Researcher finds her muse in old gold Castlemaine

PhD candidate Kacey Sinclair with actress Alice Garner and playwright Bill Garner.

Since Kacey Sinclair returned to study at La Trobe she’s written a thesis, acted in a stage show, published an article and now, started a PhD, all thanks to the ghost of Fanny Finch.

It’s safe to say Kacey has found her muse. This historic figure from old gold Castlemaine is spurring her on, making her do better, work harder, stick her neck out.

“On a number of occasions I’ve thought to myself, what would Fanny do?” Kacey says.

Fanny Finch was one of the first woman to cast a vote in an Australian election, in 1856. She was also the first known non-Indigenous woman of colour to vote. She was of African descent, a mother, business owner, sex worker and defender of the underdog. She was one of Castlemaine’s most recognisable characters, and now, Kacey is helping bring her back to significance.

Kacey returned to study at La Trobe after the birth of second daughter. (She’d earlier studied an Arts degree then worked in television and magazine advertising.) She completed a Graduate Diploma of International Development, then embarked on a masters year, planning to delve into the history of feminism in her home town of Castlemaine.

She went to visit local author and historian Robyn Annear as a starting point. “Robyn put her hands on the table and said ‘Oh! Have you heard of Fanny Finch?’ I think it was the excitement in her voice that made me think, this is it. If Robyn Annear is excited, this is it.”

Kacey promptly contacted Bundoora-based academic Dr Clare Wright to request a transfer into History, to gain the skills to research Fanny’s life for a thesis.

Around the same time, Kacey received an email from Bill Garner, a playwright who’d recently learnt he was the great, great grandson of Fanny. Bill is also the father of actress Alice Garner, who is the friend of Dr Clare Wright.

“I walked into Clare’s office, and among the wall-to-wall books and black and white pictures of her Eureka women, was a photo of her at her graduation, with her arm around Fanny’s great, great, great granddaughter,” Kacey says. “It just blew my mind.”

And so Clare became the conduit for Kacey to pass on the story of Bill and Alice’s infamous forebear. “Without Clare I don’t think this would be happening. She so believed in my thesis and was just so passionate, she helped make it all happen.”

Together, Kacey, Bill and Alice have shared the tale with an eager audience after Bill wrote a play based on Kacey’s thesis, staged over two sell-out shows in Castlemaine last month.

Kacey says it was a shock to discover Bill had written her into the work. Her initial response was that she definitely wouldn’t be playing herself!  “But when I read it, I fell in love with it and there was no way anyone else was going to do it, because it was our journey,” she says. “I was scared to do it, but it was one of the best things I’ve done, and I can’t wait to take part again.” The trio is now looking for a Melbourne venue to host another show.

Kacey has also had an article about Fanny published on The Conversation website. She’s spoken about her at public lectures and on ABC radio, and the renewed interest in Fanny’s life has prompted a Castlemaine Cemeteries Trust campaign to place a memorial on her unmarked grave.

And for Kacey, the research is far from over. She’s now embarking on a PhD, spurred on by the contemporary relevance of Fanny’s story.

“We’re not doing a good enough job telling how multi-racial Australia was,” Kacey says. “Fanny brings everyone into that story.

“She’s shown me that nothing is what it seems. I had a view of Australian history as a very white landscape. I remember in high school being taught about Australian history and feeling embarrassed to be in the room because the story wasn’t about me or my family.

“What Fanny has shown me is there is a myriad of identities in Australian history and telling those stories brings us all together. It’s given me a greater sense of what it is to be Australian.

“Then there’s also her courage. I see myself in her, and all the women around me in her, and it makes me feel like I can do better and keep going.”

Kacey’s version of that is the PhD, and her quest to unfurl the life of a woman who was practicing grassroots feminism in the face of an all-white patriarchy.

Among the documents Kacey has used is a letter Fanny wrote to the local paper, which included the line, ‘I’m a woman of few words and plainly spoken… but I’ve worked hard’.

“To me that says it all,” Kacey says. “I was really afraid of academia and I never felt like the smartest person in the room, but I think what matters most is hard work and passion, and so I return to that quote of Fanny’s to constantly remind myself of that. I’ve always felt afraid to speak up and have a voice, but Fanny tells me to put that aside and do the job.”

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