A History Lesson

Recently I attended a talk by Grace Karskens, a noted colonial historian. Her published works include The Rocks and The Colony. Karsken’s talk was about her upcoming book, Recovering Vanished Places: Stories from the Hawkesbury/Nepean River.

History is approached by Karskens by an ethnographic focus, a wide lens which includes archaeology, ecology and geography amongst other studies. Sources range from official documents and historical texts to newspaper articles, paintings, local and family histories, letters, poetry and folklore to provides a broader context to understanding history on a deeper level.

Part of the challenge lies in what cannot be found or ascertained. Of course not everything is recorded or accessible, and sometimes all that remains is a sanitised version of real events.

Something that resonated with me was the snatches and snippets of past events that are woven into stories. As a writer I feel at times that my mind is swirling with scraps of stories, real and imagined. Some are recent, others are not my memory fragments but those of parents, grandparents and other relatives. And it isn’t just family that provide threads to weave stories from; chance conversations with friends and strangers also provide material.

Whilst some fictional scribblings require little in the way of research, unlike academic endeavours, it was interesting to hear Karskens talk of how obsessive the need to know can become. It is this attention to detail and intellectual vigour which creates work which resonates with readers. Again this has similarities in the fictional space. Research is an important aspect across many genres: as a reader few things jar more than reading something factually wrong in a story.

The talk provided a taste of what is to come, a book which promises accessible and illuminating insights into vanished places along the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers. There is a link to a TED talk by Karskens here.

What lessons from history do you take on as a writer?

[Photo: view of Hawkesbury River near Wisemans Ferry]


A Convict in the Family: Links Across Generations

Echoes of history are evident in the travelling exhibition A Convict in the Family, currently on display at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. This exhibition from Sydney Living Museums features photographs of the descendants of convicts, usually in their own home, with items symbolising their ancestor’s crime.

The crimes that resulted in the life changing act of transportation are varied, and it is sometimes bewildering to see modern representations of these thefts. A retired academic sits at a kitchen table, looking directly at the camera, with a single gold ring representing his ancestor’s crime. Clothing was a popular item for theft, with coats, dresses and handkerchiefs featuring in several photographs, along with lace. Lots of lace. But not all crimes involved property, such as the convict transported for vagrancy.

In some of the photographs there are interesting links between the convicts and their descendants. The occupations of the descendants vary, but performing arts and public servants feature quite a bit. One of the descendants of James Ruse is included; Ruse was transported for breaking and entering, and was given an early land grant and the opportunity to establish a productive farm. His successful efforts were rewarded with additional land grants, and his legacy is noted in the photo above, taken on the Parramatta River. The excerpt is taken from his gravestone, which he partly carved before his death:


This exhibition made me think deeper about these unconventional beginnings of European settlement in Australia, not least of all because like many other Australians I have a convict or two in my family tree. Theft of jewellery, a steel watch chain, a single handkerchief (valued at three shillings) and a wicker basket with nine pecks of beans – all of these crimes were serious enough to ensure a trip across the seas.

There is a link to a summary of the exhibition here, including an interview with photographer Mine Konakci. The importance of understanding your past in order to have a stronger sense of belonging is evident throughout the exhibition. The video interview includes many of the photographs and is well worth a view.

Do you have a convict in your family tree?

[Photo: taken on Parramatta River, Parramatta]

Challenging Assumptions: Colonial Convict Women

Recently I listened to Australian academic Carol Liston talk about a research project she is working on with Dr Kathrine Reynolds. One of the aims of the project is to better understand the lives and circumstances of women from England, Scotland and Wales who were sent to Australia as convicts from 1810 to 1835. Due to record limitations, Irish female convicts were not included.

A common perception about convicts sent to Australia from 1788 to 1868 is that many were sent for minor misdemeanours such as the theft of a loaf of bread or that ultimate fashion accessory, a handkerchief. There are instances of this, but by casting a wide net over three decades and looking at trends across the female convicts, the perception is firmly challenged. The women who were sentenced to transportation were usually repeat offenders and thefts were often significant – in many cases the financial equivalent of a year’s wage or more. Another perception about female convicts is that they were usually young, in their late teens or early twenties, and of childbearing age. The research indicates that the average age was closer to twenty-nine, and that there were many instances of women in their forties and fifties being sent across the seas.

