Molloy, Georgiana (1805–1842)

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Molloy, Georgiana (1805–1842)

Amateur botanist and pioneer of the remote southwest region of Western Australia, whose collections of native Australian flora were the finest to arrive in Britain during her day. Born Georgiana Kennedy on May 23, 1805, near Carlisle in Cumberland, England; died on April 8, 1842, at Busselton, Western Australia, of complications following the difficult birth of her seventh child; daughter of David Kennedy (a country gentleman) and Mrs. Kennedy (first name unknown), nee Graham (a country gentlewoman); married Captain John Molloy (thought to be the illegitimate son of the duke of York), in 1829; children: seven, all born in the Swan River Colony, including two who died in infancy.

Spent childhood in the Border country in genteel circumstances; upon marriage, emigrated to the Swan River Colony (present-day Western Australia) to settle first in the remote Southwest corner at Augusta, and nine years later in the slightly larger settlement of Busselton, 80 miles to the north; lived in isolated and relatively primitive conditions; lost her first-born child, a daughter, several days after the birth; lost her third-born child, a son, when he was 19 months; struggled out of grief by collecting native Australian flora, sending thousands of seeds and plant specimens to Captain Mangles, gentleman horticulturist, in London, over a five-year period.

Georgiana Molloy's story reflects the triumph of the imagination in overcoming the hardships of pioneer life. Transported beyond the farthest outskirts of her known civilized world into territory she had to learn to love, Molloy, an early European settler in the Swan River Colony, turned to botany. She became known for the quality of her collections, which were sent back to England and thus provided a record of indigenous plant and flower life in Western Australia.

She was born Georgiana Kennedy in the remote Border country near Carlisle in Cumberland, England, on May 23, 1805. One of five children, she lived in a comfortable country house with ivy-clad walls which stood on spacious grounds. Georgiana was taught the genteel arts of singing, dancing, playing the pianoforte and harp, sewing, drawing and painting. History, geography and literature were taught, and a great deal of Scripture was learned by heart. It was also considered fitting for young ladies of a certain class to undertake nature study, and biographer Alexandra Hasluck tells us that the young Georgiana showed a great flair for botany.

In 1830, she arrived in the Swan River Colony (now Western Australia) as the bride of Captain John Molloy, who had seen active service in the wars against Napoleon and was a veteran of Waterloo. At 48, he was twice her age. They took up land 200 miles south of Perth (even now the most isolated city in the world) at the mouth of the Blackwood River. John Molloy was made Government Resident in charge of the tiny remote settlement called Augusta. Although several other women of Georgiana's age were there, rigid adherence to divisions of class and status prevented her from befriending them. The day on which Georgiana Molloy gave birth to their first daughter was so wet that an umbrella had to be held over her as she lay on the rough bed in their tent. The baby died some days later. In a letter to a friend, Georgiana wrote: "Language refuses to utter what I experienced when my child died in my arms in this dreary land, with no one but Molloy near me."

The isolation of early colonists like Georgiana Molloy was profound. Letters from England sometimes took over a year to arrive. Georgiana's sister died in England in March 1833, but news of her death did not reach Augusta until September 1834. Vessels called only occasionally at the little port, not more than three or four times a year, to supply the settlers' wants. If crops failed occasionally, the results were rationing and hunger. Some of the settlers' stock strayed, and they had frequent losses in pigs, goats and sheep. One lighter incident for the Molloys occurred when their pony Jack, who had been missing for ten months in the bush, reappeared with a neighbor's mare and a fine colt between them.

Molloy hated what she called domestic drudgery: interminable butter and cheese making, cooking with desperately heavy pots, as well as washing, cleaning, sewing and all of the tasks she had to learn the hard way, by trial and error. Her efforts were widely admired. Charles Bussell, a local gentleman farmer, said of her: "I cannot speak of Mrs. Molloy in too high terms. She is perfectly lady-like, yet does not disdain the minutiae of domestic economy—an indispensable accomplishment in a settler's wife."

With her passionate love of flowers, Molloy found her garden to be one of her few delights. The seeds which she had brought with her from England and plants she had obtained on the voyage out at the Cape of Good Hope flourished in their new surroundings. To her sister, she wrote: "You could not send old Georgy a greater treat than some seeds, both floral and culinary, but they must be that year's growth. In return I will send you some Australian seeds. I should have sent them last time, but Molloy forgot where he put them."

The governor, Captain Stirling, and his wife were made welcome. Ellen Stirling was considered a charming person, and she and Georgiana would have found much of mutual interest. Within days of their visit, Molloy's second daughter was born. This time the child thrived and was to be a great joy to them.

