Fabricated feminist flashers

Miss Crooke’s collection of colonial papers had belonged to her grandfather Robert Crooke and come to her after an unpleasant family court case. Some dealt with events in Van Diemen’s Land and several extracts were used by her cousin, the historian Kathleen Fitzpatrick, in her 1949 book Sir John Franklin in Tasmania. It was the first time the writings had appeared in print, and the first time an incident they described had been heard of. Fitzpatrick offered, after her work on Franklin was out of the way, to write notes for the manuscript she used and prepare it for publication. In her book she referred to it as an unpublished novel called “The Convict, a Tale Founded on Fact” written in 1886 by Robert Crooke.

Kathleen Crooke was a Melbourne school teacher, proud of her family history. Her grandfather Robert and his brother William Crooke had migrated as free settlers to Tasmania before moving to Victoria. William, a doctor, is perhaps better remembered today because of his reminiscences of the artist and forger Thomas Wainewright, who he had known as a convict. A teacher and clergyman in Tasmania, Robert had been the headmaster at the Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) State School in Victoria until his death in 1888.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick did no further work on the Crooke papers but her book had drawn attention to the existence of the manuscript. Tasmanian historians were naturally interested to see a reference to an unknown and interesting convict period text. Anne McKay, who was attached to the University of Tasmania’s history department, had been a Latin student of Miss Crooke’s and she contacted her old teacher regarding the material. With the support of the University Librarian, D.H. Borchardt, she suggested that it could be microfilmed, or a transcription, which Miss Crooke had been working on, could be checked and published by the University of Tasmania Library. Through her introduction, letters negotiating the publication began passing between Borchardt and Miss Crooke in 1956. Kathleen Fitzpatrick had checked some details in the manuscript against Hobart police records and had found they tallied, so from a very early stage the Tasmanians believed they were dealing with a work of historical record and not a completely fictional novel.

Finally, in 1958, a simply-put-together edition of the manuscript entitled “The Convict: A Fragment of History” was published by the University of Tasmania Library. The finished publication was a simple copied typescript issued as a limited edition of 110 copies. There were no textural notes but there was a preface by Borchardt and a biographical sketch of Robert Crooke by M.D. McRae, the university’s lecturer in Australian history. Miss Crooke had supplied the library with her own biographical notes on her grandfather, which followed him from birth in Ireland in 1818, education at Trinity College, Dublin, arrival in Hobart in 1840 and employment as a catechist in the Convict Department, ordination as an Anglican priest and then his headmastership in Melbourne. Unfortunately, Malcolm McRae visited the Tasmanian Archives.

Miss Crooke had planned to leave her historic documents to the Mitchell Library. Then, pleased at the interest shown by the Tasmanians, she decided that a more appropriate home for them would be the University of Tasmania Library. Her solicitor prepared a codicil to her will leaving the library “the original M.S. of my Grandfather Crooke’s Convict Romance”. A copy of the codicil was sent to Borchardt.

Tasmania’s colonial records are very good; they are even better if the person being researched managed to get into trouble. After Robert Crooke was ordained in 1855 he served as a parish priest at Franklin, south of Hobart. In 1857 he became entangled in a disreputable controversy which appeared in the newspapers, was officially investigated by church authorities, and inspired several libel cases. As told by Malcolm McRae, members of his congregation accused him of “disseminating unfounded and scandalous reports respecting the reputation of some of the female residents of the district”. In telling his story the historian quoted a local newspaper reporting on Crooke’s exit from the colony: “The Rev. Mr Crooke, late Chaplain at Franklin, has sloped to Victoria.”

Her complimentary copies of The Convict had been pleasurably anticipated, but when they arrived Miss Crooke was horrified: though she had not been as tender-hearted towards relations of other people whose relatives had not been gently handled in her grandfather’s writings. She wrote to Borchardt accusing him of personal malice: “The point is why have you chosen to vilify my grandfather.” Her pain was obvious: “I cannot now give or show this book to anyone.” In her distress Miss Crooke flailed hopelessly about and offered vain threats: “I am consulting my solicitor to see if I can have a ban put upon the sale; failing that, whether I have a case for legal action against all concerned.” And yet there was another solution: “perhaps you will see my point of view and suppress this edition?” Borchardt wrote, but could not console her. At the end of another letter written on November 13, 1958, Miss Crooke wrote: “I do not intend to write again.” The papers were returned and since then the Crooke manuscripts have completely disappeared from public view.

Miss Crooke died in 1972 at the age of seventy-five but there is no trace of her will, which might indicate what happened to the papers, passing through probate. Perhaps the manuscripts were given to another family member; perhaps they are sitting somewhere safely in an archive; perhaps, goaded by the humiliating denigration of her grandfather, she destroyed them.      

