One of the problems of being a researcher of women’s history is all the dead children.
Over and over again the archives yield stories of families broken by illness, accident and disease – so many stories that they are in danger of seeming commonplace. But of course the death of each child was, to his or her own family, an occasion of enormous tragedy.
Elizabeth Macarthur lost two of her nine children as babies – one daughter born prematurely who ‘lived but an hour’ and a little boy who died at the age of ten months from ‘teething’. Elizabeth was not yet six when her younger sister Grace died aged two years and nine months. Her father died a month or so later.
Elizabeth’s girlhood best friend Bridget Kingdon lost a younger sister too. When the friends were twenty years old, little five year old Griselda Kingdon drowned in a sudden flood of the Tamar while riding her pony across the ford at the Bridgerule Bridge.
As far as I can tell few, if any of Elizabeth’s New South Wales friends managed to raise every one of their own children to adulthood. But some lost their children in particularly awful circumstances.
In August 1801 Elizabeth’s friend and neighbour Betsy Marsden was involved in an accident. Not twenty yards from the Marsden farm gate Mrs Marsden’s chaise overturned, spilling out a pregnant Betsy and her three year old son Charles. The little boy subsequently died in his mother’s arms. Two months later Betsy gave birth to another boy, John, but heartbreak and depression kept her from writing to friends in England for more than a year.
Two years later tragedy struck again. Little John Marsden, the baby born two months after his mother was flung from the chaise, died from a scalding received in his mother’s kitchen. Betsy never really regained her equilibrium and forever after considered August a fearful month, a time when she could hardly bear to let her other children out of sight.
I only recently learned that Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his wife Elizabeth lost a ‘dear angelic girl’ in 1808, not long before they departed for New South Wales. The girl Jane, their first child, was only twelve weeks old when she died. Between then and 1814, when Elizabeth Macquarie was finally delivered of a healthy boy, Mrs Macquarie endured seven miscarriages ‘and some of these,’ wrote her husband to his brother, ‘very bad and dangerous ones.’ Unsurprisingly, she was subsequently something of a helicopter parent to her son, the couple’s only surviving child.
Too often, I think, historians forget that fathers grieve for their lost children too. The ADB entry for Lachlan Macquarie, noting the death of little Jane, describes the decision to transfer his regiment to New South Wales as a ‘dramatic distraction from grief.’ Really? Could he truly be so easily distracted? And what was the impact of all that worry and grief surrounding each miscarriage on Macquarie’s governorship, I wonder? At least the ADB entry notes that he was a doting father to his son.
Not long after the birth of her son, Elizabeth Macquarie was witness to yet another childhood tragedy. She subsequently suffered a nervous collapse and was confined to her bed for weeks. On 6 October 1814 Private William Thomas, a Light Horseman in Governor Macquarie’s personal bodyguard, was on duty, riding alongside the Governor’s carriage. The carriage, with Mrs Macquarie inside, passed along the road in front of Private Thomas’ own home. What happened next was related many years later by Private Thomas’ eldest son, William.
Shortly after the McQuarries came to Sydney, my little brother’s third birthday came round, and my mother put him in knickerbockers. In the afternoon Charlie rushed into the road to meet my father and show him a set of whistling bells that Lady King had sent him. Just as he reached the road Lady McQuarrie’s carriage dashed round a corner. People shouted to the coachman but he paid no heed, and before any of the onlookers could reach the child the foremost horse had knocked him down and two wheels passed over his body.
My father couldn’t even pick up his own child – it was all he could do to protect the coachman, as the crowd were mobbing him. They would have killed him if they could; but my father told them they would be doing him the greatest kindness if they went away quietly, as he couldn’t go while they were likely to molest the coachman, who, as it happened, was drunk, so the people contented themselves by letting loose the horses and dragging the carriage to Government House.
Meanwhile Lady McQuarrie had picked Charlie up and carried him in to mother, who, when she saw him, fainted. And then I remember that the doctor came and said that death had been instantaneous, and a few days afterwards I remember going to the funeral and standing by the open grave holding my father’s hand.
Years afterwards when we lived in Hobart Town Lady Macquarrie often came to see my mother, and she always used to cry and blame herself for my brother’s death. She was a very good woman, and most kind. Everybody liked her.
Elizabeth Macarthur, in a letter to her god-daughter, called Mrs Macquarie a ‘very good woman’ too.
I found the story above, and much much more, in a beautifully produced book called In Her Own Words: The Writings of Elizabeth Macquarie. The book was published by Macquarie University and edited by Robin Walsh, the curator of the Lachlan Macquarie Room in the Macquarie University Library and the man behind the digital Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie Archive (LEMA).
An earlier post about Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie can be found here.