Caroline Denison - A Lady at Government House
By Maggie Weidenhofer
Lady Caroline Denison, photo, Beattie Print, [18--?]. Reproduced with permission, Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, AUTAS001125645507, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office
One of the most notable gaps in the history of Australian women’s writing is the collection of lively, perceptive and highly entertaining letters about colonial life written by Caroline Lucy Denison, the wife of Sir William Denison. Sir William was Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land from 1847 to 1855, then Governor of New South Wales from January 1855 to 1861 as well as Governor of all the Australian colonies, and Governor of Madras, India, from 1861 to 1866.
The Denisons were married in 1838 and are supposed to have had 13 children. Despite this, Caroline (called ‘Lina’ by her husband) showed considerable resilience in continuing her duties throughout her many pregnancies, and remained active, involved and committed as the Governor’s Lady, as is evident from Sir William’s memoir of the period, Varieties of Vice-Regal Life.
To inject a much-needed element of liveliness and shrewd observation of colonial life and manners into his book, Sir William drew selectively on Caroline’s letters home from Hobart and Sydney—some 200 pages in journal form written in the 1840s and 50s. These have been quite overlooked by compilers of collections of colonial women’s writing. Indeed, many library catalogues neglect even to refer to Lady Denison’s contribution to her husband’s memoir.
Sir William Denison,photo, Beattie Print, [18--?]. Reproduced with permission, Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, AUTAS001125645499
William Denison obliquely acknowledged this contribution in the preface to his memoir, when he claimed that ‘the conjugal or filial pen will occasionally be found indulging in a strain of laudation, which it may savour of vanity to publish, but it has been impossible altogether to suppress such passages as these without destroying entirely the freshness and genuineness of the narration.’ It is easy to see why Denison’s style needed a little lightening up.
In 1846, the Denisons sailed from Spithead, England, with their four children. Of her voyage, Lady Denison wrote:
I confess that the idea of losing sight of the northern stars gives me quite a melancholy feeling. I also most feel as if, in losing them, we were leaving the history of the world behind us: as if they had been witnesses of all the great events and noble deeds of which one has ever read in sacred or profane history and of which the southern stars can know nothing! I propounded this idea to William, who of course laughed at it and ‘thought it was high time the southern stars should see some action worth recording!’ What if he should show them some?
On November 19, she wrote: ‘Did you ever hear that Queen Elizabeth invented studding sails, and illustrated her idea by means of her own apron?...the story is so happily in character for a British queen and for Queen Elizabeth in particular, that I should be vexed to be obliged to disbelieve it.’ (Studding sails are small sails set at the ends of the yardarms of a square-rigged ship for extra drive in light airs.)
Government House from Macquarie Street, Hobart, circa 1840, watercolour on paper, artist unknown. Reproduced with permission, W.L. Crowther Library, AUTAS001124852229.
The Denisons landed in Hobart in January 1847, and by early March, were nearly settled with their furniture and books, giving Government House ‘a home feeling.’ They had just begun a series of 22 dinner parties, at which, Caroline wrote, Sir William’s ‘wine cooling apparatus excited much admiration, no attempt having been made until then to cool liquor.’
Yesterday we drove to the Government garden, which is situated in the Domain. I can hardly tell you how delighted I was with the drive: The Domain itself is more like an English park than I should have conceived possible…We passed the spot where they had begun to build a new Government House, which was never finished; and, pleased as I am with the old house, I am afraid I half coveted this, from the exceeding beauty of its situation and views. The profusion of fruit exceeded anything I ever saw before…
The whole air of this place, the streets, the shops, the very gardens, from the many English flowers in them, are so exactly like those of a country town in England, that it is very difficult to realize the fact of being nearly at the Antipodes. The only differences, almost, that I can see, are, the occasional going by of a gang of convicts; and the greater preponderance of white coats and straw hats among the men…
The couple soon became closely involved in the community, as Caroline’s lively and informative letters to relatives in England clearly evoked. Both Sir William and his wife were interested in the Queen’s Orphan Schools. Sir William enjoyed being a father-figure to the boys, taking them games and toys. But their interest in the schools went further than merely giving the children gifts, and Sir William visited the school to examine their progress himself.
Queen's Orphan School, New Town, Tasmania, from the Risdon Road, coloured lithograph by John Skinner Prout, 1844, reproduced with permission Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office. AUTAS001124073321
Lady Denison had an energetic approach to what she perceived as her public duty. One of her first official duties was a visit to the Anson, the convict hulk for women. She wrote:
All the female prisoners go there on their first arrival and remain for six months; after which, if they behave well, they become passholders and are allowed to hire themselves out as servants…It was a melancholy sight; there were 486 prisoners on board, some of them young girls…As we were leaving, another poor woman…ran after us to ask when she would be allowed to see her little girl. I thought a good deal about these poor creatures when I came home and this morning I told William of these two poor mothers…and to my great delight he said he would see about making some alterations to the regulations, for he thought a complete separation of mother and children for at least six months was a bad thing…
At a later stage, Caroline took a firm hand in an attempt to improve the Hobart infant schools, which were falling into disrepair and poor management.
