Convict women defied authority

Australia’s female convicts are often depicted as sluts and thieves. They stole, certainly, but usually from desperation. Their privileged contemporaries deplored sexual behaviour that did conform to middle class codes. But what were convict women really like?

Babette Smith’s new book, Defiant Voices, celebrates the defiance and resilience of the 25,000 women transported to Australia. It took courage to stand up to the power of the courts, which could rip prisoners away from family, children and homeland, and send them to the far side of the globe. Smith finds many stories of women who swore, shouted, mocked and sang in the face of judges, prison guards, naval officers and employers.

The prisoners saw no shame in their crimes when the alternative would have been starvation. Their refusal to show repentance in court angered and bewildered authorities:

When the judge pronounced a sentence of transportation,the two women were…extremely insolent to him and … ‘in vulgar language.. told him, “We have plenty of law but little justice.” Two other women joined in. …As they were about to leave the dock, they ‘jumped and capered about and laughing at the judge said, “Thank you my lord.”‘

page 29, Defiant Voices

The average age of female convicts was 25, but many were teenagers and a few were as young as 12. They banded together on board ships, at Female Factories and in workplaces, always ready to call out anything they considered unfair. In later life they often proved to be valuable employees, and many escaped their convict status through marriage. Noisy rebels often grew into respectable workers, wives and mothers. Some lived much longer, healthier lives that they could have hoped for in England or Ireland. Mary Reibey (page 111) became a successful trader who helped found the Bank of New South Wales. Catherine Mangan (page 146) , who left four children in Ireland, was often in trouble for drunkenness, but had another six children with her ex-convict husband and died at the age of 87. Sarah Leadbetter, (page 79), a pretty 19-year-old thief, met William Lawson of the New South Wales Corps on Norfolk Island. In 1812 they married and by the 1820s Sarah was the mistress of Veteran Hall at Prospect, arranging piano lessons for her daughters. Susannah Watson (page 233), Babette Smith’s forebear, left four children in England that she never saw again. The baby who came to Sydney with her died at the age of three. Susannah had a further two children in Australia, and in a letter to her daughter in England, described her new home as a “plentiful, extravagant” country. Except for the loss of her English children, she regarded transportation as the best thing that happened to her.

Defiant Voices has illustrations on nearly every page, many drawn from the National Library’s convict era material.

Young and defiant convict lass

Babette Smith dedicates the book to “the thousands of family and academic historians whose research into women convicts has produced such riches.” A few decades ago, in deference to widespread shame about our convict ancestors, archives and libraries made it difficult to access information about them. Now convict ancestors are celebrated rather than obscured, and many archivists, librarians and university lecturers owe their jobs to the widespread thirst for information about our past.

Defiant Voices brings a vast array of material on the convict system together with dozens of lively vignettes of individual convict women. This compelling book combines scholarship with original insights.


July 2021

Babette Smith, Defiant Voices, How Australia’s Female Convicts Challenged Authority, National Library of Australia Publishing, 288 pages, $49.99 – available from the NLA bookstore online, and other online outlets

Sport, sport and sport

With apologies to Lord Alfred Tennyson: Better to have played and lost than never to have played before. (1)

Every year Australians get excited about tennis, epecially around the performances at Wimbledon, and every four years about a range of sports, some of which (e.g. artistic swimming, snchronised diving) only excite the nation, or are even heard of, at the Olympics. This year Stewart McSweyn has been selected in the Australian team for the Tokyo Olympics in the 1500, 5000 and 10,000m track and field events. An outstanding achievement. But we all know that there are only two sports that matter, even to Stewart’s mum. Stewart has a twin brother Angus. In an alarming interview on the ABC 7.30 program his mother, in a Ripley’s ‘believe it or not’ moment, actually said, ‘Angus is the more gifted of the two boys. He could easily do things when playing cricket and football.’

Here follow my confessions. I was no good at either football or cricket, yet despite my inabilities I enjoy both as spectator sports. I look back on three great moments in my sporting life (football, cricket and tennis), with a sense of pleasure, largely because of the enjoyment shared with my extended family.

