The Secret River – H3a Reading Group Review, 11 January 2012

The Secret River
by Kate Grenville

Orange Prize winner Kate Grenville’s novel “The Secret River” was published in 2005. She went on to write a second book called “The Search for the Secret River” in which she describes her research into the subject.

Inspired by the early life of one of her ancestors, Kate Grenville tells the story of Will and Sal Thornhill.  They grow up in extreme poverty in late 18th century east London.  After trial for stealing valuable wood, Will and his fmily are transported to the penal colony at Sydney Bay, Australia.  The bulk of the story deals with the uneasy relationship between the convict settlers and the indigenous people of Austalia. It culminates in an horrific massacre.  The final chapter of the novel has Will 10 years later sitting on his bench (one of our group saw it as the bench of shame) on the veranda of his mansion.  Outwardly surrounded by the trappings of success, he obsessively scans the horizon with his telescope.

Most of the group found the book highly readable, very believable and indeed, educational, not least because of its wealth of historical detail.   For some group members, though, the East End of London vernacular was a bit of a challenge.   Interestingly, in a BBC Book club interview[1], first broadcast on 11 June 2009,  Kate Grenville revealed that many of the phrases and expressions were lifted from court records of trials at the Old Bailey in London in the 18th century:

“This (the archive of court records) is only place you can hear the unmediated voices of the poor of the 18th century.   They were illiterate and left nothing behind them unless they ended up in front of a judge, in which case someone was taking down their words.   It’s only thing we’ve got, their own words, like reality TV. for the 18th century”.

One member of the group, an Australian herself, remarked how the book had been valuable in filling in gaps in her knowledge of her own country’s history.   She also expressed a view, which many of us shared, that Kate Grenville was great at creating and developing characters and relationships.

This was not a view that was held unanimously however.   One member said he was disappointed with the author’s ability to create characters with depth, suggesting that, with the exception of Sal (Will’s wife) and Dick, their second child, she had populated the novel with stock characters.

He was particularly saddened about her development of the protagonist, Will Thornhill.   He felt that Kate Grenville had missed a chance to show that people, like Will, who had committed crimes and been punished, can redeem themselves and learn from their mistakes, particularly if they were put in the position of making a new start.

There are plenty of instances to support this view:

  • Will starts out by making all the same mistakes, showing aggression in his early encounters with the native Australians, shouting profanities at them.
  • He marks out his patch, clearing the bush around his house, the better to defend it, and generally behaving as though the land belonged to him.   In an early encounter with an old aborigine, he tries to make things clear: “My place now”, he says “You got all the rest”, a sentiment he repeats at different points in the novel.
  • Far from redeeming himself, this desire to “own” the land leads him to participate in and ultimately benefit from the terrible massacre at the end of the novel.
  • Several people felt that Will had plenty of opportunities to learn so much from the indigenous people and the more enlightened of his neighbours, such as Blackwood and Mrs Herring.  (A questioner in the interview on BBC RADIO 4 raised the same point).  For example, Blackwood, an  ex convict with an aborigine wife, advised him that “Aint nothing in this world just for the taking…A man got to pay a fair price for taking, a case of give a little, take a little”. But Will didn’t heed the lesson, any more than he was able to understand when the old aborigine tried to explain about the daisy yam plants.

Others in the group were, by degrees, more sympathetic with Will.   Some felt that he did start out with good intentions, suggesting he was doing what most of us would do, in the same situation.  They recognised that he had arrived in a totally strange land, stranger than any of us could ever imagine in today’s globetrotting culture.   On his first night in Sydney Bay “he had only the dirt under his bare feet, his small grip on this unknown place”; “he was a flea on the side of some enormous quiet creature”.  He had nothing.

His priority was the protection of his family and an improvement in their life if possible and to this end he took reasonable steps to provide for them.   His attitude towards the natives typified the reaction, now as much as then, to the “other”, to the “unknown”.  For Will’s advocates, it was no surprise that with no language, no education but the education of the violent and threatening London streets, he behaved as he did.

