[Professor Janet McCalman stands at a lectern branded with the State Library of Victoria logo.]
Professor Janet McCalman: I've actually titled this talk 'Secrets and lies: Vandemonians in Victoria'. And it's such a common family legend – 'We were always told that he jumped ship during the gold rush.' When Arthur Calwell was Minister for Immigration, he even delegated two departmental officers to track down the exact voyage that had brought his grandfather, Michael McLoughlin, to Victoria. He would be delighted now, up there, to know that his nephew Garry McLoughlin has found that Michael was transported on the Duke of Richmond in 1841 to Van Diemen's Land for a dubious conviction that had more to do with the authorities ridding Ireland of a literate, intelligent, and therefore potentially dangerous Roman Catholic. So therefore Ireland's loss but Australia's gain.
Daniel Backway, likewise, was believed to have been another ship's deserter in the 1850s until his remarkable story emerged from the convict records. A London orphan, educated by the workhouse and apprenticed to a chimneysweep, he fell into bad company. After an uneventful time under sentence, his literacy and his steadiness helped start a small business in Fryerstown and to finish his life secure there on a miner's right. The legacy of both men was their Australian families.
But how typical were these happy endings for the around 70,000 convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land between 1803 and 1853? What did become of them? How many stayed and how many left? How many were founders and survivors? For the past six years, the Founders and Survivors project, funded by the Australian Research Council, has been working to find some answers to those questions.
While historians have done much work on Australian convicts, particularly notably Lloyd Robson's pioneering Convict settlers of Australia, it has not been possible until the age of the internet-driven family history to track systematically what happened to convicts after sentence. New technologies of mass digitisation of historical records and vital registrations have empowered us all as family and social historians. Founders and Survivors is only possible because of ancestry.com, findmypast, Trove, the various Australian registrars of births, deaths and marriages, the Tasmanian Heritage and Archive Office, the Public Record Office of Victoria, the National Archives of Australia, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, Scotland's People, the National Archives of Scotland and the National Archives of Ireland. And to do the work, we are indebted now to what is an absolute army of individuals – historians from the universities of Tasmania, Melbourne, Flinders, Monash, Oxford, New South Wales, Guelph in Canada, Ohio at Columbus (United States) and the Australian National University; computer systems developers, digitisers, transcribers, research assistants, genealogists – over 70 at the last count – volunteer researchers and coders researching whole ships of convicts. And then, finally, hundreds of descendants who have submitted the family histories of their convict ancestors. And making it all possible has been the Australian Research Council, the Institute for the Broadband-Enabled Society – who funded our website – and the Australian National Data Service, which is funding a way of making that data perpetually available to researchers, including you.
It's now possible to investigate how important Vandemonians were, for instance, in Victorian history. James Boyce's exciting new history 1835: The founding of Melbourne and the conquest of Australia makes two critical arguments. The first, that the colonisation of Victoria marked the real beginning of the European seizure of mainland Australia west of the Dividing Range. Second, that it was Vandemonian emancipists who built Victoria before gold. Vandemonians have previously featured largely in the underbelly of historiography of Victoria. They were deplored as'Vandemonian pollution' while exploited as cheaper workers than immigrants. They were feared as bushrangers, foul-mouthed grog sellers and horse thieves. They were even legislated against in 1852. The disgust at gloriously happy, successful gold-diggers lighting their cigars with five-pound notes, driving furiously around Melbourne in coaches while quaffing champagne and fondling red-faced Irish girls with thick ankles, no doubt was more due to a reaction to the undeserving who no longer knew their place.
Meanwhile at the diggings, gentlemen listened enthralled and also terrified over the camp fires to tales of dastardly deeds. On 19 December 1851, the Colonial times in Hobart reported:
Yesterday, two men returned from Mount Alexander to Collingwood with ten pounds of gold, the produce of one fortnight's gold hunting. One of the greatest wonders of the present day is the number of formerly poor men who are now daily drawing large sums of money from the local banks in exchange for gold and cheques. A person of some experience, who has come down from the goldfields, declares it as his opinion that generally speaking, the Vandemonian expirees are the most fortunate of the diggers, a very large proportion of them having managed to secure a fair share of the nuggets.
