Saturday, July 20, 2013

On the hunt for water . . .

In Years of Stone, two characters gather by a water pump.

But were there water pumps in common use in Hobart Town in the 1840s?

I've read newspaper reports that linked yellow fever to standing water in Hobart Town at this time. But I can't find anything about how the average person got water home. In a bucket from a town well? From a nearby stream? That necessarily would be polluted because of the numbers of people living in Hobart Town at that time.Where would 'honey buckets' be dumped? How did people do their laundry? Go to the bathroom? Find water for cooking? Wash their hands?

What I've found so far:
William Buelow Gould
(Source: Wikipedia)

  • Lynn Coleman's "Historical Tidbits" focuses on the 19th Century and makes fascinating reading.
  • A wonderful guest blog by award-winning Gary Schanbacher (author, Crossing Purgatory), on the difference between a historical novel and a novel set in a historical time on Reading the Past (more about this below).
  • A commitment to reading other novels set in Van Diemen's Land. I now have Australian writer Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish on my to-read pile. Surely I shall find water somewhere in this book that has accolades and awards, including the book itself being recognized by UNESCO as a document of world significance. 
Finally, got the idea to search for water in the National Library of Australia's TROVE, a searchable database of digitized newspapers (and other reference materials).

First step: need to find the right key words, so 1840 + water brought ship movements, postings seeking persons who would carry people by boat, a continuing report on ships arriving at the Brisbane Water (I'm guessing from several entries, including birth announcements, that this is a neighborhood); the establishment of water police, and laments about the scarcity of water in Sydney.

Narrow search terms: trying again with 1840 + water + Van Diemen's Land: Found Legislative Council in June 1840 on the search for 'pure water' in Hobart Town and Port, common punishments of 'bread and water'. 

Nothing retrieved from 'clean water' or 'potable water' but 'drinking water' found this fascinating tidbit set near Melbourne, but still interesting for showing problems related to drinking water.

"In January, 1844, the baths on the Yarra, opposite the Customs House were opened. Quaint by-laws appear in the council's books - to prohibit bathing in the Yarra in the portion whence the town's drinking water was dawn; 'to rid the town of the nuisance of the mangy (sic) dogs which follow in the Train of the Aborigines'; and to 'prevent the carting of Rubbish, Filth, and Dead Animals from one part of the town to another.' " (Source: "Melbourne's First Mayor": The Argus, Melbourne, Vic. 1848 - 1957) 7 Jan 1933: 6. Web. 21 Jul 2013 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4518153>.

The articles found in this thread show a compelling concern over "clean and wholesome" drinking water.

At a certain point, perhaps I should just rewrite the scene in Years of Stone so that my two characters are doing something other than drawing water from a pump or a well or a nearby stream. But this gets me back to Schanbacher's essay: What is realistic for this time? Even in such a small detail, what are the authentic concerns of my characters, especially given the outbreak of yellow fever?

Aha! Back to TROVE with new research terms!

Oh, dear. I found a horrible little story, reported in the Victorian-based Portland Guardian, in January 1901, and based on a telegram from Paris. Apparently a Madam Bobin, traveling by steamer from Senegal to Panillac, died of yellow fever. But the nurse expressed doubts that this was the cause of her death, based on her observations of the body. The family had the body exhumed to discover an infant in the coffin, and that Madam Bobin died of asphyxiation.  A grim little tale I never would have found if not for this search for water.

So back to 'yellow fever' as the search term. . . . 

If you write historical fiction, how do you track down those elusive bits?