The protagonist of the novel, William Thornhill grows up among the poverty of the South End of London. After the premature deaths of his mother and father, William is responsible for the welfare of his siblings. He works at several backbreaking jobs before being offered a lifeline as an apprentice to the waterman, Mr. Middleton. William finishes his apprenticeship and marries Mr. Middleton's daughter, Sal. William works as a waterman on the Thames and, for a while, the family attains a modicum of security. However, a month long frost and the death of Sal's parents force William to resort to theft to support his family. He is caught trying to steal Brazil wood and sentenced to death by hanging. After several letters of appeal, his sentence is commuted to deportation to Australia. Despite the hardships, Australia offers William the opportunity to shed his past and build a new life for his family. William is motivated by a deep need for security and the desire to control his own life. His determination to forge a space for himself in this new land places him in direct opposition to the Aboriginal people and their way of life.
Sarah (Sal) Thornhill
Daughter of Mr. Middleton and wife of William Thornhill. Sal falls in love with William when they are still children wandering the dirty streets of the South End. She marries William at the end of his apprenticeship and gives birth to her first child, Willie. Although she had a relatively stable childhood, Sal faces adversity with a sense of humor and resolve. When William is arrested and sentenced to death, Sal organizes his appeal and gets his sentence commuted to exile. Upon their arrival in Australia, Sal continues to support William and help him build a new life for their growing family. However, she finds the expanse and wildness of the land intimidating and longs for the familiar streets of London. Conflict arises between Sal and William as their ideas of the future diverge. William wants to settle in Australia, while Sal wants to earn enough money to return to London and live in comfort. Sal bears William six children: Willie, Dickie, Bub, Johnny, Mary, and Sarah.
William's older sister. Even before their mother's death, Mary was largely responsible for running the household. She sews shrouds to help put food on the table.
William's older brother. Matty becomes a sailor, leaving William to support the family after the death of their parents.
William's older brother. As children, James and William stole books and other items to help support the family. James leaves home at fourteen and never returns. William hears rumours that he has continued thieving on the other side of the Thames.
William's older sister. Lizzie is in charge of the younger siblings in the family. William feels fondly toward her as he remembers being carried around on her hip as a baby. Lizzie also takes in sewing to help support the family.
William's older brother. Rob was mentally impaired by a fever at the age of five. Rob is kind and very strong. As a child, he hangs around James and William, helping them steal. When William becomes a lighterman, he employs Rob to help haul the goods to and from the boat. When the hardship descends on the family, William involves Rob in his plan to steel the Brazil wood. When they are caught, Rob jumps overboard and drowns in the Thames.
Sal's father. Mr. Middleton is a waterman who achieved a level of financial security for his family. In poverty-stricken Southwark, his house on Swan Lane represents the security that William craves. After his wife suffers the last of several miscarriages, Mr. Middleton realizes that he will not have a son to carry on his business. He offers William an apprenticeship and saves the family from starvation. When his wife falls ill during the fateful frost, Mr. Middleton spends all of his savings on doctors and medication. One day after trudging through the snow to search of yet another tincture for his wife, Mr. Middleton return home with a fever and dies a week later. All the money gone, William and Sal are forced to sell all the furniture and the boats, and they lose the house on Swan Lane.
Sal's mother. Mrs. Middleton is a kind soul whose life is tempered by grief for the children she has lost. She dotes on her daughter Sal and keeps a warm and inviting home on Swan Lane. Her illness during the frost eats up all of the Middleton's savings. She dies soon after Mr. Middleton.
William's childhood friend. As a boy, Collarbone roams the streets of Southwark with William looking for things to steal. Collarbone then works as a watchman at Customs House Quay. He frequently siphons off brandy from the barrels by making little holes under the metal rings. One night, he is caught with the brandy and sentenced to death by hanging. William collects money from the neighbourhood to bribe the executioner to give Collarbone a quick death. The executioner requires a bribe to accurately measure the prisoner's weight and height so that his neck breaks immediately. Despite the bribe, Collarbone does not die right away. Instead, he slowly suffocates in the noose.
William's employer in London. William works as a lighterman for Mr. Lucas until he is caught trying to steal Brazil wood. Mr. Lucas has political ambitions, so he does not turn a blind eye to the occasional theft by his lighterman. William suspects that Mr. Lucas set a trap for him with the Brazil wood. Mr. Lucas' testimony against William in court contributes to the original sentence of death by hanging.
William's childhood friend. Dan is a member of William's gang of boys in Southwark. Unexpectedly, they meet again in Australia when William arrives at the dock to pick up two recently arrived convicts to help on his land. Dan is one of the two convicts assigned to William. Although Dan is initially happy to see William, he soon learns that childhood friendship cannot overcome the inequity of their positions. As Ned's master, William experiences his first taste of power over another man - a power he once chaffed under himself. William's decision to use that power to keep Dan in his place marks a shift in William's character - from underling to master.
William's employer in Sydney. William works as a lighterman for Mr. King, transporting rum, gin, and brandy. William uses the technique of putting small holes under the metal rims around the casks to skim off liqueur, which he and Sal then sell in the settlement. Mr. King loans William the money to buy Thomas Blackwood's boat and set up trade along the Hawkesbury River. William then burrows another 300 pounds from Mr. King to have a ship built - a move that ensures William's success on the river and his position as a wealthy colonist in New South Wales.