Molloy's life in Swan River Colony included sitting on her veranda writing of the heavenly climate and observing the small, brilliantly colored birds; supervising planting and harvesting of wheat in her husband's absence; and standing with baby on hip and child at side, watching a windswept sea for a ship to arrive. She lost another child, a son of 19 months named Johnny who climbed from the cradle in which he had been placed just ten minutes before and was drowned in the garden well. This time the grief remained, and Molloy's spirit was broken.

She was roused from her grief some months later by a surprise request from a Captain Mangles, a London gentleman of leisure and cousin of Lady Stirling, who had an overwhelming interest in horticulture. Having apparently devoted himself to the growing and cataloguing of rare plants of the British Isles, Mangles widened his interests after making a voyage to the young Swan River Colony. He thereupon made contact with as many interested collectors in the colony as possible, whom he asked to send him seeds and plants of West Australian flora to be grown experimentally in the gardens of the British Horticultural Society at Kensington and Chiswick in England.

Lady Stirling put him in touch with Georgiana Molloy. It was Mangles' intention to send seeds and plants to Swan River in boxes properly made for the purpose, which could then be filled again with indigenous seeds and plants and sent back. Slowly at first, to take her mind off the family's tragic loss, Molloy wandered through the bush with her two little girls, gathering seeds to be sent to England. At night, she packaged and labeled them with meticulous care. She dried and pressed flower and leaf of each variety of seed collected, and she mounted and numbered them in a hortus siccus, a special book she had been sent for the purpose, with the number of the plant corresponding to the number on its seed packet. Molloy had so many specimens that in addition she had to use a hortus siccus of her own which she had brought from England. She added a long explanatory letter.

Her collections were received in England with great delight. Mangles fully appreciated her interest in the project, love of plants and flowers, and the extreme care she took in seeing that only the finest specimens be sent in the best manner. In contrast to Molloy, other collectors, though more highly qualified as botanists, were sometimes careless about labeling plants with their locality and date of collection.

Mangles' request caused Molloy to take a deeper interest in the plants about her. She came to know their situation, time of flowering, soil, and amount of moisture required. With patience, she waited for seeds to ripen at different times. Insect pests were a problem, and Molloy took no chances, stating: "I have minutely examined every seed and know they are sound and fresh as they have all been gathered in the past five weeks during December and January." One of her parcels of seeds in 1841 contained 100 different species. She added: "Of the beautiful specimens, I have sent duplicates as far as I was able."

The various correspondents to whom Mangles distributed the seeds in England ranged from the earl of Orkney in the north to the Keeper of the Exotic Nursery at Chelsea in the south. All acknowledged the outstanding nature of Molloy's collections, which included many unknown and unnamed species. An excited letter from Mr. Hailes of Newcastle stated that seeds from Swan River sent two years previously had flowered: it was a type of blue agapanthus, flowering for the first time in Britain. He wished to have it named after Molloy, but it was later found that this plant had already been identified elsewhere in the world.

After nine years, Molloy and her family reluctantly abandoned Augusta to move 80 miles north to a larger settlement at Busselton. Molloy's one compensation was the bush that she still had to explore, and many of the Vasse specimens were new to her and peculiar to the area. Collecting plants continued to be a source of pleasure for the whole family, her children delighting in the long walks in the bush and her "excellent husband" accompanying them whenever possible.

Molloy's health, however, began to decline after two more pregnancies and difficult births (she gave birth to a total of seven children including the two who died in infancy). Without adequate medical care, her strength ebbed away, and she died in 1842 at 37 years of age. Her body was buried within the nave of the church in Busselton, beside the two infants whose graves had been moved from Augusta. A small rose window at the western end of the church is a memorial to her which was given by her husband and family. A British horticulturist paid Molloy a glowing tribute: "Not one in ten thousand who go out to distant lands," he said, "has done what she did for the gardens of her native country."

Of the bond she formed with Captain Mangles, Molloy wrote on February 1, 1840:

Our Acquaintance is both singular and tantalizing, and somewhat melancholy to me, my dear Sir, to reflect on. We shall never meet in this life. We may mutually smooth and cheer the rugged path of the World's Existence, even in its brightest condition, by strewing flowers in our Way, but we never can converse with each other, and I am sincere when I say, I never met with any one who so perfectly called forth and could sympathize with me in my prevailing passion for Flowers.


Hasluck, Alexandra. Portrait with Background: A Life of Georgiana Molloy. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Lines, William. An All Consuming Passion: Origins, Modernity, and the Australian Life of Georgiana Molloy. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1994.


Western Australian Archives: Georgiana Molloy Papers, Battye Library.

Lekkie Hopkins , coordinator of Women's Studies, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia; Elizabeth Evans, mother of Lekkie Hopkins and a retired school teacher, Bowen, North Queensland, Australia