My favourite history blogs

As a novice PhD student, I spend an inordinate amount of time reading, but end most days frustrated that I haven’t read more. I have trouble settling down with fiction, which was one of my favourite pastimes pre-study. Instead, my spare reading time these days is taken up with reading blogposts—there are so, so many fantastic blogs out there written by academic historians, public historians, genealogists and other students of history. The WordPress Reader is one of the most-used apps on my phone (after twitter of course!) But the problem with an over-reliance on WordPress is that I have to remind myself to seek out blogs published on other platforms.  According to an astute observer* of digital media, it’s so easy to create and publish content in the digital age, but much harder to get noticed. I’ve recently discovered History Carnival, which does a great job of drawing history blogs out into the light. History Carnival is a monthly showcase of blog writing about history, hosted by a different blog each month to provide a variety of approaches and perspectives. In a similar vein, the University of Exeter’s Imperial and Global Forum’s weekly Top Picks in Imperial & Global History and the Junto’s The Week in Early American History provide links to blogposts, as well as writing from more traditional outlets.  The Two Nerdy History Girls also regularly post collections of links to their favourite blogposts, entitled the Breakfast Links. If any readers know of any other such aggregators, please do let me know.  These collections of links do other bloggers a great service by further sharing bloggers’ work.

Courtesy of Joanne Bailey’s excellent history blog, I’ve discovered a great app called Bundlr which has allowed me to take control of my messy collection of internet bookmarks. Click here to view the bundle I’ve created for my favourite history websites. (I was going to break the bundle down into categories of history blogs, but I think that’s called procrastination as I really should get on with my work!) I hope Bundlr is here to stay…it’s an intuitive platform, and very simple to use. I hope you find some new favourite sites and writers among mine. Let me know what you think!

*my husband

Update: Bundlr contacted me today (13 May) to say that my History Bloggers Bundle is featured on their Explore homepage today. I have no idea of the exposure that page has, really, but if it garners some new readers for any of the fabulous blogs I’ve bundled, I’m happy!

Google Street View, c.1872: Hill End

The cover photograph for my blog was taken by my husband at Hill End, a  designated ‘Historic Site’ in country New South Wales.  It’s a fascinating place, well-known to anyone who grew up in Sydney and traipsed out there on a school excursion.  The township sits high in the Central Tablelands, 300km northwest of Sydney. We visited Hill End for the second time a couple of years ago, and I wrote this review as an assessment for my Masters unit ‘Making Histories Public.’

Hill End Historic Site owes much to the Holtermann Collection—the photographs taken by Beaufoy Merlin and and his assistant Charles Bayliss, who were later employed by the successful gold miner Bernhardt Holtermann. Merlin and Bayliss’ work has been compared with Google’s Street View; they travelled through Victoria and New South Wales in the 1860-70s systematically photographing every building in towns “of any importance.”(1) In 1872, Hill End was reputedly NSW’s largest inland settlement, boasting a population of over 10,000.

The starting point for a visit to Hill End is the Museum & Visitor Centre, housed in what was once the Hospital. From the Museum, visitors can either follow the signposted walk into town down Hospital Lane, and along tree-lined Byers Avenue to the centre of the township, or make the short drive there. Parking is easiest outside the Royal Hotel at the top of Clarke Street, and the large map is a good starting point for the walk around town. Clarke Street was the commercial hub of gold rush Hill End and is the focus of the displays; few buildings remain on either side of the street, but there are plaques placed along its length, each with a photograph of the building which stood on that spot in 1872.  In some cases nothing remains, but in places the outline of foundation stones peek through the weeds, or occasionally an entire building remains (as in my cover shot), usually in a state of disrepair.  There’s very little interpretative labeling on the plaques, which simply contain the photograph and name of the establishment. The handful of plaques with more information are written in a light tone, such as this outside a hotel,

“It’s true…there really was an oyster salon here in 1872. Fresh (?) oysters were brought up from Sydney in lead lined cases…would you have been game to try them?”

