Macarthur, Elizabeth (1767–1850)

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Macarthur, Elizabeth (1767–1850)

English diarist and letter writer who pioneered the Australian wool industry . Name variations: Elizabeth Veale Macarthur. Born Elizabeth Veale in 1767 (some sources cite 1768 or 1769), in Devon, England; died in Australia in 1850; daughter of Richard Veale (a farmer) and Grace (Hatherley) Veale; married John Macarthur (a Scottish soldier), in 1788, in England; children: nine, one of whom died in infancy; grandmother of Elizabeth Macarthur-Onslow (1840–1911).

Following marriage (1788), accompanied husband to Botany Bay in New South Wales, Australia; husband amassed a fortune and established Elizabeth Farm at Camden Park (1793), founded initial colonial wool trade and was first to establish sheep farming inNew South Wales, participated in rebellion against colonial governor (1808) and was forced to leave Australia for eight years (1809–17), during which time she ran wool business in correspondence with husband, was responsible for increasing flocks and expanding sales to English market, establishing New South Wales as a noted wool-producing region, and founding Australian wool industry overall; retired as manager of Elizabeth Farm (1817) upon husband's return; following husband's death (1834), again managed wool operation with sons.

Elizabeth Macarthur, the woman who founded the wool industry in Australia, was born Elizabeth Veale in Devon, England, in 1767. The daughter of Richard Veale, a wealthy farmer, and Grace Hatherley Veale , she was raised by her grandfather after her father died and her mother married again. Letters she wrote during her adult life indicate that she received a good education. Biographers have speculated that this instruction may have been received in part from the Reverend John Kingdon, who was the father of a close friend. She married John Macarthur, a Scottish soldier, in 1788, the same year that Britain founded the penal colony of New South Wales in Australia. John Macarthur was promoted the next year from ensign to lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps, the purpose of which was to maintain order in the convict settlement of Sydney Cove. The young family, which now included an infant son, sailed for Australia on a convict ship, arriving in mid-1790.

Elizabeth Macarthur was the first educated, non-convict woman in the new colony, and as such, she would dominate Sydney Cove social circles for the next two decades. Upon their arrival, living conditions were primitive and bleak even for those who were not prisoners, but the situation gradually improved as other colonists arrived. The family's prospects improved when John was made paymaster of his regiment, and he soon began to breed sheep. Receiving land grants in 1793 and expanding herd stock, John Macarthur built Elizabeth Farm at Camden Park. According to Jennifer Uglow , Elizabeth Farm was "the first great Australian estate, complete with elegant mansion and gardens," and for some while the Macarthurs were the biggest private landowners in New South Wales. John Macarthur was also involved in the lucrative liquor trade. By 1808, Macarthur had given birth to nine children (one of whom did not survive infancy); her sons were sent to England to complete their educations, while her daughters remained at home.

John Macarthur was involved in the 1808 Rum Rebellion against Governor William Bligh who had arrived in the colony in 1806. Bligh, captain of the HMS Bounty who had been set adrift after the infamous mutiny, was attempting to curb the powers enjoyed by the officers of the New South Wales Corps. In 1809, as a result of his role in the uprising, John was forced to leave Australia and spent the next eight years in England. During this time, Elizabeth Macarthur ran the farm and the wool business with her daughters while in correspondence with her husband. Shrewd and hard working, she traveled throughout the Australian colonies, increased the flocks, and expanded wool sales to Britain, thus becoming a primary force behind the establishment of New South Wales as a viable center of wool production.

Her husband returned to Australia with several of their sons in 1817, at which time Macarthur retired from active management of the estate. The steady deterioration of John's mental health was a great source of sadness for Macarthur until his death in 1834. At that point, she again assumed management of the estate, with assistance from her sons. Elizabeth Macarthur died in Australia in 1850. Her diaries and letters, detailing passage on a convict ship and life in a penal colony, are considered valuable historical documents; collected as Journals and Letters 1789–1798, they were published in 1984.


Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Todd, Janet, ed. A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660–1800. Rowman and Allanheld, 1985.

Uglow, Jennifer, ed. and comp. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1989.

Ellen Dennis French , freelance writer in biography, Murrieta, California

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Macarthur, Elizabeth (1767–1850)

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