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The fascinating story of the woman who wrote Australia's first children's book (my great-great-great-grandmother)

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Last week I did an hour-long interview with Richard Fidler on his hugely popular ABC Radio Show  'Conversations' (click the link to listen to the whole interview).  Among other things, I spoke about my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Charlotte Waring Atkinson, who wrote the first children's book published in Australia. I have had such a huge response from the show, and so many questions about this incredibly strong, brave and clever woman, that I decided to post an article I wrote for Australian Author some years ago to celebrate the 170th anniversary of the book's publication:

Frontispiece of the first edition of A Mother's Offering To Her Children by A Lady Long Resident in New South Wales, first published in 1841

‘Heirs of Immortality’
Who was the mysterious ‘Lady’ who wrote Australia’s first children’s book?

Nowadays, Australian children’s authors such as Shaun Tan, Melina Marchetta, Sonya Hartnett, John Marsden, and Garth Nix are as well-known internationally as they are here.

Yet how many people know the name of Australia’s first children’s writer?

A Mother’s Offering to Her Children was published 174 years ago by a woman known simply as ‘A Lady Long Resident in New South Wales’. For almost a century and a half, her identity was Australia’s most puzzling literary mystery.  In the 1960s, Marcie Muir - a passionate lover of Australian children’s literature - set herself the task of finding out who this anonymous ‘Lady’ was. She could never have anticipated that she would uncover one of the great lost stories of Australian history, a tale of courage, grief, violence, and triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. 

So who was the ‘Lady Long Resident in New South Wales’?
She was a child prodigy who could read by the age of two.

She was a fiercely independent young woman who scandalised Sydney society with her determination to forge her own way. 

She was a widowed mother of four who singlehandedly ran one of the largest land grants in early New South Wales.

She was probably raped by an infamous bushranger, the man later dubbed the Berrima Axe Murderer.

She was a battered wife who fled her “raving lunatic” of a second husband, even though it left her homeless and penniless. 

She was the mother of the first Australian-born female novelist.

She was also my great-great-great-great-grandmother.

Marcie Muir (1919-2007) was a collector and bibliographer of Australian children’s books whose passion became an obsession. Her library of over 7000 books – many of them extremely rare – was bought last year by the National Library of Australia. There was one book, though, that she was never able to afford to buy. A first edition of A Mother’s Offering To Her Children is now valued at $60,000. Even sixty-odd years ago, it was worth more than Marcie Muir could afford to pay. 

In 1978, a second edition was printed by Jacaranda Press, with a foreword by Rosemary Wighton, author of Early Australian Children’s Literature. She says, ‘For many years it was believed, because of a hand-written note in one of the surviving copies, that the author was Lady Gordon Bremer ... This attribution now seems increasingly dubious ... a letter from one of Lady Gordon Bremer’s descendants to the bibliographer of Australian children’s books, Marcie Muir, states that, as far as family records show, she never visited Australia at all.’

When this second edition was published, Marcie Muir had already spent almost a decade trying to identify the author of A Mother’s Offering, searching through ancient newspapers, scrolling down endless microfiches, and writing to anyone who might be able to help.

One day, in the summer of 1978, her doggedness at last paid off. Marcie Muir had flown to Sydney to look through Mitchell Library’s newspaper archives, in particular those of 1841, the year A Mother’s Offering was published. In The Sydney Gazette, on the very last newspaper of the year – 23 December 1841 – she found a small review tucked away at the back. 

It said: ‘(A Mother’s Offering to Her Children), which embraces a variety of useful and entertaining matter, is got up under the form of dialogues between a mother and her children. It is to be hoped that others will follow the noble example set up Mrs Barton ... nothing sooner gives young persons a taste for refined literature than books ... which while ... interesting, are also instructive.’

A name! ‘Mrs Barton.’ Yet who was Mrs Barton? 

Nobody seemed to know. For another eighteen months, Marcie Muir tried to find out. Eventually, wearied of her task, she gave up and turned her attention to another literary mystery – identifying the author of the first illustrated children’s book, Peter Possum’s Portfolio

Finding an advertisement for it in the back of Cowanda, the Veteran’s Grant, an 1859 novel by the colonial writer Louisa Atkinson, Marcie Muir wondered if she could also have been the author of Peter Possum’s Portfolio. Louisa Atkinson was an accomplished novelist, artist and naturalist, and well-known as Australia’s first native-born female novelist. 

