Isabella Parry ( – ) devout evangelical Christian
For Isabella, while charity may have begun at home, it did not end there. Her husband ran the local church, while she opened a school for 42 young pupils and another for adult convicts, and she established a lending library. She visited the sick and concerned herself, as her admiring husband recorded, with the temporal and the spiritual well-being of all around her.
Early in 1830, after a fifteen-hour sea voyage from Sydney, Isabella Parry disembarked at Tahlee, Port Stephens, north of Newcastle in the Hunter Valley. She was accompanied by her husband, Sir William Edward Parry, the polar explorer. He was taking up his appointment as superintendent of the holdings of the Australian Agricultural Company which had been granted a million acres in NSW.
They were also accompanied by their twin children, Isabella and Edward. They were named after their parents. But they were not named by their parents. And thereby hangs one of those incredible stories.
The twins were just two months old when they all landed at Port Stephens. They had been born in government house in Sydney, moments after the Parrys had arrived in Port Jackson. Ralph Darling, after whom Darling Harbour is named, was then governor. The babies were premature and very poorly. Isabella herself was in danger for her life. She had already lost two children in infancy, and a third had miscarried.
Eliza Darling, the governor’s wife, had the twins baptised immediately, naming them after their parents. So, little Isabella and Edward were named by the governor’s wife, not by their parents. Incredibly, Eliza Darling, even suckled little Edward at her own breast. This surely was taking nurturing to incredible lengths. Why did she not just put him to the breast of some convict midwife? Isabella later learned by experience why Mrs Darling had looked after her little Edward in that way. She herself went through seven convict wet nurses and found that they all drank too much, which, she came to believe, curdled breast milk.
That may or may not have been true, but two consequences are undoubtedly true. First, drunk midwives are in the habit of dropping babies. Second, our story is an example of how committed Christian women – and most of the untold parts of the Australian Christian story are stories about women – have cared passionately about how children should be nurtured and raised.
Both Eliza Darling and Isabella Parry were devout evangelical Christian women. Eliza engaged in a whirlwind of philanthropic activities, but the reality of her lot may be seen from the fact that she conducted these activities mainly from her sofa, as she was always pregnant.
Isabella, too, was a Christian, a saint strong in heart and clear in mind. Her desire was to serve God. She believed she could best do that by attending to ‘the one thing needful’ (Luke 10.42). This verse of scripture meant doing whatever was required to ensure the salvation of those for whom one was responsible. In Isabella’s case, this meant her family, herself, and the employees or ‘servants’ of the Company, the assigned convicts, and the aborigines.
Because she could not find a suitable teacher, she decided to teach her own children. She invented home schooling as many Christian women have done throughout the ages when the alternatives jeopardise the eternal future of their children. She had another two children, Lucy and Charles, in quick succession. She thought of her children as ‘immortal souls, entrusted to our care’.
But for Isabella, while charity may have begun at home, it did not end there. Her husband ran the local church, while she opened a school for 42 young pupils and another for adult convicts, and she established a lending library. She visited the sick and concerned herself, as her admiring husband recorded, with the temporal and the spiritual well-being of all around her.
In an all-too-rare experience, she successfully befriended the aboriginal people in a nearby camp. She quickly came to realise that they were ‘very harmless, quiet people’. She especially loved the Aboriginal children and expressed some concern that she was getting too used to their nakedness and delighted to see the ‘small black things, running about like little imps’. She found the aborigines far less trouble than the employees and assigned convicts.
Isabella’s story also has an ingredient found in all the best stories, namely romance. She was actually very much in love with her tall, handsome husband. She missed him profoundly when he was away, as he frequently was, and she became very excited at the prospect of his imminent return. The two of them, even when separated, read the Bible and prayed at the same time each day, so that they would feel their oneness in the Lord.
After the family had returned to England in 1837, Isabella suffered much more there than she did in New South Wales. The Parrys’ eldest daughter, Isabella, died of scarlet fever. Isabella had another daughter who died, and then she herself died in 1839, aged 38, having another set of twins. Her eldest son, Edward, only nine years of age, was present when she died. His father had read to her the scripture, ‘Looking unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith’, Isabella said ‘and the finisher’. He never forgot his father’s grief which he either would not or could not hide.
Young Edward was later to become Bishop of Bathurst, the first Australian-born bishop. He reflected that the Tahlee years had been spiritually successful. They had found it a wilderness, he believed, and left it a land of hope and promise.
Isabella’s incredible story is incredibly instructive. She was privileged, but her sufferings showed that even the privileged among women suffered in those days, and of course still do, in the processes of childbirth and child rearing. The domestic scene is not a bed of roses, but it is the chief theatre of salvation. The family will always be the first concern of Christians.
It is significant that it is also the first concern of most Australians. More often than not, Christian values are Australian values because Australia is such a Christianised nation. It may not be a Christian nation, but it is certainly highly Christianised in its values. When we Christians seek to strengthen family life, we seek something incredibly precious to our fellow Australians.
For informtion on Isabella Parry’s husband, Sir William Edward Parry, naval officer and explorer : http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A020282b.htm
Isabella’s Parry’s friend Eliza Darling
Whilst no photograph of Isabella Parry could be located, the image above is of the interior of St John’s Anglican Church, Stroud, New South Wales, the design of which was influenced by Isabella Parry in 1833.
Leave a Reply, comments are welcome.