Mary Bligh, who has been described as the sauciest, daintiest and most determined little spitfire ever to preside at Government House, was an independent and strong willed woman. Her association with Riverstone began on the occasion of her marriage to Maurice O'Connell, Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales, when Governor Macquarie made a grant to him of 2500 acres of land, which O'Connell named Riverston after his birthplace in Ireland. Much has been written about O'Connell's career, but it is Mary whose life had all the drama of a current television soap opera!
Mary Bligh was born to Elizabeth and William Bligh in London, early in 1783. She was the second daughter, her sister Harriet having preceded her. She was to have five sisters in all, for she was followed by Betsy, twins Frances and Jane, and Ann, who was epileptic and mentally defective. The Blighs also had twin sons, who died when only one day old.
The only information we have of Mary as a child comes from a letter from her father to John Bond, who was married to his half-sister, Catherine, on 7th April, 1783:
I found Mrs Bligh very well, but the child, from her severe teething illness, suffering a great deal and indeed to add to all, a general breaking out over all her body and limbs, which most certainly was the itch. However, I am happy to say that from partial rubbings and her teething illness going off, she is survived to a pretty child.
During her early childhood, the family lived at Belle Vue, Hampden; Norse Moor Place, Lambeth; Durham Place, Lambeth; but after 1789 appear to have settled at 3 Lambert Place, London. They seem to have been a close family, despite Bligh's problems with his career, as he wrote to, and about, them often. On August 19th, 1789, as he was in Timor waiting to return to London after the calamitous events of the mutiny on the Bounty, he wrote to his wife: Know then, My own dear Betsy, that I have lost the Bounty, and tells her at great length of the troubles he endured, but, at what was surely the worst time of his life, he remembers his girls. Give my blessing to my Dear Harriet, my Dear Mary, my Dear Betsy and to my Dear little stranger and tell them I shall be home soon.
It was Sir Joseph Banks who recommended Bligh for the position of Governor of New South Wales, as a firm disciplinarian, much needed in the colony. Bligh was reluctant at first as Mrs Bligh, being a very poor sailor, refused to go on another sea trip. Furthermore, he felt that the salary of one thousand pounds, ($2000), which had been paid to all previous Governors, was insufficient for him to live well and put some aside for later. It was agreed that his salary would be doubled and Bligh was appointed Governor and, in addition, Commander-in-Chief, on full pay, of all British ships in the N.S.W. station. Accordingly he was able to request his son-in-law, John Putland, be appointed as his naval Lieutenant and this meant that he could be accompanied by his daughter Mary, now Mary Putland, who would act as Governor's Lady.
John Putland at this time, was a half pay Lieutenant, already with early signs of T.B., but Bligh proudly asserted that Putland was the first rating to be elevated to the rank of Lieutenant by Lord Nelson himself after the Battle of the Nile.
Bligh assured his wife that their separation would not last longer than five years and Mrs Bligh, who was a noted natural historian with a special interest in seashells, seemed contented to remain in England and wait. Bligh, John and Mary Putland embarked on the ship Lady Madeleine Sinclair and Mary wrote to her family: In this ship there are female as well as male convicts, among the latter is a clergyman named Newishman, a man of very good family. His wife is with him, they say a very genteel woman. Mary relieved the tedium of the long sea voyage by writing frequently to her mother and sisters, so we know that the very next day Bligh planned to visit Fortune another convict ship.
She writes again that at 10 a.m. Papa went on board the Alexander to see the state of the ship and convicts. They, poor unfortunate creatures, were delighted to see him. Bligh promised them that if their behaviour was good he would see if he could ameliorate their conditions. Also in the convoy was the Elizabeth, a whaler whose captain had a grant of land at Port Jackson, and the Porpoise.
They had not been at sea long when Lt. Putland was transferred to the Porpoise, while Mary stayed with her father. Soon after, the first portent of arguments to come occurred when Bligh, who considered himself to be totally in charge of the whole operation, ordered his ship to change course. This angered Captain Short on Porpoise, who had been entrusted with command of the ships at sea. He signalled Bligh to return to course, and when he took no notice, Putland was ordered to fire on the ship containing his wife and father-in-law. He refused to do so and the confrontation was ultimately defused when Bligh brought his ship back into line.
During the voyage Mary wrote to her family: Papa has purchased sapphires, emeralds and amethysts for Mamma and all of you - Mamma's to be the handsomest of course.
The party landed in Sydney on 8th August, 1806. The Sydney Gazette recorded, We are extremely happy to state that Governor King's successor is accompanied by his amiable daughter, Mrs Putland, a circumstance which conveys the greatest pleasure and cannot fail being attended with the most beneficial consequences. Governor King almost immediately made Bligh a grant of 1000 acres on the Hawkesbury which he later turned into a model farm with Andrew Thompson as Bailiff, and 600 acres at St Marys for John and Mary Putland. Bligh returned the gesture with a grant to Mrs King, which she named Thanks.
The Blighs soon made their presence felt in Sydney Town. Bligh sent home to England some Rosehill parrots, but regretted that the emu egg, presumably being carved, was not finished, and Mary sent home feathers for her mother and sisters. Her sister Elizabeth wrote her thanks and said she thought them the most elegant of the kind I ever saw. She had been told they were from an egrette of the bittern tribe and told Mary that her mother had distributed them as favours to friends and people who had done them past kindnesses.
The gift giving was not all one way for Mrs Bligh sent Mary three pairs of silk stockings, six pairs of gloves and four pairs of shoes, besides some music, and Mary in a letter from Government House to her sister tells how excited she was by the receipt of a new gown, which was altogether different and superior to anything of the kind which has been seen in this country. Perhaps it was this gown which she wore to services at St Philip's church one famous Sunday. Denton Prout describes the scene in the book, Petticoat Pioneers (page 41): the gown, a modish one, suited her to perfection, but it was so thin as to be almost transparent in the strong Australian light. It gave some of the soldiers sitting in the church such a lesson in the complexities of feminine wearing apparel that their minds were taken from the study of their prayer books. Mary was not wearing petticoats, and the long lacy pantaloons she wore underneath were visible to all. A series of lascivious chuckles ran through the church. Mary looked haughtily around to see what was causing the amusement. Then, realising that she was responsible, she did the only thing a woman of her upbringing could do in the circumstances. She fainted. Bligh, once his daughter had been carried prostrate from the church, angrily demanded explanations and apologies from the soldiers, thus further exacerbating the ill feelings that were mounting towards him as he introduced harsh methods to restore order in the colony.
On the 10th October, 1807, Mary wrote to her mother, Papa is quite well, but dreadfully harassed by business and the troublesome set of people he has to deal with. In general he gives great satisfaction, but there are a few that we suspect wish to oppose him....Mr Macarthur is one of the party, and the others are the military officers, but they are all invited to the house and treated with the same politeness as usual.
Macarthur was indeed stirring up trouble, although in the previous January he had written to a friend, Our new Governor, Bligh, is a Cornish man by birth. Mrs Putland, who accompanied him is a very accomplished person. This was before he realised that Bligh would seek to prevent him trafficking in rum, which had been a perquisite of the N.S.W. Corps, and he was now recruiting other military officers to his side against the new Governor. Bligh, however, remained popular with many settlers, especially those of the Hawkesbury region, whom he had helped fairly and generously after a disastrous flood.
