ass’ ancestor. Fortunately my ever-patient husband and our travelling companion are willing to do a small detour on our way east, towards Kent.

    We reach the village after navigating roads that steadily decrease in width, the closer we come to it. It takes a steady nerve to drive along England’s tiny rural lanes and byways, but Andy does a good job as tour driver.

    The road to Ewhurst

    Unlike many of my ancestors, as far as I can tell, Jane was not born into poverty. The Longhursts were an established family in the district; probably not wealthy, but her father may have owned some land, as he appeared on a voter registration list for Ewhurst. In the 1700’s only people who owned property were eligible to vote.

    For whatever reason, Jane was tried and convicted of a crime that earned her the sentence of seven years’ transportation. Rather surprisingly, though there are records of her trial and sentence, details of her actual crime have not yet surfaced – but I live in hope of uncovering this one day.

    She was born about 1783 in Ewhurst, and baptised at the church of St Peter and St Paul in the village. That is my first port of call, because it’s the one definite pinpoint in England that I have for her.

    Before leaving Australia, I had made contact with many of the parish churches I hoped to visit, to check on opening hours and so on. I was put in touch with a local woman, Janet, an active member of the local historical society. She is kind enough to meet me at the church and show me around, giving so much rich detail about the village’s history in the process. Janet wrote the History Society’s Guide and History of St Peter & St Paul, so she is a perfect companion for this visit.

    The oldest part of the church dates from Norman times, and Janet points out the distinctive Norman use of rough stone rubble and pieces of red Roman-era tile, that were frequently reused in later buildings. Other parts of the church were added, built or rebuilt over subsequent years, much of it after Jane’s time there. But I am able to photograph the church and its baptismal font, certain that baby Jane’s tiny head was wet with water from here at her baptism in March, 1783.

    Out in the lush churchyard, Janet points out the ancient, spreading yew tree, sheltering a number of old headstones that are too weathered to read. A lower churchyard has at least 83 species of wildflowers, and grass cutting is carefully timed to allow different species the chance to set seeds and flower. A monument with stone wings seems to stand as guardian angel over the place.

    Jane’s father and grandfather were likely buried in this churchyard, though possibly in different sections. Her grandfather, James, would have been laid to rest in the ‘respectable’ part of the churchyard, whereas her father John may have taken his own life. Records are a little confusing here, but if his death in around 1793 was a suicide, he would most likely have been buried away from the general burial ground , as suicide was regarded as a dreadful sin in the eighteenth century. Gazing over the beautiful grounds, I can only hope that he lies in peace, wherever that may be.

    As we drive away from little Ewhurst, I am very grateful to Janet for all her information and help.

    What happened to Jane after her trial and sentence?

    She arrived in Sydney on the transport ship Glatton in 1803, and was assigned to labour for a master or mistress there. Seven years later, she’d completed her sentence and she married William Roberts, also an emancipated convict. They’d been living together before that date and had four sons together; then later two daughters and three more sons were born.

    WIlliam had done rather well for himself. Through hard work, diligence and commitment, he had caught the eye of Governor Macquarie, becoming a sought-after road and bridge building supervisor. He was paid handsomely for this work, in land grants on Dharug country in the Hawkesbury Valley of NSW, plus cash and liquor – this was the era of the ‘Rum Corps’ and rum and other spirits had a stranglehold over the economy of the colony.

    The family lived at Windsor and then in Sydney, at The King’s Arms, the public house they ran at Castlereagh and Hunter Streets.

    When the Governor became disturbed at the rapidly increasing number of liquor establishments operating in the town, and the unruly behaviour of patrons, he issued a decree closing a great many of them. The Roberts’ hotel was one of those approved by Macquarie and allowed to keep trading.

    Sadly for Jane, William died in 1819. For a widowed or single woman at that time, life was not easy. Even having money (which Jane now certainly did) was no guarantee of continued success. The male – and military – dominated colony held strict expectations of a woman’s place. It did not include the world of business or trade.

    There were very few exceptions to this, and Jane became one of them. She wrote to the Governor, successfully requesting payment owed to her husband for work he had carried out before his death. She continued the hotel businesses that she and William had established. Later, another request to the Governor resulted in an allocation of land for grazing cattle. She became one a very small number of women who were early subscribers to the newly established colonial bank. Her name appears on the bank records alongside the likes of better-known colonial women such as fellow emancipist Mary Reiby, and the Governor’s wife, Elizabeth Macquarie.

