I live in the hilly Sydney suburb of Maroubra, so when I go for a run I choose the flattest route. This is south along Anzac Parade, past suburban blocks and then beside the razor wire, parking lots and concrete façade of Long Bay Correctional Centre. Look closely and you can glimpse some original sandstone walls and older buildings behind the wire. It makes you wonder about the history of the place.
Long Bay opened in 1909 as a Women’s Reformatory and was the first purpose-built institution of its kind in Australia. Many of the notorious female criminals involved in the razor gangs of the 1920s were prisoners there: women with familiar names like Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine.
At the Western Sydney Records Centre in Kingswood they hold some of the original prison records in the State Archives. I drove west one day, having requested to view the records of letters sent and received by the prison, hoping I would stumble across a rich trove of first-person stories. Upon arriving, however, I realised these were actually the letters sent and received by the Prison Comptroller: letters about mundane things like electric lights not working and whether the doctor could visit on Thursday rather than Tuesday. But as I flipped through the crumbling pages I saw rare glimpses of what life contained for the women who were prisoners there. One was put on basic rations (bread and water) for ripping apart her cell. Many were diagnosed with syphilis. Letters were sent to relatives requesting they provide a place to live when their daughter, niece or sister (a reformed inebriate; a former prostitute) was released. Most of these sentences were short and the crimes hardly criminal: public drunkenness, soliciting, and coarse language were common reasons for incarceration.
Then I came across the mention of a prisoner named Rebecca Sinclair. She was being sent to the Royal Hospital for Women for her ‘confinement’, to be returned afterwards to the gaol. One month later, there was another letter mentioning that she had returned to prison, with a fourteen-day-old infant in her care.
I was immediately drawn to learn more about Rebecca: what was her crime? How did she keep her baby in gaol? What was her life like? What would happen upon her release? The letters were so faint and barely legible; I was struck by the fragility and impermanence of the source.
Rebecca was born in Paddington in 1885, the fourth of six children. When she was three, her father died, and two years later her sister died. Rebecca’s mother would have struggled to keep her children fed, for there was no government assistance and little help from charities.
In 1905 Rebecca was nineteen and at the roller skating rink at Prince Alfred Park when she met a dark-haired young man named Donald Sinclair. He was dapper and silver-tongued and proposed marriage after just three weeks. Rebecca did marry him, and with this step entered a life wholly unlike the one she had known, a life that took her through a bigamy case and into the underworld of Sydney abortion and crime.
Four years later Rebecca and Donald Sinclair were found guilty of manslaughter in the Supreme Court of NSW after Lucy Edith Smith, a mother of three, was found dead at their house following an ‘illegal operation’. Rebecca and Donald had only been in business for a few weeks, performing abortions from their home.
Donald was sentenced to five years penal servitude and Rebecca to three years imprisonment with hard labour. In January of 1910, six months into her sentence at Long Bay, Rebecca gave birth to her second daughter. (Her first daughter, Ellen, was in the care of Rebecca’s mother.)
I became obsessed with Rebecca’s story. I found out everything I could and then began looking for living relatives in the hope they could tell me more. I joined an online genealogy site and made contact with a woman who had Rebecca on her family tree. Her identity was hidden initially but when we began emailing she told me that she was Rebecca’s granddaughter. Her name is Christine Jensen, and she is the wife of the former Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen.
Christine met with me in a Sydney café and we talked of Rebecca. Christine’s mother was Freda, the daughter born in prison, but Christine had not known that until after her mother’s death two years before. Her mother never talked much about her childhood and had been a distant, unhappy woman. When she died, Christine requested her birth certificate and was shocked to discover that her mother had been born in Long Bay Gaol. She read a few newspaper articles about the court case, but did not realise that Rebecca’s crime had been abortion. It was a difficult piece of news for her to hear, but she was graceful and generous to me.
Christine said it was something of a revelation to learn about her past, because she could understand why her mother acted the way that she did, harbouring such a secret. It was a time when shameful incidents in one’s past were not mentioned, even to the closest family members. Christine said that she wanted to honour her mother, who never felt she could share the story of her birth with anyone. She gave me permission to use her grandmother’s name and story for the novel, Long Bay.
If not for Rebecca’s time in the courts and in gaol, we would know nothing about her life, living as she did in poverty and obscurity. As it is, we only have official records to rely upon and no letters or documents written by Rebecca exist that I can find. The records that do exist, the ones that are kept by the NSW State Archives and the State Library of NSW – such as her entry from the gaol photograph description book that is on the cover of Long Bay – are a rich source of information about lives that would otherwise be completely forgotten, stories that were hidden because of the shame that they carried.
Stories are how we navigate the world around us, and when those stories are not told, the world shrinks. In her book of essays The Faraway Nearby Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind’.
I was driven to dig up the particulars of Rebecca’s story and write about them because the story told me to dig. I saw that it should not disappear with time, buried beneath layers of secrecy. Her story told me to look deeper, to understand bad choices, and to see beyond the razor wire, to the messy, real truth that fiction can reveal.