Charlotte Barton (1797–1867) was the author of Australia's earliest known children's book. The book titled A Mother's Offering to her Children: By a Lady, Long Resident in New South Wales. Sydney: Gazette Office was published in 1841.
Anonymously published, the book was originally attributed to Lady J.J. Gordon Bremer, the wife of Sir James John Gordon Bremer. However, extensive research by Marcie Muir supports its attribution to Charlotte Barton.
In 1826, following the death of her father, Charlotte Waring came to New South Wales to take up a position as governess to the family of Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur. She became engaged to James Atkinson, a highly respected agriculturalist and author, during the voyage to Australia. They married in 1827. The couple settled at Atkinson's property Oldbury in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. They had four children, including the author and naturalist Caroline Louisa Waring Calvert (née Atkinson). The children appear, slightly disguised, as the four children of the book.
James Atkinson died in 1834, and Charlotte married Oldbury's overseer George Bruce Barton in March 1836. He became insane and Charlotte was forced to separate from him. Barton had a history of alcoholism and violence, and was eventually convicted of manslaughter in Bathurst in 1854.
Charlotte left Oldbury with her children bound for Budgong and later moved to Sydney. Her guardianship of her children was resoundingly confirmed as of 6 July 1841 in a decision by C.J. Dowling of the Supreme Court of New South Wales.
It being made manifest, therefore, that Mrs. Barton is herself competent to educate her children either by herself or by any competent assistance under her own eye, it would require a state of urgent circumstances to induce the Court to deprive them (all of whom are under thirteen years of age) of that maternal care and tenderness, which none but a mother can bestow.
A Mother's Offering is written in the genre of children's conversation textbooks, reflecting the importance of family conversation to education in the home in the nineteenth century. Charlotte drew on her own experiences in the colony, and probably on actual conversations with her children, in preparing the text. It is an excellent example of the influence women had on the community through the education of their children.
The book takes the form of dialogues between a mother and her children. The book covers a variety of topics, from geology and natural history to shipwrecks and the customs of the Australian Aborigines. Some parts are quite lurid, such as her description of the wreck of the Charles Eaton, a ship that went down in the Torres Strait in 1834. It was claimed that many children survived the shipwreck only to be eaten by cannibals. Life's dangers were a frequent theme of 19th-century Australian children's fiction.
The book was published by George William Evans (1780-1852), a surveyor who had arrived in Port Jackson in 1802. He led the expedition which crossed the Great Dividing Range in 1813. He returned to England in 1826 but came back to Australia in 1832 and set up as a bookseller and stationer.
After winning legal custody of her children, Charlotte returned to Oldbury, where she died in 1867.
In 2005, the book is very rare and copies sell for high prices.
On 12 June 2011 her "workbook" sold at auction for $70,000 to a private bidder. A 30 page book of illustrations with pen, ink & watercolour drawings that was created as a gift to her daughter Jane Emily on her thirteenth birthday in 1843.
From Aalders auction catalogue: Born in London in 1796, Atkinson was a remarkable figure, carrying her family's interest in art and science to act as governess for Hannibal Macarthur in 1826, meeting James Atkinson on ship (The Cumberland) to Sydney and marrying soon after, moving to his home at Oldbury, near Sutton Forest. Her husband died not long after giving birth of their fourth child, (Caroline)Louisa. She married their homestead's overseer, George Barton who proved to be a violent drunkard, and she fled with her four children in 1839, settling in Sydney in 1840 and continued to fight for the rights of her children to benefit from Atkinson's will, and to keep custody of her children. Her legal battles are chronicled by historian Patricia Clarke in her book "Pioneer Writer" (1990).
This is background to this precious bound work of 30 illustrated pages, each 18.5 x 20 cm, that certainly show evidence of her study in London with artist John Glover. It is a book that carries on from her public work, offering a naturalist's view of their earlier life at Oldbury, with exacting studies of insects, moths, butterflies and birds- all peculiarly Austral- things so small that only a child might quietly view. The spectacular possum, and the ineffable owl would all proffer memories and tales of a more peaceful time, yet the burden shown by her rendering of the old Aboriginal chief is tempered by her vision of the Aboriginal mother and child, with the woman carrying the flame and keeping it lit during dark times.
The apparent oddity of her signalling out very recent expeditions involving the Eskimos and Finland natives, follow from this experience of living in harmony with native inhabitants, and of her extended scientific family (Charles Darwin being the most prominent relative). While there are one or two English scenes directly bearing on her family background, the majority of images are of the minutae of a naturalist's life in colonial New South Wales. Indeed, she lived with her daughter Louisa at Kurrajong, and at Oldbury from 1860 until her death in 1867; enjoying the fruits of seeing Louisa's nature studies, journalism, and successful novels, and more than likely, participating in their production from the mid-1850s.
Most of the work of the talented Atkinson family is in the State Library of NSW, where many pages are dignified not by one hand, but "Atkinson family". Here though we can see a direct source for the known work, dated, personal, and full of the quiet and tender observation that conjured so much fully realised work that now makes up our understanding of a life in the new colony. A brilliant and dazzling jewel. Provenance: The Atkinson family.
- Meacham, Steve (2011-05-26). "Unearthed Australiana could fetch $90,000". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2011-05-26.
- Muir, Marcie (1980). Charlotte Barton: Australia's first children's author. Sydney: Wentworth Books.
- Clarke, Paticia (1997). "Family history and beyond". Private Lives Revealed: Letters, Diaries, History. National Library of Australia. Retrieved 2006-12-13.
- "Atkinson v. Barton". Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899. Division of Law Macquarie University. 2006 (1841). Retrieved 2006-12-13.
- Meacham, Steve (2005-04-13). "History's page became our youngsters' stage". Books (Sydney Morning Herald). Retrieved 2006-12-13.