The exact date of Mary’s birth is unknown, though from later records it appears to have been around 1748. According to a letter written by her grandson GM Pitt, ‘She originally came from Ireland’ and crossed over to England when her father died and her mother remarried and went to live in America.
Also according to GM, Mary and Robert met in Bath. They married in 1770 in Childe Okeford, Dorset, and lived together in the neighbouring village of Fiddleford in a rented house called Trout Alehouse, which later became known as May Cottage.
May Cottage still exists. Until some years ago it was owned and lived in by Olive Hall, who wrote about it and the Pitt family in her books Where Elm Trees Grow and Their Own Dear Days.
Robert was born in Belchalwell, Dorset, in 1734 and died in Fiddleford in 1787, aged 53. He left Mary with seven children, two of whom, George and William, went to America at some point, where they died. (More information about this would be very welcome.) Mary continued to live on at Trout Alehouse rent free, thanks to the owner Lord Pitt Rivers (no relation), presumably up until the time she made the momentous decision to emigrate to New South Wales 14 years later.
On 21 June 1801 Mary and her five children set sail to New South Wales on board HMS Canada, for a trip that was to take them six months. While on board waiting to sail she wrote to her cousin George expressing her fears about the ‘wicked country’ she was travelling to. Mary’s original letters were only recently unearthed by Libby White, and can be seen among the Atkinson Family Papers in the Mitchell Library in Sydney.
The Pitt family arrived safely at Port Jackson in Sydney, New South Wales on 14 December 1801. They carried with them a letter of recommendation written by the Reverend Edmund Nelson, father of their patron Admiral Nelson, and addressed to His Majesty’s representative in New South Wales, Governor Philip Gidley King.
On 31 March 1802 Mary was granted 100 acres of land at Mulgrave Place (now Richmond), near the Hawkesbury River. Her son Thomas was granted an adjoining 100 acres in September the same year. Thomas’ plot of land is still virtually intact and retains the name of Bronte, after Mary’s sponsor Lord Nelson, Duke of Bronte. It is now owned and farmed by Margaret Betts. The current house is probably the third to be built on the property and dates from the late-1800s.
Mary Pitt died on 7 November 1815, at the house of her youngest daughter Hester in Sydney. She was 67 years old.
At the time Mary and her family arrived in the colony it was still an experiment, and fighting for survival. Their lives would have been extremely tough. They were given land and kept on government stores to begin with but ultimately they were left to their own devices in a country where the climate and conditions were extreme and totally alien. It was not for several years, after Mary died, that people began to see Australia as a country with a promising future and began to emigrate in substantial numbers.
Our ancestors were pioneers and major players in the forming of the country we now know as Australia. We their descendants owe our lives to the astonishing courage and resourcefulness of one remarkable woman: