There’s No Place Like Home: My “Return to Oz” History

By Michaela Ann Cameron

Phot by Peter Kelly, Parramatta Advertiser, 11 November 2015
Me at Brislington House promoting the Convict Parramatta walking tour I developed for the free Dictionary of Sydney Walks app. Photo by Peter Kelly, Parramatta Advertiser, 11 November 2015

The local newspaper, the Parramatta Advertiser, ran a story today about CONVICT PARRAMATTA, the walking tour I developed for the free Dictionary of Sydney Walks app. For the story I was photographed at Brislington, one of the historic sites featured on the tour, and interviewed by Deborah FitzGerald. There is a feature pic on p.2 and you can read the full story on pp.8-9 of the online edition of the Parramatta Advertiser here.

During the interview, Deborah FitzGerald asked me whether or not I thought we had lost touch with our local history and, if so, why did I think this was the case?

It was a question that really struck a chord with me, because the whole 18 months I had been working on the CONVICT PARRAMATTA project, I was keenly aware that I was experiencing a bit of a Dorothy Gale moment…

You see, if you had told me just a couple of years ago that by November 2015 I would have a blog, an Instagram, two Facebook pages (The Old Parramattan and The Female Factory Online), and a Twitter account all focused on Parramatta’s history, and that I’d be responsible for developing an app about Convict Parramatta, I would have thought you’d had “quite a bump on the head,” to use Dorothy’s Uncle’s phrase. Not so long ago, this “Old Parramattan” was the person most unlikely to do any of these things.

In fact, if you want to know the truth, I was completely alienated from Australian History altogether! [gasp!]

When I think back, it’s inconceivable that I could have developed such an anti-Australian History attitude. As a very young child I had an historical sensibility and I declared that I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up. (My fair skin and a dislike for being outdoors in the hot sun made this seem less practical over time). I visited Old Government House at Parramatta with my family and loved feeling as though I had stepped back into another time by walking through that beautiful old building. And I have really fond and vivid memories of school history excursions, too. In 1996, for example, my twelve-year-old self visited Hyde Park Barracks Museum with my fellow Year 7s. Among the displays were countless artefacts discovered beneath the floorboards but…

one tiny object in particular truly captivated me. A gnarly toenail clipping. I was grossed out and thoroughly impressed all at the same time!

The gnarly toe nail that changed my life at Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney.
The gnarly toe nail that changed my life at Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney.

Here, right before me, was this fragment of a human being who had all but disappeared from the face of the earth. That toenail had downright obstinately refused to surrender to Time. Not even the glass betwixt myself and the gnarly toenail could ever dissever the closeness I now felt to the past.

It is not surprising that I credit my encounter with that toenail as a key moment that led to me becoming an historian. Ultimately, though, it was a general love of the past that I took from that experience. Somewhere along the line, the more specific connection to the convict history that the Hyde Park Barracks museum presented so masterfully had slipped through the cracks of the floorboards of my life, only to be rediscovered much, much later.

How did a history-loving girl who lived her whole life in historic Parramatta become so disconnected from and ignorant of the history in her own backyard?

The problem was that the trip to Hyde Park Barracks and through The Rocks, and to Elizabeth Farm were part of the convict and aboriginal history topic we studied for a single school term in Year 7; literally just a couple of months. And how much can a 12 year old really grasp anyway? I never got to revisit any of these important topics when I might have had the intellectual capacity to study them in more depth and the emotional intelligence to appreciate what the convicts and aboriginal peoples went through.

IMG_1961The Parramatta Female Factory, an incredibly significant site, wasn’t mentioned to me even once. I was utterly oblivious to its existence as a major institution in the convict world and certainly had no idea that much of the original Female Factory is still extant in a location that is a mere 10-minute car ride away from where I lived! Convict women “poured forth thick as bees from a hive” over the town of Parramatta like “Amazonian banditti” in a riot at that site in October 1827, but it was as though these incredible things simply never happened at all.

I’m not blaming my History teachers at school. They were truly wonderful, gifted, inspiring teachers and played a huge role in setting me on the path to becoming an historian! Having obtained a teaching qualification myself, I know that teachers are required to adhere to “the syllabus.” As individuals they don’t have as much freedom as people might think to teach what they want to teach and the way they want to teach it.

Moreover, it would be wrong to assume that History as a school subject is one that is always taught for History’s sake. Indeed, more than any other school subject, there is a clear political agenda running through any History syllabus, which is a major reason why most of the attention in my Australian History classes was given to war…I learnt about both World Wars and the Vietnam War. My great-grandfather served at Gallipoli and went on to fight in France, then served in World War II as well. My grandfather also served in World War II, so learning about the wars meant I proudly marched and sang as a member of the school choir at local ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day celebrations with a good understanding of my family’s war service.


I remember crying so hard while watching the classic Aussie film Gallipoli in class when I was about 14 that I had to use my (very) long hair to mop up the tears from my face! But Australian History ended there for me. (By the way, I wasn’t the only one crying…I was just the most flamboyant about it).

