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Jane Barker's letters from Canberra.

In October 1855, Jane Barker wrote from the Church of England parsonage on the Limestone Plains to her sister in England. She was a good horsewoman, and she described the 30 mile ride that she enjoyed that day. 'It was a pretty sight, the nine riders abreast, cantering briskly over miles of unenclosed plains, and very exhilarating.'

Those 'unenclosed plains' now include the southern suburbs of Canberra. From Mrs. Barker's letters, now in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, we gain a vivid picture of life in the little community 150 years ago.

Jane was the wife of Frederic Barker, the newly appointed Bishop of Sydney. She and her husband arrived in the Colony on May 25, 1855. The newspapers of the day were were filled with news of the Crimean War across the seas, and of the restless search for gold in the Colonies.

On the voyage from Britain in the Mermaid, Jane began to write regularly to her sister Jessie and a few close friends. Her sister preserved these letters in the form of a diary. Jane continued this practice all her life but only her letters for the years 1855 and 1856 survive.

The letters are important for several reasons. They give us a vivid picture of life on the Colony of New South Wales at a time critical in its history--the coming of self government in the aftermath of the gold rush. More important, they do so through the eyes of a well educated and observant woman, the wife of a bishop. In the history of the churches the place of women is too often overlooked, while the clergy steal the limelight.

Jane and her husband had been in the Colony only a few months when they began a long tour of visitation to the west and south of the vast diocese of Sydney, which included most of New South Wales, except the northern regions, at that time. The Barkers were enthusiastic travellers, using a two wheeled vehicle with a covering called a 'Lansdowne' and they were accompanied by a faithful servant 'Morgan'. The Bishop was an imposing figure, over six feet five inches tall.

After travelling through the Bathurst and Mudgee districts, the Barkers turned south and by early October 1855 they were at Yass staying with the Rector Charles Ferdinand Brigstocke. He achieved some notoriety a few years before when he was suspended from his parish by Bishop Broughton on charges of having defamed the local Police Magistrate in an anonymous letter to a newspaper. Eventually he was cleared and reinstated.

At Yass, Jane recorded how thrilled she was to receive mail from England just before the party set out for the Limestone Plains. Every letter prompted her to record how lonely and isolated she felt, so far from her sister and her friends.

A few days later a letter headed 'Canberry, October 11, 1855, she wrote in a nostalgic mood: we are now staying with our fellow passengers, Mr and Mrs Smith and it is more like a bit of home than anything we have had because of their connections with Langshawe and intimacy with our Cousins.'

The Reverend Pierce Galliard Smith, who was the Rector of St John the Baptist for half a century, was a Scotsman educated at the University of Durham. When Frederic Barker was offered the Bishopric of Sydney, his friend Smith expressed interest in coming to the Colony also. The Barkers and the Smiths had travelled on the same ship, and the Smiths had immediately made their way to 'Canberry'.

Jane described the parsonage to her sister. 'They have got their cottage beautifully neat, quite a pattern to the surrounding settlers of how things should be done ...' She recorded that Mr Smith was already well liked in the little community. Like the Barkers he was of the evangelical tradition of the Church of England, in contrast to the High Church and Tractian priests in Sydney. The Barkers deplored such tendencies.

The parsonage was in fact John Joshua Moore's cottage at Acton, the old part of what was known as Acton House. It stood where the Royal Canberra Hospital used to stand (now the site of the National Museum of Australia). The Rectors of Canberra lived there until 1873 when the Glebe House was built.

Jane Barker continued adding to her letters to her sister every few days and posted them off as opportunity presented itself. On Friday evening October 12, she was sitting up in bed at the parsonage to tell her sister of the adventures of the day. She had ridden 30 miles on Mrs Smith's mare, also called 'Jessie'. Like the Bishop, she was a good rider and clearly had enjoyed the experience,

'Wishing to see one of Australia's great rivers the Murrumbidgee, we determined to make a descent upon on one of Mr. Smith's flock, a Mr Cunningham who lived close to it but seventeen miles off. Other neighbours joined us and we formed a Cavalcade of five ladies, four gentlemen and Morgan.'