There is little mention of John Putland at all and Mary's first loyalty seemed to belong to her father. On 24th August, 1806, Bligh had appointed Putland his aid du camp(sic), and a magistrate throughout the territory and its dependencies and in January, 1807, Putland was appointed Commander of the Porpoise in the absence of Captain Short, who had gone to England on the Buffalo. Putland's health must have been deteriorating steadily, however, and in November of the same year Bligh had written to Joseph Banks of John's grave condition, and the traumatic effect it had on Mary, for they were inestimable to me, so you will feel for the distress we are in besides my apprehension for my daughter's health. She has been a treasure to the few gentlewomen here and to the dignity of Government House. Only 16 months after their arrival in Sydney, John Putland died of tuberculosis on 4th January, 1808, and was buried in the grounds of Government House. Bligh had been very fond of his son-in-law and was said to be deeply affected by his death, perhaps to the extent of clouding his judgement during the difficult time coming.
Putland had only been dead for two weeks. Mary, a widow at twenty six, and her father were still in deep mourning. The officers of the N.S.W. Corp, goaded by Macarthur, decided the time had come to depose the Governor for his stringent policies on the importation of stills and on their lucrative monopoly on trading in rum. Although John Macarthur had signed an address of welcome to Bligh on behalf of the free citizens of the colony on Bligh's arrival in August, 1806, his mind was now changed. Matters came to a head after Bligh had decided two court cases against Macarthur, one regarding the prohibited importation of stills. Macarthur moved to Sydney to be on hand to engineer the revolt. At last, after an abortive third trial, on 26th January, 1808, Macarthur and nine of his close associates petitioned Lieutenant Governor Johnstone to remove Bligh from office and he agreed.
So, on the 20th Anniversary of the founding of the colony, the Corps was ordered to march on Government House. Soldiers with fixed bayonets over-ran the grounds of the residence, pushing aside Mary and trampling on the grave of her newly buried husband. Johnstone, writing to Captain John Piper, the Commandant at Norfolk Island on 2nd February, (Piper was collecting shells for Mrs Bligh at this time), informed him of the event and assured him that not a single instance of disorder or irregularity took place, but that Bligh was nowhere to be found, but after a long and careful search he was at last discovered in a situation too disgraceful to be mentioned. A political cartoon of the day showed Bligh being pulled from under the bed, the inference being that he was hiding, but according to Merchant Campbell, who was dining with Bligh that night, the Governor was attempting to hide secret papers Campbell writes, We had just drank about two glasses of wine after dinner, when we understood that Mr Macarthur was liberated from gaol. The Governor almost immediately rose from the table and went upstairs to put on his uniform and I heard him call to his orderly to have his horses ready. I accompanied him upstairs and saw him open his bureau or trunk and take out a number of papers, when Mr Gore entered and delivered him Major Johnstone's order for the liberation of Mr Macarthur. I had scarcely read that order when I heard Mrs Putland's screams, upon which I immediately ran downstairs to the gate at the entrance to Government House where I found her endeavouring to prevent Mr Bell, who commanded the main guard, from opening the gate. I saw the gate opened and a party of soldiers and officers marched in. (Campbell was friends with Bligh and often visited him. He had given Mary a shawl in the way of a friendly present.)
Mary alone attempted to resist by force the intrusion of these soldiers, laying about her with a parasol to fend off the men trying to get through the bedroom door. One eyewitness reported: The fortitude evinced by Mrs Putland on this truly trying occasion merits particular notice, for regardless of her own safety and forgetful of the timidity peculiar to her sex, her extreme anxiety to preserve the life of her beloved father prevailed over every consideration and with uncommon intrepidity she opposed a body of soldiers who, with fixed bayonets and loaded firelocks, were proceeding in hostile array to invade the peaceful and defenceless mansion of her parent, her friend, her protector, and as she then believed, to deprive him of his life. She dared the traitors to stab her to the heart but to spare the life of her father. The soldiers themselves, appalled by the greatness of her spirit, hesitated how to act and that principle of esteem and respect which is inherent in the breast of every man who sees an amiable woman in distress, and is not himself a most consummate villain, deterred them from offering any violence to her.
It was Lieutenant Minchin, later of Minchinbury Estate, who physically removed Bligh from his bedroom and escorted him downstairs to hear formally of his deposition.
It is unfortunate that due to a lack of paper, no newspaper account of these events is available, as the Sydney Gazette was not published between August 1807 and May 1808. But we do know that Macarthur, hero of the day, paraded around the streets where bonfires blazed and riotous behaviour occurred.
There was a lull for about a year, while Bligh and Mary were under house arrest, and little is known about the lives of the pair during this time at Government House, but suddenly they were returned to the spotlight when the rebels went to Bligh and demanded that he return to England on the Admiral Gambier. This he refused to do. Although he was no longer Governor, Bligh could not have his naval powers taken from him. Bligh still had command of the Porpoise, although he was not allowed to go on board. Johnstone wanted to use the Porpoise and he ordered Bligh to give up command of the ship or be confined to barracks. Bligh again refused. Bligh wrote, I went to my daughter and reconciling our feelings to our reputation, we parted.
Johnstone put Bligh into a one horse chaise and drove with him. Now Mary comes back into the limelight. Once again showing great courage and spirit, Mary pursued the carriage on foot and caught up with it, much to the astonishment and entertainment and indeed admiration of the populace. The picture is best described in Bligh's own words.
He had only drove me 200 yards, when I found my beloved child, under a vertical sun, rushing after me, having passed Captain Abbott, who told her she need not go for they would not let her in. Bligh, who was riding in front, was almost at bursting point at the sight of his amiable daughter fainting and sinking under the accumulation of such unmerited wrongs and insults wantonly heaped on her beloved and respected parent.
Mary persisted, running along the street in the heat of a summer's day, and arrived at the Barracks when the carriage did. Bligh continues and seizing hold of my arm, we walked into it, passing Lieutenant Colonel Foveaux, who came to direct Major Johnstone where I was to be confined. This happened to be a subaltern's barrack. It consisted of two rooms with a bed in one and a sofa in the other. I had just got her to the sofa when distress of mind, and the great heat she had passed through overcame her.
Although her entry was voluntary, Mary was warned she would have to share her father's confinement. Soldiers were sent for some clothes and necessary articles for her and she used the bed while Bligh took the sofa. Soldiers' women waited on them, although her maid was allowed in to share the two hot little rooms some days later and three armed sentries kept guard over them.
Paterson was anxious to get the Blighs out of the colony and after seven days strict confinement, they came to an agreement. Bligh was to go with his daughter on board the Porpoise on 20th January and sail for England without touching any part of the territory, being allowed to return to Government House for the few days remaining. Johnstone said Bligh could take with him anyone he needed as a witness in the enquiry which would be held. However, Johnstone refused to release one of these people, so as soon as Mary and Bligh set sail, Bligh repudiated his promise, feeling that he was no longer bound to its terms, and sailed to the Derwent River in Tasmania and remained there.
Poor Mary suffered, for she was a bad sailor, so on arrival in Hobart Bligh went ashore to Government House, where David Collins was ensconced. Bligh described it as a miserable shell of three rooms and preferred to return each night and sleep on the ship. However, he left Mary ashore as Collins' house guest. The two men finally had a fierce argument over the removal of a sentry from Government House, so Bligh removed Mary from the house and took her back to the ship. He insisted that Collins had insulted Mary by parading around, arm in arm, with his mistress, Margaret Eddington who was pregnant at the time.
Bligh removed the Porpoise down river to establish a blockade to stop all shipping movements in and out of Hobart. Collins ordered all people to have nothing to do with the ship and said he would fire on any boat going ashore from her. This made obtaining food very difficult for Bligh and Mary and he was forced to demand food from the ships he was trying to stop. They stayed there for six months until he heard in December 1809, that Macquarie was due from England, so Bligh set sail again for Sydney. Macquarie had his ship sail close to Hobart in the hope of meeting Bligh, but thick fog kept the ships from each other.