Getting to know you: Discovering colonial women's diaries in the John Oxley Library

27296 Laurie Smith Diary 1904, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Laurie Smith Diary with pressed flowers, Laurie was nanny to the prominent Metcalfe family in Toowoomba.

Guest blogger: Dr Allison O'Sullivan - 2020 John Oxley Library Honorary Fellow.

As a John Oxley Library Honorary Fellow my first task has been to get to know the wonderful staff at the State Library, and the people of Queensland past and present. This has been hampered by the year that was 2020, and my excitement at the opportunity to travel north for research has been tempered by the times. I was finally able to get to Brisbane in December, and I already feel as if I’ve made strong connections with many of the women I’ve met through the diaries and letters held in the collection.

Sometimes these women left little behind; sometimes they keenly felt the separation from family and dear friends. One common thread that binds many is that they were not moving independently but transported by fathers or husbands who made these decisions as the head of their households. Some face their unknown futures with trepidation and resignation, others with a sense of anticipation and excitement. Many felt the ennui of travel and devised on board games or theatre nights to pass the time. Unaccompanied women would often get in trouble with their supervisors, and of course some started their diaries as a way of filling out their long days at sea.

Already I am finding their stories touching – the sadness and loneliness that some of these women felt. The hardships they faced, often waiting weeks or months for their husbands to return. The isolation many felt in a frontier environment. The hardest parts to read are the tragedies of the loss of children, which were common. I’m also already noticing a class divide – the wealthier emigres to the colonies enjoyed a substantially different lifestyle to those of their poorer counterparts, and were more confident on their journeys, having a better idea (or so they thought) of what lay ahead.

The diaries also tell us about their environment, the people they knew, and their opinions as they tried to make sense of everything that was new and strange. Sometimes they describe their impressions of First Nation Peoples; often these accounts are not complimentary, informed by ignorance and fear of violence and compounded by their sense of isolation and the prevailing attitudes of the colony.

It’s these women I’ll be getting to know further in the coming year. I hope to share their stories with you in as much detail as I can, so that you can get to know them too.

Dr Allison O'Sullivan

Related collection items from the John Oxley Library.

Other blogs by Dr Allison O'Sullivan:

M 1510 Dorothy Leslie Diary 1901-1905. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Dorothy Leslie was a 15-year-old living in South Brisbane, who illustrated her diary with caricatures.


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Thank you and others for trying to preserve the memories of the past. Seeing those pages reminds me of how we used to do things pre type writers and certainly pre-computers. I recall doing a Nature book in a similar way, adding the pressed plant to the page and telling the story of where I found it.