Saturday, August 14, 2021


For women staff in the NSW prison service the marriage bar operated from 1861 (similar to UK) and was not lifted until the 1980s.
But, like all rules there were always exceptions. Married women (wives of gaolers) continued to be employed as matrons in country gaols until the mid 20th century, and they were appointed also to difficult to fill areas until the later years of the 19th century.
My research is looking at senior appointments only, but for those interested in women staff at a country gaol, a recent book by Pamela B Harrison, Confined but free: The female staff of Maitland Gaol in the 19th century, 2021, covers all the women employed and is a fascinating read, you can buy copies of the book from Maitland Gaol, PO Box 249, East Maitland, 02 49366482, see their website at:
I have found only one woman appointed to a senior position as the Assistant Superintendent at Long Bay in 1947 until June 1949 who was married. As far as I can ascertain her husband died in 1954 three years before she did. I thought that perhaps they might have separated. I can’t find a divorce and I can’t visit State Archives, where there is information, until restrictions are lifted in Sydney.
This woman had been first appointed as a warder at Bileola Gaol in 1907, and was already a Principal Warder (a senior position) before she was appointed as Superintendent and I think she was a permanent employee. Her husband had served in WW1 and WW2 although while he was training for overseas deployment for WW2 he was involved in a serious accident and suffered serious injuries to his head and he was discharged as medically unfit. I thought also perhaps he might have been an invalid and she was employed on compassionate grounds.
I hope to post again about my research. It is always a diverse and sometimes frustrating time doing research on women’s professions. Women staff in NSW Gaols has not proved any easier than much of my previous work on women teachers, nurses, midwives and women employed in Industrial and Reformatory Schools for Girls. I am in a final draft of the book with COVID providing ample time for me to sit down at the computer, ha ha..
The following images are of Maitland Gaol and of Bedford Gaol in 1820 where one of the women I am researching worked as a matron until she immigrated to NSW.

Friday, January 22, 2021

 Hello Everyone,

I am no longer on Facebook as my Facebook was hacked.  I have deleted my Facebook and Messenger and am staying away from it for the time being.  

I will still be posting to my Linked In and on this blog.  


23 January 2021

Thursday, December 3, 2020

 A note on writing narrative history - from my desk as I sit with a broken foot!!!

I have been hamstrung with a foot fracture and now had an operation on the foot and have spent many days and hours now sitting as I am unable to put the foot down ,,,a few weeks to go.   

But what this hiatus in my normally physically active life has led me do is to look at some of my notes from the many workshops I have presented over the last 30 odd years...of course you can read so much on the internet now that is useful and specific to your writing of family or local history, also memoir or biography.  

At the same time writing remains one of the more difficult tasks to do well.  None of us are born writers, and good writing will always be a product of practice, practice, practice. I have written many words, have been published and am mostly able to produce readable prose but each time I sit down to write it is not always easy to construct the historical story that will have both a universal appeal and a storyline that is well written, logical, interesting and highly readable.  I have said however, many times over that  everyone can learn write and write well.  The following is just one piece from notes I made re narrative history:

Narrative history

Narrative is very like chronology in that it follows a logical progress with a beginning, middle, and  end.  However, if you look it up on the internet or in the many books on writing, narrative writing will be described as writing a story.  That is, writing it so that we want to know what comes next.  We are told one event and then we want to know what comes next.  This is called narrative tension or narrative pull.  You see it yourself when you listen to a serial or watch a soapie on TV, and we want to know if the murderer will be caught or if the young couple who have an argument do get back together. It is very much a key way of writing stories so that  the reader, will want to to read it to the end. 

How do we fit this with narrative history?  What is narrative history?  I like Ann Curthoy’s description in her book How to Write History that People Want to Read, where she says:

Most history books are in a narrative form.  They tell a story and show the movement of people and events through time.  They also offer analysis and description.  The problem for the historian is how to combine narrative, analysis and description:  the questions;

How chronological should I be, and how thematic?

How do I describe something that changes over time?

Do I simply tell a story, or do I discuss what is happening, compare this story with other stories, draw conclusions?

How do I make my story interesting, make people want to find out what happened?

How much should I focus on my subject and how much context should I give?

Narrative is powerful because it arouses the irresistible desire to know what happens next.  Therefore, your chronology must have themes to be more than an orderly list; chronology will also have various narratives and perhaps an overall narrative as well, topics will have a variety. of themes, she says to experiment with the possibilities, see Pattie Miller's books Writing your life: a journey of discovery  and The Memoir Book great starting points for understanding and writing narrative history.  

Here are some hints for writing narrative:

Let there be light and shade – if you give everything the same emphasis it will be flat and uninteresting.

Include enough information – the reader does not know what you know, too many gaps and the reader will fall through.

But you don’t have to tell everything that happened – readers like to make a few leaps of their own, let the reader make the connections sometimes.

Withhold – don’t spill the beans on the first page.  You know what is in the middle and the end, but hold back and allow the reader to find out as they read.

Maintain narrative tension – don’t pre-empt something that will happen later.  If you let slip that someone became a doctor or a successful farmer while you are writing the scene when he/she is lost and alone and unable to cope, the narrative tension will not work.

Re-read narrates you have enjoyed by other writer

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.