Book review by Frances Parsons, Tasmania Regional Meeting.

The Gardener’s Gamble : a social history of Australia through the Dawson Family by Helen Laidlaw (2010, Cedar Ridge Books, Kiama) available from

Helen Laidlaw’s Th e Gardener’s Gamble is, as she says on the title page, ‘A Social History of Australia through the Dawson Family’.

‘The gambling gardener’ was her great, great, great grandfather, John Dawson,who with wife Mary and nine children came to Sydney on the Canton in 1835, hoping to improve their standard of living and social status. The experiences and rigours of that journey (in a purpose built migrant ship) and the enforced on-shore quarantine (because there had been smallpox on board) are recorded from the day they left England in the journal kept by John, the 15-year old son.

They were a literate family, and the author has been fortunate in having access to many  journals, scrapbooks, collections of letters and photographs. The text has been enriched by frequent quotation from these and other primary sources, as well as by the many illustrations. Her research led her to archival material in State, University, newspaper, school, Quaker and town collections; glance at the bibliography and notes at the end of the book, before you begin at the beginning.

It took Helen 20 years to piece together. Despite the uncertainties, the accidents, illnesses and deaths, the family prospered, and there is much interesting detail about the way districts such as Camden and the Illawarra were settled, and about the role members of the family played in setting up hospitals, schools, agricultural shows, Blind Institutes and general social amenities. Even a bill of sale throws light on farm and household equipment.

The amount of work done by women is staggering. From 5am to 11pm they had the dairy herd to milk (twice), milk to set in pans for the cream to rise, butter making, (and marketing) the hens, lambs and pig pens to see to, household scrubbing and polishing, laundering, dressmaking, mending, gardening, and of course cooking, preserving and bottling the produce of the fertile soils of the farms which they leased until they could buy.

It was during this early period that the Quakers, Backhouse and Walker, visited the Australian colonies, and the Dawson family often attended Meetings for Worship arranged by them as they tramped the Illawarra, Jervis Bay, Shoalhaven and Camden districts. Backhouse had as secretary Abraham Davy, a reformed convict (whom Backhouse had possibly first met at Macquarie Harbour), who began to court Jane Dawson. This raised difficult questions for early Quakers regarding the status of emancipists and the role of ‘disownment’. Central to the difficulties was the question of ‘marrying out’ (i.e. marrying someone not in good standing in the Meeting). Friends from Hobart (the ‘Senior’ Meeting) came to Sydney to help sort out the problems. Among them were Robert and Joseph Mather. Abraham and Jane, impatient of the dissention, married in a Presbyterian Church in 1838 and not long after Abraham was ’disowned’. However, they remained in close contact with Friends and Davy exchanged letters with Backhouse for many years.

Another of the problems among Friends in Sydney was a split between a group of enthusiastic young Friends and the older, conservative Members. At one time, police locked the young group out of the Meeting House. About this time, another pair of Quaker missionaries visited: Joseph James Neave and Walter Robson, as did Francis Cotton of Kelvedon. Neave became enamoured of Helen Davy, daughter of Jane and Abraham. Their courtship was protracted as Neave wanted to complete his travelling in the ministry, but they were eventually married in Saffron Walden before returning to Sydney where they did much to revive the Meeting. Their eldest children attended the Friends’ School as boarders. Among the luggage of the Dawsons on the Canton was a cradle. Their own family was complete but they must have been looking to the future — there are 70 grandchildren listed in the family trees at the end of the book. As the author says in her conclusion The Grimsby Gardener’s gamble had paid off … within three generations the family included an architect, artists, bank managers, barristers, businessmen, chemists, doctors, engineers and a judge.

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