P is for Mary Ann Parker

They look pretty, don’t they? That’s what I thought when I made my bid for these reprints of famous Australian travel books. Alas, I still own most of the books I bought.

The 1991 reprint of Mary Ann Parker’s A Voyage Round the World was a collaboration between Hordern House Rare Books and the Australian National Martime Museum. It was printed on “Ivory Kilmory Text” (also known as paper) and “hand bound in half maroon Scottish calf with marbled papered sides” (it is the paper that is marbled, not the sides, but never mind) in an edition limited to 750 copies. Taking advantage of the fact that the original was dedicated to Caroline Princess of Wales, the publishers dedicated the reprint by permission to Diana Princess of Wales. All this purports to be loss leading but probably wasn’t. More valuable is an introductory commentary by Gavin Fry. Here is their facsimile of the original titlepage.

The first and most obvious thing to note is the absence of Mary Ann’s name from her own titlepage. She writes as Captain John Parker’s widow “for the advantage of a numerous family”. The numerous family consisted of one son, two daughters and her mother. Her preface begins, “It having been most unjustly and injuriously reported, that the Authoress is worth a considerable sum of money; she thinks it her duty to avow, that nothing but the greatest distress could ever have induced her to solicit beneficence in the manner she has done, for the advantage of her family.” The injurious reports were tittle tattle about the amount of prize money due to John Parker for captures in the West Indies before his death. The amount, Mary Ann assures us, amounted to less in total than the debts her husband had left behind him. The beneficence was from the list of two hundred and fifty eight subscribers prepared to buy her book to provide her with a capital sum. These included several of her neighbours in Sloane Street where she lived before her husband’s death, forty members of the Naval Pay Office who probably knew her circumstances better than most, and – rather oddly – most of the officers of the Royal Lancashire Militia, this last group providing a rare clue about Mary Ann’s origins. Two notable names on the list are Sir Joseph and Lady Banks, tribute to the care Mary Ann lavished on the sixty tubs of plants loaded aboard by the naturalist David Burton on the return voyage.

Further down the list of Bs come Mr and Mrs Budworth, neighbours of the Parkers in Sloane Street. Joseph Budworth had served at Gibraltar and may have first met John Parker during the siege of 1779-1783. He wrote an epic poem on The Siege of Gibraltar and describes himself on the titlepage as late Lieutenant in the 72nd or Royal Manchester Volunteers. More to the point, he was a frequent contributor to Gentleman’s Magazine, sometimes signing articles with his own name, more often using the pen name Rambler. It was almost certainly Budworth who found Mary Ann her publisher, John Nichols, and who then arranged for Nichols to write a laudatory review in the November 1795 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine.

The profits of her book and her widow’s pension of £37 17s 6d per annum weren’t sufficient to save Mary Ann from a slide into poverty. From Sloane Street she moved to 6 Little Chelsea and from there to 2 Holler Place. One has to imagine the trail of unpaid bills. She made four appeals for funds to the Literary Fund, the first as early as 1796, and was granted five guineas on each occasion.

The Literary Fund was founded in 1788 by the Welsh philosopher, David Williams, who was moved to act by the death in 1787 in a debtor’s prison of his friend, Floyer Sydenham. Initially a club of eight members was formed, each subscribing a guinea. They issued an advertisement on 10th May 1788 appealing for more members. On the second anniversary of the 1788 appeal “the friends of the Literary Fund” met for the first time at The Prince of Wales Coffee House in Conduit Street. From 1792 onwards an annual dinner became an important means for raising further funds. In 1796, when Mary got her first five guineas, Coleridge got ten. Already by 1800, when “314 male guests managed to drink 294 bottles of port, 69 bottles of sherry and unlimited quantities of strong beer, porter and punch,” the Fund had moved some distance from its dissenting origins. The transition to respectability was completed in 1806 when the Prince Regent set the Fund on a firm foundation by providing it with a house in Gerrard Street to serve as offices and two hundred guineas a year for maintenance. Late in life David Williams himself fell on hard times. He did rather better from the Fund than Mary Ann, being awarded a half yearly pension of fifty guineas. Most of what I’ve written above is lifted from an unpublished PhD thesis by Nigel Cross. You can read the whole thing at https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1317590/1/254288.pdf The Fund got its royal charter in 1818, Prince Albert becamer patron in 1842, and in 1845 it was renamed The Royal Literary Fund. It still exists and is enormously well heeled thanks largely to a bequest from A A Milne that enabled it in 2001 to sell the rights to Winnie the Pooh to Disney for $350,000,000.

