Australia’s bushfires

In my book Australia and How To Find It, published in October of 2019, I blithely claimed that Australia rarely featured in our news here in the UK, except for the cricket. That was before the bushfires. I have now added a postscript to my book chronicling the fires as witnessed in particular by residents of northern NSW, and the political fallout. Here it is:

For several months in late 2019/early 2020 Australia really did become the worst country in the world[i]. Between October 2019 and up until February 2020, as I write this, raging bushfires have destroyed over 11 million hectares of land[ii] (27 million acres, almost the size of England), over 2,500 homes, around 33 people including a number of firefighters, and an estimated one billion animals. It was believed some wildlife species were wiped out altogether. Even people not living near the fire regions were affected by smoke, which at one point reached New Zealand and even travelled as far as South America.

It began early, in some cases in September, which is technically spring in the southern hemisphere. I asked a friend, Michael Burge, who lives in northern New South Wales and in the region of a local fire, to tell me his story.

‘In very early September [2019] bushfires raged through Tenterfield and Drake, destroying homes and other property. Landowners, politicians and the media started throwing around the word ‘unprecedented’, mainly due to the speed and intensity of these unseasonal fires. . . .

. . . In November 2019 – still spring – fire ravaged two towns in our region (Wytaliba and Torrington) driven by the most intense air movement I have ever experienced. At one point during the terrible day when people were killed at Wytaliba, it felt like we were in the grip of two cyclones fighting for supremacy. The wind was so strong it was shooting into the ground and whipping up slices of soil that shot into the air. Dust, debris and burning foliage were being carried from where the fires were burning at Torrington, 28 kilometres away.

Across the region, we heard of fires travelling ahead of themselves in the form of embers, anywhere between 12 and 40 kilometres ahead of fire fronts during the high winds. 

According to climatologists, the hot air ahead of a fire can create a weather system known as a pyrocumulonimbus thunderstorm. I witnessed three of these. One showed on the horizon the day Tenterfield burned, its terrible lava-orange core showing deep within a great cauliflower head. Another was blowing towards our home the afternoon the RFS [Rural Fire Service] messaged me and advised that I leave home or shelter in place, so all I could see of it was the eerie yellow glow that wrapped everything in its pathway. 

As I enacted our fire plan and evacuated to Glen Innes, I saw the worst pyrocumulonimbus over Wytaliba. It looked like a mushroom cloud after an atomic bomb, although it was collapsing into itself, whipped up by the terrible wind. Collapsing over communities, livestock and wildlife; rivers, creeks and forests. Collapsing over everything I have ever known about living in rural Australia at a thousand metres above sea level in a cool-climate region.’

Wytaliba is a tiny community of around 100 people, living off the grid and away from the public eye, with a school attended by 10 children. In thirty minutes on a Friday in November 2019 the whole place went up in flames, obliterating twenty-five (mostly uninsured) homes, the school, a bridge on the route in, cars, agricultural machinery, wildlife and two local residents.[iii] Journalists descended en masse, to the dismay of the surviving residents, who’d gone to live there specifically to avoid the maddening crowds. One of them described Wytaliba as ‘one big, dysfunctional family’, where there were no property boundaries, no mobile coverage, and everyone shared everything.[iv]

Within weeks Wytaliba had set up a Facebook page, which I followed, where people were offering to donate everything from toys to clothes to caravans, cars and quad bikes and free holidays for children. They also offered differing views on the causes of the fires, the attitudes of governments – federal and state – the relative uselessness of most insurance companies and questions about compensation and whatever was happening to all those millions of dollars people around the world had donated. One lady piled the burnt and meagre remains of her house onto a truck and deposited them outside Government House in Canberra in protest at their policy – or lack of – on climate change. Fundraising events and morale-boosting community get-togethers sprang up all over the place.

Most residents of rural Australia have a fire plan, or should have. Here is Michael’s:

‘Our fire plan is simple. On the evening news every day the fire authorities issue a fire level warning for the following day (this has been in place since the Black Saturday fires in Victoria 2009). If the forecast is Catastrophic (the highest level) then the authorities cannot guarantee the survival of any building or structure, and we have agreed between us that we’ll leave early the following morning and get out of the area altogether. If it’s Severe or Extreme, we agree we’ll stay and keep a close watch on things. 

