Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Leslie Papers transcribed

I’m currently reading my way through the Leslie Family papers at the John Oxley Library. The Leslie brothers – Patrick, Walter and George – were early settlers on the Darling Downs, with squatting runs at Canning Downs and later Goomburra. Patrick Leslie also built Newstead House in Brisbane. I’m interested in them because they are the nephews of  Walter Davidson.

The Leslie papers are a mixture of transcripts and original handwritten letters, all now photocopied and bound in 5 fat volumes. In total there are about 500 letters. They are a well known collection and have been well-thumbed by many historians over the years. Because the bound volumes consist of photocopies, I don’t need to use white gloves. This is a great advantage. I hate white gloves, though I realize they are necessary when handling fragile materials – but more to the point, my iPad doesn’t like white gloves and goes into a sulk if I try to swipe or type or scan while wearing them.

Over at Adventures in Biography, MST recently wrote about the joy that comes from finding transcriptions. It is a generous gift when someone in the past has gone through the document before and left the fruits of their labour for the benefit of later researchers. Who wouldn’t prefer to read this:

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rather than this:

An example of a crossed letter from the Leslie Papers, State Library of Queensland

But I find I’m becoming a bit obsessed by these Leslie transcriptions, and the typists who made them long ago.

The Leslie papers came to Queensland in the 1940s from the Warthill estate in Aberdeenshire, which is still in the hands of Leslie relatives. (Trivial fact: Rose Leslie, who played the chamber maid Gwen in Downton Abbey, and Ygritte in Game of Thrones, grew up at Warthill) The Leslies of Warthill, bless them, never threw anything away, so the Leslie letters that reached the State Library of Queensland include – as far as we know – pretty nearly all the letters that reached the family from their sons, from the time they left for Australia, Patrick in 1834, Walter and George in 1838.

When they reached Sydney the young men stayed with Hannibal Macarthur and his family at Vineyard, Parramatta. Both Patrick and George later married two of Hannibal’s daughters, Kate and Emmeline Macarthur, so there are also letters from them as well as other members of the Macarthur family at Vineyard.

By the time the letters arrived in Queensland, Patrick Leslie already had a heroic, if undeserved*, status as ‘the first white man’ on the Darling Downs. Henry Stuart Russell used Patrick’s diary as one of the sources for his book The Genesis of Queensland (1888), but that diary had since disappeared. So when the Leslie letters reached Queensland, after years of negotiation and an inconvenient World War, they caused quite a stir. They were a valuable new resource – but they were also extremely difficult to read. So somebody decided to transcribe them.

In 1957, Kenelm Waller wrote an honours thesis based on these letters: The letters of the Leslie brothers, 1834-1854. The Waller thesis contains long quotes from the letters, typed in a similar layout to the transcriptions in the Oxley library. Both thesis and letters were typed on an old-fashioned manual typewriter, with the distinctive fuzziness that comes from making several carbon copies at once. Created in a time before computers, before electric typewriters, before liquid paper, it was hard and exacting work.

So was Waller responsible for these transcriptions? It seems likely, though whether he was the typist is more difficult to say for sure. Typing, in those pre-computer days, was a more gendered activity than it is today, so perhaps it was a loving mother, wife or sister who did the typing.

It’s all guesswork, I’m afraid, but in fact I think there were at least 2 typists involved. Even the most perfect transcription has idiosyncrasies, as the typist makes decisions: Do you scrupulously capitalize letters mid-sentence because the letter-writer uses an H or an S that looks like a capital letter? If the writer has scrawled a word that might be misspelt, are you picky or do you give them the benefit of the doubt? How do you deal with words that are totally illegible, or with tears in the paper? One of the Leslie typists uses ellipses – … –  the other uses square brackets – [blank] . Most intriguingly, Ellipse-Typist had more trouble with the handwriting, so some of his/her transcripts are full of mystery dots.

If Waller was the brain, if not the fingers, behind this huge transcription project, this helps to explain how the decision was made about which letters to transcribe. Nearly all the letters from the 3 Leslie brothers are transcribed, as are some from their wives. Even quite peripheral letters that relate to their activities on the Darling Downs are copied, so there is a long sequence dealing with the shipment of cattle from Scotland.

Other letter-writers have been ignored, most but not all of them women. Hannibal Macarthur’s wife and daughters kept up a regular correspondence with the Warthill family, especially Patrick’s mother Jane and his sister Mary Ann. These letters are delightful, full of details about Patrick and his friend dancing Scottish reels after dinner, and Mary Ann sewing doll’s clothes for the youngest Macarthur daughter. They also deal with more serious matters, such as the ‘Absyss’ on each of Kate Leslie’s breasts following the birth of her baby – which were opened and drained. Yikes.

