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Book Review: Fractured Families

Front cover of book 'Fractured Families: Life on the margins in colonial New South Wales' by Tanya Evans
Fractured Families: Life on the margins in colonial New South Wales By Tanya Evans, Paperback, Apr 2015, UNSW Press, ISBN 9781742232577, 336pp
Review by Dr Catie Gilchrist
Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, by Tanya Evans. Published by UNSW Press 2015
This beautifully illustrated and extensively researched book will be of great interest to academics and people researching their family stories from the colonial past.[1] It interweaves the lives of poor people in the nineteenth century with recent research revealing mostly forgotten stories.[2] It will also be of note to anyone with a lively interest in looking at 'history from below'; the lives of the poor, the elderly, the invalid, the marginalised, the abandoned and the plain unlucky are all here brought vividly, and sometimes depressingly, to life. The book moves chronologically through the nineteenth century and convincingly argues that, despite the best efforts of charities and philanthropic organisations, many fractured families remained as desperately poor at the turn of the twentieth century as they had been one hundred years earlier. Moreover, the dependency of one generation was often repeated by the next; the web of charities that existed in Sydney and in the wider colony, often barely met their needs. In many ways then, this book reveals another story that moves beyond the idea of colonial Australia as the 'lucky country' or the 'working man's paradise' and herein lies its ultimate significance. For some people living in New South Wales in the nineteenth century life was less of a paradise and more of a purgatory; often marked by periods of grinding poverty, unstable family relations, temporary or even permanent institutionalisation and early death. As the subtitle itself suggests, 'life on the margins' was, for a variety of reasons, a terribly hard and often heartbreaking existence for many men, women and children. But help was at hand from the various charities, philanthropic organisations and institutional establishments that came into existence during the nineteenth century.[3]  The Benevolent Society, Australia's first charity, was founded in Sydney in 1813. At first the Society provided 'outdoor' relief to people in need of food, blankets and even rent money. Later this establishment became a refuge for the distressed, a hospital for the diseased, an asylum for the aged poor and a home for the wretched wanderer. Evans has used the detailed and extensive archives of The Benevolent Society to help recreate and reclaim the people whose lives have, until now, been left unknown, unexamined and therefore not at all remembered as belonging to our history. In chapter one we meet William Hubbard who was transported on the Scarborough in the First Fleet and arrived in January 1788. By the 1840s William had lost his first wife Mary and a subsequent partner Hannah, who both predeceased him; elderly, poor and in need of charity, Hubbard was admitted to the Benevolent Society's asylum in 1841 and died there in 1843. The asylum was a necessary refuge for elderly and infirm ex-convicts like William. Of the 331 inmates in the asylum in March 1843, 245 were ex-convicts. Most were quite elderly, with 67 aged being between 70 and 80, 16 being between 80 and 90, and five being over the age of 90. The author draws an interesting parallel with the fact that, in the nineteenth century, English workhouses increasingly housed the elderly poor, which Evans notes were 'today's old people's homes.'[4] Pensions were not introduced into New South Wales until 1901, and federally in 1908; until then the elderly poor had to either work or rely on their families. Others such as William Hubbard were utterly reliant upon charitable institutions. But it was not just the elderly and the infirm that relied on charitable relief; during the depression of the 1840s, many families struggled to cope with poverty, illness, malnutrition and early death. Some men deserted their families to search for work, never to return. In the following decade, the gold rush exacerbated pressure on charities as men deserted their families in droves to head for the diggings. Indeed, 'families without breadwinners' – the title of one of the chapters – have always been one of the largest groups dependent upon state and charitable aid. Spinsters without supportive friends and families were also often reliant upon charity and philanthropy at this time. Widowed and deserted women were particularly vulnerable to the exigencies of the economy; many women used the Benevolent Society and the orphan schools to serve as temporary foster homes for their children who they could no longer afford to feed and house. Often the mothers themselves were ill and in need of charitable care; worn out from years of continual pregnancies, miscarriages and early infant deaths which were all too common in the nineteenth century. When the Randwick Asylum for Destitute Children opened in 1852, it was inundated with applications from women unable to look after their children. Indeed, lone mothers continued to be the major clients of charity in the 1880s and 1890s. Many moved in and out of intimate relationships with men throughout their lives. Looking through the paper trails they left behind in the records of the charitable institutions they relied upon, Fractured Families helps to cast new light on ideas surrounding the moral and sexual practices of women, and attitudes towards illegitimacy in colonial New South Wales. The lives of other poor families were fractured in different ways. Newly arrived immigrants who had left behind the support networks of their extended families, friends and neighbours often struggled and 'the hope for a better life among all types of migrants could be dashed soon after arrival.'