Female genteel class in colonial Port Macquarie

…we arrived off Port Macquarie, crossed the bar without difficulty, and on landing found my uncle’s carriage waiting to convey us to Lake Innes, a distance of some seven miles. My dear, kind uncle Major Innes was himself driving. My aunt received us most kindly, and we were charmed by the beauty of the place and our surroundings.

This descriptive account by Annabella Boswell, aged 13, communicates her feelings upon her family’s arrival in Port Macquarie in 1839. It also reflects favourably upon her education, which to that time she had received from her parents, several different governesses, and a year in a Sydney boarding school.

Annabella Boswell’s Journal was first published around 1908 when she was in her eighties living as a gentlewoman in Scotland. She describes herself as thoroughly Australian by heart as well as by birth and tells of the happy years of her childhood and the still happier years which followed. Despite writing for the benefit of her children, Boswell’s journal has been re-published several times. The journal provides a comprehensive insight into the life of a young genteel woman and her family who lived in what was then a remote part of colonial New South Wales. Janet Doust, in Exploring Gentry Women on the New South Wales Frontier in the 1820s and 1830s, asserts that Annabella’s writings provide us with a detailed picture of the ‘interactions of elite families’ and how they were able to live and socialise in a ‘privileged portion of society.’

From 1843 to 1848, Annabella and her mother and sister lived with her uncle, Archibald Innes. Along with Innes’ wife Margaret and their three children, the extended family resided in an expansive luxurious home on a 2560 acre estate. The house included 22 bedrooms, large drawing and dining rooms, a schoolroom and wide verandas. It also boasted running water and an imported blue and white ‘Wedgewood‘ flushing toilet. Within the estate there were bachelor’s quarters, large stables, servants’ accommodation, extensive gardens, a boathouse and even a dairy. It was during this period that Annabella records in her journal her experiences and feelings towards education, social interaction and activities associated with family life.

Annabella reflects the importance given by middle class parents to the education of the young – particularly young females – during the colonial era. She did this by recounting the way her aunt, Margaret Innes, ‘admirably’ took on the teaching duties to support the children in their schoolwork. Boswell provides details of the how her aunt would allow no trifling moments, and of how the children flew to the schoolroom at ten o’clock from the breakfast table where they remained until one o’clock. It is clear from the descriptions provided by Boswell that she regarded her aunt as a strict disciplinarian, to whom she always stood in awe.

Social interactions and entertaining

Annabella’s recollections tell of the social interactions among the genteel class and the opportunities they had for entertaining. They reveal the mind of a young genteel woman focused on food, dancing, celebration and fashion. The family home was serviced by a butler and two footmen, a piper and two Spanish grooms who appeared in livery at times, two maids, housemaids and a laundress. As such, it was a regular point of call for many dignitaries including the Police Magistrate, Commissariat Officer and the Colonial Surgeon. Annabella vividly describes the celebration of the eightieth birthday of Alexander Macleay, the father of her aunt. From the following description it is evident that the family enjoyed all of the trappings of gentility:

The table presented a splendid appearance, being laid very handsomely for eighteen persons. The epergne was quite beautiful, and when placed on the centre of the table the flowers were as high as the lamp… there were two silver wine coolers with light wines, and branch candlesticks with wax candles, and four silver side dishes. Bruce [the Piper] and the butler waited, and we had four footmen in livery, I felt quite dazzled, as I had never been at so splendid an entertainment before.

Family life
Descriptions of the family enjoying music, dancing and singing featured regularly in Boswell’s journal. She often tells of the impromptu nature of these activities, especially following dinners in the company of house guests, and it is clear from her language that these were aspects of her genteel status that she thoroughly enjoyed. Other indoor activities included sketching, sewing, reading (aloud to a small group of women) and cooking (most often with the assistance of the cook). Outdoor activities included boating on the lake, bathing at the beach, picnicking, horse-riding and, a particular favourite of Annabella, the arranging of flowers freshly picked from the garden.
Annabella’s journal entries provide selected snap-shots into the many different aspects of her daily life on the Innes estate at Port Macquarie during the 1840s. Annabella would have us believe through these snap-shots that life for a young genteel lady at this time was characterised as civilised, cultured and restrained.

Portrait of Annabella

    Portrait of Annabella

A boswell artwork

Annabella’s artwork


2 comments on “Female genteel class in colonial Port Macquarie

  1. lexieeeatock says:

    What an interesting insight into colonial life from a woman’s perspective. Are there any other surviving diaries from this time period, or is Annabella’s the only one you found? Also on the topic of identifying as an Australian, is there any elaboration about what this meant to her?

  2. frankdyball says:

    Hi Lexie,
    Thank you for your interest in my blog. Yes, Annabella Boswell’s Journal did reveal herself as a prolific diarist providing many lively reports of events, fashions worn, food consumed and visitors’ personal quirks. In addition to this journal, she wrote (again, in her later years) two further books: Further Recollections of my Early Days in Australia (1911) republished as Annabella Boswell’s Other Journal (Canberra 1992) and Recollections of Some Australian Blacks (1890).
    In my research I did find two other books of interest: The Letters of Rachel Henning. The Bulletin Newspaper Co. Pty., Ltd., (1952) and Mrs Charles Meredith, My Home in Tasmania – during a Residence of Nine Years. (1852). I feel sure there would be numerous other publications containing the writings of colonial women; either diaries, letters or personal reminiscences. You may like to refer to the bibliography of an essay of Ildiko Domotor, Ideas of home in the non-fictional narratives of British genteel women in colonial Australia, The Otemon Journal of Australian Studies, vol 37, pp.189-201, 2011. http://www.otemon.ac.jp/cas/pdf/37domotor37.pdf As her study is of British genteel women you may find them less exciting than Annabella’s, after all they were braving and coping with the harshness of a land strikingly different to the one they had been used to in Britain. Annabella knew no difference, having been born in Australia.
    Annabella obviously considered herself Australian despite having lived more than half her life in Scotland. Her writings in the twilight of her life reflected upon those years as a teenager and young woman living near Port Macquarie. Although her words did not specifically elaborate her “Australian-ness” they do reveal a woman who was an intelligent observer with an adaptable disposition and a wry sense of humour.

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