When I began the epic tale of Ella and Jem, I imagined one novel, a journey into my family history to discover the truth of family stories. Did I have relations in Tasmania who owned a shipping line? Did one of my forebears kill a gamekeeper and get transported to the colonies? It was a question that fascinated me throughout my childhood, but it wasn’t until the advent of the world wide web that finding the information became possible.
I still haven’t found any rich relations, but Jem Weston, (real name James Underwood), was a real person, my great-great-great uncle, and he did indeed kill Joe Upton (real name John Dunkley), one of Lord Northampton’s gamekeepers. The research into the truth of the matter has formed the bones of this historical series and has taken me from the rural villages of Northamptonshire, in Victorian England, to the convict stations of Van Diemen’s Land and the goldfields of New South Wales, via the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Horn, and Drake Passage on convict sailing ships and over the Blue Mountains on a hay cart.
It has been a fascinating journey, and I immersed myself in the world of the convicts and their families for almost two years. Jem and Ella have become more than fictional characters or long-dead relations, they’ve become friends, and saying goodbye to them as I wrote ‘The End’ to ‘On Common Ground’ was almost as painful as I imagine Jem’s farewell to his family and loved ones was in 1841.
I didn’t intend to write a novel where one of the main themes was the lack of women’s rights in England in the 19th century, but Ella’s lack of rights over her life, her children, and her body became inescapable, integral parts of the story. The mass of historical records available astounded me. To see newspaper reports of the committal hearing and the trial, the handwritten records of Jem’s time aboard a prison hulk in Plymouth dock, on board HMS Tortoise, and later at Impression Bay Convict Station was moving and connected me across time and oceans to a man I’ve never met but who I now feel I know intimately. To see the birth, marriage and death records, to find the exact location where he is buried and see photographs of his resting place – it’s a strange feeling and has resolved a long-held question – am I, as my mother once told me, related to a bunch of loose-knickered, murdering thieves? It seems I’m guilty as charged.
Links for ‘For Their Country’s Good’