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Anna Josepha King (1765–1844)

by Marnie Bassett

This article was published:

Anna Josepha King, by Robert Dighton, 1799 [detail]

Anna Josepha King, by Robert Dighton, 1799 [detail]

State Library of New South Wales, 421697

Anna Josepha King (1765-1844), née Coombe, was born at Hatherleigh, Devon, England. On 11 March 1791 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, she was married to Philip Gidley King, who was a cousin; they sailed a few days later for Norfolk Island, the convict settlement where he had first been sent as commandant and superintendent in 1788.

King was the son of a draper and it is not likely that Anna Josepha was of any more distinguished parentage; but, whatever her background and education, at marriage she was able to step at once out of provincial life and take an effective place in a strange and adventurous world. Six weeks after she landed on Norfolk Island, her son Phillip Parker was born; in the next four years she had two daughters, one of whom died young. But even before her own son was born she had to care for Norfolk King, the elder of her husband's two illegitimate sons born during his earlier term on the island. During King's absence in England both boys had probably gone to Sydney with their convict mother; but in 1791 Norfolk returned to the island with his father. Later, both boys were sent to England, where King had them educated, and where as children they, Phillip, Maria and another daughter, Elizabeth (b.1797), although under different roofs, played together when they met and sent each other their 'kind love' when apart. Cold sense of duty could have brought Mrs King to agree that something from her husband's small salary should be given to the care of his sons Norfolk and Sydney; but this loving-kindness between all his children could not have existed without a generous example from herself. Perhaps it was partly her acceptance of Norfolk's needs at the start of her married life that caused King's young secretary, William Chapman, to describe Mrs King as so good that it was a pleasure for any person to be near her.

For Mrs King's first fifteen months on the island she had for company the wife of Captain William Paterson of the New South Wales Corps, but after the Patersons' departure no other officer's wife came to share her exile until King's term was nearly ended. Her health was unreliable, the atmosphere on the island frequently discordant, food often short, communication with the outside world uncertain; she had a tempestuous, energetic, kindly, port-drinking and often ailing husband to care for, as well as her own infant children; but despite all difficulties she found and created happiness, for later, after years of absence, she confessed to a longing to go back to the island to see her 'old friends' and her 'old dwelling' once more.

In 1796 they returned to England because of King's ill health. When King was appointed lieutenant-governor of New South Wales he and his wife sailed from England in the Speedy in November 1799. Mrs King kept a journal of this, her third voyage across the world. Only their youngest child, Elizabeth, sailed with them; Phillip and Maria, for their supposed educational advantage, were left behind, Maria with friends, the Enderbys of whaling fame, and Phillip with a tutor who was to let the parents have news of him twice a year. In the journal the anguish of the parting is plain, and does not fade. But it is not only for her children that Mrs King's heart aches, but also for humble people outside her own group and even for the convict women on board, battened down and 'they and their bedding getting as wet as drowned rats'. She labels herself a coward, being unable at first to rid herself of the fear of Napoleon's ships; storms and whales and fire-balls she dreads almost as much as the French; but mere discomforts she laughs at, and so loves a party that she persuades the reluctant King to stay an extra day at the Cape so that she may dance at the assembly in her new gold muslin dress.

In Sydney Mrs King found her husband and therefore herself on a stage much larger than that of Norfolk Island and presenting a more complex and important drama, involving a larger cast. She fully shared her husband's anxieties and labours; indeed, the influence she was thought to have over him earned her the nickname of 'Queen Josepha'. But one activity, strongly supported by the governor, was her own plan to mitigate the depravity of the Sydney scene by helping the hordes of neglected children that roamed its streets. The segregation and training of numbers of girl-waifs in what became known as Mrs King's Orphanage was the object of her daily attention and that of Mrs Paterson, her friend from Norfolk Island days and her friend again in Sydney whenever the quarrels of King and the military allowed.

In 1806 King, defeated by gout and opposition, was relieved by Captain William Bligh, and in a second sea-journal Mrs King described their nightmare nine-month voyage to England next year. King died in September 1808, leaving his wife and family in real need. The Treasury's meagre help was long in coming to his widow; but after a time she began to get financial relief from two sources in New South Wales: from cattle and from the land on which the cattle grazed, though her title to the first was vague and to the second illegal. The cattle were the flourishing descendants of a few beasts lost in the settlement's early days; two cows among them had belonged to Governor Arthur Phillip, who in 1801 remitted to King his claim on their progeny; her land was a grant of 790 acres (320 ha) made to her by Bligh in return for one, also illegal, made to Bligh by King. The ownership of Bligh's heiresses was challenged and their case was not settled until 1841; but Mrs King seems to have been left in undisturbed enjoyment of her grant at South Creek and the profits from both land and what Governor Lachlan Macquarie described in 1810 as 'her fine numerous herds of horned cattle, of which she has upwards of 700 Head of all descriptions'.

Mrs King spent nearly twenty-four almost undocumented years in England before she was able to return, as she had long wished, to the colony where she had passed the most important part of her life. Two of her three daughters were settled there, Maria, wife of Hannibal Macarthur and Mary (b.1805), wife of Robert Lethbridge; her distinguished son, Captain P. P. King, was about to settle there too. She sailed with him for Sydney in 1832 and on arrival was found by Elizabeth Macarthur 'as gay as ever' and 'very little changed'. At The Vineyard, Parramatta, the home of her daughter Maria, she was a valued part of an active family life until she died there on 26 July 1844. A stalwart member of the Church of England, she was buried in the graveyard of St Mary's, Penrith, formerly South Creek.

But for the accident of marriage, Mrs King, tall, dark-haired and vivacious, would never have appeared in the pages of British history; nor, although married to a colonial administrator, would she have counted in colonial records if she had been simply an anonymous wife. But the scattered references to her, as well as her own diaries in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, show that she was no cipher: a woman of sense and humanity, with a lively interest in persons and events, she takes her place as one of the more useful members of the difficult community of early New South Wales. A miniature of her is in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and a portrait of the King family in 1799 by Robert Dighton is in the possession of Mr J. H. Goldfinch, Wahroonga, New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Bassett, The Governor's Lady, Mrs Philip Gidley King (Melb, 1961), and for bibliography
  • Mme Vigant de Falbe, ‘Reminiscences’, Bulletin, 10, 17 Mar 1954
  • J. Baalman, ‘Gubernatorial Land Jobbing’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 48, part 4, 1962, pp 241-55.

Citation details

Marnie Bassett, 'King, Anna Josepha (1765–1844)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 28 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Anna Josepha King, by Robert Dighton, 1799 [detail]

Anna Josepha King, by Robert Dighton, 1799 [detail]

State Library of New South Wales, 421697

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Coombe, Anna Josepha

Hatherleigh, Devon, England


26 July, 1844 (aged ~ 79)
Parramatta, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

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