Here is a family tale that caught my attention – about my great uncle, William Joseph Batten.
It is midday one Sunday in 1887, probably soon after my grandmother, the seventh child, was born. The family are gathered for Sunday dinner, each in their appointed place. “This farm is too small,” the father announces. “Someone has to go…and not me.” William Joseph steps forward, no doubt to the relief of his older brothers. His mother fears for him, but his father probably doesn’t. At fifteen he was hauling goods across the mountains on carts and bullock wagons, to Bathurst and Mudgee. Will sets out with his swag and waterbag to join the vast class of itinerant farm workers and shearers moving around the outback, even past Wilcannia.
We could call it Will’s gap year, except it lasted seven years and began when he was fourteen. Leaving home is a recurring theme in fairy tales. For young people today it is a rite of passage. In facing trials, confronting fears and overcoming difficulties, they acquire skills and insight; and transit to adulthood. Leaving home is also the story of Australia, since invasion: soldiers, convicts, immigrants, gold-seekers, indentured workers, refugees. Is it surprising that so many Australians have the urge to travel and always have had? I was one of those fearless travellers leaving Australia at 22 to live and work in South Africa, Rhodesia and England.
By 1895 aged 21 and six feet two, Will had acquired the assurance and fortitude to join the NSW Permanent Artillery at Victoria Barracks. Within two years he was leaving home to return “home” to England; selected as part of the NSW colonial contingent to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Two years later, despite his mother’s protesting letter, he sailed for South Africa to serve in the Royal Australian Artillery against the Boers. He returned safely eighteen months later and joined the Police Force. Though he made his life in the city, family letters reveal his strong bonds with family and the farm he was raised on, “Glenangle”.
I can’t help wondering to what extent Will was influenced by his grandfather, John Batten. In 1830, at 21 and married, this farm labourer who was also a master cock*, joined the “Swing Riots”, a short-lived uprising of agricultural workers who protested against the newly-introduced threshing machines, fearful their livelihoods would be affected. The riots included unlawful assemblies, riot and disturbance, demanding and threatening letters, coercive demands for money, food and beer, and destruction of machines and buildings. While many had sympathy for the rioters, the establishment was naturally alarmed and rounded them up for trial. John Batten was found guilty of having feloniously stolen three sovereigns from two landowners. His sentence was death, soon commuted to a life sentence and transportation – one of almost 500 rioters to reach our shores. Few of them could have imagined that loss of homeland would be the result of their fight for a better deal. Thankfully, following numerous petitions, most were pardoned by 1837, conditional on staying in Australia. “They considered us downright honest men,” one arrival wrote. John met up with Hannah (also a convict though less “respectable”), produced a large family and settled in the Breakfast Creek/Pyangle area.
I ask myself why am I drawn to family history, a passion I have had for forty years, a passion aroused by the stories of my elders; stories of fame (or at least brushes with fame) and fortune (or at least the desire for it). But I am not alone. Genealogy research is a booming business. Ancestry’s DNA network has 15 million enlisted. The Ancestry site has three million subscribers and many more searching through institutions and groups. Who Do You Think You Are? is a widely viewed series in multiple countries.
So why do we want to walk with our ancestors and discover their stories? The crux of my search is: what shaped my ancestors and how did they shape me? Our ancestors, when we get to know them, hold up a family mirror. In the Batten mirror I see carpenters and inventers. I see record keepers listing stock and income or pasting news articles in albums. I see letter writers to family, to the local paper and to order or complain. I see hard workers who want to achieve. I see competent housekeepers and feminists (even though they didn’t know the word). I see storytellers sharing their memories. I see thrifty, prudent people who also like good cars. I see aspirational people who are drawn to brushes with fame. I see people who like meeting others just because they’re interesting.
Family history is a fruitful, satisfying and surprising trail of discovery. While records let me build the foundations and structure of lives and generations, it is letters, photos, medals, bibles, exercise books and landscape that give me voices, images and imaginings. But its main value for me is a more grounded sense of identity and place.
Then I wonder is it all going to be thrown in the tip when I die?
* master cock – one who breeds and trains gamecocks. Cockfighting became illegal in the mid-nineteenth century.
My thanks to Guy Batten who has done phenomenal research on the Batten family and has generously shared it.
The featured image of a cartoon was taken from Hampshire Machine Breakers: The Story of the !830 Riots by Jill Chambers, Clifton, England c1990