Charlotte Barton

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Charlotte Atkinson[1] (1796–1867) was the author of Australia's earliest known children's book.[2] 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.[3]

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[4] supports its attribution to Charlotte Barton.[5][6]

Early life[edit]

Charlotte Waring was born in 1796 and christened on 13 March 1796[7] at St Mary's, Marylebone, London.[7] Her parents were Albert Waring and his wife Elizabeth Turner.[7]

Arrival, and life, in Australia[edit]

In 1826 Charlotte Waring came to New South Wales to take up a position as governess to the family of Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur. She became engaged during the voyage to James Atkinson, a highly respected agriculturalist and author of the first substantial book on Australian farming.[6] 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. Charlotte's father, Thomas Albert Waring, died in 1829. She is mentioned in his will as the wife of James Atkinson in NSW.

James Atkinson died in 1834, and Charlotte married Oldbury's overseer George Bruce Barton in March 1836.[2] 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.[8]

Charlotte left Oldbury with her children bound for Budgong[2] 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.[9]

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.[10][11][12]

After winning legal custody of her children, Charlotte returned to Oldbury, where she died in 1867.[2]

A Mother's Offering[edit]

A Mother's Offering,[12] which predates subsequent Australian literature for the young by a decade,[6] is written in the genre of children's conversation textbooks, a dialogue between mother and children,[13] reflecting the importance of family conversation to education in the home in the nineteenth century, and follows the pattern of literature by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in its expository question-and-answer format concluding in pious moralising.[14] It is not a dull tract however; Charlotte drew on her own experiences in the colony, and probably on actual conversations with her children, in preparing a stimulating, often exciting text that presents children with local adventures and Australian heroes for the first time.[15][14] It is an excellent example of the influence women had on the community through the education of their children, though the children's questions and reactions are gendered; Clara being interested in botany and Julius in hunting.[16]

The book covers a variety of topics, from natural history, often as an example for human morality,[17] to geology, 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. She describes Aboriginal 'monsters' and their 'wanton barbarities' in her A Mother's Offering account of shipwrecked Eliza Fraser's treatment,[18] which she explains is a result of Islanders and aborigines being more prone to 'unrestrained passions' than the British.[17] Life's dangers were a frequent theme of 19th-century Australian children's fiction. And yet there is scientific understanding evident in her accounting for explosions heard in the bush 'as loud as cannon' with reference to theories of Sir John Herschel.[17]

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.[6]

As a collector's item[edit]

The book is very rare and it commands high prices; in April 2005 a copy fetched $48,000.[13] In July 2011 another auctioned by Treloars sold for $25,000[19] and on 12 June 2011 her "workbook", 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, sold at auction for $70,000 to a private bidder. . Aalders auction catalogue included the following biography:

Born in London in 1796 [sic], 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.[citation needed]

Atkinson family[edit]

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.


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 17 April 2018. Retrieved 28 June 2019.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. ^ a b c d Meacham, Steve (26 May 2011). "Unearthed Australiana could fetch $90,000". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 26 May 2011.
  3. ^ Bremer, James John Gordon, Lady; Barton, Charlotte, 1797-1867 (1841), A Mother's offering to her children, [George Evans, Bookseller]{{citation}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ "Papers of Marcie Muir". Retrieved 25 July 2019.
  5. ^ Muir, Marcie (1980). Charlotte Barton: Australia's first children's author. Sydney: Wentworth Books.
  6. ^ a b c d Richards, Michael; National Library of Australia (1988), People, print & paper : a catalogue of a travelling exhibition celebrating the books of Australia, 1788-1988, National Library of Australia, pp. 53–54, ISBN 978-0-642-10451-9
  7. ^ a b c Clarke, Patricia. "Barton, Charlotte (1796–1867)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  8. ^ Clarke, Paticia (1997). "Family history and beyond". Private Lives Revealed: Letters, Diaries, History. National Library of Australia. Retrieved 13 December 2006.
  9. ^ "Atkinson v. Barton". Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788–1899. Division of Law Macquarie University. 2006 [1841)]. Retrieved 13 December 2006.
  10. ^ "LAW INTELLIGENE". The Sydney Herald. Vol. XII, no. 1292. New South Wales, Australia. 10 July 1841. p. 2. Retrieved 3 December 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  11. ^ "LAW INTELLIGENCE. SUPREME COURT.—EQUITY SIDE. FRIDAY". The Sydney Herald. Vol. XIII, no. 1533. New South Wales, Australia. 18 April 1842. p. 2. Retrieved 3 December 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  12. ^ a b Forsyth, Kate (June 2017). "A Mother's Offering: Australia's first children's book ... an extraordinary tale of love, grief, scandal and an intriguing literary mystery". Access: 4–9.
  13. ^ a b Meacham, Steve (13 April 2005). "History's page became our youngsters' stage". Books. Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 13 December 2006.
  14. ^ a b Saxby, H. M. (Henry Maurice) (1997), Books in the life of a child : bridges to literature and learning, Macmillan Education Australia, ISBN 978-0-7329-4520-6
  15. ^ Clarke, Patricia (1988), Pen portraits : women writers and journalists in nineteenth century Australia, Allen & Unwin, ISBN 978-1-74269-678-2
  16. ^ Pierce, Peter; Pierce, Peter, 1950-2018, (editor.) (2009), The Cambridge history of Australian literature, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-88165-4 {{citation}}: |author2= has generic name (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ a b c Atkinson, Alan (2016), The Europeans in Australia. Volume two, Democracy, NewSouth Publishing, ISBN 978-1-74224-243-9
  18. ^ Dawson, Barbara (Barbara Chambers); Dawson, Barbara; Aboriginal History Inc; ANU Press (2014), In the eye of the beholder : what six nineteenth-century women tell us about indigenous authority and identity, Australian National University Press, ISBN 978-1-925021-96-7
  19. ^ "A Mother's Offering to her Children, by a Lady long resident in New South Wales by Charlotte BARTON on Michael Treloar Antiquarian Booksellers". Michael Treloar Antiquarian Booksellers. Retrieved 25 July 2019.

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