AFL Football

I gradually came to accept that ‘forward pocket’ was a place where they hid the school house team captain’s younger brother. I happily accepted that position. My expectations, and I suspect those of my teammates were low and happily I was able to meet them.

Several years ago at a family gathering a football appeared, a regular event on such occasions, and the assorted siblings, in-laws and nieces and nephews began a game of kick to kick. For those not familiar with this termiology Wikipedia has the following entry: ‘a pastime and well-known tradition of Australian Rules football fans, and a recognised Australian term for kick and catch type games. It is a casual version of Australian Rules.’ Anyone can join in, with an opportunity for showing off both kicking and marking skills. A favourite nephew, not known for his sporting prowess, kicked the ball which dribbled off his foot and caused much hilarity, punctuated by a comment from another favourite nephew (all nephews are favourites) who observed loudly: “Don’t worry. We regard you as the Robert of our generation.” Both of us took this to be a great compliment.


The apogee of my adolescent cricketing was the award of a trophy for “most improved C2” mounted on a plinth of brown bakelite (polyoxybezylmethylenglycolanhydrate). Was this for encouragement, consolation or perseverance, or the obviously well-deserved recognition of a brilliant display when I’d made 8 not out in the final match of the season? My brother regularly found the opportunity to mention this at Christmas family gatherings when the collected nieces and nephews played cricket, even if only tippity run, ‘a form of backyard cricket; the defining rule of the form, which requires the batsman to run if they hit the ball.’

Several years ago I decided to present the trophy to m brother for a Christmas present, since over the years he’d obviously drawn more pleasure from it than I had. At that stage he was playing in Victoria in a State representative seniors’ team. In the end common sense and dignity prevailed and the trophy must still be in the house somewhere, though we don’t have a pool room. That very same Christmas my brother gave me a surprise present. He had been to the local historical society, located the records of the South Warrandyte Cricket Club, and especially copied for me the minutes of the meeting at which it was determined that the most improved player in the Club should be me.


Lest anyone think my life was blighted only by football and cricket I recount one other magic moment. It was my mother’s 75th birthday I believe when we all celebrated at a friend’s home. There we all played tennis, but uncharacteristically my mother announced to the family that she would no longer be playing singles tennis against any of us. When asked why, she gave an unequivocal answer: “I’ve never been beaten by Robert and I’m not going to give him a chance at this stage of my life.”

I now play Croquet and there are several aspects that delight me about the game. It is cerebral; the desire to win is not paramount (or is at least subservient to the intention to make an opponent lose); and in the most recent COVID shutdown croquet was recognised not as a community sport but rather as an opportunity to exercise. And I can beat my brother at croquet.

Great sporting moments in my life may be tinged with both bathos andpathos, but I suffer no psychological injury, and futhermore a consequence of not taking sport at all seriously means I am perhaps the only family member not to suffer long-term cosnequences of any sporting injuries.

Best to be a good sport rather than good at sport, though if like Ashleigh Barty you can be both then life is even better than best.


(1) There is no record that Lord Alfred Tennyson ever palyed sport and his sole reference to sport in his writings indicates that he knew little of cricket. His gene pool ultimately gained respect when his grandson captained the English cricket team.


July 2021

Cryptic joys of a minor lunacy

My grandfather was addicted to cryptic crosswords. My mother also attacked one every morning, finishing her last on the day she died.

Can the addiction be inherited? I am also in the grip of this strange affliction, which my grandfather called “one of the minor lunacies.”

This week I’ve had a triumph. Believe it or not, I got out the entire David Astle Sydney Morning Herald Friday cryptic crossword.

David Astle cryptic, 25 June 2021

My mother died more than thirty years ago, but when I’m doing a crossword, her voice is insistently audible. “Did you try an anagram?” she asks me. Or in a more exasperated tone – “It’s an anagram, you fool!”

I did start off with an anagram. 17 ACROSS: “Awfully shy clique I left, making a sucking sound (8)“. Once I wrote down SHY CL – QUE (the I had to be left out), SQUELCHY leapt out.

Then I had a bit of luck. 25 ACROSS, 22 DOWN. “Nod to positive discrimination? (11, 6)” AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, what else?

