Happy Birthday Mary Macarthur

Elizabeth Macarthur’s second surviving daughter, Mary Isabella, would today have turned 222 years old.

One of these pictures may or may not be of Mary – they were both originally only labelled as ‘daughter of John Macarthur’ and seeing as how he and Elizabeth had three daughters who lived beyond infancy, it’s now impossible to know who was which.

However, based on the clothing, both these miniature portraits are likely to have been painted in the 1820s – a period when the Macarthur family was doing very well indeed. And the women in these portraits look to be about the right age for the two eldest Macarthur girls: Elizabeth (1792-1842) and Mary (1795-1852) would, in the 1820s, both have turned thirty.

I have a hunch that Mary Macarthur might be the one on the right. She seems to have been a difficult woman, made worse by a difficult life.

Mary, the fifth of Elizabeth Macarthur’s nine children, was the quintessential middle child – never the focus of her parents’ full attention. When she was between the ages of six and ten her father was in England (along with her older brothers and sister) and her mother was pre-occupied with a baby (William), a toddler (James) and managing the family farms. Little William, remembering his childhood, did not think Mary was a kind playmate.

Upon John Macarthur’s return in 1805 he took over the management of the family farms and as a result Mary might have expected to see more of her mother. But she may also have felt compelled to compete with her older sister Elizabeth, newly returned from seeing England and the world. Then in 1807 (the year Mary turned twelve) elder sister Elizabeth fell gravely ill – it was probably polio – and so necessarily was the focus of her parents’ attentions.

The surprise arrival of another sister in 1808, little Emmeline, followed by the absence of her father once more (exiled in England from 1809-1817, as a consequence of his role in overthrowing Governor Bligh) all came at a time when Mary was at the cusp of adolescence.  Throughout her teen years Mary’s needs had to give way before the recovering invalid, the growing baby and her mother’s ongoing battle to keep the family farms solvent.

As young adults, Mary and her sisters had very little to keep them occupied. All the work of the house and farm was managed and undertaken by others. Mary’s sister tried to describe her daily routine to an English friend. ‘We remain out rambling in our woods, or diverting ourselves in our garden until the evening surprises us.’ This hardly sounds enough to keep grown women occupied and Miss Macarthur hinted as much in her second letter, noting that ‘in the history of our day…there is not much variety.’ 

We can only imagine, then, the eager anticipation of the Governor’s Ball held in January 1819, to celebrate the 75th birthday of Queen Charlotte. Mrs Macquarie’s guest list, a hand written working document, lists 186 guests although, as Elizabeth wrote to her god-daughter, ‘I will not say that these assemblies have been very select.’ That lack of selectivity didn’t seem to prevent her attendance. Eldest daughter Elizabeth was invited too, as were [John Macarthur’s nephew] Hannibal and his wife. … Absent from the guest list, though, is Elizabeth’s second daughter Mary. What trouble did that cause, I wonder? Mary, when mentioned at all in her siblings’ letters, is often described as difficult. Even her mother seemed, at least occasionally, to find her so. Perhaps Mrs Macquarie felt she couldn’t be expected to include all the unmarried younger sisters because the list indicates that, for other families too, only the eldest unmarried daughters were invited. At smaller, less overtly ceremonial occasions Mrs Macquarie entertained Elizabeth and the other ladies of Sydney in the evenings with ‘Tea, Coffee, Cards, Music, and a little Dance.’ We can hope that poor Mary was at least invited to these.

Whatever her thoughts on the matter, Mary was soon to emerge from between her older and younger sisters in a social triumph – in 1823 she married James Bowman, Principle Surgeon of the colony. According to the Sydney Gazette the couple married ‘On Tuesday, the 4th November, at her Father’s Residence, Parramatta.’ The groom was thirty-seven, the bride nine years younger; spinsterhood was only narrowly averted. 

The newlywed Bowmans lived in Sydney at the General Hospital and Dr Bowman rapidly acquired, via grants and purchases, an estate of over 12,000 acres called Ravensworth, about 150 miles north of Sydney and about 60 miles inland from the port of Newcastle, where miscreant convicts were sent to mine for coal. Bowman was now included in many of the Macarthur family enterprises and activities and in time he built a fine new home called Lyndhurst at Glebe, on nearly 100 acres at the edge of the Sydney township. Facing north, it was designed to look across Blackwattle Bay to The Rocks area of Sydney Town. The former naval surgeon had married very well.

