“Australian history has been transformed by the contributions of family historians”, says Dr Tanya Evans, historian at Sydney’s Macquarie University. Her new book Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, is the result of collaboration between Tanya Evans and some of the many family historians who have worked with the archives of Sydney’s oldest non-religious charity, The Benevolent Society.
“… genealogists are becoming the new social historians…”, remarks Evans in the prologue. She points to the painstaking research conducted by family historians which has revealed the lives of those of their forebears who were numbered among the poor and the outcast. Fractured Families is about those forgotten people of history and their descendants who cared enough to learn more about the difficult lives of their forebears.
The interest Evans has about the lives of poor people bubbles through the book as does her admiration of the work done by family historians. She sees great value in the work of family historians noting that, “… the more people who become involved in the endeavour, the richer and more democratic our knowledge will be.”
Fractured Families is an easy book to pick up and put down. Each chapter has a new set of stories about the lives of those who sought assistance from The Benevolent Society during the long nineteenth century and the wealthier people who contributed to the care of the impoverished. The narrative meanders around the events of an eclectic group of lives. It is effectively a series of cameos. Sometimes the reader can engage with the people of the past, at other times the information conveyed is too fragmentary for the reader to feel moved by their stories.
The impact of these stories may have been greater if the photos that are bunched onto photo pages in the middle of the book had instead been inserted at the relevant places in the text. When dealing with fragmentary history, photos are a rich historical source which convey the story more powerfully if there are not enough words in the archives. Fractured Families includes two disturbing photos of emaciated babies which would have made the telling of the cold statistics of starvation and infant mortality in Sydney more potent if they had accompanied the relevant text. Unfortunately the high cost of producing books with photos scattered through the text is a serious limit in the effective use of photographs in the telling of histories such as this one.
This book does not have literary pretensions – there are too many “as described in chapter X” or “these are explored in chapter X” for that. The language used is very accessible with the occasional use of words such as ‘gendered’ or ‘power relations’ and a political earnestness which reflect the author’s academic roots. As befitting someone with Tanya Evans experience as a historical consultant for popular television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? Evans has written a book that any general reader will find easy to read.
While Evans focuses on bringing out the lives of the poor she also sensitively depicts the difficulties faced by wealthier women who were so constrained in what they could do during the nineteenth century. The story of siblings, Sarah and William White encapsulates the comparison of privilege and interconnection between the wealthy and the most poor that Evans weaves through the book. Their father was an agricultural labourer in England, but William was a trained baker by the time the family arrived in Sydney in 1874. He and his brother went on to establish thriving businesses and become pillars of the Baptist Church. In contrast, Sarah White was a ‘fallen woman’ who used the services of the Benevolent Asylum to deliver babies as an unmarried mother. It is the ‘black sheep’ story that so often pops up in family history, yet in this case there is some evidence that the family did provide some support for Sarah. However, like so many families, the Whites wove some stories which their determined descendants had to cut through in order to stitch together the past.
The complex path the Benevolent Society trod during the nineteenth century is woven through the book. Social mores insisted that the Benevolent Society only give money to the ‘deserving poor’ and that the organisation should not encourage immorality by supporting unmarried mothers giving birth to illegitimate offspring. Evans shows that while the Benevolent Society made statements that conformed to these moral strictures, behind the scenes they continued to support the poor even if the actions of the seekers of charity transgressed social norms.
The strength of this book is the focus on the work of family historians. Not only are they acknowledged but the stories of their research is an important part of the book. Tanya Evans writes about what motivates family historians to do their research, how they do it and the rigorous way they interrogate the historical sources. The story of family historian, Anne Wilmshurst, is particularly insightful. Evans shares Wilmshurst’s reflections on how the issues in her own life led her to question and discover some surprises about the lives of her ancestors. Evans gives us an intimate insight into her work in this section. “I worried that I might offend Anne with my intrusive questions about her life and that she might think I was misinterpreting her research and reflections on her motivations,” says Evans. The author then explains how she “shared several drafts of this chapter with Anne and asked for and then incorporated all her comments and suggestions.”
This section made me wonder about how the personal background of the author has influenced her work. She writes about her political motivations, such as her concern for the rights of women and the need to understand the reasons behind the continuing poverty of too many ‘lone mothers and their children’ in order to fight for changes to help them today. I would have liked Evans to take a risk and expose some of her personal background that led her on the path to researching the poor people of the past.
It was the family history background of professional historian, Anne Coote which particularly resonated with me. Coote was the person who researched the life of Sarah White, mentioned above. Like Coote, my interest in history and first experiences researching in the archives were in the quest to discover more about my family history. This was encouraged by the families of my mother’s parents who exchanged stories of forebears and did further research ever since I can remember. I accompanied my mother on visits to the archives when I was a teenager and learned about useful indexes and catalogues and how to use microfiche and microfilm readers. Later I used the internet to research some unusual family names and was rewarded by finding the son of my grandfather’s sister. Our families had lost contact in World War II. Sadly, the only remaining family member that would have known this relative had passed away just a few years before.
When I went back to university to study history I felt I was at a distinct advantage because I was already comfortable and competent at using archives. I wonder why universities don’t teach these skills to first year history students who haven’t had the benefit of a background in family history?
“Both academic historians and family historians need to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity…” says Evans. “Our knowledge… always remains provisional, conflicted and in a constant state of flux. This is, in my mind, the strength of family history.”
This is the premise underlying this blog and why I call it Stumbling Through the Past. We cannot know everything that happened in the past and why people behaved in the way they did. We can’t even know everything occurring in the present. Additional records can be discovered or someone can contribute a new interpretation that puts the evidence in a new light. Humility in the face of the ever-shifting knowledge and understanding of evidence has to be the badge of the family historian and the professional historian alike.
Fractured Families reflects the supportive and collaborative way that Tanya Evans works. I want to support generous authors like her, so it was for this reason I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend her book launch. I didn’t expect the book to resonate with me, but I found its family history focus compelling. Family historians should appreciate this acknowledgement and respect for their work.
Further Information About the History of the Benevolent Society
- Benevolent Society, ‘Last 200‘: The Benevolent Society celebrated its bicentenary in 2013. Browse through photos and text surveying their history.
- Terri McCormack, ‘Benevolent Society and Asylum‘, Dictionary of Sydney. If you are researching anything to do with the history of Sydney it pays to check out the Dictionary of Sydney website. It has a large number of articles about all sorts of facets of life in Sydney in the past.
Other Posts About this Book
- Read Lisa Murray’s speech at the launch of the book on the blog of the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT.
- Patricia Curthoys worked as a research assistant on this book. Read her observations about the approach Tanya Evans took and working with family historians on the blog of the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT.
- Beverley Kingston, ‘Who do we think we are?‘, Inside Story.
- Jennifer McLaren, ‘Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales‘, Jennifer McLaren (blog).