A former convict, Thomas Blackwood runs a thriving trade between the settlement in Sydney and the farmers along the Hawkesbury river. He hires William as second mate on his boat when William leaves Mr. King. Blackwood's advice to William on how to handle the Aborigines represents the struggle at the heart of the novel. Blackwood tells William, "A man got to pay a fair price for taking. Matter of give a little, take a little." Of all the characters in the novel, Blackwood has the greatest appreciation and knowledge of the Aborigines and their culture. He respects their claim to the land and learns to live in harmony with them. Blackwood speaks the local Aboriginal language and lives with an Aboriginal woman, with whom he has a child. Blackwood never emotionally recovers from the bloody dispersal of the Aborigines. He lets Dick Thornhill run his still and keep up the land.
Wiliam and Sal's oldest child. Born in London, Willie arrives in Australia when he is five years old. Of all the children, he has the only real connection with his mother's stories of home. Willie works with his father after they buy Blackwood's boat, trading up and down the river. He works hard to turn Thornhill's Point on the Hawkesbury river into a viable farm. He eventually becomes his father's right hand man and captains the new boat, the Sarah, venturing further inland to bring back the lucrative cedar wood.
William's second son. Born in Cape Town during the nine-month journey to Australia, Dick flourishes at Thornhill's Point, exploring the forest and the river. He befriends the tribe of Aborigines that settle temporarily on Thornhill's Point, learning to throw a spear and light a fire by rubbing two sticks together. Dick reacts strongly to the bigotry directed toward the Aborigines. After William's participation in the bloody dispersal of the local Aborigines, Dick leaves home to live on Thomas Blackwood's settlement up the river. Dick learns how to run Blackwood's still and delivers rum up and down the river. He does not speak to his father again, although he continues to visit his mother. Along with Blackwood, Dick understands that the Aborigines are a part of the land. He appreciates their skills and their way of life. Dick rejects his father's claim to ownership and domination of the land and chooses a life that balances nature with human consumption.
William's third son. Born in the settlement at Sydney, Bub is a weak and fussy child. At first, William does not expect him to survive. However, his health improves at Thornhill's point. Bub's whining and clinging to Sal's skirts frequently annoys William.
William's fourth son.
An Aborigine who lives in the Sydney settlement. Scabby Bill has abandoned his traditional culture and begs for scraps of food and rum in the settlement in Sydney. The settlers mock him and make him dance for a drink of rum. Scabby Bill frequently begs outside William and Sal's hut, and Sal gives him food and drink to make him leave. Scabby Bill's drunkenness and refusal to wear clothes reinforces the settlers' view of the Aborigines as savages. He symbolizes the detrimental impact of colonialism on the Aborigines.
One of the settlers along the Hawkesbury. Smasher Sullivan is a mean-spirited man with a profound hatred for the Aborigines. He believes them to be little more than savages and frequently kills them when they approach his farm. He kidnaps Aboriginal women and keeps them as sex slaves. Sullivan and Blackwood often clash, as Blackwood refuses to accept Sullivan's vicious treatment of the Aborigines. When Saggity is killed after a raid on his farm by Aborigines, Sullivan convinces the other settlers that the Aborigines must all be killed. Whisker Harry spears Sullivan during the attack on the Aborigines.
A settler on the Hawkesbury. Saggity Birtles is an unsavoury crony of Smasher Sullivan. He shares Sullivan's views of the Aborigines and particpates in the sexual abuse of Aboriginal women. After the raid on his farm, William finds Saggity with a spear through his stomach. It is Saggity's death that leads to the battle with the Aborigines.
One of the settlers on the Hawkesbury; also known as Spider. While Webb is away from his farm, the Aborigines steal his crop. The government then sends a regiment down to punish the Aborigines. The military effort is a failure.
One of the settlers on the Hawkesbury.
One of the settlers on the Hawkesbury. Mrs. Herring is a widow who maintains her plot of land by herself. She serves as midwife and nurse to the other settlers. Mrs. Herring does not approve of the way that Sullivan and Saggity treat the Aborigines. She seems to understand Blackwood's concept of "give a little, take a little" and manages to live in relative harmony with the Aborigines. After the bloody dispersal of the local Aborigines, she becomes a recluse.
Convict indentured to William. Ned is an uneducated and simple person. He works as a manual laborer on Thornhill Point. Ned believes the Aborigines to be savages. it is Ned's malicious whisper in Williams's ear (that Sal will leave Thornhill's Point unless the problems with the Aborigines end) that pushes William to transport the angry group of settlers to the Aborigines' camp.
The elder of the Aboriginal clan that settles temporarily at Thornhill's Point. Whisker Harry is a venerable older man who has several run-ins with William over his claim to their land. During the battle between the settlers and the aborigines, Whisker Harry throws the spear that kills Smasher Sullivan.
Long Bob/Long Jack
A member of the Aboriginal clan that settles temporarily at Thornhill's Point. Long Jack teaches Dick Thornhill how to make a fire using two sticks and how to throw a spear. in the battle between the settlers and the Aborigines, Long Jack takes a bullet to the side of the head. He survives and returns regularly to Thornhill's point to claim the land as his own. His silent and reproachful presence undermines William's sense of ownership.
The Secret River Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Secret River is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Christ Church in England had lions on its gateposts. The lions were a symbol of Thornhill's mother, and the way he remembered her. Thus, he chose lions for the gateposts in his Australian home.... in memory of his mother.