One member felt that, in creating Will and indeed some of the more unsavoury characters and having them behave as they do in the novel, Kate Grenville was reflecting what the face of colonialism really looked like.   In a sense, she felt, the author was saying “This is what it was really like:    in more cases than not, this was a representation of what really happened – that the transported felons really were hopeless at understanding or relating to the indigenous population”.

Some saw in Will’s clumsy attempts to talk with them, – in a mixture of East London cockney and a poor imitation of the language and mannerisms of the ”toffs” he once ferried about –   that he really did want to communicate with the aborigines.   He desperately wanted to explain why he felt he too had a right to have somewhere to live and a means of supporting his family.  And what’s more, he could see vast amounts of land, more than enough for everyone.

His family was one of his driving forces and it is often in the context of his family that Will comes across at his most sympathetic.  Of course he also sees his sons as both a means of helping him on his boat and ultimately his guarantee of a future.

A member suggested that, at times like these – when Will was shown at moments when Will was shown at his most sensitive – Kate Grenville had felt obliged to make Will a more sympathetic character than even she believed he was capable of being.

One thing we all seemed to feel was that Kate Grenville had done a good job of not apportioning blame and taking sides.    Indeed some felt that she had set an example for us all in that many, perhaps even most of us, found it almost impossible to decide unequivocally in favour of one side or the other.

In the interview, Kate Grenville confronted this ambivalence about her portrayal of Will head-on.

“I did not want to fall into the trap of making him a ‘goodie gumboil’, politically correct and all the rest of it.   That would defeat the whole purpose of writing this book which is meant to address a very difficult moment in our history.

On the other hand, there’s not much point in writing about a monster.   Monsters are not particularly interesting and one can detach oneself from a monster.   We can say ‘Oh, he’s just a bad apple, the rest of us are not like that’.  What I wanted to show was that he a was a man like the rest of us, a mixture of good and bad, pragmatism and ideals even, forced by circumstances, forced to make choices there were kind of impossible choices in a way.   I wanted to say he’s like the rest of us, thrust into a life he is trying to make the best of”.

She also addressed some of the points raised by the audience and, incidentally, by our own group.

In the interview Kate makes the point that she did not feel it her role to tell the aborigines’ story – and by implication, be the intruding author telling the reader where Will is going wrong.   That, she said, was another story which was not her place to tell.   However, she continues,

“Once you’ve articulated what has gone wrong, you can go back and try to unpick that tight knot; you can start to make different decisions.   The book is as much about the present and the sadness of failing to learn from other people who are different”. 

She was speaking in 2009, and suggested that this process of trying to come to terms with the mistakes of the past was now underway.  She cited the fact that the first act of the (then) new Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was to apologise to the indigenous peoples for the past behaviour of non-indigenous Australians.  Even though the current indigenous population of Australia is less that 2½% of the total,

“We have a shared history” Kate Grenville said, “We could have been talking for 200 years but at least we have started now.”[i]

If there was ambivalence about our attitude towards Will, there was no doubt about our feelings for Sal, Will’s wife.   From the start, she was unanimously admired by the group.  When considering her particularly, we felt in a sense, the book is about their marriage too.   It is clear that, despite everything the couple are devoted to each other and to their children.

Without doubt though, it is Sal who brings strength and stability to the relationship.  In  their early life together,  she helps Will learn to read and write;  she stands by him during his trial and  subsequent death sentence – despite knowing that, after his death, she almost certainly faced a life as a prostitute.  When his sentence was commuted to transportation, she endures the 9 month journey to the penal colony with him and their young son Willie, giving birth to second son Dick, en route.

She is always there, often with greater insight than Will.  She struggled desperately to keep house, nurture their children, and run the stall selling stolen rum at the colony.

Later,  at Thornhill Point where she moved very reluctantly, she faces even greater struggles to survive, surrounded by  a motley crew of scary neighbours, increased rumours and then real instances of outrages and depredations  from the natives, sometimes only with the children and two deported  felons for company.

All the time Sal does her best to support Will in his schemes to improve their lot and contributes many of the most important ideas herself.   She suggested turning half their hut into a “grog stall’ to earn money; she it was who proposed borrowing extra money to buy the Queen, for example; she urged him to rename the boat Hope (an expression of her feelings perhaps); later it was Sal who made the move to Thornton’s Point possible, bargaining to limit their stay to 5 years, in order to make their fortune and return home..

