The Secret River

Most people are familiar with Kate Grenville’s novel, published in 2005 and shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize. It features a convict called William Thornhill, a Thames boatman transported for life to New South Wales for stealing timber, whence he travels with his wife and two young boys and where, on receiving his absolute pardon, he sets his sights on a patch of land on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney and then has to contend with the indigenous people whose land he is purloining.

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Nathaniel Dean (Thornhill) and Ningali Lawford Wolf (Dhirrumbin); Adelaide Festival programme

It was apparently the idea of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, then Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, to adapt the book into a stage play, for which purpose they hired the services of the playwright Andrew Bovell. The result, realised by director Neil Armfield, designed by Stephen Curtis and set in a quarry outside Adelaide, is one of the most memorable nights I have ever spent at the theatre.

Ms Grenville always stated she felt unable to tell her story from the point of view of the indigenous people, which is why they are shadowy entities in her book – always there but not quite defined. The same is not the case in the play. The Aboriginal people Thornhill is so afraid of are there in flesh and blood, speaking Dharug, the local language of the Hawkesbury – which, wisely I think, is not translated, so we the audience are as confused and perhaps as scared as Thornhill and his wife.

The play is narrated by a character called Dhirrumbin (Dharug for the Hawkesbury River). Played by Ningali Lawford Wolf she tells the story with a mixture of anger, regret and ruefulness. Never have I seen the misunderstandings between two cultures so vividly, humorously and ultimately tragically portrayed. When Thornhill in one scene confronts an Aboriginal elder and tells him forcibly to ‘go away’ the elder responds with what I assumed to be the same instruction in his own language, to which Thornhill replies, with relief, ‘Well at least we understand each other’. The massacre is portrayed twice: once from the white point of view, where we watch an advancing line of men with guns puffing on white powder (flour I think) to portray the musket shots – a wonderfully imaginative moment. Then, separately, we see the Aboriginal people, children and women among them, drop one by one to the ground so all this is left is a single wounded Aborigine.

The Anstey Hill Quarry, some distance out of Adelaide, is where the stone for the city’s first public buildings was excavated back in the 19th century. The play is set on a wide open stage with a painted floorcloth and a sheer cliff as backdrop. Live music is composed and performed by Iain Grandage on piano and cello, with the occasional addition of guitar and pipe; lights are set on scaffolding on either side of the stage. All in all a magical setting you could say, enhanced by uniformly supreme performances from the entire cast.

Secret River
Theatre backdrop (photo by Tony Trench)

I have a particular interest in the play of course as my own ancestors, featured in my book The Worst Country in the Worldwere granted land not far upstream from the fictional Thornhill* and his family, and at much the same time. They were the lucky ones, they did not have to fight for what they considered their ‘official’ right to the land; which would not have made a scrap of difference to the indigenous local people of course, to whom an interloper was an interloper.

The subject of the British invasion of New South Wales is a sensitive one, to say the least. But with a mixture of humour, compassion and even-handedness this presentation of The Secret River achieves the near-impossible: by focusing on one family in one place at one time it manages to encapsulate the much bigger story of western colonisation of Australia

Miraculous. What I want to know now is when will we colonisers have the chance to see this wonderful production back in the UK? National Theatre, I hope you are reading this.

*Yet based loosely on Grenville’s great x 3 grandfather Solomon Wiseman.

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Family History – the Eureka moment

As any family historian knows, we live for these breakthrough moments, but they come along very rarely.

Mary Aull (Johnson) absconded cropped
The Colonist, 6 February 1839

My three times great grandmother was a convict called Mary Moore, transported to New South Wales in 1808 for 7 years for stealing items valued at  £1.15s.6d. A few years after her first husband – my three times great grandfather – died she married again, another convict, Irish this time, called Robert Aull, and took her four children to live with him and his five children in Richmond, where he bought the license for a pub on what they called  the “Yellow Munday’s” (Yarramundi) Lagoon, which he named the General Darling.

