Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales

It was a great pleasure to attend the launch of Dr Tanya Evans’ latest book today at the beautiful Mitchell Library in Sydney, Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, published by UNSW Press. As Sydney City Historian Dr Lisa Murray said in her ‘launch’ speech, Fractured Families contributes not only to the history of Sydney and colonial New South Wales, but also to the history of the family, and to the practice of public history and family history.

I read Fractured Families as soon as it hit the shelves, and enjoyed it immensely.* The book evolved from Evans’ research on Australia’s first charity, the Benevolent Society, and her collaboration with family historians who have researched the lives of their ancestors in the Society’s archives in the Mitchell Library. Evans has uncovered the life stories of men and women at different ends of the social spectrum from the late 18th century to the turn of the 20th. As well as detailing some fascinating (and sad) life stories, Evans delves into the practice and methods of family history research, and asks questions about how and why these varied individuals are remembered in Australia today. The book is written in an accessible, conversational style and ably combines story-telling with academic commentary, and discussions about research methods.

There was much talk at the launch of the role of family historians—how they can make history more exciting and accessible, and, as Dr Evans noted in her speech, the value of collaboration between academic and family historians in revealing untold stories. (I’ve already benefited from the hard graft of generous family historians in my fledgling PhD research.) Fractured Families illustrates the role family historians can play in continuing the work of the original social historians: that is, to retrieve the marginalised of the past from obscurity. One of the speakers at the launch was Max Carrick, who described researching his ancestry in the Benevolent Society’s archives, and his collaboration with Evans.  His gratitude for her inclusion of his ancestor in the book was heartfelt.

I’ve rated Fractured Families 5 stars on Goodreads (for what that’s worth!) & highly recommend it to academics and everyday historians alike.

*Dr Evans taught me during my MRes at Macquarie Uni, and is the associate supervisor on my PhD. I’m a great admirer of her academic work, and share her interest in public, family and social history.

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

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