Victorian Community History Awards celebrates its winners

Kaylah Joelle Baker

The Victorian Community History Awards have announced its winning publications and projects, with Professor Janet McCalman’s Vandemonians: The Repressed History of Colonial Victoria book taking top prize.

The in-depth research for the winning title was based off of an expansive project conducted by a multitude of universities and community members, which looked into what happened to people transported to Australia as convicts.

“We didn’t actually know how much the experience of being transported affected the convicts – [we wanted to know] if it shortened their lives, what sort of people they were, why they ended up in this state, and what happened after they left the system,” Professor McCalman said.

“It was not only a history study but also one of health and of people going through a very stressful experience.”


The overall study involved researching more than 25,000 convict lives, and Professor McCalman said it was one that could only truly come together with the support of many willing volunteers, researchers and historians.


“There was such a big community effort that went into this, and you wouldn’t be able to do this on your own,” she said.

“We had a wonderful team of volunteers and family historians who worked online, and they did amazing research, and the project couldn’t have happened without this big collaborative effort.”

Curious about what specifically happened to the men and women transported to Victoria as convicts lead Professor McCalman further down the path of specifically looking into the people known as the “nasty name” of the Vandemonians.

While it has been said that Victoria never had convicts, Professor McCalman confirmed that about half of the convicts that went to Tasmania actually came through Victoria and either stayed or at least spent time in the state.

Her book also delves into the concept that a lot of people may also not know that they have ancestors who were convicts.

“There are a lot of ideas about the convict system being all terrible, but only about half of them had a really bad time in the system and the rest just kept their heads down, kept the rules, and then got out, but what they did have was a burden of shame,” she said.

“They had to maintain secrecy for the rest of their lives, and never tell their spouse if they weren’t also a convict. They were seen as thieves and violent, and if people knew they wouldn’t get employed.”

Further on, research also revealed that people’s lives were shortened and had lasting damage if they were subjected to solitary confinement rather than flogging, as punishment of the mind was more damaging than punishment of the body.

Professor McCalman said this research was “important” to reflect on in today’s day and age, as placing refugees, asylum seekers, and young offenders in solitary confinement for long periods of time would only shorten their lives.

The impact of a child’s exposure to violence, alcohol abuse and neglect were also paramount in the study, and Professor McCalman said she hoped the research could continue to encourage other schools, university students, and history groups to “take on similar projects and do [similar research] for all the ships”.

Announced as the winner on Friday, October 21, Professor McCalman’s book was celebrated by the judges for her “telling [of] poignant and personal stories with wit and irony”, and for its community efforts.

“This year’s Victorian Premier’s History Award winner shows how the research and the writing of history, and not just its reading in armchairs and libraries, can be a collective enterprise,” the judges said.

Also commended for producing the heavily researched book The Women of Little Lon, and taking home the History Publication Award, was historian and independent researcher Dr Barbara Minchinton.

Focused on the once notorious neighbourhood of “Little Lon” in Melbourne’s Hoddle Grid, Dr Minchinton’s book came about after working with archaeologists on the Little Lonsdale digs and discovering there were a lot of women who lived there.

“I noticed there was an awful lot of women given as the heads of households which was quite unusual in Melbourne during that period, and then I realised a lot of them were involved in the sex industry,” she said.


“This led me to looking into how those women were treated by the newspapers, the courts and the police and I realised they had a pretty rough deal because what do you do when you have children at home and jobs for women were very low pay and long hours.”


The research into the lives of the women that made up this street also revealed heartfelt stories buried within these women's choices, and a message Dr Minchinton wants people to consider when thinking about the industry.

“There was a bigger story about the social and economic conditions that women were living in that pushed them into this work, and there is a notion that sex work is a moral issue, but I think for most people it is an economic issue,” she said.

Also commended for their History Publications were Across Bass Strait: Inter-Colonial Trade in Meat and Livestock by Jane L. Lennon, Charles Strong’s Australian Church: Christian Social Activism 1885-1917 by Marion Maddox, and The Architecture of Devotion: James Goold and His Legacies in Colonial Melbourne by Jaynie Anderson, Max Vodola and Shane Carmody.

A wide selection of 21 publications and eight projects were nominated for 10 cash prizes ranging from $500 to $2000, and the shortlist also included online and physical exhibitions, podcasts, websites, walks and tours, and articles.

The Victorian Community History Awards are presented by Public Record Office Victoria in partnership with the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, with funding from the Victorian government.

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