Laundry Lists and Wattle Trees
When I wrote Captain Swing and the Blacksmith I was focused on the drama of the events of 1830 and did not cast my mind to the next chapter of the story. What happened to the 322 Swing rioters who were transported to Tasmania and the 139 to New South Wales?
The Proteus and Eliza sailed out in 1831 to Tasmania, at a time of early colonial occupation. A further boat, The Eleanor, carried the remaining machine breakers to the mainland. A holocaust of the indigenous Aboriginal people was under way, and the brutality of this period of the island’s history is superbly drawn with harrowing beauty in Jennifer Kent’s 2019 film, ‘The Nightingale’.
Hobsbawm and Rude’s definitive history ‘Captain Swing’ describes the machine breakers’ fate: ‘It is almost certain that the great majority lived out their lives as farmers and tradesmen, craftsmen, stockmen or labourers on the Island’ 
But that is all they tell us. In Bruce W. Brown’s 2004 paper he researches extensively into the lives of these men in Tasmania, and a more complex journey unfolds. Many of them became highly successful established farmers, businessmen and landlords. Others prospered in their original trade; shoemakers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths are mentioned, and then went on to form part of the backbone of Australian society. After their freedom was granted, around 50 returned home, yet those men were destined to return to the same level in society where they started, as ploughmen or semi-skilled labourers. A large group crossed the Bass straits to find fortune in the gold rush and the booming building trade.
Of the 150 men who remained in Van Diemen’s land, some lived out their lives as farm workers but those with ambition, whose background in England would have stalled success, were able to find success in the expansion of the island.
‘Up to half a dozen of those who remained in the colony could rightly claim to have become wealthy and another dozen at least became financially comfortable as landowners, businessmen or tradesmen.’
Last year, I cleared out the bottom drawer of an old chest belonging to my late mother-in-law. Among old receipts, used wrapping paper and the debris of every-day life were interwoven a host of archival treasures. Hand-made books of limericks from the World War I, letters of thanks to a surgeon for saving their son’s life and a host of personal fragments, beginning almost 200 years ago. On a buff laundry note book, instead of a record of how many tablecloths needed to be cleaned, Great Aunt Lou had written in pencil the memoir of her mother, my husband’s Great-Great Grandmother, Annie Beauchamp.
In just 1500 words, Great Aunt Lou tells a tale of Brontesque magnitude in a world with little regard for human rights or freedoms. Annie was born in Tasmania, then Van Diemen’s Land, in 1834, a year after her mother arrived from Taunton and three years after the Proteus and Eliza arrived with the luckless rioters. It is fanciful, perhaps, but not so unlikely, that she would have crossed paths with the prisoners as they carved out new lives once their seven-year sentences were over.
When she was seven years old her mother died, leaving Annie, her sister Louise and older brother Frederick effectively orphaned as their father married their nanny who was an abusive stepmother. The father, like in all good fairy tales, was oblivious to her violence and emotional torture and left soon after for California to seek his fortune. Thankfully, just before leaving he removed them from her care after witnessing her thumping Louise’s ears. Annie had had enough; although still a child she found the strength and gumption to attack their tormentor with a riding crop and call attention to her father, who finally acknowledged that something had to be done.
Things went from bad to worse: Annie was parcelled out from relative to relative, moving to Melbourne where she helped her beleaguered step-sister (Aunt G) care for multiple children; ‘Mother longed to get away from babies. I think Aunt G had eleven, and mother wished never to have children. One cannot be surprised.’
When Annie was 19, a marriage was arranged for her to the son of an established family who had prospered in goldmining and the auction trade. He was 10 years older and she had no care for him, so refused. She was locked in her room and starved until due to her weakened state, she relented. She went on to have eight children in quick succession with Horatio Beauchamp, and Aunt Lou states, ‘but my mother grew to respect him, and eventually to love him.’ I so hope that was the case.
Adjectives used to describe Annie are witty, vivacious and sparkling. Those qualities must have helped her survive a life that was essentially not her own. Aunt Lou describes her mother’s character with succinct clarity, ‘with her own people, she shone brilliantly and would soon have them all laughing heartily at her funny sayings. Strangers she never sought. Her nature was extraordinarily restless.’
There is an evocative section titled ‘Some of Mother’s Earliest Recollections’.
‘A most beautiful spring day, and the wattle trees a mass of bloom; and crossing a stream with clearest of running water, and were afraid the water would reach their feet: my mother’s love of nature and the beautiful, was intense.’
Wattle trees are prolific in South-Eastern Australia and burst into a mass of golden flowers in the spring. The poem ‘Wattle Tree’ by Judith Wright begins:
Oh, that I knew that word!
I should cry loud, louder than any bird.
Oh, let me live forever, I would cry.
For that word makes immortal what would wordless die;
and perfectly, and passionately,
welds love and time into the seed,
till tree renews itself and is forever tree…
You can read the whole poem here:
The seeds of the Wattle Tree are the words of the poet, planting ideas, ambitions and movement through generations. The word fragments left to us from ancestors on cards, letters and diaries are precious seeds which ignite new thought, new beginnings and journeys. These ‘wordseeds’ allow regeneration in the present and the immortality of the family tree.
The words written hurriedly on a laundry record, offer a glimmer into the life of Annie Beauchamp, nee Lassetter, whose attempts at independence were effectively stamped out. And this life could have easily been put in the bin as I was clearing out the drawer. In this family, the women have been the keepers of stories: squirreling away letters and objects, stuffing photos and certificates into manila envelopes, labelling in haste. They haven’t had the time to order anything properly; there was always a dinner to cook, charity events, laundry lists, heartbreak, wars to prepare for. Children to love and to mourn. Tragedies to comprehend and survive. Yet they knew the past was important, and each did their share in preserving the scraps of paper that filled a drawer full of tales of other worlds.
Annie had something in common with the rioters, a rebellion swiftly met with harsh penalties. Yet, for them, it seems transportation gave them opportunities they could never have dreamed of in the class-riddled society of the English shires. She found freedom after her husband’s death 42 years later and came to England for the first time: ‘She never liked the land of her birth, nor its climate, and never rested until she came to England, having previously sent her eldest son and daughter,’ writes Aunt Lou. In her dotage, Annie found peace at last in the place of her ancestors - a place she knew without knowing.
Louise Beauchamp, Memories of Annie Louise Beauchamp, date unknown
Bruce W. Brown, The Machine Breaker Convicts from the Proteus and the Eliza, University of Tasmania, 2004
E.J. Hobsbawm and G. Rude, Captain Swing, London 1969