This is perhaps the unwritten history of the gold rush. How many of the lucky early diggers were, in fact, emancipists who were simply in the right place at the right time and had the bush survival skills to make a success of alluvial goldmining. If some drank and gambled it away, others treated their findings as a nest egg. If they had a certificate of freedom, they could – as did Samuel Phillips in 1853 – immediately buy a ticket to Liverpool, marry the pregnant sweetheart he had left behind 24 years before ...
Prof McCalman: … and on the same day, witness the baptism of their first grandchild.
Prof McCalman: He then used his small fortune to buy a very good piece of land newly released next to the Duke of Grafton's estate, who was the so-and-so who had him done for poaching in the first place, built a handsome stone house and established a farm that his descendants still work. The Argus, in May 1859, deplored the weakness of the authorities in new fields such as Back Creek where, quote,'Thirty-thousand people had congregated, while on the outskirts of this immense industrious army hang some hundreds of thieves, cheats, loafers and scoundrels of all descriptions.' To a man and a woman, they were 'Vandemonian desperadoes', declared the Argus. Two of the three Vandemonians we have found who died at Back Creek, Huntly, near Bendigo, were unlikely desperadoes. Isaac Waters – Governor Ready, 1827 – fathered a surviving family and earned his living as a carter. And John Turnbull – Duchess of Northumberland, 1843 – who died in 1871, was a struggling storekeeper who had already lost five of his seven children to the gut infections that also took his own life at 51.
Ann Ward – Mexborough, 1841 – who died as the estranged wife of William Broom – Atlas, 1833 – a recidivist, did fit the stereotype. It was 'a wretched life of dissipation and drunkenness', declared the Bendigo Advertiser in 1873. Of her surviving children, only ten-year-old Mary remained with her. Their home was, quote, 'a cold, miserable place with only a bed in it and the neighbours did not like to go near it.' William Broom had done time in Victoria for sheep stealing and drunkenness. When he died in '87, the fate of his children was unknown.
We can estimate from the records of departures and absconders that around 30,000 Vandemonians travelled to Victoria but when we look at convicts recorded in the Victoria Police Gazette, we find that only around a third of those can be traced to a recorded departure from Tasmania. Some came to try out the goldfields and returned to their families and friends. Many more passed through Victoria to find a new life elsewhere – back to the United Kingdom if they had a certificate of freedom, very many to New Zealand, especially for its gold rush or to enlist in the Maori Wars, and an unknown number to the Americas. The core population that came to constitute the convict-descended in Tasmania now looks to be extremely small and concentrated in the earlier years of the colony when opportunities for land and enterprise were best. The core population of emancipists that settled and reproduced in Victoria is likewise small. It may turn out that the convict contribution to the modern Australian population is descended from well less than 15% – maybe down to about 10% – of the 70,000 who were transported over half a century. Now that's the way populations happen.
The founding populations – they now tend to go back to a very small number of successfully reproducing families, while the majority of the founders who came at the same time do not leave descendants. Victoria is nevertheless an important chapter in the history of convict transportation to Van Diemen's Land but it is a history shrouded in secrets and lies. And to understand that, we need to understand the challenges facing the emancipist or absconder when he or she sought to re-enter free society. A new settler of any sort needed two things – a means of entry to the economy and a social network. The passport to employment was what was known as your 'character' – usually a written testimonial as to your reputation and capacities, or an oral record that was passed around a community. Even shepherds needed a testimonial in a society where thieves or at least one-time thieves abounded. The servant who had lost her 'character' had no alternative but the lowest work and prostitution. The emancipist who had earned the regard and support of a patron – a well-disposed master or mistress – was equipped often with a new 'character' that could open opportunities in life after sentence. It was still a society that worked on patronage, where your most important relationships were those with those above you in the social order rather than those with your peers so that a patron could transform your life chances. Good servants were rewarded with long, even lifelong, support. Obligations between master and servant were mutual.
