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.
Inside Story: Invisible women
That’s by Michelle Scott Tucker (website) who wrote a book Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World. If you’re audio-inclined, there are number of interviews about the book (listed at the end of the previous link) including Radio National and Night Life (ABC)
Chatham Barracks, Oct. 8, 1789.
In my last letter I Informed you of Mr. Macarthur having exchanged into a corps destined for New South Wales, an arrangement from which we have every reasonable expectation of reaping most material advantages including his early promotion to a company. You will be surprised that even I, who appear timid and irresolute, should be a warm advocate of the scheme. So it is, and believe me I -hall be much disappointed if anything happen to impede it. I conceive how gloomy and terrible tins will appear to you. To me at first it had the same appearance, while I suffered myself to be blinded by common prejudices. I have not now, and trust shall never have, one scruple or regret but what relates to you. Do but consider, however, if we live apart, as we must, it is much the same whether I am hundreds or thousands of miles distant from. yon. The same Providence will watch over us there as here. The sun that shines on you will also afford me the benefit of its cheering rays and that too in a country where nature hath been so lavish of her bounties, where flowers abound, and where fruits will likewise be the reward of culture. By the last’ accounts from Port Jackson, where the new settlement has been established, we learn that wheat which had been sown flourished in a manner almost incredible, and that the settlement is making rapid progress in buildings, so that by the time ours corps arrive there, much will have been done for its comfortable reception.
The new settlement is an immediate object with Government, and every effort will be made to promote its success.
From “Some Reminiscences of Long Ago”, Maitland Weekly Mercury, 11 December 1897
In the early 19th century, Elizabeth Macarthur played a key role in importing and breeding merino sheep. Today descendants of these sheep form a closed-flock at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute, near Sydney
1. Skeleton of a Macarthur merino
2. Skeleton of a modern merino
AUSTRALIA’S FIRST WOMAN SCIENTIST
When one thinks of Mrs. Elisabeth Macarthur, wife of pioneer John Macarthur, it is often of her great skill in agriculture and of her position as one of the most important women of early Sydney; but the fact that she was also noted as an amateur astronomer and botanist escapes general remark. Lieutenant William Dawes was the first Australian Astronomer Royal, and in the great dearth of women companions Mrs. Macarthur made special friends with this scientific man, with whom she studied the wonders of the then only recently known southern skies. Her home, on first coming to Australia, was in a small cottage in George-street, not far from where the General Post Office now stands. She would walk along the narrow highway called High-street (now George, street) to Point Maskelyne (Dawes Point), where the first Government Observatory was situated. There, with the aid of books and astronomical instruments, she investigated motions, distances, magnitudes, and various phenomena of the heavenly bodies. In her journal she says, “I have given Lieut. Dawes great trouble in making orrerys and teaching me the general principles of astronomy.”
That Mrs. Macarthur’s mind ran in the direction of science could be gathered from her accounts of the voyage to Australia, when she remarks upon every new phase in nature on the journey, looked upon by her with intelligent, observing eyes. As a botanist, the new country was a perpetual delight and surprise to her, and she writes in 1791, “I have made some progress In botany. No country can exhibit a more copious field for botanical knowledge than this, I have found great pleasure In my study, I have been able to class and order all common plants. Every walk furnishes me with subjects to put In practice that theory I have gained by reading.” For many years she carried on her botanical studies, not only of the flowers of the field and of the forest, but also of the structure of all vegetable bodies-of cereals and fruit; and this study was a very important factor in her great success in cultivation of the gardens, orchards, wheat, corn, and oat fields that she took charge of in the large estates belonging to them, during her husband’s years of absence In England.
Very little has been handed down in history of the lives of the women of pioneer days in Australia, and yet they did even more than their share In helping in its development. A good deal has been written, however about Mrs Elizabeth Macarthur for the student of Australian history, and this little account may cause those interested to study further the story of this remarkably able women.
Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 23 November 1922
Some links to accounts of Elizabeth’s life from newspapers & magazines. I’ve included the first few paragraphs of each:
EARLIEST WOMAN AGRICULTURIST.
Australia’s earliest woman agriculturist was Mrs Elizabeth Macarthur wife of Captain John Macarthur and the mother of Lieut. General Sir Edward Macarthur and the Hon. Sir William Macarthur. She was born in Devonshire, her father being a farmer of Judgewotting, Bridgerule. The year the colony of New South Wales was founded she was married to the dashing young captain of the N S W Corps. June 28, 1790, she reached Sydney in the transport Scar-borough, with her husband and infant son Edward. Sydney was then called “The Camp,” and was a mere collection of wooden huts, with but a few one-story brick buildings, but Mrs Macarthur writes gaily to England of the first few years in Australia, where, as she says, every kind of bird, flower, and insect was new to her and excited her curiosity.
Sydney Morning Herald, 15 February 1911
An early writer of Australian history wrote of Elizabeth Macarthur as “Australia’s first and greatest lady,” and when we consider the story of her life we can well understand why she was so described. She was the forerunner of that noble army of women of whom George Essex Evans has so admirably sung: “The hearts that made the nation are the women of the West.” Elizabeth Macarthur’s life “out-back” did not extend beyond Parramatta, only fifteen miles from the main settlement at Sydney. But in those early days, Parramatta was difficult of access and was known as “a settlement in the interior.” Elizabeth Veale, the daughter of a country gentleman, was born in 1769 at Holsworthy, on the borders of Cornwall and Devonshire. Among her neighbours was a young Army Ensign, named John Macarthur.
Cumberland Argus, “Story of Elizabeth”, 26 October 1938
If there were a reward in heaven for long-suffering and forgiving wives, then Elizabeth Macarthur, a co-founder of the Australian wool industry, must purely deserve a generous share of it. Marrying the army officer John Macarthur before her 20th birthday, Elizabeth acquired a belligerent Scottish husband who seemed to be constantly looking for a fight. He got what he was looking for many times, but his patient wife stood loyally behind him, often alone, as he angrily loaded his duelling pistols.
Australian Women’s Weekly, “Great Women of History: Elizabeth Macarthur”
Elizabeth was the first soldier’s wife to arrive in New South Wales. Being educated, articulate and well read, her letters provide an important record of the infant convict town of Sydney and colonial life. She was an amateur astronomer and botanist and enjoyed a privileged position in society where she “held court amongst officers of the New South Wales Corps, naval officers and members of the colonial administration”.
Elizabeth Macarthur extracts from letters (digitised book)
“Extracts of letters from Elizabeth Macarthur to her mother, to her goddaughter Eliza Kingdon, and to her son Edward, 8 Oct 1789-18 Dec 1840, transcribed by Sir Edward Macarthur.”