Tag Archives: Queensland History

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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John Gladstone Steele (1935-2016)

A friend has let me know that John Steele has just died. The funeral will be held next Monday, 1 February, at 10am in St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane.

John Gladstone Steele was a physicist and antiquarian (his word!) who worked for many years in the physics department at the University of Queensland. I know absolutely nothing about his scholarship as a physicist, but John worked across two disciplines, physics and history. That was unusual even thirty years ago. In our more specialist age it is practically unheard of.

I never knew John Steele particularly well, but I used to run into him occasionally when our research rummaging overlapped in UQ’s specialist Fryer Library. He gave me a copy of his family history, The Petersons and the Uhrs: An Australian Family since 1825, when he had it privately published in 2003. This book sits firmly on my desk as I write my book, because John’s Australian connections begin with the merchant Richard Jones, who arrived in Sydney in 1809, and was for many years my Walter Davidson’s business partner.

But on this Australia / Invasion Day, it seems appropriate to talk about John Steele’s most significant book, Aboriginal Pathways in Southeast Queensland and the Richmond River (1984). In his younger days, John was an enthusiastic bushwalker, and this book was based on an earlier gestetnered and stapled pamphlet he produced for the University of Queensland Bushwalking Society. He wrote about Aboriginal pathways in the first instance so that his group of bushwalkers could follow them, but in doing so, he became increasingly curious about the people who had made them.

J.G.Steele Aboriginal Pathways

I once asked him where he got his information – and he said he just asked the local Aboriginal people he met while out walking. In the 1970s and 1980s, very few people did. About the same time he published Aboriginal legends of Stradbroke Island (1984).

Bushwalking gave John a sensibility to the Australian landscape that many of us lack. In Conrad Martens in Queensland: the frontier travels of a colonial artist (1978), John looked at the sketchbooks and paintings of Conrad Martens, who travelled to the Moreton Bay settlement (not yet Queensland) during 1851 and 1852, to drum up painting commissions amongst the squatters of the Darling Downs. John had the eye to identify the locations of many of Martens’ sketches, which now represent an important visual record of Aboriginal occupation. Because of John’s identification of the location of an Aboriginal camp in one of Martens’ drawings, for instance, the botanist Rod Fensham was able to show that this place marked the northern limit of the yam daisy, a native plant with a tuberous root that was an important food source for the Aborigines – and soon to be wiped out by hungry sheep.

John’s work dates from before Mabo, before Native Title, before current sensitivities about the European occupation of Australia. His books are resources for later researchers, rather than historical works in their own right, and he was surprisingly humble about his abilities as a historian. He once urged me to write a biography of his ancestor, Richard Jones. Jones certainly deserves a biography, and in many ways John Stone had much in common with his ancestor. Both were politically conservative high Anglicans, and thoughtful scholarly men. I told John that he should write the biography himself – but he demurred. As he admitted himself, he was an antiquarian, not a historian.

I have just looked at the UQ library catalogue to find that 8 – eight – copies of Aboriginal Pathways are held in the library, of which 2 are held in the specialist Fryer Library, and of the others, 4 are currently out on loan, including one that is overdue. Not bad for a book more than 30 years old.

John’s twin disciplines of physics and history seldom overlapped – but I do like his explanation, in Explorers of Moreton Bay (1972), of why Cook’s and Flinders’ charts of Moreton Bay diverge – John thinks (and at least to my uneducated eye proves) that the magnetic pole must have moved in the 30 years between their voyages. Not many historians could have figured that out.

Libby Connors’ Warrior wins Premiers Prize

Last night my good friend Libby Connors won the Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance for her book Warrior: A legendary leader’s dramatic life and violent death on the colonial frontier (Allen & Unwin, 2015).

libby connors warrior

To my shame, I’ve been meaning to review Warrior for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for a few months now, but it has been on the backburner – well, okay, my whole blog has been on the backburner this year, as I try to finish my book.

Now of course, with the recognition that comes with winning the major prize in the Queensland Literary Awards for 2015, Libby will get all the publicity she needs without my poor endorsement but, for what it’s worth, Warrior is terrific: an engrossing read and an enlightening new perspective on racial accommodation and conflict at Moreton Bay. It is also a high wire act. Unlike most of those who write about race relations in Australia, Libby has chosen to write from the point of view of Dundalli, the warrior of the title, a lawman from the Dalla tribe in the mountains north of Brisbane who later moved to Bribie Island, and who was hanged in Brisbane in January 1855.

