A little while ago I was asked to research and write a biographical essay on an English aristocrat, Lady Mary Fitzroy (nee Lennox) for the St. John’s Cemetery Project. St. John’s Cemetery in Parramatta is Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery. The St. John’s Cemetery Project is a public history project founded by Dr Michaela Cameron […]
One of my writing projects this year has been a biography of Sarah Bell, an Irish immigrant to colonial New South Wales who worked as the Matron of the Parramatta Female Factory between 1836 and 1843. My biography forms part of the St John’s Cemetery Project, an online database for Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery.
The grave of Sarah Bell in Section I, Row E, No.8, St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. Photo: Jennifer McLaren, 2019.
Researching the lives of women in the past is challenging. During her tenure at the Factory, Sarah was a visible presence in the archives. As Matron, she was one of only a small number of women in the early colony of New South Wales with an official government role and salary. I managed to track her time at the Factory from government records and newspaper articles without too much trouble. Most of these documents (some…
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St. John’s Cemetery Project is extremely fortunate to have Macquarie University PhD candidate Abbie Hartman as an intern. Abbie is an interdisciplinary historian of Public and Applied history whose work focuses on the public’s consumption of history and how the influence of media can shape and change this.
Her PhD thesis, ‘When This is All Over and the War is Won They Will Remember Us’: Public History, War and the Power of Memorialisation in Games, her Masters thesis completed in 2017, and several other projects she is working on examine how the general public understands and remembers conflict. As Abbie’s research has already uncovered, many young people currently studying history at the tertiary level report that their strong interest in history was initially sparked by the historical subject matter in video games they had played. For anyone who may question the relevance and value of the past and history as a field of inquiry in a rapidly changing world, Abbie’s findings are a reminder that history and ‘new media’ are by no means strange bedfellows. Indeed, her work confirms that the digital arena generally offers historians so many new, creative, fresh options in terms of how we can communicate our work to a wider audience than traditional textual histories have been able to reach.
One of Create NSW’s Arts and Cultural Development Program (ACDP) Priority Areas is in fact engaging young people. On the whole, the St. John’s Cemetery Project aims to do this by (1) presenting historical content in an accessible, non-commercial, multimodal digital arena and (2) extending the reach of that content via social media platforms. Social media in particular allows the material funded by Create NSW in the upcoming collection on “Old Parramattans” buried at St. John’s to engage not only older generations who are already well aware of the significance of the cemetery and the historical treasures it holds, but also has greater potential to “enter the feeds” and hopefully capture the attention of a younger demographic who have not had an opportunity to encounter Parramatta’s rich history and heritage sites. The internship itself is, likewise, a way the project is engaging one particular young person in the project and giving a young academic specifically the opportunity to apply her historical skills and build her academic C.V. with practical experience in a real life public history project.
Abbie’s expertise in public history and how best to inform the general public about their local and national histories via digitisation clearly makes her a real asset to SJO but, as Abbie herself notes, the opportunity is definitely mutually beneficial:
“The St. John’s Cemetery Project internship is the perfect opportunity to explore the theoretical frameworks I have been studying and apply them to a real life situation. In addition to this, I will be able to bring my expertise in digital history to the project to bring the forgotten stories of St. John’s Cemetery back to the forefront of public consciousness. Overall, Parramatta is a place which I hold dear to my heart and spent a lot of time in during my childhood. I would love to give back to the community which has always made me feel so welcome.”
During her internship Abbie will be flexing her research muscles and immersing herself in digital archives as a database content developer. Chiefly, this means she will be assisting the St. John’s Cemetery Project Director, Dr. Michaela Ann Cameron, by creating profiles on the people buried in the cemetery and even fleshing out some of the details of their truly incredible lives. This work will help researchers when they come to the website and use the “SEARCH” database function, most likely looking for one of their ancestors. As such, Abbie is participating in constructing the part of the website that will be used by the public the most: the St. John’s Cemetery Project database. With Abbie’s vital contribution, the project will be able to deliver a fully functioning site-specific database to the public sooner rather than later and that, too, it is hoped will improve community engagement with the cemetery itself. You may also see Abbie doing some guest blogging on here!
Welcome to St. John’s Cemetery Project Abbie!
Read more about Abbie Hartman’s work on her Contributor profile here.
