Join Dr Kate as she unearths the incredible story of the Toodyay Letters. A heartbreaking set of ten original letters written from the perspective of Myra Sykes to her husband, William, who was transported to the Swan River Colony as a convict in 1867. Myra lived in poverty in the Sheffield area, raising four children without her husband. She was largely illiterate. It was thought other people must have scribed the letters on her behalf. The letters range from the period 1867-1879.
William died in 1891 in Toodyay, and the family was never reunited. Dr Kate explains the survival of this set of letters is a story in itself and set the scene for preserving the convict history of WA.
These letters are not yet digitised but can be read in the books Alexandra Hasluck’s ‘Unwilling Emigrants: letters of a convict’s wife’ and Graham Seal’s ‘These Few Line: the lost lives of Myra and William Sykes’.
Print from The Graphic of 28 November 1874: General View of Sheffield from the east – Taken from St. John’s Church, 28 November 1874 by ‘JRB’.
Born into the smoke and fire of northern England’s industrial revolution, Myra Sykes had to earn her daily bread early in life. Working as a domestic servant, she married foundryman William Sykes in 1853. The children soon began arriving and William struggled to keep his growing family.
Like so many other Yorkshire men of the time, William supplemented his basic wages with a little poaching. One cloudy moonlit October night in 1865, William and a few others took their snares and dogs to Silver Wood in Yorkshire. Their poaching exploit turned into a violent struggle between the armed keepers of a local magistrate’s hunting rights and the poachers. The poachers manged to get away but a keeper died and after a police investigation William Sykes got the blame.
There were two sensational trials. Despite strong support in the local jury, William was eventually convicted of manslaughter and transported to Australia for life. His story continued in the West Australian bush and Myra’s continued in industrial Yorkshire as she struggled to raise her and William’s three children – as well as a fourth fathered by another man.
Except for the chance survival of letters between Myra and William, their stories would have never been told. As it turned out, these nobodies of history maintained a relationship of sorts across half the planet for over twenty years. Through these few scribbled lines of recrimination, longing and a kind of love, we can read about their efforts to make some sort of a life for themselves in very different, yet difficult, circumstances.
Myra worked hard at whatever domestic work she could get. Her love and longing for the lost William shines through her letters as she tries to feed and clothe his and her children. In the end, Myra found some peace and redemption in her troubled life.
Her story, and William’s, is told in my book, These Few Lines. As well as a tale of triumph over adversity, it is an intense family history. Since publication, the book has revealed several of Myra’s descendants. There may well be more in England, Australia, New Zealand or elsewhere.