Monday, 31 December 2012

Parramatta Girls Home: history on fire

What I'm reading: Facebook for Dummies by Carolyn Abram; Bedtime Stories: tales from my 21 years at RN's Late Night Live by Phillip Adams; and Stanley Booth's The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (possibly the best Stones biography I've read).

At around 5am on 22 December, on Fleet Street in Parramatta, something dismaying happened - part of the heritage-listed building, most recently known in its long and somewhat shadowed history as the Norma Parker Periodic Detention Centre for Women, was destroyed by fire.

Norma Parker Periodic Detention Centre minus roof
You might be thinking - so what? It's just another old pile of bricks. Well, not really. It's a repository - of ghosts, memories, failed social experiments and, in this case, immense misery and fear. A lot of history is distinctly uncomfortable to contemplate, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't. In my opinion, we need to preserve these monuments to past mistakes, to remind us of where we've come from and, hopefully, who we no longer are. And to stand by and watch them just fall down or be otherwise obliterated is to totally deny the experiences of all those who passed through their doors.

The building has had several incarnations during its 168 years. It was originally purpose-built as a government orphanage for Catholic children, and opened in 1844 with 113 charges under the age of 13. Nearby in the same precinct in the grounds of the present Cumberland Hospital are the remains of the Parramatta Female Factory, the mean, dirty and overcrowded facility in which an estimated two thirds of convict women transported to New South Wales spent time.

Over the years the Roman Catholic Orphan School was extended until it could accommodate 250 children, though overcrowding still occurred and sanitation suffered. Social policy changed with the State Children Relief Act (1881) which disfavoured barrack-style institutions, the school was closed and the orphans turfed out in August 1886. It reopened the following year as the Industrial School and Reformatory for Girls, housing neglected or destitute girls (classed as 'perishing'), and those with criminal convictions (classed as dangerous), placed there by the child welfare authorities. Girls at risk of 'moral danger' were also admitted, ie. ones who went with boys, ran wild, or wagged school (compulsory after 1880). Ages ranged from nine (after 1946 this was raised to 12) up to 18. 

Parramatta wasn't the first industrial school in NSW. One had opened in disused military barracks in the Government Domain off Watt Street in Newcastle in 1867 - the Newcastle Industrial School and Reformatory for Girls. But after inmates, apparently mostly Sydney girls, repeatedly rioted, used 'obscene language' and busted out, it closed in 1871 and the girls were transferred to a new facility - the Biloela Industrial and Reformatory School for Females - on Cockatoo Island in Sydney. In 1887, the Biloela girls were moved to the industrial school at Parramatta.

The Parramatta Industrial School for Girls is more commonly known as the Parramatta Girls Home, or the Parramatta Girls Training School. Life there, by most accounts, was hell. On arrival all girls were stripped and searched, and for a time intimately examined to assess whether they were sexually active - regardless of why they'd been admitted. How incredibly offensive, and irrelevant. They were issued with a number, a coverall as a uniform, and underpants but no bra - convict slops, basically. There were no lockers for personal belongings, no locks on showers or toilets and, judging by photos, a continuation of the earlier orphanage's barracks-style accommodation. Musters and body searches occurred daily, mail was censored, schooling absolutely minimal. Sexual, physical and psychological abuse were commonplace. Punishments were gruelling, and anti-psychotic and sedative medications used to restrain some girls.

Rooftop riot Parramatta Girls Home 1961
Photo courtesy
Riots were frequent, beginning in 1887, the last major event occurring in 1961. That year the Hay Girls Institution was established at Parramatta to administer to inmates 'additional discipline and training'. Prior to that, Parramatta girls over the age of 15 deemed troublemakers were routinely sent to Long Bay prison. During the 1960s the home became a focus for a ten year campaign by feminist activist Bessie Guthrie. In 1973, ABC aired a television program about the horrific conditions in the home and the Hay Girls Institute, resulting in the closure of both facilities the following year. However, there was already another facility waiting to receive the Parramatta girls - Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre, which had opened at Airds near Campbelltown in August 1973.

