Tag Archives: Public History

Writing the biography of Sarah Bell for the St John’s Cemetery Project

One of my writing projects this year has been a biography of Sarah Bell, an Irish immigrant to colonial New South Wales who worked as the Matron of the Parramatta Female Factory between 1836 and 1843. My biography forms part of the St John’s Cemetery Project, an online database for Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery.

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The grave of Sarah Bell in Section I, Row E, No.8, St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. Photo: Jennifer McLaren, 2019.

Researching the lives of women in the past is challenging. During her tenure at the Factory, Sarah was a visible presence in the archives. As Matron, she was one of only a small number of women in the early colony of New South Wales with an official government role and salary.[1] I managed to track her time at the Factory from government records and newspaper articles without too much trouble. Most of these documents (some press reports aside) were dry and functional—useful for piecing together details but revealing little about Sarah as an individual. One document was different however. In August 1843, Sarah felt compelled to write to the Factory’s supervising magistrate, describing the ‘outrageous and extraordinary conduct’ (her words) of the sub-matron at the Factory, and the effect this was having on her and her family. If you read my biography you’ll see that this letter was no dry work of officialdom.

Sarah’s early years and her life after the Factory were far more difficult to uncover. Genealogical details were hard to come by, although fortunately her death notice in the Sydney Morning Herald revealed the name of her father and where in Ireland he was from. I am very grateful to Sue Bell (one of Sarah’s descendants) for her research on Sarah’s origins. Sue published a fascinating blogpost about her quest to find Sarah’s birthplace in County Galway, Ireland.

In order to reconstruct the kind of life Sarah and her family led in the early colony, I followed Professor Noeline Kyle’s advice and searched for traces of the men around Sarah—it was often the men who were named in official documents or newspaper reports.  I investigated the career of her husband Thomas at various government posts in Sydney, some of which came with living quarters for the family. Thomas’ legal travails were frequent fodder for the colonial press. Then I followed the trace of Sarah’s eldest son Joshua (later Sir Joshua), who was a long-serving member of the Queensland parliament.  I even found a reference to Sarah’s daughter (Mary)’s fiancée in newspaper articles. Sadly he perished on board the Sovereign in 1847.  Precious little of this research mentioned Sarah by name, but it all helped me to build a picture of her family’s life: where and how they lived; how their children were educated and cared for; the ins and outs of their work at the Factory; even the sadness of comforting a bereaved adult daughter.

Historians use biography to illuminate the past and to learn something new about the world our biographical subjects inhabited. This requires both a focus on the micro, or the individual life, but also on the context in which they lived. As Andy Wood has argued, the intensive nature of case studies (such as the St John’s biographies) often produces ‘fresh archival finds in which moments of contestation, embarrassment, anger and inversion…reveal something of wider social structures, sensibilities and understandings.'[2]   In constructing my biography of Sarah, I paired this focus on archival sources with an exploration of the spaces and places she and her family inhabited. The geopolitics of 1820s Ireland and colonial Sydney were the backdrops against which they lived their lives. But we learn a lot about Sarah and her world by zooming into the spaces her family moved through – workplaces at the Lumber Yards, Carters’ Barracks and the Factory; Joshua’s schoolrooms at Sydney College and the King’s School; the courtrooms of Parramatta and Sydney; and even the streets between the Factory and the children’s daycare.

The details inscribed on Sarah’s tombstone at St John’s Cemetery are sparse. But by combining archival research on Sarah and the men around her with research into the spaces and places they inhabited, I managed to uncover far more about Sarah—and colonial Sydney and Parramatta—than I expected.

Read the biography of Sarah Bell on the St John’s Cemetery Project site here:

Sarah Bell: Female Factory Matron

[1] Hilary Golder, Politics, Patronage and Public Works: The Administration of New South Wales, Vol. 1 1842–1900, (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005), p. 84.

[2] Andy Wood, ‘Small places, big questions: reintegrating social and economic history, c.1350-1750,’ in Custom and Commercialisation in English Rural Society, eds. J.P. Bowen and A.T. Brown (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2016), 251.

The Historians: ABC702 Sydney

Just a quick follow-up to my post last week about James Valentine’s weekly radio slot in Sydney which he’s calling ‘The Historians’…. I was duly alerted by my non-historian friend that there was an historian on the radio this week again – it was Associate Prof Frank Bongiorno from ANU who had some insights into the Australian conscription debates during World War I. The segment is available for a few more days HERE, and starts at about 1:04:00.

Let’s find out if historians can talk!

As I’ve written here before, I’m an avid podcast-listener, and I’m a fan of Liz Covart’s format in Ben Franklin’s World. For those of you who haven’t listened, BFW is a weekly podcast in which the host (Liz) interviews an historian of early America about their research. The podcast has a loyal subscriber base, and is approaching its landmark 100th episode, which is a wonderful achievement as most podcasts don’t get into double figures.

