Tag Archives: History

The Writer of little things

GETTING GRITTY From small irritations, beauty is born.
GETTING GRITTY From small irritations, beauty is born.

Starting small.

I pride myself on being a wordsmith who could write on just about any subject, but such surety comes after over two decades’ experience. When I started out, I really had no idea what I was capable of.

So, a when a good friend got a job as a magazine editor, and called in a panic about not knowing what a “drop-cap”,  and other editing terms, referred to, I talked her away from the edge by looking everything up online with her on the other end of the phone. We both learned much from those sessions, without her boss having to know she (and me) were playing journo-school catch-up.

Eventually Eden asked more than unstinting support in a time of need, and commissioned me to write a feature about the history of beads. My late partner Jono had traded in semi-precious stones, and created jewellery out of them, so I knew my away around a bead shop, but a feature was a different matter. I just dived in, did my research, and came up with the goods, and they even used my headline! A new career was born in the process …

PORTABLE STYLE Beads have been strung, trades and prized for millennia.
PORTABLE STYLE Beads have been strung, traded and prized for millennia.

Little Treasures

A brief history of beading

In 21st century Australia we do not generally cook over fires with hand-crafted earthenware pots, read by the light of handmade candles, or make our own writing paper, but at the very centre of our culture is something as ancient as all these things: beads.

Most of us wear and use beads every day as functional items like buttons.

They are durable, attractive little examples of a living archaeology; museum pieces we wear, touch and treasure in our daily lives.

A brief look at the history of beads is not really history at all, because the manufacture of beads has not dramatically changed in thousands of years. It does not require very sophisticated technology to string small perforated objects onto a length of twine or wire. Five thousand years ago, artisans were capable of much the same techniques we use today in beading. Their work is often the only evidence of vast civilisations.

Probably the earliest gem like materials collected were those that were most apparent, such as amber and pearls.

The amber pieces which regularly wash up on the Baltic shores and the east coast of Britain are an attractive and highly prized adornment traded for millennia. Likewise, the pearls of equatorial climates, gifted out of the mouths of oysters, have long been considered things of great mystery and beauty, worn and exchanged over great distances.

Shell, bone, wood and stone appear in all ancient civilisations as far back as 30,000 BC.

By around 2,500 BC, most continents saw complex religious and political cultures spring up in fertile river valleys, from Mesopotamia, Egypt and India, and beyond into Asia and Africa. These location yielded excellent agriculture, but also the raw materials for bead making, and the environment for excavating precious metals.

Beads are evidence of an international trade in these materials, created by the demands of royal and aristocratic lineage, and the artisans they patronised.

Egypt still remains one of the most influential beading cultures of all time. Within the borders of the Nile river valley were all the raw materials to produce beads from a time long before the pyramids were built until the era of Cleopatra, over two thousand years later.

LAPIS OF THE GODS Tutankhamun's death mask is unarguably the prime example of Egyptian cultures love of lapis lazuli beads.
LAPIS OF THE GODS Tutankhamun’s death mask is unarguably the prime example of the Egyptian culture’s love of lapis lazuli beads.

Egyptian gold, turquoise and carnelian were crafted into the enduring Egyptian jewellery styles, most notably their iconic collars. The only material the Egyptians were forced to import was their beloved deep blue lapis lazuli, which was traded from ancient Afghanistan.

Perhaps Egypt’s greatest gift to the world of beads was their development of glassmaking techniques. The application of heat to sand and colouring agents created an early synthetic material called faience, which, over time, was improved to what we know as glass.

Because of its cheap production process, it was possible for most people in Egyptian society to buy and wear synthetic stone, or replicas of more precious materials.

Most of the known Western world was absorbed into the culture of the Roman Empire by the time of Julius Caesar in the first century BC. The Romans manufactured and traded glass on a grand scale, influencing beading from Britain to India.

CANDY CANE Glass bead being formed while viscous.
CANDY CANE Glass bead being formed while viscous.