During its long history, Parramatta Girls Home accommodated around 30,000 girls, with an average of 160 in residence at any one time, peaking at 307 in 1970. Between 7 and 12% of those girls were of indigenous heritage.

In 1975 the old home was renamed Kamballa (Girls) and Taldree (Boys) Childrens Shelter. Taldree operated until 1980, and Kamballa until 1983. In 1980, the Department of Corrective Services took over the original Catholic orphanage buildings and established the Norma Parker Correctional Centre for Women, a small, low security prison. It closed in 1997, reopened as the Norma Parker Periodic Detention Centre for Women, but had ceased operating again by 2010.

Some of the women who had been through the Parramatta Girls Home reunited for the first time in 2003. Sydney playwright Alana Valentine has written a very successful play, Parramatta Girls, based on their experiences, which premiered in 2007. On 16 November 2009 the Prime Minister apologised nationally to the 'Forgotten Australians' - all those children placed in orphanages, children's homes, foster care, and other forms of 'out-of-home' care during the 20th century.

Further information:

Comprehensive and very informative website dedicated to promoting the preservation of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct

For information on creative contributions towards the PFF Memory Project, and the planned Public History Symposium later in 2013

Alana Valentine talks about 'Parramatta Girls'

Newcastle Industrial School (by Jane Ison)

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Arsenic and Old Lace

What I'm Reading: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier; Chasing the Light by Jesse Blackadder; and watching the first two seasons of Breaking Bad - for the plot structure.

While reading my copy of the latest Collectibles Trader magazine, which I buy religiously, I came across the most fascinating article. With kind permission of the editor, here is my abridged version of that article, originally researched and written by costume and textiles expert Eleanor Keene.

When Eleanor was recently cataloguing a collection of items destined for auction in Sydney, she discovered a dress dating from the 1860s coloured an unusual, vivid green. The ensemble consisted of a full skirt, a low-cut short-sleeved evening bodice trimmed with lace, a long-sleeved high-necked day bodice, and a waist sash with a bow that fastened at the front. The condition was excellent - few signs of wear, the silk showed minimal deterioration, and even the sweat pads sewn into the bodice lining appeared as new - all suggesting that the dress may never have been worn.

The Deadly Dress. Photograph by Eleanor Keene.
Due to its very vibrant colour, Eleanor initially assumed the dress was an early example of the synthetic chemical dying processes developed in the 1850s after Henry William Perkin, the inventor of the colour mauve, successfully commercialised aniline dye. But actually, she discovered to her surprise that the dress had been coloured using arsenic dye, still in use in the 1860s because the colour green was so popular and arsenic relatively cheap (a by-product of mining). The dye itself was produced by mixing a potent amount of arsenic with copper, creating colours such as 'Scheele's green', 'Paris green', and 'Emerald green'. 

Arsenic was used in a whole range of products during the 19th century, not just textile dye. It was frequently found in paint, wallpaper, cookware, on children's toys and sweet wrappers, in shampoo, soap and skin preparations, and on playing cards, a favoured Victorian pastime. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning include excessive sweating, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, skin irradiation, organ failure and eventual death. No wonder people fainted all the time. But it was also used as a medical preparation, doctors believing that the appropriate dose and application had considerable medical benefits, including as a sexual stimulant.

However, not all physicians were quite so enamoured of arsenic. One wrote in a medical journal of the era that after examining a ball gown owned by a London society hostess, he could report that it contained 60 grains of Scheele's green per square yard, apparently enough to kill 12 people, and that it was so poorly applied that even during a light waltz a poisonous cloud would follow its wearer around the dance floor. In 1862 Punch magazine also had a go at arsenic-dyed ball gowns, publishing a cartoon captioned 'The new dance of death. (Dedicated to the green wreath and dress-mongers.)'. 

Concerns were raised, but were evidently ignored by successive parliaments and almost everyone else, until the end of the 19th century when consumer warnings were finally issued and people at last began to avoid using products containing arsenic.      

