Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 14, 2021

Vandemonians, the Repressed History of Colonial Victoria (2021), by Janet McCalman

Vandemonians, the Repressed History of Colonial Victoria makes a perfect companion for James Boyce’s 1835, the Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia.  (Follow the link to my review, especially if you don’t know much about the settlement of Australia).

Written in an approachable style that is easy to read and digest, Janet McCalman’s book focusses on what became of the Vandemonians, the much despised emancipated convicts from Tasmania who populated Victoria once settlement had reached its limits in Tasmania.  But as she explains, the problem of researching this group is that they had every reason to hide their personal histories.  They became invisible, just as they are in paintings of the era, which often depict Aborigines, who mostly weren’t working on the farms of early settlers, and not the convicts, who were.

Her method, therefore, was to utilise a community genealogy project with volunteers from all over Australia and overseas, to use what limited documentary evidence there is for individuals, and to interrogate large scale statistical patterns for evidence of lineage.  How well families survive and produce descendants, she says, is a test of society.

Settling meant finding a place to live, an income and perhaps a family.  Indeed, we can measure the success or failure of Australia’s convict pioneers by the basic milestones of establishing and maintaining a family, which then produces a lineage.  Creating a lineage means more than simply reproduction.  It necessitates a household that can nourish and protect children so that in their turn they can produce their own offspring.  And that is a test of the society and the economy in which they live, as much as it is a test of the individual.  Happy families flourish on security; unhappy families too often are precarious. Thus, while happy families, as Tolstoy said, are alike and in that sense unremarkable, unhappy families are troubled each in their own way, or at least are more likely to leave traces in the historical record of their offences against society, their problems and their griefs.  On the other hand, they are less likely to leave descendants, either because they never partnered to have children or because their children perished.  They are the losers of history, which is written by the winners, the descendants of the founders who became survivors.  (p.186)

(This is doubly interesting because in our more individualistic, and I would argue more pessimistic age, many people choose not to partner and not to have children and that has nothing to do with individual shortcomings or a lack of societal support.  But in the era of women’s economic dependence on men and the absence of effective birth control, partnering and having children was, for many, an inescapable norm.  So the absence of a lineage dating from that earlier era is a potent indicator of societal failure to support its underclasses.)

McCalman demolishes many of the myths Australians have about themselves.  There is a widespread narrative about convict ancestors who stole ‘just a hanky’ or ‘bread to feed the starving children’ but the reality is that very many of the convicts who were transported came from families of career criminals.  Some, it’s true, deliberately offended in order to migrate here for a better life when they couldn’t afford an assisted passage, and far from the lurid depiction of convict travails in novels such as For the Term of his Natural Life, many of them served out their sentences without offending further and did make a new life for themselves.  But those emancipists who left Tasmania for Port Phillip because they had been unable to capitalise on the opportunities there were not steady workers who had saved their earnings.  (Convicts were forced labour, but they were paid for their work.)

So most Vandemonians did not move up the social ladder at all. By 1890 the Vandemonian pioneers were dead and their descendants were part of the rural working class and marginalised by society.  In a clear picture of what intergenerational poverty can do, their few descendants failed to thrive, until WW2 and afterwards.

This was because most Vandemonians who came to Port Phillip did not have the skills to support themselves.  Women from the criminal underclass in particular, did not have the basic skills to get a job as a cook or housekeeper let alone any skilled work like sewing.  Unless they were lucky and married, they had little means of support other than crime or ‘going on the town.’  There are grim tales assembled from the documentary record about these women and their awful, wasted lives.

Trauma was passed from generation to generation.  Children witnessed their parents’ drunkenness, beatings, fighting, screaming, foul abuse, suicide and even murder.  Convict women were three times more likely to be murdered than those who arrived free.  Children lost parents through terrible accidents or childbirth or delirium tremens, and they were often present at those events.  They were terrified by their parents madness. (p.187)

McCalman includes the evidence of nine-year-old Lydia at the coroner’s inquest where she testified that she had seen him cut his own throat.  Lydia then disappeared from the historical record. And then, illustrating the fate of women who had lost a breadwinner, in later life, her older sister Martha joined their mother on the streets of Bendigo as alcoholic vagrants.