To be fair, the letter that describes this event has been transcribed, but in general, nobody in the 1950s thought these domestic details were important. I’ve written about a similar instance from the 1950s here. So these letters have remained un-copied and therefore relatively inaccessible ever since. I am by no means the first person to look at these letters, but I do wonder how many people have overlooked them in favour of the ones that were easier to read.

Sixty years ago, someone decided that women’s words, and the domestic detail of women’s lives, didn’t matter. It’s a shame if as a result, every hasty researcher who chooses the transcripts over the scrawls is bound by a perspective that is now 60 years out of date.

* There were runaway convicts on the Darling Downs before him, and Patrick brought a servant with him anyway.

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The Brisbane City Council elections

There are local council elections across Queensland today. Here in Brisbane, we are voting for Mayor as well as the local councilors. According to reports the election will be tight – and I can vouch for the fact during the last fortnight we have been drowned by a tidal wave of polls, robot-calls, letter drops, emails and – wonder of wonders! – one real live human doorknocker.

The Brisbane City Council is the largest local government authority in Australia – and one of the largest in the world. It dates from 1925, when 20 local shires and towns were consolidates into a single-mega-council. This size has given the BCC greater political heft than the local councils in other Australian capital cities, and the Mayors of Brisbane gain extra authority from the fact that they are popularly elected.

The creation of the Brisbane City Council came as part of a package of reforms introduced by the Queensland Government under the radical Premier Edward ‘Red Ted’ Theodore. Over a few years in the early 1920s, Queensland abolished the upper house of Parliament, abolished capital punishment (the first place in the British Empire to do so), introduced a compulsory age of retirement for judges – and converted local councils into the BCC.

The creation of a mega-council was controversial, as amalgamations always are. Where, for instance, was the appropriate boundary of Brisbane? I live in Sandgate, on the extreme northern edge of the city, and in 1925 Sandgate was a separate town, with a separate mayor and council. The locals didn’t want to join Brisbane, especially as they had just recently (1911) spent a small fortune building a brand new art deco town hall, designed by the local architect George Prentice.

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There are other, similar, late 19th and earch 20th century council chambers across Brisbane that became redundant as a result of amalgamation, such as South Brisbane Town Hall. It was okay for George Prentice though, whose firm Prentice and Hall went on to get the commission to build the new City Hall.

There are great advantages in having a larger council area. It is easier to design an integrated transport system, for instance, or to borrow library books across a wide network of council libraries. Other effects are more intangible. The Mayor of Brisbane – or Ipswich or Townsville or Toowoomba – has greater political clout in dealing with other levels of government, and the state government doesn’t carry the can alone for every urban misfortune. In New South Wales, state governments rise and fall trying to deal with Sydney’s transport problems. Here in South East Queensland, the problem of urban congestion is shared – not fixed, mind – but shared.

Everywhere, corruption flourishes at the local government level – all those zoning applications and tenders for supply of goods or services are a great temptation to small councils and smaller councilors. I suspect that the size of the Brisbane City Council has kept at bay the sort of small but profitable fiddles that occur in the suburban councils of Sydney or the other capitals. Though I’m not naïve – a larger government area sometimes just leads to the fiddles scaling up too.

Because voting is compulsory in Australia, the habit of voting is strong, even at this most humble level of government. So I’ll be fronting up at the polling booth this morning. Queuing to vote seems to me a mark of adulthood, and an act of community solidarity. It reminds me a little of that other habit of the good citizen: the ceremonial weekend visit to a Bunnings warehouse in search of hardware supplies. They both involve the whole community, people line up as couples or in family groups, they speak of respect for property and stability, and they both have sausage sizzles.

Political Partners

Niki Savva’s new book, The Road to Ruin, has just been released and is all over the news this morning. It deals with the close relationship between the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and his chief of staff Peta Credlin. ‘Uniquely close’ is the term used – but was it? PM Chifley’s relationship with his personal assistant was pretty close too, while Elizabeth Chifley was sidelined in Bathurst.

Historians are Past Caring

In June 1951, Ben Chifley, the former Labor Prime Minister and now Leader of the Opposition, had a massive heart attack in his rooms at the Hotel Kurrajong.  The Hotel Kurrajong was essentially an up-market boarding house, built at a time when Canberra was still a country town without many places for its floating population of politicians and public servants to stay.  Chifley was moved to Canberra Hospital, but died later that night.  He was 65.

L. F. (Fin) Crisp was the professor of political science at Canberra University College.  He was working on The Australian Federal Labour Party, 1901-1951 (1955), and was fascinated by the story of Chifley, self-educated and rising from extreme poverty in the 1890s to become an engine driver, then a union leader, and finally Prime Minister.  Crisp was already gathering materials for Ben Chifley: a biography (1961).

Crisp knew that a lot of papers dealing…

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