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The Makers of Australia — The Women

Esther 4:1-17
19th September 2004

Early Australia was not a hospitable place to women and families. The role of women in our first 150 years of years of European settlement was more difficult than for any country ever settled and any continent inhabited.

Most of that first 150 years there was a imbalance between men and women in the country. A small number of women arrived as convicts, men outnumbering women four to one, none were soldiers or government officials, none came as immigrant pastoral workers, few came as diggers during the gold-rushes, and the lack of work in both city and country discouraged female immigration. Until the second world war, there were more women in the cities as men left for employment in the country areas during the depression and high numbers of men joined the armed forces overseas for two world wars. 15% of all women never married and were subsequently impoverished. A distinction between women and ladies was clearly marked. But there was an abnormally high rate of remarriage for widows and divorcees who were preferred over single women.

Generally the female convicts were regarded in the phase used at the time and also as a book title by Anne Summers as “Damned Whores and God’s Police.” But marriage among women in early Australia was not much different from marriage among the lowers classes in England at that time. Many men and women were uncomfortable marrying people whose backgrounds, origins, family and history were totally unknowable. Yet men had little choice and women were unwilling to reject any offer. Consider two mothers from opposite classes:


After the first fleet arrived in Port Jackson on the 26th January 1788, the women convicts were kept on board another week. Then 191 women landed in a frenzied celebration of freedom as men and women rushed together. One observer said, ‘It is beyond my abilities to give a just description of the Scene of Debauchery and Riot that ensued during the night’. Thunder, lightning and torrential rain was seen as God’s disapproval.

The next Sunday, 10 February 1788, Reverend Richard Johnson officiated at a mass marriage ceremony. The women of the First Fleet were and lumped together ever since as a rampageous lot, as prostitutes, as ‘damned whores’, as ‘never a more abandoned set of wretches collected in any one place at any one time’. It was undoubtedly true of many of them. It was the roughness and toughness of the women which carried them through the rigours of the gaols, the transports and the new colony. In Australia’s early history any record of the contribution of women is rare. The prevailing attitude towards women was to ignore them. But they were more resilient, more adaptable than men. These women produced the first Australian born white children. They helped to turn bush huts into homes, worked on the land with the men, began to change a raw colony into a country in which to live. Most female convicts had been convicted of larceny, theft of clothing, theft of animals, robbery and receiving, wilful destruction, vagrancy, and one in five were prostitutes. The majority were in their twenties, though Elizabeth Howard, a clogmaker, was only thirteen, and Dorothy Handlyn, was eighty-two! Two convicts provide us an inspiring story.

This couple married on their second Sunday in Australia, Henry Kable and Susannah Holmes. In March 1774 Susannah Holmes, aged 19, had been sentenced to death for the theft of household linen and silver. The sentence was commuted to seven years’ transportation. In Norwich Gaol she met 19-year-old Henry Kable from Suffolk. He had kept watch while his father robbed a country house. He watched his father hung. Susannah and Henry became lovers and in 1776 she gave birth to ‘a fine boy’, also named Henry. The child’s father was devoted to them and repeatedly sought permission to marry but was refused.

Susannah was escorted from prison to the convict ship by the turnkey John Simpson. As Susannah handed up her baby she was ordered to give him back to the turn-key. The child was not on the captain’s list! The frantic Susannah was forcibly taken on board while her baby was returned to land. But John Simpson was a humane man, and he took the child to London to the home of the Colonial Secretary, Lord Sydney. Simpson told his tale and Lord Sydney signed the order meaning Henry could travel with Susannah and their baby. Turnkey Simpson told his story widely while in London and sympathisers subscribed 20 pounds to buy a package of goods for the couple. It was pilfered during the voyage and later Henry brought an action against the captain in Sydney’s first civil court of law. He was awarded 15 pounds compensation, a handsome sum for the couple, by then married. The family prospered with eleven children and Henry became a partner in the boat building firm of Kable and Underwood. Susannah, a respectable matriarch, died in November 1825.


In June 1790 the ships of the Second Fleet arrived in Sydney. It had become a desperate little town. Its people were starving. Their clothes torn and ragged, feet bare, hearts despairing. There were 221 female convicts on board, and one lady, Elizabeth Macarthur, the Army Captain’s wife. Elizabeth’s first impressions were that “everything was wretched, the filthy ships in the cove, the rude lines of sodden barracks, the tents that held the sick sagging in the downpour; the night fires in the region of the Rocks, a sink of evil already and more like a gipsy encampment than part of a town.”

