The Camden Museum hosted celebrity author Michelle Scott Tucker recently at a local book launch. The event attracted an enthusiastic audience of 50 members and guests to an engrossing talk from Tucker, the author of Elizabeth Macarthur, A Life at the Edge of the World.
Michelle delivered an eloquent and gripping lesson on Elizabeth Macarthur to an audience sitting on the edge of their seats. Tucker spoke for 40 minutes without notes and then handled a number of penetrating questions. Earlier in the day she had been interviewed on ABC Sydney Local Radio by James Valentine in wide ranging conversation about Macarthur that clearly impressed him. Tucker is an impressive media performer telling an engrossing story about her hidden subject of Elizabeth.
After the Museum talk there was a long line of those who had purchased books to have them signed by the author. The most excited person in room was Camden Historical Society secretary Lee Stratton who drove into Surry Hills to pick up Michelle and then returned her to the city after the launch. Lee is a devoted fan and was not phased at all by her providing this generous effort.
Michelle Scott Tucker writes in an engaging and open style that is easily accessible by anyone interested in colonial Australia, women’s biography or just a great yarn. She takes a fresh look at an old story from a woman’s perspective, from the other side.
In the early 19th century the world was divided into the women’s private sphere and the public world inhabited by men. Michelle Scott Tucker takes a look from the domestic private world of women. It is a form of radical history.
Michelle’s analogy of her approach to the story is looking at the stitching on the back of tapestry, and inspecting the intricate nature of the threads. This gives you an insight into how the whole work is kept together from the hidden and dark shadows of the work. Without the stitching the work would fall apart, and so it was the Macarthur family enterprises in colonial New South Wales. Tucker draws the stitches together to create a story showing the colour and movement of colonial New South Wales.
Elizabeth Macarthur, the farmer’s daughter from Devon, married a cantankerous irascible army officer called John Macarthur when she was pregnant with her first child. Tucker draws an parallel with another Georgian story that of the women in the romantic novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin. She makes the point that Elizabeth Macarthur, and husband John, were Georgian figures while her family were Victorians.
Tucker tells how Elizabeth Macarthur, heavily pregnant and with a small child at her side, endured probably the worst journey out from England of any convict transport on the Second Fleet in the Scarborough. She nursed her husband back from illness that he suffered at the Cape and lost a child on the voyage out which was buried at sea. She suffered the social ignominy of sharing a cabin space with convict women well below her station in life.
Macarthur was not on her own and many colonial women endured the sea voyage from England with few comforts. Their diaries detail the trials and tribulations throughout the early years of the colony. One such figure in the Camden story was Caroline Husband who fell on hard times and fled their Hampstead Hill house near London with debt collectors in pursuit. She married pastoralist Henry Thomas and eventually lives at Wivenhoe, and her descendants grew up at Brownlow Hill.
The ever practical Elizabeth managed and developed the family business empire in colonial New South Wales while her husband was dealing with military charges in England. She entertained governors, politicians, businessmen, officers, while managing a large domestic staff, farm workers and convicts on their extensive landholdings. The role and influence of Elizabeth Macarthur as part of the story of settler colonialism in Australia and has been understated along with many other women of her time.
Tucker makes the point in an article for Inside Story that the story of Elizabeth Macarthur is not unique and that other colonial women made a significant contribution on their own. There was Esther Abrahams who ran Annandale, and Harriet King who raised a family and ran a property west of Parramatta. In Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) a retail empire was developed by former convict Maria Lord, while Eliza Forlonge ran a pastoral empire.
Camden Park was an out-station in the Macarthur family empire and Elizabeth Macarthur never lived there. The mansion house was the home of her sons, William and James. Elizabeth lived at Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta all her life and died at their holiday home at Watsons Bay in her 80s.
Unlike many of her colonial contemporaries who viewed the Australian landscape as a Gothic world Elizabeth had a more sympathetic eye. She drew comparisons with England and in her letters home she stated that her around her home at Parramatta, she wrote:
The greater part of the country is like an English park, and the trees give to it the appearance of a wilderness, or shrubbery commonly attached to the habitations of people of fortune’.
Many of her contemporaries contributed to the English-style landscape aesthetic that was identified as early as 1828 by John Hawdon when he arrived in the Cowpastures. The Englishness of the Camden township is still evident and has shaped the landscape since the arrival of the Europeans.
Under Elizabeth’s gaze the colonial outpost of Sydney grew from a military garrison to a bustling colonial port in the South Pacific. Macarthur supported her husband, John, throughout his ordeals and never returned to England, despite having the means to do so. Her female descendants regularly traveled between Camden Park, Sydney and London and elsewhere, and benefited from the transnational networks that she and her family established in the early 19th century.
Elizabeth Macarthur is an important character in the Camden story and there are other Macarthur women in her family who played similar roles such as Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow, Sibella Macarthur Onslow and Enid Macarthur Onslow. All intelligent, strong and successful women. They were not alone in the Camden story and others that could be mentioned include Rita Tucker, Zoe Crookston, Clarice Faithful, amongst others.
Elizabeth Macarthur produced a family that founded the township of Camden, and created a pastoral and business empire that still endures today. She is celebrated in our local area with the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute, Elizabeth Macarthur High School and roads and streets named after her and her family.
As Michelle Scott Tucker states of Elizabeth Macarthur, she ‘played a crucial role in Australia’s colonial history. Hers is not a household name — but it ought to be’. Elizabeth Macarthur, A Life at the Edge of the World certainly goes a long way in this direction.
The book by Michelle Scott Tucker Elizabeth Macarthur, A Life at the Edge of the World is available at the Camden Museum.