Friday, July 27, 2018

Looking for something to read?

I know that some people like their blog-reading world organised into tidy categories, and so when you visit this blog you get lots of gardening content (although I do often veer off course and end up in the kitchen, cooking, or other times travelling with Pammy). Well, for this posting I really want to get away from my mainstream interests and tell you about a little thread of reading that all came about as a spin-off from another of my part-time hobbies, doing family history research.

My interest in my relatives and descendants started off as a common garden variety interest of collecting names, dates, long lost uncles and aunties, discovering where my grandparents and great grandparents came from. It has all been wonderful fun, and what has really kept my interest in the topic bubbling along have been the stories, the social history, the completely different times in which all my forebears lived.

In my case that interest in people's stories took me deep into colonial Australia. I've spent countless hours at a wonderful website called Trove, which is part of the National Library of Australia. At Trove, you can read every page of what seems like every newspaper ever published in Australia, since European settlement began. I don't think that's strictly true, as they are constantly adding new newspapers, magazines and other source materials, but it's already breathtakingly comprehensive in its range.

And so I've been reading newspapers from the 1820s, the 1850s, the 1920s etc and finding stories aplenty about my relatives and forebears. 

And so as a spin-off I have been recently reading stories of 19th-century Australia, and I thought I'd mention a few books that I've really enjoyed, just in case you're looking for something to read, or perhaps spot the cover in a secondhand bookshop somewhere and decide to give it a go. And at the end of this posting is a brand new book, published just yesterday, that I want to read next.

First up, 'The Convict's Daughter", by historian Kiera Lindsey. It's a true story, and I must admit that many of my favourite historians are women (my all-time favourite is Barbara Tuchman). I think it's their eye for the telling human detail that makes them a cut above a lot of men writing history. Set in the 1840s, this is a mildly "racy" story involving elopements, an angry dad with a gun, a wayward son with a powerful family, a court case that was THE court case of its day: an abduction trial, as the eloping girl, madly-in-love Mary Ann Gill, was just 15 years old. It was published by Allen & Unwin in 2016, so I'd look for it in a secondhand store or online.

Starting to see a pattern here? Female historian again, this time Carol Baxter. True story of the biggest bank heist of its time (1828). Fourteen Thousand Pounds, which you can imagine was a squillion back then. And it was stolen by ex-convicts from the bank of the well-heeled toffs, the Bank of Australia, not the people's bank (the Bank of NSW). So everyone who wasn't a toff was delighted by the news and the police had a hard time finding out who did it, or what happened to the money. That's the cover blurb version of what's good about this book, but it's the way Carol Baxter paints a portrait of several of these deeply incorrigibly dishonest convicts that stays with you. This one is an older book which I found in a secondhand bookstore, published in 2008, and that's where you might find it too.

Just to balance out my sexist bias a bit, two more books from the era, both by men. On the left, from 2007, Love and the Platypus, a novel about a naturalist in the Australian bush in the 1880s, trying to find out how platypus reproduce, and in the process discovering a lot about the local Aboriginal people, and meeting a young blind woman with some secrets of her own.

Mr Darwin's Shooter is a novel based on the real life of Charles Darwin's assistant/manservant, Syms Covington, who ended up in Australia as the postmaster in Pambula, on the NSW South Coast. This is a different view of both Darwin, how Darwin worked, and what the times were like.
Both books aren't recent publications, so secondhand stores and online shops are your only options.

Finally, and what has partly prompted this diversion away from broccoli, frangipanis and all things gardening, is a book I haven't had the chance to read yet, but which I plan to order, as it was only published yesterday. Another female Australian historian, this time Sarah Luke (a relative of mine, not sure how you describe a cousin's daughter? is that a second or third cousin?).

Here in Sydney the battle to save Callan Park, an extensive hospital facility on the shores of an arm of Sydney Harbour, has been a heritage campaign that has been waged for many years. The grounds are extensive, beautiful and the buildings historic. And for real estate developers who don't care a fig about such things, the whole complex at Callan Park is a goldmine that will finance their tacky yachts and mansions. 

Setting that important heritage issue aside for a moment, Sarah Luke's book, whose full title is "Callan Park, Hospital for the Insane" goes back to the original files to explore the extraordinary lives of not only the troubled patients, but also the staff whose job it was to help them. The original facility built in the late 19th century was a remarkably progressive place, too, as it included cricket pitches, a farm, an orchard and even a zoo. I want to find out more about it, now I know there is a well-researched new book on the topic.

This is a brand new book, released this week, so visit the website to find out more about it and, if you like, place an order. Go to

1 comment:

Anne At Home said...

Wonderful post! I’m hooked on researching my family history too, it’s completely absorbing and addictive. The Callum Park book looks intriguing - I have discovered a great-great-grandmother who died there from “melancholic exhaustion” in 1927 - 9 years after losing a son on the battlefields of France which I can only assume was a trigger, so sad. I can’t access her file yet ( if it exists) so I will order this book to learn more about what it was like to be a patient there. Thanks for the lead!