Tag Archives: Patrick Leslie

An 1840 Wedding at Parramatta

On 9 September 1840, Patrick Leslie married Kate McArthur in the Anglican church in Parramatta. Kate was 22, Patrick would be 25 in a few weeks, and they had been engaged for over 3 years. Their marriage had been delayed again and again because Patrick and his uncle, my Walter Davidson had quarreled. Davidson sacked Patrick as manager of his property, leaving his nephew without a suitable home to which he could bring his bride.

The details of the quarrel are too complicated to go into here – you’ll have to read the book! – but Davidson sold the property – Collaroy station, in the Upper Hunter – to a cousin, Edward Hamilton, who arrived in New South Wales in early 1840. Meanwhile Patrick set out to find a new squatting run for his younger brothers on the Darling Downs. Leaving Walter Leslie and some servants on their new station on the Condamine, Patrick rushed back to Sydney to register their squatting run, which he did in August.

Then he finally married Kate.

I’ve spent most of the last week struggling to read the 13-page account of her wedding written by her sister Libby to send to Patrick’s mother in Scotland. I suspect I may be the first person who has read the letter since it did the rounds of the Leslie family during 1841. Libby’s handwriting is dreadful, and most pages are crossed, a method of squeezing as much as possible onto the page to save on the cost of postage. ‘Are you tired of this scrawl,’ Libby asks at one point – and I most definitely was.

But Patrick’s wedding is a key set piece in my book, the final scene in in the second-last chapter, the point at which the two families I have been following – the Macarthur family in New South Wales, and Walter Davidson’s extended family in Britain – were united in marriage.

Kate’s parents were Hannibal McArthur (nephew of John Macarthur) and Anna Maria King (daughter of Governor King), so she belonged to the colonial elite, but the wedding was a surprisingly low-key event, probably because they had very little time to plan ahead for the big day. The wedding was held in the morning, followed by a big celebration at the Macarthur’s estate, Vineyard, a few miles out of Parramatta.

The Vineyard, Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur's estate at Parramatta

The Vineyard, Parramatta, by Conrad Martens, 1840, from Wikipedia

The bride and groom soon left, but the party continued, with many of the guests staying overnight. Patrick and Kate spent their first few nights at Hannibal’s holiday home at Clovelly before going to Dunheved, Uncle King’s estate, which Patrick had rented while King was the resident commissioner of the Australian Agricultural Company at Port Stephens.

Phillip Parker King's estate, Dunheved

View of Dunheved, New South Wales, by Conrad Martens, 1837, from Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

I’m intrigued by the similarities and differences between this wedding in 1840 and a wedding celebration these days. In some ways they are quick alike. The toasts and speeches haven’t changed much, nor has the sense that the groom, with one best man, was outcompeted by the bride with her host of bridesmaids. The fashionable clothes are much the same, even to the mother-of-the-bride’s outfit in – yurk – violet. Kate didn’t throw a bouquet, but the business with ‘Papa’s wedding ring’ seems to follow the same rules of pre-planned prediction – everyone knew that Mary was going to marry Patrick’s friend Hugh Gordon as soon as he returned from China.

I think in the days of My Kitchen Rules, we are more preoccupied with food than Libby seems to have been, although I suspect their ‘cold collation’ was pretty similar to our rubber chicken – and prepared without refrigeration, too. Less similar is the sheer size of Kate’s family – she had 5 sisters and 5 brothers, most of whom were present.

There’s something about family celebrations that brings out the best and worst in the human condition. That’s why suicide rates go up around Christmas, people fall in love at their friends’ weddings, and fights break out after funerals. Libby’s letter is full of the joy of the big event – but below the surface were a seething mass of tensions, only some of which were evident at the time.

The most obvious tension was between the two branches of the Macarthur family. The ‘Camden Macarthurs’ and the ‘Vineyard McArthurs’ took opposing positions in the quarrel between Patrick Leslie and Walter Davidson, and the families were becoming estranged. They even used different spellings of their name! But Hannibal was John Macarthur’s nephew, so John’s children should have been at their cousin’s wedding. John Macarthur’s widow, Elizabeth, was a friend of ‘Grandmama’ – Anna Josepha King – but she was also an old lady, and could be excused attendance, and her eldest daughter was always treated as an invalid. James’s absence was another matter, and his wife Emily could surely have got there too, though her baby was only born the previous May.