There has never been a great deal of interest in Miss Crooke’s manuscripts, and yet they hold the only evidence for one of the most colourful tales in modern Australian history writing.

A particular incident which has proved irresistibly interesting to modern historians was chosen by Kathleen Fitzpatrick for her 1949 book and told through a citation from Crooke’s manuscript. It was the first time the story had been printed. It told how convict women at the Cascades female factory in Hobart had one day turned around as they were being lectured by the Reverend William Bedford, raised their skirts, and slapped their bared posteriors. The show of defiance had been carried out in the presence of the Governor, Sir John Franklin, and Lady Franklin.

This story only appears in Crooke’s account and there is no corroborative proof that it ever happened. The likelihood is that it is one of the fictional parts of his narrative, yet this account has become a widely accepted fact anchored in our past.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick quoted two passages from Crooke. One dealt with the convict assignment system and the other was the flashing incident. Though the essentials are present, the words are not from the text printed in The Convict. In correspondence with Borchardt, Kathleen Crooke referred to other texts in her possession. Miss Crooke’s legacy was not a single manuscript but a collection of exercise books and loose papers in which her grandfather worked over his material, perhaps preparing it for eventual publication. The Fitzpatrick version, which was dated 1886, includes names of real people which are not in The Convict. Crooke died in 1888 so probably the published edition of The Convict is an early version of the text and Fitzpatrick’s is later. If the different variants still exist, comparison of them might help to determine what is fact and what is fiction. But the story is even more complex because, in her correspondence with Borchardt, Kathleen Crooke referred to other texts or versions. She noted that the other manuscripts had been given different titles: “The Convict: A Tale Founded in Fact”; “The Convict: A True Story”; “A Convict Romance”. It is not clear from her letter just how developed these narratives were and how they differed from each other.

When Fitzpatrick used the flashing story she did not indicate that in this point in the narrative there were two stories featuring poor Reverend Bedford. Considered together these two tales may help in deciding whether the colourful story of protest was true, or is just a joke at Bedford’s expense.

The other story is also set in the Cascades. In it Bedford was attacked by twelve to twenty convict women who removed his trousers and tried to “deprive him of his manhood”. Historian Joy Damousi described this as a “prank” but it would have been considered as a serious assault and been recorded in the prison records. Crooke wrote that the prison constables intervened and “placed them [the women] in durance vile”. That neither this nor the bums event appears in contemporary documents strongly suggests that they are both fictions and after his problems with church leaders in Tasmania Crooke used The Convict to express his dissatisfaction with his previous colleagues. Elsewhere in the text he wrote of church dissensions:

Those who have never resided in a convict colony will scarce doubt the bitterness, calumny and evil dispositions engendered by these unseemly contests which bid fair to end in the annihilation of the Church of England in Tasmania. But this was not all. Many of the clergy were not men of good lives.

Fitzpatrick treated Crooke as an “eye-witness” to the operation of the convict system and at no point did she suggest that scepticism should be used in treating his material. Crooke’s manuscript is surely reliable and informative in parts, but knowing which parts is the problem. It is an odd sort of text which mixes the real with invention, genuine names and invented names, made-up conversations, reflections on the convict system probably drawn from real-life experiences, a fair amount of getting back at people Robert Crooke disliked including Reverend Bedford and Lady Franklin, and lots of sex. At Miss Crooke’s request one erotic passage was cut out: “In a cancelled passage the author narrates Mary’s seduction by a convict.” The problems he had encountered with his congregation had also involved sexual jokes and innuendos. In an early letter to Borchardt, Miss Crooke had written, “I felt it was not really history. However if you are satisfied so am I.” Miss Crooke may have been closer to the mark than later academic historians who unsceptically accepted the fragment of the text they were attracted to as history.

Since Kathleen Fitzpatrick published the flashing anecdote many historians have fed off her book without troubling to seek out the document she used or query the truthfulness of the story. The extract she selected finished with the official party, after they recovered from the initial shock, laughing. For feminist historians this was enough to sew the incident into their books and essays as a proud moment of feminine revolt. In Crooke’s longer version the climax was quite different:

Strange as it may appear, when these women saw they were laughed at, they became ashamed, and when they saw that their indecencies and insults had not the effect of creating either irritation or annoyance they wished they had not acted as they had done—such is mankind, or rather womenkind.

