The Secret River

Kate Grenville

This is a transcript of a talk given by Kate Grenville as part of Shake Your Family Tree day at the National Archives of Australia on 27 February 2008.

Thank you very much. It's lovely to be here. I'd like to thank the Archives for giving me this opportunity and to all of you for coming.

In a way, I think (and I know some of you have just been to very heavy-duty lectures on how to do this properly), I must be the kind of light relief. I'm here to tell you how not to do it! I'm quite an expert in how not to do it. In fact, I've written a whole book, as Anne mentioned. Searching for the Secret River is about all the ways I got it wrong, about looking for family history and about writing the novel that grew out of that family history. So, about being incompetent, I'm highly qualified to speak.

I do want to also thank archivists, though. One of the things I discovered when I was looking for my ancestor, whose name was Solomon Wiseman – I read an awful lot of papers of various kinds and they filled in a lot of blanks. But, fairly a long way down the process, I went to the Mitchell Library, and I got out what I thought was just going to be another rather boring little bit of business correspondence.

What I found were two wafer-thin, worn little bits of paper, with some very old brown writing on them. And what they were: they were two IOUs which my ancestor had signed, for what must have been for him and in those days, colossal amounts of money – like 300 pounds, 15 shillings and 4 pence – which would have been, I don't know, several years income for him. And, at the bottom was this wavering – he was illiterate but he knew how to sign his name like a lot of people did – this wavering frightened signature.

He was putting his name to something which could absolutely ruin him and because it was the actual piece of paper, the actual ink, it made his story real to me, his fear, his terror of what he was doing in a way that no amount of mere information would and for that I have to thank some anonymous archivist, 200 years ago, who looked at these IOUs and thought, 'Oh yeah, we'll keep those'. Two hundred years ago. They were like pay dirt to me.

I thought I'd talk today for about 20 minutes about my journey to find my ancestor and then I hope you'll have lots of questions because I am very happy to talk about, to respond to what you want to know rather than just blab to you. So, my family history search began as many of us do, I suppose, with my mother – it's always the mother, isn't it? – telling me family stories. She could trace back five generations, all the way back to 1806 when our ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, stole some timber on the Thames and was transported to Australia.

Now, she always told me this story in exactly the same words, like a little sealed capsule. It was like a little ritual, like something you might hear in church, the words never varied. It always began, 'Solomon Wiseman was born in London and worked on the docks'. And then she always said, 'for an offense we don't know about, he was sent to Australia'. And so on and so forth.

Now Wiseman, like many convicts, was very quickly freed and went up the Hawkesbury River, which is just outside of Sydney, and as the family story put it 'took up land' on the Hawkesbury – those words 'took up' are another whole story, I'll get to that in a minute – and he made a lot of money. He died an extremely wealthy man. In fact he's supposed to have been buried in a top hat and tails with a box of sovereigns at his feet.

Unfortunately that meant that his grave was constantly dug up by people looking for the sovereigns.


The other sad thing about that story is that his sons, he had four sons and within 20 years of his death they were all bankrupt, so his great-great-granddaughter acquired not a single sovereign or equivalent. So, like most ungrateful daughters I listened to my mother telling me the family story with a kind of glaze, about which I'm now very embarrassed and ashamed. But I remembered it, which was the whole point. She knew that if she told me often enough I'd remember, and she was right.

Then, in the year 2000, without at all thinking about this I went on the Reconciliation Walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge along with – what was it? – a quarter of a million other people. Just near the end of that walk, where the bridge lands on Dawes Point, which is where my ancestor would have stepped off the boat, just above there I glanced over and met the eye of a couple of Aboriginal people there watching us all – it was a very nice little moment – and I met the eye of one particular woman and we exchanged – I can't quite describe what it was that we exchanged – but it was a little pulse of mutual acknowledgement and a kind of pleasure that we were both there engaged in whatever this project called 'reconciliation' was. We were going to be part of it.

So I felt very warm and fuzzy in that moment but in the very next moment I suddenly realised that there was a dark side to that warm and fuzzy moment and that dark side concerned that ancestor of mine who stepped ashore 200 years before right underneath where we were standing. I suddenly realised that if Solomon Wiseman had glanced up the hill, as he well might have, and seen the great-great-great-grandfather of that woman, which he well might have, they would not have exchanged a nice little pulse of recognition.

I don't know what they would have exchanged but there would have been wariness at best, probably, perhaps hostility, suspicion, fear – a lot of negative feelings. It suddenly made me wonder, in my mother's story when she said, 'Solomon Wiseman went up the Hawkesbury river and took up land', what did that actually mean? What those words 'took up land' actually meant was he took land. He took it from people who had been living there for, what's the current figure? 60,000 years.

In that moment was my need born to find out about Solomon Wiseman. Not just Solomon Wiseman, but what he had done when he went up the river and decided that that hundred acres, he would call his. What was that about? I needed to know for the same reason that most of us or many of us, I imagine, went up to Parliament House the other day and watched that extraordinary moment. We knew we were connected to that somehow and we wanted to find out more about it.

So, how did I go about it? So, that's the why basically of my family story. The how? Well, I began where all of us begin, with a place like this, the archives, the paper trail. I went into the Mitchell Library in Sydney, which is where much of the Sydney history is. I thought it would be terribly difficult to discover all this stuff. I thought I'd need a lot of very arcane help from expert librarians.

But it happened that my mother's family story, it said for an offence we don't know about, he was transported. But embedded in the story were the two things that made it really simple to find out about that offence. That was the date of his trial and the ship on which he arrived in Australia.

The family story claimed that it knew nothing about his offence. And yet it had carried along with it through five generations, it had carried those bits of information which I could then use. So, once I told the librarian that, he said, 'No, no. You don't even need to fill out a request slip. They're right over there on the open shelves, the transcripts of the trials of the Old Bailey. If your ancestor was in London, he would've been tried at the Old Bailey'.

So, I got this thing into the old-fashioned microfilm reader and began to turn the handle. As I turned it, I experienced a feeling that I've never had before or since. It was a kind of terror, actually, because I realised that in the next few minutes, I would discover what my ancestor's offence was. And, I suddenly realised that it might not be an innocent thing. It might not be stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. He could be a real serious baddie. Did I want to know that?

The other thing I realised is that once you know, you can't ever unknow. You can't go backwards, which is a slight word of warning I guess to all of us. You have to be prepared to accept whatever you find there.

Of course, the great thing about having a convict, and I don't know how many of you have convict ancestors. How many, just out of interest? Oh, yes. OK! Well, we'll be checking your bags on the way out!

The fantastic advantage to having a convict ancestor is that they leave a beautiful paper trail. Those bureaucrats back in the early 19th century were immaculate about writing it all down. So, we're very lucky.

Well, as it happens, Solomon Wiseman, he was a bargeman on the Thames, which was a bit like being a truckie I think these days, transporting goods around the river. What he did was pinch some timber. So, it was kind of, 'it fell off the back of a truck' sort of a thing. A crime, but nothing you had to be deeply ashamed of. On the other hand, nothing very glamorous. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed.

So, that was a relief. So, I was very interested then. I started to follow all the other paper trails, which I won't go into a great deal because I assume that you're hearing much more about how you ought to do this from the other people here today. I will say that I started with the Mormons site, FamilySearch. It's a wonderful site, of course, and it's full of fantastic information.

But in my case, when I keyed in 'Solomon Wiseman, born in London about 1770' or whatever the date was, I got 13 Solomon Wisemans, any one of whom could have been the right one. I then discovered something else about this family history business. I put together all those 13 Solomon Wisemans, the mother's name, the father's name, the children's name, the spouse's name, where it had them, and the places in London, the suburbs. I constructed over some hours, it was a bit like doing a kind of 3D jigsaw puzzle. I constructed this extraordinary but plausible account of who might have been brother and sister, when they might have crossed the river to another suburb, etc.

And, at the end of this intensely satisfying process, I sat down and I realised that actually, yes, I had made a pattern that made sense of this information and it might be true, but it just as well might not be true because the information was not complete and some of it might be inaccurate. So, in fact, all that I was left with after all that, is what I started with, Solomon Wiseman was born somewhere, in some date. So, I kind of had to look elsewhere.

I went to the Public Record Office in London. I was very lucky to have been in London. And looked for a petition for clemency since he was condemned to death, but then transported. There could well have been a petition for clemency. Now, there wasn't or if there is, I didn't find it. What I did find were other extraordinary documents. I've actually quoted quite a long one in here, a letter from John Boone who stole one sheep and was condemned to death.

He was literate enough to have written to his wife. It is the most heartbreaking letter. In fact, he says... I'll read you just the first couple of lines:

My dear and loving wife, I write this heartbreaking letter to inform you the shameful and scandalous distress I have brought upon you and my poor, unhappy children, which I am afraid in a few days will be fatherless and you a poor, unhappy, distressed widow by the unhappy death I am likely to bring upon myself.