There were other tensions too. The Leslie brothers, the McArthur brothers and Robert McKenzie were all beneficiaries of the squatting boom, but the economic situation was about to go very bad indeed. Their friend Stuart Donaldson was a businessman in Sydney, supplying their stations and selling their wool on consignment. This made him their creditor – and it would be many years before he ever got his money back.

Finally there were the absent brothers. Walter Leslie missed the wedding because he was holding the fort on the Darling Downs – pretty much literally. The first building they put up there was made of stone, the better to resist attack by Aborigines, with windows just large enough to fire a gun. ‘It is a lovely place & there have been no blacks seen on our run for 18 months’, wrote Patrick ominously less than 2 years later. Meanwhile the oldest brother, William Leslie, was in Macao where he was a partner in Dent & Co, one of the biggest opium traders in the business. News from China was scarce in September 1840 because of the First Opium War. Libby clearly thought this war with China would be good for trade.

For those who may be interested, I’ve attached the whole of Libby’s letter below – there are still a few words that defeat me, and I’d be grateful for any clues/guesses as to what they may be. Libby’s punctuation is erratic. I’ve adjusted accordingly, and added paragraphs to make it easier to read.

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The Leslie Papers transcribed

I’m currently reading my way through the Leslie Family papers at the John Oxley Library. The Leslie brothers – Patrick, Walter and George – were early settlers on the Darling Downs, with squatting runs at Canning Downs and later Goomburra. Patrick Leslie also built Newstead House in Brisbane. I’m interested in them because they are the nephews of  Walter Davidson.

The Leslie papers are a mixture of transcripts and original handwritten letters, all now photocopied and bound in 5 fat volumes. In total there are about 500 letters. They are a well known collection and have been well-thumbed by many historians over the years. Because the bound volumes consist of photocopies, I don’t need to use white gloves. This is a great advantage. I hate white gloves, though I realize they are necessary when handling fragile materials – but more to the point, my iPad doesn’t like white gloves and goes into a sulk if I try to swipe or type or scan while wearing them.

Over at Adventures in Biography, MST recently wrote about the joy that comes from finding transcriptions. It is a generous gift when someone in the past has gone through the document before and left the fruits of their labour for the benefit of later researchers. Who wouldn’t prefer to read this:

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rather than this:

An example of a crossed letter from the Leslie Papers, State Library of Queensland

But I find I’m becoming a bit obsessed by these Leslie transcriptions, and the typists who made them long ago.

The Leslie papers came to Queensland in the 1940s from the Warthill estate in Aberdeenshire, which is still in the hands of Leslie relatives. (Trivial fact: Rose Leslie, who played the chamber maid Gwen in Downton Abbey, and Ygritte in Game of Thrones, grew up at Warthill) The Leslies of Warthill, bless them, never threw anything away, so the Leslie letters that reached the State Library of Queensland include – as far as we know – pretty nearly all the letters that reached the family from their sons, from the time they left for Australia, Patrick in 1834, Walter and George in 1838.

When they reached Sydney the young men stayed with Hannibal Macarthur and his family at Vineyard, Parramatta. Both Patrick and George later married two of Hannibal’s daughters, Kate and Emmeline Macarthur, so there are also letters from them as well as other members of the Macarthur family at Vineyard.

By the time the letters arrived in Queensland, Patrick Leslie already had a heroic, if undeserved*, status as ‘the first white man’ on the Darling Downs. Henry Stuart Russell used Patrick’s diary as one of the sources for his book The Genesis of Queensland (1888), but that diary had since disappeared. So when the Leslie letters reached Queensland, after years of negotiation and an inconvenient World War, they caused quite a stir. They were a valuable new resource – but they were also extremely difficult to read. So somebody decided to transcribe them.

In 1957, Kenelm Waller wrote an honours thesis based on these letters: The letters of the Leslie brothers, 1834-1854. The Waller thesis contains long quotes from the letters, typed in a similar layout to the transcriptions in the Oxley library. Both thesis and letters were typed on an old-fashioned manual typewriter, with the distinctive fuzziness that comes from making several carbon copies at once. Created in a time before computers, before electric typewriters, before liquid paper, it was hard and exacting work.

