The Girl Who Stole Stockings is a meticulously researched and engaging true story about 12-year-old Colchester-born servant, Susannah Noon, who, in 1811, was convicted of stealing stockings and sentenced to seven years transportation on the convict ship, Friends. The story is two-fold: firstly, Susannah’s changing fortunes and society in early convict New South Wales; and secondly, her marriage to convicted bigamist Samuel Cave and their eventual arrival in a remote whaling community in New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds in 1838—and being one of only two Pakeha (white) women for miles.
We read of the travelling conditions on Friends and what some women did to survive. We learn of the good luck of having a moral surgeon on board, to ensure women were kept in good health, for the surgeon received payment for each healthy convict that arrived in Australia. The knock-on effect of the women’s good health was increased fertility, a soaring birthrate and a growing population (p 96). Hardie writes that “a child arriving in the colony around the aged of five years had an increased lifespan of twenty years” (p 129).
The reader witnesses the ebb and flow of Susannah’s fortunes, from convict to an upstanding member of society upon marriage to her carpenter then supply-store owner first husband and, after his death, back to having nothing upon marrying renowned bigamist and scoundrel, Samuel Cave. Particularly interesting was the extent to which Susannah went to support Cave—and whether it was because of financial desperation or true love that she followed him to the remote onshore whaling settlement of Ocean Bay, Port Underwood, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand. To give some perspective of what it was like to arrive there in 1838 we must remember it was both before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed and before the majority of white setters arrived. Susannah and family lived side by side with Maori, relying on them for protection and exchanging supplies. I can only imagine what Susannah must have thought as Samuel erected their basic thatched dwelling on the beachfront amongst the stink of rotting whale carcasses and the pungent aroma of arrack rum.
She instead found herself remote from any concept of civilisation, living again in makeshift housing in a miserable damp climate, dealing with a rough and often drunken male society that rivaled even that of convict New South Wales and bereft of female companionship of her own kind save her daughters. (p194)
There are two things that particularly struck me about The Girl Who Stole Stockings. The first is the manner in which the author, Aucklander Elsbeth Hardie, braids together the general and the personal to create Susannah’s seamless story—written by a less-experienced hand, the gaps in available knowledge about Susannah might have been obvious. The second is the philosophical and societal point the author makes throughout: the lives of “lesser” members of a society often go unrecorded or unremembered.
Back to my first point: I imagine at the beginning of Hardie’s research, piecing together Susannah’s life must have felt like trying to fashion a gown out of fabric pocked with impossible-to-darn holes. Despite meticulous research there were things about Susannah’s life the author would never know. But Hardie has sewn an end product—a seamless gown—utilising the technical and structural skill learned throughout her years as a journalist, PR maven and graduate of Witi Ihimaera’s Auckland University creative writing course. Hardie draws together Susannah’s story—and that of the women on the Friends convict ship—by stitching together a multitude of stories of period and place, weaving them so skillfully at times it is as though the author had transported herself back in time.
Related closely to the first point is the second: the value of a person’s (especially a woman’s) existence despite a lack of recorded information. For example, for many women on Friends, pleading their innocence in court was the only record of their voice for their lifetime (p 39). Similarly, regarding the Cave’s off-the-grid move to the Marlborough Sounds, Hardie writes that ‘Susannah and her family were not only removing themselves from any colonial oversight; they were disappearing from any officially measured or recorded society’ (181)’. An impossible feat in today’s obsessively recorded digital times.
One of the only slivers of Susannah’s recorded life in early New Zealand archives is her deposition relating to the tragic Wairau Massacre of 1843—surely a conflicting task for her considering the Cave’s close relationship and proximity to the Maori of the area, including Te Rauparaha.
And so these two points—the necessary cobbling-together of Susannah’s life through what is known and recorded about her, and the general society and times; and the lack of recorded information about lesser-valued early New Zealand habitants, could have prevented this book’s publication and success. Instead, Hardie’s skilled handling of what is not known, as much as what is known, has resulted in a readable and enjoyable book revealing to a modern audience a fascinating period in early New Zealand history, through the story of Susannah, her family and her convict ship friends.
Read my author interview with Elsbeth Hardie here:
The Girl Who Stole Stockings by Elsbeth Hardie, Atom Publishing, Australia, 2015. RRP NZ$39.99. Available from leading booksellers in New Zealand and Australia or order online at www.friendsconvictship.com.
Listen to Elsbeth’s National Radio interview with Kathryn Ryan here.
Disclaimer: Elsbeth Hardie is my aunt, and Susannah Noon my great-great-great-great-grandmother.