We are not equipped to defend this property as we don’t have enough water pressure or a transportable water tank with a generator to hose water onto spot fires or walls of flame. It would be foolhardy to stay without being much better prepared. So, when we leave our property we prepare it by ensuring all doors and windows are closed, the power is off and any fuel or gas tanks (such as the barbecue) are stored away from the house. We have one bag pre-packed with documents, photographs and other irreplaceable mementos, and one bag pre-packed with water, dog food, spare clothing and protective blankets in case we encounter fire when we’re on the road. So when we leave it’s a matter of dogs and bags in the car, and we just go. We could leave in minutes if required. We have a second way out of our property by car if we get cut off by fallen trees along our main drive.’

Some regional towns are better prepared than others, and open up community centres or sports grounds to act as temporary evacuations centres.

‘Despite the support of service clubs and charities on the ground, there was a sense that communities were running out of steam pretty quickly due to the scale of the fires and the length of time critical support was required. Richard [Michael’s husband] cooked for the fire services on a few days and described the conditions as very under-staffed and disorganised. In many communities, volunteer fire fighters got no support and were left to find their own meals and drinking water, which has been a big eye opener during this fire season. The state of unpreparedness under the Morrison Government (federal) and the Berejiklian government (NSW state) has been shameful. It’s been a combination of “resourcing issues” (according to NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons) and, in Morrison’s case, just not listening to the experts who predicted this crisis months, years and decades ago.’

When the fires were almost at their worst, in December, Prime Minister Scott Morrison quietly went on holiday to Hawaii, and it took him a while to decide to return to his burning country and pay the odd visit to affected areas, where he received what might be called a cool reception. Bushfire sufferers and firefighters refused to shake his hand, locals told him in direct Australian terms where he could go.

It wasn’t long since Morrison had imported a lump of coal into Parliament and waved it in the faces of fellow parliamentarians and told them not to be afraid of it. Coal rules Australia. 40% of their energy is coal-fired and 7% comes from renewables.[v]  In the UK 9% of our energy comes from coal and 24.5% from renewables[vi]. (Not that we have anything to boast about, with a Prime Minister who has confessed he doesn’t ‘get’ climate change.[vii]) By contrast Iceland is almost 100% renewable and Costa Rica, Norway and Sweden are not far behind.[viii] I even in the course of my climate change meanderings came upon an Australian website whose sole purpose seems to be to put a stop to wind power and other renewables because they’re bumping up domestic utility bills.

The right-wing Liberal government are climate change deniers for commercial, economic reasons. Of course. Malcolm Turnbull, Morrison’s predecessor, was years ago beaten to the leadership of the Liberal party (by one vote) precisely because of his views on global warming. In 2018 he was ousted from his position as PM for the same reason and replaced by a hard right government of climate change deniers. Denial appears to be deeply endemic in the ruling Liberal party, and remains so despite everything. To quote Michael again:

‘Just like it’s hard for the government to convince all Australians that it planned well ahead of this fire crisis, it’s difficult to for all of us to see an effective plan to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions. The Morrison Government has announced a Royal Commission into the fires, at the same time as it’s relying on accounting tricks to meet this country’s agreements in the Kyoto Protocol. It appears there is no plan to tackle either issue, just strategies to minimise our efforts to change on both fronts.’

Yet like so many other issues – and this goes not just for Australia but other countries like the US as well – the people and their leaders don’t always see eye to eye. Australia’s statistics don’t include the possible thousands of inhabitants living off-grid. And a lot of effort on the part of individuals is going into finding weird and wondrous ways of harvesting water from the air, or the sun, or who knows what.

For the time being temperatures in Australia have dropped, rain has fallen in New South Wales and in Melbourne – which had its wettest January on record I believe – and hailstorms the size of tennis balls have battered Canberra, smashing cars, roofs, trees and a series of greenhouses belonging to the CSIRO (The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), ruining several years of research work.[ix] Much of the rain has collected dust particles in the air and falls as mud. Dust storms have enveloped country towns, falling ash has poisoned rivers and killed thousands of fish. At the same time torrential rain has put out most of the fires, and now firefighters are hard at work coping with floods. Tourists – local and international – could not cancel their holidays fast enough.

