Inside Story

Writing history in dark places

A historian tries to hear the voices of lost children

Marian Quartly Books 23 March 2023 1175 words

“A long corridor of suffering”: Thomas Oldham Barlow’s print (after Jerry Barrett) shows penal reformer Elizabeth Fry reading to convict women and children in 1816 at Newgate prison, where most of the women transported to Van Diemen’s Land were initially imprisoned. British Museum

The historian Hugh Stretton liked to tell his students a story about the questions historians ask and how they find answers. In his Political Sciences he told it this way.

“A passer-by finds a drunk on his hands and knees under a street lamp, and asks ‘What are you looking for?’ ‘A dime I lost.’ ‘Where did you lose it?’ ‘Up that alley there.’ ‘Well why look for it down here?’ ‘Because there’s some light down here.’”

Stretton drew the moral that the researcher who really wants to find the dime will go, “groping but rational, up the dark alley.”

I was reminded of Stretton’s story as I read Lucy Frost’s new book, Convict Orphans. Frost chooses to search in the light, with results that are both rewarding and to this reviewer a bit frustrating.

Lucy Frost has been bringing us vivid voices from the past for almost forty years. I remember the joy of discovering her first book, No Place for a Nervous Lady (1984), and introducing my history students to the women’s “voices from the Australian bush” that she gave us there.

Her second book further enriched my teaching. The Journal of Annie Baxter Dawbin (1998) presented us with an educated, articulate woman whose voice was instantly accessible to an educated late-twentieth-century audience. That hers was a world-weary voice made Annie even more interesting to my feminist students — and to me — though I was uncomfortable with the middle-class voices that dominated my own research at the time, and keen to find ways of understanding the lives of the less articulate.

From the late 1990s Frost has been in search of less educated, less privileged voices, with more success than I could muster. She has been involved with the Founders and Survivors project, a huge enterprise digitising and linking all the available records left by and mostly about the 73,000 convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land/Tasmania. Links to court records in Britain and Australia bring some of these convict voices to life, and a few have left letters and diaries. Frost’s publication with Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Chain Letters: Narrating Convict Lives (2001), shows what can be achieved by history from below where the sources are sufficiently thick.

Frost continues to be especially interested in the historical experiences of women. She has served as founding president of the Female Convicts Research Centre and as an editor and contributor to its publishing arm, the Convict Women’s Press. Her research into the lives of 150 female convicts who arrived in 1838 on board the Atwick resulted in Abandoned Women: Scottish Convicts Exiled Beyond the Seas (2012). Nineteen children were landed with the Atwick women; wondering about their fate, she tells us, led her to write her latest book.

Convict Orphans sets out to tell the stories of the thousands of children who passed through the Queen’s Orphan Schools and their rebrand, the Queen’s Asylum for Destitute Children. Most were not orphans in the modern sense, having at least one parent living; they were, as Frost puts it, orphaned by the convict system. She places their stories at the head of “a long corridor of suffering”: First Nations children stolen from their families; child immigrants similarly stolen; children abused in institutions that should have protected them. It is time, she writes, that their voices “were heard — and heeded.”

Frost began her research by listing all the children admitted to the state orphanages but soon committed herself to searching where the evidential light was brightest. “Because the array of sources is thickest for children apprenticed during the period of the Queen’s Asylum,” she writes, “I decided to concentrate on ‘orphans’ indentured during the institution’s final decades, 1859–79.” With almost 1000 subjects in hand, she combed a great numbers of other sources — newspaper reports, court records, committee minutes, family histories. “Out of this process grew the collection of stories from which I have woven the narrative of this book.”

She begins with the story of Hannah Bennett, a dark tale with a surprisingly bright ending. Hannah was a convict’s daughter, held in an Orphan School as a toddler, “retrieved” by her mother at five years old but raped and seriously injured at nine. She gave convincing evidence in court against her assailant, and was then returned to the Orphan School. At thirteen she again gave evidence, this time to an inquiry into the management of the school. The inquiry found systematic abuse in the institution: the children’s rations stolen, their bodies mercilessly beaten. But the matron was merely reprimanded, and the girls who had given evidence against her were returned to her care.

Hannah suffered a year more in the school before again being “discharged to mother.” At this point the story changes. Fifteen-year old Hannah married a twenty-one-year-old farm servant and lived a long and settled life, raising seven children with, as Frost says, “proudly confident names” like Hannah Georgina and Victoria Elizabeth.

Hannah’s story is emblematic of the trajectory of the book. We read stories of children whose lives were blighted by their experience of orphanage and apprenticeship, while others survived and even prospered. Some established families of their own; others — particularly the boys — seemed incapable of long-term relationships. The concluding chapter begins by laying the blame for this trauma squarely on the convict system — “transportation smashed families.” But then Frost ends with the stories of two women who raised generations of descendants and lived long enough to be remembered and memorialised by family historians.

Convict Orphans begins by asking us to “heed” the children’s voices, and Frost’s storytelling is so skilful that we won’t forget them. But it isn’t clear what lesson we can learn from these stories. Frost doesn’t weigh the successes against the failures; we are not told how many of her thousand subjects she could trace to a settled life, how many vanished, how many lives were destroyed. These are facts she could draw from the sources within her evidential pool; she chooses not to.

Another recent history of the Tasmanian convicts, Janet McCalman’s Vandemonians, sets out to put their stories in historical context. McCalman has taken a leading role in a project gathering biographical data on some 25,000 convicts: “cradle-to-grave data” intended to evaluate the effects of penal servitude. In setting their research questions, McCalman and her fellow researchers did indeed go “groping but rational, up the dark alley.”

As it happens, many of their questions were wrong. Life expectancy was not affected by height, nor by literacy. Flogging did not shorten lives; rather, “men’s mortality rose in proportion for every day spent in solitary confinement.” Overall McCalman found “that transportation was good for men, and compounded the risks for women.”

Frost doesn’t offer this level of certainty, but she doesn’t need to. Most of her readers will be caught up in the immediacy of her children’s voices, moved by their sufferings and resilience. That they lived is significance enough. •

Convict Orphans
By Lucy Frost | Allen & Unwin | $34.99 | 304 pages