It's absolutely the most moving thing I've ever read. I sat there in the archives, writing it all out word by word. And I didn't quite know why I was doing it. It was only much later that I thought these stories emerged out of the past and they can sink back into the past and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't go back and rescue John Boone. But what you can do is tell the story. You can go back and dig that stuff up and tell it. You can acknowledge it, you can feel the pain of it again. And somehow, in doing that, you've gone through a process which is valuable. I don't quite know why, but it is intensely valuable.

So, that was the Public Record Office. I went to the Society of Genealogists in London, which is one long intelligence test from the moment you walk in the door.

So is the Public Record Office actually – all of that is in here. It's quite kind of amusing and I was the classic ignoramus, fumbling my way through these very complicated institutions, trying to work them out. But people are terribly friendly, as any of you here who have used the archives here must know and I urge all of you to use them. The people who work in them love their collections and want nothing more than to share them with people who are interested. So, don't be shy.

So, in this, I finally found his apprenticeship record because someone told me that if he was a lighterman, he would have had an apprenticeship. The apprenticeship records told me his birth date. So, that was that solved. The IRU, which I have mentioned before. When he got to Sydney, of course, he's mentioned several times in the newspapers. And although he was illiterate, he left an amazing paper trail of business correspondence. He employed a clerk who lived in his house. So, I was very lucky. I had a good ancestor with plenty of information.

But the thing about family history that I found most valuable actually didn't happen in any building and it didn't happen on any pieces of paper. The things that really told me about not any of my ancestor, but his relationship to this place and the people who were here, which is where my search had begun, were places. And I learnt that not here in Australia where you grow up in a place and it's hard to come freshly to it – but in London, because of the trial transcript, I could go to the exact spot on the side of the Thames where Solomon Wiseman had been nabbed on a dark night in April 1804.

I could stand on the precise spot. In fact, the day I visited, the tide happened to be way out. Right at the edge of the water, there was this ancient bit of wood which had kind of turned into stone. It was that old. Clearly, the side of an old, old, old, seriously old wharf. And I went out with a kind of very colonial, it was kind of a sacred thing about the past and stood and thought, he might have stood right here, right where my foot is. And then I thought, 'Well, when I'm walking around in Australia, I'm constantly walking on the very spot where all kinds of great people walked. How come when I'm in London, it's kind of this big deal? Why do I devalue it in my own place?'

So, that was amazing. By the side of the Thames, one of the things I picked up there, probably illegally, it's probably quite illegal to do this so don't tell anybody... But I picked up a little bit of terracotta with a hole in it, which had clearly been poked in the clay when it was still damp. It was just the size of a little finger. I realised that it was almost certainly part of an ancient roof tile and the hole is of course they were tied on with, I think, leather or something. Anyway, they were tied on to the batons. I picked this up. I thought, 'this could have been from Solomon Wiseman's house'.

So, I slipped it into my pocket, hoping no-one was looking. And that little bit of stuff, whether or not it was from Wiseman's house didn't matter because what it did for me was set my mind working, or not even the mind, not even thinking. It's some unconscious feeling that the object, a tangible set of molecules is there and it allows you to – a bit like the I-Ching; it is a bit on the mystical side, the I-Ching – I mean, the book does not know. But what's happening in the moment when you throw those coins is you are thinking about your dilemma. Or, prayer, any kind of prayer. It's a kind of meditation on whatever dilemma it is that you're thinking about. So, that tile did it for me. It freed me to imagine. So, I recommend objects, no matter how laughable.

I went to the place where he had lived, which in those days was called Butler's Buildings. By examining an ancient map with a magnifying glass, I managed to find it on the equivalent on a modern thing. So, I went to this tiny little... It's in South London. I don't know if any of you know South London, but it's probably not where any of us would choose to live.

I stood in this narrow, mean, little street with a huge brewery on one side and thought, 'Thank goodness he was caught!' because if he hadn't been caught, I'd be there. Or somewhere like it.

The other thing that old map showed me was the number of tanneries, breweries, foul mongers etc, that were all around his place. It must have stank. I mean, they must have got here and not believed their luck.

Anyway, so much for London. So, that taught me the important of place, the importance of actually walking the land to find out – again, to free your mind. Once you've done all these highly kind of cerebral stuff in the paper at work, to do another kind of thing, a freer kind of thing.