But back to the four-piece dress Eleanor catalogued for auction. She wonders if the original owner realised how lethal it was and packed it away, hence its excellent condition, though couldn't bring herself to get rid of such a lovely ensemble. When Eleanor received the dress, it had come from an antique shop whose owners had passed away, so there was no one to ask about its origins. It sold at auction, and is now in a private collection. Still cherished, but from a distance, I suspect.

Eleanor Keene's original article, titled 'A Dress to Dye For', appeared in Collectibles Trader, edition 107, Dec 2012-Feb 2013, pp. 12-15.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

How I write my books

What I'm reading: Unknown Pleasures: inside Joy Division, by Peter Hook; and True Blue: 150 years of service and sacrifice of the NSW Police Force, by Patrick Lindsay.

Of the latter book above, you might be thinking, 'God, how boring', or even, 'Boo, the pigs', but it's a beautiful and comprehensive volume packed with history. And timely for me - I've been looking for a history of the NSW cops for ages for my own research and, as far as I'm aware, this is the first to be published. I could be wrong, of course, and if I am, no doubt someone will let me know.

Anyway, onto my own books. These days they're around 130k words long, and take me about six to seven months to write, if I don't count the days I spend doing other things like rewriting or editing another of my manuscripts, doing research or other work-related stuff, having a headache, or procrastinating and wasting time. Or even having a break. Even writers need time off.

Often the writing of my books can overlap. I'll be starting a new one while the one before is still going through the editing process, which can sometimes be quite drawn out. Which means I have to stop writing the new one to work on the old one again. This isn't a problem if I'm writing a series, because the characters are the same, but if the two books aren't from a series, it's tricky to hop back into a 'headspace' I've finished with. Fortunately, at the moment, I am working on a series.

Startling cover for Russian edition of Kitty
I'll spend about a day bashing out a story outline, maybe three to five pages, and refer to this as I write. The beginning and the end seldom change, but sometimes the middle will. I do tend to get lost in the middle of my books. Not enough detailed plotting. I must do something about that. When writing a series, I'll do outlines for all the books at once. Storylines can get complicated when they go on for, say four volumes, and once something's in print it's a bit hard to pretend it didn't happen, so it's important to get it right from the start.

I do a lot of research before I start writing. I decide on my subject, make a 'shopping list' of everything I think I'll need to know, and off I go. For a series, this means loads of research at the beginning but far less as the series goes on, which speeds up the whole process. As I progress I inevitably discover research holes, but racing off to find out gives me a break from writing.

When I start actually writing, I set up an XL spreadsheet with a finish date and the number of words I can comfortably trot out every day (five days a week, not seven). This is 1600, though usually I'll do 2000, or occasionally even 3000, though I find that rate hard to maintain. At the end of every day I'll enter my word rate, which is deeply satisfying. I aim for a weekly goal, not daily, in case I have an off day. Of course, now that I blog, and I'm on facebook, and several writers' loops, this is all going to hell in a handbasket.

My mantra is 'get it finished, then get it right'. I'll keep going even if I know what I'm writing isn't the best. It doesn't matter, as long as the basic story is there. I can fix it when I do my pre-delivery edit. On the other hand, I've been writing long enough now to know when I'm going wrong, so these days I don't scrap much. Also, I can't write scenes out of order. If I have an idea for later on in the book, I'll make a few notes in my trusty notebook, and park the rest in my head.

What I submit to my publisher, HarperCollins Australia, is basically a cleanish draft. When I've finished I'll give the ms a reasonable edit, but it won't be perfect. I'll fix spellos, typos, obvious plot holes, glaringly repetitive words and phrases, and stupid things like characters whose eyes are brown on page 21 but blue on page 345. However, I firmly believe a writer can't edit their own work - not to publication standards, anyway. Well, I can't. When my commissioning editor has read it, she, I and the freelance editor working on this series will meet and discuss how to improve it. And no, I don't get bitter and twisted and hurl my toys out of the cot. It's brilliant having other eyes look at my stuff and offer expert opinions on how to make it better. Who wouldn't want that?