Some emancipists who thrived in Victoria came under the patronage of the first squatters, earned their stripes with their agricultural and horticultural expertise and secured good land in the early selections. Convict servants or emancipists with very good agricultural skills found themselves pursued by masters desperate for skilled labour, as happened to the swing rioters when their ships landed at Hobart in 1831. Convicts with construction skills could also prosper – stonemasons, brickmakers and bricklayers, carpenters and blacksmiths. Indeed many had improved during servitude on trades only half-learned at the time they were transported or even had acquired new skills in a system that was intended to rehabilitate. If they were steady workers and kept sober, good reports would soon circulate of their reliability and business could grow. They could change their name and many, of course, did, which is why we need their descendants to tell us about them. They could only hope that another old lag did not turn up and declare, 'Hey, I know you.'
Prof McCalman: Emancipists were acutely sensitive about being recognised by the wrong people in the wrong way. The newly respectable were vulnerable to blackmail and extortion. And those who worked hard to remake their lives and reputations took sneers and insinuations to heart. Anne Murphy, who came on the Mary Anne in 1841, married a free man, Roger Pitt, in Hobart in 1844. And they built their family following the diggers from Avoca, Geelong, Ballarat East, Creswick, Blanket Flat, Daylesford and Bendigo. She reoffended twice – stealing a keg of butter from a store at Portuguese Flat near Creswick in 1859, for which she served time on the hulk Sacramento. The second was in Daylesford when she found herself before the magistrate when someone had called her a 'Derwent duck' and she blew up. She was only 45 when she died of liver failure at California Gully, near Bendigo.
Those who emerged from servitude with unmarked faces, unscarred backs and sound limbs stood the best chance of passing in respectable society. They could change their names and hope to start afresh with a massaged story of their passage to Australia. Those who reoffended were often scarred, weather-beaten and old before their time. They looked like old lags, and who in their right mind would trust them? Hard labour with chains left men limping cripples. Floggings curdled backs and buttocks like severe burns.
William Beazley – Coramandel, 1838 – was born in Birmingham in 1804, had worked as a groom but found life hard in Victoria. By his mid-60s he was too old for labouring work, was scarred on back and forehead and had lost his front teeth when he was imprisoned in Melbourne for vagrancy. He died in Kew Lunatic Asylum at 73, diseased in the brain and chest, exhausted.
Women were scarred by violence, a lot of domestic violence, by work accidents and particularly by burns. Margaret Mack – Kinnear, 1849 – after seven years servitude and a career in Victoria that included larceny, prostitution, receiving and larceny of the person, was distinguished in her mid-40s by an injured nose and scars on her forehead, cheeks and upper arm. The respectable were fascinated and fearful, ever-vigilant years after the end of transportation to the eastern colonies, of those with a decided Vandemonian cast.
But the Vandemonians who hovered around the fringe of received society living off petty theft, grog tents, gambling, receiving and prostitution, perhaps numbered no more than 1000. We have just found just under 500 in the Victoria Police Gazette. Many who did appear in the courts were homeless and destitute in old age, so started committing petty crimes to obtain shelter and food in jail. Those who built some sort of life were more likely to have found a life partner and had children but even there, extreme poverty, mental illness and scant personal resources drove the next generation into crime like their parents. Nearly all the children of Thomas Wilkins and Margaret Byrne had criminal records, the youngest daughters specialising in intimidating and stealing from children around Collingwood.
