Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Leakey, Caroline Woolmer (1827–1881)

by J. C. Horner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Caroline Woolmer Leakey (1827-1881), author, was born on 8 March 1827 at Exeter, England, fourth daughter and sixth of the eleven children of James Leakey, painter of portraits, miniatures, landscapes and small interiors. She grew up in a deeply religious household and three of her surviving brothers became clergymen. Her schooling was restricted by delicate health, but she read avidly, particularly poetry. At 18 her health improved and she became involved in many charitable and religious activities including the Church Missionary Society and the Seamen's Society. In 1847 with a clergyman and his wife she sailed to Van Diemen's Land to help her sister Eliza, wife of Rev. James Gould Medland, who had migrated with his family to Hobart Town in 1844.

Within a year Caroline contracted fever, followed by hip disease and other complications, and for the next five years was an invalid. Though confined to the house she was able to observe the children and servants of the household, while a particular concern was the colony's medical and hospital care. By November 1851 her health was improving and she visited friends, Rev. T. B. Garlick and his wife, at Port Arthur. For some time she lived with Bishop Nixon and his wife at Boa Vista, where some of her poetry was written. Nixon encouraged her to publish her poems and in 1854 Lyra Australis, or Attempts to Sing in a Strange Land appeared in London and Hobart under her own name. These poems deal mainly with problems of sickness and death, infancy, youth and motherhood, and all have a strong religious theme. Two are addressed to her doctor, J. W. Agnew, and his wife, who were family friends. The second part of the book is dedicated to Lady Denison.

In 1853 Caroline was urged to return to England as her only chance of life; she sailed in March and arrived in June after a voyage confined entirely to her cabin. Her health rapidly improved and she began preparing her poems for publication and writing articles for magazines and the Religious Tract Society. From October 1854 she acted as head of her deceased sister's school; in July 1855 her mother died and she returned to Exeter to look after her 80-year-old father; he died on 16 February 1865.

In March 1857 Caroline began writing a novel; under the name of Oliné Keese it was published in two volumes as The Broad Arrow; Being Passages from the History of Maida Gwynnham, a Lifer (London, 1859; Hobart, 1860). It ran to several editions. An important forerunner of Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life, The Broad Arrow is one of the earliest novels with a convict as its chief character and written by a careful observer of convict society. As a novel it has major faults: sentimental, melodramatic and homiletic, the development of its plot is hindered by much extraneous exposition and the whole work is heavily loaded with what H. M. Green calls a 'priggish though not hypocritical religion'. In 1888 an Australian reviewer, unaware that the writer was a woman, found the incidents 'of a uniformly painful character' but the author 'forcible and effective' on abuses of the penal system. To Caroline the system was more humiliating than harsh, with brutality inflicted on convicts by their fellows and not by officials; such comments made her examination of the effects of transportation on Tasmanian society impressive. Not merely as the long-suffering woman of 'holy and guileless life' and 'still more lovely spiritual character' portrayed by her sister Emily, Caroline reveals her shrewd intelligence.

In the next years Caroline survived several acute attacks of fever but continued to write tracts and 'purely moral poems' for the Girls' Own Paper. In 1861 she also began to work for the Exeter Home for fallen women. From 1871 she devoted most of her strength to writing. After an illness of eighteen months she died on 12 July 1881.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Leakey, Clear Shining Light: A Memoir of Caroline W. Leakey (Lond, 1882)
  • J. E. Poole, ‘The Broad Arrow: a reappraisal’, Southerly, 1966, no 2
  • Australasian, 5 Feb 1887.

Citation details

J. C. Horner, 'Leakey, Caroline Woolmer (1827–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 27 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2016

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Keese, Oliné

8 March 1827
Exeter, Devon, England


12 July 1881
Exeter, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage