When St John’s church at Parramatta (New South Wales) was being remodelled circa 1817, Elizabeth Macquarie offered some advice to the project’s architect, Lieutenant John Watts. In 1895 Watt’s daughter, Mrs M.E. Bagot wrote, ‘….Mrs Macquarie produced a water-colour sketch of the Reculvers, a ruined church on the coast of Kent and giving this to Lieut. Watts she said, ‘Now, Mr Watts if you can design two spires like those on this church, we might make that old barn at Parramatta look something like a church.’
According to Mrs Bagot the unsigned watercolour of Reculvers remained in her father’s possession until being donated to Sydney’s Mitchell Library, where it remains to this day. There is a suggestion that Mrs Macquarie was the artist, but her connection with Reculvers has puzzled historians. A theory that it was the last building she sighted when leaving for New South Wales is easily dismissed; the Macquarie’s ship sailed west from Portsmouth and did not pass the north Kent coast.
There were numerous occasions when Elizabeth Macquarie’s emotional attachment to ‘home’ was expressed in the infant colony’s architecture. A notable example is the Orphans’ Asylum at Parramatta, modelled on Elizabeth ’s family home in Scotland. Nevertheless, art historian Joan Kerr (1938-2004) concluded that Reculvers,. ‘….was not personally important to her [Mrs Macquarie] as a nostalgic memento of England. However, I recently discovered that the Governor’s wife had a strong connection with Kent, and was likely to have visited Reculvers. Oddly enough, Lachlan Macquarie appears in the story long before he met his future wife.
In December 1787 Macquarie joined the 77th Regiment of the British Army, raised to serve in India. He spent the next few months enlisting recruits in Scotland and fare-welling family and friends, including Mrs John Campbell of Airds. Macquarie promised to visit Mrs Campbell’s youngest daughter Elizabeth (affectionately known as Betsy), who was at school in London’s Hammersmith. He was also asked to deliver a small terrier to Mrs Campbell’s kinswoman Lady Frederick Campbell, of Coombe Bank, near Seven Oaks in Kent.
The pet dog was a gift, in recognition of Lady Campbell’s kind attentions to young Betsy. Her niece Henrietta Meredith was Betsy’s fellow student and closest friend. Lady Campbell had no children of her own and no doubt enjoyed the company of the girls. For Henrietta and Betsy, visits to Coombe Bank would have provided a haven from the strict discipline of boarding school.
Lady Campbell had a tragic past. She was born Mary Meredith, sister to Henrietta’s father, Theophilus Meredith. On September 16 1752 the beautiful sixteen year old married Lord Lawrence Ferrers. Unfortunately the peer was mentally unbalanced. In 1758 his cruelty and drunken jealousy led to Mary being granted a legal separation. On January 18 1760 Ferrers murdered the steward responsible for collecting his wife’s allowance. He went to the gallows in his wedding suit, declaring that his misfortune was caused by his marriage. It was said that he cursed Mary, wishing her a more excruciating death than his own. Seven years later Mary married Lord Frederick Campbell.
In March 1788 Lieutenant Macquarie arrived by sea in the Thames Estuary. He dutifully arranged for the terrier to be delivered to Lady Campbell before travelling on to his regiment at Dover. Prior to embarking for India Macquarie spent time in London, but visiting a young schoolgirl was not a high priority for a young officer and Betsy Campbell waited for her cousin in vain.
Henrietta and Betsy received instruction in music, French and drawing. As they grew up it is easy to imagine them making sketching excursions from Coombe Bank to St Mary’s church at Reculvers, on the Kent coast. The 13th century building sat high on a cliff-top, and was associated with a romantic legend.
In the 15th century sisters Frances and Isabella St Clare were shipwrecked on the rocks below Reculvers. They were rescued, but Isabella died in Frances’s arms from exposure. In memory of her sister, Frances added two spires to the existing towers of St Marys. Perhaps Henrietta and Betsy saw the twin spires as symbolic of their own sisterly affection.
It was seventeen years before Lachlan Macquarie returned from India on leave and finally met Miss Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Campbell. He was impressed by her good sense and independence of spirit and before returning to India in April 1805 he proposed. Elizabeth accepted, agreeing to postpone their marriage until her fiancé’s tour of duty ended.
Two years later Macquarie began his long journey home. On July 24 1807, as Elizabeth was looking forward to her wedding, a fire broke out in Lady Campbell’s tower bedroom at Coombe Bank. She was trapped, and her body so badly burned that only a fragment of bone was recovered for burial. The fire was interpreted as the fulfilment of Lord Ferrer’s curse, reviving the old scandal and increasing the distress of family and friends. Significantly, Elizabeth’s marriage to Macquarie on November 3 was a very quiet affair .
In January 1808 the vicar at Reculvers sought permission to have St Marys torn down. It was crumbling into the sea and attracting hordes of sightseers. The parish clerk explained; ‘… the people came from all parts to see the ruines of village and the church. Mr C.C. Nailor being Vicar of the parish, his mother fancied that the church was kept for a poppet show, and she persuaded her son to take it down. While the Macquaries were enroute to New South Wales in 1809, St Mary’s was demolished. Only the twin towers survived.
Lachlan Macquarie arrived to find Sydney a squalid prison camp, and Elizabeth actively supported his ambitious building programme. Her particular interest in architecture surely owed much to her connection with Lord Frederick Campbell. Campbell was a close friend and patron of the famous architect Robert Adam, who had designed two wings of Coombe Bank. In 1792 Lord Campbell was a pallbearer at Adam’s funeral.
There seems little doubt that Mrs Macquarie spent time in Kent as a young woman and had the opportunity to sketch Reculvers Church. However, the watercolour in the Mitchell Library is not the sketch Lieutenant Watts was shown during the rebuilding of St Johns.
John Watts returned to Britain in April 1819, three years before the Macquaries themselves left New South Wales. In 1823 Watts married Elizabeth’s niece, Jane Campbell. It was also in 1823 that the fourth volume of William Daniell’s A Voyage Round Great Britain was published. The book contains a series of aquatints, and a plate titled The Reculvers matches the Mitchell Library watercolour in almost every detail.
The same five figures climb the steps to the ruins of St Mary’s church and the same six sail boats appear. Clearly the watercolour was copied directly from Daniell’s aquatint and could not have existed in 1817.
Intriguingly, there is one very obvious difference between the two pictures. Although the aquatint shows a steamer belching a plume of coal smoke, this vessel does not appear in the Mitchell Library watercolour.
Presumably a member of the Watts family painted the watercolour post 1823, omitting the steamboat in order to re-create the late 18th century view of Reculvers familiar to Mrs Macquarie. For the Watts family it was a memento of the church John Watts built in cooperation with Mrs Macquarie at Parramatta. It may also have been sympathetic response to a double tragedy in Elizabeth’s life. In January 1825, only months after the passing of Lachlan Macquarie, Henrietta Meredith died. She bequeathed Elizabeth the sum of two thousand pounds plus her London home.
An alternative explanation for the absence of the steamboat involves the circumstances of Macquarie’s last days. The old Governor travelled to London in April 1824 hoping to secure a government pension. Financial hardship forced him to occupy cramped quarters aboard a steamboat. The constant ‘cascading’ of a seasick cabin mate combined with the smell of oil, coal and the vibration of the ship’s engine made Macquarie nauseous, compromising his already fragile health. His condition deteriorated in London, where he died on July 1.
Joan Kerr doubted whether the Governor’s wife ever visited Reculvers, and therefore discounted sentiment as an influence in the design of St John’s. However, I believe the ‘sister spires’ were Elizabeth’s loving tribute to her friend Henrietta, in remembrance of their childhood and of the kindness they were shown at Coombe Bank by Lord and Lady Campbell.
Two important questions remain. Did Elizabeth Macquarie paint the original watercolour of Reculvers shown to Lieutenant John Watts circa 1817? And what became of that sketch? Ironically, the Mitchell Library may have missed an opportunity to acquire it. In 1914 Agnes Flockhart, whose father had once worked on the Macquaries’ Scottish estate , offered the Library, ‘four pictures by the General’s wife’. However, the Mitchell had just purchased a large archive of Macquarie material and declined her offer. The fate of those four artworks is unknown.
Thankfully the church remains at Parramatta; a wonderful echo of the past as the city undergoes a building boom.
NB. Oddly enough it was my research into Governor Macquarie’s extended family which led to my first book, The Water Doctor’s Daughters, a tragic but fascinating true story of a dysfunctional family.
I LOVE TO RECEIVE FEEDBACK FROM MY READERS. YOU CAN POST A COMMENT IN THE BOX BELOW. MAKE SURE YOU COMPLETE THE SIMPLE ANTI-SPAM SUM BEFORE PRESSING ‘SUBMIT’