Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

History revisited - lonely end for pioneer who named Armidale

Sunday 21 December 1851. They had been riding from Euston to Melbourne so that he could take ship for Sydney on leave. He slipped away from his two travelling companions. They found his body the next day, kneeling at the foot of a big gum tree.

Reporting his death, the Sydney Morning Herald said he was on his way to Melbourne for the benefit of his health. He was forty eight years of age, twenty five of which were spent in the services of the Colonial Government. He had been suffering, the paper said, from exhaustion, the effects of the climate and the arduous duties of a too extensive district.

There was a little more too it than that. He was a sensitive man, conscious of his small stature and  deformity, of his failure to find love and the full success he craved. An aspiring poet whose poems were often published in the Sydney papers, he had described his feelings some years earlier in a short epigram entitle On a heart Locket. “tis glittering – aye as gold without”, he had written, “But hollow all within.’

Most recently, the man had been under stress and unhappy, drinking far too much. This had led to movesMacdonald Park to have him suspended from duty in the August, but he had been persuaded to take leave instead.

Today, children play in the park named after him in the city that he named. They play hide and seek or other games, running past the memorial stone, while their parents unpack picnics or prepare BBQ’s. It’s a long way from that distant Victorian gum tree against which his life ended.

When we think of George James Macdonald, many call him McDonald, we think of the Park and his place in the naming of Armidale. We do not think of him a person.

He was a neat man whose sensibilities demanded order and a degree of comfort. In March 1843, a party travelled up from the Macleay River to attend the Armidale races. Writing later, one of the party (Mrs Annie Baxter) expressed surprise at the Commissioner’s hut. While small and badly finished, it was well and tastefully furnished. The Commissioner, Mrs Baxter suggested, was clearly a man of taste.

By then, Macdonald was a disappointed man.

In 1841, Sophia Docker had agreed to marry him. The wedding was arranged, the dresses made, while Macdonald had given orders for a new cottage to be built for his bride. Then the lady changed her mind, deciding to marry Captain Edward Darvall. “Our Commissioner was reported to be going to be married” wrote John Everett to his brother in England, “but the Lady has unfortunately changed her mind, I suppose frightened at the hump on his back.”

Macdonald and Darvall fought a duel, each firing two shots without injury. The Darvalls went to India to join his regiment, while Macdonald attempted to console himself, finally unsuccessfully, with poetry and his official duties.

 Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 29 May 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013

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