    She did this all while raising nine children into adulthood, many of whom went on to become successful business people and farmers themselves.

    Jane remarried in 1825 and had eleven years with another William, also an emancipist: William Hutchinson. His story is also an interesting one. But this post is all about Jane – the girl from a tiny Surrey village whose 3 x great granddaughter was my mother, Doreen. She would have recognised something in Doreen, had they been able to meet – a quality of determination, a refusal to give up.

    I can understand why Mum was always fascinated by Jane and her story. I’m delighted and grateful to have made the pilgrimage to Ewhurst, the birthplace of our kick-ass ancestor.

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my Ancestors # 5: Kentish men and women – The Heather / Eather family

    I am in Kent, in the southeast of England. There are two villages and one town I’m here to see. All three places are related to the story of my Heather/ Eather ancestors, my paternal grandmother’s forebears, who lived in this little corner of England from the 1600’s.

    Robert Heather and his wife Mary moved to the village of Chislehurst in about 1640. Together they had a daughter and five sons; each successive generation naming their eldest son Robert. For over twelve decades the Heathers were baptised, married and buried at St Nicholas’ church in the village.

    Today that church stands sturdily, overlooking the expansive Chislehurst Common, a swathe of green within the suburban landscape of southeast London that has overlaid the village of yesteryear. The Common is threaded with quiet walking paths through stands of spreading oaks. Squirrels scamper up trees as I pass, a spring chorus of birds follows me through this timeless place.

    A strange circular depression in the grass is a puzzle – a former pond? A bomb crater from the war? – until I see a small plaque labelling it as ‘Chislehurst Cockpit’. I have an awful feeling that I know what this was.

    Later, I google it and my suspicion is confirmed – it is a leftover from the days when village pastimes were bloodier and more violent than today’s football or cricket matches. Cockfighting, single stick fighting and other such entertainments were pursued there until banned by more squeamish authorities in Victorian times.

    Now to the church. St Nicholas has stood since the 15th century, though the site has seen worship for over a thousand years. The Norman font is still in use today: all those Heather babies baptised with water from its stone basin. When I look closer, I notice a very sweet modern addition: a garland of knitted babies’ booties and tiny socks around its base.

    I stand at the altar, where I imagine successive Robert Heathers and their brides reciting their wedding vows. Were their eyes fixed on the embroidered tapestry or intricate carving behind the Reverend? Unable to read, they may have enjoyed the storytelling in these artworks.

    The Heathers were not wealthy, too poor to have afforded a stone monument to mark the life and death of one of their number. Many Heather bones lie beneath the soil in the churchyard; if they once had a simple wooden cross to mark their places, they have long since rotted away. But the earth here has been enriched by the blood and bone of generations of the Heathers.

    In Maidstone, I want to find the place where one of the Heather sons, Thomas, was tried, sentenced and imprisoned in 1788. I have researched the town’s history and learnt that the Court House and Gaol were once in what today is the Town Hall.

    When I get there, I am disappointed to find the doors firmly closed and locked. This I had not anticipated. Then I notice a small old-fashioned doorbell with a sign above it that reads ‘Please ring.’ Should I? I decide that yes, I should: I am here for this one day; my only chance to see where these events played out. So I press the button. Nothing happens.

    I swallow my disappointment and am about to turn away, when I notice a more modern-looking button. I press it. Long moments pass, before a young man pops his head around the door.

    Quickly I say, ‘I’m from Australia, and an ancestor of mine was tried and imprisoned here. I was hoping to see the place where this happened.’

    He hesitates, then smiles. ‘I was just about to do the fire drill, but I’ve got a few minutes. Come on in.’

    Scarcely believing my luck, I follow him inside and up a flight of stairs to a large room where, he tells me, the local council meetings now take place. High on the wall at one end of the room is a plaque with the insignia of British justice, and the young man, whose name is Russell, tells me that it was here that judges meted out punishment to those who, like Thomas, had broken the law.

    I can imagine it: Thomas in the dock, the bewigged judge stern-faced on a high bench above him. Thomas’ crime had not been a trivial one: he was accused of ‘Highway Robbery’, having stolen goods from a man on a road while brandishing a weapon – a hoe? A pick? Or even a musket or pistol? The place where this happened was very possibly a road near the same Chislehurst Common I recently walked across.

