The Quest to Rewrite My Convict Ancestor’s Life

In the first half of the nineteenth century, 12,000 women were transported the 10,000 miles from England to Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. One of them was my great, great, great grandmother.

Many people around the world spend years researching their convict ancestors. I was lucky. The story fell into my lap.

The epic story of Jane, my convict ancestor, was written by my distant relative. He published this family history in 1985. It made fascinating reading. He wrote about the lives of Jane, her husband and her children. The seven generations in the family trees includes me and my children.

I used his book as the frame work for Banished beyond the seas.

It was important to me to make my fiction believable. I spent about three years researching before I started to write. I needed to understand all aspects of life in the nineteenth century. This included life in Scotland and the gaol and court system. I read of the grief of so many convicts who left their children behind. Then the traumas and terror of transportation on a sailing ship for 3-4 months. Finally life in servitude in Van Diemen’s Land.

My research included housing in the new colony. The substantial houses were sandstone with slate or shingled roofs. Most houses outside the town of Hobart were thatched cottages made of branches woven together. The weather was kept out by plastering between the cracks with mud and clay.  The thatched roofs were held together with twine and heavy timber.

The large houses had sprawling gardens. The trees, bushes and flowers were English. Vegetables were grown in the kitchen garden behind the house. Smaller houses had fruit trees and vegetable gardens. Most people had hens and a house cow. All families supplemented their diet by hunting native animals and birds.

I learnt of the life of the incarcerated convict women in a dramatised play at the Cascade Female Factory in South Hobart. The prison sits in a dark, damp valley below the rocky face of Mount Wellington.

Finally I sat down to write partly using the lives of characters from my lifetime of reading. My assorted reading includes many nineteenth century novels as well as my trashy teen True Confessions and occasional light romantic novels.

The other characters are from my own memories of people and places. For instance my working life was as a midwife. Jane became a midwife too. In my novel she learnt her craft from her grandmother and mother. It seemed to me that at thirty she needed some romance in her life. This added a smidgen of sauciness which was not my own experience!

Romance led to pregnancy, marriage and motherhood. Horrifically she was found guilty of an assault which she did not commit and left her beloved six children behind.

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