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Beeton, Lucy (1829–1886)

by Shayne Breen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Lucy Beeton (1829-1886), Aboriginal teacher and businesswoman, was born on 14 May 1829 on Gun Carriage (Vansittart) Island, eastern Bass Strait, daughter of Thomas (John) Beeton (also known as Beedon, Baden or Beadon), from a Jewish family of jewellers in London, and Emmerenna ('Bet Smith'), a Tasmanian Aborigine from Cape Portland. Beeton had been a sailor in the British navy, transported for seven years in 1817 for mutiny. His sentence completed, he voluntarily moved to Bass Strait in 1824, became an independent sealer and was paid a 'handsome allowance' by his family.

In 1831 Lucy's childhood was disrupted when G. A. Robinson arrived with authority to remove resident sealers and establish a settlement for Aborigines. Beeton was evicted from the island. Lucy and her pregnant mother remained, as inmates in Robinson's 'settlement', until Lieutenant Governor (Sir) George Arthur agreed to Thomas's request that he be reunited with his family. When in October Robinson moved the settlement to Flinders Island, the Beetons returned to Gun Carriage Island. Lucy was educated by private tutors in either George Town or Launceston, and her father taught her skills in business and sailing.

In 1850 the government rejected a petition to appoint a catechist-teacher, financed from the Land Fund, so Lucy became a teacher herself, apparently at Gun Carriage Island. Bishop F. R. Nixon noted in 1854 that each day she gathered local children to impart 'secular and religious knowledge'. Some time between 1855 and 1860 the family moved west to Badger Island. Nursing her father during his final years, she ceased teaching and took over the family business when he died in 1862. That year, following approaches from Lucy, Archdeacon Thomas Reibey proposed to the government that a school be established to educate the sixty-six children then living on the islands. The government agreed to provide £250 if public subscription provided the same, an amount the islanders did not have. Lucy responded by appointing two teachers from Melbourne. In 1871, frustrated with continued lack of government support, she established a school in a tent on Badger Island. Next year the government relented and appointed a schoolteacher. For her efforts to 'instruct and civilise' the islanders, Lucy was rewarded with a lifetime lease to Badger Island, at a yearly rent of £24.

A prominent member of the wider Bass Strait community, Lucy was regarded by many as the 'Queen of the Isles'. Her physical size enhanced her status: when 25 years old she weighed about 23 stone (146 kg). For much of her adult life she controlled trading operations, earning herself the nickname 'the commodore' from her practice of sailing to Launceston with a fleet of boats laden with produce, including mutton birds, their eggs, feathers, fat and oil. With her father and others, she was active in islanders' efforts from the 1850s to gain land, especially mutton-bird rookeries, as compensation for Aboriginal dispossession in Tasmania.

Nixon described Lucy as good-humoured, a kind-hearted friend to everyone on the islands, high-minded and earnest in her Christian profession. Sharing the Beeton homestead with her two brothers and their families, she never married and was close to her brothers' children, especially her niece Isabella, whose friends knew Lucy as 'Miss Bella'. Later relations and community members called her 'Aunty Lucy'. In 1872 she offered Truganini a home on Badger Island, but the offer was not taken up.

From 1872 Lucy was friendly with M. B. Brownrigg , a Church of England canon at Launceston. In February 1882 she helped him to organize a temperance meeting at Long Beach on Cape Barren Island. Abhorring the practice of White traders offering rum and other intoxicating drinks as payment for produce, Beeton was distressed that 'her people' were wronged and robbed, and complained bitterly about the absence of police protection. She used her relationship with influential clergy to advance the interests of indigenous Tasmanians, and articulated the view that Europeans had 'dispossessed ''her people” of their land, and banished them to die on Flinders Island'.

Lucy 'Beadon' died of congestion of the lung on 7 July 1886 at Badger Island and was buried on the island's east coast.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Bonwick, Last of the Tasmanians (Lond, 1870)
  • B. Mollison and C. Everitt, The Tasmanian Aborigines and Their Descendants (Hob, 1978)
  • S. Murray-Smith (ed), Mission to the Islands (Hob, 1979)
  • I. West, Pride Against Prejudice (Canb, 1987)
  • T. Reibey, Letter from the Venerable Archdeacon Reibey on the Subject of the Half-Caste Islanders in the Straits, Journals (Legislative Council, Tasmania), 1862, paper no 17
  • T. Reibey, Half-Caste Islanders in Bass’s Straits: Report of the Venerable Archdeacon Reibey, Journals (Legislative Council, Tasmania), 1863, paper no 48.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Shayne Breen, 'Beeton, Lucy (1829–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/beeton-lucy-12790/text23079, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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