Mary Ann Parker was one of eighty applicants to the Literary Fund in the first decade of its existence. (There were two hundred and forty in the next decade.) Her file number is 39. Her final letter of thanks in 1804 is dated from the debtors’ wing of Fleet Prison. Thereafter she sinks from sight. But one of her daughters married well – her son died young – and, as so often with women, Mary Ann emerges from obscurity only in 1848 when her death causes her to be remembered by her husband’s rank and station.

Even allowing for Mary Ann’s gender, it’s a small obit. John Parker, too, was forgotten. Not that he’d been that remarkable even in his own day and age. He was born in Sunderland in 1749, entered the Royal Navy in 1770 as a seaman, was promoted midshipman next year and lieutenant in 1783. He was made commander in 1790. This was a steady but unspectacular career. He didn’t blot his copybook while in command of HMS Gorgon, surviving a direct hit by lightning, the hazards of the already notorious approaches to Norfolk Island and the icebergs of the southern route home, but he wasn’t rewarded with the command of a bigger and better ship. Instead he was given command of Gorgon’s sister ship HMS Woolwich and joined Admiral Jervis’ fleet in the West Indies. He died of yellow fever off Martinique in 1794.

HMS Gorgon was a forty four gun fifth rate ship of the line of the Adventure Class. Normally she carried batteries on two decks, so technically speaking she wasn’t a frigate; however, in order to make space for stores, her lower gun deck was cleared of guns for the voyage to Australia. She was ordered to sail when the Admiralty heard of the wreck of the store ship Guardian; she went independently, but she is usually counted as part of the Third Fleet. She carried thirty one convicts, of whom thirty reached Australia; these were “farmers”, meaning people who knew something about agriculture, and had to be transported as quickly as possible in order to cultivate the agricultural land at Parramatta that Governor Phillip wanted to develop so that the colony might avoid starvation. HMS Gorgon’s stores were also anxiously awaited in New South Wales since the Second Fleet had brought with it more sick convicts than supplies.

The picture here is a chapter head from Captain Watkin Tench’s Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay. He travelled with the First Fleet and on The Charlotte which was one of the transports. So the picture is almolst completely irrelevant. But it’s pretty and I can’t find a picture of any of the ships of the Adventure Class. In my defence I’ll mention that Tench did travel back home aboard the Gorgon.

Nobody knows why Mary Ann Parker chose to leave her son and daughter in the care of her mother and travel with her husband on a dangerous voyage to the other side of the earth. Her “reasons for making the voyage” turn out to be the Admiralty’s. She was the first woman to go to Australia voluntarily. There were plenty of female convicts of course. And there were a few married women like Mary Ann’s friend Anna King who was newly married and on her way to Norfolk Island with her husband Philip Gidley King (whose Journal stops at 1790). But Mary Ann was unique in having no good reason for travelling. It is not altogether fanciful to suggest she was Australia’s first tourist.

