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Back story, The Helots’ tale

The Helots' Tale takes place between 1813 and 1880, moving from the Regency period to the Victorian. It spans the globe too, moving from an industrialising England to the emerging new world colonies in Australia, before modern telecommunications made such distances less terrifying.

It was an age that saw the end of the threat of Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe (he died on St Helena in 1821), a surge in unemployment as soldiers returned to society, the imposition of new Enclosure laws that made 'Poor Law' paupers of previously self-sufficient farm workers and the first stirrings of popular protest in England, including the Peterloo Massacre, the Swing Riots and the Tolpuddle martyrs (France, of course, had already eperienced its revolutions and, in 1848, uprisings broke out from Switzerland and Portugal to Wallachia and Moldavia, from Norway, Denmark and Sweden to Palermo and the Ionian Islands. Six years later, the Eureka Stockade massacre also saw a popular revolt. Indeed, these uprisings probably made the reaction of the upper classes more severe to face down a perceived threat).

It was also an age of 'Haves' and 'Have Nots'; a period when class really mattered, where corruption was endemic, of the desperate state of the poor that Dickens wrote about and the creation of a criminal class, many of whom were forced into stealing from the well to do, simply to survive. In some ways there is a parallel to be drawn with the corrupt Russian oligarchs and autocrats of today and the peasants in Russia scraping a living off the land.

The books tell the true stories of two people caught up in this maelstrom of events, painting their lives against the backdrop of this eventful period which saw the emergence of an undeveloped British outpost in the antipodes to the ultimate formation of the wealthy, new sovereign nation of Australia. While following the lives of Robert Bright and Mary Ann Goulding they also describe events and real people who interacted with them and, in particular, the real world implementation of the transportation policy that saw more than 165,000 people exiled to a hard land, usually in effect for life, often for petty wrongdoings. Ironically, while slavery is abolished in England, another form of slavery is introduced with the harsh enforcement of transportation.

Transportation first became part of English law in 1597 and further Acts were passed in the 17 th and 18 th centuries sending convicts to Virginia and the West Indies in the main. With the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, transportation as a policy fell into disuse until a new Act was passed in 1784 which opened up New South Wales as a penal centre. Convicts were then regularly sent in prison ships to New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land, Norfolk Island and Western Australia until the last convict arrived in 1868. The Abolition Slavery Act comes into effect in Britain in 1834.


Without the past there is no present

The explosion of genealogical research databases and their marketing over the last decade or so has stimulated a desire on the part of many to explore their personal lineage. There must be many reasons for this but I like the answer given by a Canadian genealogist, Lorine McGinnis Schulze who summed it up this way: 'Without the past there is no present, nor can we build a future'.

I was born to a Scottish father and with cousins, aunts and uncles in Scotland I always felt an affinity with the country although I grew up in a London suburb (my wonderful mother was a genuine cockney). But it was nothing more than that. Fast forward 20 years and I can still recall finishing Nigel Tranter's trilogy about Robert the Bruce, Scotland's hero king, turning the last page and knowing then that this was a man whose actions centuries ago defined much about me today. In this re-telling of a story set at the turn of the 14 th century the Bruce had become a real person and a sense of belonging now dawned on me, something that had lain dormant before.

In similar vein, when my wife and I visited Hobart in Tasmania a few years back and a librarian at the Female factory (the name of the prison we were visiting) brought out the original records that described the transgressions of one Mary Ann Goulding, a hesitant spark was ignited. Mary Ann was my Australian wife's ancestor who had been transported for stealing a clock from a shop on Regent Street in London in the early 19 th century. Until then I had just read a few lines about her. Cold facts like a possible birth date and the date she arrived on a convict ship in Hobart. But here was something tangible. Faded handwritten scrawls noting offences and punishments in a dog-eared ledger. This physical connection with the past changed things for me. Although older generations of Australians have tried to avoid any association with convict settlers, today's Australians take pride in their linkage back to these pioneers; it's almost a badge of honour, Australian royalty! I decided there and then to undertake further research to fill out the timeline as a present for my wife. I didn't realise that this was to turn into much more than just a project.

I discovered a great deal about Mary Ann that was lurking in long-forgotten pages of buried dusty documents and also about the man she was to marry, Robert Bright, another unfortunate transported from Cambridge. But more than this I set myself the task of placing them in the context of the time, in the process learning new things such as the momentous story of the Swing riots and the burning down of the Houses of Parliament – events that strangely had not been taught to me at school.

I have always enjoyed using words to paint pictures and create emotions, so it was a short step from fleshing out their life histories to putting it down on paper to create a rounded reality from these names, dates and events. I now wanted to breathe life into them much as other historical authors had done for me with their characters.

Indeed, it was something that took on a life of its own. Although I had the research to provide a pathway, as I wrote I found that I was putting myself into their shoes and the next sentence, paragraph and chapter evolved of its own accord as if they were talking to me, as if their anxieties, pains, ambitions, hopes had become my own. It was a very strange but very fulfilling experience.

At times I wanted to embellish the story with deeds and thoughts appropriate for a hero and heroine but I was determined to stay true to the facts, warts and all, as I had them and, when I added colour to flesh out the story, I made sure that what I was writing was a natural progression supported by surrounding facts. I was going to tell their story as it happened or not tell it at all.

It helped that they lived in momentous times and that Mary Ann in particular was a remarkably dogged, determined, formidable person who remained unbowed by a harsh,unfair system. The journal that I discovered written by Mary ann's ship's doctor when she was transported provided an enormous amount of information; I could almost have written a novel on that remarkable journey alone. Likewise, the fabulous gold finds in Bendigo, Ballarat and surroundings and the tens of thousands of prospectors who swarmed onto the land to make their fortunes were a fertile backdrop. The momentous massacre at the Eureka Stockade, the era of bushrangers and the very first test match between England and Australia also provided a three-dimensional backdrop on which to paint my story. But most of all, it was the unquenchable strength of character of Mary Ann and Robert that lit up the pages so that when I finally laid down my metaphorical pen I felt that I had, at least to a degree, delivered justice to two forgotten pioneers and perhaps righted some wrongs in the process.

I presented the novels to my wife, Victoria and she devoured them as you might expect. Some readers, also descendants, contacted me and one wrote: When I finished reading the books their passing saddened me, however they left me with a great legacy to be proud of, their achievements created the foundations of life as we know it today.


It was a warm autumn day, the sun bathed the earth, a gentle breeze stirred the wild grasses and the trees whispered to us when my wife and I visited Robert and Mary Ann's grave (for I had found where they now lie). There they were. Together. Peaceful. Victoria turned to me and said: "I wanted to step back in time and be with them and I feel that I can touch them now. You brought them to life".

That's good enough for me.

David Cairns of Finavon, 2022


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