Women of the North

Celebrating the fascinating lives of women in the history of North Queensland

What happened to Caroline Landsborough’s children?

The Letters of Caroline Landsborough (Part Two): What happened to Carry’s children? Since the publication of Part One of this blog on the John Oxley library Blog I’ve had a few people ask me the question: what happened to Caroline Landsborough’s children? What was their fate, after the death of their mother? 

Let’s back-track to where we left things…

Caroline (Carry) Landsborough, wife of the explorer William Landsborough, died from Tuberculosis in Sydney in August 1869. Carry had left Sweers Island, in the Gulf of Carpentaria the previous year, and was cared for by her sister Mrs Elizabeth (Lizzie) Caird. We know that when she left the Gulf, Carry left her three children in the care of a woman named Mrs Campbell. We also know that by the time Mrs Campbell arrived in Sydney with the Landsborough children, Carry had died. 

William Landsborough pictured with two of his daughters, ca. 1870.
Photo: State Library of Queensland.
(Author’s note: this caption was supplied with the image)

So, what happened to the Landsborough children?

From a letter written by Mrs Campbell to William Landsborough on 3 November 1869, we know that William had decided his children should be sent to Brisbane. But after having been cared for by Mrs Campbell for more than a year, this was not going to be an easy separation. Mrs Campbell had grown very fond of the children, and told William: 

‘I shall feel very much at parting with them, and I am sure they will miss me too, though not more than I shall them. Maria[1] is to travel to Brisbane with them, so they will not feel so lonely poor little things. They often talk about “dear Papa” and wonder when they shall see him again.’

Mrs Campbell — Mary Ann Campbell — would have felt the impending departure of the children far more deeply than her words in this letter describe. Mary had suffered the loss of her own three children back home in the Gulf. Two of her children, Flora (4 yrs) and Donald (6 wks), died within a month of each other in 1866 from a fever, probably the same illness (known at that time as Gulf Fever) that prompted the evacuation of the residents of Burketown to Sweers Island that year. The following year Mary gave birth to another son, Henry, who was born in Burketown, but he only lived for two days. 

The remote North Queensland township of Burketown, 2021.
Photo: © Trisha Fielding.

It’s not known how Mary Campbell and Caroline Landsborough knew each other, but Mary Campbell was a witness at the birth of Caroline and William’s daughter Sweersena, on Sweers Island in February 1868.[2] It is possible that William Landsborough had made the acquaintance of the Campbells — Mary and Murdoch — when passing through their Gulf station, Sorgham Downs. When Carry left the Gulf, she entrusted Mary Campbell with the care of her three daughters, safe in the knowledge that her friend, who had only recently suffered the devastating loss of her own children, would look after her daughters as though they were her own. It’s a testament to the way women in those remote communities supported each other: through childbirth, illnesses, and tragedy. Their lives were inextricably linked by their reliance on each other for survival, in a landscape that was not only remote, but also harsh — in so many ways.

An inset from an 1868 map of Queensland, showing Burketown, Sweers Island, and the Campbells’ Sorgham Downs Station (located on an anabranch of the Cloncurry River)
Source: National Library of Australia.

Undoubtedly Mary Campbell’s heart was breaking at the thought of having to part with Carry’s children. But if Mary’s words to William where measured (despite her anguish), the same cannot be said for Carry’ sister, Lizzie Caird. Lizzie did not hold back when she wrote to William to tell him that she had not sent the children to Brisbane as he had wished.

‘…how can you have the heart to send these children to strangers? Do you not think it only right they should have some of their relations to look after them and only think how [?] you have gone to all your wife’s wishes… At present the children are at Mrs Stafford’s in the Bay. They are dear little things. Baby is very pretty and Mrs Campbell is indeed seen as mother to them. She is going to take Baby with her — I cannot help if you are [?] with what I have said or done for the children.’[3]

Lizzie made it clear that she thought the children should stay (probably with her) in Sydney, but then added that Mrs Campbell was ‘going to take Baby with her’. The baby referred to is Sweersena, though it’s not clear where Mrs Campbell was intending to go with the baby. 