In Connors’ account, Aboriginal people are not generic victims of generic white abuse, but have names, tribal affiliations, objectives and agency – and their own customary law. Aboriginal dispute resolution might lead to fights, and occasionally to deaths, but it had its own internal logic, and it was not disproportionate to the original offence.

In March 1842 a terrible offence occurred when the shepherds of Kilcoy Station gave out flour poisoned with arsenic. Somewhere between 30 and 60 Aboriginal men, women and children died. Connors forensically examines how this event affected Aboriginal politics, and how certain men were legally designated to avenge the crime. More killings followed, a clash of cultures that culminated with another judicial killing, the hanging of the lawman, Dundalli. Like most forensic examinations, the story is fascinating but hard to summarize – and you really should read the book.

The Queensland Literary Awards have been controversial in recent years. One of the first acts of the previous LNP government, under Premier and Minister for the Arts (!) Campbell Newman, was to cancel the Premier’s Prizes. The Premier justified the act as a way to save money, although the savings were infinitesimal compared with the ill will generated in the arts community – and arts communities, as Federal Arts Minister George Brandis learned to his cost, can express their resentment in creative ways.

george brandis as venus by botticelli

The response in Queensland was the keep the prizes going through crowdsourcing. This meant a smaller pool of money for prizes – but for many writers, perhaps most, the publicity generated by winning a prize is still valuable, especially as the subsequent boom in sales brings more royalties anyway.

The prize money has now been restored under the new Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, while Campbell Newman experiences the sour aftertaste of disapproval, with some Brisbane bookshops refusing to stock his new biography. (I can see Avid Reader’s point, but this seems to smack of censorship to me.)

One unspoken reason for the Premiers Prize controversy, I suspect, is that writers from Down South frequently dominated the Queensland prizes. That tends to be the case with prizes: in any one year, a few titles do the rounds of all the competitions. Their domination may be deserved, but sometimes it feels like the lazy option, and in any case, there’s an argument that local awards should honour local writers. Hence the ‘Work of State Significance’ category. Connors deserved to win on merit, but winning this category with Warrior also says much, I hope, about Queensland’s maturity, its ability to confront the centrality of Aboriginal dispossession in the state’s history.

Connors was in many ways the ideal person to write this book, for it depends on a sympathetic understanding of the local landscapes around Moreton Bay, and Libby’s environmental credentials have served her well. She is probably more familiar to most Australians as an environmental activist than as a historian. She has stood as a Senate candidate for the Greens, and is associated with the Lock the Gate Alliance that has campaigned against coal seam gas mining, initially on the Darling Downs.

In addition, like many academics these days – especially, dare I say it, women with more senior partners – Libby has spent her life as a #FIFOacademic, commuting between her home in Brisbane and her job at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba. I know that has made research and writing difficult at times, but it has also taken her regularly through Dundalli’s lands, across the Brisbane Valley, through the backwaters of the river systems – the Stanley, Bremer, Brisbane, Pine and Caboolture – that mix and merge on their way to Moreton Bay.

In Warrior, this intimate knowledge of the landscape comes through very clearly:

The Brisbane Valley stations formed a crescent around the spine of Brisbane’s D’Aguilar Range. They occupied the river and creek flats of the Brisbane River as it curved west and north of the old penal station, and the pastoral leases reached right into the foothills and scrubs of the mountains that fed the river. These mountains were Dalla heartlands. [p.58]

Dundalli’s country. Congratulations, Libby, you’ve done him proud.

Modus Operandi of the Queensland Police

It was an odd weekend.  I spent Saturday at the Queensland Writers Centre with the author Matthew Condon, whose latest books, based on the diaries of former Police Commissioner Terry Lewis, record in forensic detail the long history of police corruption in Queensland. Then on Sunday, I went to a lecture at police headquarters, where I heard an entirely different aspect of police history – and forensics, for that matter – when the curator of the Police Museum, Lisa Jones, told the story of the Modus Operandi section within the Criminal Investigation Bureau, which operated between 1935 and 1972.

Criminal Investigation Bureau 1912

Criminal Investigation Bureau, 1912 – much too early for the MO unit, but it’s such a lovely building. It was torn down (as so many lovely Queensland buildings were) at the end of the 1960s.

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