On the voyage out John Macarthur had been ill with rheumatic fever. “It continued to rage till every sense was lost and every faculty but life destroyed. My little boy was at that time so very ill that I could scarcely expect him to survive a day. Alone, unfriended and in such a situation what do I not owe to a merciful God for granting me support and assistance in these severe moments of affliction.” Elizabeth was a modest and a perfect wife for the difficult, argumentative and aggressive husband. Macarthur was the first officer to bring his wife with him. A daughter Elizabeth was born, then came James, who died at 11 months and was later replaced by another James. The Macarthurs moved to Parramatta, then named Rose Hill, in June 1791. John was itching to get some land. The first land grant was in February 1793, 100 acres at Parramatta. The next year a further 100 acres were awarded as a prize for the first cultivated crop. The house they built still stands at Parramatta, Elizabeth Farm. In 1794 they sold 400 pounds of produce. They had 1800 bushels of corn in store, 20 acres under wheat and 80 acres in potatoes and corn.

She gave birth to a boy, John. A year later she said goodbye to Edward, sent to England for his education. Later she would say goodbye to Elizabeth and John when they went to England in 1800 with her husband. John was then 7 and his mother was never to see him again. After his return, Macarthur, was involved in a duel with Paterson, and Macarthur was sent to England in 1801 for court-martial. He eventually returned to Sydney, a private citizen, in 1805. During his long absences, Elizabeth confidently and capably managed the farm, the family, the servants and workmen, and the increasing flock of sheep that had become her husband’s interest.

In 1808 the Rum Rebellion occurred and Macarthur was ordered to England. It was 1817 before Macarthur was allowed to return to the colony. Elizabeth enjoyed nine years of management. The Cowpastures property was well established; at Elizabeth Farm she built a new woolshed and in 1813 had 1300 ewes in lamb. Elizabeth coped with troublesome natives, a drought, hight prices, and burned wheat crops. She was the first farmer to make hay to sell and the first to pull out the tree-stumps when land was cleared. Governor Macquarie granted her 243 hectares of land in her own name in the Parramatta district. Her able management of the flocks resulted in an improved breed of sheep and in increased wool production. In 1816 she sold 15,000 pounds of wool. Elizabeth’s practical wisdom and flock management was the foundation of the Australian wool industry. It was largely the result of her work that John Macarthur was awarded a gold medal for the greatest quality of fine wool imported from New South Wales in 1821. Emmeline, born when Elizabeth was 42, was her last child. The girls were educated at home.

They were trained to be as industrious as their mother. They did all their own sewing: muslin dresses for summer, night attire, underwear, flannels for the men. They knew how to work in the dairy, to make fruit preserves, jam, candles. Breakfast was eaten at 5am. Convicts were well treated, well fed and reasonably clothed. On Sunday they assembled for church. When Macarthur returned in 1817, their sons James and William were young men and settled at the Camden Park property.

But John Macarthur suffered a complete mental break-down. Elizabeth wrote: “I cannot say that the blow, severe as it is, has come upon us without long previous apprehension that sooner or later, that mighty mind would break down.” During the enforced absences of her husband from the colony, from 1801 to 1805 and from 1809 to 1817, Mrs Macarthur managed Elizabeth Farm, Seven Hills Farm, and the Camden Park estates. By 1820, the Macarthur’s owned 9600 acres, which together ran over 4000 head of sheep as well as cattle and pigs. Her responsibilities were considerable. “The management of our concerns gets troublesome to me in the extreme, and I am perpetually annoyed by some vexation or other. God grant me Health and Patience, for I have need of both to keep my mind in tolerable frame.”

John Macarthur died in 1834 and Elizabeth died in 1850, aged 83, and was buried at Camden Park. Elizabeth Macarthur has been referred to as “Australia’s first and greatest lady”. At her death in 1850, her granddaughter wrote of her: “Through all the difficulties and trials that beset her path, her Christian spirit shines and in all her letters to her children, with whom she corresponded regularly, there is no complaining or ill-natured word.”

Elizabeth Macarthur was the right woman in the right place at the right time. Her faith in God made her able to help establish this great nation. Her courage and determination carried it through. It is a challenge for every person. Ask yourself: has God placed me where I am for a special purpose? Do I have the courage and commitment to fulfill that purpose and be true to my faith?

In about 479BC the Jewish nation was in slavery under King Xerxes in modern day Iraq. An edict was published ordering a massacre of the Jews. But from among many beautiful women the King had chosen a Jewish girl, whose identity was secret, to be his Queen. Her cousin urged her to go to the king to plead for mercy for the Jewish people. This would require her to reveal her Jewish identity. The penalty for her was death. Esther also did not know whether the King would forgive her if she approached him without a royal summons. Then her cousin asked: “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14 Her exaltation as a queen may have been God’s way of having a woman to save a nation. Esther affirmed her willingness to risk her life in behalf of her people. “If I perish, I perish” 4:16 Esther’s appeal to the King succeeded and the Jewish people were saved from annihilation.

That is the courage, honesty and bravery, part of their committed Christian faith, we see in these first women to settle Australia. Their Christian faith enabled them to cope, to battle on against all privation, and to show compassion and dedication as they worked with some of the most deprived people on earth to found our nation. Is God calling you to do something? Have you come into your position for such a time as this?


Gordon Moyes

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