Mary Thomas

Mary Thomas


Mary Thomas, Founding Mother
The life and times of a South Australian pioneer

Beth Duncan

In 1836 Mary Thomas, aged 49, abandoned her comfortable life and home in London for a tent in the sand hills of Holdfast Bay in the new colony of South Australia to secure a prosperous future for her family. Born in Southampton on 30 August 1787 to parents George Harris and Mary Batchelor who were married in November 1786. Mary married, at the age of 30, Robert Thomas on 8 January 1818. Robert was a publisher and sold stationary to the legal profession.

Mary and Robert were to have six children; the first Frances Amelia was born in London on 14 November 1818 and the last, Alfred born on 22 February 1827. He died on 26 June 1828. The family was well off as they employed a live-in servant and had water connected to their house in central London. Mary had a good education and liked poetry and writing. Although she had a large family to look after she still managed to publish her writing in a volume called Serious Poems in 1831.

The first Mary heard about South Australia and the Wakefield scheme was in 1835 through a friend, Dr Inman. After obtaining more information she and her husband decided to invest in the scheme and bought 134 acres for a total of £80. Even at their age they felt interested enough and young enough to sell up and move to South Australia with the first ship available. They planned to open a store and start a printing business to provide for their five children particularly the two sons.

Having packed everything for Robert, such as the printing press, goods to be sold as well as all their private belongings and food they boarded the Africaine on 26 June 1836. That same afternoon they left the London docks for Gravesend. On 1 July the ship sailed for South Australia under command of Captain Duff and part owner John Hallett. On 1 November 1836 they reached Kangaroo Island and finally arrived at Holdfast Bay on 11 November.

It is almost beyond imagination that people of their age, used to a degree of comfort, would contemplate moving to a place where there was none and start all over again. Upon arrival and unloading their first task was to put up a tent for shelter. This would be their new home for some time to come. On 28 December the Buffalo arrived with Governor Hindmarsh and later that day Robert Gouger read out what has since been called the Proclamation of South Australia.

When Colonel William Light had fixed the site for the capital, Robert and his son William were able to move the printing press, brought from England, and other equipment to Adelaide during May 1837. Having lived in their tent in the sand dunes for some months and getting used to visits from Aborigines, Mary and the other children had to remain a little longer yet.

Following his initial investment in September 1835 Robert had bought a second preliminary land order, which entitled him to two free acres in town. He had also bought a further eight town acres, including two in Hindley Street. It was on acre 56 in Hindley Street where they set up store and press ready to start selling and printing. During June the rest of the family joined them but all lived in a tent until October 1837.

Maryís move to town was much needed as it was with her help that the second issue of the Register was published in July 1837, the first had been printed the year before in England. Mary tried very hard to establish a garden to provide fresh vegetables and fruit for the family. As if this was not enough she also had to look after her daughters who were still at home and often sick. It did not help to cure Maryís feelings for what she had left behind and her desire to end her days in peace and comfort in England.

With the introduction of the South Australian Almanack in 1839 the firm of R. Thomas & Co was prospering and employing seven men. Thomas became a committee member of the newly formed Institute, whose president was Charles Sturt. On 28 December 1839 daughter Frances married and a few days later Mary and her two other daughters finally moved into a proper home.

Unfortunately Mary was still homesick and nothing would induce me, she wrote, to give up hope of returning to England and ending my days where they began. Even though she now had a beautiful house and home she would gladly exchange it for a cow pen in England. Prosperity came when Robert acquired the Adelaide Chronicle in 1840 for £800. The firm now had 22 employees including son William as overseer. They even opened a subscription reading room with books and newspapers from other colonies, England and India.

It did not last long. Before the end of 1840 the firm had lost all government contracts, including the right to print the Register, worth between £1500 and £1800 a year for not supporting Governor Gawler for the hanging of Aborigines without trial. To seek redress Robert left for London on 24 January 1841. No sooner had he left than it was learned that Gawler would be recalled and bills drawn by him would not be honoured in London. As a result economic conditions deteriorated rapidly. Mary was determined that all this should have as little impact on the family as possible.

With her husband away Mary was responsible for the upkeep of the house, garden, investments and other business dealings. While unemployment and bankruptcies increased, sales of newspapers and stationary declined and property changed hands at ruinous prices. By the end of 1841 Mary received news that her husband had arrived safely and also received her long overdue annuity payments. On 22 January 1842 the right to publish the South Australian Gazette was returned to the firm by Governor Grey.

When Robert returned home on 12 July 1842 he was notified that the Chronicle had closed, that he owed the Bank of Australasia £1543 and that the firm was insolvent. Hastily he transferred as much of his possessions and assets into Maryís name as possible to protect them from the creditors. Robert and Maryís dream of colonial prosperity and a comfortable retirement had been shattered.

Economic recovery of South Australia only began after the discovery of copper at Kapunda and Burra. By 1845 farmers were able to export wheat. In October Robert, who had been unemployed since his return from England, was appointed Inspector of weights and measures. Mary too did much better and had new cottages built for rental purpose. The good times had returned and lasted until gold was discovered in Victoria and New South Wales.

It caused an exodus from South Australia leaving some of Maryís cottages unoccupied and those which were did not bring in any money as the husbands had left for the diggings. Income or not, she still had to pay the rates. Daughter Helenís cottages, also managed by Mary, were faced with the same problem. In March 1853 Robert lost his job and being a few months short of 70, it was an enforced retirement. Problems and setbacks never seemed to leave the family, no matter how hard they tried.

They may have been old and down, they certainly were not out. Robert still had some income though as he was able to buy Burra shares but seemed unwilling to help Mary financially. Among all her financial and family worries Mary still looked after a number of grandchildren, managed the house and her investments and looked after Helenís cottages and shops. Altogether she cared for 13 people. However when their son William returned from the goldfields where he had been successful, he was able to buy into and regain part ownership of the Register and Observer.

Mary was an exceptional woman. During her time a womanís domain was that of home and children. In Maryís household all members were equal and the equality of the sexes was taken for granted. Mary showed courage, strength of mind and determination as well as better financial management skills than her husband who in his old age refused to contribute in any way and mostly stayed away from a house full of grandchildren. At 73 Mary was still looking after other peopleís children.

Maryís marriage of 42 years came to an end on 1 July 1860 when Robert died aged 79. A year later Helenís husband died aged 31, leaving a wife and two children but very few assets. All three moved in with Mary where they lived from then on. Real prosperity finally returned during the 1860s. In 1864 Mary mortgaged acre 56 in Hindley Street raising a loan to assist her son Robert George, an architect and civil engineer, with the design for the Stow Memorial Church. He was successful and the foundation stone was laid by Alexander Hay in February 1865.

On 30 August 1867 Mary celebrated her 80th birthday surrounded by her family which now included 25 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren. After all the hardship and disappointments Mary had achieved what she had hoped for, the secure future and financial success for her family in South Australia when it had seem impossible so long ago in England. She died on 10 February 1875, aged 87 leaving 56 descendants. A true Founding Mother.

Mary Thomas: Founding Mother is the story of her struggle to hold her family together through controversies and conflicts, economic difficulties and tragedy; a tale of endurance and ultimately of triumph against the odds.

Reprinted due to popular demand.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Mary Thomas by Beth Duncan
with chapter references, bibliography, photographs and index,
is available at $34.95 from
Wakefield Press


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