It’s worth noting here that although William wanted his children to be moved to Brisbane, he had no intention of being there to look after them himself. As might be expected from a man in his position, his work and his responsibilities back in the Gulf country were his priority. Because of their tender ages, it would have been unusual at that time for a widower to have his children live with him without assistance from a woman (whether a companion or servant). He had arranged for his children to be cared for by his friends, Jessie and Robert Smellie. The Smellie’s only son Willie had died the previous year when just two years old. It’s impossible to know for sure, of course, but William may have chosen Jessie Smellie as a guardian for his daughters as a favour to his friend Robert; and there’s no doubt that Brisbane was at least a lot closer to Burketown and the Gulf country that William oversaw, than Sydney was.

Despite her impassioned protestations, Lizzie Caird must have soon agreed to send her sister’s children to Brisbane, because only a week later, on 13 November 1869, Lizzie Landsborough and Jeanie Landsborough departed Sydney for Brisbane aboard the steamer City of Brisbane. However, it does not appear as though Sweersena made the journey with them.

Evidence to support this theory lies in a letter that Jessie Smellie wrote to William Landsborough in March 1870. In this letter Mrs Smellie discusses both Lizzie and Jeanie, but not Sweersena. She indicates that the two little girls are ‘happy and contented’, but that they often talk of Sweers Island and ‘dear little Ena’. This was the shortened name by which their sister Sweersena was known. In a poignant line reminding William Landsborough that his daughters were pining for their family, Mrs Smellie wrote:

‘they say Ena and Papa must come and see them some day.’

Sadly, the Landsborough children were to suffer yet another blow, when Jessie Smellie died in April 1871. The following year William Landsborough was appointed as an inspector of cattle brands in the Moreton District, which probably meant that he and his daughters (Lizzie and Jeanie) were reunited. In March 1873 he married a widow named Maria Carr, and they went on to have three sons together. 

At some point little Ena must have been re-united with her family, however I have not yet been able to unravel how or when this happened, nor exactly where she was or who cared for her in those intervening years. 

Remarkably, all three of Caroline Landsborough’s daughters lived to adulthood, married and had children of their own; and all three remained in Queensland for the rest of their lives. I consider it remarkable that they each lived to adulthood because of the circumstances of their upbringing, and in spite of the era in which they lived. Their mother died from Tuberculosis. Their dear Aunt Lizzie Caird also died from Tuberculosis — in 1875. 

A deadly lung disease, Tuberculosis (also known as consumption or phthisis) was, and still is, spread from person to person via micro-droplets carried through the air upon coughing. Because it so often appeared in multiple members of a family, it was originally thought to be a hereditary disease. In 1882 it was discovered to be caused by a bacterial organism, however, it wasn’t until the 1940s that antibiotics were successfully used to treat Tuberculosis.

Perhaps when Caroline left her three little girls behind in the Gulf of Carpentaria, she effectively saved their lives? If she had taken them with her to Sydney, it is possible that they may have contracted Tuberculosis from her, with (most likely) fatal results. 

I hope to write more on the story of Caroline Landsborough and other women who lived in the Gulf in the 1860s, so please let me know if you’ve enjoyed reading this one.

Selected sources:

  • William Landsborough Papers, 1856-1908, held by State Library of Queensland.
  • Various Birth, Death and Marriage Certificates.
  • Various newspaper articles, including shipping departures and arrivals etc., via Trove
  • Trundle, Gwen, ‘Landsborough, William (1825–1886)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/landsborough-william-3984/text6299, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online.
  • Patrick, Ross A History of Health & Medicine in Queensland, 1824-1960, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1987.
  • Holmes, MJ ‘Tuberculosis in Australia’, Medical Journal of Australia, Vol. II, No. 19, 6 November 1937.
  • District of the Gulf of Carpentaria, Northern Queensland 1868 [cartographic material] : shewing position of Carnarvon, Norman & Burke towns, with mail routes, squatting stations … / Compiled by Thomas Ham, Chief Engraver, Government Engraving Office Brisbane, held by National Library of Australia. Available online at https://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/1517624

[1] According to shipping information, Maria was a servant.

[2] As an aside, Mary Ann Campbell was also a witness at the birth of my Great-Great-Grandmother on Sweers Island in 1868. [More to come on that in future blogs!]

[3] Note: this (and the other) letters are extremely difficult to decipher. The two words missing in this paragraph that are marked with a question mark, could not be translated with any certainty, so to avoid a possible incorrect interpretation, I have left these words out.

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