As tended to happen in those days once she married Mary disappeared from the records. She had appeared in a previous census as a shopkeeper, but from the date of her marriage in 1829 she vanished off the apparent face of the earth. Two niggles stopped me from thinking she lived happily ever after with her new hubby: the 1841 census – where she did not appear to be living with him – and the fact that she was buried in the name of Mary Johnson, after her first marriage.

I was searching for Robert Aull in Trove – the Australian digitised newspaper website – and had got to the stage where all that was cropping up were the odd Robert and ‘aull’ in place of ‘all’ when Eureka: I came upon the notice, inserted in The Colonist three times and The Sydney Morning Herald once by her hubby, announcing her sudden and obviously unwelcome departure from the family home. I’ve no idea where she went, but the tone of the ‘advertisement’, as that is what it was, makes it very clear Robert was not pleased; worse, he makes her sound like a runaway convict, or even a stolen cow, threatening anyone found ‘harbouring’ her.

The moral of the tale is keep looking: even when you think you’ve exhausted the records there may just be a nugget of gold awaiting you.

Understanding the NSW 1828 census

I realise this is of minority interest, but for the record – even if it’s only my record – here is how to find your way through the 1828 New South Wales census.

Online resources are wonderful, but they aren’t always complete, as I’ve recently discovered.

As an example the New South Wales census of 1828, which was the first comprehensive census of all the inhabitants of the new colony, convict and free, is available online in its original form – ie, handwritten – through ancestry. So far so good.

Mary Johnston 1828 census marked
Mary ‘Johnston’& family 1828 census (ancestry)

I was looking for my three times great grandmother Mary Johnson, nee Moore (GM Pitt’s mother in law). Searching through ancestry I came upon a one-page facsimile of the census (above) listing her as ‘Mary Johnston’, her age (40), status (FS – Free by Servitude), the ship she arrived on (Eolus), sentence (7 yrs), occupation (shopkeeper) and place of residence (George Street, Sydney), and her children. Yet my genealogical aunt Barbara seemed to find evidence of two servants who were working for her, who I could find no trace of online. So I went in search of the book.

The book, painstakingly edited by Malcolm R Sainty & Keith A Johnson (Public Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1980) and available in the British Library contains copious instructions and forewords and introductions, and no fewer than three indexes. It also spells out exactly what the 1828 census set out to discover, viz:

What are the respective names, ages and conditions of the persons residing with you in your dwelling-house?

What are the respective names, ages, conditions and residences of all such other persons, as may be in your service and employment?

Specify the respective years and ships in, and by which, all of such aforesaid persons as originally came to the  Colony Prisoners of the Crown, arrived?

What are the respective numbers of horses, horned cattle, and sheep, of which you are the owner; and in whose possession, and in what district are the same respectively?

What is the number of acres of land of which you are the proprietor, in what district is the same, how much thereof is cleared, and how much cultivated, and in whose possession is the same?

So if you think your ancestor may have had anyone working for him or her, here is what you do:

  1. Look up their surname in the main index. This will give you the page number where you find out their basic details (name, age, status etc, as illustrated above).
  2. Look up their surname in the cross reference index. Against their name you will find other references, such as – in Mary’s case – R381 and R1480.
  3. Look back through the main index for, in this case, R381 and R1480, and you should find the names and details of people working for Mary (or whoever): viz ‘Thomas Rowland, 40, GS (Govt servant), arrived Tottenham, 1818, L (life), P protestant, occupation Pipemaker, employed at Mary Johnston, George St Sydney’.

That’s it. Easy when you know how.

NB: Names are often spelt differently – in this case Mary appears as both Johnson and Johnston; two of her convict servants appear under Johnson, one under Johnston, and one has no employer specified. So yes, we could be talking about two Mary Johnson/Johnstons here, both living in George Street. But that is a conundrum I have yet to solve…

Patsy Trench
London August 2016

The Nelson connection

As Dorset gears itself for its annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival it is interesting to note that so many of the earliest free settlers to make their lives in the penal colony of New South Wales came from this same county.

