My Grandmother

She was my grandmother but I never knew her. Born in Russia, she never spoke Russian, only Yiddish. Jews were second-class citizens in Russia. In those days my grandmother was not entitled to speak the national language. She and her family were persecuted and despised for no reason except that they were Jewish.

My grandmother was forced to marry my grandfather, who had fled Russia with his first wife during the Pogroms, a time when Jews were robbed of their property, tortured and evan killed. My grandfather settled in the East End of London in England, where my father was born. When my grandfather’s first wife died having their fourth child, he sent for his wife’s younger sister. She was duly dispatched at the age of eighteen to marry my grandfather and her dead sister’s four children. That was the tradition among Orthodox Jews at the time.

She had another eight children with my grandfather, who died just before my father’s Bar Mitzvah, leaving my grandmother with twelve children to bring up alone. I can only imagine how terrible it must have been for my poor grandmother, a stranger in a strange land, far away from her family.

(copyright) Dina Davis

It was ridiculous

It was supposed to be a simple job. My daughter’s house had a leak in the roof. “No problem,” I said, “I’ll fix that tomorrow.”

It was a two-storey house in Newtown. It was obvious what the problem was: part of the lead flashing against the chimney had been dislodged and bent up by the wind, allowing the rain to get in.

All I had to do was climb up with a silicon gun, push the flashing back into place, and seal it with the silicon. Simple!

I took my ladder and leant it up against the back laundry wall. It was easy to climb on to the corrugated iron roof of the one-storey laundry. Then I dragged the ladder up after me and placed it on the laundry roof, so that I could climb up to the second-storey main roof, which I successfully did.

I clambered up to where the problem was, pushed down the bent flashing and applied a generous amount of silicon. Suddenly I heard a loud noise. My heart sank when I saw that the ladder had slid down flat onto the laundry roof and was now completely out of reach.

It was ridiculous. I was stuck. My daughter was at work; no one was home. No phone. I sat there on the top of a two-storey terrace roof feeling ridiculous. What to do?

Just then a schoolboy was walking past. I yelled out to him, “Could you please help me get off this roof?” He readily agreed, but there was a problem. Well, several problems actually. First he had to get over the fence into the backyard, which he managed to do with the help of some nearby milk crates. He then opened the back gate and brought in the same milk crates so he could climb up to the laundry roof to rescue the ladder. He then held the ladder up to the main roof, enabling me to climb down. What a hero he was!

I thanked him profusely but he said “No problem” and went on his way. I often wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t come along.

Yes, it was ridiculous. I have now sworn not to do any more roof jobs.



“You have a double!”

It’s disconcerting when someone tells you this. An old friend nearly embraced a total stranger in Hyde Park. “At the very last moment I realised she wasn’t you at all. So embarrassing!”

My brother saw my absolute double on Antiques Roadshow. I managed to find the episode. Surely not, I thought. Perhaps I have faded to a pair of specs and a haircut.

But once it was serious. Disconcerting. Haunting.

San Antonio is a dot on the map near Highway 25, just south of Socorro, New Mexico. It is famous for two things, the Bosque del Apache Bird Sanctuary, and the green chile hamburgers at the Owl Cafe.

The Owl Cafe, known for green chile hamburgers

The first time Michael and I went south to the bird sanctuary, it was dusk. Whooping cranes, herons, ducks and other water birds were gliding down to spend the night in the trees of the Rio Grande. The last rays of sun glinted on the rocks as birds shuffled and carolled. But it was Sunday, and the famous cafe was closed.

We tried again on a Wednesday evening. Dozens of cars were parked outside, and only one table was free. We were about to sit down when a man at the adjoining table spread his arms out and said he was expecting a big party of friends. We stood back.

An elderly foursome nearby took pity on us. “Plenty of room at our table,” they said. “Please join us.” Gratefully, we did.

“Did you see the turkeys?” our rescuer asked, leaning towards us. We looked baffled. “You saw the deer at least,” she insisted. We said we hadn’t come from the bird sanctuary; we’d only just driven down from Socorro.

“That’s funny,” the woman said. “You look just like the couple who were following behind us in the Bosque.”

We smiled politely. We ordered beer and hamburgers with chile on the side.