While the photographs successfully bring to life the short boom period in Hill End’s past, the fact that the visitor experience to the town is so bound up with the photographs tends to highlight above all else the sense of loss associated with the boom and bust story. What of the sense of loss of the original Wiradjuri inhabitants? The over-riding narrative at the Site reflects the historiography of Hill End—that of the short-lived gold rush and the subsequent sense of loss when the rush moved elsewhere.(2) But Hill End’s history is more complicated than simply telling one story. The Site misses the opportunity to tell the other stories.

A walk around Hill End today is an evocative experience. The fact that the exhibition is the town means the visitor walks around in the outdoors, exposed to the elements just as the gold-rush miners were, with the soundtrack of buzzing flies and the occasional dog barking. The almost eery quiet of the town accentuates the sense of loss evident from juxtaposing photographs of a bustling, booming town with vacant blocks and derelict buildings.  Visitors are not roped off from the exhibit—free to tramp over foundations, or to pick up a rusty nail that once held two beams together.  It was this raw quality which attracted Australian post-war artists including Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale. Drysdale’s “The Cricketers” (1948) sets three figures against the backdrop of Hill End; it was a thrill to round a corner in the town and come across this most famous of brick walls!

A trip to Hill End is well worthwhile. It’s an immersive experience for adults and children alike, plus there’s the added bonus of a nearby river where it’s still possible to pan for (specks of) gold.

Russell Drysdale, ‘The cricketers’, 1948.  Private collection, © Estate of Russell Drysdale.

Russell Drysdale, ‘The cricketers’, 1948. Private collection, © Estate of Russell Drysdale.

(1) Alan Davies, “The Greatest Wonder of the World: Exhibition Guide”, State Library of New South Wales, 2013.

(2) Alan Mayne, Hill End: An Historic Australian Goldfields Landscape (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003): 39-43.

For more information on Hill End or the Holtermann Collection:

Keast Burke, Gold and Silver: An Album of Hill End and Gulgong Photographs from the Holtermann Collection. Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1973.

http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/discover_collections/society_art/photography/holtermann/

http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/hill-end-historic-site

PhD: 5 weeks in

Inter-library loans also make a handy display stand for Easter decorations—courtesy of my daughter!

Inter-library loans also make a handy display stand for Easter decorations—courtesy of my daughter!

I’ve officially been a PhD student for five weeks now and frankly, I don’t feel as though I’ve got a lot to show for it! Sure, I have a lovely fresh blue Moleskine notebook, a new (v.big) computer screen for my home office, and a growing pile of books on my desk and on my kindle. I also have a spreadsheet with a detailed three-year plan (let’s see how that evolves over time!) and a Scrivener project entitled ‘PhD’. That reminds me, I did spend about an hour a day of Week 1 in an online Scrivener course.* Oh, and I sat through almost a day of ‘induction’ for newbie PhD students.  On a more inspiring note, I made it to a wonderful presentation by Prof Simon Newman from Glasgow about 18hC Jamaica (thanks Sydney Uni US Studies Centre for being so welcoming), and two excellent in-house Macquarie history seminars. And my first conference abstract has been accepted, so I’ll be presenting some of my MRes findings at the NewMac postgrad conference in July!** This in addition to supervision meetings, having my parents over to visit from the other side of Australia, then nursing a sick daughter at home for the past week…I guess I have been rather busy!  But given that my first goal was to nail down some primary sources for a chapter of my thesis—which I’ve not yet done—I don’t feel a great sense of achievement.

I’m starting on primary sources rather than a literature review because the work I did in my Masters of Research last year gave me a head-start on the Irish historiography. My PhD will investigate links between Ireland and the British Atlantic around the turn of the nineteenth century…so my first research efforts will build upon the stellar work of Nini Rodgers, as well as the fantastic resource that is the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database. It’s a slow process though. More than once already I’ve wished I was back in our Islington flat, so I could just pop down to the British Library or Kew and have a nosy around. I’m sure that will be a recurrent thought, but perhaps (?) my distance from the archives will force me to be thorough and focused in my prep so that when I do get to the archives, I’ll know exactly what I’m looking for.

