Thursday 27 November 2014

Australian Historical Fiction: The Switherby Pilgrims by Eleanor Spence

Eleanor Spence's book for children, The Switherby Pilgrims: A Tale of the Australian Bush, was originally published in 1967 and reprinted by Bethlehem Books in 2005. The author was born in 1928 in Sydney, New South Wales where she lived for most of her life, apart from a couple of years in England, until her death in 2008. Most of her books, including this one, are set in New South Wales.

Miss Arabella Braithwaite lived with her brother, the Reverend Hugh, in the vicarage of the small town of Switherby near the centre of England. For a number of years Miss Arabella had worked hard to give the poorer children of the town an education but she was hampered in her efforts by the fact that most of the children she taught ended up being sent to work in the local factories.
Ten years after the Battle of Waterloo, a typhus epidemic raged through the town leaving many of the children even more disadvantaged than they had been previously.
Reverend Hugh was planning to marry and both he and his future spouse expected Miss Arabella to remain living at the vicarage, but one day when he and his sister were talking together, he shrewdly guessed his sister was formulating a plan of her own to deal with the children who would otherwise be placed in workhouses.

"You are quite right, Hugh - I have other plans. You will no doubt call them outrageous, but my mind is made up. These children must gave a new start in life, and a chance to do something worthwhile with their lives. So I am going to take them away."

"You mean to another village? I understand conditions are bad almost everywhere just now - "

"Exactly. So I intend to take them to New South Wales."

Miss Arabella, or Missabella as she came to be called by her charges, applied for a land grant in New South Wales and with her group of ten dependents emigrated to Australia a few months after this discussion with her brother.
Upon their arrival in Sydney Cove in 1825, Cammy, a young Aboriginal boy, showed an interest in the group of pilgrims and befriended Robin, a young boy who with his two sisters had been abandoned by his father, Josiah Gracechurch. When Missabella and the children left for the Illawarra Region south of Sydney, Cammy secretly tracked them and became, in his own unique way, a part of the family.

Unbeknownst to Missabella, Josiah Gracechurch had been sentenced to transportation for ten years, and was incarcerated in the very same ship they had sailed upon. He had begun to make his escape plans when he spied his three children on board the ship with their guardian and before long he was able to put his plans into action.

...far from the town and the harbour, a ragged sandy-bearded man was working in the orchard of a farm near Campbelltown. Josiah Gracechurch had no fondness for hard labour, and he knew he was taking a risk in thus exposing himself only a week after his escape...

He had to have food, and some sort of shelter, for a night or two while he laid his plans.

Through some lucky coincidences, Gracechurch found the location of the pilgrims' farm and quickly established his dominion over the vulnerable group. But Cammy had been out hunting when the unwelcome man appeared and the pilgrims had to work out a way for him to get a message to someone who could help them.

Cammy could sense that something was wrong, certainly. His affection for Robin gave him an urge to rush out and defend the child, but a more primitive emotion soon succeeded it. The ways of the white man were still strange and bewildering to Cammy, no matter how much he enjoyed sharing the life of the orphans on the hill-top. Their ways were not yet completely his, nor could their notions of right and wrong ever become quite clear to him. He did not know this other white man, nor could he predict what the stranger's attitude towards himself would be, therefore, he, Cammy, would wait and watch until the whole situation clarified itself.

The Switherby Pilgrims is suitable for readers from about ages 10 to 12 years or as a read aloud for ages 8 years and up.
The time period of the book coincides with:

* Ambleside Online Year 5 Term 1 (1800 - 1840) 

* The Australian History Curriculum: Year 5 - The Australian Colonies.

The book contains this note:

The character of Missabella, in the Switherby Pilgrims, is an echo (although entirely fictional) of the fascinating pioneer, Mrs Caroline Chisholm, an outstanding woman of the nineteenth century who made provision for young immigrant women in Australia.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography has an article on Caroline Chisholm.

Linking up with Brona's Books...


Cleo said...

I've got this book sitting on my bookshelf and now I'm inspired to read it. Perhaps over Christmastime!

Naptime Seamstress said...

I am reading this aloud to my daughters this year, as part of our geography studies. They are loving it!

Carol said...

You might be interested in its sequel, 'Jamberoo Road.'