Few such families became founders, however, losing many children in childhood, and their adult children often remaining single and dying young. Only if they were rescued by institutions or kindly foster parents did they often escape the cycle of poverty and crime. The undoing of many lives after sentence was alcohol, as it was for so many free immigrants. Colonial alcohol was notoriously strong: rum, crude whisky that was banned in Scotland it was so proof, beer adulterated with narcotics to give it more kick. The rough parts of town – eastern Melbourne city, regional towns, mining camps – were full of people who were as out-of-control as those on crack cocaine today. Alcoholics emigrated to the colonies to drink themselves to death. Immigrants collapsed into alcoholic depression when their hopes evaporated.
Emancipists carried heavy burdens often of childhood abuse, alienation, loss, incarceration and sensory deprivation, floggings, chains and persecution. Janet Black, who came on the Lady of the lake in 1829, was transported from Scotland when she was aged just 15 and still a child. She married another convict, Gilbert Marshall, and they were among the founders of Richmond in Victoria. She bore eight children but the youngest was only a year old when her husband suddenly died. He had already made enough money, however, for the youngest sons to have a good farm on the Plenty River. Janet descended into helpless alcoholism, being maintained by a generous quarterly annuity from her sons, which she blew every quarter in a few days shouting and binging. Another alcoholic took advantage of her and married her so that he could get his hands on her drinking money. When desperate for shelter, she would strip off her clothes and run around naked in the police station in order to be confined for vagrancy. Once she was found lying between the railway lines at Hawthorn, but she did die in a bed at the Immigrants' Home from alcoholic epilepsy.
Emancipists' early lives did much to determine the rest of their life course. Londoners and others from big port cities found Melbourne more congenial. A city economy was one they understood, where they could scratch a living as dealers and hawkers. Not a few pickpockets kept up their profession. Those with rural skills did well in the agricultural and pastoral districts, especially if they were skilled horticulturalists. James Kimber was transported as a swing rioter in 1831 and was soon found to be an outstanding horticulturalist by Edward Curr of the Van Diemen's Land Company. Curr actually stopped him from getting a ticket of leave, he was so valuable. By the time he was finally pardoned along with the majority of swing rioters, he was already winning prizes for his produce.
His descendant Annabel Anderson completes the story: he brought his new wife to Melbourne around 1838, began a market garden in Rotherwood Street, Richmond, then in 1851 was quickly at the diggings, where over 15 months he found £1,500 worth of gold. He used the money to buy 15 acres at Preston, which he developed as market gardens, an orchard and bacon-curing business. He left his children well provided for and died a gentleman at the age of 85.
Political prisoners like the swing rioters did far better in later life than the majority of convicts. Having participated in the last great agrarian revolt in England – an eruption of rage at the destruction of a traditional way of life symbolised by mechanical threshing machines – this was a point of pride in many circles in later life. Consequently, swing rioters proved much easier for us to trace after sentence, keeping their real names, getting married and settling a permanent home. They even lived longer than other emancipists; in fact, considerably longer.
Aside from character or repute, the other great need of newcomers to colonial Victoria was a social network. Migrants in the 19th century were no different from migrants or refugees today. The Welsh kept so closely in contact that the Welsh swagman David Davies seemed to travel around and work around the central highlands of Victoria without needing to speak English for weeks on end. A Welsh former convict, Elizabeth Morgan, moved her operations to the goldfields from Wapping in Hobart and, as Bet Naylor, ran a Welsh-speaking brothel in Ballarat, presumably selling Welsh sex.
Prof McCalman: The English looked for people from the same county and identified themselves by their county of birth more often than they did as English. In fact, many still do. Convicts had often formed new networks on board ship to Australia that were recorded in the witnesses to their marriages and the baptisms of their children. The great Australian legend of bush mateship that allegedly found its finest hour at Gallipoli is, of course, a legend. As if other people in the world were not capable of close, supportive same-sex friendships. But convicts were usually people who had crossed the world without family, and mates could fill that void.
As the Tasmanian Royal Commission into Charitable Institutions in 1871 commented, 'The inhabitants of the old country are usually surrounded by kindred. Those of a colony are detached atoms.' Convicts who were transported with siblings or parents tended to do better than those who had none, as did those whose spouses were already here or who were sponsored to join them in the colony. Sometimes the convict's native parish paid for convicts' wives and children to emigrate. In all societies, 'people without friends' – as they termed those without families and connections in the 19th century – find survival difficult.