I solved a few more, let my brain work on a couple as I went off to play croquet, and came back to the task later. Amazingly I found more and more solutions. Most Fridays I have to be content with a dozen. I really liked some clues in this puzzle. There is a real gasp of delight when a clue is funny, apt and decipherable. My favourite from this Friday is 19 ACROSS: “Increase delighted parasite (6)”. The answer? UPTICK.

I ACROSS is also pretty good. “Criticise what only A-list actors can do (4,5)”. The answer is PICK APART.

My father, who never learned the art of cryptic crosswords, failed to empathise with addicts. “How many hours of your life have you wasted on those things?” he would demand of my mother. She’d give a brief, unrepentant smile. Minor lunacies do not rate a major marital dispute.

My own husband is not bad at cryptics and has been known to help me out with a scientific or engineering term. This time, though, I found PLUTONIUM without resource to his authority.

I do use other autorities, a well-thumbed crossword dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary online thesaurus, and when absolutely desperate, Dan’s word, a crossword-helper site. However, I solved this one without Dan. I was told about that site by three men who sit in a cafe in Glebe Point Road, opposite the library, every morning, solving the Herald crossword together.

There are worse ways to start a day. A couple of mates, a cup of coffee, a nice fresh pastry, and a cryptic crossword. Wouldn’t my grandfather have loved it!


June 2021

A golden castle in the sky

2021 seems to be the Year of Clouds.

My May calendar (thanks again, Bureau of Meterology) has a remarkable photo of Kelvin-Heimholtz clouds. I’ve never actually seen them, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the picture to look them up. They are fairly rare, most likely to occur in mountain regions. When there is cool air underneath a cloud mass and warm air above it, the warm stream moves faster, causing the tops to curve like breaking waves.

photo by Steven Sandner Photography

Closer to home, I saw a golden castle over the sea this week, putting the local 1980s highrise to shame with its elegance and sheen:

A golden castle in the air

The image doesn’t do justice to its magical allure. I could see why sailors in old tales set off on quests for El Dorado. It’s there, hovering over the Pacific, not far from Coogee…. All aboard…

I could look it up on one of those cloud-identification sites. I’m sure a meterologist could explain it.

But for now I’ll just go on basking in the glow.


May 2021

Les, Peter, John, James – and Peter

Les Murray’s poetry books fill a long shelf, and his Collected Poems (Black Inc 2018) runs to more than 700 pages.

So it was a challenge for actor Peter Carroll and theatre polymath John Senczuk to choose a group of poems for a coherent performance piece, titled Burning Want. I was peripherally involved as literary adviser. Plans for 2020 were cut short when theatres went dark.

This week the project came to life at the SBW Foundation’s Seaborn library in Neutral Bay, with Peter Carroll’s moving performance of Burning Want, supported by James Boyd-Hoare, who composed piano music to set the mood.

Burning Want flyer

The audience responded very warmly to Peter Carroll’s performance, which brought a wide range of poems to life – some tragic, some wry, a couple hilarious.

At each session, the audience included people with special connections to the Murray oeuvre. Graham MacDonald, former editor of honi soit, was the first to put a Murray poem in print, in April 1959 in the Sydney University student paper.


In my secret garden/ I kept three starlings,/ In my secret locket/ three copper farthings.

One zinc-grey evening/ The birds escaped me/ And a crippled man stole/ My shining money.

The starlings wandered/ Till three hawks took them,

And now my agents/ Have caught the cripple.

Les Murray

This poem doesn’t appear in the Collected Poems, so it was exciting to have it rediscovered.

The discovery of new poems continued. After the matinee performance, an audience member produced an occasional poem that Les Murray wrote in recent years to celebrate the 80th birthday of a neighbouring farmer. A jaunty celebratory rhyme, it was full of bouncing tennis balls and references to how much joy the recipient and his wife got from tennis.

The day left me marvelling at the brilliance of Les Murray’s words, and Peter Carroll’s immersion in the very essence of the poems. Composer and pianist James Boyd-Hoare was another exciting discovery, and John Senczuk’s talent and verve always delight me.

Afterwards I was given a bunch of bush greenery to take home. I posed next to a picture of the charismatic Peter Finch. What a day!

