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.
If Shakespeare had kept a diary there would arguably be far fewer books written about him.
If we knew for instance
What he got up to during the ‘missing years’
How he got to leave his home in Stratford and fetch up as an actor/playwright in London
How much of the 37 plays he actually wrote
Whether Shakespeare was Shakespeare or someone else
Who the Dark Lady of the sonnets was
Whether or not he got on with his wife
Etc etc etc
We wouldn’t need to endlessly speculate. And it would not be half as much fun.
What will people say about you when you’re gone?
Diary-less ancestors tend to be remembered for what they did rather than what they might have said. Or rather for what they did that made the public records. So we are likely to know more about men than women, especially if they played a prominent part in society. We may also know more about the ones who got into trouble, and the ones with police records, especially if they ended up in Australia.
As a family historian I’d have given anything for my ancestors to have kept diaries so I knew exactly why my four times great grandmother decided to emigrate to a penal colony.
On the other hand lacking the facts gives one scope for one’s imagination; so what would have been a case of simple transcribing becomes something rather more creative. The challenge of filling in the gaps while remaining as true as possible to the character you think your four times great grandmother was, for instance, is a fascinating one.
Claudia kept a detailed diary of a crucial period in her life when she made a discovery that altered her entire outlook on life and on the people in it. The fact that she kept this diary in her loft, to be discovered by generations to come, suggests to me she wanted them to be found, and to be published.
Nonetheless such was the intimate nature of the diary I went to great lengths to protect her reputation by not just changing her name but the names, and some details, of her daughters and her friends, and a few other bits and pieces beside.
I have, from time to time. It makes for hilarious and sometimes embarrassing reading. It is also a handy reminder of the person you once used to be, and if you think – as I often have – you are still an eighteen-year-old wrapped up in a middle-aged woman’s body, it is good to be reminded that, actually, you aren’t.
But I wouldn’t want anyone to read them, no way. Unlike Claudia I will make a point of destroying them before I pop my clogs.
A few years ago while refugees were risking their lives on the Mediterranean Australia’s then Prime Minister Tony Abbott swept in to put us to rights and tell us Europeans the problem could be solved with three words: Stop the boats.
After all that’s exactly what he had done, and his predecessor Kevin Rudd, and look how successful they’d been. By telling the refugees in no uncertain terms that no one trying to reach Australia illegally would be allowed to settle there, they were saving the lives of untold hundreds from drowning, he said. Then just to make it quite clear, those who still tried to make the journey were to be intercepted and transferred to detention centres in remote islands in the Pacific – Nauru and Manus Island – in such terrible conditions that they’d be sure to return home, and to spread the word there that trying to seek asylum in Australia was a waste of time.
Abbott’s response to being told he was breaching United Nations law was ‘I’m sick of the United Nations telling me what to do.’ The only sign that the Australian government are not 100% proud of their policy is that the detention centres are a dark secret. Not only are journalists prohibited from visiting them, anyone caught whistleblowing could face two years in gaol.
Despite this, filmmaker Eva Orner managed to smuggle cameras in to expose the degradation, deprivation and despair of the men, women and children in these detention centres. She also managed to get social workers and others who’ve worked there, most of them young, to tell their story and risk being detained themselves. To date, unsurprisingly, nobody has yet been imprisoned for spilling the beans. Her film Chasing Asylum was screened this morning in London as part of the London Film Festival. It presents its story without comment – other than from past Prime Ministers and Ministers of Immigration. It sings the praises of the late Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser, who was responsible for welcoming Vietnamese boat people back in the ’70s and who right up until the day he died still campaigned for a more humanitarian attitude towards the less lucky in the world. After all what is Australia but a country of immigration?
It doesn’t pay to be too complacent however, not if you live in Britain. By accident of geography the refugee crisis doesn’t hit us like it does the rest of Europe and North Africa. Perhaps the brave and talented (and Oscar-winning) Ms Orner could turn her attention next to Calais.
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…
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.
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.
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.
No, I’m not going to tell you how to design your book cover. I will say find a professional to do it for you as there’s nothing worse than a shoddy cover, and I speak from painful experience.
I decided to change the cover of my non fiction book about my Australian ancestors. The book has been out for nearly four years and is selling reasonably well, but I figured it could do with a boost, and besides it received a general thumbs-down from my writer colleagues on the ALLi Facebook forum.
The photo is of the Hawkesbury River, where my story is largely set, and was taken by my good self a few years ago. Criticisms of it included the fact that it was not obviously about Australia, that the colour was wrong for that country, that the image contradicted the title (which was the point) and that it was too contemporary. Of all those the one comment that made sense to me was the last.
I found a designer, recommended by ALLi and as it happens Australian, and I found an image I liked – a 19th century painting of the Hawkesbury River by an artist called William Pigeunit. It had just the right element of threat.
Unfortunately while the picture itself is in the public domain I could not find a copy of it with a high enough resolution – I think that’s the term – ie, 1MB or more.
So I found another painting – A Summer Morning Tiff by Tom Roberts – again in the public domain but in the possession of an art gallery in Victoria, Australia. They wanted a fee to provide me with a high res image, and they also sent me a licence to sign promising we would not alter the image in any way, and asking to approve a proof of the cover before publishing. My designer (Jessica Bell) decided one way or another she couldn’t work with the picture without making alterations. So back to square one. In the end she worked on my original image, and the end result, which I am very happy with, is below.
Jessica has managed not just to make the picture a good deal more vivid (by comparison the original looks decidedly drab), she has added depth and interest, and the font suggests a story not set in contemporary times. The miniature silhouette of the woman’s head adds a touch of human interest and hints the book is about a woman, which it is.
So, I’ve learned a few things I didn’t know before in my many years of self publishing, and here they are for the edification of anyone out there contemplating using an existing painting for their book cover.
Make sure the image is out of copyright and in the public domain.
Make sure the image is at least 1MB.
Even if you’ve found an image in the public domain if it is not a high enough res you may have to pay for one that is.
It is up to the writer rather than the designer to check image copyright.
Your designer may and probably will have access to copyright-free images, so discuss it with her or him.
If your book is about a person or persons a touch of human interest in the cover is a good idea.
The writer isn’t necessarily the best judge of the sort of cover that will make a book sell.
That’s it really. I wish you the best of luck with your cover design adventure, and again if you have any queries get in touch!