Rosemary Noble Interviews Eleanor Nolan from Search for the Light
Today I interview Eleanora Nolan who was convicted of larceny in the city of London in 1824 at the age of sixteen. She arrived in Van Diemen’s Land a few months later to continue her sentence. Today we are in the Hobart Female factory, where she is working, after having been sentenced to a further three months for more misdemeanours.
RN: Eleanora, you were born in England, but you tell me you consider yourself Irish. Why is that?
EN: I go by the name of Nora, Ma’am. My family are Irish, everything about me is Irish, my looks, my name, my religion. Why should I not consider myself so, when I am called all manner of dirty names because of my Irishness? I have never felt English and certainly not now that I am on the other side of the world.
RN: Can you describe the happiest time of your life?
EN: That’s easy, Ma’am. The only time I have been happy was before my mother died. We lived for each other in our family. It was like a great bubble of joy and music, laughter and kisses. There was little money but it never mattered. What mattered was the love we had for each other.
RN: How did you feel when she died?
EN: Like the breath had been knocked out of me and replaced with a yawning chasm, one that could never be filled. We lost the sun and gained emptiness. We lost the music in our souls and I gained a silence that bears down on me, making me feel like I’m carrying a heavy burden that will never disappear. I could go on but your question pains me.
RN: You say that you didn’t intend to steal the cap. What did it feel like to be arrested for something you did mistakenly, Nora?
EN: Fear, of course, but puzzlement too. I had no one to turn to, no one to ask what was happening. It was like being in a nightmare, but no doubt everyone says that. I suppose deep down there was also some anger. Maybe I am misremembering. I think you have to learn how to be angry. When you are a skivvy, you are so conditioned to obedience, that anger is somehow squashed out of you.
RN: Who helped you through that time?
EN: Other women. I’d never had a friend, in fact I only learnt about friendship in prison. There are enemies too. You need to be able to sort out in your head who will help and who will bring you down. Without my friends, I would not have survived. I am absolutely convinced of that.
RN: How did you feel when you first saw the love of your life?
EN: I met him on one of the worst days of my life. All I remember was loss and terror at what lay before me. He made no impression on me at that time, beyond being a single speck of kindness in that dreadful day.
RN: How was the voyage? What were the downsides and the upsides?
EN: Thinking back there were contradictions. There was boredom for sure. After all, five months on a boat no bigger than my mistress’s house in Westminster seems an age, but we managed to keep ourselves busy and entertained. There was a measure of freedom in that captivity too. Between meals and chores, we spent time at our own direction, a freedom we had never known before or since. The food was disgusting apart from the odd day when a pig was slaughtered; hard ship’s biscuit, full of weevils, salted meat, mostly gristle and bone. Don’t talk to me about seasickness, poor Helen, she was so poorly. But then, of course, there was George. He outweighed everything else.
RN: What did it feel like to fall in love?
EN: I didn’t know anything about falling in love. My ignorance about such matters was so unsettling. He loved me but what did I know about it? I just felt confused, overwhelmed by his emotion. All I wanted was my sisters and their advice. He offered me something to cling on to, as much as anything, some hope for a brighter future.
RN: So why do we now find you back in goal, if you had hopes of a brighter future?
EN: It’s so hard here, Ma’am, to stay out of trouble. Every little thing that you say or do counts against you. A church service missed, answering back, a drop of drink to mask your misery, all of it is punished. They had me on bread and water last week. It was a solitary cell when I first got here, but at least they didn’t shave my head. They do that to some, you know. I should hate to lose my hair, it’s my best feature, don’t you think?
RN: What’s the worst punishment here?
EN: The iron collar. I’ve never had it, praise the Lord, but Anne Farrow has. She was on board, The Henry with me. She’s a tough woman, not like me. She says the iron collar is awful. It weighs a ton and it’s like a wheel with spokes coming out all the way around. They fit it around your neck and it stops you from laying down or even leaning against something, so you can’t sleep or even rest. Can we change the subject? I don’t want to think about it.
RN: I am sorry to upset you, Nora. Who do you most admire?
EN: Mrs Fry and the other Quaker ladies, like Mrs Barnard, back in London. They’re the only ones who ever took an interest in us. Here in Hobart, we’re the lowest of the low. How I wish Mrs Fry were here now to see the conditions they keep us in. I couldn’t believe it when Elizabeth Fry came on board ship at Woolwich to meet us. Fancy such a great woman as herself being interested in me. She gave us each a Bible. I keep mine with me, it gives me such solace when times are particularly bad, that and my mother’s rosary.
RN: How important is religion to you?
EN: I thought you might understand from my last answer. It’s everything to me because It brings me closer to my family. I feel they are here with me when I pray. I’m sure that my mother is with Jesus, I sense her guiding me, like a physical presence. It’s when I lose that sense of my parent’s guidance that things go so horribly wrong. Then I must earn it again, step by step until I come closer to God.
RN: What do you consider your special talent?
EN: I’m not really sure what you mean by talent. If you’re asking what I’m good at, it would have to be needlework. I always wanted to be a seamstress like my mother. Perhaps when I’ve finished my sentence I could find a job as a needlewoman. There must be a call for people such as me. I don’t want to spend my life cleaning and skivvying after people. George loved to hear me sing. Is singing a talent?
RN: Indeed, it is! I look forward to hearing you sing in Chapel on Sunday. Nora, what do you want most out of life?
EN: A husband and a family. I want to recreate what my parents had. Do you think somewhere on this island there will be someone who could love me, after all I’ve done? Sometimes the shame I feel is so great that I feel I ought to do away with myself. But that would be a sin, I couldn’t do it. No I must bear my sorrows and my guilt with fortitude, and plead with God for his forgiveness. That’s what the minister tells us, anyway.
RN: Thank you, Nora, for your time and your honesty. I wish you well for the future.
EN: Thank you, Ma’am. May I get back to my laundry work now?
RN: By all means.
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Rosemary worked as a college and university librarian and has a life-long love of social history and reading. Researching family history led to an interest in Australia where Search for the Light ends and provides the setting for the sequel, The Digger’s Daughter. Rosemary is a member of Arun Creative Writing Group and has been a volunteer researcher for Female Convicts Research Group. She is working on her third book, Ranter’s Wharf, which is set in England and hopes to publish it in the summer of 2017.