In 2000, if my memory serves, Australian History became compulsory for Year 9s and 10s to study because Australian History was being included as an assessable subject for the Year 10 School Certificate. However, I was in Year 10 in 1999, which meant my year was the last to be assessed on Maths, Science, and English only. Thus, when I was in Years 9 and 10, I was taught anything but Australian History! There was more of a World History focus.

I did a bit of medieval history in Year 9. As part of that topic, we had a medieval dress-up day and I had to do an empathy task. I created the character of a medieval shoemaker and wrote about a typical day in his life (from his perspective) for a pretend “time capsule.” I humanised my shoemaker, getting him to say things like, “Everyone likes my shoes best!” and I eagerly embraced the “horrible history” side of things, incorporating all I had learnt in class about the nasty sensory world of the middle ages. For example, I had my poor shoemaker slip and fall on his neighbour’s excrement, which had been disposed of on the cobblestones outside the shoemaker’s front door. All these years later, I’ve been known to get excited about a partially-excavated privy system (see my Heritage Courtyard post) and I still write about powerful sensory experiences, as I am what is called a “sensory historian.”  As an “ethnohistorian,” (another label I’m identifiable by) I don’t write about fictitious medieval shoemakers but what hasn’t changed is my love of getting to know and bringing to life the stories and experiences of real everyday and/or marginalised people that traditional history neglects: the “others.”

I also learnt about the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Celts in those middle years of high school. My Extension History major project in Year 12 ended up being about the Celts and Romans, as I was really into Celtic history at the time.

We had a little taste of some American history as an elective topic, which gave me the opportunity to learn a bit about the American Civil War and Native Americans. We watched the Civil War film Glory featuring Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick and The Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day Lewis and Madeleine Stowe, both of which I LOVED

James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757, Illustrated by N.C. Wyeth [1874]
Is it mere coincidence that years later I tutored a course on the American Civil War at USYD or that both my Honours and PhD theses are about colonial American history with a focus on cross cultural interactions between Native Americans and the French? No! ‘Tisn’t! Indeed, lines from James Fenimore Cooper’s book The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 featured heavily in my Honours thesis.

As a teenager I discovered that The Last of the Mohicans had been inspired by real “captivity narratives,” and got hooked on reading them and staring at the photos of the tattooed Olive Oatman, who was taken captive in 1851, aged 14.

olive oatman
Olive Oatman.

Captivity narratives were written by and/or about white settlers who were taken captive in surprise attacks by indigenous warriors. The captives were marched back to the warriors’ village to be tortured to death or, alternatively, to be adopted as a replacement for a dead member of the warriors’ community or kept as a slave. Many captives returned to white society, such as Mary Rowlandson [1682] and Olive Oatman, but I was really fascinated by the stories of “the white Indians”; those who preferred to stay with their captors, such as Mary Jemison and “the unredeemed captive” Eunice Williams. Captivated by another culture and completely alienated from their own…I suppose I could relate to them in some small way…

I also seem to recall sitting in an end-of-term History exam and being asked what year Elvis died and the name he gave to his Memphis home. I guess Elvis was part of the “American History” elective along with the Mohicans and Civil War soldiers…Well, Elvis was part Cherokee and went through that whole Civil War phase with the big sideburns and the epic medley of Civil War era songs, An American Trilogyso that makes sense…

For my senior years at high school, I opted for Ancient History. I knew I liked “really old stuff” and I was equally certain that I didn’t want to take Modern History as I didn’t want to learn about Russia etc etc. I took Extension History and had to do JFK. Hated it! Sorry, I know a lot of people love that topic but I personally can’t think of anything worse…

Other than the war topics, then, I had had no connection to Australian History at all since I was 12 years old.

Tintype of Black Union Soldier, J. L. Balldwin c. 1863, Chicago History Museum, ICHi-22172
Tintype of Black Union Soldier, J. L. Balldwin
c. 1863, Chicago History Museum, ICHi-22172

Small wonder that upon becoming a History major at USYD, I specialised in American History! My choice to specialise was helped by the fact that right when I was entering my second year of uni, a number of new American history academics began teaching at USYD and the courses they were offering really appealed to me: American Cultural History, A History of the United States to 1865, The American Civil War, The Black Experience in the Americas, and Natives and Newcomers (to name just a few of the American history courses I took!)

Buffy Sainte-Marie, circa 1970. Photo: Flare [2013]
Buffy Sainte-Marie, circa 1970. Photo: Flare [2013]
In addition to my life long passion for History, I am also a classically trained singer, dancer, and musician with a penchant for folk music and, in amongst my wide listening experiences, I had been listening a lot to Cree singer, songwriter, digital artist, and activist, Buffy Sainte-Marie. Listening to Buffy had a profound effect on me musically, but what I didn’t know was how much of an influence she was about to have on me academically…

Right when I was choosing a research topic for my Honours thesis, Shane White guest lectured for one of the pre-Honours courses I had to complete. At that time, Shane White and Graham White were “discovering African American History through songs, sermons and speech” in their book, The Sounds of Slavery. 

