Looking for Lady O'Connell

Looking for Lady O'Connell
The woman behind the portrait
27 February 2017

As Alan Bennett wrote in his play, The History Boys:

“History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”[1]

As we mark another International Women’s Day on 8 March 2017, and in the midst of #nastywomen hashtags and pink pussy hats, I decided to explore the Treasures Gallery to see who I might discover ‘following behind with the bucket’.

I very nearly dismissed her. Hanging on the wall in a gilt frame, wearing a black silk dress, her eyes demurely downcast, Lady O’Connell seemed to me to represent ‘the colonial woman’. No doubt she was the wife of an important man – and she was. Her second husband, Sir Maurice Charles O’Connell was in charge of the New South Wales forces, from 1838 until 1847.

Portrait of Lady O'Connell

William Nicholas (1807-1854), Portrait of Lady O'Connell, ca. 1847, nla.obj-136435313

‘Little is known about Lady O’Connell’ says the caption that accompanies William Nicholas’ portrait, which was believed to be completed in the 1840s. ‘Historical accounts suggest she was a strong-willed woman of feisty character, like her father.’

Lady O’Connell was one of Governor William Bligh’s daughters. Believed to be born in or around 1783[2], Mary accompanied her father to the colony of New South Wales to stand in for her mother. The Ivanka Trump of her day, she dazzled in the latest fashions, formed a friendship with Elizabeth Macarthur, and hosted parties and dinners at First Government House. Clearly aware of her father’s political troubles, she wrote to her mother, "We entertain everyone of importance, but I am sure many of them are secretly against my father."

Mary was right. Three weeks after her first husband, John Putland, died of tuberculosis in January 1808, the NSW Corps stormed Government House. And where was Mary? Reportedly she was standing at the gates screaming at the soldiers. Her defiance had little effect. She and her father were held under house arrest for nearly a year.

During this time, she was courted by Colonel Maurice O’Connell, marrying him a few days before she was to sail back to England with her father. By the time of her marriage to O’Connell in 1810, she owned 3000 acres (granted to her by Governors Macquarie and King), 7000 head of stock and had an annual income of £400 a year.[3]

While her father returned to England, Mary seems to have maintained her position at the height of Sydney society and her opposition to those who had opposed her father’s governorship. Her husband took her part and, with relations with the Government becoming increasingly difficult, O’Connell and his 73rd Regiment were transferred to Ceylon in1814.

Mary returned to Sydney with her husband in 1838 and it seems she hadn’t yet forgiven the colony’s government for her father’s treatment.

In August 1839 Governor Sir George Gipps reported to the Colonial Office that O'Connell was claiming on behalf of Bligh's heiresses 105 acres (42 ha) at Parramatta worth about £40,000 and including the sites of the Female Factory, the gaol, The King's School, the Roman Catholic school and chapel and many houses. His attorney had served notices of ejection on all occupiers of this land. Gipps directed attention to 'the extreme delicacy of the position in which this business has placed me' since O'Connell was the senior member of the Executive Council and, if the governor were to die, would succeed to the government. At length in February 1841 a settlement was reached whereby the heiresses surrendered their claim to the Parramatta land but their titles to other grants were confirmed. One of these, Camperdown, on the site of the present suburb of that name, was soon sold for more than £25,000.[4]

Perhaps Mary’s work was done. Perhaps through the settlement, she believed she had made the colony pay for the damage they had done to her family. She and her husband remained in Sydney until 1848. Sir Maurice died a few days before they were due to leave for London, and this time it was Mary who sailed out of Sydney alone. She spent the remainder of her life in London and Paris, dying in 1864.

What we know about Mary is filtered through the prisms of the documented lives of her father and husband. Even so, we glimpse an astute businesswoman who was brave, fashionable, capable of making friends and enemies, devoted, clever, politically astute, and persuasive. Perhaps she would have claimed the #nastywoman hashtag with pride.[5]


[1] Thank you to The History Bucket website for drawing my attention to this quote and for propelling my research into the life of Lady O’Connell.

[2] Putland, Mary (c.1783-1864), Design and Art Australia Online, https://www.daao.org.au/bio/mary-putland/, accessed online 26 February 2017.

[3] 'O'Connell, Sir Maurice Charles (1768–1848)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oconnell-sir-maurice-charles-2517/text3405, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 February 2017.

[4] O'Connell, Sir Maurice Charles (1768–1848)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oconnell-sir-maurice-charles-2517/text3405, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 February 2017.

[5] As well as the sources referenced above, I have drawn on Martin Terry’s article, ‘A Soldier’s Wife’, published in the National Library of Australia News, Vol 18, No 4, January 2008.

Comment: 
My husband is a descendant of Sir Maurice & Mary. From stories I have read she seemed to be quite feisty