The best books about the beginnings of colonial Australia

Who am I?

I’m a Pom, as Aussies would say, born and bred in England to an Australian mother and British father. I emigrated to Australia as a ten-pound Pom way back when and though I eventually came home again I’ve always retained an affection and a curiosity about the country, which in time led me to write three books about my own family history there. The early days of colonial Australia, when around 1400 people, half of whom were convicts, ventured across the world to found a penal colony in a country they knew almost nothing about, is one of the most fascinating and frankly unlikely stories you could ever hope to come across. 


I wrote...

The Worst Country in the World

By Patsy Trench,

Book cover of The Worst Country in the World

What is my book about?

Part history, part family history, part memoir, and part dramatisation, my book is about early colonial Australia as witnessed by my four times great grandmother and her family of five children, who migrated to New South Wales in 1801, barely 13 years after the First Fleet arrived and when the place was considered an experiment and not yet fit to live in. (The title is taken from a comment made by Governor Phillip’s second in command.) It attempts to tell through my family’s eyes how the colony began to become established and even to thrive, as did my ancestress and her offspring, who gave up their lives of relative poverty in the old country to eventually flourish in the new. 

The books I picked & why

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Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land

By Frank Welsh,

Book cover of Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land

Why this book?

'Original, provocative, and witty, Australia is the most comprehensive single-volume history of Australia yet published.' This is the blurb on the back cover of the paperback but it echoes my own views of this marvellous book completely. It covers everything: from the plight of the convicts to the Europeans’ experiments with farming and land grabs; relationships with the Aboriginal people, and especially the virtues or otherwise of respective Governors and their often spiky relationships with the government back home. All of it written with authority and a wonderfully wry wit.


The Timeless Land

By Eleanor Dark,

Book cover of The Timeless Land

Why this book?

A bold and broad-sweeping book, written in the 1940s, described as a novel but featuring a mix of real and fictional characters, The Timeless Land is a beautifully imaginative telling of the arrival of the First Fleet in what became Sydney in 1788, as seen through the eyes of the Aboriginal people, the Governor and his officers, convicts and the odd settler. The depiction of the part-real, part-invented Aboriginal people may cause raised eyebrows nowadays, but the book is based on thorough research and written with great imagination and sensitivity. I love the mix of the real and the imaginary, while never distorting the facts. It’s a brilliant way to paint a vivid portrait of a subject, I’ve done it myself (if I may be presumptuous enough to bracket myself with Ms. Dark).


Old Days, Old Ways

By Mary Cameron Gilmore,

Book cover of Old Days, Old Ways

Why this book?

This is a memoir of life in the Riverina district in early colonial rural Australia written by the wonderfully insightful Mary Gilmore. It’s full of fascinating detail about domestic life and class consciousness, where poor families had to make do with wooden needles and cutlery and women were so used to sitting on blocks that they felt unsafe on a chair; whereas the better-off had standards to maintain so women’s skirts had to be weighted at the hem for fear of showing an ankle while horse-riding. How a line was drawn across the floor at the Wagga Wagga Club Ball ‘to separate the “grandees” from the “commonage”’. She is also fascinated by Aboriginal culture and how they so naturally looked after the land and preserved the fruit, animals, and fish, evidence that ‘the aborigines as a nation were as naturally intellectual as we ourselves.’  


Station Life in Australia: Pioneers and Pastoralists

By Peter Taylor,

Book cover of Station Life in Australia: Pioneers and Pastoralists

Why this book?

I’m a townie, but early colonial Australia is all about the land and how some early colonial pioneers made their fortunes from it. (Many didn’t, needless to say.) This book is all about them: the squatters, the stock riders, the drovers, the station hands, etc. The long and perilous journeys into remote New South Wales looking for land—officially and unofficially; how early pioneers coped with droughts, floods, disappearing stock, financial uncertainty, and not least, relationships with local Aboriginal people. There are hilarious accounts of the strange habits of cows, and of the “new chums”—wide-eyed young men who migrated to the colony with money but no farming experience hoping to make their fortunes, and how the (colonial) locals took the mickey out of them. Readable, witty, and again, written with great authority and in-depth knowledge.


Larrikins, Bush Tales and Other Great Australian Stories

By Graham Seal,

Book cover of Larrikins, Bush Tales and Other Great Australian Stories

Why this book?

This is a cornucopia of the weird and wonderful in Australia: the origins of ‘mateship’, rural remedies, measuring the weather by the behaviour of birds, how ‘Waltzing Matilda’ had its origins in a shearers’ strike, and the bizarre life of the itinerant swagman, including hints on how to make a ‘swag’ and carry it according to the legendary writer Henry Lawson. There are wonderful tales of Australian ‘taciturnity’ and folks living so remotely they still thought Queen Victoria was on the throne in the mid-1900s. It may be light-hearted in tone but this book somehow gets to the heart of what makes Australians unlike anyone else in the world.  


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