Writing ‘Pioneers in Petticoats’

The writing desk

My constant companion – Persephone, who like to ‘help’ me write

The impulse for writing Pioneers in Petticoats came directly from my previous writing project, the play CROSSING. In about 2010 I took the decision the write a play to help commemorate the bicentenary of the most widely recognised crossing of the Blue Mountains by a group of men led by one of my forebears: my great-great-great-great grandfather Gregory Blaxland.

CROSSING was a wonderful and fascinating project, but it became all-consuming for the next four years, as I struggled to find a way to research, write and fund it. There was so much research material the Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson expedition was part of a process of discovery rather than an stand-alone event, which stretched from the earlier crossings including the Aboriginal crossings over thousands of years forward to the subsequent road-building and opening up of the interior of New South Wales to colonial development. I went to courses, read masses of books, took the daunting and exciting step of reaching out to different Aboriginal communities to find out their points of view, contacted local and professional historians, and amassed a wonderful sea of material. Great, but this material wasnt a play.

Eventually I wrestled the material into a narrative, wrote and rewrote it, found I had to leave all my source material behind to help the characters come alive and speak in their own voices, and finally, with the energy and determination of my daughter Jessica, another theatre professional who had decided she wanted to be part of the project helping as dramaturg, we had a play in two versions. The forty-five minute version worked for primary schools, and a longer version suited family audiences.


Using professional actors and creative team members such as a designer and composer for original music meant that we could afford only three actors playing a total of about forty parts, and needed funding sources. Luckily we found them, chiefly from a NSW grant channelled through the Royal Australian Historical Society, the Blue Mountains City Council and the Blue Mountains Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Society as well as a number of generous sponsors including the Blue Mountains Bus Company which lent us a tour vehicle.

The Mountains community had decided that it was important to commemorate the early crossings over three years, from the early expedition through to the founding of Bathurst. And once we had managed our first years performances, juggling a cast which travelled from Lithgow to the Central Coast and schools through the Blue Mountains and Sydney, we decided we should continue to perform the play, offering it to other communities and schools. CROSSING culminated in a performance at the Bathurst Entertainment Centre in 2015 to almost 300 people, and travelled to 130 schools and over 18000 school children over the three years.

But by the time the second years production was underway, I knew I wanted to tell another side of early Australian colonial history that of the women. CROSSING necessarily focussed on the mens stories, apart from Elizabeth Hawkins magnificent account of taking her family of eight children with her husband and mother on a bullock dray to Bathurst. This took eighteen days and they almost lost all their goods on the notoriously dangerous steep hill down towards the Liverpool Plains.

At first I thought it would feature just women of the Blue Mountains, because I had had reluctantly to leave out of CROSSING several stories begging to be told, especially that of Louisa Meredith, a wonderful essayist and artist whose narratives are still in print.

But then other womens stories began to jostle for my attention, and I decided to choose five women to represent a range of those who came to Australia during the nineteenth century.


As I read their stories and reflected on the courage with which they faced pregnancy and childbirth, the loss of family members and the various reverses of fortune that any life brings, all hampered by the heavy garments and heavier social restrictions of Victorian times, I marvelled at their appetite for adventure, wit in writing and drawing and facing discomfort. The name pioneers in petticoats came early, to reflect my admiration for these remarkable women.

But who to choose? First a convict woman, of course. And I simply couldnt go further than the story of Mary Bryant, a First Fleet convict, who had helped plan and execute a daring escape that inspired many others. With her husband Will Bryant, the Fleets only fisherman, her two small children and other convicts, she successfully stole the fledgling settlements only fishing boat and sailed it two thousand miles up the east coast of Australia and around to Batavia (now East Timor).

Sadly, her husband let slip who they were, and the convicts were shipped back to England to stand trial for their escape.

Another outstanding candidate was Fanny Macleay, who emigrated with her father, the new Colonial Secretary (second only to the Governor in the colonys pecking order), her mother and five other unmarried sisters. This was not for her social standing I was determined to include women who were interesting for their own deeds but for her immense energy as she became de facto mother to her fourteen younger brothers and sisters, and her fascination with all branches of science. Fannys father was one of a number of natural scientists who collected new plants, animals, shells, rocks, insects from the newly discovered continents, and traded them and Fanny was his secretary and assistant. So she handled correspondence, collected, preserved and swapped specimens with collectors world-wide, and managed to keep the family going by scrimping and saving as her father ran up debts to finance his hobbies. He eventually took with them to New South Wales the worlds best insect collection. How she longed, she wrote to her older brother, to be able to stay in the British Museum, or to speak for herself at meetings of the Royal Society, rather than have her father present her findings for her. Women were not allowed to work as independent scientists.

In the colony Fanny helped marry off four of her sisters (one refused to marry) and kept her mother relatively calm through their trials and tribulations, since all the girls fell for gentlemen who had Papas generosity or financial lack of common sense and tended to arrive back at the family home, Elizabeth Bay House, with insolvent husband and children in tow.

Fanny finally married herself, to her fathers Anglo-Indian assistant Thomas Harrington, when she was in her early forties, but sadly died less than six weeks later. Worn out, one can hardly help feeling, from the rigours of keeping her family afloat.

I was also intrigued by the story of Matilda Fish, a colonial woman of similar class, who had lost her first husband to an Indian cholera epidemic, and remarried the first mate on the ship bringing her and her four small children back to family in Sydney, only to find herself deserted when notorious bushranger William Geary stole her money in a daring home invasion. But this story was one too many, and felt that it demanded its own space it is at present becoming a two-hander play.

