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


Did someone say “Totally over?”

On 10 May, just 7 weeks into Sydney’s lockdown, I overheard a good-looking young woman talking on her mobile phone at the pedestrian crossing. I came home, repeated her remark to Michael, and sat down to write the following piece of doggerel.

“I’m totally over Covid!”

Said the pretty girl into her phone.

I came home and told my beloved,

Who said, “She isn’t alone.”

At the risk of becoming a moaner,

I’m totally over corona.

I’m feeling just like the phoner

Who certainly isn’t a loner,

Becoming bovine or bovid –





At that time, we were only supposed to leave the house for a few defined purposes. We couldn’t eat in restaurants, ask friends to visit, or get in hugging distance of anyone.

Our wings were clipped, no doubt about it.

But 17 weeks on, my rhyme looks decidedly petulant.

17 weeks on, petulance just won’t do.

So I’ll try to see it more positively.

I’d rather live in a country with a death rate of 4 deaths from COVID-19 corona virus per million of population, than one with more than 400 deaths per million.

I’d rather live in a country where decision makers listen to the health experts and base their decisions on evidence, than one where fear and egotism hold sway.

I’d rather live in a country with a safety net for most of the people who lose jobs.

I’d rather put up with a few restrictions than run the risk of a terrifying death.

I know there will be moments when I’m as petulant as the woman on the phone, and totally over the whole thing. Patience is not one of my virtues. I don’t always handle confusion and uncertainty well. Who does?

Dark thoughts in the night are inevitable.

I didn’t like cancelling overseas travel. I do worry about my family members in the US. There are plenty of minor irritations, and occasional dark moods.

But “totally over”? If we’re nearer the start than the finish, we need more resilence than that.


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.



With much happiness implicit, you poor shut-ins now can visit, with consenting other adults for an afternoon of tea;

Have a four-way conversation, and perhaps a small libation, then indulge yourselves in laughter and some pure inanity!

So, re-calibrate our nation, we’ve survived a conflagration, let’s be grateful and be mindful that we need to shut the gate;

To restore our vision splendid we would like to see extended, we must go back to values we’ve mislaid, it seems, of late.


afternoon tea for 4


It has been a year of anxiety, but I could enter the championships. Today’s news was hidden in small type on page 8 of our newspaper. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded. “What’s the use of being married to an astronomer? There’s a whopping great asteroid heading towards the earth, and tomorrow’s the day.”

“Well, it’s not actually…”

“Not worth mentioning to amateurs?” I interrupted. I waved the article. A ruddy great asteroid, with a name like a phone number, (52768) 1998 OR2, was just one day away.

The astronomer was unmoved. He, NASA, the Jet Propulsion Lab and a few other experts, believe it will miss us by a fair margin. To be on the safe side, we should wear a mask.

Am I reassured? Not really. Just to list a few recent topics of concern: Dying gasping of Covid-19. The low recovery rate of patients on respirators. Total strangers, decades my junior, calculating my Quality Years of Remaining Life. The shortage of mature age flu vaccine. The possible side effects from the vaccine when you do get it.

Terrible medical news in the international press. The uptick in heart attack deaths in Brooklyn and Queens (probably virus-related). Hypoxy, a term of pure horror.

2020 anxiety portrait

No end of things to fret about. Decision fatigue. Greyzone coercion. The international information contest.

“Just going down to check the post,” I say. The postie arrives just as I open the door, so I congratulate him on our mutual second sight. He has even better news for me. “We’re both so good-looking,” he says, “that neither of us can possibly catch Covid.”

Just for now, I haven’t a worry in the world.



COVID-19 is very confusing for some dogs in Sydney and my pooch Sam is one of them. Sam, a pure-bred black and tan Kelpie, was born on a sheep station in the Snowy Mountains six years ago, and when I first saw her, at the age of eight weeks, she and her five siblings were alreading mustering recently born ducklings into jam tins that had dropped into their enclosure.

By the time she was six months old she had all but mastered the art of mustering sheep — but she was suddenly whipped off to the urban surrounds of Darling Point, whre there have been very few sheep for more than 150 years. Most evenings for the past five years, I’ve taken Sam to Yarranabbe Park, a stretch of parkland that skirts Rushcutters Bay on the south shore of Sydney Harbour, for her second big run of the day. She loves the park, partly because she sees a few of her doggy friends but mainly because each day a steady, if small, stream of humans walked along the harbourside pathway.

A couple of years ago when a bout of heart maintnance slowed me down for a few months, Sam worked out how to keep herself active and amused. She would pick up her tennis ball, lope over to the most likely looking perambulator and drop the ball at their feet. She would then back away about five metres and fix them with the Kelpie stare – the classic sheepdog pose of arse up, head down and one paw tucked to her chest. It worked about 70% of the time and her ball would be thrown. The sucker would then discover that if you throw a ball once for a Kelpie, you are expected to keep doing it time and time again. And it is not easy to wear out a Kelpie.

But on March 16 Sam’s world was wrecked by the bloody COVID-19 virus. That was the day Gladys the Cruel started to shut down New South Wales. At first we were told to keep a distance from each other, but then Our Glad sooled the coppers onto us and said we couldn’t leave home without a reasonable excuse, and worst of all, she shut the gyms.

Shutting the gyms in a city of five million people made the parks a nightmare. Yarranabbe Park went from seeing 30 to 40 walkers each afternoon to seeing thousands. Great muscle-bound lumps of sweaty and puffy humanity were packed shoulder to shoulder on the paths, and the grass was covered with perosnal trainers and their victims attempting to do push-ups or master the plank. Sam was totally confused. She quickly discovered these new people were too busy to notice a dog. Those who stopped when confronted by the classic sheepdog pose paid no attention to the tennis ball at their feet. They thought she was about to attack them and rip out their sweaty throats.

They grabbed their mobiles phones and rang the cops.

We moved to another park well away from the harbour – but now the personal trainers have discovered it too.

At the end of March, Sam and I slipped down to the Snowy Mountains to do a bit of trout fishing — but the local coppers ordered us home. Fishing, even on a totally isolated river, is not a Gladys-sanctioned activity.

Sam is now baffled.



I was out of home for April. Renovation. A plan made late last year. Looking back, who could have envisioned the novel beast on the horizon?

Thought it was strategic to move out close to home to oversight proceedings. It turned out I didn’t venture out, much less oversighting.

I stayed in a temporary home in the land of sacred homes. Mary McKillop Place in the next street, every second building is an Australian Catholic University campus. But a sacred shelter I didn’t feel my neighbourhood was.

I went for solitude walks in St Leonards Park, young fathers pushing strollers, few people shared my space…except, came late afternoon, joggers started to pound the paths, working off their strangely isolated work day of Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

I ducked into grassland to hide from their enthusiasm, acutely aware of Norman Swan’s estmation of the air power of these human moving machines. We shared the same health goals but for the quarter centry that separated our births. They will have a lifetime of struggles ahead of them. Those muscle-proud legs will run strong against life’s headwinds.

Life became somewhat tentative. Decision Fatigue is the syndrome they name it. Take it easy, take it slow, every interaction with the ouside world calls for deliberation.

So Corona, look what you made me do in this valley of time. I became a bit tentative approaching my trusted tradesmen until they showed me, in my absence, how they patiently restored my 19th century home for it to last another 100 years. I was a little shy with my elderly neighbour until she was the first to mask up to shield both of us.

Depending on our perspectives, this can be a tiny glimpse of humanity, or indeed a huge deal showing me the irreprssibly positive power of community, our Aussie community.

  • KIM VU