Shane White and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery, [2006]
Shane White and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery, [2006]
If it was possible for White and White to write about the soundways of slaves, I thought it might also be possible for me to write about the soundways of the equally rich auditory cultures of Native Americans…but it was really just a passing thought I had during Shane White’s lecture. It wasn’t until I had a chat with my thesis supervisor, Mike McDonnell, who pushed me in that direction as well, that I really felt confident to tackle it. And that research topic has been a part of my life ever since…

The rather strange historical path I had walked ultimately led to an amusing incident years later. Three years into my PhD thesis I suspended those studies in order to get my secondary teaching qualification. I was sent to a high school (which shall remain nameless) for a pre-practicum visit and was abused by an outraged old battle-axe in a mauve jumper in a cluttered staffroom the size of a storeroom (literally) because I hadn’t studied any Australian History!

Miss Mauve.
Miss Mauve.

She didn’t know me from a bar o’ soap or what my qualifications were, because she hadn’t even bothered to say “hello” or introduce herself before she harangued me. So, I politely set her straight on why it was thus and what was the reason for this thusness and then “reassured” her that my doctoral level studies in History would likely ensure that the students would be in safe hands regardless. Her embarrassment was doubled when, soon after, a young teacher working at the school walked in and recognised me as her tutor in the American Civil War course at USYD the year before! Suffice it to say, Miss Mauve might not have been so quick to make assumptions about prac teachers after that encounter! But I guess her outrage just highlights how absurd it really was that I, of all people, had somehow avoided Australian History for so long!

There is no doubt that the way history is taught at schools has significant lasting effects and certainly did have on me. I’d say those effects were still positive rather than negative because what I missed in Australian History I gained in World History, and that clearly set me on a path to being a colonial American sensory historian. I love my PhD topic, so “I regret nothing!”

Screen shot 2015-11-11 at 10.35.03 AM copy
The back wall of Brislington. Photo: Peter Kelly, Parramatta Advertiser, 11 November 2015

On t’other hand, having now discovered the history in my own backyard, I feel so much more connected to the place I’ve called home my whole life and which my family has called home since 1801. Even this incredible fact – that my family have lived in Parramatta continuously since 1801 – was hidden from me until, inspired by the TV show Who Do You Think You Are, I started researching my mother’s family tree. My whole life I had passed by St John’s Cemetery in Parramatta on my way out of Westfield shopping centre without any idea that an entire branch of my family tree was buried in there or that one of them, Lydia Barber, was the oldest of my Old Parramattans and…A CONVICT. (One of my many convicts I’ve come to know and love).

The fact that this knowledge was not orally transmitted within our family reveals that

the true answer to how I became disconnected from my own personal, local and national history is a very complex one.

There is no single reason that happened; yes, the way History is taught in high school was evidently a major factor, but so was the fact that the older generations of my family were tight-lipped about the past. This reluctance to speak about the past was understandable where the war veterans in my family were concerned. It was a cultural thing, too, a general desire to just get on with living and to not gossip about what has already been said and done.

But this black hole where my history ought to have been must have also been a consequence of “the convict stain.” Until quite recently, having a convict or two (or 7!) in the tree was one of those “unmentionables,” because there was a real stigma to being descended from convicts even though so many of us are. It’s estimated that between 1 in 5 and 1 in 7 Australians are descended from women who went through the Female Factory system!

IMG_6650This complete avoidance of the convict history means I can only assume that when my great grandfather, Harold, found himself in Dorset whilst recovering from wounds obtained in battle at Gallipoli and later France, he likely had no idea that he was the great-great grandson of the afore-mentioned convict “Lydia,” who hailed from the village of “Melbury Osmond” in Dorset – not far from where he met and married his own Dorset girl: Ivy. Oh! How I wish he could have known! Then again, he may not have shared my fascination with time and, thus, might have cared not a jot if he had known!

The major point to take away is that this kind of knowledge really does change the way you relate to the place in which you live. Without question, it has deepened my experience of living in Parramatta and, more broadly, Sydney. Walking through Parramatta will never be the same for me again, no matter how much the cityscape changes with all the development that is currently underway. When I’m out and about, I always see Old Parramatta now as well as the new. Knowing how transformative that can be, I didn’t want my new-found knowledge to be something that I alone benefited from. I wanted to share those discoveries with others and help them feel more connected to the history that is all around us and part of us. So, I sought out opportunities to talk about that history on a more public level than an academic would traditionally aim to do. Though I didn’t know it at the time, sharing my experiences on Yelp and creating an Instagram account @oldparramatta were little stepping stones to the larger Convict Parramatta project I undertook at the Dictionary of Sydney.

My “return to Oz” history has been a true labour of love that has taught me to value and make use of everything I have around me.

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”
L. Frank Baum,The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

There’s no place like home! Then again, this Parramatta project has done something else I never anticipated…It has informed and enriched my adventures in that other world I explore over the rainbow: the east coast of early seventeenth-century America. I consider myself very fortunate indeed to be able to flit between both worlds now as often as I please.

Download the free “Dictionary of Sydney Walks” app on Google Play and the App Store.

© Michaela Ann Cameron, 2015