Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Caroline Martha (Cara) David (1856–1951)

by Carol Cantrell

This article was published:

Caroline Martha (Cara) David (1856-1951), community worker, was born on 26 April 1856 at Southwold, Suffolk, England, daughter of Samuel Mallett, fisherman, and his wife Pamela, née Wright. Orphaned early, Cara was raised by her grandmother and trained as a teacher at Whitelands College, London. She was appointed principal of Hurlstone Training College for women teachers and reached Sydney on 27 November 1882 in the Potosi. Tall, slim, warm hearted and dark eyed, she had met (Sir) Tannatt William Edgeworth David on board ship. They were married on 30 July 1885 at St Paul's Anglican Church, Canterbury.

While David was mapping the coalfields of Maitland, Cara lived in camp with her infants Margaret and Mary (Molly). Eventually, she took a house at Maitland. Pregnant for the third time, alone in the house and armed only with an unloaded revolver, she challenged a burglar. He fled. After her son William was born in 1890, she settled at Ashfield with the children. Next year David was appointed to the chair of geology at the University of Sydney.

Accompanying her husband on the 1897 Royal Society's expedition to bore coral reefs at Funafuti, Ellice Islands (Tuvalu), Cara cheerfully suffered constant rain, mouldy clothes and lack of privacy, while forging close friendships with Funafuti women. She treated the expedition's members and the locals for illness and injury, kept the expedition records, collected cultural artefacts and botanical and zoological specimens, and traced tattoo patterns from the bodies of older islanders. In return for English lessons, she was taught Samoan. Becoming ill, she convalesced in Samoa and Fiji.

Back home, Cara wrote 'Mission work in Funafuti' for the Australian Christian World (1897), declaring that she had studied 'the biological specimen called ''missionary" in his own habitat'. To her delight, John Murray published her book, Funafuti (London, 1899; abridged edition, 1913), an 'unscientific account of a scientific expedition'. She wrote to a friend, 'If I could afford it I would publish all the indelicate facts—because they are full of teaching which is needed'.

The Davids accepted responsibility for the education of a Fijian princess Adi Elanoa, aged 11. She became a much loved member of the household, but was to die of influenza while holidaying in Fiji. In the early 1900s the family moved to Woodford in the Blue Mountains. Strong willed and receptive to new ideas in religion, diet and health, Cara refused to allow her children to attend Sunday School. She prepared them for confirmation herself, as 'she held very strong anti-hell opinions and was afraid we might be introduced to the devil and church doctrine relating to him'. Her health regime involved chest-expanders and dumb-bells, the avoidance of tight lacing, and removing glass from the bedroom windows of their Blue Mountains home. A migraine sufferer for many years, she found relief in vegetarianism.

Following the success of My Brilliant Career (London, 1901), Cara offered Miles Franklin advice on her shortcomings as a writer and invited her to Woodford to broaden her experience of life. An excellent public speaker, Mrs David regularly addressed meetings on topics such as 'Complete womanhood' and 'Housewifery schools'. In 1913 she became president of the Bush Book Club of New South Wales and served on its committee until 1922. She was also president of the Girls' Realm Guild.

During World War I Cara turned the Woodford house into a Red Cross convalescent home for soldiers. As president of the Women's National Movement for social reform, she advocated sex education for the young and the eradication of venereal disease; she believed in prohibition and, as a means to that end, spoke passionately in favour of six-o'clock closing of public houses. When David enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1916, Cara went to England to be near him and their son William, a regimental medical officer. Fervently patriotic, she insisted on sailing in a British ship. The Davids returned to Sydney and moved to Hornsby where Cara again indulged her 'passion for building additions'.

An original divisional commissioner (from 1920) of the New South Wales branch of the Girl Guides' Association, Lady David was State commissioner in 1928-38. She organized the purchase of Glengarry at Turramurra for its training headquarters and in 1934 was invested with the Order of the Silver Fish, the highest guiding award. Following her husband's death in August that year, she went to live with Molly. Throughout World War II Cara knitted hundreds of socks for servicemen, often spinning the wool herself. Survived by her son and one daughter, she died on Christmas Day 1951 at Hornsby and was cremated. In 1907 David had observed: 'Whatever success I may have achieved in life, is due chiefly to my wife'.

Select Bibliography

  • M. E. David, Professor David (Lond, 1937)
  • M. E. David, Passages of Time (Brisb, 1975)
  • Girl Guides Association (New South Wales Branch), Waratah, 32, no 9, Mar 1952, p 2
  • C. Cantrell and K. A. Rodgers, 'Australia and the Funafuti connection: 2. An all Australian Assault', Search, 20, no 1, 1989, p 27
  • Bush Club of New South Wales, Annual Report, 1913-50
  • Evening News, 9 Dec 1907
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Aug 1909, 9 Dec 1914, 18 July 1916, 18 May, 16 June 1933, 28 Mar 1934, 2 Jan 1952
  • T. W. Edgeworth David papers (University of Sydney Library)
  • David family papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Carol Cantrell, 'David, Caroline Martha (Cara) (1856–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Edgeworth David, Caroline
  • Mallett, Caroline

26 April, 1856
Southwold, Suffolk, England


25 December, 1951 (aged 95)
Hornsby, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.