On the journey to Lanyon, Jane described the scenery as alternate bush and plain and commented that the country appeared more habitable than many that they had visited. In intense October heat she found her straw hat a comfort. She was clearly delighted to be galloping over an open plain, or rather a series of plains many miles in extent, without a hill or tree or fence. She commented on the fine range of mountains extending along the Murrumbidgee, called 'Tidnambilly' and another, still higher, called Mount Tennant from the bushranger of that name who, she was told, used to live on top of it.

When the party reached Lanyon, they found a tent pitched for a picnic but for some reason they decided to eat their lunch indoors. Was it the flies?

That evening Jane was very proud that she had stood up to the ride without fatigue and she hoped for a horse of her own because, as she wrote: 'it stirs one up and shakes off sad thoughts to canter over the ground.'

Monday October 15 was her wedding anniversary and she wrote sadly that 'it seemed impossible for happiness to be our lot in this land of banishment ...' Such feelings recur many times in her letters.


However she cheered up as she described the Bishop's services the previous day, at Canberry in the morning, and at Queanbeyan in the afternoon. He had held confirmations at both places a few days before. 'There were between thirty and forty horses tied to the fence of Canberry Church Yard--a singular sight'.

She did not find the Australian climate any healthier than that of England. She recorded that rheumatism, bronchitis and cold were just as common as at home. She described the alarm that everyone felt one evening when little Emily Smith suffered an attack of croup.

On another evening the Smiths held a dinner party and Jane was impressed at the cooking skills of Mrs Smith, who produced an incredible number of tarts, pies, puddings and cakes, 'all her own handiwork.'

Eventually the time came to say farewell to the Smiths and Jane and Frederic set off for Gundaroo and Lake George. The distant prospect of Lake George reminded her of the English Lake district, where she had lived but, alas, on closer inspection all trace of water seemed to vanish.

But she felt very much at home when the party reached 'Mr Murray's pretty place, the native name of which is WINDERRADEEN'. Here she rejoiced in the flowers and trees and neatness of house and gardens and the nearby lake, while the Bishop retired to bed with a violent headache.

The Barkers stayed a few days at Collector and met the Reverend Robert Cartwright, then aged 86 years, who had served in the colony for nearly half a century. The Bishop confirmed 10 candidates one of whom had been a noted bushranger, in the tiny bush church.

Jane's account of the Barker's visit to Terence Aubrey Murray at Winderradeen is of interest because it indicates that Murray was in the vicinity of Goulburn at the time of the execution of May Ann Brownlow for the murder of her husband. Gwendoline Wilson in her fascinating biography, Murray of Yarralumla, speculates that Murray may have been present at the execution. He was one of the most notable early land owners of the Canberra district, as well as being a prominent member of the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council of New South Wales.

Clearly Jane enjoyed her visit, and she describes the last evening at Widerradeen.

'In the evening F. and I took a stroll by ourselves by the banks of the little calm lake on which was a tempting row boat. The tender green willows dipping their long green tendrils in the water and looked very home-like.' The next day they continued their journey.

In 1870 Jane and Bishop Barker again visited Canberry and there is a photograph of both of them with the Campbell family at Duntroon enjoying a game croquet.

Jane Barker died in 1876. She had founded a school for the daughters of clergy in response to a need observed in her travels. She continued to write letters to her sister. It is hoped that the surviving fragment of letters from 1855 to 1856 may one day be published in full.

Editor's note: Canberry on the Limestone Plains was the original name for Canberra. The new city was officially given the name Canberra almost one hundred years ago. The old stone Church of St. John the Baptist is now one of the treasured building in the capital of Australia.

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Author:Willson, Robert
Publication:M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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