Hello and welcome to my new website.

For this first post I wanted to say a little bit about my book Tour To Hell, and how I came to write it.

Tour To Hell is a true account from Australia’s penal colony days, about convicts who were inspired to abscond by beliefs in nearby societies that might offer them sanctuary. It began with an article I wrote for a British magazine which regularly investigates historical anomalies and oddities. Seeking an Australian angle, I settled on peculiarities of the convict era, recalling the old story about convicts attempting to escape by walking to China.

After researching and writing the 2000-word article I felt the topic was far bigger and more interesting than I had anticipated. I was astonished that no-one had ever written a book about it. I realised I was in a position to do so. So I did! (after seven years’ hard labour)

Toongabbie penal settlement near Sydney. Irish convicts sent here planned a mass walkout to the mythical inland 'white colony' in the 1790s. Image courtesy National Library of Australia.

Toongabbie penal farm near Sydney. In 1798 Irish convicts here planned a mass walkout to the mythical inland ‘white colony’. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Many fascinating stories from the early days had never been retold. But I wanted to do more than compile interesting events and adventures. Describing and examining the ideas behind the myth-driven escapes, I believe, throws new light on our early colonial days. I resolved to pursue the topic as thoroughly as possible and perhaps make a useful and original contribution to convict studies.

For this reason I wanted to ensure my investigations withstood academic scrutiny, especially by professional historians who might dispute some of my conclusions. And so I took care to present a fully footnoted and referenced work. But I had no intention of producing a textbook; I wrote Tour To Hell principally for the general reader with an interest in Australian history. I imagined it as appealing to the same reader who enjoyed Robert Hughes The Fatal Shore or Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing With Strangers.

The basic topic of Tour To Hell is neither new nor controversial. The existence of convict escape myths is well known, even if not much else is generally remembered about them. However, the full story of these myths has never before been gathered together or had an entire book devoted to it.

The usual approach until now has been to dismiss the beliefs, after a cursory glance, as an irrational product of ignorance and desperation. While these were certainly factors, I also hope my critical evaluation of primary source evidence shows that convicts had perfectly rational reasons to jump to mistaken conclusions about bush-Chinas and inland white colonies.

Few historians, for example, have commented on the irony that colonial officials, while sneering at convicts who believed in white bush societies, were simultaneously feeding the myth by hypothesising about equally non-existent inland seas and straits – and even drawing on similar Aboriginal evidence to support such ideas.

I believe the old escape myths give us a rare insight into an almost-lost convict mindset, the earliest folklore to arise in the colony. I welcome any discussion or correspondence on the topic.

I also hope to use this site to blog about pretty much anything that crosses my mind.