In the Seaborn Library foyer with Peter Finch


April 2021

Anti-Discrimination at Dapto

From late 1978 to mid 1982 I worked at the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW. It was an exciting place with committed Board members and staff. In those early days the ADB was an autonomous outlier of Premier’s Department. Refugees from South-East Asia and migrants from the Middle East were making New South Wales a more diverse society.

Initially the grounds for complaint under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 were race, sex and marital status. By 1982, physical impairment and homosexuality had been added.

The tiny community relations team had the task of making five million citizens aware of their rights. We wrote leaflets and radio spots in many languages; we prepared TV infomercials, we started a newsletter and we travelled to many regional towns and cities. We ran conferences. We briefed the media on hearings before the Board. We ran seminars in schools, universities and many places of work. The Senior Sergeants of Police are particularly memorable. The convenor would greet me with, “There are more than 300 years of policing experience in this room.”

Community relations officer, ADB, 1980

Colleagues who were researching discrimination based on age, religion, political conviction, homosexuality and disability had expertise and wide contacts. Our Aboriginal project officer taught me a great deal. We worked with the Ethnic Affairs Commission on tackling racial vilification.

But not every day was a triumph.

Occasionally there was an outright disaster.

One autumn evening, leaving my husband and sons on their own, I drove south to Dapto – I’d been invited to speak at a service club. I reached my motel at dusk and was on time at the venue. The engineer who’d invited me seemed friendly, and so did the club president. The dinner went smoothly enough. Club formalities followed, with various jokes and fines from the Sergeant-at-Arms.

There were no wives at this event. A waitress and I were the only women in sight. There were about 45 men.

I was introduced.

This is the gist of what I said: Your right to a fair go. Discrimination complaints on the grounds of race, sex and marital status. Early cases before the Board. Equal opportunities for all. Increasing numbers of women in fire-fighting, policing and skilled trades.

The President thanked me and called on a man from the far side of the room to move the vote of thanks.

Mercifully I have no memory of what the man looked like. But his words will stay with me forever. “That would be the greatest load of crap I ever heard in my entire life.”

I was wearing a red woollen dress. I could feel my face reddening to match it.

While the engineer and the president were wondering how to make amends, two men dashed up to me.

“Terrific talk!” they said. “We aren’t members here – we’re visiting from the Fairy Meadow club, and we want you to know we never treat our guests like that at Fairy Meadow.”

I was grateful to those two kind men. Ever since, I’ve had a a special fondness for Fairy Meadow.


March 2021

Tenderness/Tendresse in Paris

We were in a restaurant in Paris years ago, enjoying dinner. It was an up-market place with table cloths and waiters wearing bow-ties. Our table was in a booth lined with velvet, the booths forming a circle around a small fountain. We could clearly see the people in the booths on the other side of the fountain and wondered about them.

Photo by Nextvoyage on

There was an obviously rich old elegant couple, fawned over by attentive waiters. There was a family of two parents with two teenagers, and there was a beautiful young lady sitting all by herself, looking at her watch.

It was just after 8 o-clock and I commented that someone was running late. As the minutes ticked past, we became concerned for the young woman who was agitated and upset. At about 8.30 p.m. a tear rolled down her reddened cheek. The waiters could see that something was wrong and brought her a glass of water and a menu.

The rest of the restaurant was oblivious to the drama: there were peals of laughter and loud conversation coming from the other booths. The waiters were very busy and no one had time to comfort the now distressed mademoiselle. It was almost 9 o’clock and we were becoming distressed too. What should we do? Should we go over to comfort her, or would that make matters worse?

Suddenly the door opened and in rushed a rather harassed young man who looked around, spotted his date and ran over to her. There were hugs and floods of tears from both. It was such a tender moment that the much-relieved head waiter brought over two glasses of champagne. We continued to watch as the young man explained what had kept him so long. Without them ordering, food and wine started to arrive under the supervision of the headwaiter who had witnessed the drama.

We can remember that particular tender moment as if it was yesterday. It confirms to me that Paris is indeed “the city of love.”

