Elizabeth Macarthur

While her husband is remembered as the father of Australia's wool industry, Elizabeth Macarthur's pivotal role in its success is often overlooked.

Honour Roll

Elizabeth Macarthur was born in Devon, England on 14 August 1766, to a farmer and his wife who were educated and affluent. Elizabeth received an education before marrying John Macarthur in October 1788. He joined the New South Wales Corps in 1789 and sailed to Australia with his wife and young son, Edward. They arrived in June 1790 having lost a baby daughter en route.

Elizabeth was the first educated woman to reach the colony and held a privileged position. Over the next two decades she gave birth to four sons and three daughters, one of whom died. Letters to her family reveal a positive nature and strength of character which helped her overcome the hardships of early colonial life.

By 1794, the Macarthurs had built Elizabeth Farm, a brick house at Parramatta. They had a beautiful garden and the children received an excellent education. In 1809, her husband was forced to leave the colony and return to England. Business partners administered his mercantile affairs but Elizabeth was responsible for the care of their valuable merino flocks, the Camden Park estate and their convict labourers. She did so successfully for eight years, visiting their estate regularly despite the danger of venturing into the bush.

Elizabeth oversaw every aspect of the management of their flocks and communicated with her husband in England. As a result of their joint interest they were able to sell their wool competitively in the British market and effectively established the reputation of the colony as a centre for this industry. Elizabeth did not complain about her workload, nor did she boast of her achievements.

On John's return in 1817, Elizabeth retired from the business affairs and spent more time enjoying social life and her children in Sydney and Parramatta. She was distressed by her husband's fits of depression and jealousy and they soon lived in virtual separation. She strove to keep the family together.

He died in 1834 and she lived another sixteen years during which Australian wool exporters became very successful. Elizabeth was a beautiful, sensitive woman who was widely praised. She died on 9 February 1850.