* I highly recommend this: Scrivener Courses: Gwen Hernandez

** NewMac 2015!

Archive envy

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I’ve just finished Stephen Foster’s A Private Empire, which I learnt so much from—as an historian, a writer and a reader. A Private Empire charts five generations of the Macphersons of Blairgowrie, Perthshire, a family which could be described as landed gentry, except as the narrative traces their vicissitudes, we see that the Macphersons’ hold on this status was sometimes tenuous. Foster had access to the family archive begun in the eighteenth century by the current laird’s great-great-great-grandfather. This is family history, but writ large. The richness of the archive, combined with Foster’s wonderfully accessible prose, and his skilful distillation of historical context, have resulted in a family history which can tell a far wider story than ‘simply’ the family tree. As the blurb on the book says, A Private Empire “explores Britain’s imperial past through the eyes and experiences of a single family.”

With access to the family’s letters and diaries, as well as account books, legal documents and more, Foster takes the reader behind the scenes of the Macphersons’ imperial lives, so that as well as learning about the careers of the leading men of each generation, we gain an insight into how those men felt about their careers, and their families, and the imperial spaces they inhabited—in the West Indies, India and colonial Australia. It is this private sense of empire which so drew me to the book. We see, for example, the frustration of Allan Macpherson as he fails time and again to obtain the promotions he seeks within the East India Company in the 1770s; and the similar sense of frustration his grandson Allan endured as he tried to establish himself as a pastoralist in colonial New South Wales one hundred years later. Foster also managed to elucidate the lives of the women of the family, many of whom led extraordinary lives, criss-crossing the empire. My favourite narrative which winds its way through the book is that of William Macpherson’s first family—with the slave woman ‘Countess’—founded in Berbice, British Guiana at the dawn of the nineteenth century. I will say no more for fear of spoiling the story for future readers!

The book, published by Pier 9, is beautifully produced. It’s available on Kindle, but the contemporary paintings and photographs reproduced throughout make it worthwhile tracking down the hard-copy book itself. According to the judge’s report for the 2011 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (for which the book was shortlisted), “underlying A Private Empire is substantial research – in Britain, Australia, India and America – and Foster weaves the primary source material through his narrative to masterly effect.” I couldn’t agree more.

Finding women in the archives

Late last year I attended a public lecture by Dr Noeline Kyle, an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney, who has been working with and supporting family historians for many years. Dr Kyle discussed her recently published book Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and writing women into family history. This is an update of her 1986 book We Should’ve Listened to Grandma. The lecture was directed at the family historian, so there was plenty of practical advice—which gave me lots to think about in researching my own family history, but also with my PhD project in mind.

My great great grandparents. Source: Judy Deane, Ancestry.com

Finding Florence is essentially a guide to finding women in the archives, with a focus on the women who didn’t make newspaper headlines. The book contains long lists of public records to search for traces of women in the past, such as educational archives, and government record-keepers for women who might have worked in the ‘female’ professions of teaching, healthcare and social welfare.

I was particularly interested in Dr Kyle’s discussion of what she calls a “circle strategy.” As women can be largely absent from the archival record, she suggested investigating the biographies of close siblings, parents, other relatives such as cousins, and friends, neighbours and work colleagues. This may be a laborious task, but as Dr Kyle said, our ancestors often lived in close proximity to extended family and community members—so newspaper obituaries (for example) for neighbours and relatives  might yield a nugget of information about a woman we know little else about. So too, the records of primary schools, community and religious organisations. The book would be of great use to researchers in Australia, as well as the UK and Ireland, as Dr Kyle has experience of researching in archives for all of these locations.

I went to the lecture with a friend who’s done extensive research into her own family tree, far more than I have. The budding historian in me was thrilled to hear her say that Dr Kyle’s lecture had made her realise why she’s found it so much harder to gain a clear picture of her female ancestors, than for the men in her family tree. Students of history will be familiar with the project of social history to raise marginalised groups (whether on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, ability etc) from obscurity. Whether consciously or not, non-academic, hobbyist family historians seeking to elucidate the lives of their female ancestors, are chipping away at the obscurity that many women have suffered at the hands of official histories, and archival practices of the past. Just another reason why family history is such an admirable pursuit!