The grant will be used to produce a collection of biographical essays for the St. John’s Cemetery Project (SJCP) website on notable “Old Parramattans” buried at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta: Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery (est. 1790).
But don’t expect all the people featured in the essays to be ‘notable’ in the traditional sense of the word! This is by no means a collection of essays on white male elites exclusively. First Peoples will be represented in these stories and there will be convicts galore with all the juicy details of their dastardly deeds. The collection will also highlight individuals associated with the nearby Parramatta Female Factories, Wesleyans, master builders, women and children and, yes, the odd colonial elite — even then, as readers will discover, the colony being what it was, the most debonair, respectable gent was often hiding a dark side!
I’m sure a cursory glance at what is in store is quite enough to reveal why The St. John’s Cemetery Project and, indeed, the cemetery itself is what I have dubbed ‘The Gateway to Old Parramatta.’ Telling the stories of those buried at St. John’s allows us to shine a light on so many of Parramatta’s major heritage sites; the world heritage listed Parramatta Park’s Government House and Dairy Cottage, the nationally listed Parramatta Female Factory, the old colonial hospital site at the Parramatta Justice Precinct, the Wentworth Atelier, and Centenary Square. And all of these heritage sites and more are just minutes away from the cemetery on foot — a fact that should well and truly put Parramatta on the map as a major heritage tourism destination.
WHAT DOES THIS CREATE NSW FUNDING MEAN TO SJCP?
“Old Parramattans” builds on the collection of “St. John’s First Fleeters” already published on the SJCP, which was supported by funds totalling $7000 from the Royal Australian Historical Society Small Heritage Grant via funds allocated from the Office of Environment and Heritage and the City of Parramatta’s Cultural Heritage and Stories Fund in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Obviously being on a much larger scale, the $66,290 grant from Create NSW makes it possible to deliver my entire original vision of a fully functional biographical database for the cemetery. But my original vision was also for a project that was collaborative; one that would attract numerous historians so they could apply their expertise and contribute original, peer-reviewed research on Old Parramattans in a free, open access arena for the widest possible public audience. As a grant that exists to ‘support professional arts and cultural workers,’ this Create NSW grant is providing me with the means to assemble those experts at a time when these kinds of opportunities are all too scarce, so we are all extremely grateful.
The expert contributors assembled thus far have ties to universities across New South Wales and diverse research interests that will undoubtedly lead to a variety of perspectives on Parramatta’s colonial history. (Browse the current list of contributors here, but note that the list is still growing).
Together the contributors will use their expertise in a wide range of fields to draw out new information on St. John’s “Old Parramattans” and place those individual stories in the broader historical context to demonstrate the cemetery’s importance—not just on the local level but also on the state, national, and international levels. These biographical essays may therefore tell readers everything there is to know on a biographical subject; alternatively, they may delve deeply into one previously overlooked aspect of the subject’s life and use it as a platform from which they can explore a topic of broader historical significance.
The project will also be taking on an intern to assist with the database content development. Priority will be given to a local History student attending one of the Parramatta-based universities and will be an excellent opportunity for a junior historian to develop research skills and their academic C.V. while volunteering on a real public history project.
A COMMUNITY-ENGAGED PROJECT
When I founded the SJCP in July 2015, the ultimate aim was to make high quality content demonstrating the significance of the cemetery easily accessible and freely available to the public. My philosophy was that engaging and educating the public on the significance of a heritage site is the best way to garner the community support that is always necessary to conserve heritage.
As such, SJCP is a proud supporter of the local community organisation which formed in late June 2016: the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. The Friends are a dedicated group of volunteers whose purpose is to manage and conserve the cemetery for future generations. It is my hope that the biographical essays funded by Create NSW will help to raise the profile of this extremely worthy heritage site by educating the public and fostering greater community support for the Friends’ ongoing conservation work.
There are many ways the Friends can benefit from your help; you can become a member of the organisation, volunteer at working bees, or make a donation. Right now, the Friends are organising a Conservation Management Plan, after which their campaign for the National Heritage Listing of the cemetery can begin in earnest.
Special thanks to Dr. Geoff Lee for visiting the cemetery this morning to learn more about how St. John’s Cemetery Project will use these funds and how all of this aligns with the Friends’ aims for the conservation of the cemetery itself. And a big thank you to Judith Dunn and Jennifer Follers for taking the time to talk about the Friends, and also Brian Wickham, Friends of St. John’s Cemetery General Committee Member; your efforts in caring for the cemetery generally and in the lead up to Dr. Lee’s visit this morning specifically are greatly appreciated.