Then another couple came in, dressed for a nature tour. The man had a beard. The woman, while younger and bigger than I am, was wearing similar glasses and a shade of turquoise that I like.

Our table mates, thrilled, motioned to the newcomers to join us too. “He combs his beard different, but it was an understandable confusion,” our rescuer said, as she explained the situation to the new couple.

They sat down, the man beside Michael and the woman next to me. The two guys were too embarrassed to look at each other, but the woman and I stared frankly and laughed. She had longer, curlier hair, and a robust laugh: she was a younger, brightly coloured, more outgoing version of me.

The elderly foursome picked up the conversation they’d tried to have with us. The new arrivals had not only seen the turkeys and the deer, but owls too. They revealed an interesting fact about themselves: they were brother and sister.

The hamburgers were very good.

As we drove home later, I remarked that we had been mistaken for quite an attractive couple. “If we must have doppelgangers, we could have done much worse,” I said. “What do you make of them being brother and sister? Is there some kind of incestuous attraction in our relationship, do you think?”

Michael didn’t know, but he agreed there was something unnerving about the experience. The other two were so bright and talkative, so vivacious. Beside them we were pale and no longer young. Our vision of ourselves had been turned upside down. My doubleganger, or wraith, Walter Scott wrote.

Who was whose double? “What if we’re not really who we think we are,” I wondered. “What if we’re only the doppelgangers of the couple in the cafe? They’re the real people and we’re the wraiths?”

It was winter, but winter alone did not account for an alarmingly cold feeling that started at the back of my skull and then crept down my spine, inch by shivery inch.



Convict ancestors are a source of pride for Australians in our generation. The days when it was a boast to be descended from free settlers or assisted migrants are long gone. One of my great-grandfathers was sent out as a minister of the Presbyterian Church. I can hear the yawns.

But wait.

My Norwegian great-grandfather was a remittance man.

You don’t hear much about remittance men nowadays – those black sheep from respectable families who were paid a small allowance to stay away.

Enter Oscar Severin Wedel Jarlsberg.

Oscar Wedel Jarlsberg, remittance man, 1822-1909

Oscar came from a large, well-connected Norwegian family. His father Fritz was a customs official, and the family lived in a big farmhouse not far from Larvig. Oscar had six brothers and two sisters. His elder brothers Finn, Fritz and Ferdinand all entered the navy in their teens. His brother Hermann was a civil servant. His sister Louise died in agony of an internal obstruction at the age of eighteen.

Oscar received a bachelor’s degree from King Frederiks University, Christiania, now Oslo, in 1842, and then enrolled for a higher degree. His elder sister, Hildur, married a German official, Carl Marschalck von Bachtenbrock in 1844. Carl represented the Hanoverian King in Aurich, North Germany. Only two members of the family came from Norway for the wedding – Hildur’s father Fritz and her brother Oscar, “the student”. Fritz’s wife, known as Bolly, was not well enough to travel. In 1845 she died.

Oscar coached his brother Frithjof for his naval cadet’s exam, but unfortunately the boy died in 1847. It was a dark time for the family.

It is not clear what Oscar did in his late twenties, but one way or another he managed to infuriate his widowed father. Even his sister Hildur, always fond of him, wrote that she could see something must be done. Oscar would never finish his thesis. “But Australia!” she added with an exclamation point. That seemed extreme.

Oscar was 33 and, unlike his brothers, had no clear career path. There may have been some other scandal. Emigration seemed the only solution.

Under the alias “O. Ledew” (his surname backwards) he took a berth in steerage on a cargo ship, the Mary Ross, sailing from Hamburg on 8 October 1855 for Hobart Town and Sydney. His sister Hildur sent some clothes and cash to the ship.

Like thousands of other hopeful souls, Oscar made his way to the Victorian goldfields, mining and running small businesses in Ballarat and Gobur. He kept animals on a local common, was involved in various local disputes about fences and land use, and was elected, on his second attempt, to the school board. He married Irishwoman Mary Manning, a servant, born in Tipperary in 1838. She was 25; he was 42 but gave his age as 39. The couple had three daughters.

The family was never rich. Remittances from Europe arrived from time to time, obviously not huge sums. These may have represented income from some family estate. From Germany, Hildur wrote in English to her sister-in-law Mary, thanking her for being so faithful and loving to her “hardly proved brother”. My grandmother, Oscar and Mary’s third daughter, born in 1874, was named Hildur Marschalck after her aunt.

