This book admirably demonstrates that the past is a foreign country, but one that we can come to terms with based on good research and a rich imagination. It takes an intimate look, as its subtitle suggests, at ‘Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales’. There were no welfare nets in nineteenth-century colonial life and the fortunes of many families were precarious. Accidents, abandonment, the death of a parent or breadwinner, old age, illness, a disability or the vicissitudes of colonial capitalism could plunge vulnerable people into poverty, and sometimes generations into vicious cycles of poverty. Despite the best intentions of charitable groups and philanthropists, by the end of the nineteenth century, New South Wales was anything but a ‘workingman’s paradise’.
Fractured Families is an ambitious book. Based on extensive work in the archives of the Benevolent Society, formed in 1813, it draws on numerous finely wrought, gritty family stories — in many instances some might say horror stories — to lovingly investigate the lives of the poor in the nineteenth century. As well as being a history of the marginalised and impoverished in colonial NSW, it examines the methodologies and motivations of public history and family history. These are weighty and, at times, conflicting aims. Tanya Evans weaves the two together effortlessly, allowing the reader to consider the process and motivations of historical research.
A significant feature of Fractured Families is its commitment to democratic history making. The author’s work draws extensively on and acknowledges the work of many family historians who have also laboured long and hard in the Benevolent Society’s archives and elsewhere. Family history often destabilises the authority of historians – pulling up the exceptions to the rule, and highlighting the complexities of community and family networks. The author demonstrates the benefits of adopting a collaborative approach to research and historical writing. The result is a more intimate and nuanced understanding of our past, while at the same time admitting to the ambiguity of sources and the limits of knowledge. Fractured Families by Tanya Evans demonstrates, and directly deals with, the phenomenal rise and popularity of historical activities in our culture. Thus the book is also about sharing historical authority. This is an outstanding contribution to the history of Sydney and colonial NSW, and to our understandings of public and community history.