Marcie Muir began to research Louisa Atkinson’s life and work. To her astonishment, she discovered that Louisa Atkinson’s mother – born Charlotte Waring – had remarried a man named George Barton when Louisa had been only four.

Could the mother of Australia’s first native-born female novelist also be the author of Australia’s first published children’s book? 

The idea fascinated Marcie Muir. She plunged into research on the Atkinson family and eventually made contact with the descendants of the Atkinsons, who had many drawings and papers which were able to conclusively prove that it was indeed Louisa Atkinson’s mother who was the mysterious ‘Lady’ Marcie Muir had been searching for. 

Born in 1796, Charlotte Waring was the third of four sisters. Her mother died giving birth to her younger sister, and Charlotte was raised by her father, a man of fortune whose ancestors had come to England with William the Conquerer. Charles Darwin was her fifth cousin, and her father, Albert Waring, was a younger son of Lord Saye and Sele. Charlotte was a brilliant child who could read fluently at the age of two and who received an unusually good education. 

When she was fifteen, her father died, and Charlotte’ young half-brother inherited all his wealth and property. Charlotte and her sisters were left impoverished and, like many a heroine of a Bronte novel, were forced to find work as governesses. 

Yet Charlotte was strong-willed and strong-minded, and used to a life of privilege. When a position was advertised for the princely price of 100 pounds a year, Charlotte leapt at the chance. Unlike the 24 other applicants for the job, she was not daunted by the idea of travelling halfway round the world to the tiny colony of Sydney, although she had read newspaper accounts of attacks by savage natives with spears, escaped convicts, bushfires, and smallpox epidemics.

She had one stricture. She would only go if she travelled first class. 

At first Mrs King, the wife of Admiral Phillip Parker King, was effusive in her praise of the governess she had hired for the Macarthurs. A few weeks later, however, she wrote to her husband, “I am very much disappointed in Miss Waring the Governess, she is very different from what she ought to be ... We had not been 2 hours on board before I saw she was flirting with Mr Atkinson, and ere 10 days were over she was engaged to him … she told me … she must be mistress of her own actions.’

Charlotte Waring left Plymouth on 19th September 1826, a penniless governess with few prospects. She arrived in Sydney on 22nd January 1827, engaged to James Atkinson, a rich gentleman-settler. 

James Atkinson had landed in Sydney in 1820, only thirty-two years after the arrival of the First Fleet. He had been given two land grants totaling 2,000 acres as a reward for his services in the Colonial Secretary’s Office. This land, called Oldbury after his father’s manor in Kent, was at Sutton Forest, 140 kilometres south of Sydney. He was good friends with the Kings and the Macarthurs, and his book, An Account of Agriculture and Grazing in NSW, had just been published in London to great acclaim. 

Their romance scandalised Sydney. Alexander Berry, writing to Edward Wollstonecraft, said ‘I must say I never saw a lady whose manners were less to my taste … the grossest levity!’ Mrs King wrote ‘she behaved very ill and gave herself many airs’, though, as Marcie Muir was to write, ‘there is more than a little malice in Mrs King’s tone, inspired by her disapproval of the governess she had engaged daring to become betrothed to a gentleman of their acquaintance.’ 

Charlotte and James were married on 29 September 1827 and went to live at Oldbury, where they built a grand sandstone manor which still stands today (though not, sadly, owned by my family). Four children were born in quick succession - Charlotte Elizabeth (my great- great-great-grandmother), Jane Emily, James John Oldbury and Caroline Louisa Waring (known as Louisa).

A photo of Oldbury Farm as it is today, taken by my sister Belinda Murrell

When Louisa was only two months old, James died and Charlotte was left alone, the mistress of a vast, isolated property worked by convicts and the mother of four children under the age of six. In a repeat of her childhood tragedy, Oldbury was left in trust for her son, then only two years old. 

Almost two years after James’s death, Charlotte and her overseer, George Barton, were visiting an outlying property when they were held up and robbed by bushrangers, led by the notorious escaped convict John Lynch, later to be named the Berrima Axe Murderer. Lynch whipped Barton cruelly, saying he “considered it his duty to … flog all the gentlemen so they might know what punishment was.”

A drawing of the infamous bushranger and Berrima Axe Murder, John Lynch

Charlotte herself may have been raped. Since she never spoke of that day, we cannot be sure but certainly her own family came to believe so. Whatever happened that terrible day, it led Charlotte to make the greatest mistake of her life. 

One month later Charlotte married George Barton. He was a violent drunk. When asked to testify against Lynch in a court of law, he turned up so incapacitated by alcohol that Lynch was acquitted and went on to murder another ten people. Louisa Atkinson was to write of her step-father: ‘(he) became a furious maniac and had to be kept under restraint.’ In time Barton would be charged with murder, and sent to gaol. 

After three terrible years, Charlotte and her four young children fled Oldbury. They took only their clothes, Charlotte’s jewellery box, the children’s pet koala, and her writing desk, tied to the back of a bullock. They travelled at night down the precipitous Meryla Pass and through the wild gorges of the Shoalhaven River, at last reaching Sydney some months later.  Charlotte had no income at all from Oldbury, supporting her family by the sale of her clothes and jewellery, and by running up debts. 

For the next six years, Charlotte would fight not only for the allowance she was entitled to under her dead husband’s will, but also for custody of her children. The executors of the will – Alexander Berry and John Coghill – maintained she was ‘not a fit and proper person to be the Guardian of the Infants … in consequence of her imprudent … intermarriage with George Bruce Barton.’ This accusation must have been a bitter pill for Charlotte to swallow, as she had run away from her violent husband and had already applied to the courts for protection from him. 

In the meantime, Charlotte had to find some way to house, feed, clothe and educate her children who were ‘literally starving’. So she wrote a book, the first children’s book to be published in Australia. It was released in December 1841, in time for the Christmas trade. Cleverly, A Mother’s Offering was educational enough to appeal to early Victorian sensibilities and yet still exciting enough to appeal to children, filled as it was with descriptions of storms, shipwrecks, strange animals, fossils and cannibals. It was an instant bestseller, and provided Charlotte with an income until her son was at last old enough to inherit Oldbury.

Structured as a dialogue between a mother and her four young children, the book is hard to read now, with all its moral instructions and outmoded Victorian sensibilities. Yet it was the first book in the world to draw upon Australian history, the first to feature native trees, birds and animals, the first to describe life as a settler, the first to feature the life and culture of the Australian Aborigines. I have to remind myself of this because, I must admit, the first time I read it I was horrified at her racism. It is hard to remember that Charlotte was writing in the early 19th century, and that her depiction of “the natives” was considered rather too sympathetic at the time. 

A sketch of a local Aboriginal woman with her child, drawn by Charlotte Waring Atkinson 

By the time the book was published, Charlotte had resoundingly won her case, though she was fined in court for her ‘impertinence’. The Chief Justice, Sir James Dowling, ruled: “It would require a state of urgent circumstances to induce the Court to deprive them (all of whom are under thirteen years of age) of that maternal care and tenderness, which none but a mother can bestow.” 

A Mother’s Offering To Her Children was based on stories that Charlotte had told her own children, who had lost everything - their father, their wealth, their home. She told them stories to teach them, to entertain them, and to comfort them. With her stories, she created an enchanted circle where those four fatherless children knew that they were loved.

Charlotte Waring wrote in her final paragraph of A Mother’s Offering to her Children: ‘we know not the day, nor the hour, when time may cease for us; and we be summoned into eternity. Let us, dear children, endeavour to profit by the frequent warnings we have of the uncertainty of life … (Let us) so pass through this life that we gain a knowledge of the things which belong to our peace; and become at last heirs of immortality!’

To celebrate the 170th anniversary of the publication of her book, the Children’s Book Council of Australia (NSW Branch) has announced they plan to rename the Frustrated Writers’ Award in her honour, so that her name – unknown for so long - shall at last be remembered.

(The primary sources for this article were Charlotte Barton: Australia’s First Children’s Author by Marcie Muir (Wentworth Books, 1980), Pioneer Writer - The life of Louisa Atkinson: novelist, journalist, naturalist by Patricia Clarke (Allen & Unwin, 1990) and oral history passed down by the descendants of James and Charlotte Atkinson. 

My sister has written a wonderful novel about the Atkinsons entitled The River Charm which I hope you will all read.

And just finally, a note in regards to Charlotte's name. As a result of Marcie Muir's book, Charlotte is known as Mrs Barton ... but my great-great-great-grandmother hated and feared her second husband, took out a restraining order against him, and never called herself by that name. To the time of her death, she called herself Charlotte Atkinson,  as can be seen by this sketchbook she made for her eldest daughter, also called Charlotte. No-one in the family would ever call her by the name Mrs Barton, and we all hope that others will respect her wishes and not call her that either!

INTERVIEW: Belinda Murrell author of The River Charm

Friday, June 28, 2013

Those of you who know me well will know that I come from a family of writers.

