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Elizabeth Macarthur (1766–1850)

by Jill Conway

This article was published:

Elizabeth Macarthur, n.d.

Elizabeth Macarthur, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 06724

Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850), was born on 14 August 1766 in Devon, England, daughter of Richard Veale, farmer, and his wife Grace, who were apparently of some education and affluence. Elizabeth received an education which allowed her to write letters of eighteenth-century style and grace and which equipped her to manage the complicated affairs of her husband's business in later life. She married John Macarthur in October 1788. In June 1789 he joined the New South Wales Corps and Elizabeth accompanied him when he sailed to take up his position in the colony. Her letters to her family written during the journey to New South Wales are one of the outstanding records of early voyages on convict transports. A daughter born on the voyage did not survive, and Elizabeth landed in Sydney Cove on 28 June 1790 with her ailing eldest son Edward, born in Bath in 1789, to face the rigors of the foundation years of New South Wales.

As the first woman of education and sensitivity to reach the colony Elizabeth Macarthur had a specially privileged position in colonial life. From her arrival in the colony until her husband's departure in 1809 she held court amongst officers of the New South Wales Corps, naval officers and members of the colonial administration. The only governor who was free to enjoy her society was Arthur Phillip, for in later years her husband's political position was too controversial for any governor to seek the company of the Macarthur family. In these years four more sons, James (1793-1794), John (1794-1831), James (1798-1867) and William (1800-1882), were born and three daughters, Elizabeth (1792-1842), Mary (Mrs Bowman, b.1795) and Emmeline (b.1808). The cares of her increasing family and the anxieties of her husband's political role in no way dampened her spirits. Her letters to her family in England display an acute feminine intelligence quickly adapting to the circumstances of colonial life; through her husband and children she experienced remarkable happiness in the colony from the first years of her arrival. By 1794 the Macarthurs had their own house at Parramatta, Elizabeth Farm, 'a very excellent brick building'. The country, she wrote in 1798, held 'numerous advantages to persons holding appointments under Government … We enjoy here one of the finest climates in the world. The necessaries of life are abundant, and a fruitful soil affords us many luxuries. Nothing induces me to wish for a change but the difficulty of educating our children … Our gardens with fruit and vegetables are extensive; and produce abundantly. It is now spring, and the eye is delighted with a most beautiful variegated landscape; almonds, apricots, pear and apple trees are in full bloom; the native shrubs are also in flower, and the whole country gives a grateful perfume … The greater part of the country is like an English park, and the trees give to it the appearance of a wilderness, or shrubbery commonly attached to the habitations of people of fortune'.

Elizabeth Farm, though small, was one of the few in the colony in which the dignity of family life was maintained despite the extreme stresses of the colonial environment. The children received careful and painstaking education, both secular and religious, and the style of life was as near possible that of minor country gentry as they had known it in England. Within the Macarthur home order and harmony prevailed to an extent which equalled the chaos and violence of John Macarthur's public life. The rarity and the beauty of this family life within the context of the colonial situation so impressed even John's most extreme political enemies that it purchased immunity for his family. Elizabeth Macarthur, her ordered home, her carefully nurtured children always escaped any criticism which could be levelled against John, as they escaped from any possible reprisal for his part in the rebellion against Governor William Bligh. The impressive achievement of feminine strength which this family life conveyed was enlivened by Mrs Macarthur's wit, high spirits and by her extremely charming personality. Her letters to Captain John Piper, a lifelong friend of the family, display this aspect of her personality, her delight in social occasions, her intelligent interest in the development of colonial society, and her humorous and uncomplaining acceptance of the deprivations of colonial life.

After her husband's enforced departure from the colony in 1809 Elizabeth's relatively carefree existence changed. Business partners administered the wide range of John's mercantile affairs during his absence, but his wife was responsible for the care of the valuable merino flocks, the Camden Park estate and the direction of its convict labourers, with the assistance only of her nephew, Hannibal Macarthur, who was less experienced than she in colonial affairs. For eight years she managed the Camden Park establishment with conspicuous success. She visited it regularly, although this involved going to the limits of the known colonial world and placing herself in danger of the sporadic violence which occurred between settlers and Aboriginals. Without feminine company she travelled to visit the various merino flocks and to discuss the choice of rams, sales of sheep, the improvement of fleeces, and the care of all the valuable Macarthur stock with her one reliable convict overseer. After these journeys she wrote detailed reports of her inspections to her husband in England and on receiving his replies carried out to the letter his directions for the development of the flocks.

