Portrait of Patrick White, Kings Cross, New South Wales 1980. By Yang, William. Contributed by National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn4247784
The Sydney Writers’ Festival is underway, with a range of interesting events centred around storytelling and the nice tagline ‘it’s thinking season’. So I thought I’d take a look at the history of the written word in our city.
The Dictionary has a wonderfully detailed essay on the history of writing in Sydney by Elizabeth Webby, Professor of Australian Literature, at the University of Sydney. In it she reveals some rather interesting facts. Did you know:
- from the moment the First Fleet landed the race was on to see who could get the first accounts of settlement to London publishers
- printing presses arrived in Sydney with the First Fleet but the first newspaper didn’t go to press until 1803
- the pleasures of Sydney have provided inspirations to poets since the early years of the colony
- the first novel was published in Australia in 1838
- from the high to the low, Australia’s first detective novel was published in 1842.
Sydney witnessed its first writers when those that came with the First Fleet wrote back home of their journey and the new colony. Some of the officers in the fleet wrote of the various flora and fauna they saw, and the land’s indigenous inhabitants. In fact officers Watkin Tench and David Collins were competing to see who would be the first to get their accounts of the new settlement to London publishers. It turns out, Tench won that race.
But there were other accounts from free settlers and convicts, such as the successful businesswoman Mary Reibey, who was arrested for stealing a horse while dressed as a boy in 1791 and transported to Australia. There’s a lovely miniature portrait of her which you can find in the Dictionary, and you might just recognise her with her little round spectacles as the face which appears on our $20 note! She wrote to her aunt the day after she arrived in Sydney that she thought ‘it looks a pleasant place’.
Although a printing press had arrived in Sydney in 1788, Australia’s first newspaper, the Sydney Gazette, did not begin publication until March 1803. Poetry became a popular genre as newspapers were not illustrated at the time. And the Dictionary includes one poem, published in 1830 by an anonymous author, which I have to quote. Titled ‘The Pleasures of Sydney’ it covers some of the sights: ‘…How little we thought, Fifty years could have wrought, Such a place as that darling Hyde Park’.
The mid to late 19th century saw the emergence of some of Australia’s most well-known poets, including Henry Lawson, ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Victor Daley. Many of these early poets describe what sounds like a very different Sydney; Christopher Brennan described an experience on a tram down George Street in 1908, passing shops lit with ‘the electrics’ ghastly blue’, Kenneth Slessor described Kings Cross in his famous 1939 poem ‘Five Bells’: ‘The red globes of light, the liquor-green, / The pulsing arrow and the running fire…You find this ugly, I find it lovely’.
Murder of a Nymph book cover 1951. By Marxchivist. Contributed by Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/tom1231/261904734
The first novel published in Sydney was Anna Maria Bunn‘s The Guardian from 1838. Set in Ireland, it only made passing references to Australia (mainly uncomplimentary). Australia’s first fictional detective tale was John Lang’s Legends of Australia, published in 1842. Another century passed by before the genre took off. Two sisters writing under the pen name Margot Neville published 18 crime novels during the 1940s and 50s, including one titled Murder of a Nymph. The book’s cover features an unfortunate, rather buxom blonde under the tagline, ‘She would never steal another woman’s man again!’
One of Australia’s most prominent English-language novelists of the twentieth century was English-born Australian and long term resident of Sydney, Patrick White. White published 12 novels, three short-story collections and eight plays, and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. He wrote about life in Sydney, with many of his later works set in and around Centennial Park, which he campaigned to preserve during the 1970s.
The Sydney Writers’ Festival has a host of talks, exhibitions, performances, special events and workshops – details are available on the website: http://www.swf.org.au/. You can read more about literature on the Dictionary here including essays, information about authors, organisations and some great images to browse and enjoy.
You can listen to a podcast of my segment with Mitch at 2SER Breakfast here. Tune in again next week for more of Sydney’s history courtesy of the Dictionary of Sydney, on 107.3 at 8:20am. Don’t miss it!
Volunteers from the Milperra district in response to an urgent broadcast appeal. work in blinding rain to sandbag a point in the Georges River where flooding was imminent, 16 June 1950. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, BN445, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 1950, p1.
It’s National Volunteer Week this week and once again we would like to thank all our volunteers for their time and generosity. Our volunteers enable the Dictionary to deliver much more than we possibly could on the equivalent of 1.7 full time staff!