I can’t wait to start sharing the biographies of these “Old Parramattans” with all of you over the funded period (2019–January 2021). Stay tuned to the SJCP social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) to read the latest biographies written by the SJCP’s ever-growing stellar lineup of historians the second they hit the website!
I was having a conversation with my grandfather over the weekend about the work I have been, and will be, doing for St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. When I mentioned that I would be writing a biography of a convict buried in the cemetery for The St. John’s Cemetery Project, he inquired as to whether there could be enough information to write about a common individual. I explained that there is often a lot of information to be found in official records. But then he asked about what more I would say after presenting the simple facts of a trial, transportation, and death.
How could I possibly write a biography that is deep enough and interesting enough to capture and hold a reader’s attention?
This got me thinking about how history is more than just presenting facts. It’s about the writing. It’s about the story. The multitude of stories. History is not just one continuous story, it’s more like a room full of strings. You pick a thread and follow it along to see where it goes. And there are plenty of strings following off from that thread, each with their own stories, told in their own ways.
Over the last couple of months, I have been working on compiling lists of the Female Factory inmates and their children who died at the Factory and are buried at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. I began by going through the photos of each page in the burial records. I would scroll through each page, looking over the quality or profession column for the golden words “Convict; Factory.” The first time I found those words it was a moment of excitement. After scrolling through almost four years of nothing about the Female Factory, seeing those magical words marked the beginning for me. I then took the information from each cell in the records and wrote it into the word document set up purely for recording all the information about those buried in the cemetery and connected to the Female Factory.
Then came the fun experience of deciphering the handwriting. I have some experience in reading bad handwriting every time my birthday comes around and I try to read the birthday wishes of some of my older relatives, but as I tried to read the names and numbers scrawled in the records I realised how much I relied on context to guess the words. Trying to read a word by itself is much more difficult. You have to try to decipher each letter while also putting it in context with the rest of the word. There is also the spelling, which is astonishingly bad at times. After going through name after name and place after place, you suddenly realise that you can’t seem to work out any words anymore and you end up spending ages on single words, writing down letter by letter the word you think is there before finally moving on to the next word. It’s only when you come back to the page the next day that you realise you were looking too close and that the name now reads more clearly than ever.
There’s nothing more satisfying then solving a word though. After staring at the same name for a number of minutes – looking at it from different angles, trying to work out each letter individually to put together some sort of coherent name – striking the Eureka!! moment comes with great excitement and relief. I was surprised at how much I have enjoyed doing these lists. I knew they wouldn’t be boring, because like cemeteries each name is a thread of history and just the possibilities of what lies along those strings intrigues me to no end. Because behind every name, ship and date is an entire life. Not always a long life, but always a story sitting along that thread.
After going through the burial records, there are always plenty of gaps in the lists. Then comes the task of trying to fill in those gaps. At this point, I turn to the internet (the place of infinite answers), specifically the Claim a Convict website.
The Claim a Convict site helps to fill in some of the gaps left by the records, especially the ships that individuals came to Australia on or confirming the identity of the mothers of children buried in the cemetery. It generally has more detail than the records and is certainly much easier to read! This extra level of research really fills in the lists and it always feels good to find that missing piece, but it can often lead to more questions. There are times when the gap is so big, it could potentially be filled with a number of pieces. At that point, all you can do is write down the possibilities, and hope that later down the track you will have time to dig a little deeper. And that the information you need is still out there.
It’s always amazing what stories are told with the little information found on the records. For instance, the recurrence of names never ceases to amaze me. The number of Margarets, Marys, Elizabeths and Anns dominate the pages and show how popular those names were, not to mention how they have survived through the ages. And the different ages of each individual spark the imagination as I think over what kind of life they led, or what sort of person they were before they died. You end up thinking about what they did with their lives, what they thought of their lives, what they thought they would do with their lives. And for the children, you think about their mothers, about how many children they had lost, about whether they had more children, about what the rest of their life was like.
