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.


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 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?


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.”







John Boyle O’Reilly

I was honoured this week to receive the Irish Famine Memorial Prize at the annual gathering at Sydney’s beautiful Irish Famine Memorial at the Hyde Park Barracks. The prize is open to Macquarie University undergraduates for work on an Irish or Irish Australian topic, or on a global problem in the modern world. I received the prize for the biography of John Boyle O’Reilly I wrote last year, for the unit ‘Representing Lives: The Genre of Modern Biography’, taught by Dr Kate Fullagar.

A number of people at the Famine Memorial gathering approached me after the formalities to ask about O’Reilly’s life. In my (short!) acceptance speech, I said that it was an absolute pleasure researching O’Reilly’s life—he achieved so much, and the vibrancy of his personality and strength of his character shone through in all the sources I read. I’ve condensed my biography here, which I hope will give some idea of the adventures and achievements that comprised his tragically short life.

“He was a great storm out somewhere, a great sea pushing up against the shore”: Walt Whitman.[1]

Born 28 June 1844 in Dowth, County Meath, Ireland ~ Died 10 August 1890, in Boston, USA.

O'Reilly PicO'reilly Pic 2


After dark on the 18th of February 1869 John Boyle O’Reilly left his hut at the Vasse convict depot in Western Australia, and stole quietly into the bush. He had changed out of his convict-issue boots into freeman’s working boots and took a circuitous route through the bush, hoping to confuse the police trackers who were bound to follow him when his absence was discovered. It had been three months since he’d confided in a friend, Father McCabe, his desperate desire to escape. McCabe had discouraged O’Reilly from making his own attempt, but had promised to help. The priest soon enlisted the help of a local farmer, James Maguire, to help O’Reilly’s escape. In December, on learning that two American whalers would soon drop anchor in Geographe Bay, Maguire assured O’Reilly: “You’ll be a free man in February.”[2]

The Hougoumont

O’Reilly had arrived in Western Australia a year earlier, aboard the Hougoumont, Britain’s last ship to transport convicts to the Australian colonies. He was one of 62 Irish political prisoners on board, most were convicted for their involvement in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Whilst only a young man, O’Reilly had been influential as the ‘Centre’ for the IRB in his cavalry regiment—he swore in eighty men from the regiment in a four-month period. John Devoy described him as “the most remarkable man among the Fenians in the British army…by long odds.[3] After serving solitary confinement and hard labour in English gaols (one of which he almost escaped from), O’Reilly was elated at the prospect of transportation, “Australia! The ship! Another chance for the old dream (of Liberty).” He was also delighted to be reunited on board the Hougoumont with men he had not seen since his imprisonment; “we were with our friends—our brothers!”

As political prisoners, the Fenians were separated from the criminal convicts, and entertained themselves with nightly concerts of stories, songs and poetry.[4] O’Reilly played a key role in these diversions, and also in the production of a handwritten newspaper The Wild Goose. Many of the poems later published in O’Reilly’s anthologies were first penned for The Wild Goose; in fact the paper was so popular that an extra copy of the final edition was carefully written out for the Hougoumont’s captain and mates and presented to them just before they reached Fremantle![5]

Once in Australia, the reality of O’Reilly’s situation hit home. The Fenians were split up, depriving him of the comradeship which had sustained him on the voyage. He was a broken man, and tried to take his own life in December 1868, as he waited for word from Father McCabe. Farmer Maguire’s daughter Annie recalled years later her father talking about “how poor Boyle cried and cried in desperation for help.”[6]

The Gazelle

Back to that warm night in February 1869. O’Reilly trudged three hours through the bush, then laid low, waiting. He soon heard the sound of approaching horses, followed by someone whistling the tune of an Irish song—Patrick’s Day. With Maguire and another man, O’Reilly rode for several hours, then walked several more until they reached the coast. It was well after midnight when they waded knee-deep through mud to reach a rowing boat manned by Maguire’s cousins. The men rowed until sunrise, making it across Geographe Bay towards their meeting point with the whaling ship, the Vigilant. They ran the rowboat high up on the beach, to await the rendezvous. No food or water had been provisioned. O’Reilly had not eaten or drunk anything for over twenty-four hours.

The attempt to rendezvous with the Vigilant was a disaster. The men rowed two hours to meet her out in the bay, but to their bitter disappointment she changed her course within two miles of them. They hailed her but to no avail; the whaler passed on. The group rowed back to shore, but O’Reilly’s attempted again later that night to meet the Vigilant on his own, again without success. What happened over the next few days is somewhat uncertain—in O’Reilly’s version, he was left to fend for himself in the sand dunes and bush for a number of days while Maguire came up with a new plan. Maguire’s daughter Annie Stokes remembered the story differently, however—she remembers O’Reilly hiding at the Maguires’ home for a fortnight after the failure to board the Vigilant.[7]

 In any case, McCabe managed to convince the Captain of another whaler, the Gazelle, to take O’Reilly on board. Captain Gifford welcomed O’Reilly warmly and accommodated him in his cabin. As the whaler departed, Maguire stood up and cried: “God bless you; don’t forget us, and don’t mention our names till you know it’s all over.”  When O’Reilly finally arrived in Philadelphia on 23 November 1869, he immediately presented himself at the District Court to file for American citizenship. He was twenty-five years of age.