I wanted to construct Pioneers in Petticoats as a series of monologues for one woman, to give an actress space to display her versatility in the same style that our actors in CROSSING and their audiences had so much enjoyed. So I decided that the next character would honour the Blue Mountains roots of the original idea and tell the Elizabeth Hawkins epic family journey over the mountains in the bullock dray from the point of view of Eliza, the eldest daughter, aged eleven and a half. I had unearthed family material from the Bathurst History Society that gave me background into why the family had left England, since it had suffered not only the loss of its eldest two sons within a year of each other, but also the mothers mental instability as a result of her grief, and the financial insecurity that came at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in England. A number of themes were beginning to emerge, including the sheer courage of emigrants to leave everything behind to provide a better life for their children, whether they saw this as being in New South Wales like Elizabeth Hawkins, or in escape from it, as did Mary Bryant. Another is the importance of the family unit.

But this doesnt apply to the last of the four women I chose for Pioneers in Petticoats. Like many, I have always been fascinated by Lola Montez, whose column inches in the newspapers rivalled Queen Victorias. Legendary for her marriages, affairs, extravagance and ability to bewitch men, I wanted to find out more about her. Several sources were I felt unfairly harsh. But when I read the lectures she gave near the end of her short life, it became clear she was rebelling against the role by which women of her times were constrained. She had no children, earned her own living time and again by performing, dancing, lecturing, and stated I want women to be judged by the same rules as men. Lola was not afraid to take the liberties she desired, including smoking in public and using a horsewhip when she felt insulted. A complex woman, I wanted to show her as more than a saucy minx as she is too often portrayed.


Bianca, our beloved white cat who often keeps me company as I write

Choosing just four women was due to constraints of length; in the schools version, sadly, we have to leave out Fanny Macleay. And there were so many more women clamouring, jostling for their space on stage, that it would be easy to write a sequel. Women in nineteenth century Australia eared their own living by writing or painting, collected seeds, chose sheep for their bloodlines, ran stations and families, businesses and theatres including one that funded much of the rebellion at Eureka. When we wonder what women did then, it is because their stories havent been heard widely enough, not because they didnt take their part as pioneers alongside the men.

The form had chosen itself; one woman would transform herself onstage into all these women, one after the other, in order to make full use of the transformative nature of acting, and she would also play other characters as needed: governors, husbands, mothers.

But after all the fun of finding my research material from the snippets on the Internet which led me to a range of printed material, and reading the new and older books I tracked down about the more prominent women, I had the task of bringing them alive. How would they speak, what would they let us hear? Fanny and Lola had written letters and lectures, and much had been written especially about Lola in newspaper accounts. But what about Mary Bryant, who hadnt written anything down? Eleven year old Eliza, known only from her mothers letter?

By now I had soaked myself in background material for several years, working on CROSSING. I knew how men and women of different classes would address each other. But there were also court transcripts available from Mary Bryants trials, especially the later one, which made it clear that she had been the driving force behind the escape and its success.

So it was time to dream. This is the most challenging and exciting time for me of writing a play, because I have to let myself become the characters, to a large extent, before I can speak in their voices. Often I do my housework while interviewing a character, being myself as an interviewer, and then replying out loud as the character I am investigating. My husband and the cats know not to worry.

Mary Bryant was the hardest character in this play, not just because she was first, but because her story is the harshest. I had to find her joy in her children and her escape, as well as go through the loss of her children from fever on the voyage back to England and a trial for her life. I was writing it in autumn, and my regular morning swim in our pool was becoming colder and colder. As I hesitated on the chilly step, water to my thighs, Id say If Mary Bryant could face what she did, so can I, and plunge in. And wed be awayas I swam, the scenes began to form, the words came.

I visited the Macleay Museum of Natural History at Sydney University, established by Fannys great-nephew and still holding specimens Fanny would have labelled and handled, and marvelled at these sad dead birds and animals, before going gladly back to bring Fanny and her admirer Thomas alive among her instruments. An embroidered woollen Kashmiri cape Id bought years ago in India and an old crocheted doily for her hair became part of her costume.

For Eliza I had more liberty. I went back into my own ten-year-old self, but added six younger siblings to an older brother and then all those memories of family trips: the excitement, the weariness, the danger and thrill. And I wondered what she made of the new skies of Australia, comforted by the closeness of her family. For me, the pivotal part of her mothers letter to her sister in England, only found and published thirty odd years ago, is where she talks about their first night camping in the bush, where her husband plays his flutes, and asks Eliza to dance for them in the firelight. And so I brought that to life.

And Lola? Well, she was able to sum it all up. She went through so much in her relatively short life. And Lola faced extraordinary events, such as the lightning bolt that tore through the theatre on the goldfields during one of her performances, setting light to the scenery and blasting out through the back wall. Lola made sure everyone was unhurt (several audience members were understandably unable to speak), calmly directed the extinguishing of the flames, and went back to the scene.

But as we prepared for the first performance of Pioneers in Petticoats in 2015, we were in no doubts that Lola had cast her eye on us. A violent storm prevented the crew and audience reaching the theatre on the central coast, while the actress was stranded there, without electricity, for several hours. And the second performance also had to be rescheduled because the schools roof had been blown off.

But Id braved storms with Mary Bryant in an open boat, hysterical sisters with Fanny, that steep hill with Eliza, and Lolas horsewhip. I wasnt quite a pioneer in petticoats. However, I am their descendant, as we all are, and proud to call them my forebears.


And something beautiful from the garden


Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed