Saying Goodbye to your Children


This week I waved my son off to camp – he’ll be away for nine days.  Elizabeth Macarthur waved her young sons off too, to be educated in England, for years at a time.  I don’t think I can imagine how she felt.  Or can I?

Inga Clendinnen explored the problem at length in The History Question: Who owns the past? (Quarterly Essay, Issue 23)

We cannot post ourselves back in time. People really did think differently then – or at least we must proceed on that assumption…It is true that historians are cruelly limited. We can’t do conversations; we can’t (usually) do monologues.  But what we can do is become increasingly knowledgeable about the contexts in which particular actions, including the writing of particular words, took place.  We do this not by emphatic time leaps, which would condemn us to live forever sealed into our own narrow cultural and temporal world, but by reconstructing as delicately, as comprehensively and as subtly as we are able, not only the material but also the cultural settings in which other people, once living, now dead, lived out their lives.

Clendinnen herself quotes novelist Henry James, who in 1901 wrote:

You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like – the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as nought: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent.  You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman – or rather fifty – whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force – and even then it’s all humbug.

Elizabeth Macarthur had nine children.  Seven survived infancy and five (all four sons and one of the three daughters) were sent to England to be educated.  At no time did the seven siblings ever gather together under the same roof because by the time the youngest was born the older ones were overseas.

Copyright-free Image Source:

Copyright-free Image Source:

There was nowhere in New South Wales to adequately educate the children and, even if there were, Elizabeth felt ‘it would be unjust towards them to confine them to so narrow a society. My desire is that they may see a little more of the world, & better learn to appreciate this retirement.’[1]

Like many immigrants before and since, John and Elizabeth had painted for their children a glowing picture of England as Home. Elizabeth, writing to a friend in England, acknowledged that she and John may have gilded the lily somewhat, noting that the children considered England as no less than ‘a seat of happiness and delight’ which contained ‘all that can be gratifying to their senses’ and where ‘of course they are there to possess all they desire.’ Elizabeth sensibly recognised that the children needed to experience England for themselves but she did think that some of them would subsequently choose to make New South Wales their home.

In 1798 Elizabeth’s eldest son Edward, aged eight, was sent to school in England. To his mother’s chagrin he ‘almost quitted me without a tear.’[2] Edward travelled in the care of a Captain Hogan, aboard the Marquis Cornwallis[3], and for company sailed with Norfolk King, also eight and Lieutenant (later Governor) King’s illegitimate son who up until now had been living with his father and stepmother on Norfolk Island.[4]

(Therein lies a whole other story! A blog post for another day, perhaps.  I wonder if the boys attended the same school.)

In 1801 Elizabeth’s husband John sailed to England, without his wife.  With him were the couple’s eldest daughter Elizabeth (then aged nine) and the second son John (then aged seven).  Son John would remain in England and become a lawyer.  Elizabeth corresponded with all her children but she never saw John again and was devastated when he died suddenly, in his mid-thirties.

Husband John and daughter Elizabeth returned to NSW in 1805 but a scant four years later John sailed to England again, in the wake of the overthrow of Governor Bligh.  The two youngest Macarthur boys, James (then aged 9) and William (then aged 7), travelled with him.  John and the two boys did not return home until 1817, when the boys were aged 18 and 16.

Given the very real dangers of each voyage, the unknown elements faced by the children in England, and any mother’s anxiety for her children I DO feel able to guess at Elizabeth’s emotional response.  But I won’t endeavour to describe it – instead I’ll trust in my readers’ abilities to guess at Elizabeth’s emotional response too.


[1] EM to Bridget Kingdon, Elizabeth Farm Parramatta, 1 Sept 1798

[2] EM to Bridget Kingdon, Parramatta 1 Sept 1795 (incorrectly dated, should be 1798)

[3] Ellis, M.H. John Macarthur, Angus & Robertson, 1978. Page 139.

[4] Bassett, M. The Governor’s Lady: Mrs Philip Gidley King. Melbourne University Press, Reprinted 1992. p114.


9 responses »

  1. You say John and the boys did not return home until 1817. Do you think that is what they thought, that NSW was home? And did they stay? It seems to me that very few of the middle and upper classes thought of Australia as home until well into the twentieth century. Look at the Fortunes of Richard Mahoney for instance, or the semi autobiographical works of Martin Boyd, or even the earlier Memoirs of Geoffrey Hamlyn.

    In passing, did Elizabeth jr return to NSW?


    • With the usual disclaimers about knowing what anyone thought, I would hazard an educated guess that yes, the two youngest sons definitely considered NSW to be home in a way the two older sons did not. By the time they left for England, the family was well-established and ‘home’ was a much nicer place to be than it had been for Edward or even for John Jr.

      An 1835 application for land by James and William Macarthur has, at the bottom of the page, a section where the applicant is required to declare that they are free and give the name of the ship and the year of their arrival. Those born in the colony usually state that they are ‘native born’. Interestingly, James and William Macarthur proudly write ‘we are Australians by birth’. According to the archivist, this is the only usage of the term Australians that he had seen in that context. It’s an extraordinarily early usage, isn’t it?

      And yes, upon the return of the younger sons to NSW they subsequently stayed and prospered (establishing the agricultural behemoth that was Camden Park, serving on bank and company boards and in early versions of the NSW parliament). Also yes (sorry, I should have said) daughter Elizabeth returned to NSW in 1805, accompanied by her new governess, Penelope Lucas. Miss Lucas became a good friend to Elizabeth Macarthur (senior) and remained with the family for the rest of her life.


  2. Usage of ‘Australia’ in English (rather than Latin) became generally accepted in the 10 years following Matthew Flinders in 1804 – thankyou Wikipaedia, I’ve known this forever but never bothered to look it up before.


  3. As I recollect Inga Clendinnen’s essay was partly in response to Kate Grenville’s statements re history and The secret river. Technically she’s right – but then, in a way, we can never get inside anyone else’s head, even from our own time. All we can do is give it our best shot and try to explain what we are doing, don’t you think. I’m thinking here too of non-indigenous Australians trying to write indigenous characters, for example. In the end, I think it’s OK for historians AND writers of fiction to use their imagination. Historians just need to be more careful about documenting their sources because we are expecting something “factual”? What do you think?

    (PS I read that Quarterly Essay. An interesting read).


    • I’m fine with biographical speculation, as long as it’s made clear to the reader that it IS speculation. In fact I often find such speculation intriguing and deeply interesting. How could a biographer (or historian, or any other kind of researcher) who spends all that time immersed in a subject NOT do some wondering, or make some educated guesses?

      As for fiction writers – surely the sky is the limit. Think of Mantel’s forays into Cromwell’s thoughts in Wolf Hall. Brilliant. That some fiction writers do it badly is surely not a reason to avoid thinking your way into another person’s mind all together. I agree the Clendinnen is technically correct but I do think her response was an over-reaction to an off-the-cuff comment by Grenville.


      • Great Michelle – we are clearly on the same point on the same page about this!

        I have had ongoing “discussions” with readers about historical fiction and fact – about imagining something that might have happened (not even about one of those persnickety things like the church isn’t on that street, or the church was bombed before X wrote that a wedding took place in it). No, this was “What would have happened if Charles Lindbergh had become president?” She said, But it couldn’t have happened. And I said but this is about What if it had happened. And she said, But it couldn’t have happened. And I said but this is FICTION. Over ten years later, she and I are discuss history and fiction via various blogs and listservs. (I love discussing books with other respectful readers who are prepared to share ideas without getting into name-calling, insults etc etc).


  4. Fiction, including historical fiction, is (at it’s best) a form of art. If someone painted a portrait of Charles Lindbergh as president, who could possibly object that it wasn’t historically accurate? Duh. Any judgement could instead be more usefully applied to whether the painting worked as a piece of art. Not sure why the same logic is not routinely applied to fiction (although I could spend hours happily speculating…!)


  5. Pingback: Vale Inga Clendinnen | Adventures in Biography

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