This is where O’Reilly’s Australian story ends, almost. He was a key figure in planning and funding the 1876 ‘Catalpa Rescue’ in which six Fenian convicts escaped from Fremantle Jail in Western Australia—rescued by the American whaler Catalpa. The Rescue was a highly organized expedition, in contrast to O’Reilly’s own escape. These two episodes, almost unique in Australia’s convict history, epitomize the determination and solidarity of the Fenians, who refused to give up on any of their number. The transportation of 62 of them to Western Australia in 1867 was part of a concerted effort on the part of Britain to drive into exile this threat to her hold over Ireland. O’Reilly’s escape and the Catalpa Rescue serve as a reminder that the Australian colonies played host to the ongoing political tensions in their homeland.

The Pilot

After becoming an American, O’Reilly set about making something of himself. He was feted by the Fenians in America and by politicians keen for the Irish American vote, but ultimately he opted to keep out of what he called “these Irish or American political “rings”.[8] He secured a job on the Boston Pilot, America’s leading Irish Catholic newspaper. He covered the failed Fenian attempts to invade Canada, and the 1870 Orange Riots in New York, during which several men were killed and many more injured in clashes between Irish Catholics and Protestants. His fury in new York was evident:

“Is this not the cause for deep humiliation? Earnest men have labored for years to remove that bitter old taunt of our enemies—“You cannot unite.” … We prate and boast of our “national will”! What are we today in the eyes of Americans? Aliens from a petty island in the Atlantic… Why must we carry, wherever we go, those accursed and contemptible island feuds?[9]

O’Reilly soon rose to be Editor of the Pilot, and formally left the Fenians around the same time. Although he disapproved of organised activism, he wrote to his friend John Devoy that he may have been “a sceptic in all your movements; but I’m as ready as any one of you to do anything for the old cause.”[10]

Literary Life & Humanity’s Friend

As well as establishing himself on the speaking circuit and in the Pilot, O’Reilly worked hard in America to pursue his other great passion—writing. He was prolific—he published four anthologies of poetry, a serialized novel,  a manual on the merits of his favorite physical pastimes (canoeing and boxing), and a host of journal articles, lectures and public speeches. He soon established a network of literary friends, many of whom went on to occupy senior positions in newspapers and the arts around America. O’Reilly’s ability to gather people around him, and to inspire loyalty and affection, was a quality which he had carried with him all his life.

O’Reilly became Boston’s unofficial poet laureate, busy dedicating monuments and memorials, and publicly reading his poetry. Daniel Tobin has described O’Reilly as the preeminent Irish American literary figure of his time—describing his poetry as “perhaps the last, misbegotten heir of an older Irish bardic tradition.”[11] This tradition is anchored in a strong sense of social vocation and a public tone, and eschews the individual for the broader narrative. O’Reilly’s personal story is not explicitly documented in his poetry. Rather than dwell on his own rather exceptional story of exile, O’Reilly wrote poetry in a style with which his Irish American readers were familiar, and told stories to which they could all relate.

 He also used his poetry to address many of the same issues that he raised in the Pilot. During the 1880s he gained a reputation as “humanity’s friend,”[12] with a particular interest in the plight of the African American. He used his public profile to persistently criticise American racism towards African Americans. O’Reilly concluded his poem about the eighteenth century slave Crispus Attucks with the words, “God made mankind to be one in blood, as one in spirit and thought.”[13] He worked closely with high profile advocates of abolition such as Wendell Phillips and Thomas Higginson. In this, he worked against a wider tradition within the Irish community in America,[14] but followed in the footsteps of Daniel O’Connell, who had famously challenged Ireland to oppose slavery, and had campaigned for abolition in America.

 At the public memorial service after his death, Edwin G. Walker, an African American man, said this of O’Reilly,

“I come here tonight because John Boyle O’Reilly was the friend of my race …With his pen, O’Reilly sent through the columns of a newspaper…words in our behalf that were Christian, and anathemas that were just. Not only that, but he went on to the platform, and in bold and defiant language he denounced the murderers of our people… in the midst of all the gloom we could     hear Mr. O’Reilly declaring his determination to stand by the colored American in all contests where his rights were at stake.”[15]


O’Reilly was forty-six years old and at the height of his career when he died suddenly in the early hours of 10 August 1890, after accidentally overdosing on his wife’s medication. He suffered from insomnia, and the assumption is that instead of taking his own mediation, he took his invalid wife’s medication instead. A funeral mass was held on August 12. The church, sidewalks and adjacent streets thronged with a multitude of mourners, and afterwards it took more than an hour for the mourners to file past his coffin.

