Mary Thomas

<p>Mary Thomas, painted by her daughter Frances, aged fourteen. 1834. Image courtesy of the Estate of Joan Kyffin Willington.</p>

Mary Thomas was clearly a redoubtable woman.  She was 49 years old when she, her husband Robert and their five children sold all their belongings in England and embarked for South Australia.  Mary travelled on the Africaine with four of her children, while the elder son, Robert George, an apprentice in Colonel Light’s survey team, travelled on the Rapid. Mary’s lively diary of shipboard life is one of the most important records we have of everyday experiences on the Africaine. She was already a published author, with a book of poetry, entitled Serious Poems, published in 1831, although like many female authors at the time, she modestly maintained that the poems were written ‘with the sole view to the instruction and amusement of my own family’. Her diary reveals that she was equally talented as a writer of prose.

Mary and Robert came from the modestly prosperous ‘middling classes’ in England.  She was the daughter of an innkeeper and merchant: he was a law stationer.  She was thirty when they married in 1818 and went on to give birth to six children, the first in 1820 and the last (who died in infancy) in 1827, when Mary was forty. Both Mary and Robert were interested in literature, ideas and politics and both obviously believed in standing up for what they perceived to be their rights. Robert Gouger, another passenger on the Africaine, described Robert Thomas as the ‘agitator of the ship’. Once in South Australia, Robert intended to run a newspaper, in partnership with George Stevenson, who was also secretary to Governor Hindmarsh. On board with them they carried the Province’s first printing press (now known as the Stanhope Press) and ‘quantities of type’.

Mary and Robert travelled in the intermediate class, although their expectations (and perhaps their aspirations) were more in line with those in cabin class.  They were therefore disappointed in both the accommodation and the provisions on board and felt that they had been misled about both. Mary’s diary contains many complaints about their cramped conditions and the poor quality of the food.  She had reason to feel particularly constrained at the start of the journey, because she was nursing three very sick children. Mary’s account is so engaging that it is easy to identify with her and to sympathise as she sits up night after night with her children.  But we should also remember that she had smuggled these children on board, concealing the fact that they had scarlet fever from the authorities.  Scarlet fever was a very serious, highly infectious disease, which could be fatal.  We probably know it best as the disease that ultimately caused the early death of Beth in the popular mid-nineteenth century children’s novel Little Women. The effects of an epidemic in the enclosed space on board the Africaine could have been dreadful indeed.

But even in the midst of her troubles, Mary remained optimistic, and her enthusiasm is infectious.  As she wrote in her diary, she never doubted that they had made the right decision to leave England for South Australia and she looked forward eagerly to her new life.  We find our hopes riding along with hers.

After arriving in South Australia, Mary led a very busy life. Not only did she manage her families domestic duties but she was involved with her husband’s newspaper and managed the family’s thirteen properties. Outliving her husband, Mary died on the 10 February 1875.

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