Just released: ‘A Gentleman’s Daughter’


“. .  the Destiny of my life was cast on seeing for the first time an ‘Apollo’ in the handsome Captain Cowin of the 73rd Regiment. Even at this long period I blush to make this romantic confession, nevertheless the age of 12 may offer an excuse. ”

Lady Dowling: Daguerreotype photo print of carte de visite, around 1860.

I was reading the memoir of Lady Dowling*, a very distant forebear of my husband. I was already intrigued, but this was the passage that captured me. Three years later, I have finished putting together a short biography of this flighty, restless woman (for details, see under Publications on this site). What I’ve learned in the process includes:

  • Never believe a memoirist (they leave out all the interesting parts),
  • Never trust a man who keeps a journal (they put in all the interesting parts), and
  • Never think your research won’t be contradicted by your next search of Trove.

I’ve also learned that I’m not alone in grappling with a million writing dilemmas. With this knowledge, I’m continuing to explore the border zones of creativity in the portrayal of historical people and events.


*Dowling, H. “Memoir of the Early Life of Harriott Mary Dowling Nee Blaxland: Or Sketches of India and Australia in Old Times.” In Dowling family papers 1767-1905: Manuscripts, Oral History & Pictures, State Library of New South Wales, Catalogue  DLMSQ 305, Item 5, 1875.

Playing cards

Playing cards was never my forté. The trick-taking game of 500 was THE obsession for my schoolmates, but my reputation for reneging (failing to follow suit) meant that anyone unfortunate enough to have me as their partner instantly bid misere. Unfortunately, for someone interested in historical times and pastimes, it turns out that card playing has been a major socialising force over the centuries.

Twopenny Whist (Public domain)

During colonial times, the games of choice for the ‘genteel’ included the following nightmares for me to learn.

  • Whist
  • Vingt et Un (21, the forerunner of Blackjack)
  • Écarté – a two-player game, similar to Euchre
  • Loo (Lanterloo; somewhat like All Fours), which was a trick-taking game similar to Euchre

Betting was often associated with these games, and the stress involved could easily threaten the social veneer of polite society. For example, whiling away the tedium of a lengthy voyage by playing cards could threaten friendships and pockets:

At Loo we were all very much annoyed at Gardiner’s conduct, he turned up a card whilst dealing and refused to put his Loo in. I had myself a turn over a few minutes before. He, however, chose the excuse of the wind from the skylight above blowing if over and left the table without paying. We are all determined not to play again with him till he has – and apologized to the table for his conduct.” (Marsh, 28th May 1847)*


This evening at Loo, Seymour retired from the table determining to lose no more. The night before he was in great rage because the Dr could not play, and remarked that it was a great shame that he as a winner did not give him a chance to recover his losing £6. The Dr has now declared that he will not play anymore, he says he is winner of about £5, but I think he must have won at least 10. I have lost up to today 3. Davies paid me 10/- I won from him, this being the day when he saw the Mail would be divided.” (Marsh, 9th June 1847)*

As a chronic loser in any card game, I’m not entirely sure where my sympathies lie…

* Source: Marsh, J.A.M. “Diary of John Augustus Milbourne Marsh (1819-1891): 1847 (Transcribed from Betty Harrison Family Archives, by Michael Heath-Caldwell, Brisbane 2009).”  http://www.jjhc.info/marshjohnaugustusmilbourne1891diary1847.htm

The Letters of Rachel Henning


Cover of Henning, R. The Letters of Rachel Henning (Edited by David Adams, with a Foreword and Pen Drawings by Norman Lindsay). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1969. First published by the Bulletin 1951-2.

Years ago, I was fortunate to find amongst my mother’s many books a copy of “The Letters of Rachel Henning”. Rachel Henning wrote the letters during the period between 1853 and 1882 as she came to terms with life in colonial Australia. As a teenage reader, I was struck in particular by her letter to her sister Annie describing her trip by coach across the Blue Mountains in 1856.

I should have enjoyed it more, also, though I am no great coward, if we had not been going at a hard trot down that steep hill with an unguarded precipice on the left down which a coach was upset some time ago, and eleven passengers either killed or maimed.” (April 7th, 1856)

The picture she painted of the descent down Mt Victoria Pass still resonates each time I travel the same route with my foot wearing out my brake pads.

