How domestic violence fractures families

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence series continues with Tanya Evans’ discussion of the role of family history in raising contemporary consciousness and a broader recognition of domestic violence.

Having worked on the history of the family for over two decades, I remain shocked by the many terrifying tales of domestic violence I unearth in my research on impoverished families in Britain and Australia from the eighteenth century to the present. I am still particularly haunted by the accounts of one victim’s life revealed to me by one of her descendants.

screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-8-42-55-pmA chapter of my last book Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial NSW was structured around the life-story of Jane Kelly Digby, an Irish famine orphan girl. Jane arrived in New South Wales with her sister at the age of nineteen from Athlone Westmeath in 1849. She settled in Yass and worked as a domestic servant. Here, she courted, cohabited and later married Thomas Digby, a man who became so violent towards her that she was hospitalised.

At a maintenance hearing in 1857, Jane claimed that their relationship soured when Thomas asked her to bring a charge of rape against one of his employees. She refused to do so. In response he punished her by tying her to what she referred to in court as his ‘triangles’. He had told her ‘they were used for punishment in the old times of the Colony’. After tying her up, using a knife, he stripped her of her clothes and beat her with a whip that Jane claimed ‘he must have made for the purpose’. Following a brutal and sustained attack, Jane left her five children with their father to seek urgent medical care.

She travelled twenty kilometres into Goulburn where the Church of England minister Rev Mr Sowerby helped her obtain admission into the local hospital. Her injuries required immediate surgery by Dr Hanford and she remained in hospital for three weeks. Following this violent assault, she told the local court that she was too afraid to return to live with Thomas. At the time of this ordeal she was six weeks pregnant.

The foetus survived the beating, miscarriage was averted, and by the time the case came to court she had been delivered of the child. She claimed that she wanted to care for the infant along with the five children she had borne by Thomas. However, because he would not provide her with maintenance if she lived apart from him, she could not afford to live independently of him. She was forced to leave him and her children and began a cohabitational relationship with another man, with whom she had another five children. He was not a good choice either. He eventually deserted her and she walked to Sydney from Yass with three of her children to seek relief. All became dependent upon The Benevolent Society for charity.

St Vincent’s Hospital, circa 1900s. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Jane’s life remained desperate following her assault and abandonment. She struggled with alcoholism and a feisty temper and slipped in and out of gaol and other asylums for the rest of her life. She eventually died of tuberculosis in St Vincent’s Hospital at the young age of forty-two. Despite living a fraught life it deserves to be remembered so that we understand more about her circumstances and the limited options she and thousands of poor women like her with little education, skill and family support networks had in a colony where there was no poor law. Economically marginalised women’s lives are still structured by similar constraints.

One of Jane’s descendants – her great, great granddaughter – Julie Poulter wrote to me after reading Fractured Families to tell me how much she appreciated the focus on colonial society’s ‘failures’. She wants our research to show that someone cares about these individuals in the present – that they mean something, not just to her, but also to others. Revealing stories like these can teach us valuable lessons about history and humanity and this is why I continue to collaborate with family historians.

Julie acknowledges her family history research as a feminist project:

Perhaps why I have become so attached to Jane’s story is informed by my own mother’s family history….On my maternal side I come from a long line of strong independent women. Starting from me. I guess it is something each of us has seen our mother do and it was a normal thing to have a mother both work before and after marriage…I am the beneficiary of those whom who have come before me and fought for equal rights… researching history and genealogy gives me a more rounded view of how marriage/motherhood/fatherhood has changed over time and allows me to advocate for a fairer system all round for fathers, mothers and most importantly, the children.

Julie works full-time in administration but studies history part-time at the University of New England. She claims that:

Family history research is almost my favourite thing in the world to do!…I have decided to not have children, and as a result have much more time to devote to the family history cause! This will be my legacy.

Julie feels like she ‘owes’ her female ancestors the benefit of her research skills and the time it takes to reveal their life stories.

Book launch of Fractured Families, Tanya Evans centre and Julie Poulter far right.

Many family historians in contemporary Australia (and around the world) undertake genealogical research for similar reasons. The microhistories they produce are significant for present lives. My current research is focused on the practice and meanings of family history in Australia, England and Canada. This is a history of emotions project gauging whether family history has different emotional impacts in different national contexts.

What secrets and lies are contemporary family historians discovering and how have the meanings of those secrets and lies changed over time? I am struck by how many contemporary family historians in Australia have described the shame of discovering ancestors who have been violent towards their spouses. And if people have difficulties confronting the realities of domestic violence in the past, how much more difficult must it be to acknowledge its presence in the present?

Earlier this year a domestic violence survivor described family violence as a “silent tsunami” engulfing Australia, its effects rippling out to overwhelm not just its immediate victims, but their wider networks of family and friends. Many have difficulty admitting experiences of violence to their loved ones, let alone to the courts. Meanwhile those who observe the violence from the outside still often struggle to speak out.

My research continues to reveal the fascinating relationship between past and present and I wonder how much the current media and political campaigns have heightened people’s interest in the history of domestic violence? Conversely, might confronting histories of domestic violence in our families’ pasts, help us begin conversations in the present?


The Benevolent Society is currently orchestrating the Women’s Domestic Violence Prevention Macarthur Project, which is aimed at learning more about the signs, reasons and impacts of domestic violence, as well as responding to the needs of those experiencing it. If you would like to learn more, or donate to the Society, click here.


screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-8-18-50-pmTanya Evans is Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University and a public historian who specialises in the history of the family, motherhood, poverty and sexuality. She is passionate about the democratisation of historical knowledge and incorporating ordinary people and places in her research. She has written extensively on illegitimacy, poverty and philanthropy. Her most recent book Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial NSW examines the history of Australia’s oldest surviving charity The Benevolent Society, and was written in collaboration with family historians. Tanya’s current project examines family history and historical consciousness in Australia, England and Canada since 1901.

Follow Tanya on Twitter @TanyaEvans14.

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