Noeline Kyle, Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and writing women into family history. Published by Unlock the Past, 2014.http://www.gould.com.au/Finding-Florence-Maude-Matilda-Rose-Women-FH-p/utp0321.htm

Acropolis

Lego Acropolis. (c) Richard McLaren

As a regular museum-goer in Sydney, usually with a small child in tow, I’ve been well-aware of the appearance of Lego in museums over the past couple of years. I believe the University of Sydney’s Nicholson Museum set the trend, with their Lego Colosseum display back in 2012. Next was Lego Acropolis, which the Nicholson recently donated to the Acropolis Museum in Athens, where it is now on display.  The current Lego model on display is Pompeii.  All three models are the work of Ryan McNaught, a Sydney-based Lego certified professional. The Acropolis, Colosseum and Pompeii all incorporate elements of the sites in the past, as well as how they appear today. So the current model shows Pompeii as it was at its moment of destruction in 79AD,  as well as when it was rediscovered in the 18th Century, and as it is today. http://sydney.edu.au/museums/exhibitions-events/lego-pompeii.shtml The Nicholson proudly declares its commitment to Kids in Museums. And the Lego models really do provide an accessible entry point into ancient history for young children (and are an entertaining display for adults too). In conjunction with the Nicholson’s small but beautifully displayed collection of art and artefacts from the period, ancient Greece and Rome have really come to life. We’ve also recently been to Sydney Living Museum’s Towers of Tomorrow exhibition, which has been extended due to popular demand. The exhibition is testament to the architecture and design elements of sky-scrapers around the world, as well as a fun way to spark creativity—and awe—in children and adults alike. As well as the display, there are banks of tables with piles and piles of lego bricks. Entry to the exhibition is for a set time (I think about 45 minutes), which means that after looking at the display, visitors can pull up a stool and build their own lego creations, before the session ends and the next group of visitors enters. To be honest, I didn’t really understand the connection between Sydney’s history (which is the theme of the Museum), and Lego skyscrapers, but I presume the exhibition has managed to draw in some first-time visitors to the museum. It’s certainly a fun way to spend an hour with a Lego-mad child. I did learn something about big buildings too!Towers of Tomorrow SLM IMG_2509

Lego in Museums

Seeking my Stowaway

This is another post to document my research journey with my great-great-grandfather William Williamson. This week’s research has presented me with two stumbling blocks, which I’m yet to resolve, but they’ve also exposed significant gaps in the academic literature. So if anyone out there is looking for juicy research topics, keep reading!

Stumbling block No.1 must be a familiar one to genealogists—the stowaway. The story which has been passed down through my family is that William stowed away on the Norfolk, thinking it was bound for America. It turns out the ship travelled to Australia, where he arrived in Melbourne in 1862.  The steamship Norfolk travelled from London to Melbourne twice in 1862, but William does not appear on the passenger list for either journey. I wonder whether if he really did stow away on the Norfolk, would he have been converted to crew once discovered? The Public Record Office of Victoria keeps hard copies of the Mercantile Marine Office Release Books. After each voyage the discharge and release of the crew was recorded—the master and crew signed to release the ship owner from any future claims for wages etc in relation to the voyage. I’d be interested to know whether stowaways appeared on these documents.

And what happened to stowaways on arrival in Victoria? He could have been very young, either 10 or 15—if he was 10, would charities have taken any interest in his life? Would this be recorded anywhere? This relates to stumbling block No.2— I cannot establish exactly how old William was when he arrived in Victoria. Some family researchers place his birthdate at 1847, and some at 1852. Both are plausible on the basis of birth and census records. But if he was born in 1852, he would have been only 10 when he stowed away. If the 1852 birthdate belongs to my ancestor, then it’s likely he was the 9 year old “ragged scholar” at the All Saints Charity School in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, recorded on the 1861 census.  From my preliminary reading on ragged schools, the students tended to ‘graduate’ at about 10 years of age, so he would have been let loose in 1862… did he then journey down to Plymouth alone, to the Plymouth Export Depot to get on a boat?

