A few weeks ago when I was first asked the question: What are you reading? I had a really, really good answer. I was reading a contemporary Australian novel, and I was loving it. I would write a nice feel good piece about new Australian writing, the type of writing assignment that when finished makes you feel like you’ve swum twenty laps or eaten a particularly good sandwich.
But this feel good experience was taken away from me in a cruel turn of events when I received an email from a producer in Sydney saying we had funding for a project. In the world of theatre we all continually have our fingers in many creative pies. At each funding round, we offer up a few half-eaten creative concepts to the gods (read: funding bodies) and then wait to see if they get spat back down at us. I like to think of being a playwright as like being a secret agent, or a contestant on an elimination-based reality TV show, you have a metaphorical suitcase packed and ready to go whenever you get the word. And we got the word. FUNDING APPLICATION APPROVED! And so I put down The Rosie Project and jumped head first into my new world for the next few months: Biloela, an 1870s reformatory school for wayward girls located on Cockatoo Island. You know, that old world.
I’m working as a script supervisor on an amazing geo-locative mobile phone app for an arts festival on Cockatoo Island where you can wander the area that, between 1871-1880, housed a school so poorly and inhumanely run, that it was closed down after only nine years. Your movements will trigger different audio cues, allowing us to create an immersive and ‘choose your own adventure’ style audio guide.
This means that at the moment my bedside table is stacked high with an array of historical biographies that read like rap sheets of the school’s inmates/students, who were aged between five and nineteen.
The majority of the girls imprisoned/schooled on the island were there for being impoverished. Crimes such as ‘having no fixed abode’ or ‘being a child under the age of sixteen years, living with a common prostitute’ (who, by the way, in all the cases I’ve read has been their mother). There is a sadness to this reading, as you read story after story of girls being swept off the streets or, indeed, from their homes and dropped kilometres away onto an island that housed a defunct convict prison that had been remodelled (generous use of the term there) into a reformatory school for girls.
Then you come across a girl like Mary Ann Meehan. While from a similarly sad family life of poverty and neglect, Mary Ann is on the island for being a definite no-holds-barred bad arse. Mary Ann’s crime that saw her plonked on this island is not stealing a loaf of bread to feed her family, or a blanket to keep her baby sister warm in the winter. No, Mary Ann stole a DIAMOND RING. Fourteen years old, and homegirl stole a DIAMOND RING. She is an 1800s baller. Or as they would say at the time a pebble.
This brings me to a book I’m reading at the moment, the 19th century history lovers’ classic companion: Convict Words: Language in Early Colonial Australia by Amanda Laugesen. For those not familiar with the lexicon of the 1800s, this book walks you through it. Do you know what a Derwenter meant in 1863? No, not an artist who prefers supreme coloured pencils; Derwenter meant you were from Tasmania. And Derwenters, according to the news report cited in the dictionary, were monopolising the criminal world in Victoria at the time. If caught, perhaps they would be punished with a bull. What is a bull you ask? A bull means seventy-five strokes of the lash. Yes, the quantities of each whipping had a fun name! Like canary (100) or tester (25). This book helps me understand the newspaper reports of the time peppered with language that has died out with the people who used it.
This brings me to Trove, my second most precious reading buddy for this project. A home of digitised newspapers of the ages, Trove gives me hours of reading about my favourite inmate/student/baller/pebble: Mary Ann Meehan. Mary Ann is the star of many an article due to her propensity to continually try to escape the island. During the few years she was there, Mary Ann is reported to have escaped the school (albeit sometimes only for hours before recapture) four times. How? Oh you know, just the normal ways like successfully HACKING THROUGH A WALL WITH AN AXE and BURNING DOWN THE DOOR TO HER DORMITORY. Such a pebble!
The newspapers followed these antics in the courts pages, showing particular interest in the burning-down-the-door trial. Being the feisty pebble she is, Mary Ann represented herself in the courtroom with such ability that even the judge was impressed! One writer at the time explains that she ‘is endowed with a remarkable degree of oratorical facility, cross-examined the witnesses with an astonishing display of forensic ability’. This sentence not only uses rhythmic alliteration that would make any playwright jealous but also proves the reports from the school of Mary Ann being someone with ‘low degree of intelligence’ completely untrue.
In about a month, my role in this project will be finished and I’ll return Convict Words to the library and Trove will no longer be the most visited website on my browser. And I’ll pick up The Rosie Project, like a distant old friend, and think how well Rosie Jarman would get on with Mary Ann Meehan. And if they were living in the same time or place maybe they’d burn down some doors together.
Anna Barnes writes plays, non fiction and really good text messages. Her book Girl! The Ultimate Guide To Being You was named one of the 2013 Eva Pownall Notable Books by the Children’s Book Council of Australia. The interactive mobile app Ghosts of Biloela will be part of the 2013 Underbelly Arts Festival on Cockatoo Island in early August. She is the winner of the 2013 Sydney Theatre Company’s Patrick White Playwrighting Award.
22 Aug 14 at 6:55
Hi Anna I just googled this name and was so thrilled to read what you wrote about my great grandmother. I had known for some years that her name was Meehan but knew very little about her. She was married to a black man, it appears, William Smith, my great grandfather. I have only just found out this information about her yesterday and my daughter is doing all the searching on Ancestry.com. I had absolutely no idea that Cockatoo Island was once the home for wayward girls. I knew that the boys were sent to a couple of ships docked in the Harbour. I knew that because my grandfather’s brothers were sent to go and live on them (this was from the other side of my family and those boys ended up going to Gallipolli), but I had never heard of Biloela. Thank you for taking me there and giving me a glimpse into what life was like then in the Colony in the 1800’s. Must have been rough with no social security then and people were desperate. But it must have been beautiful with very few people and no pollution. Thanks again. Meredith