[5] Not all migrants prospered in the 'lucky country' and even those who arrived with skills, qualifications and resources were subject to severe misfortunes. Here again the author manages to convincingly dispel the stereotype of immigration and colonial expansion as one of an onward and upward march of successful progress and prosperity. Alexander Cook was one such migrant. He emigrated from Scotland in the 1830s with his parents, two sisters, one brother and his 17 year old wife. During the voyage to Australia, their ship was struck with an outbreak of typhus fever. Alexander lost both his parents, his sister Mary and his new bride Jane – four of the six members of his family. Although he later remarried and had five children, the rest of his life was marked by bad fortune and economic disaster. He later abandoned his family; his wife Anna Maria died in a lunatic asylum and the five children were split up between various charitable institutions and other local families. Fractured Families is at times a gritty, depressing and gruesome read. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century there was a shockingly high rate of infant and maternal ill health and death. Yet the author shows how this stark reality led to an increased awareness within colonial society of the need for a public health movement and the necessity of training women as professional nurses and midwives, together with the subsequent medicalisation of childbirth and childcare. This in turn provided increased opportunities for some women to move into the fields of nursing, charitable work, social reform movements and feminist organizations of the late nineteenth century. To cite just one example from the book – a Ladies Committee was established at the Benevolent Society in Sydney in 1879 to interview applicants for indoor and outdoor relief. In 1895 this committee organised a very successful fundraising appeal, entitled '1000 Children in Need of Food.' Such activities provided vital support for many families during the depression years of the 1890s. As a whole, Fractured Families is an accessible history,[6] if at times somewhat awkward. The movement back and forth between historical content and the contemporary work of family researchers and their motives creates many moments of disjuncture. Likewise, the author's frequent use of 'as described above', 'as previously mentioned' or 'which I discuss in the next chapter' creates too many needless signposts and obvious reminders. However, Evans convincingly argues the case that the joint work and research of academic and family historians is an important innovation in historical method. She is also successful in urging for further collaborations of this kind in the future because 'the more work we do together, the more we can potentially learn about our subjects.'[7] Uncovering the lives of the poor, the marginalised, the ordinary and the forgotten is certainly an important research endeavor for social, cultural and family historians alike. Moreover, by understanding the experiences of these lives in the nineteenth century, we can better grasp the continuities of this inequality for the lives of many people in New South Wales even today. Published by UNSW Press in April 2015 and available to order here (and through all good book stores!). RRP $39.95        

[1] For Aboriginal family historians interested in researching their lost family histories, this task is particularly important. As part of the process of national reconciliation, the state now funds this research through Link Up organisations which reunite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across Australia, state libraries and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Studies. Native title claims also require the reconstruction of family trees to legitimize often hard to prove claims to continuous links to the land. As Tanya Evans notes, 'For Aboriginal family historians, tracing genealogy is usually a political act.' Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2015) 58.
[2] The book discusses the widespread appeal of the television show Who Do You Think You Are?, the burgeoning popularity of websites such as and the recent proliferation of  local family history societies, among other resources used by family historians.
[3] For example, from 1860–1910 over 18,000 Sydney children attended the 'ragged schools' which were established to give poor children a basic education.
[4] Tanya Evans, Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2015) 36
[5] Tanya Evans Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2015) 134
[6] It does, however, contain rigorous endnotes, a comprehensive bibliography and index.
[7] Tanya Evans, Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2015) 240    
Book Reviews family history nineteenth century The Benevolent Society