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Mary Thomas (1787–1875)

by Beth Duncan

This article was published:

Mary Thomas (1787-1875), by unknown photographer, c1870

Mary Thomas (1787-1875), by unknown photographer, c1870

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 14662

Mary Thomas (1787-1875), diarist and poet, was born on 30 August 1787 at Southampton, England, daughter of George Harris, innkeeper and merchant, and his wife Mary, née Batchelor. Young Mary married Robert Thomas, law stationer, on 8 January 1818 at Holy Rood Church, Southampton. Of their six children, one died young. Published in London in 1831, Mary's Serious Poems were written 'with the sole view to the instruction and amusement of my own family'. With four of their children—Frances, William Kyffin, Mary and Helen—she embarked with her husband for South Australia in the Africaine, arriving at Holdfast Bay in November 1836. She was reunited there with her eldest son Robert George, an apprentice in Colonel Light's survey team. Mary was present when the inauguration of the first Council of Government was proclaimed on 28 December and at the printing, in a reed hut, of the proclamation document by her husband Robert, the government printer.

He and George Stevenson established R. Thomas & Co. to publish the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register. The first issue appeared in London in June 1836 and the first Adelaide edition in June 1837. Mary was considered 'to have taken so active and useful a part in the journalistic department of the colony's first newspaper that she might have been classed as one of the firm'. She wrote 'many meritorious contributions' to the press in the colony's foundation years. Her involvement ceased when the paper, due to insolvency, passed to James Allen during the depression of 1842. Later, her son William regained part proprietorship.

Mary Thomas's letters between 1855 and 1860 to her daughter Helen Mantegani on the Victorian goldfields gave an intimate and detailed account of colonial domestic life. For thirty years, until 1872, Mary managed her family's thirteen properties—houses, cottages and a leased hotel. She was generous and compassionate, her family's mainstay both emotionally in times of stress and bereavement and financially in times of economic difficulty. As well, she provided succour to others in need. Her husband and her eldest daughter Frances (1818-1855), wife of J. M. Skipper predeceased her. Mary Thomas died on 10 February 1875, at her home, Rhantregwnwyn Cottage, Adelaide. Two sons and two daughters survived her.

In 1867 she had transcribed her diary of the voyage out and the first weeks of settlement, expanding these with reminiscences. Thirteen of her letters 'home', written between 1838 and 1841, were ultimately returned to Adelaide. Evan Kyffin Thomas, a proprietor of the Register, edited the first version of The Diary and Letters of Mary Thomas in 1915 and a second in 1925. They provided a lively and valuable record of the first five years of settlement. Descendants hold a water-colour copy of a portrait (c.1834) of her by her daughter, and a manuscript book of other poems, also written before emigration. None of Mary's verses written in the colony has survived.

Select Bibliography

  • South Australian Register, 6 Aug 1842, p 2, 13 Feb 1875, p 5
  • index of insolvencies, 63/1842 (State Records of South Australia)
  • Mantegani and Thomas family papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Beth Duncan, 'Thomas, Mary (1787–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Mary Thomas (1787-1875), by unknown photographer, c1870

Mary Thomas (1787-1875), by unknown photographer, c1870

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 14662

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Harris, Mary

30 August, 1787
Southampton, Hampshire, England


10 February, 1875 (aged 87)
Adelaide, South Australia, 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.