Lynette Mcdermott, an Australian author, is writing a trilogy based on the surprising story of how her ancestors came to Australia. Welcome, Lynette and thanks for being on A Writer of History.
What mix of twisting coils of DNA made me who I am? What meld of events and environment put me in the place where I was born? Not everyone has the drive to find those answers about themselves. Not everyone wonders where the colour of their eyes came from, why they have the names they have, where that seemingly innate talent or love of something comes from.
The Garth Trilogy was born of a desire to find those answers.
We can’t start at the beginning, although it is said in studies of human genetics that every living human today descended in an unbroken line on their mother’s side from “Mitochondrial Eve” who lived over 100,000 years ago … so perhaps you and I are related…??
Finding out answers to who we are does not directly take one down the path of writing an historical fiction and when I first started undertaking research on my family history, writing a novel about the lives of my ancestors was not in my mind. I had intended to simply make a record for myself of our family tree. It was only when I discovered who some of my ancestors were that I realised what amazing stories they had, stories that demanded to be written.
About 10 years ago my aunt was on an excursion to an historical town called Berrima in New South Wales, Australia. My aunt’s middle name is Garth, she knew her great grandfather’s name had been Edward Garth but otherwise she had no knowledge of the family from whom she was descended.
Whilst at the Berrima she came across a register of people who had travelled on the First Fleet to Australia from Great Britain in 1788 and on that register was a person by the name of Edward Garth. This immediately drew her attention and sparked her curiosity, maybe … just maybe, she was related to this Edward Garth, a convict!
When my aunt told this to me we began digging, looking back over the generations of our ancestors and eventually came to discover that indeed the Edward Garth who was on the First Fleet was our ancestor, my great, great, great, great grandfather.
We had no idea we were descended from a convict, no wonder my grandmother had been so tight-lipped about revealing the family’s past. Then we discovered that not only were we related to this one convict but to three others!
These four souls, Edward Garth the farm-boy, Susannah Gough the prostitute, Jacob Bellett the silk weaver and Ann Harper the urchin, were all cast into a setting in London in the early years of the industrial revolution where poverty was rife and merely existing a challenge. Circumstance conspired to bring them together, to an improbable location, as distant from their imaginations as the likelihood of inhabiting the moon.
How did they end up on the First Fleet to cross the Indian Ocean to the Great South Land?
With a common interest to answer this question, my aunt and I both set out on a journey which turned into an amazing adventure. In the process we undertook a huge amount of research; births, deaths, marriage and baptism registers, Court records of the Old Bailey, bankruptcy searches, court cases in Australia, coronial inquests, land and titles offices, newspaper archives, libraries, museums and historical societies.
We travelled thousands of kilometres retracing their footsteps from Great Britain to Norfolk Island to Tasmania, all over Victoria and New South Wales and ultimately to Sydney.
I did not even know a hand-picked group of 14 convicts from the First Fleet had been chosen to settle Norfolk Island as an outpost for the main colony at Port Jackson, so this in itself was new knowledge but many other things were learned and many things happened on our expeditions that were almost inexplicable, and at times we wondered what ‘supernatural’ forces were leading us.
I’m a skeptic and the notion of ‘supernatural’ forces does not come easily, however, there were many examples and here is just one. We knew the convict Edward Garth had been buried at a place called Brown’s River, Kingston, Tasmania but we had no idea where. So we just got in the car and drove to Kingston. We thought the logical place to go would be the cemetery, so I stopped at a convenience store and asked for directions. We were advised it was down the street a few blocks away but as I came out of the store I looked across the road and there was this gorgeous old church and I said to my aunt since we are here let’s have a look.
We went into the church grounds and behind the building was an old cemetery, a cemetery that could not be seen from the road. We looked at each other. There were dozens of headstones. I went to one end of the graveyard and my aunt to the other, literally within a couple of minutes my aunt called out, “I’ve found him”. We could not believe it, there lying on the ground in the corner of the church yard was Edward Garth’s headstone. My aunt had literally walked on it, the first place she stepped … so much for logic!
That is only one example of the uncanny ‘co-incidences’ that happened along the way.
Not only did we find ourselves being propelled in certain directions on our journey but, as I began to write the narrative, it was as if I was being spoken to… this is our story, bring it to life. The narrative therefore evolved into an historical fiction which is now the Garth Trilogy based upon the lives of five generations of the Garth family, spanning over 130 years from 1788 to 1921.
Book 1, Of Angels and Eagles has just been released and deals with the four convicts’ crimes and transportation to Australia, then Norfolk Island where they struggled and succeeded over a period of 20 years. Susannah the main protagonist, spirited and optimistic, inspires the others as they make their home on Norfolk Island, the place of Angels and Eagles.
Book 2, which will be available to this end of this year, follows the family to Tasmania after they are forced to move and start again. Tasmania is more primitive and unlike Norfolk Island where there were no indigenous people, Van Diemen’s Land (as it was then known), is inhabited by aboriginals and this creates a new dimension to their lives. James, the son of Edward and Susannah, is an adventurer and explorer. He travels to the far reaches of the island and sails the waterways of Van Diemen’s Land, eventually marrying the love of his life. Their 14th and youngest child Edward, peculiar and gifted is restless to make his own way to the mainland.
Book 3, available next year, deals with young Edward’s decision to leave Tasmania on his ketch ‘Ann’, sailing across the treacherous waters of Bass Strait with his new wife Sarah, to Victoria and New South Wales. His eldest daughter Lil has inherited the optimism of her great grandmother Susannah, however the extremes of her circumstances push her to her limit as she struggles with the hand fate deals her.
The tale of the Garths provides an insight into the lives of pioneers in early post 1788 Australia and the growth of a nation.
Their stories are those of ordinary people, sometimes in extra-ordinary situations experiencing fear, anticipation, joy and sadness as they discover what they are made of and what makes them who they are.
Writing Garth has been a compulsion, a pleasure and a challenge. It has indeed been a labour of love. And it is true, whilst we speak of them … they live on.
What a great story, Lynette. Many thanks for sharing it. I wish you great success with The Garth Trilogy.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.