Oscar’s sister Hildur in old age

After moving around the goldfields for some years, the family returned to Ballarat. Hildur became a pupil teacher at the age of 12. Oscar’s wife Mary died in 1895, but he was to live well into the next century, dying in 1909 at the age of 87.

There is nothing distinguished about Oscar’s life in Australia, but nothing disgraceful either. He was a loyal family man and a hard worker. He made friends and retained a patriotic love for Norway.

But what went wrong in the years 1847 to 1855? I look at his face and wonder. Perhaps a depressive episode? A falling out with his thesis supervisor?



Gambling debts?

I have made inquiries in Norway, to no avail.

My best source for insights into Oscar, apart from Ron McNicoll’s family monograph, was the discovery of a book by his sister Hildur. This book, A Norwegian woman on the German shore, memoirs of Baroness Hildur Marschalck, born Wedel-Jarlsberg, was written in Norwegian in Hildur’s old age. Translated into German by her granddaughter Else von Hammerstein, it was published in Berlin in 1914. Despite being heavy going with its old-style Fraktur typeface, it gives a detailed account of life in a titled Norwegian family in the nineteenth century. It includes many letters and illustrations and – yes – every photograph is captioned.

Hildur Wedel Jarlsberg’s memoirs, published in Berlin in 1914

But Hildur leaves my big question unanswered. What went wrong for Oscar?

I see that something must be done. But Australia!



It was one of those see-sawing games and you could feel the tension. It was a Rugby League football game between the mighty St George Dragons and the sworn-enemy Melbourne Storm. I had persuaded Margaret to come to the game and we were in a group of loyal St George supporters high up in the tallest Grandstand at the Sydney Football Stadium.

The Storm struck first, scoring their first try in the 7th minute. It was converted, making the score 6-0. It was a brutal game with heavy tackles, some legal and some not-so-legal. One by a Storm player saw a Dragons half-back stretchered off the field in the thirtieth minute. The tension was palpable with looks of determination on the faces of every St George player. When the next scrum went down, everyone in the crowd knew that something big was going to happen. They were not disappointed when the scrum disintegrated and a huge fight erupted, leaving the guilty Storm forward on the ground with a bleeding nose. One of the Dragons front-rowers was sent to the sin-bin for ten minutes so the Dragons were now down to 12 players against the Storm’s full team. Now the Dragons were really angry and played as if there was no tomorrow and scored against the formidable opposition. Score at half-time locked at 6-all.

Some people do not approve of football because it is so rough. They complain about the physical contact, the spilt blood and the violence, but the players want to play, the spectators want to watch and it keeps young aggressive men off the streets. They use up their energy training and playing the game that they love. It helps with mental health as well as physical health.

The second half started slowly, but a volcano was about to erupt. You could feel the tension as each player took the ball and ran with determination. During the next 25 minutes each team scored a converted try and soon it was 12 points all with five minutes to full-time. With all the tension another brawly erupted and two more players were sent to the sin-bin. St George managed to work the ball down to the Storm’s try line and in the last minute, as St George were about to score a field goal to win the match, Margaret said to me:

“You know, you can see the Harbour Bridge from up here.”

That was the last time Margaret went to the football.



by Babette Smith

Recently, Professor Anne Twomey took a swipe at family historians, telling ABC broadcaster James Valentine,”Yeah, they’ll give you the file of great uncle Bert and His war record and all that sort of stuff, so they do the genealogy or whatever, where there’s no controversy.”

Obviously, she has not shared my expereince of seeing hundreds of family historians digest the most startling, even upsetting information about their ancestors.

My forthcoming book, Defiant Voices, on Australia’s women convicts, has led me to pull together the research of hundreds of historians who have investigated female convicts over the last 30 years. It’s made me reflect deeply on the work we have done since A Cargo of Women was published in 1988.

That book started as family history, but transcended the genre when I decided to research all 100 women who were on board the ship Princess Royal with my ancestor.

The received wisdom then was that you couldn’t reconstruct convict lives. So no one tried. Tasmanian records were thought to be more complete, but any attempt to personalise them had been strongly resisted. Demands from family historians forced change. For Cargo I was opening files that hadn’t been touched since the 19th century, particularly in the Colonial Secretary correspondence. I had to think like the 19th century bureaucrats to find what I was looking for. That’s why the primary sources bibliography in Cargo is so extensive. It was designed as a trail for others to follow. And they did.

Situating my ancestor Susannah Watson among 99of her peers, I aimed to be scholarly but readable.

Susannah’s story by itself could not sustain a book. Too many gaps in what I could find out about her, even with the discovery of her letters. These came to light because a descendant from her daughter in England wrote to to an Australian newspaper, The Shoalhaven News, which she mentioned in a letter was founded by her Australian son (my great-grandfather). Like me, the English descendant had no idea that Susannah was a convict. To him, at that stage, she was just someone who ‘dropped off’ his family tree. He nearly fell over when I rang him at home in Nottingham. Subsequently he told me he remembered photos of his mother with diggers in slouch hats which were taken during WWI.

As soon as I broadened my search to all 100 women, it became plain that I had something fresh and significant to say about them. I approached Doug Howie, Managing Director of UNSW Press in late 1986 and he confirmed that it would make a book that would interest him. I threw up my job as National Marketing Manager for the Hoyts Corporation and spent all of 1987 writing it.

Essentially the structure of Cargo is cross-hatched – a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end, which was Susannah’s story, intersected by the issues important to female convicts which were revealed by my research.

The search for individuals caused a significant methodological shift from statistical sampling that once dominated convict research. Cargo of Women proved a methodolgical pivot in terms of sampling the convict archive by the boatload, as did combining archives with family history. This sampling method has been replicated over and over by family historians and academics alike, here and overseas.

I approached the material with the feminist historians of the Seventies ringing in my ears – and as a committed feminist myself. I expected to find case studies that confirmed feminist arguments. Instead, I found that tracking individuals usually contradicted them. Discovering letters writtien by my previoulsy unknown convict ancestor impost a valuable discipline on my interpretation. In feminist theory, she was a classic female victim. However, her letters revealed that she didn’t see it that way: she told her daughter that transportation to New South Wales was the best thing that happened to her. Ever since, I’ve asked myself over and over as I write, what would the convict think of this, how would they have experienced it?

Focus on the personal and the ordinary has changed interpretaiton and perspective, probably more so in Australia than any other country.

Family interpretation is based on knowledge, often imperfect, of the generations of a family their locations. As many family historians have discovered, the errors and omissions can be as significant as what is recalled.

Family interpretation is influenced by family documents, pictures, artefacts, and family anecdotes. Sometimes actual memory plays a part. Family history has “illustrated” Australian history in a way those people who scorned family history in the 1970s and 1980s never anticipated. It has provided the “colour” that for many decades Australians claimed their history lacked.

Family historians discovered new sources – and brought mass pressure for their digitisation. Not just new archives but new persoanl sources with wider signiicance. The letters from my convict ancestor are one example – convict opinion, particularly women’s opinion, is rare. Thanks to family historians, photos of convict women have emerged, as well as photos of adminstrators who ran the female factories, and magistrates who judged the prisoners.

Family histories can contribute to wider issues too. To me, there is a great public role awaiting family historians of all kinds. We all know there can be no true Reconciliation without a vast shift in historical consciousness. My research indicate that will only succeed if it is fair to both sides. As historians, we need to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart while advocating a balanced view that respects European and multicultural history too.

Some of you may know that I earn my living as a mediator. No doubt this shapes my conviction that historians should not ‘navigate’ conflicting versions but mediate between the two sides in this issue. Use public talks in halls and via the media, as well as written papers and books. Grace Karskens has made a great start with her book The Colony. Paul Irish’s work, In Plain View, is a significant further step. Family hisotrian Lyn Stewart’s book Blood Revenge is an outstanding contribution. Further publications by Aboriginal family hisotrians wil also be very significant to this important public issue.

copyright 2020 BABETTE SMITH

The full version of this paper can be found at


My grandmother and grandfather were a couple who lived apart for as long as I knew them since I was a small child visiting them every summer holiday.

Legend had it that he had a brief liaison when younger. She was so hurt. She packed up her kids to live in a house she built as far away as she could on their land and single-handedly raised her family. Their lives revolved around her as the matriarch. The era was the first half of the last century.