Photo by Dimitri Kuliuk on


March 2021

The many moods of the sky

By my desk I have a copy of the Bureau of Meterology’s Weather Calendar. The picture for March features “cloud streets”. I’ve never seen those long parallel lines, but did see one cloud highway from the balcony.

Cloud street over Coogee

What a lifetime of joy the sky provides. Sunsets, sunrises, the sun, the moon and the stars – and a zillion unanswered questions about the galaxies far out of sight.

At dusk the clouds can form a barrier on the horizon:

Jagged clouds on horizon

Sometimes there’s a balmy rainbow:

Rainbow over misty sea

Sunsets are so routinely beautiful that we risk taking them for granted:

Balcony plants with sunset

So let’s hear it for the sky – up there, ever changing, infinite in its variety, and always ready to offer a new look at existence.


March 2021

Our authors challenge stereotypes

Two of’s authors challenge steretypes in their new publications. The National Library of Australia will soon publish Babette Smith’s Defiant Voices, a lively account of how female convicts challenged authority. In her novel Capriccio, Dina Davis brings fresh eyes to the “other woman” in a famous literary scandal.

Defiant Voices

25,000 women convicts were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868. They are traditionally portrayed by their “betters” as depraved, foul-mouthed and promiscuous, but Babette Smith looks for evidence of their humanity and individuality. She discovers widespread instances of heroic defiance. Despite being convicted, transported, separated from homeland and family, they showed solidarity with other convicts and resistance to authority. They used their voices – in song, swearing and challenging remarks – to defy officials, on board ship, in court and at work. Smith argues that their resistance to authority contributed significantly to the broader Australian culture.

A young woman with an insult on the tip of her tongue

Smith’s subjects include thieves, rioters, insurance fraudsters, arsonists and murderers. They range from mothers of six to 12-year-old girls. They were not all “the most abandoned prostitutes”, but their sexual mores differed fromthe observers who labelled them. The women of Defiant Voices fought like tigers and drove men to breaking point with their collective voices, their lewd songs and “disorderly shouting”. Whenever they were confined together, they shared “war stories” of encounters with the law and punishment, and laughed in delight at each others’ tactics for getting back at the people in charge.

Babette Smith is the author of groud-breaking books of convict history, including A Cargo of Women and Australia’s Birthstain. Her new study, with its many illustrations, brings to life the resistance of thousands of convict women.

Capriccio: A Novel

Capriccio: A Novel, by our contributor Dina Davis, reimagines the notorious love triangle of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill. The novel challenges the stereotype of Assia as the ruthless seductress, blamed for the death of Sylvia Plath.

Thomas Keneally says of Capriccio: “I think this is a fine evocation with barely a false note. I was fascinated by this work and its crisp style. Let me reiterate: I believe you have a world-wide engaging book here. I think you’ll ring a bell.”

In 2020, Capriccio was shortlisted for the fiction prize in the NT Chief Minister’s book awards. It is available from all online booksellers, or in a new hardcopy edition from Harry Hartog’s bookshop, Bondi Junction.

Other talented contributors to this site will have new posts up soon. Keep checking!


February 2020

Super-duper 2021

Tidying up my Christmas cards, I found one that hadn’t been opened. It was deep in a cardboard container for a wine bottle.

“Have a super-duper Christmas”, my brother wrote.


It’s a long time since anyone wished me a super-duper anything. It brought a happy grin to my scowling dial.

I looked it up in the Macquarie Dictionary. There it was:

super-duper adjective, Colloquial — extremely fine, great, pleasing, etc. [dissimilated replication of SUPER]

I looked up dissimilate. To change a speech sound so it is less like a neighbouring syllable.

Enough of this lexicography!

It’s not as if super-duper was a mystery.

It’s just a happy phrase. How many other cheery phrases from the past have slipped out of use?

Pink frangipani on the balcony

In the midst of a very grey, cloudy, overcast start to the year, and more news about masks, statistics, border closures etc., came a brief moment of bright blue sky. I took my camera on to the balcony to capture it before it vanished.

So here’s to a super-duper 2021 for everyone, may the year bring blue skies, the scent of frangipanis, easier contact with our friends and family, and whatever else you may wish for.

I also look forward to more contributions to this shared blog from our talented team.


January 2021