In these years, because of her remarkable ability in the management of the sheep, John Macarthur's enforced absence was converted into an advantage in the development of his plans for the colonial pastoral industry. His presence in England and Elizabeth's in the colony surmounted the otherwise almost insurmountable problem of communications in developing the colonial flocks at precisely the most delicate point in their growth. During these eight years under their joint direction the wool of the Macarthur merino flocks managed to enter competitively into the British market and to establish the reputation of the colony of New South Wales as a centre for wool-growing. A great part of the achievement was that of John, with his flair for publicity, his astute direction and his unfailing economic vision, but a significant proportion of it was Elizabeth's, since her determination and administrative ability overcame the first and most formidable practical obstacles, which were within the colony, to the export of wool. Her letters are neutral about the degree of pleasure she derived from the care of 'Mr. Macarthur's affairs'. If they were an insufferable burden of anxiety she never complained. If she enjoyed her masculine role she did not speak of it. She occasionally mentioned fatigue and apologized for her failures with stock records, but the emotional centre of her letters was always her concern for her children, the health and beauty of her daughters in the colony, and the well-being of her sons being educated under the care of their father in England.

The Macarthurs' marriage had a kind of eighteenth-century tone about it. The devotion of husband and wife for one another was of deep and moving intensity, yet Mrs Macarthur was able to endure the long years of separation from John without the stress which might have troubled a woman of less aristocratic temperament. She was an Anglican of more than formal piety and much comforted by faith. She had an energetic and educated appreciation of nature and took endless pleasure in describing the beauties of the colonial landscape, beauties which she perceived though few of her fellow colonists did, and she must have played a substantial role in making the country of their birth the centre of the affections of her sons James and William. During John's absence from the colony between 1809 and 1817 he frequently questioned the advisability of committing the family fortunes permanently to the colony, but though Elizabeth's letters to him have not survived it seems evident from his correspondence with her that she played an important role in reassuring him about his eventual return to the colony and about the success of their fortunes there.

After John's return to New South Wales in 1817 Elizabeth retired from active concern with the management of the family affairs. Her influence was, however, still very powerful. When the financial success of their grazing ventures seemed assured John Macarthur began to devote his energies to the building of a suitable family mansion on the Camden Park estate. It expressed his own vision of his family and its grandeur more than it was designed to please and delight his wife. During the mid-1820s Elizabeth spent more and more time in Sydney and Parramatta enjoying again a quiet social round now centred about the lives of her children. She was saddened by her husband's deep fits of melancholia and his obsessive and utterly unfounded fears that she had been unfaithful to him. His feelings of persecution became so violent that he could not bear to see his wife, and they lived the last few years of his life in virtual separation; though she suffered deeply from this rejection, her strength of character and extreme good sense kept the family together. She remained devoted to her husband until his death and encouraged her sons to deal with the difficult situation of caring for their father without allowing them to experience any sense of conflict in their relations with her. She died on 9 February 1850, having survived John by sixteen years, during which she lived to see the final amazing success of Australian wool exports in the mid-1830s and the fulfilment of every one of her husband's predictions concerning the economic development of the colony. Her influence on her sons cannot be overestimated. Both James and William were deeply devoted to her, and both owed their conservative and aristocratic temperaments less to their father's driving economic ambition than to their education and the influence and example of their mother.

Her portrait in the Dixson Gallery, Sydney, shows her to have been a woman of unusual beauty and taste in dress and deportment. In a small colonial society which delighted in petty gossip she was not touched by any. Scarcely another woman in the colonial world escaped criticism for some breach of taste in dress, manners or propriety. Impossible though it may seem she does not appear to have been mentioned by contemporaries except in praise. She did not use her undoubted position in the colony to mitigate any of its harshness. Though a sensitive and delicate woman, she did not leave any record of outrage at the brutality of the colonial world; perhaps she saw little of its extreme harshness since the Macarthur servants were always well housed and fed and not sternly punished by colonial standards. She chose instead to exercise her undoubted talents within the range of family and business life and was not provoked to efforts outside this sphere by the stimulus of the new and strange environment to which she became so deeply attached.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 2
  • S. Macarthur Onslow, Early Records of the Macarthurs of Camden (Syd, 1912)
  • M. H. Ellis, John Macarthur (Syd, 1955)
  • J. Ker, ‘The Wool Industry in New South Wales 1803-1830’, Business Archives and History, vol 2, no 1, Feb 1962, pp 18-54
  • J. Ker, ‘The Macarthur Family and the Pastoral Industry’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 47, part 3, 1961, pp 131-55
  • Macarthur papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Jill Conway, 'Macarthur, Elizabeth (1766–1850)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 April 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

Elizabeth Macarthur, n.d.

Elizabeth Macarthur, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 06724

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Veale, Elizabeth

14 August, 1766
Devon, England


9 February, 1850 (aged 83)
New South Wales, Australia

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