Inside Story

Invisible women

The story of Elizabeth Macarthur, a driving force in early New South Wales, highlights gaps in the story of colonial Australia

Michelle Scott Tucker 8 April 2018 2150 words

No paragon: Elizabeth Macarthur as depicted by an unknown artist. State Library of New South Wales

Nations are built with pens and brushes not just hammers and nails. They exhibit their character in what they say about themselves as much as what is said about them.
— Bruce Pascoe, Convincing Ground

In 1788 a young gentlewoman raised in an English vicarage married a handsome, haughty and penniless army officer. In any Jane Austen novel, that would be the end of the story, but for the woman who would play an integral part in establishing Australia’s wool industry, it was just the beginning.

Elizabeth Macarthur landed at Sydney Cove in 1790 with her husband, John, and a sickly infant. She would never return to England. Instead, she and her husband painstakingly carved out a vast agricultural empire. John was eventually credited with founding the Australian wool industry, although it was the practical Elizabeth who ably managed their holdings for more than a dozen years while her volatile husband was overseas, in exile and disgrace. She was an Elizabeth Bennet who married a Wickham instead of a Darcy, and it was only thanks to her that John Macarthur would ever grace the face of Australia’s two-dollar note.

Elizabeth was an engaged participant in many of the important commercial and political events of her era, while also being the mother of nine children. She took immediate and practical action to ameliorate some of her husband’s wilder political gaffes — John was court-martialled for duelling with his superior officer and was instrumental in the Rum Rebellion overthrow of Governor Bligh. She was a friend to Matthew Flinders, and her family entertained a young Charles Darwin. Irish political prisoners plotted to burn down her house.

Elizabeth rode out alone to oversee her properties and dined in state with a succession of colonial governors, from Commodore Arthur Phillip in 1790 to Sir Charles FitzRoy in the 1840s. And she established the first merino stud book in Australia, paving the way for an industry that became crucial to an entire nation. She oversaw it all with humour, resignation and a sharp eye for her family’s financial future. The Devonshire farmer’s daughter, herself a canny farmer and astute business manager, was never simply a farmer’s wife.

I was drawn to Elizabeth’s Macarthur’s story largely because I was surprised to discover that although women were essential to many early Australian farming enterprises, they seem to have been neatly excised from the national consciousness. It was not only the women who were rendered invisible, of course. The growth of nationalism in the late nineteenth century encouraged writers like Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson to create a glorious, nostalgic pioneer past that never really existed yet, as historian John Hirst noted, exerted a significant influence on the writing of formal history. Their pen portraits, and the histories that followed, eschewed the embarrassment of the nation’s convict origins (often skipping from First Fleet to the gold rush within the space of a few paragraphs) and completely overlooked the horrors inflicted on Aboriginal people.

John and Elizabeth believed the land was there for the taking. They had no sense of their own ignorance of Aboriginal law, land management and custom. Indeed, Elizabeth’s attitude towards Aboriginal people seemed to harden over time. Like many others in the colony, she moved away from a conciliatory view, which in the earliest days had seen her dining with Aboriginal friends and welcoming their visits. Once there were substantial sums of money to be gained or lost, once white people known to her personally had been killed, Elizabeth could only see the original inhabitants as a threat.

She also shared the colonists’ general lack of insight about Aboriginal culture, affording it no credence or legitimacy. “Attempts have been made to civilise the natives of this country,” she wrote from Parramatta to her goddaughter, “but they are complete savages, and are as lawless and troublesome as when the Colony was first established. Our settlements are constantly subjected to their depredations.” That the same could equally be said by Aboriginal people about the colonists completely escaped her.

Time and again, whether the stories concern this frontier conflict, exploration or the spread of agriculture, it is men we hear about, read about, or see in depictions of rural life. Women were not entirely excluded, but even famously powerful stories like Lawson’s “The Drover’s Wife” carry the explicit message that pioneer women were sacrificial heroines because they did not belong — that the bush was no place for a (white) woman. There was little room in the sacred rural myth for women who thrived in their life beyond the townships and who were successful in their agricultural enterprises. In the United States, the early settlers are depicted as families — men, women and children travelling west in covered wagons. In Australia, the lone male battler captured centre stage.

In the history of Australian farming, though, women very much were the real story. Elizabeth Macarthur is only one of many women who were crucial to the family farming enterprise. The endless work of the farm was, and is, often divided along gendered lines but the work of a farm woman is every bit as important to the economic viability of the family business as the work of the farming man. The eggs and dairy products she could sell locally, and the poultry, vegetables and fruit she nurtured, kept many families fed and financially afloat until the cheque from the harvest arrived. And when all those men in the history books were off soldiering, or mining or exploring, who do you think was managing the farm?

Elizabeth Macarthur certainly wasn’t the only woman to successfully run the family farm in her husband’s absence — or, indeed, without a husband at all. Esther Abrahams managed the family property at Annandale while her de facto husband George Johnston was in England being tried for the overthrow of Bligh. Governor Lachlan Macquarie visited several lone women farmers during his tours of the NSW colony and seemed to find their presence unremarkable. Harriet King, the wife of naval officer Phillip Parker King, gave birth to son number seven at a Macarthur property in 1827, but within a month had moved (with four of her boys and the baby) out to a 1200-hectare farm about thirty kilometres west of Parramatta. There, while her husband was at sea, she successfully managed the family estate for five years.