So, of course, I went to the Hawkesbury. I'd spent a lot of time in the bush, as most of us do, and I sort of thought I knew it and I thought I had a bond to it. But looking at it through the lens of family history made a completely different place. I was very lucky in the Hawkesbury because I found a man who showed me around the bush and he showed me the things that otherwise you might walk right past. That is all the many marks that the Indigenous people left on that landscape, which is still there to be read, but you have to sort of be shown how to read it. In the case of Sydney rock engravings, trees with canoe scars gouged out of them. I don't know what the landscape has here, but I'm sure there are things.

That made me realise that Solomon Wiseman did not, could not have pretended that he was moving into an empty country. There's no way. Because even walking through it today, 200 years later with so much erased, particularly down by creeks, you can hardly glance around without seeing some evidence of all those hundreds of thousands of years of Indigenous habitation.

And that made me realise how people like Wiseman must have been aware that they were trespassing basically. I think that would have made them frightened. The bush as we know can be a little bit eerie, and if you were aware that you had taken a bit of it, without asking, from people who probably weren't that happy about that, then that eeriness could very well feel like threat. And if you're frightened, the temptation to become violent is very overwhelming, very natural. So it made a great deal of sense of what I was reading about the unhappy relationships between colonists and Indigenous people in those early days. There didn't have to be any kind of evil, or even ill will on either side for disasters of violence to start happening.

OK, I'll tell one more tiny little thing – the places are really, really important. The other thing that was really important to me – perhaps this is getting a rather long way from family history; no I don't think it is actually. In my research I kept reading about, sort of, daily things. I'm not expressing myself very well.

One of the things about writing a historical novel is you have to ask yourself the question, things like – what did they have for breakfast, how did they hold their pants up, you know, no zippers, no elastic. What did they do? And as a novelist I can't seem to write without actually having experienced it, I mean it's a limitation I think, but that's how it is with me.

So in my research I had read all kinds of things, including, I kept coming across reference to this thing called a slush lamp. Now I don't know whether any of you know what a slush lamp is, but I didn't. So I googled 'slush lamp' and to my amazement there was a site that told me what it was and how to make one. It's basically just a saucer of fat with a little wick hanging out of it.

So I cooked the lamb chops for the family dinner and I kept the fat, put it in a saucer, got a little wick which, I had a bit of a problem – what am I going to use for a wick? And then I remembered the towels in our bathroom, I don't know whether any of your towels are like this but mine have little raggedy strips where the selvage kind of comes away. Perfect wick lamp for slush lamp, wick for slush lamp.

So I put it in and I lit it, of course I should have used a flint of steel but I thought enough is enough. And then the next three minutes I learnt more about what it must be like there on the Hawkesbury, in a dark little bark hut, than all the books in the world. The room filled immediately with black smoke, which smelled powerfully of lamb chop. But I thought for Wiseman the smell was probably the fat from three-year-old salt pork or something, not nearly as nice.

The other thing was the quality of the flame; it was minute, smaller than the flame on a birthday candle. So there wasn't much to push back that frightening dark with. And of course the other thing I realised that, you know we used to send fat to Britain in the war. Fat for Britain, we used to save it in tins, fat is an essential part of the diet. I mean we've kind of forgotten that because it is such a no-no for us. But those people on the Hawkesbury had to choose. They could either have a little tiny bit of light at night using the fat, or they could eat it. That was the choice they had, one or the other.

OK, so that's about enough talking I think, let me just return for one moment to the 'why' of this whole search. What I realised when I had finished this process, but not at the beginning, was that actually this wasn't just family story. And it wasn't even just research for writing a novel, although that certainly happened.

One of the reasons I wrote this memoir, Searching for the Secret River, is that I realised that this whole journey of writing the novel and researching it, together, formed a process of me asking the question – what does it mean to be a non-Indigenous Australian, particularly one who's descended from those early colonists? What does that mean? And I realised that the whole long process of doing this was in fact my way of saying, my way of acknowledging as much as I could of the past, and in fact my way of saying sorry.

It seems to me that since that morning a few weeks ago – it was only two weeks ago wasn't it, the apology. It seemed to me, I was on the lawn so perhaps it wasn't really like this, but it seemed to me the whole of Australia was stopping and listening. And since then it feels like a different place, and the reason it feels, one of the reasons it feels like a different place is that the past has been acknowledged and brought in to stand side by side, or in fact with, the present.

And that's what today is about, that's what these archives can offer us. Right, so thank you.

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