Charles Dickens and Australia

As part of my researches into my great-great-grandad George Matcham Pitt, I was scrolling through Trove looking for information on an Aboriginal man named ‘Fryingpan’ – who had been accused and convicted of spearing a cow on my ancestor’s property on the Gwydir  – when I came upon what looked like a first-hand account of the trial written by none other than Charles Dickens.

Charles Dickens (independent.co.uk)
Charles Dickens (independent.co.uk)

Wow, I thought, what a coup. What family historian isn’t thrilled at the thought of direct connections with famous people?

The trial took place at Maitland Assizes in 1842. To be precise, the only man tried that day – for some reason the writer wasn’t aware of, Fryingpan, while in court, did not enter the dock – was Fryingpan’s friend The Duke of Wellington (these monikers presumably bestowed on them by convicts), also accused of spearing a cow. The writer gave a vivid description of the defendant with his ‘coarse-matted’ shoulder-length hair, bright expressive eyes and a mouth ‘enough for two faces’. It took some pushing and shoving to get him into the dock apparently, and then, the writer went on:

‘When fairly confronted with Sir James [the judge], a violent grin broke out half-round Wellington’s head, evidently caused by his Honor’s wig, bands, and red gown, on which the savage’s eyes seemed to be fastened with a fascinated stare. Nor did he, in his unsophisticated nature, attempt to conceal the emotion excited within him; for, notwithstanding the additional gravity laid on by the judge for the occasion, the joke appeared to improve so much in the black man’s mind that at last he laughed outright. Moreover he seemed to grin a kind of circular invitation to all the people in Court to join in the laugh with him. He grinned the rebukeful countenance of the Sheriff into such a state, that that solemn officer of justice was obliged to turn his face away, and discharge a short private laugh of his own. He grinned at the counsel and the crowd, until giggling became irrepressible, and even the countenance of the Chief Justice, who had a keen perception of the ludicrous, was becoming rapidly unmanageable.’

Eventually things calmed down and the trial was under way. Wellington, through an interpreter, claimed the evidence against him was ‘a pack of lies’, but unfortunately his plea was contradicted by several witnesses and he was found guilty and transported for ten years to Van Diemen’s Land. He was led from the court still grinning, ‘as if he had got to the end of a pleasant entertainment’.

The writer, while enjoying the spectacle, and disregarding his use of the word ‘savage’, was on reflection appalled and dismayed. What right do we have, he wrote, to submit ‘this poor child of nature’ to ‘an English court of justice, mock his ignorance with a jargon of law forms, and conclude by tearing him from his hunting grounds, his wife, and little children, for ten years?’

The tone of the piece, the humour and the empathy and understanding of what it meant for an Aboriginal man to be stripped of everything he had ever known, sounded pure Dickens to me. The Trove article appeared in the Wingham Chronicle and Manning River Observer in 5th September 1919, and clearly the newspaper thought the same. It didn’t take me long however to discover that Dickens himself never actually visited Australia, even though it featured in several of his books in one way or another, and he sent two of his sons there (about whom more at another time). The original article, Going Circuit at the Antipodes, appeared in Household Words – which called itself a Journal ‘conducted’ by Dickens – in 1852, and like all the other contributions, there was no author credited.

Household Words-1
Household Words (googlebooks.com)

So who was the mystery writer?

A bit more research turned up a book compiled by a Canadian writer called Anne Lohri (available in the fabulous British Library), in which she lists all the contributors to Household Words . It transpired the writer was a “London barrister” and part-time journalist called Archibald Michie, who’d arrived in Sydney a few years earlier and had been invited to attend the court by an Australian lawyer friend.

Anti-climax? Well yes and no. The fact that the writer was not Dickens does not make it any less noteworthy as an account, by an outsider, of how colonial law dealt with Aboriginal wrongdoers. And anyway, Dickens thought nothing apparently of taking a story sent to him and ‘playing with it until it was practically rewritten’ (according to Coral Lansbury, JRAHS, Vol 52 part 2, 1966).

The one thing it does do is throw up the pros and cons of trying to write a book about family history: getting sidetracked by famous people makes the exercise both all the more fascinating and all the more endless. Publication date? Don’t mention it.

Patsy Trench, London, June 2017

 

 

 

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Writing about what you don’t know (2)

Writing about droving and farming in 19th century Australia from a flat in north London?

… is quite a challenge, believe me, especially when the writer barely knows a heifer from a ewe.

sheep-droving
Sheep droving, after a fashion. (Yes, I have been on an Aussie farm)

I first blogged on this topic a year ago; I was about to embark on my latest oeuvre about my great great grandfather, who was a pioneer farmer and stock and station agent in remote 19th cenury New South Wales. I’d been putting it off thinking this is completely beyond me, but then I was reminded that that is precisely what I said about my first book The Worst Country in the World, about my original Australian ancestress.

G M portrait
George Matcham Pitt, my great grandfather

I am not saying I have cracked it, but there are positive advantages to writing about unfamiliar topics, and the most obvious one is:

If you can take an unfamiliar subject about which you know nothing and find it interesting, then it should be possible to make it interesting to your readers.

We’ve all picked up a newspaper or maybe glanced at someone’s blog and found ourselves drawn in to a topic we didn’t think we had any interest in. It’s called good writing of course.

cows
These are cows

There’s another advantage: whatever I’m writing about there is no pretence. I am looking at things like cattle droving for instance with the fascinated and sometimes bemused eye of the outsider. Do cattle really behave like that? What do you mean all sheep are not the same?

rabbit-proof-fence
Rabbit fence

To see what I mean take a look at my chapter on The Drover. I’d be interested in your comments.

Patsy Trench
London, 2016

patsytrench@gmail.com

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

Writing about what you don’t know: The Light Bulb Moment

One of the paradoxes facing the family historian is that he or she does not get to choose who or what to write about.

If you are a regular historian or biographer you are likely to be writing about people or events or places that interest you and that you already know something about. But if your ancestor was a limner in Victorian times, or a tipstaff in the Middle Ages, or – in my case, a farmer in 18th century New South Wales – you may just have your work cut out. And if the mantra ‘write what you know’ is anything like true then you are about to stumble blind down a long and tortuous alley.

RAHS logoI have received a Heritage Grant from the Royal Australian Historical Society to write about my great grandfather’s exploits as a pioneer farmer in the Moree district in northern New South Wales. As a Londoner I know nothing about farming, not here in the UK and certainly not in 19th century Australia.

George Matcham Pitt, my great grandfather
George Matcham Pitt, my great grandfather, subject of my next book

I can see two faint glimmers of light (three including the grant): the reminder from friends that when I complain yet again that this project is ‘completely beyond me’ that is exactly what I said when I was setting out to write my previous family book The Worst Country in the World.

The second comes from reading about the ‘new chums’: early settlers, usually young men migrating from England to ‘take up’ land in the new colony and make their fortunes, cheerfully confessing to having only ‘a vague idea of cattle as heifers, cows, bulls, and oxen, and as beasts that had horns, and made a great bellowing.’[1]

Starting from a point of total ignorance need not be an obstacle. Knowing nothing means you have no preconceptions, either about your subject matter or your readers’ expectations. But if you can’t get interested in your subject then you can’t expect your readers to either.

The process of researching land regulation and droving practices in 1830s New South Wales is  like trying to get to grips with a foreign language such as Japanese: a sea of hieroglyphs on a page that mean nothing. But with a bit of luck and a lot of persistence, gradually those incomprehensible shapes start to make sense: the veil lifts, the light bulb flashes and Eureka: you’re in business.

Vectoroptics.net

So, as a way of turning ignorance to advantage I am making notes not just of what I’m learning and the sources I’m learning from, but of those light bulb moments.

My first moment came about with the help of a poem called Saltbush Bill by Australia’s unofficial poet laureate Banjo Paterson.

Now is the law of the Overland that all in the West obey —
A man must cover with travelling sheep a six-mile stage a day;
But this is the law which the drovers make, right easily understood,

They travel their stage where the grass is bad, but they camp where the grass is good,
They camp, and they ravage the squatter’s grass till never a blade remains.
Then they drift away as the white clouds drift on the edge of the saltbush plains…
                   

Saltbush Bill was a drover of remarkable talents. The poem goes on to tell how he managed to extend his stay on a squatter’s land by picking a fight with the jackeroo (who was English, and a new-chum), making it last all day and allowing the jackaroo to win in the end so he could proudly return to the homestead claiming he’d licked the interloper; meanwhile Bill’s sheep had strayed way beyond the legal limit of half a mile from the track and spent the day merrily chomping on the squatter’s lush grass, scattering so far and so wide it took a week to muster them before Bill and his now well-fed mob could be on their way again.

Saltbush Bill by Eric Jolliffe
Saltbush Bill by Eric Jolliffe

On  a more sober note, Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife tells of the desolate and desperate isolation of a woman living in the sticks with her kids, her husband absent almost all the time, fighting snakes and loneliness, dressing up on Sundays to go for walks along the riverbank with her kids.

The Drover's Wife by Drysdale
The Drover’s Wife by Russell Drysdale (abc.net.au)

These wonderful pieces are an inspiration to this would-be biographer. They demonstrate how it is possible in a few short lines, or pages, to paint infinitely vivid pictures of early colonial life in outback Australia. The message this delivers to me is: when short of inspiration, look to the poets and the authors. Then once you’ve found the spark, and you can convey the excitement of it to the reader, you are well on the way.

Has anyone else out there experienced a light bulb moment?

[1] Edward Bell, quoted in Station Life in Australia by Peter Taylor