A little while ago I was asked to research and write a biographical essay on an English aristocrat, Lady Mary Fitzroy (nee Lennox) for the St. John’s Cemetery Project.
St. John’s Cemetery in Parramatta is Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery. The St. John’s Cemetery Project is a public history project founded by Dr Michaela Cameron and supported by funding from Create NSW, Parramatta City Council and the Royal Australian Historical Society. Dr Cameron established the project to make the history of this site and the people who were interred there available for the wider public.
As well as a history of the cemetery and its surrounds, the project also contains a database of essays about those who were buried there. These range from first fleet convicts, women from the nearby Female Factory, wealthy landowners and British aristocracy, to men who had come to Australia after fighting in the American Revolutionary Wars. Although this is predominately a European burial ground, the remains of some of Australia’s first peoples, such as Dicky Bennelong are located in this cemetery, as are Mauritian slaves, as well as people of multiple backgrounds and religious convictions: Jewish, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Romani, and African American. Working on this project really opened my eyes to just how diverse and well travelled (willingly or not) many of the people who lived in the early colony of New South Wales were.
Although Lady Mary lived slightly out of the period I usually focus on, I was asked to write about her due to my knowledge of the English aristocracy and my specialisation in material culture. Notably, Lady Mary was working on a quilt around the time she tragically passed away, and that unfinished quilt is still in the National Trust Australia collection.
Below is a little excerpt from my essay:
Annabella Boswell, the young daughter of a prominent landowner in the colony, recalled that when Lady Mary stayed with her family in Guruk (Port Macquarie) in Birpai Country in March 1847 the governor’s wife ‘established herself with her work.’ Annabella went on to write that ‘she is most industrious, and is now preparing for the annual fancy bazaar for the School of Industry’ which involved enlisting Annabella and her family to help make work bags, and to knit and crochet various items. All women were taught to sew in the nineteenth century and many were expected to have knowledge of crafts like embroidery, quilt making, and knitting, as these activities were considered ‘fundamental female labour’ that pushed back against the perils of idleness and demonstrated the domesticity and proficiency of a woman as a competent homemaker. Besides her work for the School of Industry’s bazaar, Lady Mary’s knowledge of such skills is also visible in a surviving, albeit unfinished, quilt that she had been making before her untimely death. The hand pieced and sewn quilt is heavily influenced by English styles and the pattern for it was likely taken from pattern books brought to the colony. Lady Mary’s quilt is made of hexagon mosaic patchwork pieces that are of coloured and printed cottons and silks, fabrics that were sourced from throughout the British Empire.
If you’re interested in reading more about Mary who was tragically killed in an accident near Old Government House in Parramatta Park click on the link below! Mary was fascinating figure who was also present at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball just before the Battle of Waterloo and was extremely well travelled – Europe, Canada, South Africa, West Indies – before coming to Australia, all of which is detailed in the essay.