My great-great-great-great-grandmother Charlotte Waring Atkinson wrote the first children's book published in Australia.

Her youngest daughter Louisa Atkinson was the first Australian-born female novelist.

There have been writers of all kind - poets, journalists, academics, novelists - in nearly every generation since, including my brother Nick Humphrey, my sister Belinda Murrell, and me. 

Now my sister Belinda has written a novel inspired by the extraordinary story of how Charlotte Waring Atkinson came to write her book, the first written and published for children in Australia. I'm very proud to welcome her today: 

For those readers who have not yet discovered your wonderful new novel THE RIVER CHARM, what is it all about?

The River Charm is a very special book to me, because it is based on the true life adventures of our great-great-great grandmother, Charlotte Elizabeth Atkinson. Set in Australia, during the 1840s, it is the story of a family who lost everything but fought against almost insurmountable odds to regain their independence and their right to be together as a family. Charlotte was born into a wealthy family at Oldbury, a grand estate in the bush. But after her father dies, her mother is left to raise four young children on her own. A young widow was a tempting target – from murderous convicts, violent bushrangers and worst of all, a cruel new stepfather. Fearing for their lives, the family flees on horseback to a remote hut in the wilderness. The Atkinson family must fight to save everything they hold dear. 

How did you get the first idea for it?
When I was a child, my grandparents, Nonnie and Papa used to take my sister (that's me!) and I down to the Southern Highlands to visit the ancestral home. It was a grand old mansion called Oldbury which had been built by my great-great-great-great grandparents James and Charlotte Atkinson in about 1828. On the way, my grandparents always told us stories about the family who had lived there. The stories were filled with adventure, tragedy and joy. I can remember peering through the gate at the old house which was then neglected and shabby but being in love with the romance of the stories.

When my grandmother Nonnie died, she left me a pile of her treasures. Amongst them were a painting of Oldbury, and a pile of old books. One had been written by James and one by Charlotte. This one was the first children’s book published in Australia. 

Two years ago my mum, Gilly my sister, Kate (that's me again!) and our daughters Emily and Ella went to see an original sketchbook of drawings done by Charlotte Atkinson. It was when we were all sitting around that desk, with our white gloves on, looking through this priceless heirloom that I decided I wanted to write a story about that extraordinary family.

What was the most interesting thing you discovered during your research?

I discovered that there was a journal written in 1826 by Charlotte Waring (my great-great-great-great grandmother) which is now held in the National Library. I obtained a copy of it and it was so fascinating to read her words in her own handwriting about the beginning of her voyage to Australia. The journal covers just a short few weeks but during this time she left her family and homeland for ever, met her future husband, enjoyed their early romance and survived a terrifying storm which nearly destroyed their ship. 

I also read a letter written by her daughter Charlotte which listed the fascinating items which James Atkinson brought out on that journey with him – including a fine stallion, several dogs, plus white lillies in glass topped boxes for his garden.  Like my family, the Atkinson family loved animals and raised many orphan creatures including a pet koala, wallabies and baby possums. 

What do you love most about writing?

Immersing myself in a different place and time. Discovering the stories of my characters. Experiencing the almost magical evolution from the first spark of an idea, to the outline of a story, to a complete book. 
I also love the feedback from my readers. One of my greatest joys is getting hundreds of emails and letters from kids, telling me how much they love my books.

What are the best 5 books you've read recently?
Of course The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth!! I love historical novels based on real people and real events, and this was particularly fascinating. (Thank you, Bin!)

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. This book made me laugh out loud. A fun, entertaining book.

Z – A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (yes you gave it to me for my birthday!!). I loved the voice of Zelda and it gave a captivating insight into 1920s America, the Jazz Age and its literary stars including of course F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton. I love all of Kate’s books, particularly the way they weave together stories of different generations and different time periods, through many twists and turns, to reveal deeply buried family secrets. 

I’m now reading Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant about the Borgia family during the Italian Renaissance. 

What lies ahead of you in the next year? 
I am currently writing the sixth book in my new Lulu Bell series, called Lulu Bell and the Sea Turtle, which will come out in January 2014. It has been so much fun to work together with illustrator Serena Geddes to create the Lulu Bell series. The series has just been launched this week, and it has been so exciting to experience the excited buzz of a new series. I have a giant Lulu Bell cardboard character keeping me company in my office! With five books out this year, I am doing about eight weeks of touring including Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and regional areas.  