    Whether he knew it or not, this was one of the many offences that attracted the Death penalty. Thomas would hang.

    He was taken to a cell, which is where Russell and I now go. Up a flight of narrow stairs, through a heavy door with a small square peephole cut into its thickness. What was once a gaol cell is now an empty room. In places, letters and dates have been carved into the the bare walls and floor – this is Georgian-era graffiti by educated prisoners who could write.

    I ask Russell how many prisoners would be accommodated in this room.

    ‘Up to sixty, at times,’ he tells me. ‘Men, women and children.’

    Fortunately for Thomas (and his descendants) he did not hang. His death sentence was commuted to a term of transportation: fourteen years across the seas in the new penal colony of New South Wales. He spent a total of two years in that cell in Maidstone, before being transferred to one of the prison hulks on the Thames in London.

    Then in 1789 he was on board the prison ship Neptune, bound for Sydney. He survived that voyage on the worst ship of the worst convict fleet to leave Britain – but that is a whole other story.

    For now, I am grateful that he made it to Australia, and that I pressed that bell at the Maidstone Town Hall in order to see where these life changing events took place.

    PS. If you are wondering how Thomas Heather became Thomas Eather, imagine this: You have just been disembarked at Sydney after a hellish voyage, and a pasty-faced clerk demands your name, quill poised over a ledger book. In your Kentish accent, you reply ‘Thomas Heather’, dropping the ‘h’ as you always do. What the clerk hears and records is ‘Thomas Eather.’ And so the Australian Eather family has his origins in a dropped ‘aitch.’

  • History,  Travel

    Travels with my ancestors 3: Elizabeth Lee – Lancashire Lass

    This is the third post in the Travels With My Ancestors series. If you’ve not read the first post to give context to the series, you can find it here.

    *

    On a July morning in 1791, a signal went up on the south head of Sydney harbour, indicating that a sail had been sighted. People ran down to watch as the Mary Ann berthed in Sydney Cove. The signal created great excitement because the new arrival promised more supplies to hold off food shortages in the faltering penal colony of New South Wales, Australia. Mary Ann was the first to arrive of the eleven ships of the Third Fleet that set sail from England for the colony. Along with provisions such as barrels of flour, beef, and pork, she carried convicts: 141 women and 6 children. 

    Elizabeth Lee was among those on board. Born and raised in Lancashire, she’d worked for a woman named Elizabeth Buckley in Manchester, either as a domestic servant or shop assistant. 

    In 1789 things went badly wrong for her when she stole a grey cloak valued at sixpence from her mistress. If she’d hoped to sell it for coin, luck was not with her. She was caught, and in January the following year, she pleaded guilty at the Manchester Epiphany Quarter sessions, at the Royal Cotton Exchange building at St Ann’s Square. 

    Her sentence was transportation for seven years to ‘some parts beyond the seas.’ What did that mean? Where would she be taken? At just seventeen, she was friendless, facing an uncertain and frightening future.

    Elizabeth was my 4 x great-grandmother. 

    *

    In April 2023 I set off on a family history tour of England, accompanied by my husband Andy and our friend Anita. Manchester was the first place to explore: where Elizabeth had lived, work, and where she committed her crime.

    I found the location where once stood the first iteration of the Royal Cotton Exchange, a grand building where the serious business of buying and selling cotton was done in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It also housed the court rooms where the equally serious business of dispensing British justice was conducted. Two years after Elizabeth’s trial, the original Cotton Exchange was demolished to make way for a new building. Today the building is the home of the Royal Exchange Theatre.

    Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, April 2023. Photo by author.

    Gazing up at the imposing structure, it occurred to me that there was a relationship between the two purposes of the original Cotton Exchange. One was for wealthy merchants and traders to generate profit from the resources produced by the labour of enslaved people in the West Indies and America. The other was to punish those outside the system of capitalism that flourished alongside colonialism, the slave trade and the Industrial Revolution.

    Poor people, young women such as Elizabeth, had no place in that system. They were despised, mistrusted by their social and economic ‘betters’, regarded as the criminal class by those in authority. Having stolen from her employer, she was in the court to have her position in the world firmly marked out for all to see.

    I don’t know much about her family or her early life. If she had parents and siblings still alive, they would have been unable to see her again, because from Manchester she was taken north to Lancaster, where she spend a long year imprisoned in the Castle on the hill, overlooking the River Lune.

    Approaching the forbidding dark walls of the Castle’s gate, she would have been gripped by a deep foreboding and a fear that she may never re-emerge from it.

    Gateway to Lancaster Castle, May 2023. Photo by author

    The Castle operated as a prison until 2011. It is a melange of stone building styles from the eleventh and twelfth centuries to the Victorian era, during which parts were built, demolished, added or altered.

    In Elizabeth’s time, the Castle prison was crowded, with poor hygiene and rations. Punishments for disobedience were harsh; sometimes involving pointless, soul-destroying labour such as the treadmill. The year she spent there dragged slowly, months feeling like decades.

    At last, with February frosts nipping at fingers and toes, she was taken with other women from the Castle on a long journey south to London, to Gravesend on the Thames. Here she was rowed out to a sailing ship, the Mary Ann, where she had the first sight of the below-deck quarters where she would sleep, wash and eat, for however long it took to sail to that far-away place that would be her next prison.

    When the Mary Ann shipped anchor, she thought this would be it: her last moments within sight of England. But no: they sailed out of the Thames, then south and west to Portsmouth, where the ships of the Third Fleet gathered in readiness.

    The Mary Ann sailed from Portsmouth on 23 February 1791. Just two days out, Elizabeth and her companions experienced their first storm at sea. Women were washed out of their beds by the force of water that poured in between decks. Fully expecting to perish in the violence of the towering waves, frightened prisoners prayed amid the shrieks and wails of their companions. The howl of the gale outside echoed their despair. A full day and night later, the wind and rain eased and the voyage continued. [i]  

    Captained by Mark Munro, the ship battled through the difficulties of weather, long periods without supplies of fresh food, and all the other challenges of a lengthy voyage. She made good time, and when she berthed at Sydney Cove, only four of the convicts on board had died.

    Several residents of Sydney Town, including Captain Watkin Tench of the marines, had rowed out excitedly to meet the ship before it entered the harbour. From their quarters, the convicts heard the shouts of the visitors climbing aboard the ship. Eager questioning turned to disappointment when they learned that not only had the vessel brought less food than hoped for and more mouths to feed, but that no one on board had thought to bring any mail, or newspapers, or a single magazine. [ii]

    Most of the women waiting to see what this place would be like had little interest in newspapers. But they thought of the homes they had left, and the people and places they would never see again, and wept.

    *

    Elizabeth’s story will continue in later Travels With My Ancestors posts.


    [i] Description of the storm from a letter written by convict Mary Talbot, published in The London Times on 15 Feb 1791.

    [ii] Watkin Tench, ‘A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson’ in 1788, Text Publishing, p205

  • Books and reading,  History

    ‘Becoming Mrs Mulberry’ by Jackie French

    Jackie French writes marvelous commercial historical fiction, with protagonists who are active participants in their lives and the world around them. Her stories always feature intriguing snippets from history:

    The incidents in my books are based on actual people, historical events and attitudes that are often not widely known. That is why I write about them…Sometimes fiction is a gentler way of presenting those harder times of history, as well as celebrating the good.

    Author’s note, Becoming Mrs Mulberry

    Becoming Mrs Mulberry is an example of the many reasons why Ms French is an Australian best-selling author. She has a way of imparting historical information in a way that illuminates rather than bogs down the story.

    It’s a big book, with several big themes: Australia’s mixed record on dealing with issues such as gender equality, treatment of people with disabilities, and the sad fate of so many soldiers returning from WWI. It is also a plea for us to become more attuned to our natural environment, which is under such severe threat today.

    The main protagonist, Agnes, is in the midst of medical studies at Edinburgh University, when the war and its aftermath requires her to put her dreams of becoming a doctor on hold. She experiences eye-watering levels of abuse and discrimination both during her studies (much of it meted out by male fellow students) and after it. Any so-called ‘post feminists’ should read this book.

    Despairing of her ability to make a difference for the endless line of soldiers with horrifying injuries that she nurses during the war in Europe, she is given a sage piece of advice by her Matron:

    Just do the next right thing, and then the next. Put a thousand crumbs together and you make a cake.

    Becoming Mrs Mulberry pp225-226

    Straight after the war, her ‘next right thing’ sees her marrying the severely shell-shocked brother of her close friend, in order to rescue him from being declared mentally incompetent and being confined to an asylum. This is how she becomes the Mrs Mulberry of the novel’s title.

    Her new husband is very wealthy and she uses this money to provide respite, care and refuge from some of society’s outcasts, suffering war injuries or disabilities from accidents or illnesses. Coincidentally, the place where she does this is on her husband’s Blue Mountains property, in a fictional location that the author placed not too far from my home.

    Then she comes across a young child in a situation of terrible abuse and vulnerability – and her life develops an unexpected trajectory.

    Through it all, there is a tender shoot of love and care which grows as the story progresses:

    Her sense of loss seeped away under the hush of trees. Trees had patience and so must she, as their roots wound deep into the ground and their leaves slowly burgeoned to the sky. Here, on a highland ridge, she could see trees shaped by wind and snow, none of which was within their control, and yet they managed beauty nonetheless: even greater loveliness from fate’s twisting of their trunks and branches.

    Becoming Mrs Mulberry pp124-125

    This is a sweeping, heartfelt story that will appeal to readers who love their historical fiction to actually mean something.

    Becoming Mrs Mulberry is published by HQ Fiction in March 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Picture book love

    Three new picture books from Harper Collins Children’s Books have hit the shelves in March, 2023. Two are perfect for reading around Mother’s Day (May, in Australia) and the third – well, it’s just perfect.

    Amazing Mum by UK author and illustrator Alison Brown is a lovely celebration of mums, in all their beautiful diversity. There are applauding mums, never-let-you-down mums, double mums, bubble mums, sharing mums, repairing mums, and mums who drive a bus. And quite a few more.
    The softly toned illustrations feature entirely cute animal mums and kids: mice, foxes, rabbits, even a dinosaur family. The pictures bring to life the message of the book: mums are amazing!

    Well-known Aussie kid’s author and presenter, Andrew Daddo, has teamed up with illustrator Stephen Michael King to produce a sweet book all about the relationship between grandmas and kids. The grandma in the book is whimsical, arty, adventurous and fun. She and her grandchild share activities like dress ups, knitting, yoga, kite flying, painting…all the ‘old fashioned’ ways to have fun.

    Whatever we do together, my grandma’s just happy.
    Grandma says that even with all the new things, old-fashioned happy still feels pretty fantastic.
    It’s a bit like a hot choccie.
    It warms you from the inside out.

    Grandma’s Guide to Happiness

    A.B. (Banjo) Paterson’s classic poem Mulga Bill’s Bicycle was first published as a children’s picture book in 1973. To celebrate its 50th year, Harper Collins have published a new version, illustrated by Deborah Niland along with original illustrations by Kilmeny Niland.

    I remember this poem from my childhood; along with Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow and The Man from Snowy River, and Henry Lawson’s The Loaded Dog, it’s an Australian classic that is timeless, and brings to life the language, sights and sounds from a past era.

    Mulga Bill’s Bicycle pokes fun at a self-assured, pompous man with ambition greater than his skill – and don’t we all know people just like that? His antics as he attempts to ride a ‘new-fangled’ penny-farthing bicycle for the first time (while assuring everyone that he is an expert) are hilarious.

    There’s a lot going on in each double-page spread as the bicycle gallops away, passing scenes from a bush and small-town landscape of yesteryear. The image of Bill himself, quite the dandy with his impressive handlebar moustaches, is perfect.

    I’d recommend this one for all kids’ bookshelves and libraries.

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my ancestors #2: Darkness and light in family history

    Photo by Raphael Brasileiro: https://www.pexels.com/photo/shadow-of-a-person-2920850/

    Every family history contains its shadows: people or events we might prefer to remain in the dark.

    The problem with ignoring them is that we are only getting half a history: rather than the full story of our ancestors and the worlds they lived in, we get a trimmed, sanitised, unsatisfying narrative. We are no closer to understanding the context of our ancestors’ lives and the times in which they lived.

    In my family history writing, I have chosen to incorporate information which can be confronting, because I want to present a richer, more truthful story of their lives.

    I haven’t done this to make anyone feel guilty or resentful. We can only understand the wider history of this country and its people if we are mature enough to look at the darkness as well as the light.

    There is the inevitable theme of ‘land grants’ given by colonial authorities to many of my ancestors, who came here either in chains or as free immigrants. It is important to remember that this land was taken by the British government as theirs to give: however, it was never ceded by those who came first—indigenous Australians. All land purchased by non-indigenous people since colonisation in 1788 is therefore based on the same error.

    In writing about my ancestors, I have tried to refer to the places in which they lived by the original names, the ones used by the First Nations of Australia, as well as the names commonly used today. I have consulted maps and online sources for this: any errors are my own.

    Indigenous Australia map by AIATSIS Canberra

    The so-called ‘frontier wars’ of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (more accurately called the wars of resistance, or Australian wars) were widespread and prolonged. They were the result of First Nations people being forced off their lands, away from livelihoods, history and sacred places: the Country to which they had been deeply and profoundly linked for millennia. The wars featured horrible violence, massacres, and sickening atrocities. As with any war, violence was perpetrated on both sides.

    I have no evidence that my family forebears were directly involved in such acts of violence. It is possible that some were. But what is undeniable is that by arriving here (willingly or unwillingly) and settling on land, building homes, fencing off land for livestock or crops, and changing the landscape, they contributed to the dispossession of First Nations people.

    I believe it is possible to stay with the discomfort of simultaneously feeling proud of what our forebears endured and achieved, while recognising the part they played in this fracturing of ancient cultures and ways of being.

    It’s all part of our real, collective Australian story. By acknowledging it, even if that is difficult, we can better understand our own place here. To feel truly Australian, we must connect with all parts of Australia’s past—even the darker ones.

  • Books and reading,  History

    After the gold rushes: ‘The Homecoming’ by Alison Stuart

    In her new book, Aussie author Alison Stuart once again demonstrates her deep knowledge and love for the parts of Victoria that were the scene of frenzied gold rushes in the mid 1800’s.

    The Homecoming is the third novel set in fictional Maiden’s Creek. The first two were The Postmistress and The Goldminer’s Sister.

    This new story is set two decades after the last in the 1890’s, when the gold seams around the township are mostly exhausted. Residents needed to find new ways of making a living. The protagonists are two characters from the earlier novels: Charlotte (Charlie) O’Reilly and Danny Hunt. No longer children, they are brought back to Maiden’s Creek after years spent developing careers elsewhere: Charlie as a nurse and Danny a lawyer.

    Both are dealing with the legacies of difficult circumstances from their childhoods and have returned to the town for different reasons.

    While working as Matron of the small cottage hospital, Charlie is embroiled in a series of events that bring escalating danger to her and to others. Danny is dodging an enemy from his past who is intent on doing him harm. Then the town is engulfed by a dangerous flood which threatens everyone.

    In the midst of all this, the pair find themselves increasingly pulled towards each other.

    I took a while to get fully involved in this novel, perhaps because I had read The Goldminer’s Sister in 2020 and my memory had to work hard to recall the characters and events from that story. Having said that, The Homecoming would also make a satisfying stand-alone read without reference to the earlier books. There is mystery, romance and some terrific characters; all of which add up to a great addition to Australian historical fiction shelves.

    The Homecoming is published by HQ Fiction in January 2023.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Colonial immigration scheme: ‘Single and Free’ by Elizabeth Rushen

    When we think about immigration to Australia, what springs to mind is sailing ships carrying the first white immigrants: convicts and their military guards. Next, we might think of the huge post-war influx of people from war-torn Europe, followed by successive groups of refugees from other war affected regions: Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa.

    Easily forgotten in this mix are the brave, resilient and (for some) desperate women who chose to be part of an early colonial scheme administered by the London Emigration Committee in the 1830’s.

    Historian and author Elizabeth Rushen has written a fascinating account of the way the scheme was established, the women who volunteered, and their fates once they arrived in the colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania.)

    There were fourteen ships altogether, which carried nearly 3000 single women from Britain and Ireland over a four-year period from 1833 to 1837.

    Why did the colonial government invest time and money in such a scheme?

    The main reason was the extreme gender imbalance in the colonies at the time. Male convicts and settlers outweighed women by over three men to each woman. This resulted in a shortage of female labour for the strictly gender-segregated jobs of domestic servant, governess, nurse, and agricultural roles such as dairy maid.