Family history is about survivors with a happy ending, that is, there are descendants in the present day to take an interest in it.  But while the majority of Vandemonians proved reasonably successful at finding enough work or criminal proceeds to feed themselves and secure some shelter…

…only a minority would succeed as mothers and fathers and rear children who themselves could function in society.  One crude indication of this is whether they had descendants in the First AIF, and those service and repatriation records provide some measure of how well, or badly, the families were doing two or three generations later.  These convict family histories open a window into intergenerational trauma, the transferring of violence and substance abuse down the generations, and the cost in human life of extreme poverty, marginalisation and neglect. (p. 189)

It comes as no surprise to me to learn that it was communities and unions, not governments, which came to the aid of these desperate people.  Benevolent Asylums cared for the dying, and Mechanics Institutes enabled self-improvement through education, with regional communities leading the way.

Such opportunities came much later in the metropolis and in agricultural Victoria.  A great paradox of Victorian colonial history is that a colony that so led the world in democracy should work so hard from the beginning to erect class barriers through education. While New Zealand settlements typically established government secondary schools within a decade, from the beginning Victoria built fee-paying church schools.  The first high school did not open for seventy years, the Working Men’s College (now RMIT University) not until 1888, and then only with philanthropic help.  Denominational and national schools catered fitfully to younger pupils, but it was the education that could advance pupils up the social scale that remained firmly dominated by the private sector until the 1960s. The new colonial Victorians were acutely sensitive to status differences and were protective of their castes, making integration and personal improvement all the more elusive for the working class, let alone the Vandemonians.  (p.205)

It was not until the Whitlam reforms in the 1970s that fees for secondary night school were abolished and university became free.  I know this because I was one of the beneficiaries.

You can read Lucy Sussex’s review of Vandemonians at the Newtown Review of Books and a report of an author talk by Janet McCalman at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.

Author: Janet McCalman
Title: Vandemonians, the Repressed History of Colonial Victoria
Cover art: detail from Bushrangers (1852-1887), by William Strutt from the Grimwade Miegunyah Collection at the University of Melbourne
Cover design: Pfisterer + Freeman
Publisher: The Miegunyah Press, (Melbourne University Publishing), 2021
ISBN: 9780522877533, pbk., 343 pages including an insert of full colour illustrations, two appendices, a bibliography, notes and an index.
Review copy courtesy of Melbourne University Publishing.


  1. Another important book in revealing the social history of this country.


  2. Important book Lisa. How history is repeated when the same old myths are regurgitated and how it stifles the progress of those who would most benefit.


    • Yes, it’s an old chestnut, but those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
      BTW, I don’t know why it is that your comments are now going to moderation instead of automatic approval… I’m sorry that sometimes there’s a delay in approving them so that you can see them online.


  3. I’m not sure that what McCalman says about education in Victoria is accurate. My recollection is that universal state school education was introduced in the 1870s for up to age 14. Yes there was a rival system provided by the Catholics, but that was their choice.
    Schooling leading to matriculation, ie.years 10,11,12 was more problematic (as we know from KSP). Melbourne High (then co-ed) opened in 1905.


    • That’s right, the 1870 Act, decades too late given the population explosion during the Gold Rush, did make education universal, secular and free. But only, as you say, for up to 14 years old. It fitted students for trades, clerical and domestic work, it did not provide a pathway to higher education or social advancement.


  4. On my list!


    • Have you read McCalman’s Struggletown? I think I did years ago, but I’m not sure…


      • No, Lisa, I haven’t. Yet. ;-)


        • I’ve just reserved it at the library…


  5. […] Janet McCalman’s Vandemonians: The repressed history of colonial Victoria (history): “her trademark approach: take the local and specific and use them to illuminate a whole stratum of life” (Glyn Davis) (Lisa’s review) […]


  6. […] Vandemonians, the Repressed History of Colonial Victoria, by Janet McCalman […]


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