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Coming to Australia: Rare travel artefacts on display

18 November 2015
Previously unseen exhibition offers unique window into the past

A unique collection of travel diaries, journals and paintings from colonial journeys to Australia, some dating back almost 200 years, is on display for the first time at the University of Sydney. 

Photographs from the journal of Thomas Parkin on his voyage from England to Australia in 1890-1891 on the clipper ship ‘Sobraon’. Image: Fisher Rare Books & Special Collections.

The Circumstances of Interest exhibition features more than 20 items from the University's Rare Books and Special Collections, previously unseen in a public collection.

The materials provide remarkable insight into the daily lives and pastimes of those undertaking the tedious four-month voyage from England to Australia, and add greatly to our understanding of Australia's immigration story.

"The long-haul flights of today pale by comparison to the experience of travelling alongside 300 other people on these voyages to Australia," said exhibition curator Fiona Berry, Digitisation Projects Assistant in the University of Sydney's Rare Books and Special Collections.

"It's interesting to see how people passed the time in such an artificial environment forced into suspension and cut off from the outside world for months at a time. 

"The journals have an element of desperation and boredom, but also amusement; the passengers had to make their own fun, or else they'd go crazy."
Fiona Berry

The diary accounts paint a vivid picture of life onboard, from accounts of sickness, the food served, the landscape and the weather. But the experience greatly varied depending on the class travelled.

First-class passengers would have found the journey quite a social experience, with regular musical entertainment staged by other travellers to while away the days.

For second-class and steerage travelers the experience was "a much wilder world", said Berry.

"Passengers in second-class would have shared a cabin with about 100 other people, which in itself is mind-blowing," she said.

"One unidentified traveler writes about daily fistfights, a man setting fire to his bed in the cabin, and people stealing things. There was a heist on the supply room where food was pilfered.

"Another man describes being pulled out of his bed by another passenger who tied a rope to his ankle while he slept."

Original menu cards, presumably kept as souvenirs and bordered with hand-drawn sketches of fellow passengers, also provide a window into the shipboard world.

Other treasures in the collection include a series of watercolours and sketches from the diaries of Evelyn Louise Nicholson, the daughter-in-law of University of Sydney founder Sir Charles Nicholson.

Created while on her honeymoon with husband Charles in 1897, the diary depicts the various coastlines, harbours and port cities the couple encountered on their journey to Australia, including paintings of Cape Verde and Trinidad.

The exhibition also features journals and images from notorious Sydneysider John Dunmore Lang, a Scottish-born Presbyterian minister, journalist and activist, as well as Marie Beuzeville Byles, an early law graduate of the University of Sydney and the first woman to practice law in New South Wales. 

"The materials are really important in showing us exactly what life was really like on these really long voyages,"said Berry.

"These tiny little details go a long way towards piecing together a complete story."

Event Details

What: Circumstances of Interest exhibition

When: Exhibition runs until 31 December 2015

Where: Level 3, Fisher Library, the University of Sydney

Cost: Free