    Also, the behavioural strictures and preoccupations of the period required women’s ‘moral’ influence to temper the behaviour of men. Not surprisingly, the applicants to the scheme needed to provide evidence of good behaviour and ‘respectability’.

    Why would women volunteer for such an enormous, life-changing step? They left behind their homes, families, friends and communities, to face numerous perils and discomforts on a months-long voyage to an unknown place, where safety and decent employment could not be guaranteed.

    Rushen’s research shows that, although the scheme initially aimed at recruiting poor women, there were in fact a mix of backgrounds of participants. Some of the women were indeed poor, desperate for an opportunity to make a living. Others were from educated middle class backgrounds. Some were simply up for a challenge, or a new life away from the constraints of their homeland.

    The mismatch between the original aims and the realities of the scheme meant that the responses to the new arrivals were also mixed: ranging from welcome and support from some settlers to outright hostility from those who regarded the bounty immigrants as unfair competition for jobs, husbands, and homes.

    The book is a deep dive into the scheme itself, the ships that brought the women to Australia, and especially, the women themselves. Who were they, why did they come, and what happened to them once they reached the colonies?

    It’s a fascinating account of an often-overlooked episode of colonial history; and as Rushen concludes:

    The vast majority of these women…made the voluntary decision to emigrate, their expatriation improving the quality of their lives…These were adventurous and courageous women who embraced the challenges of colonial life. (p176)


    They contributed to the development of the colonies as domestic and agricultural workers, their enterprises as dressmakers, midwives and teachers, as wives and mothers of the rising generation. (back cover)

    Single and Free: Female Migration to Australia 1833-1837

    I have written before about the Good Girl Song Project and the musical production Voyage, which is based on the research and stories in this book. If you haven’t yet checked it out, do have a look at the website. It is a moving and entertaining portrayal through music and drama, of the experiences of some of the women who took part in this early colonial immigration scheme.

    Single and Free: Female migration to Australia 1833-1837 was published by Anchor Books Australia, 2016

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my ancestors #1: Things they would want me to know.

    When I look at my family tree, going back seven or eight generations, I am astounded at the number of lives represented there. Each little icon, male or female, on the Ancestry.com screen, or names I’ve pencilled in on my hand drawn charts, is—was—a person. A person who was born, grew up, perhaps married, had children. A person who earned a living, learned stuff, developed likes, had their loves and their hatreds. Someone who eventually grew ill or suffered an accident or met their death in some other way. They left people who mourned them, remembered them, laughed with others about happy or funny moments, cried about the sad or terrible ones.

    How many ancestors? I haven’t stopped to count them all. Trust me, there are many.

    Every one of those individuals had to have lived and reproduced for me to be here. Every decision, mistake, accident of history has led to… me.

    How amazing.  

    I am the unique product of all those people. My own experiences, decisions and actions have led to who I am, but so too have all the actions of past generations. Their DNA, mixed in the marvellous cocktail of life, resulted in: me.

    That’s astounding, don’t you think?

    Why then, do we weave or stomp or trudge or dance our way through life, giving scarcely a thought to the people who made us? Our parents, of course, usually get our attention; perhaps because they are there; perhaps family resemblance is strong enough for us to recognise the link that joins our own generation to theirs. Grandparents, too, can be more visible, due to proximity, or appearance in family photo albums, or in family stories.

    Go back another generation and, well…the scene is a bit emptier. Great-grandparents and beyond: we might know names, and have a vague inkling of eras, if not specific dates when they lived, but most of us are unable to describe what sort of people they may have been.

    Unless, of course, you get bitten by the family history bug.

    In this, I was lucky. I grew up with many diverting stories about ancestors. My father was one of a huge number of Australians proud to claim a particular Second Fleet convict; my mother had several convicts in her family tree, plus some tantalising hints of romance and some murkier stories buried in the dry records of births, marriages and deaths.  They had done much of the groundwork before me: constructing family trees and digging out those records (in the days when nothing was online, and everything had to be found in person at libraries and archive repositories.)

    So, I suppose you could say I was bitten by the bug at an early age. Though it wasn’t until I’d left full-time work and had the time (and internet connection, laptop, and subscription to a family history platform) that the passion really took hold. Covid-lockdowns gave me plenty of time to dive down rabbit holes searching for that one person I needed to fill in on the tree, that one missing record or date, that hidden story.

