Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Eliza Emily Donnithorne (1826–1886)

by J. S. Ryan

This article was published:

Eliza Emily Donnithorne (1826?-1886), recluse and eccentric, was born at Cape of Good Hope, youngest daughter of James Donnithorne and his wife Sarah Elizabeth, née Bampton. Her father, descendant of an old Cornish family, joined the East India Co. as a writer in 1792 and became master of the Mint and then judge and senior merchant in Mysore. About 1836 he retired to Sydney where he joined many public movements and won renown for his 'unbounded hospitality'. He invested in real estate and twice visited Melbourne to buy land. He settled at Cambridge Hall, 36 King Street, Newtown, where he died on 25 May 1852. Predeceased by his wife, whom he had married in 1807, and by two daughters in 1832, he was survived by two sons who had joined the British army and later settled in England, and by Eliza who inherited most of his estate.

Eliza was to have married in 1856. On the morning of the wedding 'the bride and her maid were already dressed for the ceremony; the wedding-breakfast was laid in the long dining-room, a very fine apartment. The wedding guests assembled—the stage was set, but the chief actor did not turn up to keep his appointment'. From that time her 'habits became eccentric'. She never again left the house, finding solace in books and opening the door only to the clergyman, physician and solicitor. The wedding breakfast remained undisturbed on the dining table and 'gradually mouldered away until nothing was left but dust and decay'. Eliza died in the house on 20 May 1886 and was buried in the same grave as her father at Camperdown cemetery where a headstone was later placed in his memory. Eliza's estate, including land and houses in Sydney, Melbourne and Britain, was valued at £12,000. The chief beneficiary was her housekeeper, Sarah Ann Bailey. She left her father's organ to her brother and her jewellery and books to his children, £200 each to the diocese of Sydney and the British and Foreign Bible Society, £50 to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and 'an annuity of £5 for each of my six animals and £5 for all my birds'.

In Australian tradition Eliza's tragic story was used by Charles Dickens as the original for Miss Havisham in chapter 22 of his Great Expectations (1861). The identification of the Sydney personality and the Dickensian character is circumstantial but the chronology presents no inconsistencies and impossibilities. His Household Words contained many anecdotes about Australia in 1850-59 and the characters of Abel Magwitch and villainous Compeyson in Great Expectations indicate some knowledge of life in New South Wales. On the other hand Sydney people, after reading the novel, may have created the tradition by identifying Eliza with Miss Havisham.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Tyrrell, Old Books, Old Friends, Old Sydney (Syd, 1952)
  • J. S. Ryan, ‘A Possible Australian Source for Miss Havisham’, Australian Literary Studies, vol 1, no 2, Dec 1963, pp 134-36.

Citation details

J. S. Ryan, 'Donnithorne, Eliza Emily (1826–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 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]


Cape Province, South Africa


20 May, 1886 (aged ~ 60)
Newtown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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