Tasmanian convict woman Maria Lord maintained both a retail empire and a farming enterprise. During her husband’s lengthy overseas absence, she ran and improved his shops, various well-stocked properties and two hotels. By 1820, according to her entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, she controlled more than a third of Tasmanian colonial resources, holding monopolies for the supply of wheat and meat and a portion of the profitable rum trade.

Another Tasmanian, Eliza Forlonge, walked hundreds of miles alone through the sheep-farming areas of European Saxony, meeting with stud masters to amass a prime flock. In 1831, with her husband and sons, she sailed with the flock around the world and landed them at Launceston. Her family went on to establish the wool industry in Tasmania while their widowed aunt, Janet Templeton, arrived with a similar flock and soon based herself near Goulburn, in New South Wales.

In 1839 Anne Drysdale, aged forty-seven, emigrated from Scotland to the Port Phillip colony (now Victoria) and with her close friend Caroline Newcomb took up land near Geelong. Together the two women created a successful pastoral business. Countless other women, historically discounted as mere wives, worked alongside their husbands to cement their family’s future. Countless women also did so on their own, as single women or widows. These women weren’t exceptions. Nor were they necessarily exceptional. Like the men they worked alongside, they were simply trying to make a go of things, for themselves and for their families.

In her ambition, her fortitude and her love for her family, Elizabeth Macarthur was just like these other strong, intelligent and successful women. She is interesting not because she was some sort of paragon but because she was, in fact, so very typical. Yet I have discovered that although Elizabeth is one of the few women who are regularly mentioned in the history books, she has routinely been portrayed in a way that belies her energy, humour and practical actions. “Little can I tell you how much I have missed the dear old lady,” her daughter-in-law Emily wrote to an aunt in England, months after Elizabeth died at the age of eighty-three. And that image of Elizabeth Macarthur, as genteel lady, as muse to John Macarthur’s genius or, erroneously, as some sort of social-climbing society matron has somehow been the picture that has endured in the Australian historical imagination.

Our understanding of Elizabeth Macarthur is shaped by the wealth of material made available to us by her descendants. The Macarthur Papers, housed in Sydney’s Mitchell Library, amount to some 450 volumes, along with boxes, maps and plans. As a result of digitisation, some are now accessible online. In basic terms, we simply know more about Elizabeth and her family than we do about her female farming peers. But Elizabeth’s descendants also (and not entirely without self-interest) set about publicly memorialising John Macarthur in a way that firmly established him as the father of the Australian wool industry.

It is crucial to understand that — apart from Elizabeth’s journal recording her 1790 voyage to New South Wales — the letters available to us are excerpts and transcriptions, painstakingly copied out by Elizabeth’s son Edward and her daughter Emmeline. We cannot know the extent to which they edited their mother’s words, or censored them. A selection of John and Elizabeth’s letters was published as early as 1914 in a collection edited by Elizabeth’s great-granddaughter Sibella, but a comparison of the letters in the book with even a few of the “originals” reveals changes in word order and missing sentences. And is it significant that, with a single benign exception, none of Elizabeth’s letters to her husband survived? Did John read and immediately destroy them? Or was it their children who did that, all too keen to remove any evidence that their mother might not have been entirely satisfied with her lot.

The fact that Elizabeth’s existing letters are, with few exceptions, uniformly positive and cheery may reflect family censorship but may equally have been a result of self-censorship and a reflection of the circumscribed nature of women’s letters. Elizabeth expected her correspondence to be widely read, at least within the family, and so did not necessarily consider her letters private documents. We can only be grateful, however, that such a trove exists. In her constant letter-writing, Elizabeth has left us quite a legacy, but it is not, of course, her only one.

There was nothing inevitable about the Macarthurs’ success. Plenty of others with similar ambitions failed to do so well. The secret to their achievements was a combination of skill, good timing and — mainly — the combined efforts of the family. John Macarthur could not have secured the family fortune without Elizabeth. And Elizabeth’s key talent was in ensuring all the family members worked single-mindedly for the family’s benefit. John, and later her grown-up sons, acted as agents and catalysts in England, which boosted the Macarthurs’ ability to sell wool, lobby for regulatory change and receive additional land grants. Then the family’s wealth was cemented by the efforts of the second and third generations (in particular, as it happens, by Elizabeth Macarthur’s granddaughter, another outstanding female farmer). The real story actually makes a nonsense of the celebration of John Macarthur as the sole father of the Australian wool industry. But perhaps, in 1966, that was too difficult to portray on the side of a freshly minted $2 note.

Despite our predilection for stories of the lone battler, most Australian stories are, like that of the Macarthurs, very much team efforts. Captain James Cook could sail nowhere without his crew; explorers Burke and Wills may have survived if they had not separated from their fellow travellers (and if they had engaged with the local Aboriginal people); the supporters and rebels of the Eureka Stockade included many women who acted as far more than simple helpmeets to the mining men.

Thanks to Elizabeth’s determination to see the family through the difficult times of John’s absences, her children inherited a prosperous family enterprise. The success of that enterprise inspired many others to try their own luck in New South Wales, and through example and direct assistance the Macarthurs encouraged much early European migration to the colony. While their sheep-breeding activities did not, in the end, lead directly to the development of the modern Australian merino, the efforts of the Macarthurs certainly provided a firm foundation for the lucrative industry upon which Australia rode for more than a century.

Elizabeth Macarthur was an interesting, intelligent, successful woman who played a crucial role in Australia’s colonial history. Hers is not a household name — but it ought to be. ●