The first family to take the plunge were Thomas and Jane Rose from Blandford with their four children, a niece, a friend and her baby. They migrated on the Bellona in 1792, just four years after the First Fleet planted the Union Jack on the shores of Sydney Harbour.

Nine years later it was the turn of my four times great grandmother Mary Pitt and her five children, from Fiddleford, subject of my book The Worst Country in the World. They arrived in 1801 and the following year were granted land on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney.

It is hard to overestimate the courage of these early settlers, who sacrificed everything they had ever known to make a new life the opposite side of the world, living among convicts, in a country hardly anyone could be persuaded to go to voluntarily. The man responsible was – in the case of Mary and quite possibly the Roses too – George Matcham, Admiral Nelson’s brother-in-law.

Geo Matcham
George Matcham

George was Mary’s cousin and was married to Nelson’s sister Kitty. He was one of the first to recognise the opportunities in the far-off newly-discovered colony, even though he never went there himself. His relationship to Nelson helped, naturally. It was partly thanks to the Nelson connection that the Pitts were given grants on the Hawkesbury, which they named Pitt and Nelson Farms, later combined under the name of Bronte, again in recognition of the Admiral, whose full title was Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, Duke of Bronte.

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Bronte 2010

The names Bronte and Nelson were and still are ubiquitous throughout Australia, not just on houses but on places – the suburb of Bronte in Sydney is named after nearby Bronte House – and people. There’s even a Bronte Park in Tasmania, named after the admiral by George’s son-in-law Captain Arthur Davies, who married George’s daughter Elizabeth and migrated there in the 1828.

But of all these groups the only ‘legitimates’ – in other words those transported ‘for their country’s good’ – were the Tolpuddle Martyrs themselves, who were convicted on a trumped-up charge of making a secret oath and spent barely two years in the penal colony before being released, thanks to public protest; and whose legacy lives on to this day.

Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival (tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk)
(tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk)

For more about the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Festival see here: www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk.

Patsy Trench, London, July 2016
patsytrench@gmail.com

Our Country’s Good

In 1789, barely a year after the First Fleet of convicts and marines arrived in New South Wales, the governor, Arthur Phillip – who was a remarkable and unusual man – made the remarkable and unusual suggestion that the convicts stage a play. The chosen piece was ‘The Recruiting Officer’ by George Farquhar, and the chosen playmaster was a junior officer called Lieutenant Ralph Clark.

National Theatre programme
National Theatre programme

Out of this unusual and remarkable story the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker crafted a funny and moving play called Our Country’s Good, adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker and first produced at the Royal Court Theatre back in 1988. Now the National Theatre is giving the play a welcome revival, but maybe it was the vastness of the Olivier stage that dissipated much of the intimacy of the relationships at the heart of the play, or the slow pace of the action (it was a second preview), but somehow the joyful, redemptive play that I remember from all those years ago was not as moving or as funny as I was expecting.

The director has made the unusual decision to cast Afro-Caribbean actors in the roles of Governor Phillip and the witty and elegant Watkin Tench. I am all for colour-blind casting but since this is partly a story of the colonisation of a black country by a white one, in this instance it is just confusing. The aboriginal community is represented by one actor (one more than in the BBC TV series ‘Banished’), who observes, and dances, and eventually speaks his thoughts (in cultured English, another jarring note).

Governor Phillip (wikipedia)
Governor Phillip (wikipedia)

But all power to the actors, and in particular to Jason Hughes (Midsommer Murders) who manages to turn the uptight, slightly humourless Ralph Clark into a warm and interesting human being; and to Lee Ross, who takes on the role of the ‘thespian’ Sideway and makes him both hilarious and totally believable. The music is an unusual (and remarkable) mix of gospel, slave-song and guitar, with just the right mix of didgeridoo – previously recorded in Australia I believe.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(wikipedia)
(wikipedia)

In preparation for seeing the play I have been re-reading Keneally’s book. He calls it a novel, but more surprisingly he states that ‘All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental’. However virtually all his characters, from the governor and his bad-tempered deputy Major Robbie Ross to the convicts Robert Sideway and Mary Brennan – who Clark casts in his play and with whom he later had a child – were not only real people but are represented by Keneally pretty accurately.