I’m convinced that there is enough material in Australia to support a weekly conversation with an historian – I guess the question is whether there is the listener/subscriber base. This is something I’ve thought about pursuing after I get through my PhD. So  I was delighted to hear this week that James Valentine, a radio host with ABC702 in Sydney kicked off just such a conversation with Associate Professor Clare Wright from LaTrobe University. What was even better for me was that I heard about this not from anyone in the history fraternity, but from friends in my exercise class…so there’s a small listener base excited about this already! Valentine’s stated aim is to have a weekly conversation with an historian on his afternoon radio show to discuss their research and current debates in history. He wants to talk with historians of Australia and beyond. His pitch for the segment was that we hear from journalists, writers and social commentators on history—but not a lot from historians.* He’s keen to find out if historians can talk!

You can listen to Valentine & Wright’s conversation HERE. It goes from 1:28:00 until about 1:50:00. (Unfortunately this recording will disappear after a few days, but if I find it elsewhere I’ll update the link.) Dr Wright talked generally about what she loves about researching history—about the detective work involved and the adrenaline of the chase that keeps her going back to the archives. She then talked about her own current research, which is an expansion of the work she did on the Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. She’s now looking at mining history in Australia from pre-invasion to the (doomed) 2012 Mining Resources Rent Tax.

*In Australia, this may have something to do with the virulent nature of popular debate around what came to be known as the Australian history wars, but that’s another story.

By the way, Dr Wright co-convened a great symposium on history and the media in 2013 – to revisit some of the discussions there, link here to the symposium blog.

Blogging around the web

While I’m not the most prolific blogger myself, I do love reading others’  blogs. I’m constantly discovering new blogs to follow, many (but not all) written by historians. If they are published in WordPress, they’re easy to keep track of in my Reader app, so I tend not to miss a post, but if they’re not WordPress…then I lose track of them. So as an aide memoire to myself, and as a way of promoting others’ blogs, I’m going to *try to* update this post regularly with blogs I’ve discovered.

 

Pubs and Publications. The PhD Experience

Isles Abroad. A Group Blog of British and Irish Global History

Gretchen Rubin – My experiments in the pursuit of happiness and good habits

 

Age of Revolutions – a collaborative, academic ‘historioblog’

Old Weather Blog: Our weather’s past, the climate’s future

National Gallery of Jamaica Blog

The Old Parramatta Blog

Amber Davis – Political Scientist & PhD Coach

 

The Possibility of Small Revolutions

The digital revolution and the practice of history: what’s changed and what hasn’t changed? This was the question posed by Dr Tim Sherratt in his keynote address at the History teachers Association/Macquarie Uni Headstart to Extension seminar this week.

Sherratt describes himself as a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections. As well as an academic post at the University of Canberra, he’s currently half of the Trove management team at the National Library of Australia.  My favourite line from his keynote was that he wants “to mobilise our cultural collections into the spaces people already inhabit.” That is, I think, what public history is all about.

The study of the past has already been transformed by digital technology: Trove’s 190,000,000 newspaper articles is just one example of this. But Sherratt demonstrated that digital technology means more for the practice of history than ‘simply’ digitising documents. Through the course of his keynote, Sherratt demonstrated a number of digital tools which can help historians think about and analyse primary sources in different ways; and he showcased a number of projects which utilise digital technology to help us see people, places and events in the past in a new way.

But back to the question—what’s changed and what hasn’t changed? We must continue to be sceptical of our sources. Just as students of history are trained to think about the assumptions and forces which shaped individual primary sources, so we must also think about the assumptions and forces which shape digital collections. Funding priorities, significant anniversaries and curatorial agendas are just some of the forces which dictate which documents are digitised, and how the collection is presented. For example, Trove (which draws from other digitised collections around Australia) returns significantly more digitised newspaper articles for 1914. This is the result of the priorities of the state libraries around Australia, which have focused on providing sources in relation to World War I during the current 100 year anniversary.

Understanding the forces and assumptions that drive the creation of digital collections should in turn lead the historian to consider the age-old questions of what isn’t there, just as much as what is. Absence is just as important as presence when considering an archive. As Sherratt noted, it’s important to guard against the “sense of completeness” in the digital age. Just because something isn’t in google, does it mean it doesn’t exist?

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I can’t take credit for discovering the Roosevelt on a moose picture. Refer to Dr Sherratt’s slides for more on this.

Sherratt also drew attention to the presence of fake and unattributed historical pictures which seem ubiquitous online. But the well-known fake picture of Teddy Roosevelt riding a moose was actually created in 1912. New technology may make it easier to share fakes, but as Sherratt pointed out, this technology also makes it easier to learn about—and from—those fakes. For example, @picpedant tweets attributions and calls out fakes, and digital tools such as Tin Eye enable anyone to analyse whether an image has been doctored. The fake historical pictures may drive pedants mad, but they do generate discussion.

The slides from the keynote are available online here and include links to many exciting digital history projects, and the tools I’ve mentioned in this post.

I’m really excited about the possibilities for accessing and analysing sources, and communicating historical findings, which digital technology is bringing to the practice of history. Much of the audience at the keynote yesterday was students in their final year at school. My hope is that Sherratt inspired some of them with the desire to see where technology can take their historical practice in the future—in Sherratt’s words, “the possibility of small revolutions.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Podcasting for historians (and for fun)

I’ve been thinking about writing about podcasts for a while and it seems I’m not the only one. Elizabeth Covart published a really interesting blogpost today about  Trends in Digital Communications which is worth a read—she  produces the successful Ben Franklin’s World podcast series in the US.  I’m no tech writer, but it seems to me that the medium has come into its own this past year—possibly owing to the runaway success of Serial last year. The industry has now entered a consolidation phase as the commercial realities of the medium are thrashed out. As Covart argues, historians need to be aware of digital media trends in order to better communicate their work.  I believe historians (individually or en masse) can utilise podcasting to get their work out into the public domain—to spark discussions, influence debate, entertain, and maybe even sell their books—with much lower barriers to entry than for other media formats.* We might even remind people why the humanities are so important to everyday life.

*My latest favourite podcast, which is not history-related, is Annabel Crabb & Leigh Sales’ Chat10Looks3. This is a weekly Australian podcast, where two journos discuss (often hilariously) what they’ve been reading, watching, writing, baking etc. They frequently remind listeners not to expect high production values in their podcast, so they serve as a good example of the low barriers to entry in terms of technology. Although having said that,  both are well-known in Australian media, so I guess being a relatively-invisible historian might make launching your own podcast slightly harder.  Hence networks as a way of getting content noticed.

There is a range of history-related podcast material out there, and I list below some of what I’ve discovered. Most of what I’ve found is American. Some of it is quite academic, advanced-meta-historiography-type stuff, some is really engaging, some is very light-hearted. There are also some lecture and conference recordings available, although I agree with Covart that this doesn’t always translate into great digital content.  But as someone researching a topic on the other side of the world from most other researchers in my field, I would dearly love to see conference proceedings recorded for podcast on a regular basis (please!)

The Juntocast – a podcast on early American history

Ben Franklin’s World – what I love about this is listening to both academic and public historians talk about their work in archives, museums, research, writing etc.

Rum, Rebels & Ratbags – slightly irreverent Australian series presented by the author of Girt, the Unauthorised History of Australia Great for getting some facts about the early years of European Australia (but mostly stories about men…)

PastPresent – American, links history with current affairs

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – great content but slightly boring as it’s just someone reading out entries from the dictionary!

I’ll also link to an article from the Telegraph (one of my least favourite newspapers I must disclose), but they list some British history podcasts which may be of interest: The Telegraph’s best history podcasts list and this is a link to a list of 19 (American) history podcasts compiled by the online magazine Mental Floss

My other non-history favourite is Happier with Gretchen Rubin … an acquired taste perhaps, but it’s been great for helping me think about productivity, which has been important in my first year as a PhD student.

**Update 24 November 2015: I’ve had quite a few comments via WordPress and elsewhere, so here are a few more podcasts to add to my list. (Thanks to all the commenters.)

The British Museum/BBC podcast series: A History of the World in 100 Objects

Mike Duncan’s Revolutions Podcast

Backdoor Broadcasting – this site contains recordings of presentations (often including Powerpoints) given at various UK universities in the Arts and Humanities. It’s not the easiest site to navigate but has some interesting content.

New Books in American Studies and New Books in Gender Studies

Finally, this is a blogpost on the Teaching United States History Blog, which contains an extensive list of podcasts, and some interesting comments on using podcasts as a teaching tool.

Institute of Historical Research Interviews The IHR produces occasional podcast interviews with historians, the list includes Peter Burke, Anthony McFarland & Lady Antonia Fraser.

**Update 2 May 2016: Some non-history podcasts I’ve enjoyed so far this year:

I religiously listen to Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast and have recently discovered Dan Harris’ 10% Happier in which he interviews a great mix of people about their meditation practices. I loved his book, and find the interviews really engaging. I also really got into Serial Season 2 – a thought-provoking series, which really drove home the point that emerges again and again in historical research, that nothing is ever quite as it seems, and nor is anything ever black and white.

Liz Covart has also launched a great series with the Omohundro Institute as part of her Ben Franklin’s World podcast – it’s called Doing History and I think should be mandatory listening for all students of history. Three episodes have aired thus far, with experienced historians discussing questions such as how they come across their research topics, how they use sources, and the cross-over with archaeology.