So anyway, off I scamper, make some changes then back the ms goes to the freelance editor for a proper edit. Then it comes back to me yet again for any further suggested changes (which are my choice, but they're almost always good ideas), then the ms goes to HCA to be turned into first pages (or galleys, or first pass proofs, or whatever you want to call them) and copy edited. I also do a copy edit, ie, go through it with a nit comb, though by now I've had enough and I'm gagging at the sight of it. When all the edits are finally finished, the book goes off to be printed.

While all this is going on the cover is being designed, a process in which, I'm delighted to say, these days I have a reasonable say. Unlike with the foreign editions of my books, which frequently come out with somewhat unique covers. All of the above takes place well before the book is 'sold in' to retailers, which is about six months before it actually appears in the shops and as an e-book.

And that's all there is to it!

Blatant advertisment: A bit of news for New Zealand readers - from 17 December until the middle of January, you can download my book Kitty from the NZ Apple iBook store for NZ$4.99, which is quite cheap. Merry Christmas!


Sunday, 9 December 2012

Jewellery for the Dead

What I'm Reading: Empire Day by Diane Armstrong; Started Early, Took My Dog, By Kate Atkinson; Bedlam: London and its mad by Catharine Arnold.

Previously I talked a little about 19th century jewellery: this post is about mourning jewellery, which fascinates me. Why? Well, some of it's beautiful, though some isn't, but more than that I wonder why people felt the need to advertise, through the act of wearing specific jewellery and clothing, the fact that they were suffering the loss of a loved one. Was it simply because that's what society said you did then? Did it confer upon the bereaved a special public status? Or was it just what you spent your money on if you had plenty? Because, as far as I can see through researching the topic, really poor people didn't own much mourning jewellery, if any, and neither did they deliberately dress in black or purple clothing. They seem to have just got on with it.

It wasn't just the 'sentimental Victorians' (whom I suspect weren't, at times, that sentimental at all) who favoured mourning jewellery, as is commonly thought  - people have been doing it for several thousand years. During the 16th century it became fashionable to wear memento mori (which means 'remember you must die') jewellery, featuring skull, coffin, crossbone and similar motifs.

Memento mori ring with skull under rock crystal
Rings in gold and/or black enamel, and rock crystal were common, as were pendants and brooches. By the 17th century these motifs were being incorporated into jewellery to commemorate actual deaths. You can still buy examples, particularly from the 18th century, but it commands hideous prices in antique jewellery shops, and there are fakes about, particularly on the internet.

As jewellery-making techniques and fashions changed, mourning jewellery became more elaborate - depending on what you could afford to pay for it, of course. Mourning brooches and rings were made with diamonds and other precious gems, the urn motif became popular, as did tiny enamelled or painted mourning scenes.

Hair of the deceased was often incorporated into mourning jewellery - plaited under rock crystal in rings and brooches, or curled into lockets. But human hair was commonly used in jewellery in the past - you didn't have to be dead to have bits of your barnet made into earrings or a watch chain.

Gold and human hair earrings
You frequently see hair jewellery advertised as mourning jewellery, when it quite possibly isn't. Rings with human hair and pearls, for example, are likely to be 'sentimental' jewellery - worn as a token of love or friendship for someone still living. The clue, according to antique jewellery experts I've spoken to, is usually the presence of black enamel. Better still, of course, are the words 'In Memoriam' or 'In Memory Of' on the piece, or a personal inscription, which was common.

And now to the Victorians, who were heavily influenced by Queen Victoria's example after her husband Prince Albert died in 1861. Discouraged from wearing jewellery while in mourning because it was deemed too frivolous, they got around that by piling on black jewels, usually made from jet (which is compact black lignite, ie. coal), onyx, black glass (aka French jet) or black enamel. As the mourning period wore on, the bereaved could graduate to cut steel, Berlin iron, ivory and tortoiseshell.