In his Author’s Note Keneally acknowledges ‘… that in making this fiction he found rich material in such works as ‘The Journal and Letters of Lt Ralph Clark … and David Collins’s An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales’. Out of idle curiosity I glanced through both of these to find that while Clark kept intimate diaries of some of his early years in the colony the relevant period in 1789 is missing. And all Collins has to say about it was: ‘The anniversary of his Majesty’s birth-day … was observed with every distinction in our power; … the detachment of marines fired three vollies, which were followed by twenty-one guns from each of the ships of war in the cove … and in the evening some of the convicts were permitted to perform Farquhar’s comedy of the Recruiting Officer, in a hut fitted up for the occasion. They professed no higher aim than “humbly to excite a smile,” and their efforts to please were not unattended with applause.’[1] (They did love their double negatives in those days.)

So all power to Thomas Keneally and to Timberlake Wertenbaker for drawing to our attention such a remarkable (and unusual) event in the earliest days of the colony. And to the National Theatre for transporting us temporarily to that remarkable and much-ignored (in this country) continent.

Finally – a note to the programme compilers: Norfolk Island is not off the coast of Tasmania.

Patsy Trench, August 2015
patsytrench@gmail.com

[1] An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Chapter VII. http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/colacc1.pdf

Crimes and Punishments

It didn’t take much for a person to be packed off to Botany Bay in the early days of transportation. In 19th century Britain there were more than 200 crimes that were punishable by death, compared with fewer than twenty 300 years earlier. These included forgery, pickpocketing, being in the company of gipsies for more than a month, blackening the face and impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner.[1]

My great great great grandparents were transported in the early 1800s for 14 and seven years respectively for the crimes of being in possession of forged banknotes, and for stealing ‘a cloak and other goods to the value of £1.13s.6d from the house of Thomas Cunningham, Gatton, Surrey’.

According to the National Archives the local Assize Courts were ‘where the most serious criminal trials were held twice a year by judges appointed by the monarch’.[2]  Since both John Johnson, the receiver of forged goods, and Mary Moore, the cloak-stealer, were tried and convicted at Stafford and Surrey Assizes respectively that gives some impression of the nature of the ‘serious crimes’ that led to transportation in the early 19th century.

We have all heard of people being transported for the crime of stealing a handkerchief, though I gather most of them were not first-time offenders. (And handkerchiefs in those days were not the plain old cotton things some people use now: they were often made of silk and could be worth as much as 4s), but I can’t help noticing further up the page where my ancestress Mary Moore was ‘committed of Felony’ other felons convicted of crimes such as stealing a sheep priced £4, or goods valued at £2.12, are to ‘be severally hanged by the neck until they are dead’.

Another ancestor (my step great x three grandfather, an Irishman named Robert Aull) was given a death sentence, commuted to transportation, for ‘uttering forged stamps’. (‘Uttering’ means knowingly being in possession of stolen or forged goods with the intention of passing them on.) Margaret Catchpole, one of Australia’s most famous convicts, who featured in my first book The Worst Country in the World, was given two death sentences, for horse stealing and then for breaking out of gaol, commuted again to transportation because people stood up for her good character.

Robert Aull conviction-page-001 (1)
Robert Aul [sic] conviction, Londonderry Assizes 1813

Now I need to find out why John Johnson, a potter from Staffordshire, was apprehended on the streets of Leek with three forged banknotes on his person, and why his wife-to-be Mary Moore was convicted of stealing from the family she worked for. It’s possible she was intending to sell the goods on, as many people did, to a ‘fence’ – which suggests she had criminal contacts – or, more likely, she was planning to pawn them. Local newspapers are my only hope.

But meanwhile, back in Australia …

[1] Bound for Botany Bay by Alan Brooke & David Brandon, (National Archives, London, 2005)
[2] http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/research-guides/assizes-criminal-1559-1971.htm
[3] ASSI 94/1616.