Although she finds them sometimes puzzling, sometimes worrying and sometimes down-right frightening, she is more successful than Will at communicating with their aboriginal neighbours.    She is the one who feeds Scabby Bill, and later gives the aboriginal women names and barters an old bonnet   for what would now be called “ethnic” handicraft wooden bowls (to sell as curios when they got back to London).  It is Sal who –  ironically in the light of later events – extracts a promise from Will that he will never behave like Smasher in taking a whip to a native. Interestingly, as one member pointed out, it is Sal who realises the place of the indigenous people.  On going to their settlement for the first time:

“They was here”, she said again “they was always here, their grannies and their great grannies.   All along”

And a few moments later:

“They ain’t going nowhere, she said, “they ain’t never going.   And mark my words, Will, they’ll get us in the end if we stop here”.

What was so deeply moving and so admirable about Sal is that she did all this, despite the conflict at the heart of their relationship – which grew as time passed by – that Will saw their future in Australia and she clung to the hope of going back home. (Even at the end, behind the high walls of the villa she is trying to grow roses and daffodils – reminders of home)   There was something deeply touching about her teaching their children about London – a place hardly any of the children had ever seen – through nursery rhymes, London songs, and mental walking tours around their neighbourhood near the docks in London.

Much as we admire her, it was interesting to learn from the author during the interview that this aspect of Sal’s character came quite late on in the writing of the novel.

“Originally she was a sort of ‘stick’ character who started whingeing when she arrived in Australia and carried on whingeing for the next 200 pages”.

Kate Grenville explained that is was the publisher who suggested that the character could be developed more fully.

All of us sought reasons to explain the behaviour of the white deportees.   One member, quoting the musical  South Pacific, reminded us of the song “You’ve got to be carefully taught” which deals with the subject of racial prejudice (and which, incidentally, was highly controversial at the time the musical was first staged).   Unless carefully taught, the tendency in any group is to ostracise and stigmatize anyone who is “other”, who is the odd one out.  Blackwood is an example within the white “tribe” in this novel. She suggested this also applies on an inter-racial level, the thought being that ignorance can often lead to prejudice, fear and conflict.

It is hard for reasonably education folk like members of the reading group to understand what it is like to be illiterate.   As literate people we have information to make choices but for illiterate people like many of the characters in the book, on both sides, the choices are very limited.

An interesting comparison was drawn between the experiences of Australia and New Zealand.   The first non-indigenous settlers in Australia were largely illiterate, poor and exiled individuals (with a few rich, educated ones thrown in).  They faced some 360 tribal groups, all with different languages and customs, but all from one of the oldest and most sustained cultures on earth.   The early settlers in New Zealand, on the other hand, were generally better educated and could approach adapting to their new home more intelligently.

Several members drew attention to the parallels between the treatment of indigenous Australians, and the treatment of the indigenous peoples of North America.  One parallel was with the so called Lost or Stolen Generations – aboriginal children who were separated from their families by or with sanction of successive government agencies in Australia. Motives such as “protection”, “education”, “preservation of the tribes” were all cited and challenged.   One American member said that similar actions had been taken with Native American children, who were sent to special boarding schools.

Another said that, to this day, no American government has really addressed the outrages committed against the indigenous population.   Others pointed to the banning of speaking the Welsh language in Wales and, drawing on her own experience, one member cited the widespread practice of left handed people being forced to learn to use their right hand.

The same member felt that the whole novel and especially the living conditions in London ought to be seen against the backdrop of the huge changes that were taking place at the time.  Internationally, the world had changed totally with the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  The French revolution (1788-1799) was in full flow when Will was growing up in the East End of London and there was a huge fear in the ruling classes that something similar could come to England.

Perhaps most significant to the condition of life in East London, it was the start of the Industrial Revolution with manual and animal-powered methods giving way to machine-based manufacturing.  One very significant result was the migration of many uneducated farm labourers to the cities.  In turn this brought about overcrowding, appalling living conditions, poverty and crime.   In this person’s view it is important to see the events of this novel as part of – even the result of – this wider picture.

Another member pointed out that racial prejudice has always been with us and the Stephen Lawrence retrial which has just concluded in London shows, it is still with us today.

We touched on the notion of “Secrets” in the novel.   In the interview, Kate Grenville said the book was a book about secrets.   The Hawkesbury River, the river of the title, has its secrets of course.   As a member of the audience pointed out, as is often the case in real life, the secrets between man and wife are about protecting the other person from some perceived horror or danger.  But then, as the author pointed out, secrets set up barriers between couples, and create the areas of silence to which she refers in the novel.

But the areas of silence go beyond the individuals.   As one member pointed out, there is the silence of the empty outback and, most tellingly, the Australian silence about its early history.

Some of the group felt rather uneasy about the way the book ended – suddenly fast-forwarding from the terrible massacre to the wealthy and successful Will and his wife living in their walled mansion.   Was this the author unable to face up to what had been done, somehow not able to articulate the guilt, they wondered.   In the interview, someone asked a similar question about the fact that Will had chosen to bury the ancient aboriginal rock carving of the fish under his mansion.   “Was this an attempt to bury his conscience” she wondered.

(According to Kate Grenville, this carving really exists and is buried beneath a petrol station in a suburb of Sydney – but thoughtfully, the developers had left a trap door so people could view it).

In the end, Sal does not get back to London but she does her best to bring something of home to Australia with her flowers and trees.   She and Will survive, surround their mansion with high walls, employ servants and live the life of the gentry they both admired and despised back in London. Will sits on his veranda, searching the landscape.

We are left to wonder what he is searching for: the return of the indigenous people whom he has helped to drive out, perhaps?  Perhaps even the return of his estranged son, Dick?  For certain, he seems to have gained material wealth on a scale he could never have imagined as a waterman back in London He may have escaped his poverty and his past, but we can imagine that he can never escape the guilt he feels for the part he played in the massacre and all that followed.




Kate Grenville says at the end of the book that the story is inspired by one of her ancestors, Solomon Wiseman, but stresses all the characters are fictional.   However, as is clear from the novel (confirmed by her book called “The Search for The Secret River”), she went to extraordinary lengths to ensure historical accuracy.    Some historical background information follows.


“Penal transportation is the deporting of convicted criminals to a penal colony. Examples include transportation by France to Devil’s Island and by the UK to its colonies in the Americas, from the 1610s through the American Revolution in the 1770s, and then to Australia between 1788 and 1868.

Transportation punished both major and petty crimes in Great Britain and Ireland from the 17th century until well into the 19th century. A sentence could be for life or a specific period. The penal system required the convicts to work, on government projects such as road construction, building works and mining, or assigned to free individuals as unpaid labour. Women were expected to work as domestic servants and farm labourers.

A convict who had served part of his time might apply for a ticket of leave permitting some prescribed freedoms. This enabled some convicts to resume a more normal life, to marry and raise a family, and a few to develop the colonies while removing them from the society. Exile was an essential component and thought a major deterrent. Transportation was also seen as a humane and productive alternative to execution, which would most likely have been the sentence to many if transportation had not been introduced.

In 1787, the “First Fleet” departed from England, to establish the first British settlement in Australia, as a penal colony. They arrived at Port Jackson (Sydney) on 26 January 1788, a date now celebrated as Australia Day.    (



In the late 17th and early 18th century, punishments were Draconian:

Due to the Bloody Code, by the 1770s, there were 222 crimes in Britain which carried the death penalty, almost all of them for crimes against property. Many even included offences such as the stealing of goods worth over 5 shillings, the cutting down of a tree, stealing an animal or stealing from a rabbit warren. For example, Michael Hammond and his sister, Ann, whose ages were given as 7 and 11, were reportedly hanged at King’s Lynn on Wednesday, 28 September 1708 for theft. The local press did not consider the executions of two children newsworthy. The Bloody Code died out in the 1800s because judges and juries thought that punishments were too harsh. Since the law makers still wanted punishments to scare potential criminals, but needed them to become less harsh, transportation became the more common punishment. (


There really was a Convict Ship called “Alexander” that made the journey to the penal colonies of Australia in 1806.  See


The Hawkesbury River (The secret river of the title) is named after Lord Hawkesbury who, as Lord Liverpool, served as the British Foreign Secretary, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies and as the longest serving Prime Minister of all time.


