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I’ve said it many times, much as I admire the women who were full of spirit and gumption in the past, there is no way I would like to share their lives other than in my books. I have often thought it would be great fun to be a time traveller so that I could return to the ages I have written about, just to be sure it really was as horrible, nasty and unhygienic as the historians tell us it was. But be sure, I am glad I live in a time when we have mod cons and the niceties in life.
When commenting on my historicals and time-travels I have always stressed my admiration for the women, especially those who had to endure tremendous hardships as the wives of the early settlers, regardless of what continent or time period. Even today, there are still women who have to endure all kinds of deprivation in certain countries where they have no running water or sanitation.
The inspiration for book one in my Settlers Series came from a book I happened upon at the library. This gem contained letters sent home to the country of their birth by women who, whether by choice or circumstance, were forced to follow their menfolk into what must have seemed like the gates of hell to them. Most of these women left comfortable lives in Britain, brought up in genteel households that possessed, if not running water and heating at a touch, in some cases housemaids to pander to their needs. Elizabeth Hawkins sent letters home telling of the journey across unfriendly seas and then the trek in 1822 across the Blue Mountains west of Botany Bay to a fledgling Bathurst, where her husband was to take up a position as Commissariat Storekeeper. This family were the first free settlers to cross the barrier of the mountains. They travelled with eight offspring aged from I to 12, and Elizabeth’s 70-year-old mother. If you read Mystic Mountains, you will see just why I hold women like Elizabeth and her mother in such high esteem. On top of enduring the constraints of a corset in much hotter weather than they were accustomed to, there was the lurking threat of snakes and venomous creatures they would never have encountered in their homeland.
Love, as the song goes, is a many splendoured thing. It convinced many women to get on a sailing ship that would take them and often their children to a far off country on the other side of the world. Apart from the odd snippet garnered from newspapers or the like, of the conditions in this New World, they had sparse knowledge of what awaited them. I’ve seen enough movies set on sailing vessels in the 1800s to understand the horrendous conditions aboard a ship that took weeks upon endless weeks to reach its destination. I recently viewed “To the Ends of The Earth” a series on TV with Benedict Cumberbatch. As a naïve young gentleman, his character is on his way to take up a Government post in Australia. This movie brought home more than some just how horrendous the conditions were aboard a sailing vessel, even if you were a man of substance assigned a cabin of your own.
Life in the fledgling colony was horrendous for the women who were transported, in some cases for petty crimes, such as stealing a loaf of bread to feed their children or perhaps taking a fancy to a strip of ribbon or a bauble of little value that wasn’t theirs to take.
My third book in this series starts in 1840 when certain improvements had been made, but even so, conditions were still unsanitary. My characters take off from Sydney Town on a trek to seek out adventure in a new colony recently settled down south in Port Phillip. The journey took a month—that’s four weeks travelling over a barely surveyed land on horseback. The threat of escaped convicts turned bushrangers lurked, even the scattering of inns along the way were ill prepared for travellers. Forget bathrooms or hot and cold running water. Then there was always the other inconvenience shared by young women—imagine a life with no sanitary products.
My heroine appreciates the magnificent achievements of the earlier settlers and her wish is to do something similar with her life. Women such as Caroline Chisolm, who recognised the need for assisting migrant women who arrived in Sydney but could not secure employment. Apart from sheltering many new arrivals in her own home, she took groups of them out to the bush where they easily found work with the settlers. By 1846 when she returned to England she had helped about eleven thousand people to either find work or establish themselves as farmers in outback New South Wales. Without her assistance, many of these women would have been forced to walk the streets as prostitutes in order to survive.
I guess my admiration for strong women stems from the high regard I hold for two special women in my life. Our mother reared ten children through two world wars and depressions, without the help of a washing machine, or any of the other appliances we take for granted these days. She struggled daily to make ends meet but always put a meal on the table for her children and our father, probably surviving herself on a mouthful or two. I rarely heard her complain—women just ‘got on with it’ in those days. The other woman was my dear sister whose life I have written about in “Crying is for Babies.”
Could be the reason why I have little patience for people who moan about their lot in life, as they chatter on their mobiles—or drive about in their cars.
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