Glassmaking began much like the process of candy makers – long ‘canes’ of hot coloured resins were stretched and sliced, then cooled into various sized beads. Mixing colour into an array of patterns was a common practice, and the further each cane was stretched, with the same patterns and colours running though it, the more matching beads were able to be sliced from it. Each bead could be perforated with hot metal rods while the glass was still viscous, creating a hole for stringing.

During this time, the Anglo-Saxon language gave us the word “bede”, meaning “prayer”, showing that the religious association of beads was always strong. The major religions borne of this period – Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism – all adopted the use of prayer beads in rituals which are still practiced today.

Rome’s far reaching influence took European traders into Africa, and European beads appeared as far afield as South East Asia, impacting the beading styles of those regions, which held ancient beading traditions of their own.

BEADED BRIDE Complex stone beading became a wedding tradition in India.
BEADED BRIDE Complex stone beading became a wedding tradition in India.

India had developed vast industries of stone beads, such as carnelian and agate, formed into detailed adornments such as the highly prized bridal collars. Thereafter, stone beads became a major Indian export.

African cultures had ancient jewellery traditions using organic materials such as seed, bone and tusk, and some of the richest sources of gold, which was exported back to Europe and beyond. The exaggerated animistic style of African beading impacted the later Roman and Byzantine decorative arts.

Glass remained the most widespread material for beading, and as the Roman Empire collapsed, the processes of glassmaking were kept alive by artisans in Phoenicia and the vast Islamic empires.

In the eastern regions of Arabia and Persia, the manufacture and trade of beads during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance saw new styles develop at a time when art and culture in western Europe diminished.

The Renaissance, from around 1400 AD, saw the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman cultures, including their beads. This was the era when Venetian glass influenced the decorative arts, and glass beads enjoyed a revival. The brightly coloured and textured Chevron bead was first created in Venice c.1500 AD and exported across the known world.

Exploration to the Americas took glass beads to the New World. It could be said that gifting large numbers of glass beads became something of an invasion technique, employed by explorers from Christopher Columbus to the conquistadors in South America.

The Native American and South American cultures had an impact in return. The Mayans and Aztecs prized Guatemalan jade over gold, and developed some of the most sophisticated techniques for drilling very long tubular beads. American Indians created detailed beading techniques to adorn everyday clothing.

Archaeology had a major impact on beading styles in the 20th century. The best example was the 1920s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the young Egyptian Pharaoh who was buried with unarguably the richest and most varied collection of decorative arts, which took modern minds back to the everyday items of New Kingdom Egypt.

Fashion in the 1920s, and certainly 20th century jewellery, were influenced by this major discovery. The highly intricate collars adorning Tutankhamun’s body were replicated by jewellers worldwide.

Beads often affected modern economies. For thousands of years it was impossible to produce spherical pearls, a process hidden inside the hard shell of oysters, but, in 1913, when businessman Mikimoto Kōkichi pioneered the mass production of perfectly spherical cultured pearls in Japan, the sudden influx of affordable yet perfect pearls sent jewellers worldwide into a spin.

Here in Australia we have Western beading styles in a setting which bridges South East Asia and the South Pacific, with the growing influence of Aboriginal Australian art, and it is not uncommon to see all these influences at work in contemporary Australian jewellery.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Mary Matcham Pitt – mother of a nation

FICTION MEETS FACT Brenda Blethyn as Jane Austen's Mrs Bennet in Joe Wright's 2005 movie Pride and Prejudice.
FICTION MEETS FACT Brenda Blethyn as Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennet in Joe Wright’s 2005 movie Pride and Prejudice.

A Writer’s fascination with an incredible journey.

ONE of Australia’s pioneering settler families – the Pitts – have occupied much of my research and writing for the past two decades.

The primary feature of their story remains the incredible journey taken by matriarch Mary Pitt (née Matcham) who, with her five children, embarked from Portsmouth in England and sailed to the other side of the world in 1801.

