August 17, 2009


david ellis with malcolm andrews

TOMBSTONE Tourists, those who get a kick from prowling cemeteries on their holiday wanderings, find many a treasure in an historic little Sydney suburban cemetery - including the grave of lady who is both virtually unknown, yet at the same time is a key figure in one of the greatest works of English literature.

Eliza Emily Donnithorne was the sole remaining child of a retired East India Company judge, James Donnithorne who moved to Sydney Town in 1836 after losing his wife and two teenage daughters in a cholera epidemic that swept Calcutta four years earlier.

Despite a licentious life in which he fathered several children in adulterous liaisons with Indian women, Donnithorne wanted Eliza to marry into respectable Sydney society.

But the headstrong Eliza rebuffed the well-bred young men invited by her father to Camperdown Lodge, their grand home in Newtown, a small community amid farming fields on the outskirts of Sydney Town.

And instead she fell for a lowly shipping clerk named George Cuthbertson, a worshipper at Newtown's St Stephen's Anglican Church that was attended and patronised by the Donningthornes.

Despite his fury, James Donnithorne could do nothing about the blossoming romance, that included Eliza inviting George to Cambridge Hall when her father made regular business visits to Melbourne – acts that sent neighbour's tongues into overtime.

When he died aged 79 in 1852, James Donnithorne was buried in the cemetery adjacent to St Stephens.

Four years later, Eliza and George decided to marry at Camperdown Lodge, but according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, "on the morning of the wedding the bride and her maid were already dressed for the ceremony, the wedding breakfast was laid in the long dining-room... the wedding guests assembled, the stage was set, but the chief actor did not keep his appointment".

Gradually the embarrassed guests quietly excused themselves, and the distraught Eliza ordered that the wedding breakfast be left on the tables and the dining room locked.

But she had the front door of the house kept ajar in case Cuthbertson should return, a chain preventing it from blowing wide open and a determined Mastiff deterring would-be intruders.

And, legend has it, Eliza wore her wedding gown until the day she died 30 years later, leaving Camperdown Lodge only to wander its grounds after dark, and speaking only with her two trusted maids, and the rector of St Stephens and her lawyer.

No one knew why George had jilted her, and he was never seen again.

Does much of this sound familiar? If you've read Charles Dickens' famous novel. Great Expectations first published four years after Eliza was jilted, it is.

Because like Eliza Donnithorne, one of Great Expectations' principal characters, Miss Havishman was deserted on the day of her intended nuptials, like Eliza Donnithorne she left her wedding breakfast untouched, and again like Eliza she wore her bridal gown for the rest of her life.

How Dickens heard of Eliza's story is unclear, but it is known that he had numerous widely-read researchers… and one of his sons worked for the East India Company, James Donnithorne's one-time employer.

After her death in 1883 Eliza was buried with her father, and her name added to his gravestone.

Some 80 per cent of headstones at Camperdown Cemetery were fashioned by John Roote Andrews, great-great-great-grandfather of co-author of this feature Malcolm Andrews, and said to have been the first monumental mason to come to Australia of his own volition, rather than as a convict.

He too is buried there, as are explorer and NSW Surveyor-General Sir Thomas Mitchell, Isaac Nathan who composed and produced Australia's first opera, and the victims of the Dunbar, a clipper that foundered off Sydney Heads on a stormy night in August 1857 after a voyage from England, taking with her all but one of the 122 people aboard.

Tommy, Mogo and Mandelina, the first Aborigines to be given a Christian funeral also lay there, as do the children of Anthony Hordern, the founder of one of Australia's most famous department stores, and those of Sir Henry Parkes.

Tourists interested in colonial history regularly journey to this last resting place of Eliza Donnithorne and those many other interesting colonial Australians; the cemetery surrounds St Stephen's Church in Church Street, in Sydney's inner-suburban Newtown.

[] ON her death Eliza was buried with her father, and her name added to his headstone in Sydney's Camperdown Cemetery.
[] MEMORIAL in Camperdown Cemetery to the victims of the wreck of the Dunbar.
[] ONLY known lithograph of the Donnithorne's mansion in then-rural Newtown on the outskirts of Sydney Town.

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