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Friday, August 28, 2020

'The best and noblest women for the most difficult work' The Wardress in NSW female prisons, 1900 to 1950?

 In 1898 Rose Scott visited Darlinghurst Gaol and reported that 'The class of warder appeared to us of a very inferior type to the men warders...'

And in her report which she wrote for the Comptroller-General of Prisons, Frederick Neitenstein,she argued that female warders be chosen from the 'ranks of trained nurses' or perhaps teachers who could then undergo relevant training. This was a possibly a forlorn hope as women trained and already working as teachers or nurses would not be attracted to the lower wages and harsh conditions of a NSW prison. 

Some women who took on the role of matron or superintendent did have experience gained from working in other female institutions such as asylums or industrial/reformatory schools for girls. For the wardress however her pathway to working in a prison was more likely to be via a public service examination as was the case with Catherine (Kate) Josephine Brock.

Kate sat the public service examination in 1908 when she was 25 and began working for the department at Biloela Female Prison moving with the female prisoners to the State Reformatory for women, Long Bay in 1910 when it opened. 

Kate was the fourth daughter and fifth child of James Brock (a farmer on the Upper Macleay River) and Catherine, nee Cassin). Kate became a chief or principal wardress in 1934. She retired in 1946. It is difficult to find actual detail of her work and experience but there is no doubt she cut an imposing figure.  A photograph taken of her striding down a Sydney street in the 1930s shows a well dressed woman with her coatails flying behind here:

Catherine (Kate) Brock, walking along a Sydney Street in 1930, She would still have been working at the gaol and was in her early 50s.

Photograph courtesy of Margaret and Graeme Bell

A glimpse of her sense of her wry humour cab be gleaned from a story told by Zelma Wood (Kate and her sister Caroline attended Zelma Wood's wedding in Sydney in 1955), and the following tale was told by Kate herself:

Walking down a Sydney street one rainy day Kate was accosted by a woman calling out 'Oh, Miss Brock you don't have an umbrella?' Kate indeed did not have an umbrella and was becoming quite wet. The woman ducked into a store and appeared with an umbrella and a big smile before scampering off.  It was only after the woman had gone that Kate realised that the woman had nicked the umbrella from the store! The woman an ex-prisoner whom Kate had not immediately recognised from her time in prison. With a rueful smile Kate tole her listeners, 'what could i do but shrug my shoulders, put up the umbrella and walk on...'

A longer story of the Brock family and Kate's time as a wardress can be read in the August edition of the Macleay River Historical Society Journal....available from the Kempsey Museum see at:


Friday, August 14, 2020

Writing about women working in senior NSW Government posts: their recruitment, their survival in a male-dominated and harsh workplace environment.


I have been researching and writing about senior women appointed to the NSW prison service from the 1790s to around 1950.  


A couple of aspects to their recruitment and their survival or experiences are beginning to emerge.


The first is their work/life background  before their appointment.  For men appointed to the prison service a background in the military or the police is common. For women this was not the case of course as women's place in the military or the police service was limited in the 1900s and for the first half of the 20th century.


From 1861 the marriage  bar prevented the appointment of married women in the Public/Civil Service except for the wives of gaolers/governors in country goals. Until that date matrons appointed to gaols were the wives of the various governors/gaolers as was the case in most institutions such as asylums, orphanages, industrial and reformatory schools, etc.


The work  background of the  women appointed from 1861 was primarily as a matron or superintendent in an asylum or other like institutions.  One woman who was appointed as Matron in the female division of Darlinghurst in 1861 gave her occupation as housekeeper a position possibly seen as suitable for her appointment.

Other appointees  had worked for some years at an institutions for women or girls or had been a wardress at the gaol  for some years before being promoted.

It is the case that most of these women have not had their stories told and it is quite stark to see how the many men who worked in the prison system are given public accolades and recognition as a matter of course.

It is my aim to further write these women’s stories and provide greater awareness of their work, their experiences and their contribution to the welfare of female prisoners and reform of the prison system over that time.

This image of a wardress at Long Bay published in in a piece titled ‘Babies in Jail’

 by a journalist from Pix,  15 November 1952.  Children born in prison were allowed to stay with their mothers for a year or two when they would be removed to an orphanage or other institution.


Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Writing Family History: a note on how to write family history in 2020

How do I write my family history? Goodness, how many times have I been asked that question and I have answered, over the years and decades, in many ways through my workshops, books, writing my family stories and in talks and seminars....but of course how we write, and how we publish changes.  And just as history is now written in very different ways so too is family history.