During the period in question, over 5,000 women were transported to the Australian colonies. The sheer volume of women, although significantly lower than the number of men transported over this period, means that the ability to focus on individual stories is limited. As genealogists know, tracing female convicts can be challenging as there can be various name changes for marriage and other reasons, making it difficult to have a clear or continuous record. Sources used to assist with the research include trial documents, newspapers, correspondence, surgeon journals and petitions.

Evidence confirms that in many instances the women were organised, risk-taking innovators; in some cases there were networks of criminals fencing stolen goods or acting in groups to lure victims and steal from them. Part of the challenge for the successful criminal, male or female, was the limited ways in which to spend their ill-gotten gains. The property market was controlled by the aristocracy so money was spent on food, alcohol, clothes and travel – ‘flash’ criminals would be seen travelling around in carriages above their station and attract suspicion.

To be sentenced to transportation was a life-changing event. Part of the consideration of the research project is the impact this had on the women. There are stories of successful female convicts – ask any descendant and they can usually confirm the success in the simple fact that they are here, the maternal line survived – but what of those who struggled with the upheaval and psychological impact of being sent to other side of the world with very limited chance of return? To be leaving behind family and friends and in some cases, their children and husbands? Children were allowed to be transported in some instances, and there are a few examples of husbands and children following the convicted women but these are the exception. How did the convict system take care of those who didn’t cope?

Prior to transportation there were some measures put in place in an attempt to ensure that convicts were fit to travel before they boarded the ship. Various strategies were employed by some women to try to defer or cancel their departure, including pregnancy (which might delay the inevitable for up to a year) or pouring boiling water over their feet. During the trip, some convicts became so upset as to die on the voyage or arrive in a state of distress. Some deaths on the trips were put down to broken hearts, the toll of being sent away simply too much to bear. An example was given of a French governess who was transported to the colonies. The records show that she went from being an English-speaking woman, able to take care of her appearance and manage herself prior to departure to becoming so distressed during the voyage that she was able to communicate only in French, with six convicts being assigned to take care of her during the voyage as she could no longer manage to feed or take care of herself.

In some cases, women who were unable to cope with the life in the colonies ended up self-harming, struggling with alcoholism or committing suicide. Some ended up in colonial hospitals and asylums. But the records also show the spirit of resilience and acceptance. One woman, convicted for theft, applied to have some of her property including cash that had been her own but confiscated by the local sheriffs following her conviction returned to her so that she might be able to purchase provisions for the long and arduous trip as well as goods to set herself up in the colony.

Have you had any of your historical perceptions challenged recently?

Carol Liston is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Western Sydney, and I listened to her talk at a meeting of the Fellowship of the First Fleeters – Eastern Farms Chapter. 

[Photo taken at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Tasmania: Through this gate passed thousands of women and children. Lest we forget.]

One Man; Over 1300 Public Buildings: James Barnet

Scottish born James Barnet was the Colonial Architect of New South Wales from 1862 to 1890. Under his guidance, the architectural and civic landscape of the state changed and developed a confidence and character that is still evident today. These were boom years for the colony with the upgrade and replacement of early infrastructure as well as new buildings to meet the demands of a growing population.


Goulburn Court House

The length of tenure contributed to the sheer volume of buildings that were designed and constructed during these years. Many public buildings remain with alterations and in some instances perform a different purpose to their initial intention. But there is a style to these buildings which, once recognised, can be found in various city suburbs as well as many towns in regional parts of the state.

Bathurst Court House

Bathurst Court House

Barnet was a classical, revivalist architect. Born in Scotland, he trained as a builder and stonemason before attending night school in London in order to attain his qualifications as an architect. Encouraged by a mentor, Barnet decided to migrate to one of the colonial outposts as there was an oversupply of architects in England at the time. In 1854 he migrated to Sydney with his wife, Amy.


Lithgow Court House

Similar to Scottish bridge-builder Lennox decades before, Barnet’s potential was recognised whilst he was working on a building site as a stonemason. After a series of commissions he joined the Colonial Architect’s Office in 1860. Two years later he was acting in the position of Colonial Architect, a position he held until 1890.

Katoomba Court House

Katoomba Court House

The scope of work was wide and the quantity of buildings constructed was considerable. This included 169 post offices, 130 court houses, 110 goals and lockups, 155 police stations, 20 lighthouses, an extension to the Australian Museum, the Colonial Secretary’s Office and the Lands Department building. These examples provide an insight into what was of importance at the time: communication, justice, transport and administration. Military defence and naval infrastructure were included in Barnet’s remit, along with the maintenance of other public buildings.