Apparently, the editing for the original publication of the letters in the Bulletin (1850-52) was rather free and loose (here’s a link to a quick summary ‘Have we been conned?’).  However, the original letters are available to the public in the State Library of New South Wales (catalogue MLMSS 342/ Volumes 1-3, Folder 4X).  Even more exciting is the free online availability of the letters via a number of sources, including Project Gutenberg, the Trove collection of the National Library of Australia, and as in ebook from the library of the University of Adelaide.

Corruption in high places

For those of us who live in New South Wales, it often seems that barely a week goes by without some scandal erupting in the press revealing government corruption (see the highlights of the last ten years summarised by the Independent Commission against Corruption).  Corruption has been with us from the inception of the colony, of course. Back in the early days of the colony, the exposure of such dealings could threaten the interrelationships that supported a very fragile social order. When researching something else entirely, I was side-tracked by the astonishing example of the defalcation (misappropriation of funds) by John Edye Manning.

His background

John Edye Manning (1783-1870) had been practising law in England in early 1800s, but due to insolvency moved to live on the Continent in 1814-1823, returning to England in 1824 to sell his property. He and his wife Matilda Jordan Manning (nee Cooke, 1788-1860) moved to Australia in 1829, and he took up the position of Registrar of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Following his complaints of insufficient income associated with that position, he was given the responsibility of Curator of Intestate Estates, although he had to provide a deposit of £2,000 (provided by his family in England) to take it on. He and his wife had a large family (11 births, 7 of whom lived to adulthood and had their own families). He took an active role in the Colony and was involved in many societies and business/land investments.

The problem

By 1838 it appears that people were worrying about his expenditure being in excess of his presumed legitimate income, and there were provisions made requiring him to deposit the £10,000 funds related to the intestate estates in the Savings Bank and make them available for quarterly audit. He contested this provision and although directed to return the monies, he did not comply. By 1841-42 he was in debt to the tune of £30,000 and he sought to resign.

At first the Judges of the Supreme Court refused to allow him to resign, fearing they would be unable to pursue him for the money, but Governor Gipps seems to have forced the issue and insisted they suspend him and instigate legal action against him. By 1846, the matters were only starting to be sorted out. His sons in Australia offered to pay the compensation, but it’s not clear if or when this occurred. He ended up going back to England (without prosecution), but his family remained in Australia.

John Edye Manning’s reputation does not seem to have tarnished his family’s prospects (after all, most of the inhabitants of the colony bore the ghosts of ne’er-do-well relatives). For example, his son William Montagu Manning came to the colony in 1837, became magistrate and chairman of the Quarter Sessions, commissioner of the Courts of Requests in 1841-43, then in 1844 became Solicitor-General (i.e., he reached that position after his father’s fraud was known). He went on to become Solicitor-General and was eventually knighted.

‘The Birdman’s Wife’ by Melissa Ashley

Bringing history alive takes something very special and it is clear that Melissa Ashley has that skill. In ‘The Birdman’s Wife‘, she has blended her thorough enquiry into the life of the artist, Elizabeth Gould, with a creative realisation of how the main events in her life unfolded.

Until this work, far more people have heard about John Gould, Elizabeth’s husband for his art and science as a zoologist, mainly through his well-known book, ‘The Birds of Australia’, originally published in 1848. However, Elizabeth’s life was to change on being introduced to him by her brother:

“I still found it hard to believe that on the strength of my brother’s mention of my passion for sketching and painting, Mr Gould had insisted we meet, inviting me to his rooms to make him a drawing.” (quoted from Ashley, chapter 1)

Six children and hours of painstaking contribution as a natural history artist to her husband’s work later, Elizabeth’s short life was over, aged 37 years.

As you can see from the short quote from ‘The Birdman’s Wife’ above, Ashley has captured both the social stance of the nineteenth century woman and her use of language is pitch-perfect for the historical period.


Ashley, M. The Birdman’s Wife.  Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2016.

‘The Convict’s Daughter’ by Kiera Lindsey

Cover of ‘The Convict’s Daughter’ by Kiera Lindsey

This book is worth a read if you’re interested in a lively account of life in Sydney, NSW in 1848. Kiera Lindsey presents the story of Mary Ann Gill whose failed elopement with James Butler Kinchela was a public scandal of the times.  Her research into the case is presented in a deft combination of factual biography and dramatic action.

Lindsey, K. The Convict’s Daughter: The Scandal That Shocked a Colony. Allen and Unwin, 2016.