Once it was enough to make lists of names and dates, perhaps as a pedigree often leaving out women's names as the purpose was to 'prove a line of descent,' through male lineage.  However, that emphasis on genealogy or an encyclopedic list of names is now less popular. Even the term family history is more common and denotes a broader, more inclusive approach to writing family stories.

It is true that as family historians we continue to map the many generations of families harking back to other centuries, other lands, these beginning somewhere outside our current place  unless we are indigenous.  It is also true that we 'choose' a line to research as family history – this is our favourite line, for me it was my mother’s family as I knew more about it.  And my mother told me many stories. For my father’s family my interest emerged much later.  My parents divorced in the 1950s and it was a time when such a separation was seen as difficult and my mother talked little about that time and certainly was not interested in that family history.

But as I aged and as I became more knowledgeable about family history I began researching my Kyle family history and was able to talk to my father and his many brothers and sisters before they passed on.  In fact 3 of my father’s sisters  are still going strong and they have given many insights and certainly stories for that side of the family.

We learn too, that family history iis made up of many different lines of ancestry from out parents and grandparents and these become increasingly complex if we were to  look at them all.  So we choose one or two lines  and simply focus specifically on that name or that lineage.

Nonetheless, in 2020 how we write our stories is very different to those first tentative steps we took in the 1970s and 1980s when the upsurge and interest in researching family history became popular.

What I see now in published family history and also in my own work is what I would call a mix of biography, memoir, history and family history.....we have become, along with other history, much more adventurous, much more imaginative and much more professional in how we research and then write our family histories.  Let me look at these four broad areas:

Biography  -  is to write the story of another person, in this case one of your family members.  There is little doubt that people are important in family history.  It is the lives of our ancestors, as we uncover them with our research, that shape and enliven our family stories.  It is possible today with the many online newspapers, birth/death/marriage records, government records, immigration and much more to fill out these biographies.  In the longer past how to find our ancestors lives is  more difficult but even then by looking at place in family (age, gender, large/small family, rural/city, poor/wealthy,  etc) you can assume much about that past and the people in it.

Memoir - an autobiography is the story of a life implying the writer will capture all elements of their life.  A memoir, on the other hand, does not replicate a whole life. Memoir can be stories or perceptions, of the author, on their own life, and on other peoples lives and events. In family history memoir can be simply that point in the story when you relate a story your mother/grandmother told you about the past and you comment on it because it changes what you knew about the family or it adds something or it challenges you...memoir is also your journey as a researcher and writer as you piece together the story and begin to understand it.

History -  adding in the 'big' picture is not a difficult nor a demanding task....each family story is unique but each story is familiar territory too. Family history is universal history. Birth, death, marriage, work, love, hope, joy anguish - these are common to all families, even in the long past.
As historians of our family, it is our job to link our stories, as much as it is possible, to the drama of neighbourhoods, to the hopes and dreams of local communities, and to the ebb and flow of national themes.  Historians, like all writers, draw inspiration from many sources;  memory, everyday experience, reading, work, film television. The literature we read - novels, biographies, historical and travel books, and the news section of newspapers or online - all provide creative stimulation for our writing.

Family History  -  is not everything that happened in the past!! Yes, it is true meticulous and systematic research is the cornerstone of good history. Writing family history is about asking questions?  Writing family history is writing about women and also about children, about aging and about conflict. Over the years I have learned much from family historians about research and indeed about writing. I have learned much from these students of life, of writing and family history, and am grateful for their wisdom, their generosity of spirit and their willingness to share. I have attended their monthly meetings where dedicated family historians support each other and where sharing of information, skills and technology are a given. In addition, there  is no doubt that family historians are some of the best historical researchers and their ability with and knowledge of online, digitised and new paper resources is amazing. But more than this  too.  Family history societies worldwide have incorporated citation, codes of ethics,, the stories of women, indigenous and migrant stories into  their family stories.And to ask the questions: how, who, where and in what historical help to shape the family narrative in a coherent and unique way.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Women working in NSW Gaols

I am conducting research into the lives/careers/family of women who worked in NSW female gaols in the nineteenth and first decades of the 20th century.  My look at other research seems to indicate a focus to date on the female prisoners, especially notorious/controversial women, and very little interest on the women (wardresses/matrons/superintendents/nurses/etc) who were appointed from the 1800s onwards.

My previous research (see for example):

Women’s Business Midwives on the Mid North Coast of NSW:
On Nurses and Midwives in Australian History

 into women who worked as independent midwives, teachers, nurses and in social welfares positions had a definite pattern to them.

