“Family life in South Australia Fifty-Three years ago (Dating from October 1837)” by Jane Isabella Watts (1824-1894)

My Directed Study involves investigating the living conditions for 19th century staff at the Old Adelaide Gaol. By comparing primary and secondary sources we can construct an understanding of the average daily life in Adelaide during the mid to late 19th century.

As any fellow student of cultural heritage will understand, it is very easy to get carried away in second hand bookshops, particularly those with a section on Adelaide’s colonial history. When I saw the small red hardcover titled “Family life in South Australia Fifty-Three years ago (Dating from October 1837)” I simply added it to my growing stack of purchases and took it home without much thought. It wasn’t until months later that I realised I had purchased a primary source gold mine.

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“Family life in South Australia Fifty-Three years ago” with a few of my favourite pages marked.

Encouraged by her husband of seven years, Alfred (Consul for Sweden), Jane Isabella Watts began writing the book in 1851 (aged 25) after a doctor (one of the best available in Adelaide at the time) so incompetently treated her severely sprained ankle that she never fully recovered. To “banish the miserable present from her mind” she decided to “write an account of the arrival of her family in the ship Hartley (see the passenger list here), and try to record the many droll adventures they met with while on Kangaroo Island,” and, in later years, Adelaide.

B7966 - ca. 1865 Mr. Mrs. Alfred Watts. Jane Isabella Watts was the author of Family Life in South Australia. Alfred Watts was Consul for Sweden

Mr. & Mrs. Alfred Watts. Ca. 1865. Image courtesy of SLSA B 7966

Terrible luck for Watts, yes, but we are the lucky ones who get to share in her stories, so vividly written that you could almost be aboard the “floating lunatic asylum” with 13 year old Watts in 1837, as her fellow hungry voyagers attempted to make a ”three-decker sea pie” from albatross meat; seated at a Kingscote dining table “with the Governor himself – Captain (afterwards Sir John) Hindmarsh” in 1838, curiously observing his glass eye; or a guest at the 1841 Drawing-Room Queen’s birthday celebration at Government House, attended also by “a number of natives, in new blankets, bestowed upon them by a paternal Government.”

Not published until 1890 by W. K. Thomas & Co., Watts (then aged 66) dedicated the book to her relatives, with the explicit request that they “kindly not allow this book to go out of their possession, or to be read by strangers during her lifetime.” She states that “these incidents in their daily lives, though not particularly interesting, are just recorded to show the young relatives of the writer, for whom this narrative is specially intended, that all was by no means couleur [sic] de rose with [their] family in those early days.” However it is these everyday incidents which give us the best insight into life in those times and, written as they are with such vibrant description, we can only be grateful that Watts had the time and inclination to record this history for future generations to enjoy.

B5190 - Mrs. Alfred Watts ca. 1875

Mrs. Alfred Watts ca. 1875. Image courtesy of SLSA B 5190

In future blogs I intend to reflect on some of my favourites amongst Watts’ stories. Gossip, politics, fashion, decorating, architecture, tent life, town planning, cooking, picnics, parklands and Indigenous encounters – this book has it all. Stay tuned!

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