State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 32 December 1983


Caroline Dexter (1819–1884): Some Previously Unrecognised Works

In August 1857 the feminist and noted bloomer-lecturer, Caroline Harper Dexter, left her artist husband, William Dexter (1817–1860),1 in Gippsland and came to Melbourne. Her first “literary evening” was a lecture on the “Bard of Avon” at the Mechanics' Institution.2 It is obvious that she could not live on fees for lectures, and it was not long before she turned to writing.
Her first efforts were published by the Herald. Under the pseudonym “Budgery” she wrote a pamphlet on the recent notorious trial of Madeline Smith in Glasgow. It was noted by the Herald:
‘The great national interest excited by the newspaper reports of the trial of Miss Madeline Smith for the poisoning of her lover, has produced a pamphlet, entitled “Emile and Madeline; or Love and Murder”. This brochure, though professedly written by “Budgery”, is evidently the product of a lady, who, if she had been on the jury, would certainly not have returned either a verdict of “Not proven”, or “Serve him right”. She regards Madeline as a demon, for whom hanging would have been too good a fate. The pamphlet contains several letters which have not appeared in the Melbourne journals; and, what will more assist the sale, is a well executed portrait of the lady, copied from a daguerreotype, sent from England.’3
This in itself is no proof of authorship. However, in November when Caroline returned to Gippsland to help her husband campaign in an election, she was referred to as the ‘author of “Budgery” ‘by the Gipps Land Guardian.4 Although the account is obviously garbled, there is enough to suggest authorship. The pamphlet was first advertised in early October, 1857.5 Yet a second edition was published before the end of the month.6 The Mitchell Library lists two copies in its catalogue.
In mid-October the Herald published details of the unusual case of Lyle V. Herbert for criminal conversation, in which the damages amounted to one farthing.7 Three days later the Herald 8advertised a pamphlet on ‘the extraordinary Crim. Con. Case, with full particulars’.
It was the ‘full particulars’ which raised the eyebrows. The Age referred to it as ‘the late notorious reprint’ and continued with more snide remarks on her projected “Lives of the Victorian Legislators”.9 Caroline replied with a long and slightly paranoic letter, much of which is an Apologia pro sua vita.10 The final paragraph contains the explanation:
‘The disgusting addition alluded to by you to a work recently published by me was made entirely without my knowledge or approbation, and not until I had ceased to exercise any control in the matter, my agent having disposed of the copyright.’
In collecting material for the above mentioned “Lives of the Victorian Legislators” Caroline adopted the method used by the editor of a modern Who's who. She sent a ciruclar to some, if not all, members of both houses. It was reprinted in the Herald:
‘Sir — It being my intention shortly to publish the biographies of members of the Houses of Legislature, I shall feel obliged if you will, at your earliest convenience, furnish me with those incidents in your career, and such general comments, as may be agreeable to yourself to publish to the world; or, should it be more convenient, I shall be happy to wait upon for the purpose of acquiring the requisite information. I must beg you distinctly to understand that the source from which the information is derived will not be divulged, and any manuscript forwarded to me will be copied, and returned if desired — the copy only being placed in the printers' hand.’11
The work was to be finished at the end of the month, presumably for the new year, and was to cost one guinea. The Melbourne Punch reproduced part of the letter, along with some replies supposedly supplied by Caroline.12 It was ‘an offer of immortality at the low rate of one guinea’.
Unfortunately the work had to be postponed.13 The reason given was the ‘large mass of interesting information’ sent to her, some
of it ‘from sources other than those calculated upon’. In fact the work, as originally advertised, never came into being.
In June 1858, however, a satirical work on four members of the legislature was published under the pseudonym ‘Gum Leaf’:
Colonial gems: or, “The Ninety”. Foundation stones of our Parliament House. Melbourne; printed by W. H. Printice, no date.14 There would be little reason to associate this pamphlet with Caroline Dexter, were it not for another work held by the La Trobe Library and long known to have been by that author:
Ladies almanack 1858: The Southern Cross, or Australian album and new years gift. Melbourne; W. Calvert, [1857].
There are two copies, one of which has actually been annotated by the author and signed ‘Carrie Lynch’, obviously after she remarried in 1861. One annotation signs a short essay with the pseudonym ‘Gum Leaf’.15 It is sobering for Australian bibliographers to know that the catalogue of the British Museum attributes Colonial gems to ‘Caroline Dexter?; though it gives the traditional date, i.e. [1856].
The pamphlet was number one of a projected series which was never continued. It lampooned four politicians, each under the heading of a stone: Ruby, Granite, Opal and Turquoise. The first and second were John Thomas Smith16 and Henry Miller17 respectively. Caroline gives a relatively sympathetic picture of Turquoise, that is, John Pascoe Fawkner.18 Opal is less easy to identify, but his Irish birth, social pretensions and annuity of £600 per annum from his parents suggest Patrick O'Brien.19
Michael Watson.


An account of her life can be found in the Australian dictionary of biography, vol. 4, p.64–5. William Dexter's date of birth is usually incorrectly given as 1818: he was forty-two when he died on February 4, 1860. The date 1817 can be verified from the British Census of 1851, courtesy of the Genealogical Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.


Noted in the Herald, 17 August, 1857, p.6.


Ibid. 1 October, 1857, p.5.


Gipps Land Guardian, 13 November, 1857, p.2.


Herald, 2 October, 1857, p.I.


Ibid. 20 October, 1857, p.3.


Ibid. 17 October, 1857, p.6.


Ibid. 20 October, 1857, p.3.


Age, 15 December, 1857, p.4.


Ibid. 18 December, 1857, p.6.


Herald, 14 December, 1857, p.5.


Melbourne Punch, 17 December, 1857, p.162f.


Age, 23 December, 1857, p.8: advertisement.


Its appearance was advertised in the Herald, 15 June, 1858, p.I and the Age, 15 June, 1858, p.8. This pamphlet of thirty-two pages has traditionally been dated at 1856.


See p.27. This is obviously the copy mentioned by D. Wilcox and W. Moore in ‘The wife of the artist (Caroline Dexter)&, Art in Australia, s.3, no. 36, February 1931, p.45–51.


See the Australian dictionary of biography, vol. 6, p.150f.


Ibid, vol. 5, p.252f.


Ibid, vol. 1, p.368–370.


Cf. his supposed letter to Caroline Dexter published in the Melbourne Punch, 17 December, 1857, p.163. See also K. Thomson and G. Serle, A biographical register of the Victorian Parliament 1851–1900, Canberra; A.N.U. Press, 1972, p.153.