We all need significant others at various life stages and, indeed, the welfare state exists essentially to enable those without families to survive. The English – convict and free – moreover, had lived for two and a half centuries since the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 in a society where care of the destitute, the sick, the orphaned and the old was organised by the secular authorities, via the parish, and paid for by that dreaded thing, taxes, that is, the poor rate. Historians and genealogists working for the past 30 years from parish registers and records, led by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, have now revealed how England was protected from famine and widespread vagabondage by the parish relief system which, in the countryside, operated right up until the 1880s.
It was in the cities where massive population growth had broken that system down that they had to resort to the inhuman workhouses and the criminalisation of poverty. And how, in turn, the systematic training of young people for work – which was also organised through the parish for those without families through apprenticeship – produced an educated and relatively fit and able population that drove the economic and demographic take-off that we know of as the Industrial Revolution. So it was the human capital, even more than the financial capital, that was critical in the big take-off of the Industrial Revolution. I hope you all watched the opening of the Olympic Games where that was very powerfully demonstrated.
Like Ireland and its tiger economy in our own time, the real resource of the country was an educated population or its human capital. It's so sad that in each case, the people's destiny was squandered by entrepreneurs and financiers. This is relevant to our Vandemonian story because when convicts were transported and immigrants arrived, they carried their history and traditions in their heads. They did more than strip a new colony of its assets as perhaps they did more in the American Wild West. They also built a civil society with an extraordinary network of institutions to care for those who had no family or means to care for themselves. This library, of course, is part of that extraordinary civic network that was built by the immigrants. The convict system itself was a bureaucratic achievement built from British experience in the management of colonial populations, armies and enterprises.
The convict record-keeping system that has made our project possible has been described as a 'paper panopticon', where a whole convict colony was managed by bureaucracy that was the means of surveillance for an island open prison. The legacy, perhaps, in Australian history of our penal colony origins – according to historians like Bill Gammage – is a certain authoritarianism and the persistence of state-level – from the separate colonies – top-down interventions rather than local institutions. The actual convict colonies themselves found themselves obliged to construct large institutions to house the destitute and insane remnants of the convict population, and even in Tasmania, to accept the responsibility to invest in the human capital of a dwindling population lacking refreshment from free immigration.
Victoria was a little different. It was the creation, more than any other Australian colony, of self-funded free immigration – that is, in the 19th century. But it quickly set about recreating a civil society that mirrored the parish-based welfare state of Scotland and England. That is: voluntary hospitals for those without homes to be treated in or in which to give birth; benevolent asylums for those without families to shelter them in old age; an extraordinary number of lunatic asylums for the high proportion of psychiatric casualties of a frontier society. Only Ireland had more places in lunatic asylums than Victoria. A neglected children's service and industrial schools, orphanages, and finally, by 1871, a rudimentary national school system.
The most interesting example was in the goldfields where the miners subscribed to build a hospital and some sort of refuge for the aged in almost every major mining town – Bendigo and Ballarat, of course, but also Castlemaine, Maryborough, Beechworth, Daylesford, Amherst, Ararat and so on. This was a culture of mutual benefit and social insurance. An institutional recognition that none of us can survive quite alone, that we all depend on each other.
It is scarcely surprising then that the former convicts died more often in institutions than in homes of their own, revealing how difficult it was for them to build a stake in the country and a home and social network that would see them through to the end of life.
To survive, they needed to be able to secure a means of providing for life; and for most, that meant actually having a stake in the country of a piece of rural land or an urban property. The founding convict families in Tasmania and New South Wales were predominantly those who came early and were able to take advantage of early land seizure and distribution through grants. In Victoria, if you did not make enough money through gold or specialised business, success came from being on site early.