Mary’s descendants (and many others) have speculated about the driving forces behind the journey ever since.

Inspired by Germaine Greer’s enlightening life of Ann Hathaway in Shakespeare’s Wife (in which factual possibilities are explored in lieu of primary evidence on a woman who has become relatively ‘invisible’ to history); and with the help of a group of Mary’s great great great great granddaughters (all of them excellent researchers and writers), I eventually got the opportunity to publish a feature article on Mary’s story in the April-May 2010 edition of Blue Mountains Life Magazine (Vintage Press).

GREAT VOYAGE J.M.W. Turner's The Shipwreck (1805) shows seafaring dangers in the same era as Mary Pitt's journey across the earth to Australia.
GREAT VOYAGE J.M.W. Turner’s The Shipwreck (1805) shows seafaring dangers in the same era as Mary Pitt’s journey across the earth to Australia.

Grit & Gentility

A family reunion and Jane Austen shed light on the Hawkesbury’s pioneering matron-of-honour, Mary Pitt.

Altering the plot of Pride and Prejudice by one degree would expose prospects for Georgian women which Jane Austen might never have contemplated. If she’d killed off Mr Bennet in the feared duel over his daughter Lydia’s elopement, his women might have landed in the same boat as early Australian settlers Mary Pitt and her five children, on a factual voyage from Dorset to New South Wales in 1801.

“With her heightened concerns, Mary Pitt even seems like a real-life Mrs. Bennet.”

According to family myth, the death of husband Robert Pitt (a shopkeeper) left Mary in ‘reduced circumstances’ and reliant on her cousin George Matcham, brother-in-law to naval hero Lord Nelson. Their connection brought about a seafaring solution to Mary’s imminent poverty.

Mary wrote to George from onboard the Canada moored at Portsmouth – “May 31 1801 Good Sir We came on board yesterday my situation here is very bad … God knows my heart I would rather fall into the hands of a merciful Creator or to suffer any poverty by his grace to restrain me from falling into the hands of wicked people”.

George had worked for the East India Company and knew the shortage of women in the colony made Mary’s daughters (Susannah, Lucy, Jemima and Esther) a precious currency in a land yet to have its own coin economy. “Have as much patience as possible until the voyage is over,” he wrote, “and then comforts will crowd upon you”.

But Mary was not satisfied about threats to her family’s gentility – “at first the ships crew were continually (sic) passing by to the stores and the surgeons room close by us which I complained of to Captain Patton as being a very unfit place for women …” she related, adding “since there is some alterations”.

The first Pitt family reunion has seen much sorting of historical evidence from family myths, myths that give depth to the lives of the Pitt women but require evidence to be taken seriously as oral history.

As the story of a rural family whose gentility is at risk, with multiple daughters of marriageable age, Pride and Prejudice serves as a cheat’s guide to the period. With her heightened concerns, Mary Pitt even seems like a real-life Mrs. Bennet.

Records of the Pitt’s arrival in Sydney include the marriage of Lucy Pitt to John Wood, third mate on the Canada. On January 11, 1802, barely three weeks after landing, the Pitt women (with Thomas as one of the witnesses) attended Lucy at St John’s church in Parramatta. An old family myth holds that the family stayed with Governor King and his wife Anna at Government House in the same township.

Austen outlines the timing of a genteel marriage – “allowing for the necessary preparation of settlements, new carriages, and wedding clothes,” Mrs Bennet “should undoubtedly see her daughter settled … in the course of three or four months”.

If Lucy and John courted during the social stopovers typical of migration voyages, Mary had months at sea after Rio de Janeiro for marriage preparations. The makings of muslin dresses for a midsummer wedding filled her luggage lists. Lucy already had a settlement in the form of a letter from Lord Nelson’s father to Governor King – the same secured land grants for every one of the Pitts.

SIMILAR SISTERS Jane Austen’s fictional Bennet sisters serve as a cheat’s guide to Mary Pitt’s factual family and its fortunes (photo: Pride and Prejudice directed by Joe Wright).