    Oh, the stories!

    Romances, murders, deserted wives, divorces. Poverty, bravery, wartime heroics. Quiet fortitude and deep despair. People loving, birthing, fighting, killing, growing, leaving, losing, and winning. All of life, there in my family trees.

    At the risk of sounding fanciful, I have come to believe that they would want me to know. Every story is part of the whole. Each person had their own story, important to them and to those who loved them. Something urges me to uncover their stories; while there are no doubt things that some ancestors, were they able to say, would rather that I didn’t know (crimes committed, mistakes made) I nevertheless believe I honour them by discovering and then telling their stories.

    Beyond myself, the stories of my ancestors are threads that contribute to the tapestry that is Australia today. In both positive and negative ways, the ways in which they lived their lives, the choices they made and the results of those choices: all contributed to the big picture of this country I call home.

    By uncovering these threads, I have a greater sense of belonging here, in this island nation on the other side of the globe from where my ancestors originated. Why did they come here? What circumstances, decisions or accidents led them to travel across the world to this place? Why did they stay?

    If they had not come here, survived, stayed, married, and had children, then I would not exist. A twist of fate, or a small part of an ordained plan—I’m happy for that to remain a mystery.

    I’m not happy to leave their lives to the mysterious past. I want to learn about my ancestors, and the part they played in the complex sequence of events that resulted in me.

    I like to think they’d be happy about that, too.

    Come with me on the journey as I travel with my ancestors. There may well be something in their stories that ignites something in you: a spark of recognition, or a longing to know more about your own family tree. What are its patterns, what characters and events are represented there? What are some of the stories of your ancestors?

  • Books and reading,  History

    Evocative: ‘The Butterfly Collector’ by Tea Cooper

    On the same day in 1922 when Verity Binks loses her job at a Sydney newspaper (to make way for struggling WWI veterans), she receives a mysterious parcel in the mail. Inside is an invitation to attend the Sydney Masquerade Ball, along with a mask and costume designed to transform her into the guise of a beautiful orange and black butterfly.

    She decides to accept the invitation and attend the ball when her former boss, the Editor at the Sydney Arrow, suggests that she write a profile story about the Treadwell Foundation, a charity for ‘young women in trouble’ (that is, women pregnant outside of marriage.) She hopes to meet Mr Treadwell at the Ball – and also to find out the source of her mysterious invitation and costume.

    Not satisfied with the result, she travels to the little river town of Morpeth, in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, on a quest to find out more about the origins of the Treadwells and the Foundation. This is also where her beloved grandparents, Sid and Clarrie, lived in their younger days and where her father, Charlie, was born. Gradually, Verity learns that there is much more to the Treadwell story than first meets the eye. Together with Arlo, who has lived all his life in the town, she uncovers dark secrets about some of Morpeth’s past residents.

    The Butterfly Collector is another of Tea Cooper’s successful dual-timeline historical mysteries. Woven in with Verity’s story is an earlier thread which relates the events of 1868 in the town of Morpeth, featuring Sid, Clarrie, Charlie and Arlo’s parents. Arlo’s mother, Theodora, is the butterfly collector of the novel’s title; a young woman fascinated by a spectacular new species of butterfly she encounters: the same orange and black of Verity’s costume.

    Theodora’s and Verity’s stories are intertwined with the Treadwell’s and Verity’s investigations gradually uncover why. It’s cleverly plotted and well-paced, bringing the reader along with Verity and Theodora as they deal with the challenges and questions of their explorations.

    A strength of Tea Cooper’s novels is the historical authenticity which comes from thorough research, but which never intrudes. Rather, we learn about the real-life places in past times incidentally, through vivid and evocative descriptions. I was especially drawn to this story because of its Hunter Valley setting: my father was born and grew up in West Maitland and one side of his family were early settlers around Morpeth.

    Another aspect I enjoyed is that the protagonists are women with intelligence, agency and courage, not content to comply with social expectations for women at the time in which they live. They are not ‘damsels in distress’ waiting to be rescued by their hero. There is romance, but it is never the main point of Cooper’s stories.

    The Butterfly Collector will be enjoyed by those who like well-researched historical fiction with a mystery to solve.

    The Butterfly Collector is published by HQ Fiction in November 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.