By Suzannah Gaulke

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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.

img_3872Over 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.

img_3879There’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.

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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.

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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.

Subscribe to Suzannah’s blog Hideaway HistoryYou can also follow @hideawayhistory on Facebook and Twitter.

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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.”

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“Shelling the Peas,” Charles G. Harper, Half-Hours with the Highwaymen: Picturesque Biographies and Traditions of the “Knights of the Road,” (London: Chapman & Hall, 1908) p.259

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.

Stay tuned to this blog and the SJCP’s social media accounts, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, to learn when the next batch of biographies for the St. John’s First Fleeters collection are published.