The marriage was granted by special license, an expensive option allowing couples to choose the time and parish of their wedding. Mrs Bennet reveals they were also a status symbol when she encourages Lizzie into one upon betrothal to Mr D’Arcy.

It was in Governor King’s power to grant one, and perhaps the kudos the Pitts received from such a license was elaborated into a stay at Government House?

Before the dust settled on Lucy’s nuptials, Mary was granted one-hundred acres close to the Hawkesbury River. Watched-over by a garrison of redcoats, this small community was not unlike Austen’s fictitious rural Meryton, although at Pitt Farm marriage prospects remained secondary to the production of food until 1804.

By then, Susannah Pitt was thirty and nearly past marriageable age. When pressed by Lady de Bourgh about her age, Elizabeth Bennet pluckily refuses to reveal it. She was barely twenty. Like Lizzy, Susannah had younger sisters at her heels.

The Bennet sisters relied on their father to encourage good matches. In 1804, King wrote to Nelson describing the Pitts as the “object of my care”, which might have extended to fostering connections with eligible single men.

Corporal William Faithfull retired from the militia and started farming before King arrived in the colony. Permission for Susannah and William to wed was granted for November 21, 1804, in Parramatta.

James Wilshire arrived in 1800 and soon began the colony’s first tannery. His wedding on February 12, 1805, made the Sydney Gazette – “Married on Tuesday at Sydney, Mr James Wilshire to Miss Esther Pitt”.

This brings to mind the reporting of more Bennet nuptials – “…it was not put in as it ought to be,” Mrs Bennet complains, “it only said ‘Lately, George Wickham, Esq. to Miss Lydia Bennet,’ without their being a syllable said of her father’”.

Esther Pitt was in the same position, it seems, since her father Robert similarly gets no mention in print.

Flood, famine and civil unrest brought a swift end to the governorship of the Kings in 1806. Governor William Bligh was removed during the Rum Rebellion of 1808. Meanwhile, Jemima Pitt waited five years for a suitable match – these were not times for courtship or marriage. The already-wed got on with the business of producing children.

Cut forward two hundred years and the genetic inheritance of Mary Pitt is gathering for the first time at a family reunion. Most of the older generation speak of “time passing” as the motivating factor in attending. A younger descendent of Lucy Pitt says, only half-joking: “I finally know why I have an irrational fear of water – all those sea voyages”.

When asked about what he thinks of Mary’s courage, a descendent of Thomas Pitt shrugs and tells me with more enthusiasm about opening a family vault in a Richmond cemetery to inter the ashes of his grandmother, only to witness a coffin crumble in the rush of air.

There are group photos, a cake and speeches, and a moment of pure pathos as tribute is paid to Mary Pitt for having the grit to make the journey.

Did Mary achieve what she hoped?

‘Gentility’ was described by poet John Ciardi as “what is left over from rich ancestors after the money is gone”. Whatever Robert did to leave his family in the wonderfully genteel state of ‘reduced circumstances’ is the biggest family myth of all, and remains Mary’s best kept secret.

After the Governorship of Lachlan Macquarie began in 1810, Mary prepared her last unmarried daughter for the journey to Richmond where Jemima married Captain Austin Forrest on April 18th 1810.

But happy times did not last. Jemima and Austin lost their only child, followed soon by Austin’s death after being thrown from his horse on Christmas Eve 1811. Sometime in 1812, John Wood, Lucy’s husband, also died in unknown circumstances.

Within Mary Pitt’s luggage lists on board the Canada was a goodly amount of black crepe, for the purpose of making mourning blacks. It would have been put to good use in that year.

The speed with which Jemima found a new match probably had a lot to do with Mary. Lucy had the distraction of children, whereas a childless widow of marriageable age went against the very grain of gentility.

