#TasmanianLitMonth – Meet featured historian, Dr. Dianne Snowden

Introduction and interview questions by guest curator, Bec Taylor

I would like to pay my respects to the traditional custodians of the land, the Palawa people of Tasmania, and to their Elders, past, present, and emerging. I acknowledge their deep spiritual connection to the land and their ongoing contributions to the culture of this nation.  

Dr. Dianne Snowden

About Dianne

Dr Dianne Snowden AM is a historian and genealogist. Dianne was a founder member of the Female Convicts Research Centre and is currently President. She is also President of the Friends of the Orphan Schools, which she founded in 2007, and the peak-body Australasian Association of Genealogists and Record Agents. She chairs the PAHSMA Cascades Community Advisory Committee and is a member of the PAHSMA Conservation Advisory Committee for the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority. She is a former Chair of the Tasmanian Heritage Council.

Dianne was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2017 for significant service to the community as a historian and genealogical researcher, to higher education, and to heritage groups. She was admitted to the Tasmanian Honour Roll of Women in 2017.

She is the author or co-author of several publications about convict women and the children of the Orphan Schools.

Her recent publications include 200 Years of Showing. The Oldest Agricultural Society in Australia (2021); Always There. Hobart City Mission 1852-2022 (2022); and Dianne Snowden (ed.) Hidden Histories of the Orphan Schools (2023).

Learning about convict women and their stolen children was yet another heartbreaking learning journey for me. If i was taught any of this dark history when I was student, I must have compartmentalized it. The forced removal of children from their convict parents comes as yet another example of colonization’s harsh and absolute belief in “bettering” children by stealing them from loving arms. This abhorrent practice could be considered the precursor to the Stolen Generation of the 1910-1970s, the trauma of which is still resonating through generations of our First Nations people. The courage and dogged determination of Dr. Snowden to bring the convict women’s struggle to the mainstream is one of the most important bastions in the fight for understanding our past in order to build a more equitable and learned future.

Watch Dr. Snowden’s full speech, entitled “Remembering Convict Women and Orphan School Children”, published by Libraries Tasmania.

Literature offers us mirrors, windows, and sliding door moments. Which of these are the most present in your work and why?  

Definitely windows! My work concentrates on using windows into the past, to find forgotten or hidden stories and bring them to light.  

What is a misconception about Tasmania that you’d like to rectify? 

It cannot be denied that Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land) has a dark and brutal past, particularly in relation to its treatment of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. For many years, the existence of the Aboriginal community was denied.  

Darkness and brutality are also held to be an enduring part of the convict system, shaping or tainting future generations. Is it a misconception? It is certainly a view that deserves closer examination, particularly its misogynistic application to all convicts.  

Above all, I would like to challenge the long-held stereotypes of female convicts and their children, and the perception that the life of a convict woman, or a convict’s child, was one-dimensional. The lives of convict women and the children of convicts were characterized by change and complexity: they were individuals, not cardboard cut-outs, as my research shows.

The children of convict women, pigeon-holed in the same way, were not ‘orphans’ but were taken from their mothers (and sometimes fathers) and incarcerated in the bleak and miserable Orphan Schools at New Town, then on the outskirts of Hobart. Out of sight, out of mind. Nearly 6,000 children passed through the doors of the Orphan Schools between 1828 and 1879. Many were not reunited with their families. Just over 400 died in care, many of preventable diseases.

Their stories are those of heartbreak and resilience. They are an integral part of the convict story yet rarely recognized as such. The convict story is not just about Port Arthur

The story of the Port Arthur Historic Site is a story of many people, places and moments. Over its long history, Port Arthur has been a place of hardship and punishment, a place of opportunity, and a place of leisure. Now it is one of Australia’s most important heritage destinations, where the story of Australia’s colonial history is written in stone and brick. Visit us to meet some of the people who have passed through this place, walk where their stories unfolded, and learn about Port Arthur’s evolution from a feared convict settlement to a World Heritage-listed Historic Site and world-class tourist destination.

Kay Daniels
(Photo by Ross Anthony Willis/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

What structures and systems are in place in Tasmania for you to succeed as a creator of history? 

Because my work is based on evidence-based historical research and sharing the stories that I find, access to archives and digitized records, and to oral history, is critical. I started by studying Australian history at the Australian National University and continued at the University of Tasmania. Historian Kay Daniels was a mentor and inspiration, and shaped my desire to focus on social history and telling ‘history from below’.

The availability of good university courses based on the history of a local region and its people is essential for an understanding of the past. Sadly, today, they are few and far between. 

What makes Tasmania special to you? 

Tasmania has a rich history, a wealth of archival and historical records, and an outstanding array of heritage. It is an island with defined boundaries but with internal diversity and complexity. 

Dianne Snowden and Jane Harrington (eds.) Convict Lives. Female Convicts at the New Norfolk Asylum (Hobart,2021)

What makes Tasmanian literature unique? 

I think Tasmanian literature is shaped by its past, its unique landscapes and the diverse backgrounds of its people. 

What other Tasmanian creators inspire and/or entertain you? 

Richard Flanagan’s early works, where he blends historical narrative with storytelling, are inspirational.

More recently, Hannah Gadsby’s Ten Steps to Nanette has been an outstanding Tasmanian publication. 

Joan Kavanagh and Dianne Snowden, Van Diemen’s Women: A History of Transportation to Tasmania (Dublin, 2015)  – winner of the  Australian Historical Association Kay Daniels Award 2018;
Dianne Snowden (ed.) Hidden Histories of the Orphan Schools (Hobart, 2023)

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