Dubbo Court House

Dubbo Court House

Barnet also designed the psychiatric hospital at Callan Park which opened in 1883 as the Hospital for the Insane. It consisted of 20 neoclassical buildings for the care of over 600 patients, male and female. The design was influenced by theories of the time which recommended high ceilings in a park like atmosphere.


Callan Park building

One of Barnet’s most extravagant buildings was short-lived: the Sydney International Exhibition Building. Located adjacent to the Sydney Botanical Gardens on 5 acres, it was constructed in the spirit of the international exhibitions of the northern hemisphere and when complete was the largest exhibition space in the southern hemisphere – Melbourne was also striving for this title. The first electric light in Sydney was used to speed the building’s completion as work continued around the clock. Over a million people came to the ‘Garden Palace’ to see the exhibition, quite amazing as the population at the time was just over two million. The building cost over three times its initial estimate and unfortunately was destroyed in a huge fire. Only a set of gates remain, located in Macquarie Street opposite History House.


Goulburn Post Office

Over his long career, Barnet served 16 ministers and oversaw the construction of over a thousand buildings. Despite similarities between buildings, templates as such were not used. Local materials and resources were used where possible. There were various parliamentary enquiries during his career and when he was finally forced to resign it was an ignominious professional end. Barnet was the last Colonial Architect as the office was restructured following his departure.

Many of his buildings remain today and as I travel about I like to keep an eye out for Barnet’s touch in public buildings as I go.


  • Inspired by an excellent talk given by Emeritus Professor Don Napper.
  • Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on James Johnstone Barnet.
  • There is an extensive post about the prolific buildings designed by Barnet, particularly across the central west of NSW here.

[Photo: detail from Dubbo Court House]


Impressions of an Island: Norfolk Island

A rich, fertile island located about 1,600 km from Sydney and 1,000 km from New Zealand, Norfolk Island is home to approximately 2,000 people and is a popular tourist destination. It is compact, about 35 square kilometres, and has witnessed some extraordinary chapters of Australian history. Whilst looking for something else entirely, I came across some notes I made during a trip to the island a few years back.

The origins of this place are unusual with four settlements acknowledged by the locals. The first was the Polynesian settlers, who left minimal traces and were long gone by the time Captain Cook found the island and named it for the Duchess of Norfolk in 1774. Cook was taken with the place, calling it paradise. He saw much opportunity for the thousands of tall pine trees and abundance of flax growing on the island. He found a landing-place relatively easily and didn’t spend much time on the island.

Based on Cook’s recommendations, the place was the second settlement under Governor Phillip’s command. Phillip was instructed to have the place settled and under British rule as a priority with the French also being in the area. He sent off Philip Gidley King with a small group of settlers, convicts and marines shortly after landing in January 1788. It took them about 6 weeks to get to Norfolk, and it was days before they could land. The island is still notoriously difficult to approach by sea.

This second settlement lasted from 1788 to 1814. The high hopes for the use of the pines for masts on the fighting ships of the British fleet were in vain; due to the lack of sap in the wood and the way that the branches were formed, they were unsuitable for this purpose. The flax was also a disappointment. Initially King could not identify it, thinking it was a type of iris. They had brought along a flax weaver, but the man could not make this flax work. Later on, a couple of Maoris were enticed onboard a ship and taken to Norfolk to show how to work the flax. Alas, this was women’s work and they could not assist. However the rich soil and conditions helped the convict settlement to survive at Kingston. It was eventually closed due to cost considerations. All of the buildings, painstakingly constructed, were burned upon departure to discourage anyone living on the island.

The third settlement is the most notorious. Following the Bigge Commission into the convict system in Australia, it was decided that a secondary place of punishment was required, a place so abhorrent to the convict community that the thought of being sent there would be a deterrent in itself. The settlement commenced in 1825, and was in operation until the early 1850s when it was wound down and finally closed.

The island became home to Pitcairners in 1856. The Pitcairn islanders were the descendants of the Bounty mutineers, with 194 arriving on the island. They inherited all of the buildings and infrastructure created by the convict settlement, and understandably avoided the gaol areas. Stones were quarried from the buildings over time, and families lived in the houses and administrative offices in Quality Row until houses were built ‘up country’.

