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Author Q&A: Tanya Evans on the history of the disadvantaged

IHM: What would be your top tips for researchers using The Benevolent Society to learn more about their ancestors?
Tanya: Their first port of call needs to be Heather and Martyn’s database, where they can get top tips about the administration of the Society and search the register of admissions.

A trip to the State Library NSW is definitely worthwhile, especially if some detail can be found in the register. Remember to apply for permission from The Benevolent Society before heading there. The collection is huge and the catalogue available in the library is worth a detailed look to understand more about how the charity functioned and what records might be most helpful to you. I also suggest talking to as many people as possible about your research.

If your ancestor utilised the asylum during the 19th century then I also recommend listening to this Radio National Hindsight program.

IHM: Was there any information or personal stories you uncovered that stopped you in your tracks, or touched you personally?
Tanya: One of the stories that touched me most was that of Jane Kelly Digby. She came to NSW from Ireland with her sister. They were Irish potato famine orphans and they settled in Yass where they worked as domestic servants.

Jane co-habited with and later married a man who became so violent towards her that she was hospitalised. She was forced to leave their five children with him because he refused to support her if she lived independently from him. In fear for her life, she left him, got a job as a servant and began a co-habitational relationship with another man, with whom she had another five children.

He was not a good choice of mate either. As an itinerant worker she was frequently left to cope on her own with their children. He eventually deserted her and she walked to Sydney from Yass with three of her children to seek relief.

One of those children died and the 2 surviving children moved in and out of the Benevolent Asylum. These two children were eventually admitted into the Randwick Asylum and became domestic servants.

Another descendant has worked hard on piecing together their story. Jane’s life remained desperate. She struggled with alcoholism and a feisty temper and slipped in and out of jail and other asylums for the rest of her life. She eventually died of TB in St Vincent’s Hospital at the age of 42.

She had such a desperate life but it deserves to be remembered and memorialised so that we understand more about her circumstances and the limited options she had as she moved through the life cycle.

Jane’s descendant, Julie Poulter, infected me with her enthusiasm for Jane’s history. She is concerned that only successful migrants are celebrated in Australia’s history.

It is important that we remember the unfortunate as well as the fortunate.

I am optimistic that the book leaves readers with a sense of hope and knowing something about how historical knowledge can enable researchers to think differently about their nation’s history as well as their family’s past.

I was delighted when family historians working on the White family, Anne Coote and Jeff White, came together as a result of this project. Anne had spent years working on her ancestor Sarah White, while Jeff had been working on Sarah’s brothers, William and Weeks White, not knowing about Sarah’s existence.

The White family migrated from Kent in 1874. Sarah was admitted into the Benevolent Asylum three times between 1877 and 1882 and had a number of illegitimate children, while William became a prominent philanthropist who supported The Benevolent Society as he established his wealth and reputation in the colony as a Baptist baker. The family seemed to tolerate Sarah’s misfortunes, despite the risk to their familial reputation. She eventually married and settled in Hurstville. I am heartened by the fact that she was left a small provision in her father’s will and her brothers did not abandon her, despite her moral transgressions.

IHM: If you could track down one thing you haven’t yet managed to find out, what would it be?
Tanya: This might be a surprising answer – I’m not desperately trying to trace more details of some of the clients of The Benevolent Society but I would love to learn more about the biography of Arthur Renwick. Renwick was the medical officer who transformed the care provided at the asylum, started the cutting-edge maternity facility and worked tirelessly for the boarding out of children as well as the old age pension.

Sir Arthur Renwick, c.1917. Image courtesy of The Benevolent Society.
Sir Arthur Renwick, c.1917. Image courtesy of The Benevolent Society.

You would think it would be easy to find out more about his life. There is an excellent ADB entry on him and I have been planning for months to take a trip to Canberra to research through his file at the ADB but I just haven’t found the time while teaching. I hope to make a trip to Canberra soon to discover more about him. I am really interested in understanding more about the individuals who placed themselves at the forefront of social welfare reform in the late 19th century.

One of the key lessons of historical research is that it never stops – we have to come to an end to produce articles and books on our subjects but there is always more to do and learn. This is what makes it such fun!

IHM: What’s your best tip for people wanting to write a history book of their own?
Tanya: Read as widely as possible, think carefully about your audience and steel yourself for criticism.

This is an extended version of a story that originally appeared in issue 29 of Inside History.

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