My grandmother’s house was new and airy, set in a large coconut grove – the village’s livelhood, surrounded by the greenest rice fields. For years to come, I vividly remember as a child being woken up by the fragrance of orange blossoms wafting in from the garden. The first sound of the day was water lapping in the canal by the side of the house, coming from the force of the rising tide of the Mekong River far away.

Coconut grove, Vietnam

Some decades later, I visited the historic One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi in sprng and immediately recognised that same fragrance from an ancient orange tree. I wished I could bottle that memory to take home.

One Pillar Pagoda, Hanoi

However, as far as I can remember my maternal family, the family home was where my grandfather resided. It was formal and beautiful, furnished with antiques, but dark and empty.

I was endlessly fascinated by my grandfather. I still remember the charming squint of his eyes. He never said very much, as though he had seen everything in life before. His daily life proved it. It was so uncluttered, so at one with nature. His wealth never showed but his position of respect in this little village did, through his very dignified demeanour and generous giving.

He cooked for himself in an outdoor open hut with a thatched roof at the back of his house. He ate squatting by the side of the canal, bowl and chopsticks in his hands. I still remember playing around him as he ate by the water in his vast garden with no neighbours within sight, birds flapping and singing under the clear tropical sky. In the rain he sat on the bench alongside the stoves in the open hut.

His meals never changed, made up of steamed rice, vegetables and a river fish casserole which he cooked in a small clay pot just for one. Then he had the daily fruits of fragrant finger bananas or custard apples from his garden. After the meal, he stepped down the wooden plank a few metres away to wash his bowl and chopsticks in the canal.

He walked everywhere; he was fit, elegantly thin and lived to the age of 92. I was told he never travelled on wheels anywhere. He visited his wife often enough; I sensed there was a quiet respect and affection in their advanced years.

He longed for their reunion after life. He had two coffins of beautiful dark wood tucked away on the side veranda of his house. In the coconut grove on the far right of the garden, two graves were already dug up side by side for years. His deep affection manifested itself.


LIFE WRITING No. 1: Photos need a story

Covid isolation has inspired many people to write their family history or memoir. This is the first of a series on life writing.

Some days the pen flows. Other times, you hit a brick wall and wonder why. There are ways of vaulting over that wall, or just taking a different direction. Don’t be a slave to chronology. Don’t fret over the gaps in the family tree–you don’t have to write in a straight line. Like a patchwork quilt, you can write pieces of memoir, then stitch it all up later.

What could be more frustrating than a picture of someone, possibly a family member, with no name, date or place to give it a lasting meaning?

Photographs need a story, or at least a caption.

Will McNicoll, photographer, of
Stevenson & McNicoll, Melbourne, remembered as an exasperating tease

Here’s my great-grandfather Will, professional photographer, posing in front of some moulded frames. He has dark eyes, a striking beard and a sprig of jonquils on his lapel. His eyes demand attention. What kind of man was he?

Thanks to our family historian, my late Uncle Ron, I have a very good idea. Ron began with the standard dates and places of birth and death, and any recorded occupation. He then turned to newspaper clippings, letters, photographs and interviews to provide a fuller picture. Sometimes he added a rumour or family legend. Will struck some of his in-laws as full of conceit. One described him as “just a strutter”.

Ellen McNicoll, photographic technician, mother of three and Temperance campaigner

Ellen Ramsay, a keen member of a temperance (anti-drinking) league called the Good Templars, was a teacher when she married Will. They were both 24. Several years later, with two small children, she joined Will on tours in western Victoria with their horse-drawn photographic van. For some days the van would be a mobile studio, where townspeople posed against velvet drapes. Then Will would be off to drum up business in the next town, while Ellen developed photos in the van, now serving as a darkroom and dense with chemical fumes. Ellen suffered from headaches, rashes and eye problems.

In late 1883 Ellen wrote a long diary, describing the grubby inns where the family stayed and the local schools that welcomed the children. She, Walter and Amy spent a rare day of leisure hiking in Werribee Gorge, where they collected ferns. She admired many trees, including wattles “covered with their sweet yellow blossom, from which delicious perfume was wafted across to us occasionally.”