 In the early decades the wives of male appointees (in the female factories, refuges, orphanages, industricl/reformatory schools, asylums etc)   would take on the role of overseeing womens' and girls' institutions and early research indicates that this was  followed in the female gaols as they were established.

I am especially interested in the women who were appointed to senior administrative positions in NSW gaols and/when/if they were appointed in their own right rather than under the superintendence of a male governor/gaoler. I am also interested in how these women were trained, their previous positions/experiences, their marital status, and their career/promotions etc....In fact the life trajectories of these women provide a window into the working and home lives of these women revealing interesting and unusual ways in which they did experience the times.

I have written one story of a young woman appointed as a wardress (later senior wardress) at the Women's Reformatory Long Bay. Catherine (Kate) Brock had a long career of more than 40 years and I was able to complete her biography due to records from the Kempsey Museum and from family descendants who shared information and photographs with me.  That story will be published in the August issue of the Macleay River Historical Society Journal.  Keep an eye out for it on their Facebook page at:

The research on these women's lives has been very compelling.  In some cases I cannot find as much information as I would like to - this is especially the case with single women but also is sometimes difficult with those who were married and/or widowed.  In all cases these lives are indeed complex and challenging to complete.  In case anyone who reads this has some information, here are  names I am particularly anxious to find out more about:
Alice Kate Chapman
Frances Mary Challis
Alicia Esther Cuffe
Kate Judith Bridgland
Grace Elisabeth Braithwaite
Jemima McLerie
Grace Tinckam
Female prisoner scrubbing at Long Bat 1940s

Grace Elizabeth Braithwaite

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Looking at locations in Genealogy


Be Precise When Looking for a Location

When you are looking for a particular location, make sure you have precise information at hand. One quarter of a mile can make the difference between a report of a rail accident being found in, say, the State Archives of North Carolina, versus the Library of Virginia! I was recently helping someone try to locate a report of an accident so that he could properly cite it. His copy had been acquired decades ago from someone else with no source information attached. The newspapers and found materials, including the report, always referred to the accident happening near Granite, NC. Well, it ends up that an annual report of the Virginia Corporation Commission mentions that the accident actually took place a quarter mile north of the NC/VA border; so in Virginia. That quarter mile was all the difference in the world. When dealing with events near a border whether city/town, county, state, or international, exact location can matter!
By Diane Richard, Internet Genealogy and Your Genealogy Today author

Just discovered the two US mags Internet Genealogy and Your Genealogy Today, see at:   and

Monday, October 21, 2019

Careers for History Majors

Through clear graphs and informal prose, readers will find hard data, practical advice, and answers to common questions about the study of history and the value it affords to individuals, their workplaces, and their communities. A resource for intellectual exploration and personal inspiration, it includes a statement shaped by cooperating faculty at over 100 colleges and universities describing the abilities and habits of mind that students develop in history programs at diverse institutions. The booklet’s contributors include alumni working in a wide range of fields and occupations as well as professional historians. Together, they suggest ways that today’s college students can prepare themselves to bring historical thinking to bear in solving tomorrow’s problems.
Current and prospective students, and their families, will discover an array of useful materials inside, as will career and academic advisers, faculty, program administrators, and staff. General readers can explore statistics, personal stories, and reflections on the many ways that a disciplined knowledge of the past—as well as the skills it takes to understand and communicate that past—empowers individuals to contribute and thrive in their academic, work, and civic lives.
For more resources from the American Historical Association, please visit 


"Introduction," by Sarah Fenton.
"A history degree doesn't narrow your opportunities after college. Instead, the history major opens a world of possibilities for your future. Federal government data show the variety of exciting career paths that history majors follow."

History Discipline Core

Many Paths, One Degree

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Writing a Childhood Memoir

For Noeline Kyle, the National Library’s oral histories provided a fresh view of her family and childhood

