Category Archives: Colonial History

Esther Abrahams – convict, farmer, drinker and an all-round admirable woman


Esther Abrahams in 1811 (aged 39). State Library of NSW

In July 1786 a teenage girl with dark hair and a long, attractive face, stepped into a shop, took two cards of black lace to the counter and asked the price.

“Twenty-five shillings,” she was told.

Young Esther Abrahams, for that was her name, tartly replied that she would pay no more than a guinea and soon left without buying anything. Moments later, the shop assistant rushed out onto the London street and caught up with Esther, angrily accusing her of theft. Esther denied it, but the shop lady was insistent. The disputed goods were found and, ever so predictably, Esther was charged, jailed and – despite excellent character references – sentenced to transportation. Seven months after the incident in the shop Esther gave birth, inside Newgate Gaol, to a baby girl she called Rosanna.

So far, so very much like every other story of convict-girl-with-heart-of-gold-forced-into-theft-by-circumstances-beyond-her-control.

Except that Esther and her family made a genuine and important difference to the course of Australian history. And she lived quite an interesting life along the way. Oh, and she was Read the rest of this entry


Working at Elizabeth Farm


Working as a guide at a historic home sounds, for many people, like a dream job. But is it?

Last year I was lucky enough to meet the lovely Jacky Dalton, who works at Sydney Living Museums.

I subsequently asked her about how she came to be in her job and this is what she told me.


My first connection with Elizabeth Farm was a ghost tour almost 16 years ago, and I immediately felt a connection with the property even though Read the rest of this entry

Australia’s First Piano – belated update

The keys of the First Fleet piano.

The keys of the First Fleet piano.

Surgeon George Worgan, thirty-three, improbably managed to bring a piano with him on the First Fleet.  In 1790 he gallantly began to tutor Elizabeth Macarthur, telling her she’d ‘done wonders in being able to play off God save the King and Foots Minuet’ and that she was ‘reading the Notes with great facility.’

Worgan went so far as to make Elizabeth a gift of the pianoforte upon his departure in 1791.

In early 1810 Elizabeth bought a pianoforte for £85 at an auction sale, presumably because the original piano no longer served. That old piano was then lost to history … or so I thought.

When I was in Sydney talking to the people at Sydney Living Museums they kindly alerted me to the following new publication: The First Fleet Piano: A Musician’s View by Prof Geoffrey Lancaster.

It’s an enormous beast of a book, stretching over two huge volumes. I think that’s it sitting on the piano, in the photo below.

When I returned home and searched the book up, I discovered that Elizabeth’s piano was not lost at all.  In fact it is alive and well and living in Read the rest of this entry

Eat Your History by Jacqui Newling – Review and Interview


eat-your-historyHands up if you love to cook? Keep your hand up if you are interested in Australian history? Still with me?  Then do I have the perfect book for you (or for someone you know – Christmas is just around the corner and books are ever so easy to wrap…)

Eat Your History: stories and recipes from Australian kitchens is a wonderful, and very beautiful, collection of recipes, social history and historical insights.

According to the author, “This book invites you to share forgotten tastes and lost techniques, and rediscover some of the culinary treasures that have nourished many generations of Australians. Rather than being a history of food in Australia, or a history of Australian food, it offers stories about Australians and the food they ate.”

The stories have been gathered by Jacqui Newling, in her role as ‘resident gastronomer’ at Sydney Living Museums, which looks after 12 historic properties dating between 1788 and 1950. And, yes, one of those properties is Elizabeth Farm, the home of Elizabeth Macarthur. She gets quite a few mentions throughout as does the first Australian cook book (by Edward Abbot and which I blogged about in 2014).

Australian garden history is a definitely a thing, with it’s own society and followers.  Yet Australian food history still seems like unexplored territory.  Jacqui Newling seeks to fill that gap, and does it extraordinarily well.

Eat Your History is a lovely mix of historic depth and practical example, with a well-balanced mixture of prose, pictures and recipes.

Readers are provided with historical context and background and then treated to fascinating recipes – each tested by Newling, and often using the kitchens and utensils of the period!  Some are familiar, like the sea-food chowder and tomato chutney, others are less so, like oyster loaves or rosella jelly.  I’m definitely no cook but some recipes even I’m itching to try, like Mrs MacLurcan’s Wholesome Summer Barley Water or Mrs Gaffney’s Date and Nut Cake.

Eat Your History is a book for dipping into and it takes us all the way from the first fleet to the 1950s. Newling shares, for example, details about the nature of colonial kitchens, Aboriginal fishing practices, commercial ice manufacture, and dining room etiquette.

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet Jacqui Newling, in Sydney.  I found her friendly, intelligent and forthright. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions for me.

