During February, the month of love, I have been enjoying looking for Australian history items associated with love. Here are a few that you might like to explore.
Sydney Living Museums have put together a beautiful digital collection Close to the heart, which highlights keepsakes and jewellery from their collection that were given and worn as symbols of love.
The National Museum of Australia holds the largest collection of convict love tokens in the world. This whole collection can be studied via the collection interactive Convict love tokens.
The oldest wedding dress in Australia (1822) is currently on display at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney as part of the exhibition Love Is… Australian Wedding Fashion, running until 20 May 2018. You can also search the museum’s collection to see the wedding dresses they hold.
Melbourne Museum’s exhibition WW1: Love & Sorrow is based on the experiences of eight people who lived through the war. It includes over 300 objects and photographs, which tell stories of love and sorrow. Accompanying the exhibition is an impressive website Love and Sorrow.
Do you know of other Australian history collections of love?
Australian Airmen and bride in Devon village, 1943
As explained in Valentine’s Day in colonial Australia early Australian newspapers show that the traditions of Valentine’s Day were celebrated by Australian colonists, at least, as early as 1825 — about forty years after the British arrived in Australia to start a settlement of convicts and guards.
This celebrating of St Valentine’s Day seems to fit neatly with research done by Heather Blasdale Clarke, a dance teacher, and historian who has been studying the role dance played in early colonial society. According to Heather:
Popular culture was quickly established in the colony and this included music and dance for the common people. Visitors to the colony in 1820s reported on the large number of public houses where dancing took place and a French visitor remarked on the “excessive” amount of leisure time the convicts enjoyed.
Heather makes the point that this runs counter to earlier, influential, accounts of convict life in colonial Australia, which emphasised the brutality of transportation such as Marcus Clarke’s novel For the Term of His Natural Life.
If you want to know more about Heather’s research you can read about it, in this article, she wrote for the ABC, Australian convict life made more bearable by colonial dance and music. Heather has also established a really appealing website Australian Colonial Dance, where you can find lots of information about the history of music and dance in colonial Australia.
James Wilson was one of the last convicts transported to Australia. His words below are from a smuggled letter sent in 1874 to John Devoy, a Fenian leader, in America. James Wilson’s desperate appeal led the American Fenians to organise the 1876 Catalpa rescue — the liberation of six Fenian convicts from Fremantle gaol.
Now, dear friend, remember this is a voice from the tomb…we have been nearly nine years in this living tomb…it is impossible for mind or body to withstand the continual strain…one or the other must give away.
— James Wilson
Very best wishes for the New Year.
Today, is the anniversary of a significant date in Australian history.
One-hundred and fifty years ago convicts stopped being transported to Australia. The last convicts arrived at Fremantle, Western Australia on 10 January 1868, on the ship Hougoumont.
According to Richard Reid in Sinners, Saints & Settlers, 62 of these last convicts were Irishmen who would not have accepted their criminal status. They were Fenians, part of the revolutionary 19th century movement to establish an Irish Republic, through physical force if necessary. Forty-five of the men were political prisoners, tried for treasonous acts or taking part in attempted uprisings in 1867. The remaining men were military Fenians — soldiers in the British army court-martialed for mutinous conduct.
You can find interesting articles about the Hougoumont and the end of convict transportation in Troves Digitised Newspapers. One article, that caught my interest was the Perth newspaper, the Inquirer and Commercial News, listing on 15 January 1867 of the Fenian convicts and the sentences they received. See below for this or you can find it here.
The sentence hanged, drawn & quartered must have been underlined in the original newspaper. It is a bit disturbing knowing this sentence was actually given to convicts. Agree or disagree?
Thomas Alsop, Joan Beaumont, Ken Inglis, Thomas Keneally, Timothy Millett,
Babette Smith, Jack Thompson
Jervis Bay and Randwick, New South Wales
1788: first convicts transported to Australia; 1835: The Hive sank off the New South Wales coast; 1917: the Great Strike; 2008: Timothy Millett sells his convict love token collection to the National Museum of Australia
National Museum of Australia (NMA)
National Museum of Australia’s Convict love tokens
Who do you think you are
The Australian Colonists
Australians: Origins to Eureka
The Luck of the Irish
The rose soon drupes & dies. The brier fades away. But my fond heart for you I love shall never go astray. —Thomas Alsop [had words engraved on 1833 love token]
May the rose of England never bud. The thistle of Scotland never grow. The harp of Ireland never play. Till I poor convict gain my liberty. —Anonymous
When this, you see remember me, and, bare, me in, your mind let, all, the, world say, what they, will speak of me, as, you find — Anonymous
The rose soon drupes & dies. The brier fades away. But my fond heart for you I love shall never go astray.
—Thomas Alsop [had words engraved on 1833 love token]
History and serendipity covered the story of how Timothy Millett’s collection of convict love tokens were bought by the National Museum of Australia. Prior to the sale, Timothy had tried to research the history of convicts named on the tokens. This had been difficult because people were reluctant to acknowledge their convict ancestors.
It would be interesting to know if this reluctance related to previous generations or contemporary families or both. Likewise was this restricted to British families or Australians as well.
From the start of European settlement convict identity was a concern for the Australian colonial community. As Ken Inglis explains in the The Australian Colonists:
Respectable people worried about the future of a community composed so largely of men and women who belonged to it because they had been caught stealing. The convicts’ morals, it was feared, accompanied them to freedom and comfort, and infected other members of the civil and military population…How a man happened to have come to New South Wales was the most delicate of topics in colonial conversation. The word ‘convict’ came to be forbidden from general discourse.
At some point, though, this changed for Australians. When actor Jack Thompson discovered, on Who do you think you are, he had convict ancestry, he joyously announced he was descended from Australian royalty. You can also get bumper stickers along similar lines — Descended From Australian Royalty and Proud of It.
Hopefully, this more favoured view of convict forbears will lead to more of the convict love tokens at the National Museum of Australia being matched to the convicts who gave them to their loves ones.
When do you think Australians moved from shame of their convict relatives to celebration of convict ancestry?