In the 1980s, Rob Willis, National Library folklorist and oral historian, began collecting stories of the dairy-farming families along the Nulla Nulla Creek on the Upper Macleay River, which runs through the hinterland between Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie. He completed more than 30 interviews of early settlers and their families. Many of these were with the Kyle family, including my father, Lawrence ‘Lawrie’ Kyle, who was interviewed in 2002 when he was 90 years of age, his sisters ‘Alice’ Grace Partridge and Mary Hudson, his brother Allan Kyle and cousins Vaughan Kyle, Brian Kyle, Geoffrey Kyle, Jack Kyle, Joe Kyle and Coral Ball. My father’s exploits, both the exciting and the problematic, emerged often enough in these interviews to fill a special recording of what Rob and I now refer to as TheLawrie Stories.
Angus McNeil Studio, Lawrence ‘Lawrie’ Kyle, aged mid-20s, c.1936
When Rob was collecting these stories, I was not yet writing a childhood memoir (Ghost Child: A Memoir) nor had I begun my search for the records. It was more than 20 years before my mind turned towards the idea of writing about that past. Rob was, by this time, in the latter stages of his recording for the Nulla Nulla Creek Project and he invited me to take part in some of the interviews he did with my aunts and uncles. It was not until some years later however that I began reading these oral histories more closely and I found a valuable source for my writing. I also found that this new material challenged my ideas of what that past had been.
Every childhood is lived in a family context (whatever form that family takes) and our family was struggling to survive for most of my early years. As well as writing a story of my childhood, I was also charting the beginning and the end of my parent’s marriage. The end came as I turned 15 and walked out the gate of the local school for the last time. Once the divorce was finalised, Mum did not speak Dad’s name again. For her, that past remained hurtful and harsh and she rarely talked about it except in negative terms. My parents spent the rest of their years well apart, in different states, leading very different lives. It was only in Dad’s old age that I was able to talk to him about his own childhood and adolescence.
But it was Rob’s interviews with Dad and other family members that gave me some fresh insights into that past. As I studied the fragments of my personal history, what I knew and how I knew it shifted inexorably towards a more nuanced view, and I began to see something else. It was not that the events that I remembered were now in greater doubt, but that how I knew them, how I interpreted them and how I told their story had become more porous and open.

Grace Partridge interviewed by Rob Willis, 2006, To see full picture captions, view the video in YouTube.
It is a truism to say that we remember the long past more fondly. Ask a family historian to name their favourite character from any part of the family story and invariably it is a grandmother or a great-grandmother or a great-grandfather. Time can place a romantic, sometimes uncritical, layer on memory. But it also makes sense that we remember this way. We know enough about a grandparent or great-grandparent to tell their stories, but these lives are far enough in that distant past to have lost that edgy currency of the present tense; that place where we know too much. We are less able to blur the closer, known, sharper memories we have of our parents and siblings; these are more challenging, sometimes painful, always raw. And so it is with my parents too.
Not surprisingly, most of the stories I heard about Dad, especially from my mother, were apocryphal – his worst faults, irresponsible behaviour, neglect of his family and an inability to earn enough to keep us fed and clothed. My elderly aunts, his sisters, tell me in their soft, gentle voices that ‘he had good points’. He was a good person, they say, he always helped others. Everyone agrees that he was a rogue, a charismatic charmer. And like all charming rogues, what I hear about Dad is both terrible and terrific. He could have been a preacher, a politician or a powerful advocate for change, but instead I hear that Dad was a small-time conman, a storyteller, a jack of all trades, a philanderer, a charlatan, a ne’er-do-well. How could I reconcile all of these versions of my father and also be true to my mother’s stories and my memories of that past?

Lawrie Kyle interviewed by Rob Willis, 2002, To see full picture captions, view the video in YouTube.
I have researched and written enough history, biography and family stories to know that human beings are not one-dimensional. I knew too that it would be wise to find a way to tell the stories of both my parents without malice and with some compassion. There was little doubt that Dad was a charismatic, irresponsible, unfaithful man and a neglectful father. Mum, on the other hand, was strong, resourceful, responsible, caring and always there. I cannot, could not, change any of that. But I can look back with empathy and wonder, with a renewed affection for that past. The Lawrie Stories have seeped into my consciousness too and have tempered my version of it. They do not negate my mother’s memories but add layers of complexity, of human endeavour and human frailty. They tell me of parents who did not always succeed, of a family waking each day to work hard, of parents who had little in the way of material comfort and of hard times that affected all the families who lived in that small dairy farming community along the Nulla Nulla Creek.
Noeline Kyle, Morning Mist, Kyle Farm, Nulla Nulla Creek
And so I have had to write these stories anew, unravel them and re-arrange the layers to write about my childhood. Both of my parents, in their own separate and singular ways, were full of potential, hardy and hopeful, and both lived long enough to enjoy long, healthy and productive lives well apart from each other. My childhood story is the richer for reading their lives more fully through Rob’s oral history. I can listen to their voices, hear them tell their own stories, know there was hope, understand the toughness, recognise the difficulties but also see the rich tapestry of their lives, over and over again. It is a gift. I am grateful for it.
Dr Noeline Kyle publishes women’s history, biography, memoir and she teaches and publishes widely on how to write family stories. She is an Emeritus Professor at Queensland University of Technology and an Honorary Professor within the Nursing History Research Unit at the University of Sydney.