Babette Smith: historian gave a voice to female convicts

Babette learned the business side of the performing arts through her job with director Stefan Haag at the Elizabethan Theatre Trust. She was Harry M. Miller’s production assistant for the musical Hair. There were spectacular rows with the Chief Secretary’s Office over a scene with a naked cast – the compromise involved motionless performers and a swift blackout.

Babette worked on the sets of three Australian films, including The Year of Living Dangerously. Moving to television, she worked for several years at TCN9, where she became in-house producer of special events. She created a women’s talk show, Town Talk, hosted by Anne Deveson, and worked on many programs, including what she called “Friday Night goes to the dogs” – the Don Lane variety show that switched almost seamlessly from musical items to greyhound races at Harold Park. There were also charity telethons, with celebrities urging viewers to keep those phones ringing.

Babette Smith

Her next big job was marketing manager at Hoyts Cinemas, where she was quick to identify the Star Wars series as a cult classic. She also made a point of championing Australian movies.

From September 1993 to June 1997, she served as executive director of the Bar Association of NSW, the first and only woman in that role. At the forefront of substantial change in the Bar’s approach to governance, she found herself offside with some barristers.

After the birth of her son Joshua in 1977, Babette took up a family tree that her father had begun: family lore suggested that there was a convict somewhere. Following the maternal line, she found that there was indeed a convict, Susannah Watson.

When Susannah Watson went to trial in Nottingham in April 1828, she was 33 years old and had six children. She pleaded guilty to stealing shirts and food, saying that she could not bear to see her children starving. The youngest was only a few weeks old. The judge noted her previous convictions for theft, and declared her children would be better off without her. A few months later she and her baby son were sent to Portsmouth to make the long voyage to Sydney on the Princess Royal. Four surviving older children were left in England, never to see their mother again.

Babette Smith traced her ancestors after she found one was a convict. 1988..

Babette Smith traced her ancestors after she found one was a convict. 1988..

On arrival in Sydney, Susannah was listed as a housemaid and needlewoman. She gave birth to another son, Charles, in July 1830 at the Female Factory in Parramatta. Her English-born son Thomas, the baby on the voyage, died at the Orphan School in 1831.

Decades later, Susannah wrote from Braidwood to her daughter Hannah in England that transportation was the “Best thing Befell me,” apart from the grief of leaving her English children behind. Susannah described Australia as a plentiful country, and was proud of her Australian-born son, Charles Isaac Watson, who founded two local newspapers, the Braidwood Despatch and the Shoalhaven News.

Susannah Watson’s letters are now in the Mitchell Library.

In A Cargo of Women, Babette broadened Susannah’s story to include the lives of 99 other prisoners on the Princess Royal. For her, convict women were neither whores nor society’s victims, but individuals doing their best in very tough times. Scholarship and narrative flair are the hallmarks of Babette Smith’s work.

Her book Australia’s Birthstain took its title from Lord Beauchamp’s remark that Australians had made good the birthstain of convict origins. Examining the long-lasting shame about convict origins, Babette discovered that homophobia combined with eugenic notions about criminality to make convict origins a lasting shame in Australia. For decades, researchers had limited access to convict records to prevent their use as blackmail. In recent years the tide has turned, with information widely available and a raft of family historians searching happily for convict forebears, now a source of pride.

Luck of the Irish by Babette Smith

Luck of the Irish by Babette Smith

The Luck of the Irish followed a cohort of male prisoners who landed in the Shoalhaven on the Hive. Babette won a prize for that book in the NSW Premier’s awards, and also received an OAM for her contribution to Australian history. She was a popular speaker at conferences, at bookshops and in libraries.

Babette made her living as a mediator while researching and writing her history books. She loved long country drives with her son, bushwalking and swimming in ocean pools. Enterprising and generous in all her endeavours, she was widely loved and admired.

Her most recent book, Defiant Voices, How Australia’s Female Convicts Challenged Authority, (National Library of Australia, 2021) shows that shouting, singing and mockery were the weapons of convict women who faced heavy punishment for crimes of desperation. For instance, what was the Old Bailey to make of two young women who danced in court, swore at the judge and shouted, We have plenty of law but no justice!

Author and lecturer on convict history Babette Smith poses for a photo in front of an artwork by ST Gill at the Gallery of Ballarat, 2016.

Author and lecturer on convict history Babette Smith poses for a photo in front of an artwork by ST Gill at the Gallery of Ballarat, 2016. Credit:Fairfax

There is no justice in cancer either. Babette Smith completed and promoted that book despite the early signs of the illness which claimed her life in November. She was 79.

Babette is survived by her son Joshua, Graham, her grand-daughter Selene, brother Robert, sister-in-law Nicole, and innumerable friends.

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