But now the whole world knows a good deal more about Australia than it ever did in my living memory. Maybe with the world’s eyes on them the powers that be may start to look at things differently. Or just maybe, once the fuss has died down, along with the fires – though since February is still full summer in Australia it doesn’t pay to be complacent – the world will forget all about Australia and life will just go on as before.

That’s if Australians will allow it.

© Patsy Trench
February 2020


[i] The title of my first book about my family history in Oz
[ii] Elsewhere (on Wikipedia) it claims over 18 million hectares have been destroyed, SBS and The Telegraph estimate it at 5 million.
[iii] One of whom was described as a ‘grandmother’. Why this was deemed a relevant description of a 60-something-year old, with the possible implication that she was too old and frail – and maybe even stupid – not to be able to save herself is a moot point. (She was none of these things by all accounts.)
[iv] [accessed 10 February 2020]
[v] The rest is made up of oil and gas. 75% of energy generated in Australia comes from coal. I don’t understand what happens to the 35% that isn’t consumed.
[vi] Then rest comes from natural gas 41% and 21% nuclear.
[vii] According to Claire O’Neill, who was sacked – for unspecified reasons – from her position organising a UN climate change conference in Glasgow later in 2020.
[viii]  There’s some variation in percentages between online sources but the country rankings are much the same.

Bondi Beach protest

Sydney Mail, 23 October 1907

On Sunday 20 October 1907 a large group of male swimmers gathered on Bondi Beach to protest against an order from the local mayors that they should wear skirts for swimming. This was the highlight of the continuing soap opera of Sydney beach by-laws, which up until then had prohibited sea bathing in daylight hours. The full and hilarious story is in my new book Australia and How to Find It.

The Secret River (again)

This was my second visit to the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River. The first was two years ago in a quarry outside Adelaide, with a sheer sandstone cliff as backdrop. (See my review of it here.) That majestical setting is impossible to beat, but the wide open spaces of the Olivier amphitheatre at the National Theatre in London come a relatively close second.

NT programme

I would like to (but probably can’t) claim responsibility for the production’s rather brief transfer to the NT, via Edinburgh. I’ve been campaigning for it pretty ceaselessly on social media ever since that astonishing evening in 2017. It has always baffled me how little interest we Brits take in our colonisation of the country we named Australia, but judging from the standing ovation the play received from last night’s largely British (by the sound of them) audience, the production – and its rave reviews – has set some kind of ball rolling.

Unlike Kate Grenville’s book Andrew Bovell’s adaptation begins in New South Wales at the point where William Thornhill, a Thames boatman transported for stealing, receives his Absolute Pardon and transports himself and his family to what appears to be an ‘unoccupied’ 100-acre patch of land on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. The Aboriginal people, who are only shadows in Kate Grenville’s book, play major roles in the play, speaking their native – and untranslated – Dharug.

The show packs every bit as powerful a punch on second viewing. Memorable moments stand out, then as before, such as the use of flour to indicate gunsmoke, and the mingling of Dharug chanting with a London drinking song, the first eventually overpowering the second. In place of a sandstone cliff backdrop there is a curtain, on which the frightened and frantic William Thornhill draws a fence at the end of the play to protect himself, marking off the days as he does so.

What I took away from both productions was the even-handed way in which a family of well-meaning whites, displaced from their own country against their will, are shown desperately trying to survive in a strange country among people whose language and way of life they don’t understand. And how successfully the difficult Olivier space was transformed, through lighting, birdsong and musical effects, into the landscape of that hot, dry country so few people in England know anything about.

The cast, with some exceptions, is the same as before, with the notable exception of Ningali Lawford Wolf, who died suddenly and tragically during the play’s run in Edinburgh. Her place was taken by Aboriginal actress Pauline Whyman, flown in from Melbourne and reading from a script. How heartbreaking for an Aboriginal woman to die so far away from her home and family, and how devastating for the rest of the cast. It is the face of Ms Lawford Wolf, who played the narrator, that appears on the programme and on posters all around London. A fitting legacy.

Despite this, the performances are solid throughout. So from this humble audience member, a grateful thanks to all of the actors, and especially to the supremely talented Neil Armfield – who in a pre-performance talk spoke endearingly of how he always expects things to work out badly – and the likewise Andrew Bovell, who apparently tried his best not to become involved in this adaptation but was eventually ‘seduced’ by Cate Blanchett. So thanks to her too.