William Goodall – from the Lady Harewood, 1829 – married another convict, Ellen Baldock – in the Hector, 1835 – soon after she arrived, sparing her too much exposure to the female convict regime. She bore eight children because she was able to start young, which is a reason why we're finding many convict women had quite small families or none at all, because their reproductive career was interrupted by servitude, if their health wasn't impaired as well. By the early 1850s, this family were in Victoria and he had the savings to establish a farm at Allansford, outside Warrnambool. They were not the only Vandemonians in Allansford, a not-uncommon clustering of emancipists in districts just outside the main settlements – such as in Rosedale and Tarraville in Gippsland, Ashby in Geelong and, most notably, Ballarat East, which in the rural areas is our winner for the number of ex-convicts dying in any one place. I actually had one death certificate with five people on it and three of them were ex-convicts all from Ballarat East. William Goodall had made his savings from running a coaching service to Evandale. He died leaving a farm worth over £1000, administered by his youngest son who was a Warrnambool law clerk, having moved into the middle class. Another son, also William, became the manager and protector of the Aboriginal station at Framlingham.
Now, Peter Appleyard was another and a poacher. And I do think that maybe poachers, like political prisoners, were a different class of prisoner. He came from Yorkshire and was an early settler at Port Albert. He didn't live long but he left eight children when he died in 1866, and no fewer than 13 grandsons served in the AIF. George Scarborough – Caledonia, 1820 – was a Melbourne pioneer and the first pound keeper. He formed a partnership with another 1820 transportee, Gilbert Marshall, the husband of the hapless Janet Black. He too bought land that would prove immensely valuable as real estate – a market garden in Flemington – and he died a gentleman living in Brighton. Four grandsons served in the AIF. Those who came later needed the capital and farming skill to take out land grants, and emancipists became farmers all around Melbourne – Kilmore and Kyneton, Avenel. Michael McLoughlin farmed at Kyneton and raised a large family oblivious of his convict past.
Emancipists' death places were all over Victoria but concentrated in Melbourne and suburbs, and the goldfields, Geelong and South Gippsland. In central Melbourne, they commonly died in institutions: in the Melbourne Hospital, the Benevolent Asylum at Hotham or the Immigrants' Home – first in St Kilda, later in Royal Park. And these places of death implied a destitute or near-destitute circumstances.
Many also died in lunatic asylums but they are more difficult to trace because the patients were less able to give an account of themselves on admission so that identification can be difficult. Of those who died in the suburbs, Collingwood was the most popular and that meant that, to some extent, they had found a house of some sort. John Bidgood – Augusta Jessie, 1835 – and his wife, Mary Hill, who came on the Navarino in 1841, married two years after her arrival when she was 19 and they had seven children. He was a sugar boiler by trade and they had secured a roof over the family's head by 1855 when an old man Bidgood had nursed left him the right of possession to a tiny house in Sackville Street. The family scarcely prospered. Baby Caroline died at two of scarlatina. Two more children died as young adults in Collingwood from tuberculosis and another daughter in childbirth at the Lying-In Hospital. The remaining three did live long lives but they were all far distant from the mean streets of Collingwood. The value of Bidgood's estate in 1879 was £24 for the house and £11 for the furniture and work tools.
The salvation of many emancipists was the miner's right in the goldfields. Heather Holst, in her history of making a home in Castlemaine, has argued that the miner's right was more important than gold to most gold seekers. And for £1 or a guinea a year, a miner had the use of a quarter-acre block for mining or building a home and for subsistence. The miner's right gave people with no capital a stake in the country and some families, as you know, lived on those blocks for generations, keeping the gold towns viable communities until other industries or agriculture could provide work. Many emancipists' families were saved by this one measure, giving security to the children despite the frequent collapse of their parents in later life to illness, debility or drunkenness. William Peeler – Woodford, 1828 – and Mary Bentley – Atwick, 1838 – both made a quiet success of family life at the Mount Alexander goldfields and became active in the Methodist Church, with four of their six children surviving William, who died at 83. Their grandson, Walter Peeler, won the VC in the First World War and was a prisoner of war on the Burma-Thai railway in the Second. The family is still in the region.