Barely a year after Forrest’s untimely death, Robert Jenkins was “courting a rich widow”, according to a letter he wrote on November 29, 1812, “young, rather handsome, very good-tempered, a great economist and therefore very desirable … this is at present a great secret”. On March 22, 1813, Robert married Jemima Pitt, so we might assume he was describing her in his letter.

By 1813, Mary was happy to release her only son Thomas for a match of his own. He’d spent a decade making a good name for himself as a farmer on his own land grant. At the age of thirty-two he offered his hand to seventeen-year-old Eliza Laycock, a perfectly genteel age difference.

By the time Mary died in 1815 at the age of sixty-seven, she left thirteen grandchildren in the colony which was soon to adopt the name Australia. Although without her, the family’s gentility faced further challenges.

THE NEW WORLD A detail from Parramatta c.1820 by Joseph Lycett.

Susannah Faithful died in 1820. A year later, William Faithfull and his sister-in-law Lucy Wood applied for a license to marry.

Marrying your deceased wife’s sister was permissible before 1835 unless someone objected, and someone probably did, judging by what appeared in the Sydney Gazette on September 26, 1821.

“William Faithfull of Richmond in this territory maketh oath that he is single and unmarried and under no contract or promise of marriage to anyone except to Mrs Lucy Wood of Richmond, widow …”.

Before the marriage on September 29, the Reverend cancelled proceedings. Perhaps William was bound by another match? Only two months later he married a Margaret Thompson. Things may never have gone so far on Mary’s watch – she would not have tolerated the impact on Lucy’s reputation.

Lucy never remarried and survived all her siblings long enough to regale the first Australian Pitt generations with her journey from Dorset.

The Pitt’s reunion may have unearthed more family myths than it solved, but it would be a shame to rely only on primary evidence and deny a rich oral history that might be surviving snippets of Lucy’s eyewitness account of that journey.

Pride and Prejudice suggests that fallen women be “secluded from the world, in some distant farm-house”. Jane Austen spared Mrs Bennet and her daughters the farmhouse, but they never saw the New World, whereas Mary Pitt’s journey from Austen’s England to Pitt Farm placed her alongside the mothers of a nation.

The Worst Country in the World by Patsy Trench explores Mary’s journey in greater detail.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

PLUCK COVER copyThis article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.


The trouble with history

HISTORY OR LIES? The ‘Father of History’, Greek Historian Herodotus (Photograph by Konstantinos Stampoulis).

A Writer’s first lesson in the politics of publishing.

WRITING about the past is dangerous. Spare a thought for Greek historian Herodotus (c.484-425BC), known as both the ‘Father of History’ and ‘The Father of Lies’ depending on who you believe.

Here in Australia we’ve become so outraged by historical exploration of our nation’s journey that there is now a term for the debate – The History Wars.

I came to realise how controversial history writing is during my second foray into getting published.

As I embarked on a simple local history book (written to mark the centenary of Coorah, a Victorian-era house), I was full of a heady naiveté, thinking it would be a cinch. But nothing prepared me for the fuss this seemingly innocent publication would cause.

Equipped with a dose of academic detachment (for how I developed this trait, read my previous post on academic writing), I set off to follow a few leads – various people living in my town had worked at this home before the Second World War. Surely they’d be happy to speak about their time in this historic home?

But while recording a series of interviews, the great material I anticipated was not forthcoming. Some of the subjects raised an eyebrow at why anyone was remotely interested in their lives. Trying to explain how first-hand accounts are invaluable in fleshing-out history, I glossed over the grumbles and complaints and put it all down to old age.

Then came the primary evidence. In those pre-internet days, research for this kind of material was laborious, based on luck and generous contacts. Nevertheless, I spent many happy hours in the State Library making brilliant discoveries using processes of deduction, and when I found material related to others’ research, I made copies and duly passed it on.

Since the old house had been an Anglican hostel for children, church records were also of interest. A kind administrator from Sydney’s Anglican records office found plenty of references to the lives of the kids who’d lived in the home in the 1940s and quickly sent them for use in the book. Perhaps a little too quickly…

Eventually there was enough original material to start writing the book, but then the trouble really began.