What was your writing process?  Lots of research, then lots of writing?  Or did you undertake the research as you went along? Read the rest of this entry

Camden Park House


Camden Park House Source: Adventures in Biography

Took my family to Sydney for the weekend, ostensibly for a quick sightseeing stopover but actually so that we could attend the annual open day at Camden Park House.

We were lucky with the rain, and managed to explore the house and extensive gardens before it poured.

* * * * *

During the first week of June 1805 the signal was made at Sydney Harbour’s South Head and Elizabeth’s prayers were answered. John Macarthur, having left NSW for England in 1801 under the cloud of a pending court-martial, triumphantly sailed up the harbour in a ship he part-owned, unsubtly named Argo. Its figurehead was, equally unsubtly, a golden fleece.

During his enforced English sojourn (this was the first, the second time was after the Rum Rebellion of 1808) John had gained an important friend in Sir Walter Farquhar, avoided sanction for duelling with his commanding officer, sold his military commission, convinced the government that the future of New South Wales rested with him, and wrangled the purchase of seven rare and prized Spanish rams.  He even managed to bring five of them home alive. There is luck here, certainly, but also a canny ability to spot an opportunity and to capitalise upon it.

John also brought home his Read the rest of this entry

Elizabeth Macarthur’s Quilt at the National Gallery of Victoria


The gallery had sold out of the glossy, colour catalogue for Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 by the time I saw the exhibition last week. But I had a terrific chat with the young woman serving at the museum shop while I placed an order to have the catalogue mailed out (at a discounted rate, no less).

“Isn’t it interesting,” she said, “how contemporary some of those quilt designs are. It’s amazing to think they predated modernism by decades.  But not acknowledged, of course.” She gave me a gorgeous, wry smile. “Why would women’s sewing be acknowledged as art?”

Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 is a wonderful and important exhibition now showing at NGV Australia (the gallery at Federation Square, in the heart of Melbourne). Over eighty works are on display – mainly quilts and bedcovers – and they are variously beautiful, historically significant, poignant, charming and fascinating. Intricate quilts stitched by convict women en route to Australia. Depression-era blankets (called waggas) made in desperation from scrounged bits and pieces. Delicate embroidery commemorating the jubilee of Queen Victoria.

But you know there was only one quilt that I really wanted to see. EM QuiltThis hexagon quilt, pictured above, is attributed to Elizabeth Macarthur. Her descendents believe she started it sometime around 1840 and her daughters (and/or grand-daughter) finished it. By the 1840s Elizabeth was in her seventies, with fading eyesight and prone to headaches. If she did begin it, I do wonder how much is actually hers…

The colours have faded with time, of course, and some of the fabrics have started to perish. But if you look closely below you can see the individual stitches – perhaps made with Elizabeth’s own hand. I’m a (sometime) quilter myself and I can assure you that those stitches are impressively tiny!

EM Hexagon StitchesLady Mary Fitzroy, the wife of the NSW Governor, was making a similar quilt at around the same time. But in 1847 she was killed in an accident (she was handed into the carriage but before her husband could take the reins the horses bolted, took a downhill corner too fast and her carriage tipped over and hit a tree). She’d attended a Macarthur wedding only three days earlier.

The coverlet Lady Fitzroy was working on remains unfinished to this day – the colours of her hexagons a little brighter for having spent a century and more tucked in her sewing bag (see photo below).

Lady Fitzroy Sewing Bag and HexagonsLady Fitzroy evidently had a better eye for design than the Macarthur women. She practiced what today we would call ‘fussy cutting’ – deliberately selecting and then cutting fabrics in such a way that a secondary design is created once the hexagon was pieced together (see photo below).

Lady Fitzroy Single HexagonBut Lady Fitzroy and the Macarthur women used the same technique to ensure the consistency of each hexagonal piece: paper piecing. Hundreds of paper templates were cut, then the fabric was basted on top of the paper, then each hexagon was whip-stitched (with those tiny stitches we’ve already seen) to those adjacent. It’s a technique still very much in use today.

One of the quilts in the exhibition was displayed with the wrong side showing (below).

Hexagon quilt - reverseUsually a quilter will pull out all the papers once the quilt top is finished but historians are often very grateful if the quilt-maker didn’t manage to get around to it!

Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 is open until 6 November 2016.  The adult entry fee is $15 (concessions are available). The curators have done an excellent job of selecting and displaying the works and it’s an exhibition well worth a visit. I can’t wait for my catalogue to arrive so I can enjoy it all over again.











Mrs Macquarie and the tragic accident

Veale Headstone

Headstone of Grace and Richard Veale, Elizabeth Macarthur’s sister and father. St Bridget’s churchyard, Bridgerule. Source: Adventures in Biography

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.

In her own wordsMeanwhile 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.