She commented on and described significant contemporary events as well as the occasions when she accompanied her husband on visits to important locals, some of whose fine colonial residences still exist.
Caroline was fascinated by the social mores of colonial Hobart. She recorded on May 19:
Yesterday we gave a little dance and it went off successfully...but we had a narrow escape of a dreadful fracas at the dinner which preceded it. The next day, A— ( who would delight you all, as he does me, by his intense anxiety for our well-being and success…burst into the room, exclaiming, ‘Oh, I am so glad to find you here, and alone, for such a thing has happened! We were within an ace of having half the people who came to dinner here last night walk out of the room. Mrs— , your good old woman, is the most infamous character that can be!’
To her credit, Caroline took no notice of these alarms, and satisfied herself that the woman in question had lived and behaved ‘respectably’ for many years.
Christmas Day 1847 turned out to be more eventful than Caroline expected. The original idea was simply to give Christmas dinner to their farm labourers and their families at New Norfolk near Hobart and the men and boys who had been employed bringing in hay and the hop harvest. Caroline thought she could manage this without much difficulty, but: ‘It was, however, with a mixture of pleasure and horror that, last night, I received a note from William, who was at Hobart Town, saying that he had invited a party of blacks (the natives of the island) for the same day; and that I must provide a dinner for them, also.’
Caroline rose to the occasion, supervising the erecting of a tent for the additional guests and providing extra tables, benches, knives, forks, plates and mugs.
Among other Christmas responsibilities for Lady Denison (which caused a four-day gap in her letters home) were providing and ticketing Christmas gifts for more than 100 children ‘so nearly equal in value as to excite no jealousies, and at the same time, to be within our means.…’
Lady Denison was anxious to convey to her relatives ‘the extraordinary state these colonies are in, in consequence of the astounding discoveries of gold at Port Phillip.’ She was in ‘daily fear of hearing our own menservants give warning in order to go [to the diggings]. Altogether, the state of things is very serious; but some good will come out of it at last, as good always does in some way.’
In 1852, describing the effect of the diggers’ new-found riches had on the general populace, she wrote:
The dress is the most comical part of the business, I saw a woman the other day, walking through the streets in dirty weather, dressed in a beautiful silver grey satin gown, the sort of gown that I should never think of wearing, except at some large evening party…I cannot help thinking how many of these poor wretched people will be utterly destitute in their old age..
While in Hobart, the Denisons’ former singing master told them ’wonderful things about the difficulties in Melbourne. ‘He declares that he throws away his socks as it is cheaper to buy new ones than to send his washing to Sydney as many people did.’
As the Denisons’ term in Van Diemen’s Land drew to a close, rumours abounded…‘in short, everybody knows more of our affairs than we know ourselves,’ Caroline wrote.
After leaving Hobart Town for Sydney, she took up her narrative to describe her landing, with her children, at ‘a sort of private quay, close under the house, while Sir William landed at a more public place and was escorted to Government House by an immense crowd with a great display of uniforms, volunteer cavalry and rifles, etc and altogether much more of a show than would have been the case in Van Diemen’s Land…but it did not give us half the pleasure…I must say this harbour, pretty as it is, does not come up to Hobart Town in point of beauty.’
Lady Denison described a ‘nice little concert here yesterday evening’ which produced ‘a decided sensation in the refreshment room, by the introduction…of a quantity of gooseberry fool.’ Gooseberries would not grow in the Sydney region, except in the interior highlands. The Denisons had a hamper of green gooseberries sent from Van Diemen’s Land by steamer, ‘so we did the honour of this novel dish (for it is a novelty here) with great zest. The English-born portion of the guests were delighted…’
In 1861 the Denisons left Sydney for Madras, and yet another Government House, where Sir William was Governor-General of India until 1864. On 19 January, 1866, he was taken ill and died at his residence, the Observatory House, East Sheen, Surrey, England. He left all his shares in the Ossington Estate, Madras and his houses and ground-rents in England to his wife and children.
Soon after Sir William’s death. Lady Denison and the children returned to England. Caroline was awarded Queen Victoria’s Order of the Crown of India in recognition of the services of her and her late husband.
The Author: Maggie Weidenhofer is an author and former journalist. She is the author of 'Maria Island: A Tasmanian Eden', 4th Ed, 2005, published in association with The Maria Island Walk.