So was Waller responsible for these transcriptions? It seems likely, though whether he was the typist is more difficult to say for sure. Typing, in those pre-computer days, was a more gendered activity than it is today, so perhaps it was a loving mother, wife or sister who did the typing.

It’s all guesswork, I’m afraid, but in fact I think there were at least 2 typists involved. Even the most perfect transcription has idiosyncrasies, as the typist makes decisions: Do you scrupulously capitalize letters mid-sentence because the letter-writer uses an H or an S that looks like a capital letter? If the writer has scrawled a word that might be misspelt, are you picky or do you give them the benefit of the doubt? How do you deal with words that are totally illegible, or with tears in the paper? One of the Leslie typists uses ellipses – … –  the other uses square brackets – [blank] . Most intriguingly, Ellipse-Typist had more trouble with the handwriting, so some of his/her transcripts are full of mystery dots.

If Waller was the brain, if not the fingers, behind this huge transcription project, this helps to explain how the decision was made about which letters to transcribe. Nearly all the letters from the 3 Leslie brothers are transcribed, as are some from their wives. Even quite peripheral letters that relate to their activities on the Darling Downs are copied, so there is a long sequence dealing with the shipment of cattle from Scotland.

Other letter-writers have been ignored, most but not all of them women. Hannibal Macarthur’s wife and daughters kept up a regular correspondence with the Warthill family, especially Patrick’s mother Jane and his sister Mary Ann. These letters are delightful, full of details about Patrick and his friend dancing Scottish reels after dinner, and Mary Ann sewing doll’s clothes for the youngest Macarthur daughter. They also deal with more serious matters, such as the ‘Absyss’ on each of Kate Leslie’s breasts following the birth of her baby – which were opened and drained. Yikes.

To be fair, the letter that describes this event has been transcribed, but in general, nobody in the 1950s thought these domestic details were important. I’ve written about a similar instance from the 1950s here. So these letters have remained un-copied and therefore relatively inaccessible ever since. I am by no means the first person to look at these letters, but I do wonder how many people have overlooked them in favour of the ones that were easier to read.

Sixty years ago, someone decided that women’s words, and the domestic detail of women’s lives, didn’t matter. It’s a shame if as a result, every hasty researcher who chooses the transcripts over the scrawls is bound by a perspective that is now 60 years out of date.

* There were runaway convicts on the Darling Downs before him, and Patrick brought a servant with him anyway.

Reading Old Letters

Towards the end of Pride and Prejudice there’s an odd phrase. Lydia has gone with the militia to Brighton, as a guest of the Colonel’s wife, and the Bennet family are waiting for her letters,

but her letters were always long expected, and always very short.  Those to her mother, contained little else, than …the library …officers … a new gown… a new parasol …was obliged to leave off in a violent hurry.

Her letters to her sister Kitty are rather longer but ‘were much too full of lines under the words to be made public.’ (vol. 2, ch 19)

The phrase is usually taken to mean underlining as a form of emphasis – if Lydia was emailing today, I just know she would use Comic Sans and too many exclamation marks!!! – but it always puzzled me, and I think I discovered exactly what Jane Austen meant one day back in the 1990s when I was reading some family letters outside Braidwood. Continue reading

A Matter of Business: Stuart Donaldson and the Fallen Woman

New South Wales became a self-governing colony and elected its first Parliament in 1856. At that time, there was as yet no party structure.  There were some clear factional chiefs, some with a defined political agenda, others with only a good idea of whom they hated (Irish Catholics, mostly) but it was all a little vague and chaotic by current standards, which are still often chaotic, but seldom vague.

There were some famous names amongst that first Legislative Assembly, including the conservative James Macarthur and the radical Henry Parkes, but the man who emerged to become the first Premier of New South Wales was a comparative nonentity, Stuart Alexander Donaldson, who is today almost completely unheard of.

489px-Stuart_A._Donaldson

Despite the slight kudos that attaches to being first NSW Premier, Donaldson was really much more important as a merchant than as a politician, and his early life is much more interesting – well, I think so, anyway! – than his later respectable years. Continue reading