Told by her great-great-great-great-granddaughters
Kate Forsyth & Belinda Murrell
Belinda Murrell and Kate Forsyth began writing as children, creating hand-written novels in school exercise books. Now both sisters are internationally renowned authors with more than seventy published books between them. Belinda and Kate grew up on tales of their talented ancestor, the woman who wrote the first children’s book published in Australia.
To be published by the National Library of Australia
To celebrate the 180th anniversary of the book’s publication
Kate Forsyth received the 2019 Nancy Keesing fellowship from the State Library of NSW to assist in the research and creation of Searching for Charlotte
Who was the mysterious ‘Lady’ who wrote
Australia’s first children’s book?
Australia’s first children’s book – A Mother’s Offering to Her Children – was published in 1841. The author was anonymous, known simply as ‘A Lady Long Resident in New South Wales’. For close on a century and a half, nobody was able to discover the name of the author. It was Australia’s most puzzling literary mystery. Marcie Muir, an Australian bibliographer, spent more than a decade painstakingly tracking down her identity.
The author was Charlotte Waring … and her life is one of the great lost stories of Australian history, a tale of love, grief, violence, and triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.
Born in London in 1796, Charlotte Waring was a fiercely independent woman determined to be ‘mistress of her own actions’. Intelligent and highly educated, she began to work as a governess so she could pay her own way through life. In 1826, she was hired to travel to Sydney to work for the Macarthur family. On board the ship, she met James Atkinson, a rich gentleman-settler. Within three weeks they were engaged to be married.
When James Atkinson tragically died, Charlotte was left to run his vast property alone with four children under the age of six. After a brutal attack by bushrangers, Charlotte married her overseer George Barton. This was a dreadful mistake. A violent alcoholic, he was eventually convicted of manslaughter. Charlotte fled Oldbury with her four young children, on a difficult and dangerous journey down the wild gorges of the Shoalhaven River.
Homeless, penniless, Charlotte asked for help from the trustees of Oldbury Farm. They refused, then tried to take her children away from her, saying she was: ‘not a fit and proper person to be the Guardian of the Infants … in consequence of her imprudent … intermarriage with George … Barton.’
Charlotte took the trustees to court to fight for the right to retain custody of her children and to receive the income from the estate to which she was entitled. At one stage the master in equity suggested that the children should be raised by a guardian, a young male legal clerk, and sent to boarding schools. For six long years she battled to keep her children. Every night she created an enchanted circle, telling them stories of storms, shipwrecks and cannibals, skulls, fossils and strange animals. Once her children slept, she took up her quill and wrote her stories down.
In July 1841, Charlotte won a resounding victory in the NSW Supreme Court. It is a landmark case for women’s rights in Australia. Her book A Mother’s Offering To Her Children was published in five months later, in December 1841, and was an instant bestseller.
Charlotte’s youngest daughter Louisa was the first Australian-born female novelist and journalist, and there have been many authors in the family since, including writer-sisters Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell.
Together Kate and Belinda have written a bibliomemoir that explores what it is like to have been born into one of Australia’s most celebrated literary families.
Searching for Charlotte will be published in late 2021 to celebrate the 180th anniversary of the publication of A Mother’s Offering to Her Children.