Historian Jean Bridges is putting her training to use at the Miss Porter’s House collection, where stories of family, friendship and loss can be found.
A medievalist by training, Jean Bridges has found little call for her 10th and 14th Century expertise in Australia. Her skills have however borne fruit in her volunteer work at Miss Porter’s House in Newcastle West, where she has been digging through the vast collection.
It is, Jean attests, a remarkable collection, particularly in the depth and breadth of the preserved documents, rarely seen outside the lives of the rich and famous. But here is drawn the entire lives of Ella and Hazel Porter, two “perfectly ordinary” middle class sisters in regional New South Wales.
She notes a grocer’s tab from the time their father, Herbert, died of the Spanish Flu. The bill itemises food from the weekly shop including cabbages, potatoes, butter and cheese. After Herbert Porter’s death the food stopped and materials for clothing were purchased instead. In details like this, Jean is offered a peek into a family’s private grief over 100 years ago.
Jean and her colleagues spent many hours researching the story of a pair of handsome red shoes, worn to the wedding of a friend of one of the sisters. Through lovingly preserved documents and adjacent items, the volunteers have been able to trace an entire friendship in the story of the shoes.
“We have the dress that was worn with the shoes, we have the newspaper article about the wedding, we have the invitation to the wedding and then we have the dozens of letters I’m going through at the moment, which was a lifetime’s correspondence between two of the bridesmaids and the bride, who were also at school,” Joan explains. “And we have the school reports and the school magazines and records of their post-school activities and their leaving certificates.
You understand what I mean about the breadth of the material? So it enables a very wide story to be told, rather than just, we have a red pair of shoes.”
Even scraps can tell a story, such as a poem cherished by the maternal grandmother, Ann Baldwin, about leaving home and the distance to a family left behind. Having undertaken the arduous journey from Lancashire to Singleton in the mid-19th Century, when a letter would have taken three months to even reach home, the poem would have held a particular poignancy.
It would be easy to imagine a personal connection with a family she has researched so intimately over several generations, but Jean is ever the consummate historian. “I think it would be presumptuous to say, and dangerous to say you know them, because you then start thinking things which there’s no evidence for.”
Through Jean’s eyes, the provincial middle class Porters—their simple home and little knick knacks—are transformed into something rather more than ordinary.
If you’re interested in volunteering at the National Trust (NSW), please get in touch.