Mary’s family heartily approved the match, and subsequently adored Mary’s five children, but Bowman was not a loving husband. Within a few years of the wedding he was very publicly caught out in an adulterous affair. The husband of the woman with whom Bowman had the affair sued Bowman for damages, and, mortifyingly, the ensuing court case was packed with spectators and the talk of Sydney Town. Mary would later describe Bowman’s overall conduct towards her as ‘cruel’ and he squandered the family’s money on gambling and speculative investments.

Upon Bowman’s unexpected death in 1846, Mary discovered the extent of his financial folly and was furious. Her brothers, in that way men have of dismissing a woman’s anger, described her as half mad. However she soon moved to live with her younger brothers at Camden, where they were generous in providing financial support to Mary and her children.

Mary died in 1852, at the age of fifty-seven.

Mary’s eldest son Edward  (1826-1872) never married and, perhaps influenced and taught by his Uncle William at Camden Park, became a botanical collector. He travelled Queensland sourcing specimens, including for Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, and discovered several new plant species.

Second son James Bowman (1829-1871) also never married but seems to have spent his life at Camden. For a year or two on the mid 1860s he was Sir Edward Macarthur’s agent at Elizabeth Farm.

William Bowman (1831-1878) and Frederic Bowman (1836-1915) both married and had large families. With the assistance of their Macarthur uncles, they established themselves on properties in Queensland.

Isabella Bowman (1843-1883) was married in 1858. Her husband, James Kinghorne Chisholm, was one of nine sons born to politician and pastoralist James Chisholm MLC. Isabella and James, with properties near Narellan, had seven children and were regular visitors to the Macarthur family at Camden Park.

2018-03-25T00:46:01+00:00 October 26th, 2017|Colonial History|8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. wadholloway October 26, 2017 at 11:48 am - Reply

    A great story, and you didn’t mention sheep once! I don’t think whoever did those portraits liked the young women very much. Was Mary destitute on the death of her husband – all that property must have been worth a bit. And finally, Tucker mentions working in those coal mines in Ralph Rashleigh.

    • Michelle Scott Tucker October 26, 2017 at 2:21 pm - Reply

      No sheep – goodness, I’ll have to make sure I don’t do that again! Yes, Mary was pretty much skint when she was widowed – the properties eventually got sold to pay off bounder Bowman’s debts.

  2. Nola Mackey April 23, 2018 at 12:20 pm - Reply

    Did you know that “Mary Isabella” Macarthur was named for Elizabeth’s younger half-sister, Mary Isabella Leach b 1780, baptised 14 January 1781, the only child of her mother,Grace’s second marriage?

    • Michelle Scott Tucker April 23, 2018 at 2:27 pm - Reply

      Hi Nola, yes! Isabella went on to marry a Thomas Hacker, and have seven daughters – the eldest of whom she named Elizabeth Veal (without the e). Late in life Isabella and her husband emigrated to Prince Edward Island, Canada. Her descendants still have her bible, and the family tree inscriptions written inside it are available online at http://www.islandregister.com/bibles/ehenry.html

  3. Nola Mackey April 24, 2018 at 4:23 pm - Reply

    I believe Elizabeth gained knowledge of her friends and family through infrequent letters in the early years from Bridget Kingdon/Baddon. The split from her family was very tragic especially being at the ‘edge of the world’ without that close support, which she had until John McArthur came on the scene. I very strong woman to have survived and to eventually have thrived.

    • Michelle Scott Tucker April 25, 2018 at 10:16 am - Reply

      Yes, hard to imagine the sense of isolation.

  4. Margo Devlin May 12, 2018 at 12:21 am - Reply

    I am descendant from Isabella Hacker (Leach.) Any further information on her? I am enjoying your book!
    Margo Devlin

    • Michelle Scott Tucker May 12, 2018 at 10:53 am - Reply

      Hi Margo, so pleased to hear that you’re enjoying the book, that’s great. I’m afraid I don’t have any information about Isabella Hacker beyond what I think I’ve already told you (in response to an earlier comment, I think) : Isabella married Thomas Hacker, and had seven daughters – the eldest of whom she named Elizabeth Veal (without the e). Late in life Isabella and her husband emigrated to Prince Edward Island, Canada (probably with their youngest daughter). Her descendants there still have her bible, and the family tree inscriptions written inside it are available online at http://www.islandregister.com/bibles/ehenry.html I’m afraid I don’t have any other details, beyond the few about her mother Grace (and Grace’s father, farmer John Hatherly) that I’ve included in the book. Sorry!

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