Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2018

Spinning Tops and Gumdrops, a portrait of colonial childhood (2018), by Edwin Barnard

NLA Publishing produces beautiful ‘coffee table’ illustrated books on all sorts of subjects, but Spinning Tops and Gumdrops is one that is likely to find a home in school libraries.  It is as the subtitle says, a portrait of colonial childhood, 192 lavishly illustrated pages covering everything from toys and games to the vulnerability of 19th century children to an early death.  Because the book is large (approximately 25cm square) a teacher could easily show a class the full page and double spread images to bring all kinds of topics vividly to life, from colonial clothing to transport to housing.  Senior school students could use it for research too, because there is as much to be learned from the drawings, paintings and photos as there is from the text.

The quality of the photos is quite remarkable, considering that photography was in its infancy and that portraits involved people having to pose without moving for minutes at a time.  The photos of the De Salis children, probably taken about 1890 when the family was struggling after the depression, are enchanting, and I think that more than one of these images would make a brilliant stimulus to creative writing.   There’s a splendid photo of one of these children brandishing a pistol at the others who are all dressed in rather odd garb.  The author’s note explains that they’re play acting with dress-ups but the swords and the pistol may well be real.  Imaginative present-day children could write wonderful stories about this image! I also like a photo of a family in an open carriage, most of them looking very sour indeed: where are they going?  Why are they so gloomy?  (They’re not dressed for a funeral, so that’s not the reason!)  There’s also a very sad collection of the Sobraon boys, one of them as young as three, posed with brief biographies which explain the pathetic backgrounds that led to them being ordered into detention on a ship called the Sobraon until they turned 18 or were apprenticed out.  (You can read a little about this ship refitted as a reformatory for wayward boys and destitute children at the Museum of Sydney website, but it’s the images in this book that brings the story to life.  Imagine that poor little tot being confined to a ship for 15 years!)

The blurb also suggests that family historians can get a sense of their ancestors’ childhoods through these poignant photographs and memories from the past.  The author, Edwin Barnard, based the book on the reminiscences of men and women whose earliest memories were of the rip-roaring cities, sleepy outback towns and lonely selections of colonial Australia, and his sources include well-known writers like A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson but also relative unknowns such as Henry Button:

‘Very soon I became conscious of a peculiar pleasure when she was near, and this steadily increased until her image was rarely absent from my mental vision.  By a mysterious process of affinity more readily experienced than explained, each was drawn to the other, until the love light beamed in the eyes of both, and the heart’s secret was declared in silent eloquence.  Well do I now remember, though more than fifty years have fled, how my whole nature thrilled when the little lady came in sight, and she graciously bestowed upon me a furtive smile.’ (Henry Button, aged 19, describing his sweetheart, 14-year old Emma Glover whom he later married, Tasmania, 1866).

(BTW I think Henry’s age is a typo: he can’t have been 19 when he was describing how ‘fifty years had fled’ but he can’t have been 91 either.)

Whatever about that, it’s amazing to read that the marriageable age in Australia in the 19th century was the same as the age of consent: 14 for boys and 12 for girls (though they still had to have the permission of their parents if they were under 21).

So yes, the book shows, amongst other things, how the very definition of childhood has changed.  A chapter titled, ‘We all had to do something’ details the work that children were expected to do from a very young age, from long, laborious hours helping out on the family farm to labour-intensive (and sometimes risky) household chores, and then transitioning to employment from the age of fourteen onward.  The jobs, like almost everything else, were gendered, with most girls going into domestic service or unskilled factory work and boys apprenticed to a more diverse range of occupations including trades or labouring.  These gendered occupations were following a pattern established in whatever schooling they’d had, where boys learned skills such as carpentry while girls learned needlework.

Schooling was a hit-and-miss affair until the 1870s when Victoria passed the Education Act in 1872 and became the first colony to introduce education that was compulsory, secular and free, with the other colonies (and the rest of the world) following suit in due course.  There are engaging photos of small country schools with a mixed bag of kids grinning at the camera, some of them including indigenous children – which made me wonder about the circumstances of their enrolment and whether they were children stolen from their families…

I was a bit disappointed to see that while the first chapter acknowledges that perhaps 3000 generations of Aboriginal children, members of hundreds of distinct nations, had grown up in the country we now call Australia, there is no information about their education, games or traditions, and the reason given is this:

Memories of those times survive in a rich heritage of oral traditions. How, when and where those oral traditions are communicated to the wider world is a matter for Indigenous writers and story-tellers, which is why they have no place in this book.  Also missing, for the same reason, is the sad history of Indigenous dispossession at the hands of nineteenth-century colonisers, and particularly accounts of children tragically stolen from their parents. (p.8)

Well, fair enough that Indigenous stories are best told by Indigenous authors – but why couldn’t an Indigenous writer or story-teller have contributed to or co-authored the book?  It’s about Australian children, and Indigenous children have been here all along. Because the effect of leaving out any reference to Indigenous childhoods other than this one-page gesture, is to leave a huge and deceptive gap in the book.  It perpetuates the invisibility of Indigenous people in our national story.

The story of education, for example, begins with the uncomfortable truth that although at the time of First Settlement no one among the colonists had given any thought at all to the education of the children of the First Fleet, Indigenous people had in place a long-standing, effective and hugely enjoyable system of education that taught their children what they needed to know to be become successful functioning adults.  Eventually the children of privileged classes had tutors and dame schools and so forth, but for many of the ordinary children of the colony there was no formal education at all for almost a hundred years.  While I wouldn’t expect a book of this type to tell the whole sordid story of Aboriginal dispossession, why couldn’t it be acknowledged that Indigenous children learned through stories, dance and song?

And when it comes to toys and games, I happen to know a bit about Indigenous play because some years ago I reviewed Claudia Haagen’s book called Bush Toys: Aboriginal Children at Play on my professional LisaHillSchoolStuff blog.  Bush Toys is not written by an Indigenous author, (because there wasn’t the same attention to these issues of authorship back in 1994 when it was published) but it documents the artefacts in the National Museum and explains how Indigenous children played with them.  So there’s no reason why the NLA could not have invited an Indigenous researcher to contribute something on similar lines to what’s in Claudia Haagen’s book.  I say this because I know that teachers want to include content about Indigenous lifestyles and history in their curriculum but they find it difficult to access useful teaching materials.  Indeed, in 2014 the National Museum set up a hands-on school holiday program featuring bush toys so they are well aware that teaching about Indigenous childhood is a way of respecting Indigenous history in a practical and meaningful way.  I really liked Spinning Tops and Gumdrops – but I would like it to be even better than it is.  A book of this style and type – although it doesn’t purport to be a comprehensive history – could so easily have been a perfect resource!

Even so, it’s a marvellous book as it is, and I can’t wait to show it to the kids next door!

Author: Edwin Barnard
Title: Spinning Tops and Gumdrops, A portrait of colonial childhood
Publisher: NAL (National Library of Australia) Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9780642279187
Review copy courtesy of NLA Publishing, with thanks to Scott Eathorne of Quikmark Media

Available from Fishpond: Spinning Tops & Gumdrops: A Portrait of Colonial Childhood and from the NLA Bookshop.



  1. The photos sound wonderful and ‘a brilliant stimulus to creative writing’ makes them even more enticing.
    I was really interested to read your views about how the author should have tried to tackle reporting on the Indigenous childhood experience. It is a difficult area for writers to navigate and I wonder . . . would it have been acceptable for Barnard to have told a chapter through quotes, in the same way as your excerpt shows him quoting Henry Button? I know of writers who are constantly tip-toing around similar issues.


    • Good morning Karenlee!

      Oh I do agree, that it is a difficult area to navigate, more so perhaps for fiction, and historical fiction in particular, because it can boil down to omitting all reference – which is to act as if colonisation and dispossession never happened, or else to appropriate, which is tell stories that other people should tell. But Indigenous authors like Bruce Pascoe are doing workshops for non-Indigenous authors about how it can be done appropriately and there is a way through which is respectful, honest and fair.

      But the NLA is, IMO, one of our premier institutions, with a vast store of resources at its disposal, and (presumably) a policy of using those resources to educate the public, including through the publication of books. In this case the author has done a terrific job of doing just that, and has, rightly so, acknowledged that it’s not his place to tell Indigenous aspects of the story. But that is not IMHO, where the matter should end. The commissioning editor in a place like NLA Publishing in particular, ought to be on top of things and ought to have intervened to say, hey, we need another author here. Let’s get e.g. Margo Neale from the National Museum to rewrite the first chapter, or to include a preamble to each chapter to bring an aboriginal perspective to bear.

      (My point in naming a particular expert being that if a retired primary school teacher in Melbourne knows the name of someone to ask, then surely a commissioning editor in the national capital should know a whole host of people she could ask).


      • Great answer and yes, I get what you are saying there about NLA Publishing. They would have lists to choose from, one would think.
        That’s interesting about the workshops. I have a friend who is writing a novel at the moment and is despairing about the Indigenous POV of a minor character (considering cutting it all together, which would be a shame IMO) so she would benefit greatly from one of those workshops. I’ll pass your comments on to her and I might even look into it for myself as well.


        • I’d be surprised if your local writers’ centre (in Brisbane?) doesn’t have someone doing workshops like this, especially since there more Indigenous people in Qld than there are in Victoria…


      • Besides what you say, Lisa, which is all true, ie “omitting all reference – which is to act as if colonisation and dispossession never happened, or else to appropriate, which is tell stories that other people should tell.”, such omission in fact continues the colonisation/dispossession by assuming indigenous people are not there.


        • Yes, exactly. It’s not easy for authors and publishers deal with this, but deal with it they must, and IMO the NLA ought to be leading the way. It’s a bit of a cop-out to have a one-page introduction that acknowledges it and then just moves on giving total primary to the colonial story.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with all your comments about the representation of Indigenous viewpoints. I’m guessing Henry Button was 19 when he met his future wife (and it’s just badly put). You’ve reminded me I must do something about my late father’s old family photos which date back to the nineteenth century. Of course we didn’t try asking him until after he’d had a stroke.


    • Ah yes, we all have questions we should have asked while we could. But I never had any grandparents to ask: my father was orphaned by the time he was 19, and my mother’s parents (who I hadn’t seen since I was six) died when I was a teenager. I’ve never had the experience of having grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins…


      • Shame, it’s an interesting feeling to know you have a (loose!) network of rellos around the country. I’ve stayed with various grandparents, aunts and uncles as I’ve moved around but of course I’m not Tim Bowden collecting oral histories and when Mum goes (20 years she reckons) I’ll have to tie all the bits and pieces together.


        • *chuckle* I’d be more interested in having a loose network of rellos who live in interesting countries (chateau in rural France, B&B in Wales and so on). That would be nice…


  3. […] Spinning Tops and Gumdrops, a portrait of colonial childhood, by Edwin Barnard […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: