Mary F E Greene (Lady Stawell) (1830-1921)

Rosemary Coleby, UK

 Lady Stawell
Lady Stawell

Mary Frances Elizabeth Greene, my Great Grandmother, was born on 9 June 1830 at Collon, Co. Louth in 1821. Her father was the second surviving son of William Greene and his wife, Mary Yorke. Her mother’s father was Richard Griffith of Millicent, Co. Wicklow. Her cousin, Sir Richard Griffith, was the well-known Geologist, and author of “Griffith’s Valuation”.

Much is known about her husband, Sir William Stawell, born in co. Cork, and classified as an Australian colonial statesman, who became Chief Justice of Australia, but the only records I have of her life comes from a book she compiled of personal narratives published privately, entitled “My Recollections”. I have inherited the above portrait of Mary by Lowes Cato Dickinson, done in 1898 and see it daily in our house.

The Greene family sailed for Australia from Gravesend in the summer of 1842 in the hopes of finding a better climate for Mary’s father, who had been ailing and had been advised to move to Australia or Greece. Among the passengers on board was a distant cousin, William Stawell “a young barrister who had, from the first moment had a wonderful influence over Mary”. He became their dearest friend and, in later years her beloved husband.

They arrived in Port Phillip Bay in December 1842. The Greene family horses were taken in a horse-box on a launch, but William Stawell swam his bulls ashore! Mary’s parents were so well and joyous that nothing seemed to trouble them. The family were enchanted with the new country, “the scent of mimosa or was most delightful; the weather was perfect, the eucalyptus trees were grand, and the foliage was very beautiful”. The family had to choose a location for their bungalow; as a naval officer, Mary’s grandfather was entitled to a grand of 640 acres, and they chose a beautiful spot fourteen miles from Melbourne, which they named Woodlands. Mary did mention that there were many Bushrangers in the area about at the time! William Stawell became Attorney General. In November 1855 he became engaged to Mary. She mentions that his only recreation at the time seemed to be a visit to Woodlands, when he frequently read aloud to the Greene family or often played a game of chess with Mary.

Mary was a tremendous support to her husband who was 15 years her senior. Apparently she discovered during a somewhat disrupted honeymoon that to be Mrs Stawell affairs of the heart had to yield to affairs of state when a policeman arrived with despatches from the Chief Secretary summoning him back to Melbourne and “Incessant work” So the Attorney General had to return. She bore him 10 children, including a daughter Melian, the name I have been researching during the past several years.

Mary must have borne quite a burden bringing up the twelve children while William was continually involved in the political problems of a young country. These included the Eureka Stockade which resulted from the Australian gold rush. This was a key development of Australian democracy caused by the goldfield workers opposing the expense of licences in the Ballarat gold fields in 1854. He was also the active Governor of Australia for a period.

In 1881 William was ordered to take the rest he so sorely needed and that he required a complete change. He was never so well as at sea, so after 20 years of strenuous work, they let their house and sailed to England in 1873. When back in London in June the family crossed over to Ireland at which time the Board of Trinity College, Dublin conferred on William the degrees of Master of Arts and Doctor of Laws. William wanted to have his sons educated in England, and they sent their elder two sons to Haileybury where some cousins were also being educated.

William returned to Australia in June 1886 leaving Mary to supervise the boys’ education. They were not reunited until two and a half years later. However, he wrote extensive and detailed private correspondence to Mary throughout the period, sometimes revealing some of his political thoughts. During this time Mary was presented at court to Queen Victoria.

On her return to Australia she found her husband well, but showing symptoms of overwork.

William was however not strong enough to go back to work, and resigned. William and Mary then took another sea trip in 1889 having sold their house, D’Estaville, the name being an early version of the name Stawell going back to the Norman Invasion of England. The voyage went well until they got to Naples where he died. Mary then settled in London. She revisited Australia in 1893, and returned to England where she died in 1921.

My impression is that Mary bore quite an extensive burden with bringing up the children and provided a homely atmosphere in the family life, which made it easier for Sir William to play such an active role in 19th century Australia. Her cousin, Rolf Bolderwood, in “Robbery under Arms” gives a graphic account of events which took place in those days. And Marcus Clarke in his book “His Natural Life” that gives a very unfair, though dramatic account of the convict system. Life in Australia in those days can’t have been easy.


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