A quick look through the Dictionary reveals just how much volunteers and volunteering is part of our history in Sydney. You’ll find volunteers in all fields including fire fighting, armed forces, guiding, emergency relief, fund raising, heritage conservation, music, art, aviation, community outreach, signalling, coast guarding, education – and something quite fundamental to Sydney – emigration.
Without volunteers, we would be a much poorer city and people so we hope you take the time to celebrate or be celebrated this week. If you’d like to find out about the events that are on as part of National Volunteer Week, you can visit the website here.
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The Supply at anchor, and the Sirius with her convoy coming into Botany Bay 20 January 1788 (detail) by Charles Gore, 1789 courtesy Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales (a2060001 / DG V1A/8)
Today I was pleased to help launch a collection of new histories now published and available in the Dictionary of Sydney. Funded by the Maritime Museums of Australia Project Support Scheme, these new entries are laced with fascinating information about the days following the arrival of the First Fleet, the fate of the returning ships, and events on the voyage out.
I was honoured to be working among such a distinguished group of authors: Professor Gary Sturgess, Penny Edwell, Michaela Ann Cameron and David Morgan, a fellow volunteer for the Dictionary. The only existing ship entry, HMS Sirius, was contributed back in 2010 by historian and Dictionary volunteer, Garry Wotherspoon.
Thanks to the combined efforts of the contributors and the dedicated staff at the Dictionary, there are now 12 entries documenting this historic convoy. I worked on three of these, which was quite a challenge! How to tell the story of an eight-month voyage in 500-800 words?! But here they all are:
- In a new essay, Professor Gary Sturgess explores the challenges faced by Arthur Phillip after the First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove. Having successfully managed both the fleet and the convicts on a voyage ‘to the extremity of the globe’, Phillip struggled to keep the men and women, convicts and alcohol – in short, the camp and fleet – apart.
- The Alexander was the largest and most notorious of the transport ships in the First Fleet carrying ‘ye worst of land-lubbers.’
- The Scarborough, carrying male convicts, was the only ship of the First Fleet whose convicts plotted a mutiny. Also on board were James Ruse and Nathaniel Lucas who became two of the colony’s most successful farmers.
- HMS Supply was the smallest and fastest ship in the First Fleet. A naval vessel, she carried 16 marines and accompanied the flagship HMS Sirius on the voyage to Sydney Cove. Over the next three years she made 11 journeys, the last causing her so much damage that she was ordered back to England.
- The Lady Penrhyn was the slowest ship of the First Fleet with the largest number of female convicts. She entered Port Jackson on 26 January and didn’t unload until 6 February – the convict women spent a total of 13 months on board.
- The Borrowdale was one of three storeships, carrying two years’ worth of provisions and stores for the new colony –including ‘forges, hoes, corn mills and pit saws’.
- Fishburn was the largest of the three store ships. Among her cargo were ducks, goats, leather, women’s shoes and hats, camp kettles and garden seed. After her return to England, she was lost in a storm off Gun Fleet Sand in October 1789.
- Golden Grove made the fastest return journey of any of the First Fleet ships. Among her cargo were anvils, axes, tents, flour, chickens and Reverend Johnson’s cats!
- The Charlotte, one of six transports, left Sydney Cove bound for Canton on 8 May 1788, arriving back in England in June 1789.
- The transport, Friendship, was scuttled and sunk on her return voyage after becoming stuck on sandbanks off the coast of Borneo.
- The Prince of Wales was the last ship to join the First Fleet and remained at Sydney Cove for five months while its stores were unloaded, returning to Falmouth on 25 March 1789,many of the crew having suffered from scurvy on the voyage home.
The First Fleet content places these ships within the wider picture of Sydney’s past. Both familiar and unexpected, they enrich our understanding of Sydney as both a place and a community. Importantly, I hope that as readers discover these entries, and with increased access to collections online and further rigorous historical research, these stories will be furnished with more detail. Perhaps, in the future, new evidence may come to light and we can add more details about the lives of those men, women and children who made the long journey to the unknown. And as this narrative develops in this world we call ‘digital’, I hope to see the Dictionary continue to inspire readers to learn, engage, contest and ultimately join us, as supporters of this rich resource and lovers of this city’s history.
The Borrowdale seal of Captain Hobson Reed 1787, courtesy of Noble Numismatics Pty Ltd