The descendants of the family who’d built the house were contacted. Their awkward reactions to my queries left me with the distinct feeling I was treading on the toes of the ‘official family historian’.

I put this aside because word had gotten around about our book, and we were getting offers of assistance, extra historical material, and photographs.

Sometimes these came with a great spirit of generosity – after all, we weren’t about to make a fortune for voluntarily writing this book.

More often, the ‘gatekeepers’ for much of the material were difficult characters, heavy with their reminders that they were ‘experts’ in various fields, that we were somehow lacking in experience and the same commitment to the past as they. Plenty of head-nodding and patience were required to extract necessary archives from the hands of collectors.

Foremost in our minds was the earliest known image of the home, boasted-about by the executive who’d been given it after news about our book got out, and now stored in his office on the same site as this 100-year-old home. Of course we were very keen to include it in the publication.

No amount of queries, by letter or by phone, could get that image into the light of day. We never received an outright ‘no’, but the delay caused by his dissembling was putting pressure on our deadline. The home’s centenary was fast approaching, and we’d planned, understandably, to have our book available for sale on the very day.

CAPTIVE PHOTOGRAPH The earliest known image of Coorah, in Wentworth Falls.

So the manuscript was duly presented to the publisher, in the same office as the photograph-concealer. We waited, and waited, and waited. Why? Again, we were met with mysterious dissembling.

Our deadline came and went. The centenary was celebrated, but with no book. It was printed six weeks later, without any opportunity given to its writers for proof-reading. The brand new title languished in boxes, its target audience long gone.

More than a little disappointed, I got back to my drama school coursework and waitering job, and tried to make history of what had turned out to be a deflating experience.

“It was little wonder there were no copies of our book hanging around as pesky reminders of the historical truth.”

Six years later, a meeting with a woman who’d been housed at this old building while it was a church hostel revived the home’s story. Her account shed new light on the experiences recorded in the ecclesiastical records. Far from the ‘happy times’ which Anglican subscribers were fed in the 1940s, this place had actually been a source of fear to many of the resident children. At this time, generations of stolen, abused and neglected children in Australia were just starting to surface and tell their stories.

The house itself had been given a timely facelift, and the force behind the transformation proved to be the very same guardian of the earliest photograph of the building. Unfortunately, he never got around to reading our book, or even having a copy of it on display. Misinformation about the building was rife – basic facts, like dates, which the book had recorded from primary sources, were not being communicated.

The cause of that was a little harder to discover, but it also revealed itself, in time.

The photograph-concealer headed-up a push to adapt the old house into a public space, very far removed from the building’s core purpose. Our historical research showed that half a century before, the man who built the house had donated it for charitable purposes, for ‘use amongst children’.

Childrens’ homes and a school were undoubtedly fitting uses under that extremely generous gift, but what about a use which had less to do with the needs of children and more to do with the vested interests of adults? With this yawning gap between the original owner’s intentions, and the home’s new life, it was little wonder there were no copies of our book hanging around as pesky reminders of the historical truth.

Over two decades have passed since the home’s centenary. There is now a whole new generation of family historians amongst the descendants of the man who built it, and they hosted their first family reunion there a few years ago. I attended and was taken by surprise when one of them held out a copy of our little book on the house, asking me for my signature in it. A flattering, poignant moment for me.

Around that time I started writing again.

The avoidance of history has now become far more fascinating to me than history itself, and has become integral to my work. I know that when I write something about the past, based on events which actually happened, it’s going to get me in trouble, somewhere, sometime…

And what of that elusive photograph? Well, thanks to the internet, I publish it here with this post, just because I can.

And what of my first full-length publication? Well, after two decades, all those once-languishing copies have become as rare as hen’s teeth, and our research has contributed to the record.

And what of the house? Well, after two decades masquerading as something it was never intended to be, I hear its current residents are looking for another home. History has a strange way of coming back to bite, after all.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.