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Caroline Dexter (1819–1884)

by J. S. Ryan

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Caroline Dexter (1819-1884), feminist, was born on 6 January 1819 in Nottingham, England, daughter of Richard Harper, watchmaker and jeweller, and his wife Mary, née Simson. She was educated privately in England and in Paris became well versed in French culture and friendly with the female novelist, 'George Sand' (1804-1876). At Nottingham in 1841 she married the painter, William Dexter, of Melbourne, Derbyshire. Despite success with the Royal Academy he decided to migrate; in the Bank of England he arrived at Sydney in October 1852. He taught drawing at Lyndhurst College, the Glebe, but soon went to Bendigo where he designed the diggers' banner and spoke at a protest meeting in August 1853. He was in Sydney in January 1855 when Caroline arrived in the Marie Gabrielle. On the voyage she wrote 'The Emigrant', lines containing what little of nostalgia she allowed to creep into her writings.

In Sydney the Dexters opened a 'Gallery of Arts and School of Design', where Caroline proposed to teach 'elocution, composition and literature, grammar, writing and conversation'. This venture soon collapsed and in 1856 they moved to Gippsland where for a time they seemed happier and more productive: William did much painting, including 'Wood Ducks' and 'Dead Birds' (both in the National Gallery of Victoria), while Caroline began to write. Her Ladies Almanack: The Southern Cross or Australian Album and New Years Gift (Melbourne, 1858) correctly claimed to be 'The First Ladies' Almanack Published in the Colonies'.

The novelty of this work rather than its uneven quality probably discouraged subscriptions. With sketches, probably by her husband, of a native camp, an opossum by moonlight, a beautiful lubra and a bush hut, she produced remarkable vignettes of Australian life. Although the style suffers in quotation, her spirited writing is distinguished by its intensity towards the natives, exulting in the clear air, moonlight, colours of the wild flowers and shapes of majestic trees. Her interlarded maxims on how to manage a husband suggest a droll humour or increasing revolt against domestic fetters. Soon afterwards the Dexters separated. William returned to Sydney where he died in Redfern on 4 February 1860 aged 42.

Caroline moved to Melbourne still independent, dynamic and unconventional, startling society by opening an Institute of Hygiene and promulgating such novelties as divided skirts and abolition of corsets. Through her eager and practical interest in social reform and English feminist movements she met Harriet Clisby, with whom she edited the first all-women publication, the Interpreter (1861); it ran to two issues. Caroline's contributions included an attack on an English manufacturing town, an appeal to colonists to forget their past and to remember England only for the passion of social reformers, the white man's betrayal of the 'noble savage', and a sketch of the remittance man useless either to Australia or to England.

In 1861 Caroline married William Lynch (b. Ireland 1839), a former pupil at Lyndhurst. Later he wrote: 'It was my wife's mind that attracted me, and from her I learned all that I know of art'. He became a prosperous solicitor and in 1880-81 was mayor of Brighton. With his wealth Caroline became a patron of local writers and artists, holding her salon at Bombala, her fashionable home in Brighton. She also helped her husband to assemble an extraordinary art collection, which included Richard Parkes Bonington's 'Low Tide at Boulogne', now in the National Gallery of Victoria. After she died on 19 August 1884, Lynch married Charlotte Mary Ochiltree; he died in Melbourne on 27 May 1901.

Caroline deserves to be remembered as a champion of women's rights and a friend to the Aboriginals. Though little of her writing remains, she contributed richly to the cultural life of Melbourne by her wit, love of local colour and zest for arts and letters.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Wilson, ‘The Dexter Mystery’, Art in Australia, no 8, 1921
  • D. Wilcox and W. Moore, ‘The Wife of the Artist (Caroline Dexter)’, Art in Australia, no 36, Feb 1931, pp 45-51
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 Aug 1853, 28 May 1901
  • Caroline Lynch to J. R. Sheridan, 1871 (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

J. S. Ryan, 'Dexter, Caroline (1819–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 May 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

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Harper, Caroline
  • Lynch, Caroline

6 January, 1819
Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England


19 August, 1884 (aged 65)
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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