Matthew Allen reviews Alan Atkinson’s Elizabeth and John: The Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm (Kensington, NSW: NewSouth, 2022).


Alan Atkinson has been writing about the Macarthurs, on and off, throughout his academic life. His MA thesis focussed on John and the family’s role in the early colony, his PhD on James’ political career, while Camden centred on the Macarthurs as patrons of a community.[1] Elizabeth and John is thus the culmination of a career immersed in their lives.

Elizabeth Macarthur (State Library of New South Wales)

Atkinson situates his work in relation to the Macarthurs’ reputation which they themselves cultivated, not least because they “filed away so much, so efficiently … over so many years” (1-2), carefully constructing the archive on which he depends. Both John and Elizabeth were initially celebrated as pioneers, but from the 1960s were reimagined by the new historiography of that time. While history from below transformed our understanding of colonisation, it has tended to make figures like the Macarthurs into caricatures, John a monster and Elizabeth concealed within his shadow. Aided by the profusion of digital resources, especially family history which allows the tracing of kin-networks, and digitised literature which enables his subjects to be situated in a wider imaginative world, Atkinson frames his project as a necessary reconsideration in the light of his fifty years of research. He argues that reconsidering the Macarthurs can transform our understanding of the first half century of British settlement, overcoming what he terms “a hint of condescension, if not outright contempt” (10) in the conventional accounts.

Using new sources, Atkinson pieces together a much clearer picture of the Macarthurs’ early lives in Britain. He rightly identifies both protagonists as products of the Enlightenment, and its introspective turn, and links this to industrialisation and empire, and the technological and cultural shifts they caused. Both Elizabeth and John grew up embedded in a rapidly changing commercial society, centred on the wool trade along the River Tamar in Cornwall, and both were highly literate – Atkinson points in particular to John’s formative reading of political economy as a key influence on his colonial thought. Deploying a tradition of the time, he even locates something of their individual and collective personality from their letters to each other, reading expression as character. This shared literacy shaped their marriage, but also their vision for New South Wales.

Elizabeth Farm House, Parramatta, NSW (National Archive of Australia)

On reaching the colony, Atkinson reinterprets their success as both mutual and linked to this background of commerce and ideas. He astutely shows that much of what has traditionally been seen as John’s self-serving dealing, was inspired by the most up to date economic thought, by a desire to experiment, to incentivise individual productivity, and procure capital for investment, all with the aim of growing the colony. As Inspector of Public Works, under the acting governors, Grose and Paterson, John transformed the colonial economy, his innovative use of land grants to officials and soldiers, combined with extensive convict assignment, encouraged private agriculture that made the colony self-sufficient in grain by the end of his tenure. He was also the leading spirit behind the officers’ use of paymaster’s bills to import goods, creating the first colonial market, but enriching what amounted to a cartel at the expense of those without access to credit. Both schemes embodied the same combination of public-spirited innovation and narrow self-interest.

He retells the familiar story of John’s conflicts with Governors King and Bligh – a story he has done much to shape – but shows that much of this high colonial politics centred on “little-documented private loyalties, wives and women’s friendships” (135). He also emphasises that what he has termed the “little revolution” centred on John and Governor Bligh as protagonists, but also charismatic leaders of colonial factions, whose conflict was based in rival visions of colonial political economy.[2] In particular, building on Evatt’s work, he draws attention to the theatricality of early colonial politics.[3] John seized upon the opportunity of a series of legal disputes to produce and star in a narrative of despotism and liberty, performed on the stage of the colonial courts. Likewise, the Macarthurs’ role as pioneers of the wool industry is reframed to emphasize Elizabeth’s role as an agricultural manager and wool-sorter, balanced against John’s effective use of networks of patronage to promote his innovative argument for wool as a necessary colonial staple that could render New South Wales independent.

John Macarthur (State Library of New South Wales)

Throughout Elizabeth and John, Atkinson emphasises the imaginative world of his protagonists and the wider colony. He stresses the importance of political economy to colonial development, notably pointing to John’s proposals for a graduated system of convict punishment, and pastoralism based on convict labour, which were pioneered in a letter in the name of John’s agent, T.W. Plummer, and later adopted by Bigge.[4] He also complicates the myth of the Macarthurs as thought-leaders of an arch-conservative faction, showing that they provided a sympathetic audience to the philosophical radicalism of T.H. Scott and Saxe Bannister. His effort to imagine himself inside their colonial mindset, to explore how they “overcame … questions of conscience” (273) posed by their exploitation of Aboriginal land, is especially significant, pointing to a fruitful humanism that has long been central to Atkinson’s work.

This is clearest in his focus on his subjects’ enlightened “self-awareness, self-assessment and self-dramatisation” (10), both as individuals, but especially as a couple. He points to Elizabeth and John’s “confianza” (98) – their mutual self-confidence – as the key which made them such an effective partnership and the family so successful. Like all strong marriages, their individual qualities balanced the other’s, John’s fraught and manic energy, channelled by Elizabeth’s optimism and steady resolve. More than previous historians, he shows how essential Elizabeth was to the economic success of the partnership, not merely in managing their affairs during John’s extensive absences from the colony, but as a sounding board for John’s ideas, and a balance against his depressive tendencies, which culminated in his final illness. He also emphasises the importance of Penelope Lucas, the unpaid governess and family friend who helped Elizabeth manage the accounts in John’s absence, and to form the larger, loving family at Elizabeth Farm. Indeed, he depicts Elizabeth Farm as a kind of colonial salon, a centre of enlightened conversation, for its many guests, especially lonely men, isolated on a colonial tour in an intensely masculine society.

Elizabeth and John is essential reading for colonial historians, not just for the depth of scholarship, or its thoughtful reframing of colonial politics as essentially imaginative, but as a work of literature.



[1] Alan Atkinson, ‘The Position of John Macarthur and His Family in New South Wales before 1842’ (M.A., University of Sydney, 1971) <>; Alan Thomas Atkinson, ‘The Political Life of James Macarthur’ (Ph. D., Australian National University, 1976) <>;.Alan Atkinson, Camden: Farm and Village Life in Early New South Wales (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[2] Alan Atkinson, ‘The Little Revolution in New South Wales, 1808’, The International History Review, 12.1 (1990), 65–75.

[3] Herbert Vere Evatt, Rum Rebellion : A Study of the Overthrow of Governor Bligh by John Macarthur and the New South Wales Corps (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1938).

[4] On which see also: Alan Atkinson, ‘The Multiple Voices of John Macarthur’, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 23 (2021), 21–38.

Matthew Allen
Matthew Allen

Dr Matthew Allen is a Senior Lecturer in Historical Criminology at the University of New England.  His diverse research is focused on understanding the unique and extraordinary transition of New South Wales from penal colony to responsible democracy, and the way that this process was shaped by the conflict between liberal ideals and authoritarian controls within the British world. His work on the history of alcohol, policing, summary justice and surveillance has been published in Australian Historical Studies, History Australia, the Journal of Religious History, andthe ANZ Journal of Criminology and he is currently writing a monograph for McGill-Queens University Press, entitled Drink and Democracy: Alcohol, Politics and Government in Colonial Australia, 1788-1856.