Depositions, Household Space and Ownership in Colonial New South Wales

AuthorPaula Byrne
PositionAssociate of the University of New England, Armidale, Australia
P J B*
An examination of the language used in courts and legal documents shows
that in colonial Sydney “things” were central to managing relationships and
much of life was commoditised, particularly the housing market. e society
was transitory, people moved constantly f rom house to house. Entangled with
illiteracy, this created a particular power structure where paper became symbolic
and a group of ex-convict clerks controlled as much of the society as they could.
Indigenous people also participated in this logic of settlement.
In 1812 Sarah Wells, Sydney shopkeeper and publican went to the New
South Wales Civil Court to dispute half a horse. e other hal f of the horse had
been traded and the new owner would “neither pay rent nor give occasional
use” of the horse to Mrs Wells.1 is description introduces us both to the
commercialisation of so many aspects of life in colonial New South Wales
and the kinds of conict generated. Early colonial New South Wales was a
place apart from the kinship and community networks that provided much
of the workforce in English cities and things such as beds, tea sets, pa rts
of gardens, animals and paper took on new meanings.2 Colonial cond itions
would create an emphasis on personal ownership, ritualised exchange and
careful and eccentric valuing and conicts over such valuing provided the
motor of the extreme litigiousness already recognised in the colony’s court
hi st or y.3 Arjun Appadurai argues that in all societies commodities travel
through “regimes of value” and have their own social life. In societies at war,
1 Petition of Sarah Wells , Court of Civil Jurisd iction, Causes, 13, 5/2283, NSW State A rchives
2 Lynne H Lees “Patter ns of Lower Class L ife: Slum Communit ies in Nineteenth Cent ury
London” in Stephen ernstrom a nd Richard Sennett (eds) Nine teenth Century Cities , Essays
in the New Urban History, ( Yale University Press, 1969) at 359–377; and Robert Glen Urban
Workers in the Early In dustrial Revolution (Croom Hel m, London, 1984) at 20–21.
3 Paula Jane By rne Criminal Law and Colonial Subject (Cambridge, Melb ourne, 1993) and B
Kercher, An Unruly Child (Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1995).
* Associat e of the University of New Eng land, Armidale, Aust ralia. Author of Criminal Law
and Colonial Sub ject: New South Wales, 1810–1830 (Cambridg e University Press, Cam bridge,
1993) and editor of Judge Advocate El lis Bent: Lette rs and Diaries 1809 –1811 (Desert Pea
Press, Anna ndale, Aust ralia, 2012). is paper wa s given to a semina r at the Departm ent
of Classics a nd History, UNE in 2014. e author wishe s to thank Peter Ste arns for his
enthusiasm for the r esearch.
118 Cante rbury Law Review [Vol 25, 2019]
under stress or undergoing rapid change, particular objects become charged
with symbolic meanings a nd are thus transformed.4 Like Sa rah Well’s division
of a horse, responses to rapid change need not be logical. Peter Geschiere has
drawn attention to the emergence of constant re-interpretations and shifts of
meaning as localised responses to modernisation.5 Hans Medick has noted
the urry of consumption that came with access to cash reckoning. People
scurried to obtain luxur y goods rather than household essentials.6 rough
analysis of the language of early colonial court records this paper explains
the cultural logic behind lower class litigation and in doing so answers the
Australian economic historian Sid Butlin’s request for more research into the
social relations surrounding money in the colony.7
e initial documents produced by popular court use are depositions.
ese are dicult ki nds of records and they require a distinctive methodology.
While they do show how cases emerged, they do not indicate what actually
happened at all. However, David Vaissey’s idea of “incidentals” in court
records considers asides and locating terms used automatically by persons
giving evidence before a court. is gives us a way of looking more widely
into what kind of culture gave rise to litigious societies.8 Arja Nurmi and
Minna Devala’s historical linguistic analysis of the letters and diaries of the
late 18th century provides tools for approaching language in a systematic
way, by examining how often and in what contexts words are used.9 In this
sense, court records become “talk exchanges” where records can show the
self-positioning of the speaker in relation to the objects and spaces he or she
names. In early New South Wales, the 1812 book of criminal cases heard
by the Police Magistrate of Sydney, D’Arcy Wentworth, is most fruitful for
langua ge analysis.10 e “incidentals” we can  nd are words describing house,
household and ownership. It is also possible to pursue such language into
records of property transactions from 1810 to 1824.
In 1810, Sydney’s population consisted of 6,158 non-Aboriginal people.
is had declined in 1815 to 5,475 and increased, mainly due to convict ships, to
4 Arjun Appadur ai (ed) e Social Life of ings (Cambr idge University Press, New York, 1988)
“Introduction” at 46; a nd Karen E Ric hman Migration and Voodoo (University Press of
Florida, Florida, 2 005) at 212.
5 Peter Geschiere “Globa lization and t he Power of Indeterminate Me aning: Witchcra ft and
Spirit Cults in Af rica and East Asia” in Bi rgit Meyer and Peter Geschiere (eds) Globalization
and Identity: Di alectics of ow and closure ( Blackwell, Oxford, 1999) 211.
6 Hans Medick “e Proto-I ndustrial Fa mily: e Struct ural Funct ion of Household and
Family durin g the Transition from Peasa nt Society to Indust rial Capita lism” (1976) Social
History 1–3.
7 Sid J But lin Foundations of the Australian Monetary System (Sydney University Pre ss, Sydney,
1968) at 26.
8 David Vaissey “Cour t Records and the So cial Histor y of Seventeenth Centu ry England
(1976) 1(1) (Spring) History Workshop Journ al 185.
9 Ar ja Nurmi and Minna Deval a (eds) e Language o f Daily Life in England (John Benjam in
Publishing C o, Amsterdam, 2004).
10 Police Magist rates Bench Book 1812 [PMB], Spencer 154, Mitchell Librar y (ML) Sydney.

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