‘Fractured Families’ by Tanya Evans


Tanya Evans Fractured Families: Life on the Margins of Colonial New South Wales,

2015, 252 p & notes

When I picture a ‘Benevolent Asylum’, I have a mental picture of  greyness, thick walls, lancet windows and forbidding ecclesiastical air. It came as surprise, then, when I found this image (below) from the 1840-1850s which did not appear quite as funereal as the name of the institution suggests.


Sydney Benevolent Asylum Artist disputed c. 1840-1850, State Library of New South Wales

The Sydney Benevolent Asylum was Australia’s first (and oldest surviving) charity, founded in 1813, with the avowed intention NOT to operate like the Poor Laws back in England.  The Poor Laws in 1813 were still based on the old parish system, where the indigent and needy were shuttled back to their parish of origin, to be supported grudgingly by the parish. There were workhouses, but the truly punitive workhouses of our Dickens-tinged consciousness arose out of the Poor Law Reform of 1834, some twenty years after the establishment of the Sydney institution. Unlike in England, there was an acceptance that the State “was responsible for moulding the structural circumstances of the poor in early New South Wales” and without a tradition of elite obligation to the poor, it could be said that New South Wales was ‘born modern’.

Nonetheless, the Asylum was not a particularly pleasant to be.  There was limited food, similar to the old model of an alms-house, and the inmates were expected to work by sewing, picking oakum (that old favourite) and baking bread.
The need for the Sydney Benevolent Asylum arose as a consequence of the transportation system that had ripped predominantly male convicts from their family supports to a society where many remained marginalized.  They were now old and still poor, without the geographical and family links to a ‘parish’ that was prepared (however unwillingly) to care for them. In March 1843, for example, of the 331 inmates in the Asylum, 245 were ex-convicts, with a similar number aged over sixty.    Over time the Sydney Benevolent Asylum expanded its focus from elderly males to encompass women and families, especially in the wake of the gold rushes.  When the government took over responsibility for the care of men and the aged by building separate institutions,  the Benevolent Society’s work concentrated more on ‘lying-in’ and family support, with children moving in and out of institutionalization as the circumstances of their often-marginalized families changed. The Ladies Committee was formed from among the wives on the men on the Board of Management.   Although the organization did not not officially condone childbirth out of wedlock, individual women had repeated encounters with the Benevolent Asylum over a succession of pregnancies, and this contact often extended into later generations as well.
As Evans points out in Chapter 6, different families emigrated for a variety of reasons: under a formalized emigration scheme such as J.D. Lang’s scheme; for gold; as Chinese miners, and for family reunions. Evans found that Irish orphans from the Lord Grey Scheme were disproportionately represented in the criminal classes, in suicides and amongst the intakes of destitute and mental asylums.  Shipboard deaths could change the whole trajectory of the migration story for some families, propelling them into the orbit of the Sydney Benevolent Asylum because other familial and geographical supports had been stripped away.
As the title conveys, this is a book about families in colonial New South Wales and  the Sydney Benevolent Asylum is the lens through which Evans studies marginalized families in colonial Sydney. To the extent that it is a history of the Asylum, it is not a conventional institutional history of dates, buildings, policies and personnel: instead, she traces the Asylum through the people who came through its doors as both patrons and petitioners.  For this people-based focus, she draws on the work of family historians who have approached the Benevolent Society for access to their records.
As Evans points out not all families are equally represented in the documentary record. She opens her book with two passengers on board the First Fleet: William Hubbard the convict, and Philip Gidley King who later became Governor of New South Wales.  Both men’s lives have been combed carefully by their twenty-first century descendants in constructing their own family trees. The journalist, film-maker and organizer of the Bicentenary,  Jonathan King garnered a high profile for his forebear who left a rich documentary trail of political and institution appointments, letters, diaries and autobiographies that has been carefully guarded, promoted, and handed on by later generations. But the documentary record for illiterate, marginalized or bureaucratically invisible people, like William Hubbard, is patchier, consisting often of barely a name on a muster, admission ledger or census form.
As she shows through several of these stories, neither improvement nor continued degradation can be taken for granted. Highly respectable philanthropists and donors could have a sister like Sarah White who availed herself of the services of the asylum for multiple illegitimate births, brandishing a series of fallacious marriage and birth certificates as documentation.. The death of the breadwinner of the family exposed the vulnerability of a marginalized family; children in poor families often died.  Alongside the trope of healthy Australian climate and the march to middle-classness is another story of inter-generational disadvantage.
 While genealogy at the moment is becoming for many an addictive passion for many (and a lucrative field of profit for big businesses able to hoover up public records into their paywalled websites) it also reflects power imbalances. In the case of indigenous Australians, not only is ‘knowing your people’ an intrinsic part of identification and identity on indigenous terms,  but it also marks a resistance to attempts by white colonial society to ‘smooth the dying pillow’.
In choosing this particular family-history methodology to tell an institutional history, Evans certainly brings family historians on to centre stage as historical practitioners. Each chapter ends with a potted biography of the present-day genealogist who has in many cases been the source for the case study that Evans has supplemented with contextual information.  This is a deliberate philosophical stance on Evans’ part, who aims to “unpick the relationship between the conservative and radical motivations involved in the practice of family history in Australia” (p 240) and believes that “it is crucial for academics to engage with the medium of historical television and family history, even if they find its limits frustrating” (p. 252).
While I understand what Evans is doing, and why she is doing it, at times I found myself frustrated by the sterility of some of the  stories told only by document-based snippets.  I wonder if her insistence on the primacy of the family-history methodology served her well as a historian of an institution.  Janet McCalman’s history of the Royal Women’s Hospital I feel did a better job of combining the institutional with the personal.  Although Evans wanted to “trouble the assumptions made about the age and gender of family historians” (p.244), there did, nonetheless, seem a sameness about the case studies that round off each chapter, with her current-day genealogists almost indistinguishable from each other in their motivations and methodologies.
I only turned to the pictures after I had finished the book.  They are a curious selection.  Several of them are  more like backdrops: pictures of convict hulks; the Hawkesbury River where some of the ex-convicts settled; a camp of ‘Australian savages’ near Port Stevens. The links between the pictures and the text were sometimes quite tenuous, and I wish that she had cross-referenced them in the text more clearly.  Just as some families have a wealth of documentary material, so too do they have a trove of visual material, as highlighted by the double-spread of pictures of the Faithful family.  The pictures are balanced between depictions of progress and poverty, but I found the most striking picture was of two emaciated babies. I had noticed the frequent loss of children among the single mothers she described, but these two images of babies made the stories come alive in a way that the enumeration of record-entries did not.
With its emphasis on family history and the prominence given to ‘families’ in its title, I am sure that the book is aimed at a readership interested in family history.  I found the writing uneven- at times warm and engaging, but interspersed with a rather stilted academic signposting.  She often speaks of what ‘we’ have seen and what ‘we’ know, that I’m not sure that ‘we-ness’ was ever established well.
Having said that, though, her collaboration with family historians, both under the auspices of the Benevolent Society and through crowd-sourced collaboration with genealogical associations and websites, has provided a view of otherwise invisible people.  Family historians, impelled by curiosity and a sense of identification, have combed through a whole range of data sources that a single historian could never undertake alone.  In this regard, Evans and her collaborators whom she so strongly champions, have brought context and a continuity to lives that would otherwise be just names on a ledger.
By the way, there’s an excellent podcast from the much-lamented lost ABC program Hindsight available here.
I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

One response to “‘Fractured Families’ by Tanya Evans

  1. Pingback: July Round up – History, Memoir, Biography (HMB) | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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