This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005
Audrey Georgiana Florence Tennyson (1854-1916), letter-writer, hospital founder and vice-regal wife, was born on 19 August 1854 at Tillington, Sussex, England, fourth child and only daughter of Charles John Boyle, clerk of the Legislative Council in the Cape Colony, and his wife Zacyntha Antonia Lorenzina, née Moore. Both parents were scions of the Irish Protestant ascendancy. Audrey was brought up in Cape Town and from 1856 to 1860 in Mauritius, where her father was director of the railway department, before her mother took the children back to Britain for better schooling. In 1868-82 Audrey nursed her invalid father. Reading to him, she became knowledgeable about literature and current affairs. Dark-haired and blue-eyed, she had 'the loveliest smile' and 'a look of great distinction'. On 25 June 1884 in King Henry VII's chapel at Westminster Abbey, London, she married Hallam Tennyson, son of the poet laureate Alfred, first Baron Tennyson.
Hallam succeeded to the peerage in 1892. With happy recollections of colonial life, Audrey encouraged him to accept when he was offered the governorship of South Australia. She and their three sons accompanied him to Adelaide in April 1899. Lady Tennyson wrote weekly to her possessive and dominating 'Darling own Mother', and 262 of her letters, some more than sixty foolscap pages long, are now in the National Library of Australia, Canberra. They provide an important and fascinating record of the family's experiences and activities, and perceptive accounts of people from all walks of life. A substantial selection, edited by Dame Alexandra Hasluck, was published as Audrey Tennyson's Vice-Regal Days (Canberra, 1978).
Loving Australia, Lady Tennyson was much more than an observer. Though often plagued by headaches, she looked for 'the bright side of things' and was unremitting in carrying out, with style, the public duties expected of a governor's wife. She encouraged charity workers and other volunteers striving to enhance the quality of life. Appalled to find that female outworkers in the garment industry were being paid 1½d. to make shirts, which department stores sold for twenty times that amount, she urged the premiers Charles Kingston and (Sir) Frederick Holder to greater zeal in establishing tribunals to improve sempstresses' pay and conditions, and supported Agnes Milne, the factory inspector battling sweatshop owners.
Tennyson's outstanding contribution was to found South Australia's first maternity hospital. Concerned especially about the plight of women in the outback, she wanted them to have, after delivery, the benefit of 'rest & quiet & the best trained nursing & food' until they were fit to cope at home without female or professional assistance. Many city women warmed to the plan, but Holder refused any government money. Tennyson secured the gift of an acre (0.4 ha) at suburban Rose Park from the South Australian Co., and a cheque for £500 from Robert Barr Smith to launch a public appeal in December 1900.
Most of the medical profession opposed her project. For attending home births, doctors billed even the poor several guineas. Tennyson—annoyed to find that the wealthiest practitioners were so 'furious at the idea of losing a few fees' that they remained indifferent to the needs of countrywomen and wrote to newspapers criticizing her scheme—pressed on. She oversaw the design and construction of the building down to the last detail. Her supporters wanted the hospital named in her honour. She insisted on its being a memorial to Queen Victoria. The Queen's Home (later the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital) was opened in May 1902.
In July that year, when Lord Hopetoun's resignation made Hallam the administrator of the government of the Commonwealth, the Tennysons left to occupy the governor-general's residences in Melbourne and Sydney. Lady Tennyson strove not to do anything to clash with or win popularity from the State governors' wives. She adhered to this when her husband accepted appointment as governor-general, for a year from January 1903, remained busy, and revisited Adelaide to promote her hospital's development. To her mother's relief, Lady Tennyson and her boys left Australia in mid-December 1903.
Back in England she and Hallam lived at Farringford, Freshwater, Isle of Wight. After her youngest son Harold was killed in action in World War I, Lady Tennyson threw herself into work as commandant of a Red Cross hospital, which she had established in 1914 at Freshwater. She died of pneumonia on 7 December 1916 at her home and was buried at Freshwater. Her husband and two sons survived her. A portrait (1899) by Briton Rivière, is in the National Library of Australia. After the Queen Victoria Hospital was amalgamated with the Children's Hospital at North Adelaide in 1995, Tennyson's building and extensions were sold; escaping conversion to an abortion clinic, they have been remodelled as luxury apartments.
P. A. Howell, 'Tennyson, Audrey Georgiana Florence (1854–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tennyson-audrey-georgiana-florence-13214/text23927, accessed 20 June 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005