A very Sydney scandal

 

With the Queen's Birthday Long Weekend upon us, many of us will be turning our thoughts to planning our extra leisure time. But in 1847, the Queen's Birthday instead embroiled Sydneysiders in a social scandal which threatened the 'delicate codes of social interaction' on which Colonial society relied.1

In 1847 the Queen's Birthday was celebrated on Monday 24 May, the birthday of Queen Victoria, the reigning monarch. The day was marked in Sydney by 'a holiday pretty generally throughout the city'2, including a review of the garrison, and a Levee hosted at Government House by Governor His Excellency Sir Charles FitzRoy, 'which was very numerously attended'3. However, it was FitzRoy's invitation to Sarah Wentworth, the lady of Vaucluse House and the wife of William Charles Wentworth, to the subsequent Queen's Birthday Ball at Government House which led to scandal, possibly exacerbated by the delay between the publication of invitees and the event itself4; the Ball was twice postponed5, ultimately taking place on Tuesday 22 June6.

Sarah Wentworth nee Cox, despite being the wife of a prominent, politically successful and financially independent man, was routinely shunned by the social elite. She was born in New South Wales, the daughter of two ex-convicts, and was herself apprenticed to a milliner7, prior to bringing a court case for breach of promise against her former fiancé, in which she was legally represented by her future husband William Charles Wentworth8. Perhaps the most damaging judgement against her, however, was made on the basis of her having lived with, and borne two children to, Wentworth prior to their marriage in 18299. As presentation at Government House was considered a central distinction of female virtue10, itself a 'crucial foundation of civilised life', FitzRoy's apparent validation of Sarah's position in the Colony was received as an affront to polite society, with suggestions that FitzRoy

'was not disposed to see a distinction between the old [convict] society and the new but to lump all together as being so beneath his social level that no distinction was necessary'11.

The furore was such that Sarah ultimately refused the invitation12.

Vaucluse House, Sarah’s family home in which she brought up her ten children, is open to the public and will be open each day over the long weekend. Keep us in mind when planning your weekend; come by for a tour, have a chat with one of our knowledgeable staff, or simply experience the spaces touched by this story and so many others.


Notes

  • 1. Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town 1820-1850, Kristen McKenzie p168
  • 2. The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 25th May 1847, p2
  • 3. Ibid
  • 4. Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town 1820-1850, Kristen McKenzie pp.168-169
  • 5. The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, Wednesday 12th May 1847, p1
  • 6. The Australian, Saturday 5th June 1847, p1
  • 7. 'The Wentworths', Robert Griffin, in Vaucluse House: A History and a Guide, Robert Griffin & Joy Hughes (eds.), pp.22-23
  • 8. Ibid, p.21
  • 9. Ibid, pp.22-23
  • 10. Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town 1820-1850, Kristen McKenzie p168
  • 11. Ibid p170
  • 12. The Australian, Tuesday 15th June 1847, p2

About the Author

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Karina Wright
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Karina's first experience with Sydney Living Museums was squeezing lemons, as an anachronistically self-costumed eight-year-old...

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