It is easy to characterise O’Reilly as remarkable. He endured tremendous experiences, achieved great fame, and gathered around him many friends and admirers. He touched the lives of countless individuals with his personal charity and his public advocacy. His lawyer recounted how O’Reilly “could not hear a tale of woe or misfortune that he did not set himself about rectifying or relieving.”[16] Yet he was no radical. The Pilot remained popular throughout his tenure; thus while the views he expressed on issues such as the Fenians, and civil rights may have been challenging for his readers, nonetheless he struck a chord. His public consumed his poems and his newspaper columns, they attended his speeches. In this way, he mingled fiction and poetry with commentary, newspaper reports with narrative, to envision the possibilities for the Irish in America, how they could at once hold onto their homeland, whilst engaging with America and all its possibilities. He embodied the ideal of what it was to be Irish American in the nineteenth century. This is his lasting legacy.


[1] Walt Whitman, in Gary Schmidgall, ed. Intimate with Walt: Selections from Whitman’s Conversations with Horace Traubel 1888-1892, The Iowa Whitman Series (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001).

[2] The first account of O’Reilly’s escape was written by Alexander Young in the Philadelphia Times, 25 June 1881. The article is extracted in full in James Jeffrey Roche, Life of John Boyle O’Reilly, Together with His Complete Poems and Speeches, Edited by Mrs. John Boyle O’Reilly. (New York: Cassell Publishing Company, 1891).

[3] Devoy, Recollections of an Irish Rebel (a Photolithographic Facsimile of the First Edition, Unabridged)., pp.155-156.

[4] Conor Johnston, “Review of Fenian Life on the Convict Ship Hougoumont: Denis B. Cashman on Board the Hougoumont 1867-1868, by Cw Sullivan,” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, Irish Issue 8, no. 1 (2002)., p.271.

[5] Walter McGrath, “Convict Ship Newspaper, the Wild Goose, Re-Discovered,” Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 74(1969)., pp.23-24.

[6] Martin Carroll, “The Mark of Boyle O’reilly’s Escape,” The West Australian, 20 December 1952.

[7] Carroll, “The Mark of Boyle O’reilly’s Escape.”

[8] Letter O’Reilly to Devoy, 26 May 1871 in William O’Brien and Desmond Ryan, eds., Devoy’s Postbag 1871-1928, 2 vols., vol. 1, 1870-1880 (Dublin: CJ Fallon, 1948).

[9] The Pilot, 23 July 1870, in Roche, Life of John Boyle O’Reilly.

[10] Letter O’Reilly to Devoy, Thursday, 1871.

[11] Daniel Tobin, Awake in America: On Irish American Poetry (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011).

[12] “Death of John Boyle O’Reilly”, in A Memorial of John Boyle O’reilly from the City of Boston.

[13] “Crispus Attucks”, printed in full in Roche, Life of John Boyle O’Reilly.

[14] Kenneally, From the Earth, a Cry., pp.165-166.

[15] A Memorial of John Boyle O’Reilly from the City of Boston.

[16] “Remarks of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler”, in A Memorial of John Boyle O’Reilly from the City of Boston.

The Power of Audio: Presenting the Past

A cornerstone of this week’s New South Wales History Week was Presenting the Past: A Symposium on History and the Media, held at the State Library of New South Wales. The symposium has its own blog which will soon feature detailed reviews of the sessions. Suffice to say I came away from the Symposium inspired about the potential for public history, education and story-telling!

What I’ve been thinking about most since the symposium is the power of audio. As Michelle Rayner, Executive Producer of ABC Radio National’s history program Hindsight said, radio is undergoing a renaissance in the age of the podcast. The possibilities for using radio and audio for history teaching, story-telling and for connecting with the public are enormous. History programming on radio is no longer the ephemeral thing of the past, once heard, often forgotten (unless of course you had your tape recorder at the ready to record a program…)

Dr Siobhan McHugh’s presentation during the Radio Panel in particular evoked the power of audio. She argued her case for the need to connect emotionally as well as intellectually with an audience using the medium she is so passionate about.  We heard clips from radio documentaries she’d made about the Snowy Hydro scheme, with the rich variety of voices and accents  of the Scheme’s workers; from Beagle Bay, which featured the voices of a child of the stolen generation, and one of the Irish nuns who cared for the children.  Siobhan’s excerpt from Marrying Out reminded me of stories my Mum has told me of growing up Catholic in small-town NSW. But the most powerful piece for me  was an excerpt from a program about Vietnam, in which an army nurse described cradling a soldier as he died. It took enormous self-control not to dissolve into tears in the midst of the symposium. I suspect I wasn’t alone in that.

 This experience took me back to a lecture that the late great Dr Tom Stannage delivered in my first-year Australian history course at UWA in 1988. I will never forget the recording he played of Aboriginal women describing the day their children were taken from them, talking about how the children’s footprints remained on the sandy ground of their huts long after they were gone. It was the most powerful lecture I have ever attended—of course that has to do with the lecturer’s skill, and the emotive subject matter, but it was the voices of those mothers that remain with me to this day.

Attending the Symposium reminded me I hadn’t listed to Hindsight for a while, so I listened yesterday to The Catalpa Escape, which aired about a month ago. My connection with that story and the hold it has over me is probably the subject of another blogpost, but hearing the voices in that audio as they discussed a story I so love gave me goosebumps. Historians can  reach different people in different ways, for me audio seems to evoke a deep-seated response… Surely the aim of any public history project.