MEMOIRS, AUTOBIOGRAPHIES, and personal reflections had never much enticed me until I picked up a book that was lying around at my parents’ house. My mother was an incorrigible reader and always had a book on the coffee table beside her lounge chair. The book was Over the Top with Jim by Murdoch journalist Hugh Lunn. I turned it over and read on the back cover: ‘hilarious,’ ‘don’t read it on public transport,’ ‘a classic in childhood memoir.’ I asked Mum what she thought of it. She gave a shrug and said it was all right. No great vote there, I thought. I was going to put it down but absently flicked through the first chapter. The memoir was about growing up in a less than devout Catholic family. I borrowed the book and began reading. Soon I was hooked. It was true that Lunn’s book was funny – hilarious in parts – but that was not what held my attention. I was on the same track as Lunn’s experiences. More than that: I was riding beside him looking around at a familiar social environment as he told his story. It was an experience in reading that I had rarely had. As amusing as his often facetious account of his childhood was, it was his unwitting social history of the ‘long fifties’ (1945-1962) that gripped me.
Lunn grew up in the suburb of Annerley, just outside of Brisbane city centre. Other than a different suburb in a different capital city and a few years difference in age (he is five years older), my story would be roughly the same. We both grew up in Catholic families which meant our social environment and social prescriptions were fixed at least until the end of school. I think Lunn’s book has been appealing because any Catholic kid of the fifties would at once recognise his experiences and be amused regardless of whether he had kept the faith or abandoned it or was determined to rubbish it to the grave. Kids who weren’t Catholic would recognise what many of us got up to during that time, but would also be intrigued by a glimpse into the mysterious ways of the Catholic Church and its institutions, many of them thinking Lunn had abundantly confirmed their suspicions about its weirdness.
Continue reading The impetus for my family history series
The historical detail for the reasons I claim Australia did not exist before the 26th of January 1788 is in chapter 2 (the relevant section below) of my book Prison Hulk to Redemption. The philosophical arguments about what it means to be a people are in my essay Edmund Burke on what it means to be a people. Both should be in read in combination to appreciate the full argument.
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A brief account of the early years of the Colony
On the 28th of April 1770, the then Lieutenant James Cook steered his ship, Endeavour, into a broad open bay and dropped anchor at its southern shore. He named it Stingray Bay because of the abundance in its waters of stingrays on which his crew gorged. He later crossed out Stingray Bay in the ship’s logs and entered Botany Bay in tribute to Botanist Joseph Banks, the ship’s eager scientist. Banks had put together an impressive collection of specimens of unknown plants and animals after trekking around the land bordering the bay’s shores.
Cook and Endeavour were on their way back to England after carrying out the official task of observing the transit of Venus from the island of Tahiti. There were also unofficial tasks one of which was to investigate the existence of the South Land whose ancient mythology promised great riches of all kinds. From Roman times, it had been called Terra Australis Incognita – Unknown South Land. The search for the mysterious land of the south had occupied the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Spanish, and lately the English in the person of William Dampier (1688 and 1689). Dampier added little to the findings of the Dutch seamen.
Continue reading Australia did not exist before the 26th of January 1788
Comment: Barry Fitzgerald (Denham Court NSW)
I bought your book because I like the title Prison Hulk to Redemption, but did not read the review in the Annals. It is one of the few history books that I have read and do not recall being taught Australian history at school.
I have written about my ancestors since they arrived in Australia in the early nineteenth century, but in far less detail than in your book.
Before we left Sydney in 1936 to live on a property on the Darling Downs in Queensland, I can recall very few instances instances when fun was made of me because of my Catholic school uniform. However I can recall my aunts and uncles referring to problems they were having because they were Catholics. But after reading your book I am inclined to believe it was more to do with the economy and the belief that the English were a superior class to the Irish.
[The chapter] ‘Bit and Pieces’ is superb and reminded me of my childhood at Jimbour. Our exploits and adventures were not as daring.
Thank you for the opportunity to learn more about early Australia.
At last I have got around to posting photos of some of my ancestors of the 1800s. I wish I had more but I realise I have to be happy with the number preserved in the family – particularly the studio portrait of James Joseph Wilson taken in the last years of his life. One can hardly believe that the distinguished gentleman of the portrait was a convict thrice convicted of larceny and dispatched to the NSW Colony for life.
The photos of John McGroder and his sister Kate, children of the illiterate convict couple Bryan and Elizabeth McGroder, are just as astonishing for the picture of culture and distinction they project. How does one explain the development? Whatever the social influences of the society John and Kate lived in, and the chances Bryan and Elizabeth had to start anew, the home influence must have played a crucial role. It is a credit to Bryan and Elizabeth McGroder that they turned out so well. The story of Bryan McGroder’s life in the Colony showed he possessed an innate decency.
The following review is from good friend Garrett Ward Sheldon, The John Morton Beaty Professor of Political and Social Sciences, The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, USA.
Finished your family history and enjoyed it very much. Can’t wait to read the sequel! The way you weave together history, culture and religion is excellent. I really got a sense of the roughness of early Australia; and yet the quick civilizing of the British and Irish influences. Also the development of democracy is very good. Your description of Irish Catholicism on page 54 is most enlightening. What does the expression “reaching for a bucket ” (p. 59) mean? Your description of the convict women [on the First Fleet] (p. 245) is priceless. The Case of the Stolen Opposum (p. 252) is hilarious. The story of the Catholic educational system (p. 310) is very like the USA in the twentieth century.
Garrett Ward Sheldon
I sent a copy of Prison Hulk to Redemption: Part One of a Family History 1788-1900 to the Hon. Robert Clark Liberal Member for Box Hill and Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations in the Victorian State Parliament because of his interest in Edmund Burke. My book is a Burkean examination of cultural continuity and identity. The shadow minister had written a favourable review of Jesse Norman’s excellent book on Edmund Burke – Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician and Prophet. He replied with this comment:
‘I’ve enjoyed reading the concluding chapter of the book and your Burkean assessment of Australia’s institutional inheritance from Britain. I particularly enjoyed your assessment and critique of those Australian historians and commentators who seem to have a desire to belittle the British aspects of our heritage, whether that be from a teenager lack of confidence or (which may be a more complex version of the same phenomenon) from a socialist desire to tear down existing institutions.’