By way of a PS, my version of The Secret River, about my settler ancestors who ‘took up’ land on the Hawkesbury not far from the fictional William Thornhill, and at much the same time, is being discounted on Amazon as an ebook in Australia and elsewhere during the month of September.


© Patsy Trench

August 2019

Admiral Nelson’s left hand

(from ‘The Nelsons of Burnham Thorpe’, by Mary Eyre Matcham, p151)

In the course of writing about my four times great grandmother Mary Matcham Pitt I spent a ridiculous amount of time researching her cousin-in-law Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Mary’s cousin George Matcham was married to Nelson’s youngest sister Catherine, and it was George who – with the aid of the Nelson name – arranged for Mary and her family’s migration to the fledgling colony of New South Wales in 1801. George and Horatio were great friends as well as brothers in law, and I was more than delighted to come upon a book called The Nelsons of Burnham Thorpe, written by a descendant of George’s, which revealed many behind-the-scenes stories of the Nelsons and the Matchams, such as the following. It shows a side of Nelson we don’t often hear about.

When Nelson lost his eye in battle he was refused a pension until he could produce a formal certificate.  After a moment of ‘vexation’ he began to see the funny side and insisted on the surgeon providing him with another certificate to prove the loss of his arm, ‘which he declared might just as well be doubted as the other’.

Admiral Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott (wikipedia)

So he drew up a petition on behalf of his remaining left arm, written by his brother William and the rest in his sister Catherine’s hand, with the final words and signature in Nelson’s own ‘well-known left-handed scrawl’. The edited version goes like this:


Whereas your humble Petitioner has had the mis-fortune to lose his Brother in His Majesty’s Service, & is now obliged to do all his Master’s work himself, to which he is by no means competent. This is to certify in behalf of himself & the whole race, that they have been from time immemorial, greatly abridged of their Just rights & Privileges.

They therefore respectfully submit to your consideration the following observations & humbly hope that you will condescend to take Notice of their lamentable case.

And first, no person has ever endeavoured to insinuate that right hands were made before left ; so that no peculiar privilege can be claimed by either party, on the score of seniority.

Secondly, the left hand is as long & strong by Nature as the right, has as many joints, fingers & nails ; wherefore no Just title to pre-eminence can be asserted by either, founded upon superior capability.

For these reasons, we would have an equitable, true & perfect equality to be established between us according to the laws of Reason & Nature : & neither of us to be superior or inferior to the other.

Instead of which, you must acknowledge that at present, We the left hands have been kept in a state of comparative ignorance, & barbarism.

This arises solely from our want of education, for while the favoured right hand is attended by the very best masters in writing, drawing, & fencing &c. the poor left hand is neglected, forgotten & hangs aukwardly dangling by the side ; except now and then when called in to assist in some drudgery which the right hand does not choose to do by himself. Barbarous custom too has excluded us from a participation of the most pleasant offices that our nature is capable of ; if we meet our friends & acquaintances, we are not suffered to move, but the right hands instantly leap to embrace each other & enjoy the delight of friendship. How often has your petitioner itched to take a Lady by the hand, but yet never was permitted, tho’ the right was engaged in all the offices of Gallantry, and in battle, when my noble Master, God bless him, was hewing down the Dons with the right hand, your petitioner remained unemployed, liable to all the injuries of war without the means of defence or retaliation.

In this age of innovation it is considered dangerous to propose reforms of any kind & they seem somewhat suspicious when they come from the party alone to be benefitted, but as the reform which your petitioner stands up for, does not to the best of his knowledge bear in its remotest consequences upon the constitution in Church or state, he trusts that the objects of it will not be accused of temerity, folly, malevolence & so forth. Qualities too often he fears justly chargeable upon political Reformers.

Should his arguments have any weight with You & the prayer of his humble petition be taken into consideration & produce a change of system, Your petitioner will together with all his fellow sufferers be bound in Your service by the strong ties of gratitude & your petitioners shall ever pray

Admiral Nelson’s left hand.”

© Patsy Trench

The book launch

In my case, it was like the 11 bus – you wait and wait and then two come along at once.

I have to confess first off that not only have I never had a book launch before, I have never even attended one.

Now I am Australia for two launches of my latest book about my Australian family history, A Country To Be Reckoned With, arranged by, respectively, a friend, fellow writer and self-made entrepreneur Michael Burge, and the Hawkesbury Historical Society.

The Makers' Shed (5).jpg
The Makers’ Shed, Glen Innes

Michael and Richard Moon, silversmith and jeweller, have transformed a local shop in their nearby town of Glen Innes into a spanking new workshop cum gallery cum what they term an “artisans’ marketplace”. I was invited there to be interviewed about my latest book in front of a full, friendly and highly engaged audience – the first of many similar events planned to take place over the coming months. For more details on this remarkable enterprise take a look at the Makers’ Shed Facebook page.

The second launch took place in the Hawkesbury Museum in Windsor – a daunting prospect, as I was fully aware the majority of attendees were long-term Hawkesbury residents who were many times more au fait with the region’s history than I could ever be. In the event, having declared my status as a London-based Pom who’d spent several years researching not just local but colonial Australian history in general, I received nothing but appreciation and generosity from the assembled audience.

Hawkesbury launch (2)
Author addressing the friendly audience at the Hawkesbury Museum

What I learned:

In advance I emailed the friendly people at ALLi for helpful hints for a successful book launch, and their responses proved very useful.

  • Make it entertaining. Crack a few jokes if possible.
  • If you are going to read from your book, keep it short. I read the opening chapter, two pages, and it seemed plenty long enough.
  • If you have to use notes, try not to keep looking down at them. Eye contact is so important when addressing a roomful of people. Make bullet points if necessary, otherwise try to speak off the cuff. It’s more important to connect with your audience than it is to include every single item you have on your list of Things to Say.
  • Show enthusiasm. Tell people what it was spurred you to write the book, what excited you about its subject matter – and hopefully still does.
  • Keep your talk on the short side, and if you can, elicit responses from the audience – either during and/or after the talk. The more they are invited to participate the more likely they are to pay attention.
  • If you are using PowerPoint, or projecting images in some way, remember their focus will switch from you to the screen. So if you want them to keep looking at you insert the odd blank page into your presentation.
  • Enjoy it, if you possibly can. If you feel nervous, don’t be afraid to say so.
  • Again, above all else try to make it fun, for yourself and for everyone else. If you forget something, or repeat yourself, don’t let it put you off your stride.

I followed these hints and it worked better than I thought it would. I was extremely nervous beforehand, but I started off on both occasions with a bit of a joke, and that set the scene and told the audience it was okay to laugh. I realised in both cases there were Important Things I forgot to say; but they were only important to me.

Thank you to Heather and Richard Gillard at the Hawkesbury Historical Society and to Michael Burge at The Makers’ Shed for giving me the opportunity. Here’s to the next time!


Attention independent authors: The High Country Book Club is looking for high quality indie-published books to feature at The Makers’ Shed. Full details are on their Facebook page.

Patsy Trench
December, Australia

[email protected]

What is the purpose of family history?

Why are so many of us devoting so much time and energy into researching our family history?

When I recently Googled ‘What is the purpose of family history?’ the most common responses that popped up were along the lines of ‘It helps me to understand myself’ or ‘I want the younger generation to understand their heritage’.

There are myriad reasons behind the family history addiction, as I call it, but I have to say those two above don’t quite fit mine. While we are all naturally curious about where we came from and who we think we are and why, my motivation stemmed from an emerging fascination with the context of my ancestors’ lives. The reason I decided to write about my four times great grandmother (The Worst Country in the World) was because she was one of the earliest free settlers to migrate to the colony of New South Wales, in 1801. It was the story behind her migration, and behind the colonisation of that far-flung country in the first place, that grabbed me.

Family history, broadly speaking, is about ordinary people.

Traditional historians tend to focus on the famous, the ones in the foreground of the picture so to speak. Family historians are more likely to be looking at the people in the background, whom nobody outside the immediate family has heard of. That doesn’t make them unimportant, or boring. It’s the ordinary people who keep the wheels of everyday life turning. Your ancestors needn’t have done anything remarkable to make them worth writing about.

Coorah c1907
My family, c1907

 In the blurbs of the two books I’ve written about my family I rather grandly claim I’m ‘looking at Australian colonial history through the lives of my [fill in appropriate ancestor/ancestress]’. I am unwittingly taking on the role of historian, and perhaps wittingly trying to avoid the term family history because who is going to read a book about my family except, well, my family? It wasn’t just because I wanted to sell more books that I broadened my sight lines; it was because I believe history told through the eyes of ordinary people is every bit as valid, and revealing, as history told about the heroes and the VIPs.

But what about the gaps?

The further back you go in time the less likely you will have access to images of your antecedents, or clues to their characters. Their legacy depends almost entirely on what they did, or more to the point, what they did that was recorded. (Which tends to balance things in favour of the men, needless to say.) Famous people may well be written about during their lifetime – you can probably get an idea of the kind of people they were by other people’s descriptions of them. With ordinary people this is less likely. So what do you do?

You can make it up. It’s generally easy to know when, where and how our ancestors did what they did; but what about the why? Unless they wrote letters or diaries (in which case lucky you), it’s down to guesswork. That’s guesswork informed, of course, by weeks and months and maybe years of exhaustive research, not just into your relative but into the world that relative inhabited.

For example I know when and how my ancestress migrated, but I don’t really know why, so I have assumed. I know who her offspring married but I don’t know how they met, so I’ve made it up. I’ve even invented characters in my latest book (A Country to Be Reckoned With) to represent the sort of people my convict ancestors may have worked for. Of course I go to some pains to explain what’s fact and what’s imagination, it isn’t hard to do. The purpose of the fiction is to throw a clearer light on the fact, to bring it alive; all with the ultimate purpose of creating a book that will appeal to a wider audience beyond my immediate family.

Over to you:

Why are you researching your family history and what does it do for you?

This blog post appeared first on the blog in October 2018:​

©Patsy Trench

A Country To Be Reckoned With

My second book in the Pitt family history series is published on 11 August 2018.

The blurb reads:

In the 19th century Australia went from struggling penal colony to a thriving community with a glowing future.

George Matcham Pitt’s life spanned the greater part of this century. A larger than life character and a master of rhetoric, fond of quoting from classic poets, opinionated and generous to a fault, GM, as he was known, went from humble farmer to landowner, auctioneer and the founder of one of Australia’s first and best-known stock and station agents Pitt, Son & Badgery. He was also my grear great grandfather.

This is the biography of a man who helped to shape a country

And who played a small part in its transformation from what was once considered the Worst Country in the World into A Country to be Reckoned With.

For a glimpse at a sample chapter please click here.

The book was assisted by funds allocated to the Royal Australian History Society through the Heritage Branch of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

Available on Amazon, Apple itunes, Kobo & Nook
Paperback available at Amazon (UK & US)  & Booktopia (AU)

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 (
Charles Dickens (

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 (

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




My five favourite books

In what she describes as a ‘Five Faves Geneameme’ Jill Ball of Geniaus, the Australian family history blog, has invited other family history bloggers to share details of five books they’ve found most useful in their ‘geneactivities’. (Enough puns already … )

So here, whittled down with great difficulty and in no particular order, are my chosen inspirations:


Australia, Frank Welsh (cropped)  Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land, by Frank Welsh (The Overlook Press, New York, 2006)

Since my books are set very much in the context of early colonial Australia I needed to gen up on my history. This book is not just all-encompassing, it looks at Australia in the context of a larger colonial world. It’s also very readable and has a nice, wry take on historical events, which I really like. 

 Station Life, Peter Taylor Next on the list is Station Life in Australia by Peter Taylor (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1988)

Also very readable, with some wonderful anecdotes about the New Chums in early colonial Australia. (The ‘New Chum’ was the Pom who arrived fresh-faced and dewy-eyed and ready to make his fortune on the land without knowing a horse from a heifer; a bit like me.) Essential introduction to a subject I knew nothing about.

 The Timeless Land, Eleanor Dark

Eleanor Dark was doing in the 1940s what other writers such as Kate Grenville don’t dare to do in the 21st century, which is to write about events such as the arrival of the First Fleet from the point of  view of Aboriginal people. In fact she writes from the point of view of everyone, from Governor Phillip to convicts and settlers, evenly-handedly and with great perception and understanding. The Timeless Land is book one in a novel trilogy.

