There are two writing units in the Diploma of Family History that teach students about writing. Writing Family History focuses on individual stories while Writing the Family Saga helps students develop compelling multi-generational narratives. 

Both units teach techniques in fiction and non-fiction to provide the students with the skills they need to craft engaging narratives and move their family history projects from the research phase into the all-important story-telling phase. 

The teaching teams in in both units always enjoy reading the stories their students bring to them, and we thought Traces readers would like to see what these family history writers can do.

This essay by emerging Sydney-based writer Mandy Gwan was written for Writing Family History in 2020. It is an outstanding piece of fiction that is based on a precious collection of early colonial letters and situated in the context of thorough historical research. 

Written from the point of view of convict servant Priscilla Wemyss, Mandy’s piece explores a poignant moment in her life, while setting Priscilla in her social and physical context and telling a broader story about Australian history. 

Mandy has seamlessly incorporated the fictional techniques of dialogue, narration, flashing back, scene setting, sensory description, timing and pace, and has created strong characters that live and breathe in the moment. 

It’s a story that leaves you wanting more, which is how all good family history should be written. 

Wemyss [Kelly], Priscilla, letter to family in Kilmarnock, 1 March 1832, National Library of Australia, NLA MS 686, photographs of the original in the possession of Mandy Gwan, 2016

Promises To My Children

Mandy Gwan, 2020

‘Priscilla!’ Esther the cook bellowed in her Irish brogue from the yard outside the servants’ quarters. ‘Te mistress be wantin’ yer!’

Och! Not noo! Perched on the edge of my bed, I wiped my tears away with one hand and clenched the other into a fist, banging it down hard on the mattress. My bonny lad should be in my arms.

I wondered if I could bear to recount my morning’s distress to Mrs Lloyd. She would ask, to be sure. Lieutenant Lloyd and I are so pleased that you will finally have your son with you. She had even granted me leave to fetch James and his aunt from the ship.

‘Priscilla, d’yer hear me?’ barked Esther.

‘Aye! I’ll be there directly, stop fretting, Esther.’ Wearied from crying, my patience had vanished. I breathed in, then out, and stepped toward the door.

***

I found both the Lloyds in the drawing room. ‘’Scuse me, ma’am, ye sent for me?’

Elizabeth Lloyd sat in her favourite mahogany armchair, sipping tea. ‘Oh, Priscilla! Lieutenant Lloyd and I can scarcely wait another moment to hear news of your happy reunion,’ she beamed as she placed the cup and saucer on the table beside her.

Quartermaster Lieutenant Lloyd was seated across the room but peered over the top of the Sydney Herald. ‘How are James and your husband’s sister after their long voyage?’

‘There was no sign o’ them, sir,’ I whispered, ‘they’ve not come.’ My chin quivered.

Didnae cry noo, Priscilla! I looked down at the red cedar floorboards and tried to focus.

‘But … Reverend Dunmore Lang had arranged it, had he not?’ The bewilderment in my master’s voice was obvious. ‘He was to bring them with him on his return to the colony,’ he frowned and cast the newspaper to one side.

‘That’s what he promised, aye.’

Portrait of Reverend John Dunmore Lang, Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales

Lt. Lloyd stood up and strode to the window, glaring out into York Street. ‘So, Reverend Lang did change his mind whilst in England.’ He shook his head and the kind and cheerful manners for which he was so well-regarded disappeared. ‘There was talk he had abandoned his proposal to bring poor free migrants to the colony and instead convinced skilled mechanics who could build his school for him.’ He turned and his face was flushed with rage. ‘He conveniently forgets that families here need reuniting with their kinfolk.’

Panicking at his uncharacteristic outburst - and perhaps trying to reassure myself - I leapt to Reverend Lang’s defence. ‘I’m certain he wished no harm, sir – he baptised Betsey and Benjamin, and knows us so well and all - I cannae fancy he’d mean to disappoint us.’

‘Ah, sweet Betsey and Benjamin.’ Elizabeth broke in, seizing the opportunity to lighten the mood. ‘You paid Lieutenant Lloyd and me a great honour when you named the twins after us. We were genuinely humbled by such an unexpected gesture. Don’t forget them now, in your sorrow over young James. They are still infants and will want your every attention when you next visit.’

I had earned her gentle rebuke. Consumed by self-pity, I had forgotten my wee ones.

‘Jamie and me had wanted to show our gratitude, ma’am. When I was transported, I had not thought to enjoy any liberties here. You’ve made my punishment bearable and helped Jamie’s shoe-making shop to prosper. Apart from missing my James, I have never been happier.’

Somewhat calmer, the Quartermaster imparted his easy, reassuring smile. ‘They are indeed delightful children. I’m sure they are saddened their brother has not arrived.’ He went back to his seat and retrieved the newspaper. ‘Well, I’m confident making arrangements for your son’s passage could – once again – be suggested to the Reverend Dunmore Lang. You may go, Priscilla.’

‘Aye, thank ye sir.’ Bobbing a curtsey, I took my leave. I trudged to the kitchen, slumped against the wall and buried my face in my hands.

‘Would yer stop mopin’!’ Esther did not abide idleness. She sighed and her tone softened. ‘I’ll be needin’ some flour. Walk t’market fer me – get some air.’ I nodded and snatched the basket from where it rested on the table.

Leaving by the back door of the kitchen, I stepped into York Lane. I heard Mr Elliott’s pianoforte coming from his Academy for Dance in the next cottage. It reminded me of James as a wee bairn, taking me by the hands, jumping with glee… Dance, Mama, dance!

Ye will meet yer wee brother and sister one day, lad. And ye will dance with me again. I promise ye.

Dr Lang's Church, Sydney, Nov 1870 / [attributed to Charles Pickering, Government Printing Office], State Library of New South Wales

Somewhat calmer, the Quartermaster imparted his easy, reassuring smile. ‘They are indeed delightful children. I’m sure they are saddened their brother has not arrived.’ He went back to his seat and retrieved the newspaper. ‘Well, I’m confident making arrangements for your son’s passage could – once again – be suggested to the Reverend Dunmore Lang. You may go, Priscilla.’

‘Aye, thank ye sir.’ Bobbing a curtsey, I took my leave. I trudged to the kitchen, slumped against the wall and buried my face in my hands.

‘Would yer stop mopin’!’ Esther did not abide idleness. She sighed and her tone softened. ‘I’ll be needin’ some flour. Walk t’market fer me – get some air.’ I nodded and snatched the basket from where it rested on the table.

Leaving by the back door of the kitchen, I stepped into York Lane. I heard Mr Elliott’s pianoforte coming from his Academy for Dance in the next cottage. It reminded me of James as a wee bairn, taking me by the hands, jumping with glee… Dance, Mama, dance!

Ye will meet yer wee brother and sister one day, lad. And ye will dance with me again. I promise ye.

Panicking at his uncharacteristic outburst - and perhaps trying to reassure myself - I leapt to Reverend Lang’s defence. ‘I’m certain he wished no harm, sir – he baptised Betsey and Benjamin, and knows us so well and all - I cannae fancy he’d mean to disappoint us.’

State Records NSW, NRS-13886-1-[X751]-Volume 1-34 | Sydney St Phillip - York Street Barrack Lane Clergy and school Estate [Sketch book 1 folio 4]

‘Ah, sweet Betsey and Benjamin.’ Elizabeth broke in, seizing the opportunity to lighten the mood. ‘You paid Lieutenant Lloyd and me a great honour when you named the twins after us. We were genuinely humbled by such an unexpected gesture. Don’t forget them now, in your sorrow over young James. They are still infants and will want your every attention when you next visit.’

I had earned her gentle rebuke. Consumed by self-pity, I had forgotten my wee ones.

‘Jamie and me had wanted to show our gratitude, ma’am. When I was transported, I had not thought to enjoy any liberties here. You’ve made my punishment bearable and helped Jamie’s shoe-making shop to prosper. Apart from missing my James, I have never been happier.’

Somewhat calmer, the Quartermaster imparted his easy, reassuring smile. ‘They are indeed delightful children. I’m sure they are saddened their brother has not arrived.’ He went back to his seat and retrieved the newspaper. ‘Well, I’m confident making arrangements for your son’s passage could – once again – be suggested to the Reverend Dunmore Lang. You may go, Priscilla.’

‘Aye, thank ye sir.’ Bobbing a curtsey, I took my leave. I trudged to the kitchen, slumped against the wall and buried my face in my hands.

‘Would yer stop mopin’!’ Esther did not abide idleness. She sighed and her tone softened. ‘I’ll be needin’ some flour. Walk t’market fer me – get some air.’ I nodded and snatched the basket from where it rested on the table.

Leaving by the back door of the kitchen, I stepped into York Lane. I heard Mr Elliott’s pianoforte coming from his Academy for Dance in the next cottage. It reminded me of James as a wee bairn, taking me by the hands, jumping with glee… Dance, Mama, dance!

Ye will meet yer wee brother and sister one day, lad. And ye will dance with me again. I promise ye.

Mandy’s reflections

When my grandmother presented me with the proverbial shoebox of sepia photos way back in 1988, she inadvertently ignited my passion for my ancestors’ stories. I have been a student in the Diploma of Family History since June 2020 and am currently studying my sixth of the eight available units, Writing the Family Saga.

The story of my 4x great-grandmother Priscilla Wemyss has always resonated with me and I have wanted to write about her for such a long time. 

She was sentenced to seven years transportation for uttering forged notes and on her arrival in the Colony of NSW in 1827 was assigned to the Quartermaster, Lt. Benjamin Lloyd. Priscilla's husband James followed a few months later as a free settler. Their child remained in Scotland until Priscilla could afford to have him brought to Sydney.

I drew my inspiration for the story from original letters that are held in the National Library of Australia. This snapshot in time considers the difficulty Priscilla faced as a mother separated from her young son. The disappointment she felt when she found he had not arrived at the Sydney docks as expected is conveyed in letters from Priscilla and her husband to family in Scotland.

I read about Georgian and Colonial architecture and furniture to ensure the scenes I wanted to create were as accurate as possible and found 1830s newspaper articles sourced on Trove were invaluable for fleshing out the characters of Reverend John Dunmore Lang and Benjamin Lloyd.

Mandy Gwan is a passionate family historian who lives in Sydney and is a distance student in the Diploma of Family History

The online course can be studied part-time and teaches you how to research, write, and creatively collate family history. 

About Dr Naomi Parry

Dr Naomi Parry is a Lecturer in Humanities and teaches in the Diploma of Family History. She was born in Tasmania and raised in NSW, and works across both states. She specialises in social history, including charting the experiences of the stolen generations, forgotten Australians, and former child migrants, as well as Aboriginal history and a range of public history projects.

View Dr Naomi Parry's full researcher profile