But the second generation was often outlived by their convict parents, suggesting how hard life was at the bottom of the social heap. William Sheldon – Barossa, 1842 – and Elizabeth Mosley – Elizabeth and Henry, 1848 – had seven children and also settled in Castlemaine. However, by the time William died at the age of 50, five of the seven children were dead, and when Elizabeth finally died in 1904 aged 82, only an unmarried daughter was still alive.
These family stories illustrate some of the most interesting findings we are beginning to discern in our ships projects, where volunteer researchers are taking whole shiploads of convicts and trying to trace as many as possible in life after sentence. Outnumbering women seven to one at times, all men but especially convicted men, found it difficult to secure a wife. If they had suffered severe punishment, they rarely had a normal life after sentence. If they were unskilled and illiterate, or simply Irish, their chances on the marriage market were particularly poor.
Convicted women obviously benefited from their scarcity, but even they did not marry universally, especially if they were Irish and arrived later in life. Above all, few had large families because their reproductive career was interrupted by servitude; many had been 'on the town' or were victims of early abuse and had become infertile through sexually transmitted diseases. Those who were transported young and married soon after arrival, and were assigned to their free husband, were more likely to have large families.
Even if many children were born, emancipists were trapped into poverty, beset by alcoholism and mental illness, and their children suffered the consequences. It was very difficult for a near-illiterate colonial-born son without a trade to make his way in the Tasmanian or Victorian economy and to have the income to find a wife and keep a family. Emancipists' daughters who had the good fortune to be attractive were more likely to carry through to the next generation via a fortunate marriage.
Indeed, amongst the poor, upward mobility was often easier for young women than for anyone else, so that convict family lines are perhaps more often carried through daughters than sons. The reason was economic. These family histories are revealing that most emancipists died destitute and their surviving children near-destitute in the urban working class or the rural poor. The Selection Acts proved fortunate for a few but many were like Ned Kelly's family and found themselves trapped on poor land, with no regular income and no capital for improvements. Big families could not be supported on tiny selections either in north-east Victoria or Tasmania and young men joined the nomad tribes of bush workers and casual labourers. In the city, likewise, poor education and no family connections for trade apprenticeships left young men with little option but the casual economy and the dire effects of perpetual insecurity. For many of the next two generations after transportation, their first 'good break', so-called, was World War I.
Tom Nest was found dead by the police in a room in Fitzroy in 1943. He was 62, single, and according to his death certificate, a retired mechanic. What was the story behind this life that left no descendants, that ended so sadly without friends? His grandfather, William Nest, had been transported to Van Diemen's Land in 1831 at the age of 20 for the theft of two workmen's coats from a cart in Savoy Street, London. He appears to have had an uneventful seven years under sentence and was one of the fortunate to marry a free woman in 1838. They then had at least eight children, although only the death of one son was formally registered. It is possible that they crossed Bass Strait to Port Albert in 1852 but, again, they disappeared from official sight until William died in Melbourne in 1874, aged 61.
The parents of Thomas Nest married shortly before his birth in 1881 at the Lying-In Natal Women's Hospital and the family moved around the narrow streets of South Fitzroy for the rest of their lives. He began his working life in the worst years of the 1890s depression. In January 1915, he put his age down to 34 and volunteered for the AIF. He was just under five foot five inches tall and weighed ten stone. He was still unmarried and had no qualifications. The AIF did not need older men at this early stage of the war and put him on reserve, but by June 1915 reinforcements were needed for the 23rd Battalion and he enlisted. By August 1916 he was on the front in the battles of Pozières and Mouquet Farm, in which his battalion lost 90% of its original membership. Tom Nest sustained a severe barbed wire wound in the thigh that turned septic and formed a disabling ulcer that proved to be the end of his war. He was returned to hospital in England, and in May 1917 invalided back to Australia with the ulcer still open and needing constant irrigation. He was finally discharged in February 1918, and in November 1918 he was granted a pension of 15 shillings a fortnight, which he asked to be paid to his mother.