 Macquarie Country, D J Bowd cropped


Macquarie Country by D G Bowd, (Library of Australian History, 1979)

I had to include this one. It’s about the Hawkesbury – where my ancestors made their first home in New South Wales in 1802 – in the days of Governor Macquarie. It even features my family, who were visited by the governor and his lady wife soon after they arrived in the colony. Full of vivid and useful detail about the earlier days of settlement.

 Old Days Old Ways, Mary Gilmore


In her memoir Old Days, Old Ways (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1934) Mary Gilmore was actually writing about her childhood in the Riverina district in the latter part of the 19th century, where she was brought up. The book is a cornucopia of intricate and sometimes hilarious social history; such as the rope that was strung across the room during the Wagga Wagga Gold Cup ball in order to segregate the ‘grandees’ from the ‘commonage’; and the way in which ladies riding horses in crinolines wore weights in their hems in order that their ankles should remain hidden from the gentlemen. Like Eleanor Dark she writes with great humanity and understanding and, crucially, humour.








Why do you write? – The power of negative motivation

So, dear writer, what is your answer to this question?

sketch reduced
Sketch by Anna de Polnay

I expect many people will say ‘Because I have to’ or ‘Because I’ve always done it/wanted to write’ or even ‘I feel I have something to say’. Some might actually confess they enjoy writing. (Weird, but possible.) Some non fiction writers are probably motivated by a passionate interest in a subject, a place, or maybe even themselves and their own story.

My answer to the question is a rather negative one: ‘To fill the void’. Or to put it another way, because I had nothing better to do.

I’m not being entirely disingenuous. If you’ve ever felt the need or the urge to express yourself in a creative way then nothing else will give you the proper fix. Writing books is one of the most purely creative ways of expression – it’s just you and the page, or the screen, with no one telling you what to do or, to put it another way, trying to curb your creativity. If this is indulgence so be it, but it’s not an easy option to say the least.

I once earned a living writing scripts for television. I really wanted to be a playwright but having spent many years reading and commenting on other writers’ plays I couldn’t find any ideas that I could make work on a stage. I never saw myself as a writer of books partly because it is an impossible way to make a living and partly because, yes, I confess it, I’m not much of a reader. I’d rather watch a play or a film, no question.

But when I hit my sixties and I gave in my part-time job I didn’t know what to do with myself. Too old to be employed, all I had to keep wolf from door was bits and pieces of teaching and theatre tour organising and a small state pension. So I decided to do two complementary things: let my flat and go off to the far side of the world to write a book about my ancestors, the former paying for the latter.

And it worked. It took me several years, and a lot of hard work and learning. In my first effort at writing a scene set in late 18th century Dorset I had one character crossing his legs four times without ever having uncrossed them, ending up therefore as a corkscrew. As an (ex) actor and would-be playwright I could handle the dialogue, within reason, but had terrible trouble with the bits in between; where in a play you can simply write ‘pause’ or even ‘silence’ or at a pinch ‘beat’, in a book you’ve got to have your character do something, and I still find that tricky (hence the corkscrew legs). Not to mention the ‘she saids’ and ‘he saids’.

George Matcham (Illustrated London News 10 October 1931, p573) bl newspaper archives-page-001
George Matcham, family member, the man who crossed his legs

But along the way I discovered a passion, which simply put is – for finding things out and writing about them in (what I hope is) an entertaining way. The topic in my case was early Australian colonial history, as seen through the eyes of my ancestors, about which and whom I knew nothing and cared less. The first is not a disadvantage because part of the process of writing about what you don’t know is discovering things you find interesting and then finding a way to convey your interest to other people. The caring naturally follows. Or if it doesn’t, then look for another topic.

So what was once a void has now been filled to bursting point with what has become a passion and an addiction. Twelve years later I am halfway through book two of my Australian ancestors, still struggling with the bits between the dialogue and the he saids and she saids, but still engrossed in the business of learning about, in this case, Australian agricultural practices in the 19th century and trying to make it interesting.

It hasn’t earned me a living, needless to say. I’m not even sure that I’ve broken even. Truthfully speaking when asked my profession I should say ‘landlady’. But hard work though it is it gives me a huge amount of pleasure and satisfaction, not least to know that in my seventies I am still learning things; and that, who knows, one or two people out there may also discover something as a result of my efforts.

So there’s my answer to my own question. I’d be interested to hear yours.