Norfolk Island has been popular tourist spot for decades and there are lots of tours and packages designed to explore the history and enjoy the many activities on the island. Thinking back my impressions are a mixed bag. The people were friendly – there are very few road rules apart from a speed limit of 50 km/hour, give way to cattle who range all over the place and wave at any car passing by – and the locals were proud and informative about their heritage. The island has a range of restaurants and some of the tours included a progressive dinner at various homes which provided a glimpse into what living on the island permanently might feel like. I was drawn to the remnants of the convict buildings, clustered around Kingston. Plaques dotted the island, anchoring the past in the present.

All goods need to be shipped or flown in. There is no safe, natural harbour and it felt isolated enough now in the age of telecommunications and regular air travel. I could only imagine the isolation during the convict settlements. We watched a boat being unloaded which was quite a feat in itself as it had been waiting 18 days for the water to be calm enough to get to the dock. A couple of days before we left there were major dust storms across NSW and Queensland. TV footage showed Sydney shrouded in red dust, with even the Harbour Bridge obscured. The day we left the dust was visible in the water, crashing against the shoreline.

The rugged coastline with sheer cliffs contrasted with the rolling green hills. There were many beautiful gardens, including one called Camelot which had a series of gardens designed as rooms, a sensory delight to explore. We went to a convict night out with traditional fare, singing and dancing. And jokes with lots of puns from memory. I read a number of historical books whilst there, including one which focussed on the Commandants who ruled the island. Some were average, others were sadistic beyond understanding. The reconstruction and preservation of officer’s houses along Quality Row provided insight into what life was like for the military, and we also had a chance to go through Government House which was beautifully set out. A stroll through the nearby cemetery was sobering with many gravestones of young men in particular.

Have you been to a place which has left an impression on you?

[Photo: Norfolk Island coastline]

Minding Her Own Business

From mid winter till late spring, the Blackheath History Forum holds fortnightly talks on a wide range of Australian history topics. The talks are usually held at the Blackheath Primary School hall, the backdrop featuring six stunning scenes in mixed media, highlighting some of the local views and including a vibrant red waratah.

The introduction to the talk outlined how history leaves an imprint on the present, and the importance of understanding the role of history as it shapes the present and our future. There was also commentary on the importance of trade and commerce: this isn’t always a focus of conventional history texts but it provides us with our daily needs and has much to tell us regarding what matters at a particular point in time. This weekend’s talk was given by Dr Catherine Bishop on the topic of colonial businesswomen in Sydney, with the focus on the period from the 1830s up until the 1880s.

Dr Catherine Bishop is an engaging and often humourous speaker, bringing to life aspects of everyday existence from over 150 years ago in a relatable manner. The topic, colonial businesswomen of Sydney, formed part of her doctoral thesis. The thesis also covered their counterparts in New Zealand.

There are no memorials to the colonial businesswomen of Sydney, despite the important role that they played. A common perception is that women were engaged in trades primarily to supplement the household income, to help provide for children, often in the absence of a male breadwinner. But this is only a fragment of the reality of the times. Women used their skills across a wide range of industries to create businesses which were sometimes later subsumed into their husband’s name upon marriage.

Bishop cited several businesses that continued to trade over decades, and sometimes evolved into large family businesses across generations. The starting point for her research was the Mitchell Library with its large collection of diaries and letters. Despite an extensive search, there was barely a record of any businesswomen of this period to be found. Bishop had to look further afield. Using a wide range of records including Trove, insolvency files at the State Records, Westpac Archives (bank account registers) and other tools such as the Sands Directories, Bishop has been able to unearth a rich chapter of colonial history.

The scope of businesses owned and operated by women was extensive. Bishop used Castlereagh Street in Sydney as an example, and women were running various businesses including bonnet cleaning, butcher shops, a cab operator, dressmakers and a hotelier in this street alone. Other businesses included milliners, fruit sellers, umbrella makers, grocers, a servant registry office, boarding and lodging houses, pawnbrokers and a haberdashery. You can get a taste of this in Bishop’s entry in the Dictionary of Sydney under Women of Pitt Street 1858.

The talk included snippets of the lives of several women who not only survived but thrived whilst operating their own businesses. This is seldom reflected in their obituaries, where women are usually described as wife of X, mother of Y, mother of daughters who married well, rather than as a successful woman in her own right.

For me the talk was a starting point for further reading, including Bishop’s book Minding Her Own Business: Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney. I am particularly intrigued by Elizabeth Cadman (wife of John Cadman of Cadmans Cottage) and some of the female proprietors of The Belgravia Hotel, which was later bought by Mark Foy and included in the extensive grounds of the Hydro Majestic Hotel.

You can find out about upcoming history talks here.

[Photo: front of the Blackheath Public School hall]