The records have been fun to look through and they have certainly highlighted to me how the smallest amount of history can tell a story and how many stories are out there. Each person has a history and there’s a lot more recorded than we realise. These convicts, given a sentence likened to death, have more left about them than they probably ever thought there would be. Each story can be found, and though they will never be complete, the names in these records will always be available, right next to their list of crimes. History is never black and white, nor is it ever just the recitation of facts. There is embellishment – historians have to fill the gaps somehow – and there is definitely an agenda with every article, book or show talking about history. But that’s what history is; it’s the telling and retelling of past events in a way that will capture the audience’s attention. In the end, history is simply a form of storytelling.
Suzannah Gaulke is an undergraduate student in the Department of History at the University of Sydney and is volunteering as an intern with SJCP for the next few months in partial fulfilment of her course requirements.
Today we launch The St. John’s Cemetery Project blog.
The blog will be an arena for announcing the publication of new biographies on the database, highlighting interesting research finds we are excited about, introducing our contributors and research assistants, and a place where they, too, will be able to participate as guest bloggers. It will also be a place to reflect on “doing” public history, digital history, convict history, and colonial history generally.
As the database is still in its embryonic phase, new features are constantly being added to increase its potential as a research tool as well as its utility to the local community members visiting the St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta site itself. Those new site features will therefore also be announced on the blog along with some discussion about how they might be beneficial to you, whether you are a tourist, an urban explorer, an avid family history researcher, a professional genealogist, or an historian.
The Highlight Reel
Given that this is the inaugural blog post, it is the perfect opportunity to bring everyone up to speed on what has been achieved thus far.
The St. John’s Cemetery Project’s first biography, Jane McManus: The Maid Freed From The Gallows, by historian Dr. Michaela Ann Cameron was published on 10 March 2016 and, since then, a further eleven biographies have been published. Nine of the twelve biographies currently available are part of our very first collection, St. John’s First Fleeters; a collection of biographies on the seventeen First Fleeters with memorial plaques buried at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta and a feature essay on the cemetery itself by Judith Dunn, the author of The Parramatta Cemeteries book series.
When historian Dr. Ben Vine brought his expertise in the American Revolutionary War to the St. John’s First Fleeters collection earlier this year, the result was two biographies that illuminated the fascinating and surprising connections between the American Revolution and the settlement of New South Wales: Isaac Knight: The Trusty Sergeant and John Palmer: The Purser, The P.O.W.
A number of biographies contributed by historian Dr. Michaela Ann Cameron provided further evidence of the complex, transnational histories buried in St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta; see, for example, Richard Partridge: The Left-Handed Flogger and David Killpack: The Merry Mutineer, the life stories of two convicts who mutinied on a convict ship bound for America after the Americans had well and truly won the right to their independence from Britain and the right to stop being used as “a sinke to drayen England of her filth and scum.”
See also Michaela’s biography John Martin: The Self-Freed Slave; the story of a man who was likely a black slave in the American colonies and found freedom in Parramatta a lifetime before President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Even the biography of convict James Wright: The Highwayman features a link to a naval hero who died as a result of Anglo-French hostilities associated with the American Revolutionary War. These biographies are thought-provoking, because by illuminating these connections between the British Empire’s old domain (America) and what was then the new British domain (Australia) they also reveal how those transnational connections have been obscured. Ben Vine attributes this to the way Britain, America, and Australia have preferred to remember (and in some cases forget) certain aspects of the past over others.
Speaking of forgotten transnational connections, this digital history project has already begun to forge wonderful links across the seas and ignited an interest in the history we share with the motherland! The need to source images for historian David Morgan’s biography on Henry Dodd, the “Faithful Servant” of Governor Arthur Phillip himself, led us to reach out to Randall Hardy, the webmaster of a website dedicated to Dodd’s own former parish in England: hodnet.org.uk. Not only did the Hodnet – Shropshire website graciously permit us to feature a stunning image by photographer Geoff Potter of the church in which Dodd was baptised, they also featured on their website and social media the story of Dodd; their very own Hodnet man who now lies in Australia’s oldest grave with headstone in situ in the oldest surviving European cemetery in Australia!
And, of course, two major highlights since The St. John’s Cemetery Project was first conceived were the two award ceremonies for the small heritage grants that have enabled the St. John’s First Fleeters collection to be made manifest. The first ceremony, at which the Royal Australian Historical Society (RAHS) awarded $2000 toward the completion of the collection, took place in October 2015. In June 2016, City of Parramatta Council awarded a further $5000 to the St. John’s First Fleeters collection at the ceremony for their community grants.