BOOK LIST: Belinda Murrell and her favourite Australian childrens books

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

My sister Belinda Murrell has written a wonderful historical children's book THE RIVER CHARM set in colonial Australia that is already being compared to Seven Little Australians  and  other great classics of Australian children's fiction. 

I've asked her to name her own five favourite Australian children's books. This is what Belinda had to say: 

There are so many fantastic Australian children’s books, so it is very hard to choose. 

Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner. One of my all time favourite books!

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs. I loved this as a young child. 

Are We There Yet? by Alison Lester. We travelled all around Australia for 18 months and took this book with us the whole way as an inspiration. 

A Mother’s Offering to Her Children – the first children’s book published in Australia back in 1841, and written by our great-great-great-great grandmother Charlotte Waring Atkinson. 

The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell. This was definitely one of my favourites as a child. 

Belinda Murrell is an internationally published, bestselling children’s author. Her 16 books include The Sun Sword Trilogy, a fantasy-adventure series for boys and girls aged 8 to 12. Her time-slip books - The Locket of Dreams, The Ruby Talisman, The Forgotten Pearl, and The Ivory Rose – have been shortlisted for various awards, including KOALAs (2013, 2012 and 2011), CBCA Notable List and highly commended in the PM’s Literary Awards. Her new book, The River Charm, is based on the thrilling adventures of her ancestors. For younger readers (aged 6 to 9) Belinda has a new Lulu Bell series, about friends, family, animals and adventures growing up in a vet hospital. 

You can read my unashamedly biased review of my sister's book here

BOOK REVIEW: The River Charm by Belinda Murrell

Monday, June 24, 2013

Author: Belinda Murrell
Publisher: Random House Australia
Age Group & Genre: Children’s Historical/Contemporary Family Drama

The Blurb:

A river pebble on a charm bracelet has an astonishing true story to tell, of one family's bravery and survival in harsh colonial Australia . . .

When artistic Millie visits a long-lost aunt, she learns the true story of her family's tragic past. Could the mysterious ghost girl Millie has painted be her own ancestor?

In 1839, Charlotte Atkinson lives at Oldbury, a gracious estate in the Australian bush, with her Mamma and her sisters and brother. But after the death of Charlotte's father, things start to go terribly wrong. There are murderous convicts and marauding bushrangers. Worst of all, Charlotte's new stepfather is cruel and unpredictable. 

Frightened for their lives, the family flees on horseback to a stockman's hut in the wilderness. Charlotte's mother and the children must fight to save their property, their independence and their very right to be a family. Will they ever return together to their beautiful home?

Based on the incredible true-life battles of Belinda Murrell's own ancestors, one of Australia's early artistic and literary families, the Atkinsons of Oldbury.

What I Thought: 

I have a few disclosures to make.
1) Belinda Murrell is my sister
2) This book is about our ancestors, and tells the story of how my great-great-great-great-grandmother came to write the first children’s book published in Australia
3) It is an utterly beautiful and heart-breaking story that celebrates a lost part of Australian literary history that should never have been forgotten
4) I think it deserves to win every major literary prize for children’s fiction in Australia, if not the world
5) I am utterly and unashamedly biased
6) And, yes, I cried a few proud tears reading this book

I have often told the story of how my great-great-great-great-grandmother Charlotte Waring Atkinson came to write the first children’s book in Australia. 

Every single time, people would come up to my afterwards and say ‘what an amazing story, why don’t you write it as a book?’

To my relief and joy, my sister Belinda did it for me (why some stories seize our imagination and demand to be written is part of the mystery of creativity – although I loved the tale, and told it many times, it never came knocking on my door and insisted I must give it life. I’m glad, because Belinda did it much better than I ever could have!) 

THE RIVER CHARM is a powerful, dramatic and engaging story that celebrates love and friendship and family, and the sacrifices that sometimes need to be made in order to keep what’s important in life safe. 

I recently launched Belinda’s book at Berkelouw Bookshop in Balgowlah, to a packed-out house and loads of excited fans, and I said, in utter sincerity, that I believed that the children there would one day be telling their children and grand-children, ‘I was there! I saw one of the greatest books in children’s literature being launched.’ 

And, maybe – just maybe – their signed first edition copy of THE RIVER CHARM will become an heirloom, to be passed down through the generations, just as Charlotte Waring Atkinson’s story was passed down in our family.

Charlotte Waring Atkinson's story, as told by me on the 170th anniversary of the publication of  A MOTHER'S OFFERING TO HER CHILDREN BY A LADY LONG RESIDENT IN NEW SOUTH WALES

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