Certainly Mary Ann’s interests – those of them she chose to write about – were touristic. You won’t find any mention in her pages of the thirty one convicts aboard The Gorgon. Even the eighty five men of the Royal Marines get only a bare mention on page 5. So far as Mary Ann is concerned the passengers were Captain Gidley King RN and his wife and family, Major Grose commanding the marines of the newly formed New South Wales Corps, Mr Baines its chaplain, Mr Burton a botanist, and Mr Grimes the newly appointed Surveyor General of New South Wales, together with their (unnamed) attendants. The ship was crowded; when Mary Ann wasn’t taking the air with her new friend Mrs King, she seems to have spent much of her time in her cabin. South of the Equator, they encountered rough weather, and as Mary Ann remarks, “The greatest inconvenience I suffered from these squalls was the necessity we were under of having in the dead lights, which are strong shutters wedged in to prevent a following sea from breaking into the ship. The noise made by the working of the vessel, and the swinging of the glass shades that held our lights, rendered the cabin very dismal.” By and large though the voyage was “somewhat tedious”.

What was far from tedious for Mary Ann were the ship’s stops along the way. First they put in at Teneriffe where the Governor was pleased to discover that Mary Ann spoke Spanish. She tells us in passing that she had formerly travelled in Spain. Later, when the ship was at Fort St Jago in Elmina, she reveals that she had been in Portugal, too, when she was young. She must have realised that her readers’ attention would be caught by these revelations, but she tells us no more. Is this womanly modesty or is it a brief unfurling of her claws? Captain Parker’s second in command, Lieutenant John Gardner, who liked her, kept a diary in which he detects “a little flash of satire in her composition. Tho’ not joined to the least ill nature….” The rest of the visits to these outposts of old Empires is all picnics and formal dinners and Mr Burton bravely climbing the peak.

Mary Ann has twenty five pages on the ship’s stop in South Africa. Since her husband was busy supervising the loading of supplies salvaged from HMS Guardian, not to mention numerous sheep, cattle, pigs, pigeons and rabbits, she travelled to Cape Town with the Kings in a carriage sent by Colonel Gordon who commanded the Dutch garrison. She also name drops Jacob van de Graaff, calling him Governor which he wasn’t any longer. Then she remarks that “neither hat nor bonnet is fashionable” in Cape Town. And then – taking this reader at least completely by surprise – she gives an excellent description of the town.

It is the same with the thirty pages giving her impressions of Australia. She waffles about dining with Governor Phillip and then gives the first civilian description of Paramatta like a conjuror producing a rabbit from a hat. She also writes about her developing interest in flora and fauna…

…which provides me with an excuse for using the picture above. It is plate 21 from the reprint of John White’s Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, an account of the voyage of the First Fleet by the Surgeon General of New South Wales. The Royal Society credits Frederick Polydor Nodder as the artist. The plant itself was named by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander during Cook’s First Voyage. John White loathed Australia calling it “a country and place so forbidding and so hateful as only to merit execration and curses.” He returned to England in 1794 but not aboard HMS Gorgon.

Mary Ann’s account of the return voyage of HMS Gordon via New Zealand and Cape Horn takes up less than fifty pages. She starts copying the ship’s log so that many of her pages are dated and consist of little more than a series of weather reports. Without Mrs King for company, she has much less opportunity for socialising. Above all, she wants to maintain an appearance of respectability both on the voyage itself and in her writing about it afterwards. Amongst topics she avoids mentioning are those that interest the modern reader most, the convict escaper Mary Bryant (who gets a single sentence on page 133) and the surviving Bounty mutineers who joined the ship in South Africa.

In 1998 Deirdre Coleman published an annotated edition of Mary Ann Parker’s Voyage Round the World (1795) and Anna Maria Falconbridge’s Two Voyages to Sierra Leone (1794). Apart from both being written by women in the 1790s and both being about places newly colonised by the British, the two accounts have little in common. Mary Ann, I think, would have been horrified to be linked with the feisty Ms Falconbridge who starts as a committed abolitionist and ends as a no less strident defender of slavery and the colonists. Still a search on www.addall.com brings up 57 copies of Dr Coleman’s book, the cheapest at $2.01, so it won’t cost you a fortune to buy one. Neither incidentally was a maiden when voyaging. Anna Maria was already married to the abolitionist and married again within a month of his death. Mary Ann in a final twist reveals how she gave birth shortly after landing in England.

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