The granting early of Will’s Ticket of Leave seems exceptional.   According to one source :

“A Ticket of Leave (TOL) was a document given to convicts when granting them freedom to work and live within a given district of the colony before their sentence expired or they were pardoned. TOL convicts could hire themselves out or be self-employed. They could also acquire property. Church attendance was compulsory, as was appearing before a Magistrate when required. Permission was needed before moving to another district and ‘passports’ were issued to those convicts whose work required regular travel between districts. Convicts applied through their masters to the Bench Magistrates for a TOL and needed to have served a stipulated portion of their sentence:

– 7 year terms needed 4 years service with 1, or 5 years with 2 masters
– 14 years needed 6 years with 1, 8 years with 2 or 12 years with 3 masters
– Lifers needed 8 years with 1, 10 years with 2 or 12 years with 3 masters



Given that he was at the bottom of the financial heap, Will sometimes faced enormous costs.  For example, some of the amounts Will had to spend throughout the novel – whether for medicine for the sick, or later, the loan to buy his first boat in Sydney – were staggering when converted to today’s equivalents.

At one point when his mother in law and father in law become ill, there is talk of one bottle of medicine costing £1.   £1 in 1790 was around £88 in today’s terms; in 1800 it was £49.   Either way, this was a huge amount of money for someone whose livelihood had dried up because the Thames had frozen over.

When he bought the Queen (renamed Hope) for £150, it was the equivalent today of £7,350 – again an enormous sum of money to borrow on the prospect of being able to work to pay it back.

No wonder he falls to thinking that “A man’s life is a cruel race to get him above the high water mark, safe from tides and contrary winds, before his body gives out”.



He claims it was 100 acres, which is about 40 hectares or 404 dönüm



One thing we did not talk about in the group was the brilliance of the prose.  The book is replete with exquisite phrases and descriptions.   Examples include

On physical appearance.    Kate Grenville often uses images from the landscape, particularly when talking about indigenous people:

“Eyes in their caves of bone”

“Rock of face”

Faces have “crags” “Slopes” “the crease of mouth as if carved in stone”

It is as though she regards them as part of the landscape

On nakedness:  The natives “Wore nakedness like a cloak”

On the native’s scars:  Scars on Scaby Joe, “like a language”

On the sky on his first night: 

“Stars meaningless as spilt rice” – particularly poignant for someone used to navigating by the stars over the Thames.

On the Thames freezing over in 1802:

The Pool above London Bridge grew a pearly skin like the cloud on old eyes”  “Boats stuck in ice as fast as bones in fat”

On writing his own name:

 “16 and no one in his family had ever gone so far”

On the staircase at Waterman’s Hall where his binding took place:

“The staircase was out of a dream, curving upwards like a coil of orange peel around a slender rail, towards the radiance pouring down from the skylight”.

On seeing the scenery on the River Hawkesbury:

Thornhill began to notice, a column of smoke, a something move, a man gesturing or just a branch behaving like a man”

On leaving Sydney Bay:

 “A dirty white dog with a hind leg that seemed to have been put on backwards saw them off”

On Sal showing disapproval:

“Glancing at him with a smile that looked yellow”

On a seascape:

 “A cat’s-paw of wind made a patch of rough water”

On kangaroos:

“A creature out of dreams put together from different parts – ears of dog, muzzle of deer, and that thick tail, like a furred python”

On the abandoned fire place in the native camp:

“A shiver of heat still rose from the ashes”

On recognising how much he had changed by his being in Australia:

“It seemed he had become another man altogether.   Eating the food, drinking its water, breathing its air, this country had remade him, particle by particle”.

“A man’s heart was a deep pocket he might turn out and be amazed at what he found there”



[i] On 26 January 2012, the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott were rescued from an angry protest by Aborigine Rights Activists in Canberra on Australia Day.   See for example

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