The flash of rebellion grew into an established fact as it moved from historian to historian across the years. Those who repeated it relied on it having been used by colleagues as an assurance of its veracity. Frances Woodward may have been the first to use it for her 1951 book on Jane Franklin and, to her credit, she did raise doubts as to its credibility. Manning Clark in 1973 simply swept it up and turned the story against Lady Franklin: “the convict women greeted her by taking down their trousers and waggling their bare bottoms at her”. He also mistakenly referenced the story to the contemporary writer Louisa Anne Meredith rather than to Fitzpatrick or Woodward.

The story was ideal decoration for feminist historians to add to their narratives. In 1974 it was in Anne Summers’s Damned Whores and God’s Police. In 1978 it was presented as a factual incident in Colonial Eve: Sources on Women in Australia 1788–1914. Although Crooke’s text had been published in 1958, the editor used words from Fitzpatrick. In 1988 Marilyn Lake, drawing on Summers, used it for her essay “Convict Women as Objects of Male Vision”. In 1994 Marion Quartly used the story, without providing a source reference, in Creating a Nation. Quartly demonstrated how big the tale had grown in the forty-five years since it first appeared in Fitzpatrick and then been mothered through books, university lecture theatres and tutorial sessions: “Protests ranged from the famous moment in the Cascades Factory, Hobart, when a roomful of women simultaneously turned and slapped their bare bottoms at a sermonising minister …” In 1997 it was used by Joy Damousi in Depraved and Disorderly. This time both Fitzpatrick and the published manuscript were referenced though the author did not notice that the words were different. Again, in 1998, Kay Daniels in Convict Women illustrated the consecration of the text as a trustworthy historical source for feminist historians:

As well known as the Parramatta riots is the mass display of disobedience by convict women during Divine Service in Hobart in 1833 … Three hundred women present pulled up their clothing and smacked their bare bottoms (underclothing was not part of the ration at the factory)—an act not merely “indecent” but synonymous with contempt in many cultures whether performed by a man or a woman.

It is ironical that this source for sermonising feminist history writing was written by an erotically over-inclined Anglican clergyman.

A voice of warning about what was happening had been heard in 1996. Norma Townsend published an article in the Journal of Australian Studies alerting colleagues to problems with the story and illustrated how the very questionable evidence had become a fact of history. It was a sensible examination of the case but could not have been widely read. In March 2001 International Women’s Day was celebrated at the Cascades site with a theatrical performance which included a “re-enactment” of the famous incident. Prominent Hobart feminists bared their bottoms in the autumn air in a play called (I’m not making this up) “Slipping Through the Crack—The Art of Disobedience”.

However, by 2004 the story was not as sure as it had been. Hobart publisher Michael Tatlow commissioned artist Peter Gouldthorpe to record the incident for a postcard he intended marketing. Gouldthorpe produced a sunny and cheerful rendition. Soon after a news story about this, accompanied by an illustration, appeared in the Hobart Mercury. Then, in the letters column of the newspaper, Tatlow was struck by a bolt of lightning aimed at him from the storm-cloud-shrouded heights of the Sandy Bay campus. Dr Alison Alexander was most unimpressed. Crooke was “a very unreliable witness” and his “memoir” was “a scurrilous piece of work not taken seriously by academic historians”. A reverberating thunder clap accompanied her concluding paragraph:

Tasmania’s history is colourful enough using the reliable material available. Misrepresenting material, using unreliable data, makes it not so much history as a collection of fairy stories.

Tatlow wrote back saying he found Alexander’s comments “astonishing”—because she was his source for the story. She had written about the incident in her 1987 book Governors’ Ladies: Wives and Mistresses of Van Diemen’s Land Governors. Illustrating changing academic fashions, even in Tasmania, when a new edition was published in 1999 Alexander changed the first part of her title to the more politically correct Obliged to Submit. In the latter edition, some doubts having been expressed about the veracity of the incident as she was preparing the book for publication, she changed her commentary and questioned what she had previously taught.

The serious problem that this farce illustrates is how to make corrections when historians go wrong and their errors turn into widely accepted facts. At the Female Factory historic site a large reproduction of Gouldthorpe’s artwork is hung in the matron’s cottage and visitors can buy reproductions and postcards even as site guides use the incident for their tour parties. Not all the cases that could be cited, like the Convincing Ground massacre, are as funny as this one.

What should not be done is what Alison Alexander has done. In a new book on Tasmanian convicts she refers to the case of a convict woman charged with indecent behaviour in church. What the woman actually did is not specified in the original documents and the historian speculates that she “may” have pulled up her skirts, bared her bottom and slapped it at the minister and this may, via a completely non-existent oral tradition, have contributed to the modern “myth”. This is the sort of fairy story she herself had warned against. It is absolutely the reverse of what happened. Academic historians turned an unsubstantiated tale into an established fact and this is something they have a responsibility to correct.

Michael Connor is the editor of Quadrant Online.

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