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Isabella Dalgarno (1805–1878)

by Ann M. Mitchell

This article was published:

Isabella Dalgarno (1805-1878), temperance advocate, was born in the parish of Plains, Aberdeen, Scotland, daughter of James Gossip, crofter, and his wife Isabella, née Robertson. In 1830 she married Joseph (1807?-1895), son of Samuel Dalgarno, a shoemaker of Aberdeen, whose family had seafaring connexions.

Mrs Dalgarno was attracted to the temperance cause in Liverpool about 1840. When she returned to Aberdeen she was persuaded to speak at public meetings, her friends 'having represented that the novelty of such an exhibition would attract a numerous audience'. Mrs Dalgarno did not lack courage. She was later lectured from the bench by a Melbourne magistrate for her presumption at speaking before men in public. In 1841 she was presented with a silver medal, the first of many, this one a token of esteem for her services as president to the Aberdeen Female Teetotal Society. Soon afterwards she went to sea with her husband, who by then was rated a master of merchant vessels.

In the 1840s and early 1850s Captain Dalgarno made regular trips to the Australian colonies, first in the Arab and later in the Lochnagar (Loch-Na-Gar); he usually finished at Melbourne but also called at Adelaide and sometimes at Launceston. Whenever in port Mrs Dalgarno would contact local temperance agencies; she sparked the Melbourne Total Abstinence Society, established in 1842, into such new life that popular myth believed her to be responsible for its foundation.

Mrs Dalgarno's first recorded public appearances in Melbourne were in 1843, but her impact was really felt next year when the evident power of her oratory, delivered with broad Scots accent and heavy humour, drew large crowds to her meetings. The press admired her intentions but deplored the trenchant abuse which she and her colleagues heaped upon publicans and drinkers. The publicans led by Phillip Anderson of the Commercial Inn took revenge by wrecking one temperance meeting in a violent free-for-all on 20 May 1844. Mrs Dalgarno's sincerity was doubted because the Arab was known to carry large stocks of grog. In self-defence she and her husband countered that they had no control over the Arab's cargo: 'the people at home did not care what they sent out so that they could get a handsome profit . . . They would drown [the colonies] with strong drink, and smother them with broken bottles'. Captain Dalgarno had also been accused of alcoholism, but as he testified to the success of enforcing teetotalism on his crews in 1844 and with his wife was always prominent and respected in Melbourne temperance circles, there seems little evidence for the suggestion. No doubt there was real sting to the taunts of 'where's your breeches?'. Perhaps the controversy helped, but it was noted that Melbourne suffered less from the prevailing evils of intemperance when Mrs Dalgarno was at her peak in the 1840s.

In 1852 the Dalgarnos settled permanently in Williamstown, Victoria, where Joseph had acquired property; he was a town councillor in 1866-69; he established a general store in Douglas Parade which later dealt mainly in drapery and operated under his name until 1928. In Williamstown the couple concentrated on local temperance effort. Joseph, though a well-known raconteur of sailing experiences, rarely gave temperance speeches; but Mrs Dalgarno continued to address meetings in and around Melbourne almost until her death. They were both attached to the United Free Methodist Church and associated with other denominations. The marriage was childless. Isabella died on 18 June 1878. Joseph married a widow, Hannah Simmons, in 1882; he died on 7 April 1895. Isabella and Joseph were buried together in the old Williamstown cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vol 2 (Melb, 1888), p 531
  • M. M. Love, ‘Woman's Work’, Temperance in Australia: The Memorial Volume of the International Temperance Convention, 1888, (Melb, 1889), pp 151-55
  • Port Phillip Patriot, 9 Mar, 4 May 1843, 23, 27 May, 25 July 1844, 13 Nov 1845, 2 Jan 1846
  • Port Phillip Gazette, 18, 22, 25 May, 1 June 1844
  • Port Phillip Herald, 24, 31 May 1844
  • Williamstown Advertiser, 13 Apr 1895
  • Williamstown Chronicle, 13 Apr 1895
  • private information.

Citation details

Ann M. Mitchell, 'Dalgarno, Isabella (1805–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gossip, Isabella

Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


18 June, 1878 (aged ~ 73)
Victoria, Australia

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