Some exciting historical questions are starting to emerge as I research William’s life. My list of areas to investigate is rapidly expanding—a quick search has revealed that very little has been written about stowaways, or the Ragged Schools movement in England. Life at the heaving Plymouth Export Depot also sounds fascinating, and understudied. The possibility that William arrived in Melbourne in 1862 as a 10 year old also reminded me of a fascinating seminar I attended at Macqurie Uni this year with Simon Sleight about young people and urban life in Melbourne (see his book: Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870—1914 (Farnham & Burlington: Ashgate, 2013).

My immediate task is to try to pin down William’s timeline, but I would love to hear from anyone who has met similar challenges in their family or academic research, or with an interest in Ragged Schools, Plymouth in the 1860s, or stowaways.

 

Reading for fun again

Since submitting my thesis in mid-October, I’ve slowly unwound with lots of walking, swimming, talking, reading and a little bit of TV watching (Homeland, series 4, only so-so). All that, plus my usual stay-at-home Mum commitments. I have a long list of books to read, but the two stand-outs have been The Wife Drought, by Annabel Crabb, and Walking Free, by Munjed al Muderis. I haven’t branched out into fiction yet!

The Wife Drought was reviewed masterfully for The Monthly by Anne Manne: http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2014/november/1414760400/anne-manne/wife-and-times  Writing in her usual engaging, insightful style, Crabb could have been writing about myself and many of my friends. She covered so many of our experiences that it was by turns depressing, hilarious and liberating. She argues that things need to change not just for women but for men. In the realm of those who desire both a career and a family, men are missing out just as much as women are.  We also need to lose the guilt! Read the book for the laughs, but also for the suggestions about how as a society, we might start to influence the way life for our children looks.

Al Muderis’ book was deeply absorbing. It is the biography of an Iraqi-Australian, now a world-leading orthopaedic surgeon, specialising in osseointegration (bionic people, essentially: http://www.almuderis.com.au/osseointegration). The book is written in a conversational style, tracing Al Muderis’ journey from war-torn Iraq in 1999 to Australia, as a ‘boat person,’ or asylum seeker. I was fascinated by the depiction of his comfortable, secular upbringing in the leafy, cosmopolitan city of Baghdad of the 1970s and 80s. His flight from Iraq began when he refused to follow Saddam’s orders to mutilate army deserters. The story of his journey to Australia is eye-opening, and possibly provides more detail about the operations of the so-called people smugglers than is known to date. Al Muderis is scathing of many of his fellow-refugees, and reminds us of the shades of grey which emerge from war-zones, but also the potential which immigrants bring.  I must mention the wonderful cameo appearance in the book of Magistrate Antoine Bloeman, a lively figure in my own childhood. Al Muderis was left bemused by his court appearance before Bloeman, but Bloeman has done many great things in his time – he would be a worthy subject of a biography or memoir of his own! To find out more, read the book. It’s a quick, but thoroughly illuminating read that will stay with you.

Al Muderis recently spoke to Margaret Throsby on the ABC in Australia: the podcast is available here: http://www.abc.net.au/classic/content/2014/11/06/4103757.htm

Criminal Pasts: Family History

Brickey Gaol

I’ve spent most of this week trying to trace the trail left by my Great Great Grandfather on the legal record of 1870s Victoria. In the past, I’ve considered this to be a family history project, but I’m beginning to realise it is also (or instead?) a biographical project—the protagonist just happens to be an ancestor of mine, who has been of interest to many people throughout my extended family. I’ve been researching his life off and on for the past couple of years, but with some more solid research experience behind me, I feel better equipped to know where to look for information, and to understand what I find.

William Williamson, alias Brickey, appears in most of the books about the Kelly Outbreak in North-Eastern Victoria. (note – I’ve been selective about what I’ve read, there are way too many Ned Kelly books out there!) He was implicated in the events of the evening in April 1878 when Ned Kelly allegedly shot Constable Fitzpatrick in the wrist. Brickey was arrested the following day, along with Ned Kelly’s mother and brother-in-law. They were convicted of aiding and abetting the attempted murder of Fitzpatrick. The men were sentenced to 6 years with hard labour; Mrs Kelly got 3. The sentences were considered severe, and had no small part to play in Ned’s anger with the authorities. The presiding judge at the Beechworth Assizes was Judge Redmond Barry, who was to sentence Ned to death a few years later.

I’ve been keen to find the documentary evidence for Brickey’s criminal record. Family stories abound about how and why he was involved. Understandably, the books which have covered the Fitzpatrick affair have focused on Ned and his mother’s role, with Brickey mentioned only as an aside. My aim is to uncover as much of the “truth” as I can about Brickey’s involvement, so that I can consider it in the context of his long and otherwise peaceful life. I was surprised and gratified then, when I opened the (huge) book of the Minutes of Evidence taken in the 1881 Royal Commission into the Police Force of Victoria, to find that the very first witness—the Chief Commissioner of Police—discussed Brickey’s role in detail from the outset.  Brickey was not just a neighbour, he was very well-acquainted with the Kellys and their associates.

As well as wondering how well he knew the Kellys, I’ve also wondered how involved Brickey was in the general lawlessness of the North-Eastern region in the 1870s. His prison record—which I managed to download from the PROV— confirms (as I suspected) that he was known to the police, and had already spent time in Beechworth Gaol before the Constable Fitzpatrick affair. Finding the prison records was surprisingly easy—I’m sure last time I looked (a couple of years ago)—I’d decided that I’d need to go to Melbourne to see a hard-copy file. I wanted to know whether Brickey was in gaol at the same time as Ned, Dan or Jim Kelly, or their various uncles and other associates, to confirm my hunch that they had all had lots of time together. They did have time inside together, in Beechworth and Pentridge.

The next task is to try to get hold of the court files for Brickey’s trials, as I don’t think the cases were formally reported. I’ve seen the prosecutor’s file, which suggests that the Fitzpatrick case was handled perfunctorily, but I’d like to find out more. I’m trying not to give away too much of the story here as I hope to write a biography of sorts. But any clues, questions, or suggestions for researching criminal activities of the 1870s would be most welcome.

The photograph above is from Brickey’s prison file, presumably taken when he first entered the system at 25 years of age.

Submitting my Thesis

Well, I’ve submitted my Masters thesis and am waiting on my markers’ verdict. I was pleased with how the thesis came together in the end, as was my supervisor, so my fingers are crossed for a good outcome.  The final title was ‘Celebrating the Battle of the Saintes: Imperial News in England and Ireland, 1782.’ I took the newspaper reporting of Britain’s victory over the French in April 1782 in les Saintes (in the Caribbean) as a case study to examine the impact of imperial news in London, and a second site of empire: Ireland. The case study also allowed me to look at the network which passed information from an outpost of empire to England and Ireland. I thoroughly enjoyed the primary research for this project. Most of my sources were digitised newspapers, although I did need to go to the National Library in Canberra to read the Dublin Evening Post on microfiche, which felt like a blast from the past, technologically speaking. During our family holiday in England I even managed to get to the British Library Manuscripts room—with my precious reader’s ticket in hand—to read a journal from one of the British ships at the Saintes, as well as the journal of John Mair, who watched the battle and its aftermath from his plantation on Dominica. I also visited the National Archives at Kew, and read some of the personal correspondence of Admiral Rodney, who commanded the British fleet at the Saintes—including a letter from Edmund Burke. A highlight for me was the moment I realised that the pencil markings I thought had been made by a selfish scholar on the original letters, were actually Rodney’s own markings! The experience of reading original documents in manuscript is one of the reasons I am determined to continue with historical research – whether as a PhD student or an independent researcher.