In 1928, he came to the attention of the Charity Organisation Society. He was renting a room for six shillings a week in Fitzroy and had been out of work for months. There was no mention of his being a returned soldier with a pension or a mechanic. He was simply a navvy who worked around the bush on short-term jobs for the Country Roads Board or the Victorian Railways on the superphosphate run. He was now a member of the nomad tribe of casual bush workers. He claimed he had lost his railway job through going to see his ailing mother – she had died in 1926 – and he had sent no work through to the timekeeper. His father was on the old age pension and could not help, so he was referred to the Unemployed Relief Committee. He lived another 14 years before choking on this own vomit in his room in Fitzroy.
If a man returned from the war intact in body and mind, especially with a medal, he could be remade. Even more important might be the War Service Home Loan and later the free medical care from the Repatriation Department. During the 1930s, few ex-servicemen I've found were evicted from their war service homes for payment arrears and they were usually advantaged in the workplace. For other families, their breakthrough was World War II, especially for those who were manpowered and stayed safely at home working in war industry. Education as a means of upward mobility was to be a possibility only from the late 1950s. Thus for most descendants of emancipists, as it was for most assisted immigrants, the Australian Dream took two to three generations to be realised in a three-bedroom home on a quarter-acre block.
But this is not to say that some emancipists did not find some sort of new life after sentence. The fortunate found it in their marriages and families. And it can be in the silences and family records of Victorian death certificates that we can glimpse a relationship. Many, perhaps most, died with noone knowing the names of their parents or even their correct birthplace. Children often knew very little, or knew of a marriage in Tasmania, so that the time in the penal colony is shortened to suggest that the parent was just passing through when they suddenly found love and married. Others claimed to have spent time in New South Wales or South Australia – anywhere but Van Diemen's Land.
Some were not ashamed and told the officials at their hospitals and asylums, remembering their parents for the last time. But some couples did talk, at least to each other. When John Cawtheray – Strathfieldsay, 1831 – buried his wife of almost 30 years, Mary Smith – Navarino, 1841 – at Blacksmith's Gully in Chewton in 1872, he faithfully recorded her parents' names and father's occupation, her place of birth and her times in Tasmania and Victoria. When he died three years later in Castlemaine Hospital, there were no children to remember his family. This is another great Australian silence, the blank canvas of the family past that now drives so many of us to recover a lineage that was carefully forgotten.
Alison Alexander's wonderful book, Tasmania's convicts, the first book to come out of the Founders and Survivors project, shows how a whole community in Tasmania chose not to speak of the 'bad things' of the past and that by the 1920s, most Tasmanians had no idea at all that they were descended from convicts. In Victoria, the secrets and lies were carried within families, except for the fact that so many of those with convict ancestors have multiple convict ancestors, which suggests that emancipists married amongst themselves where their secrets and lies were understood. These were founders and very quiet survivors. The Founders and Survivors project has realised for me a personal dream – to harvest some of the energy and skill of the family history community for the wider history of Australia and the world.
The cumulative power of the family stories of all of us offers us a new perspective on history-making from the ground up. Founders and Survivors will be a database not just of the bare bones of lives lived under the gaze of bureaucrats but also of the flesh added by research from descendants and researchers. We can discover both the broad perspective that statistical analysis provides and the human experience that delivers depth and feeling. We can start to appreciate how family history done in isolation of the wider story is just a history of winners – those who have got descendants to remember them. Just as important are the genealogical losers – the literally millions who died forgotten and alone in a strange land whose history they were also part of. Great human enterprises like conquest and settlement have always had and continue to have many casualties – first those whose land and lives have been taken and destroyed; second amongst those, the new wave of humans who died without friends. Lest we forgot them all. Thank you.