Back in Melbourne, Ellen advanced to the rank of Grand Vice-Templar, and had a third child. She was often the butt of Will’s teasing. Her niece Mary Corteen remembered that “she would get very angry and go off somewhere.” Will is also remembered as a flirt who once made an “improper proposal” to a woman who decided not to upset Ellen by telling her about it.

Ellen died of a heart attack at the age of 48, while Will remarried and lived to a grand old age. My cousin Deborah (another family historian) and I both believe that exposure to chemicals shortened our great-grandmother’s life.

There are no black-haired, dark-eyed descendants, so it seems that Ellen’s genes dominated. As for temperament, it is fascinating to ponder to what extent personality is hereditary, and whether I take after the strutter or the temperance campaigner–or both?

And let’s salute Ron McNicoll, family historian, who researched and wrote in the 1970s, long before the internet or His sources included photographs, family documents, letters, newspaper files, government records and interviews, and he was not afraid to include unflattering details.


  • Place
  • Memoir/autobiography/family history
  • Mythology and identification
  • Shh!! family secrets
  • Letters, diaries and other documents


The Bellybutton of a COVID Reality

by Jill Sutton

  1. Taking Time

Sometimes I just roll on a pretend ball of pastry

and scrape it off the back of my hands and

sometimes I run fingers up and down

between each other like guests at a good

dinner party and sometimes I play this is the

church and here are the people this is the

(something I’ve forgotten) and here is the

steeple and sometimes I slide the soapiness

down around each one of my ten fingers as I

cherish my beloveds one at a time and

sometimes I just make the soap bubbles burst

like a naughty child with a balloon.

Now that it’s fine to take time.

Hands by Federico Barocci
(16th century)

2. My window says

Look, I’ve framed it

Edited it down to this tidy parcel!

Rest with these red clematis leaves

The Buddha from your last house,

And the lattice fence.

I stay deaf to such stillness,

Complaining about a story

With no denouement.

3. Creatureliness

Two ducks,

Living on our pond without owning it,

Glide to the edge

To make space for dogs.

Splashing in,

They’re big, canine and careless.

Out of their depth,

Paddle now fierce,

They hold heads high and proud

To owners’ raucous applause.

When it’s over

Lonely park benches,

Elegant metal curving,

Hold this place as a font,

A quiet earthen bowl

For wetness

As we head for home.

4. Gratitude

Like pegs

Your phone calls

Pin me in the sunshine

Of your presence.

5. Majura poets connecting the dots

Breathless on the and she lay

Knocked back each time

By the poets of Majura.

Their waves,

High pounding thought,

Releasing as the virus

Becomes an Easter tide.

6. Living in place

Struggling to stay still,

And jealous of the European spring,

It comes to me:

Autumn can be a good listener.

7. Sketching

Black on white

Monastic in its shapeliness

Power in the line

Drawing the eye

To the bellybutton

Of reality.



We first talked on video to our grandson, one and a half, in early March when we could no longer visit. He walked to the back of his mother’s phone, looking for us.

His grandfather and I. We were his universe on Wednesdays from the time he turned one.

My girlfriends, The Three Grannies, created a Vivaldi Four Seasons app for the under-fives.

As soon as his mother was on the 470 bus, heading for work, my grandson and I started our morning ritual of playing all of the Seasons. We watched as his appreciation of Vivaldi and the Three Grannies evolved. From sitting on the lap of his grandfather who conducted, no words yet from him but he was totally captivated by sound and moving pictures. Later he could walk and talk. His footwork synced with the Seasons. Dancing on the spot he held our tablet tight with both hands in case the experience ran away.

Wednesday rituals

Then a single word stumbled out one day. POP! he squealed as frogs jumped from one stepping stone to another in the pond in Vivaldi’s spring.

His mother said he liked reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar before his mid-morning sleep. POP! again when the milky moon appeared in the night sky, when the red sun rose in the horizon when Caterpillar became Butterfly. Then he drifted to sleep holding my hand in case we separated.

This is joy, woven into human DNA across cultures over zillion years. So very spontaneous.

I captured the moments. I watch them now before getting up. POP! I squealed in one voice with him this Wednesday morning.

Then I remember. Isolation. I am a whole journey of the 470 away from him. It is unbearable.