Thirty Years in Australia, Ada Cambridge

Thirty Years in Australia (1903) is Ada Cambridge’s memoir of … well you can tell what it’s of. I have read it for my contribution this month to the AWWC site, which I hope you read! Over there I am concentrating on her life and times and writing. Here, I thought I would write a little extra about her travels.

“Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) was born on 21 November 1844 at St Germans, Norfolk, England, daughter of Henry Cambridge, gentleman farmer, and his wife Thomasina, née Emmerson, a doctor’s daughter. She grew up in Downham, Norfolk, a perceptive and cherished child, learning little from a succession of governesses but reading widely and delighting in the fen country of her birth… On 25 April 1870 at Holy Trinity, Ely, she married George Frederick Cross, a curate committed to colonial service.” (Jill Roe, ADB)

For a month they honeymooned in a rectory just a few miles from their homes, from a sister who would walk over each morning to visit, then it was down to London for a few days, then the train from Paddington to Plymouth where they boarded a sailing ship on her maiden voyage, the Hampshire, at a time when steamships must already have been taking over (years ago I read an account of the last commercial sailing ship from Australia to England, a clipper laden with wheat which arrived after the commencement of WWII).

At other times we lay becalmed, and I had my chance to dress myself and enjoy the evening dance or concert, or whatever was going on. But at the worst of times—even in the tremendous storms, when the ship lay poop-rail under, all but flat on her beam ends (drowning the fowls and pigs on that side), or plunged and wallowed under swamping cross-seas that pounded down through smashed skylights upon us tumbling about helplessly in the dark—even in these crises of known danger and physical misery there was something exhilarating and uplifting—a sense of finely-lived if not heroic life, that may come to the coddled steamer passenger when the machinery breaks down, but which I cannot associate with him and his “floating hotel” under any circumstances short of impending shipwreck.

They arrived in Melbourne on 19 Aug. 1870, after a voyage of 77 days. Melbourne, at the height of its post-goldrush glory, was impressive, with wide paved streets, fine buildings. They were taken to “the Fitzroy Gardens—saw the same fern gully, the same plaster statues, that still adorn it; and to the Botanical Gardens, already furnished with their lakes and swans, and rustic bridges, and all the rest of it. And how beautiful we thought it all!”

Soon however they were in the bush. George’s first position was a curacy in Wangaratta (Cambridge only ever gives the town initial, but the positions are listed online and other towns may be deduced). The Sydney road was so wet and muddy – “Bridges and culverts had been washed away, and the coach-road was reported impassable for ladies” – that they took the train, a “railway which ended at the Murray” (Echuca).

The railway to Echuca was established in 1863. The Sydney line further to the east, was commenced in 1870 and the house they lived in in Wangaratta was a couple of years later demolished to make way for the station.

From Echuca they took a little paddle steamer, intending I think to sail upriver to Wodonga and thence get a coach back to Wangaratta. But the winding of the river is so tortuous (remember Tom Collins?) and the journey so slow that they disembarked “level with W____”, probably near Yarrawonga, and got a lift in a farm cart.

the steamer passed on and vanished round the next bend of the river, which was all bends, leaving us on the bank—in the real Bush for the first time, and delighted with the situation. The man with the cart had guaranteed to get us home before nightfall.

Nothing is ever that simple. They spend a great deal of time bogged and for the first of many times she and George experience the unstinting hospitality of the Australian Bush. “I came in, an utter stranger, out of the dark night and that wet and boggy wilderness, weary and without a dry stitch on me, to such a scene, such a welcome, as I could not forget in a dozen lifetimes.”

And so their Australian life begins. Read on …


Ada Cambridge, Thirty Years in Australia, Methuen, London, 1903. Serialized in The Empire Review 1901-2. Available from Project Gutenberg.

Conversations with Grandma: Genealogical Journeys in Wangaratta has a great deal more, over nine parts!
Ada Cambridge and the Wangaratta Story, Part 1 (here).
The author, Jenny Coates, does not provide links from one post to the next so I will leave it to you to search on ‘Ada Cambridge’ and find the others for yourself.

Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)

AWWC: extract from Chapter X, Our Fourth Home (Ballan) (here)


15 thoughts on “Thirty Years in Australia, Ada Cambridge

    • It’s the story of three young women left orphaned who come up from Warrnambool (I think) to live in East Melbourne. I think it may include the Great Exhibition of 1880. Well worth reading for the (real) historical fiction, but as always with Cambridge, also an interesting love story (or three).


    • I think so too. The lives and letters of early women writers are much more fun than boring old history books. I love her description of water crashing in through the skylight. Imagine being south of Tasmania in those seas in a little sailing ship.


      • I never realized how dangerous travel by ship could be until I read that many slaves kept below deck died from dehydration, some of which, I believe was caused by sea sickness that led to vomiting. You mentioned the chicken and pigs drowning when the ship went under the waves on that side; I wonder if that also happened in the Middle Passage.


      • I agree with you re: reading tales of the past versus old history books. When I think back on my history classes taught in the 50s and 60s in the USA I shudder. No wonder I spent so much time in the library reading biographies of Americans of importance but even those were probably lacking pertinent information!


  1. I read Sisters about five yrs ago and came away with a very storng desire to read more of her books as well as a bio. Of course, I’ve done none of that! But I have acquired a number of her books and short stories. I’m curious to read about her own marriage, as the marriages described in Sisters were not very happy ones.


    • Cambridge is often a bit dismissive of husbands, especially vicars, but she gives nothing away in her memoir. Except. There is one section where she is bitter about vicars’ wives being expected by the Church to do all the donkey work while their husbands get all the credit.


    • Up till the 1980s all C19th Australian women had been out of print for decades (bar one CH Spence, by then over 100 years old, in 1971). That is a disgrace which Dale Spender began to rectify at Pandora and Penguin. Virago picked up a couple of others.

      I first wrote about it in 2017 –

      Early Australian Women Writers (1)

      and I think there have been a few more since. But I doubt more than two or three titles are currently in print. Unlike the standard C19th men’s titles which are always available in every bookshop.


  2. I enjoyed this, Bill, plus your AWW post, and the excerpt published by Elizabeth on Friday. All these insights into the life of the times are valuable, even if we don’t always get what WE want from them. Even the gaps and silences tell us something.

    I love this “to such a scene, such a welcome, as I could not forget in a dozen lifetimes”. I can imagine.


    • Thank you Sue. Obviously, I didn’t get the insight into her writing that I wanted, and when you think about it, do we get, or look for, or even think much about our C19th writers in anything like the way that we obsess about English and US writers?

      But I loved travelling around the country with her, around all those places I lived and travelled in myself.


      • Yes, I understand your wish. Jane Austen’s letters don’t say enough about her writing that l’d love to see.

        And no, we sure don’t. Hopefully AWW, and bloggers like us, and slowly trying to improve this situation.


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