Book – Elizabeth & John, The Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm
Author: Alan Atkinson
Publisher: NewSouth Publishing, University of New South Wales Press Ltd
Reviewer: Bianca Stringer
Australia’s early settlement, beginning with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and the establishment of penal colonies in New South Wales and on Norfolk Island, is well known. However, most people are unaware of those people who chose to leave behind a life in the United Kingdom and make a new home in the uncharted territory of what was to become Australia.
Atkinson, in his 2022 published book, Elizabeth & John, the Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm, provides the reader with an incredibly rich and detailed history of two early volunteer settlers to Australia – Elizabeth and John. Atkinson has clearly spent an unimaginable number of hours over the 50 years he researched Elizabeth, John, their six children, their extended families and close confidants in order to write so extensively and with such depth about their lives. This was evidently a labour of love and a fascination for Atkinson. The reader is treated to such a detailed level of knowledge and understanding that one could easily think Atkinson knew Elizabeth and John, personally. Possibly, after all his research, Atkinson felt he did.
Elizabeth and John arrived in Australia in 1790 aboard the Neptune, a ship for woman convicts and part of the Second Fleet to New South Wales. This book provides an in-depth insight into their lives as they grew their family and while they established Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta and, later, a farming property at Camden. Eventually, they founded the Camden Park Estate, which is still operational today.
When his initial pursuit of a legal career at the Bar did not bear fruit, John fancied himself to be what would now be described as an “entrepreneur”. Perhaps, more fittingly for frontier Australia, John was the original “ideas man”. On the page, he came across to me as someone who was simply focused on making money and getting rich in the shortest time possible. This had largely proved unsuccessful for him in the United Kingdom. So, when the opportunity presented itself in Australia, this was likely too good to resist. Whether Atkinson intended this or not, John comes across as self-important and grandiose about his own ideas and capabilities.
However, his grandiose ideas were foundational to establishing Australia’s farming industry. John became a grower and exporter – a merino wool pioneer. Later, he established a cattle business, amongst other tried (and failed) ventures. He did in time achieve some wealth, such that I imagine he would have been quite pleased to learn he was later featured on the two dollar Australian banknote. Above all, he was certainly tenacious through to the end.
Further testament to his free-thinking temperament, John was frequently at odds with those in positions of authority and power, including the Governor of the day. He was a key organiser of the ‘Rum Rebellion’ in 1808. There is no doubt that he exercised his right to free speech, though, ultimately, this had consequences for him.
Elizabeth, clearly the matriarch, was an avid reader and conversationalist. She was also a keen botanist and gardener. She embraced the local landscape and First Nations people and proceeded to establish a revered garden and orchard that constituted ‘a fundamental aspect of settlement at Elizabeth Farm’. Personally, I think Elizabeth is far more likeable than John, though she remained devoted to him and their cause even when he spent lengthy periods of time back in England and then holidayed in Europe. Atkinson does a good job of equally dividing the reader’s time and attention between Elizabeth and John so that you really get to understand each of them.
To me, this book reveals not only Elizabeth and John as individuals but also Australia’s very early history. I do not know if this is (or was) taught in schools or if it is left to the individual to seek out this knowledge but, through Atkinson’s work, I gained a new understanding of the early Australian framework for agriculture and industry and the history of New South Wales, more generally. I was also provided with a detailed picture of how rugged the Australian landscape truly was before the forests were felled and cleared to make way for settlement.
I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that Elizabeth and John embraced the First Nations people, wanting to learn from them and appreciating their knowledge of the land. Though, on one view, it is arguable that John exploited them by using them as bodyguards, many did remain loyal to the Macarthurs. John also engaged convict men. He employed those who had served their terms and were free for his farming, though this did lead to mixed results.
John had a keen interest in the law. Through his business endeavours, rebellious acts and, in 1825, through being one of the first appointees to the New South Wales Legislative Council, he influenced the trajectory of Australia’s early development which has now become our history, including legal history. Atkinson, whether intentional or not (but I think fittingly), has subtly included a summary of Elizabeth and John’s relationship which provides a complementary version to the well-known maxim ‘marathon not a sprint’ in describing the longevity of a career in the law:
Garden growth, with its various vicissitudes, its trial and error, its skill and patience, its fast and slow, its long and short term, encapsulates the whole story of Elizabeth and John. A garden is all about keeping to a certain space, asking yourself questions and looking forward.
This passage certainly describes the Macarthurs. It is how I am reminding myself what my career at the Bar will be.
The level of detail in this book and the storytelling that comes through is such that you could be mistaken for believing you are reading a fictional novel that weaves Atkinson’s imagination with historical events. Yet, Atkinson has produced an entirely historical nonfiction book. This he has achieved almost entirely on letters exchanged between husband and wife (and others) and account books that were thoughtfully preserved.
The breadth of Atkinson’s research is clearly apparent. He refers to what I assume is every person that has some connection with the Macarthurs and John, in particular. With many having the same first name and, occasionally, the same surname, it can at times become confusing as to whom Atkinson is referring (or even why) which can distract from the flow of the book. The density of information, traversing from Elizabeth and John’s early adult years right through until their death, can make its reading a little slow and, occasionally, I got lost in following the flow of events.
However, while reading Elizabeth & John,I was reminded (primarily by John) that tenacity and belief in oneself will take you far provided you are not deterred by the detours or roadblocks that may appear along the way. John never gave up pursuing his goals and what he believed in. In doing so, he created quite the legacy that still remains today.
If Australian history piques your interest, then Atkinson’s book is well worth the effort.