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Department of Premier and Cabinet

Caroline Woolmer Leaky

Significant Tasmanian Women icon

(1827-1881)
Author of The Broad Arrow (1859)

‘At one level Caroline Leakey’s life followed a pattern similar to that of many single middle class women. ….She involved herself in charitable works, lived for a while with her sister’s family, and nursed her aged father. But her life was also extraordinary; her sister lived on the other side of the world, she was called upon to run the school of another sister who had died, and she was an accomplished novelist as well as a chronic invalid.’

Miranda Morris Placing Women (1997) p. 77.

Caroline Leakey was born on 8 March 1827 at Exeter, England, the fourth daughter and sixth of eleven children of painter, James Leakey and his wife Eliza (nee Woolmer). Caroline grew up in a deeply religious home. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature succinctly describes Caroline’s life as ‘dominated by ill health and a strong Christian faith’. Although her formal schooling was restricted, Caroline read widely. In her late teens Caroline’s health appears to have improved markedly and she began undertaking charitable works outside her home. Caroline’s life was characterised by periods of intense creative and philanthropic activity between longer episodes of ill health and invalidity.

In October 1847, Caroline left England to join her sister, Eliza Medland in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) who was expecting her second child. Caroline arrived in Hobart Town in January 1848 and appears to have been relatively active, visiting and sight seeing. However after 12 months her health failed and she succumbed to colonial (typhoid) fever, hip diseases, abscesses and other complications, becoming an invalid for the rest of her stay in VDL. In July 1850 she wrote to her mother remarking that it was the first time she had been out of bed for 16 months. In 1851 Caroline spent 12 months at Port Arthur in an attempt to improve her health, ‘where every prospect pleases, and only the man is vile!’ Returning to Hobart, Caroline’s health again collapsed and she decided to return to England, departing in March 1853

In 1854 Carolyn published Lyra Australis a collection of poems focussing on religious themes and the problems of sickness and death. In 1854 Caroline’s eldest sister Mary died, and for 18 months Caroline took control of Mary’s school in London. On her mother’s death in May 1855 she returned home and cared for her father until his death in 1865.

The Broad Arrow : being pages from the history of Maida Gwynham, a ‘Lifer’ was published in 1859. For The Broad Arrow and all susequent works Caroline used the pen name Oline Keese (derived from Caroline LeaKey) because her ‘feelings were so open to be wounded by censure’. The Oxford Companion notes that The Broad Arrow is the only one of two convict novels to have a woman convict as its hero and one of the first to be based on first hand knowledge of a convict settlement. Despite her short stay in the colony, Caroline’s subsequent writings reveal her to have been an a stute and sensitive observer of local life. Her work is particularly notable for the insight it provided into the day-to-day lives of women in the colony and theoperation of the convict system. Gillian Winter suggests that The Broad Arrow may not have been a success in Tasmania given that transportation to Tasmania had only ceased in 1853, and many colonists did not wish to be reminded of that ‘gloomy phase of colonial life’. Marcus Clarke subsequently used The Broad Arrow as a reference for his novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1874).

In 1861 Caroline established a home in Exeter to assist ‘fallen women’.She continued writing and publishing poems and stories until her death on 12 July 1881 at the age of 54 years.

Sources:

Horner, J.C., Caroline Woolmer Leakey, Australian Dictionary of Biography 1851-1890 p.71.

Morris, Miranda, Placing Women. A methodology for the identification, interpretation and promotion of the heritage of women in Tasmania, Office of the Status of Women, Tasmania 1997

Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (2nd edition), Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994.

Winter, Gillian, We Speak That We Do Know, and Testify That We Have Seen’. Caroline Leakey’s Tasmanian Experiences and Her Novel The Broad Arrow. Tasmanian Historical Research Association Papers and Proceedings, Vol 40(4) December 1993, pp133-154.

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