In the latter half of the 19th century, people with shallow purses could purchase machine-made, lesser quality mourning jewellery, and brooches, earrings and pins moulded from vulcanite (an early manufactured rubber) or gutta percha, aka ebonite (a natural latex), though both materials tended to go brown and lose their gloss over time.

Occasionally, particularly on the internet, you'll see black onyx art deco rings - often with a diamond set in the middle of the onyx - advertised as mourning rings. They aren't. This was a common and popular art deco style, and not related to mourning. Also, if you're considering purchasing one, there are loads of reproduction black onyx art deco rings floating around.

Mizpah jewellery
Finally, what is 'mizpah'? Nothing to do with mourning, though sometimes this gets confused. The word comes from the Old Testament (Genesis 31: 49): 'And Mizpah; for he said, The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent, one from another.' Mizpah jewellery was given by, or to, people about to part, often prior to going off to war. These days it's considered very collectable.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Behind the Sun: Rachel Winter & the Old Bailey

What I'm Reading: The Help by Kathryn Stockett (excellent book!); The Descendents by Kaui Hart Hemmings; and Starman: David Bowie; the definitive biography by Paul Trynka.

The fourth main character in my new book Behind the Sun is Rachel Winter. At 15, Rachel is the youngest of the girls. She's tiny, not even five feet tall, and very pretty with white-blonde hair and cornflower-blue eyes. As the only girl in a family of older brothers, she's also spoilt, headstrong, somewhat childish and full of grandiose dreams.

Having run off from her parents' small farm at Guildford with a soldier, she finds herself abandoned in London and on the wrong side of a dishonest landlady who shops her to the law. In Newgate gaol Harrie takes pity on her, though she drives Friday and Sarah mental with her endless crying and whinging, but eventually they accept her, especially after they discover how sharp she is with a pack of cards.

The first part of Behind the Sun is set in London's Newgate gaol, in late 1828 and 1829. The girls are all tried at the Old Bailey, London's famous central criminal court. A brilliant resource for researching the history and proceedings of the court is a website called The Proceedings of the Old Bailey at , which is just bursting with fascinating information covering the period 1674 to 1913.

Rudolph Ackermann The Old Bailey (1800)
Among other things, the site gives you quite a detailed insight into life in and around London from the late 17th to the early 20th centuries, including population, social structure, occupations, culture, politics and the built environment (you know - buildings, streets, etc). As well, there are histories of London's various ethnic communities, an architectural history of the Old Bailey court house itself, a handy glossary of judicial and historical terms, and reading lists if you want to know more.

There are also sections on policing in London; trial procedures; judges and juries; and trial verdicts. As well as the felonies you'd expect to see in the comprehensive explanation of crimes tried at the Old Bailey, also included are 'barratry', which is the offence of stirring up quarrels by spreading false rumours and prosecuting malicious lawsuits - who knew? - and coining, pickpocketing and piracy. Also, the descriptions of the various punishments handed down by judges over the years are suitably gruesome.

Most death sentences weren't actually carried out, but when they were, they could be spectacular. Watching the hangings at Tyburn, and after 1783 when the gallows were moved to Newgate, was considered an entertaining family day out and attracted huge crowds. In 1752 an act was passed decreeing that the bodies of people hung for really heinous crimes could be 'dissected and anatomised' by surgeons. The worst punishment, however, was reserved for those guilty of treason, who would be hung, cut down while still alive, disembowelled, castrated, beheaded and quartered (as enacted by Mel Gibson in 'Braveheart').

William Hogarth, The Reward of Cruelty
(Heath ed. 1822)
I don't know. I would have thought being burned alive at the stake would be worse. This is what women convicted of treason endured until 1790, when the sentence was replaced by drawing and hanging (though it's rumoured humane executioners strangled victims to death first).

The best bit, I think, of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey are the actual word-for-word accounts of 197,745 criminal trials. You can access them by looking up specific names in the search facility (yes - read the actual trial transcripts of your ancestors! Sadly, none of my felonious forbears were tried at the Old Bailey), or, to just have a general look, click on Proceedings By Date. There are also very useful research and study guides to help you out. What a fantastic resource.