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.
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.
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.
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?
To see what I mean take a look at my chapter on The Drover.I’d be interested in your comments.
As any family historian knows, we live for these breakthrough moments, but they come along very rarely.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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…