Family Life on Kirribilli Point in the 1860s: The Enigma of Elizabeth’s Birthplace

By Jennifer Walker, author of Elizabeth of the German Garden – a Literary Journey, (Book Guild, 2013).

In this article, I review information that has recently come to light relating to the birth location of Mary Annette Beauchamp (Elizabeth von Arnim) on Kirribilli Point, Sydney, Australia, on 31 August 1866. I will refer in particular to research undertaken in Sydney in 2018 by ‘Elizabeth’s’ great-nephew, David Norton, and to two images from an article, ‘S W C’s Sydney 1866 – Search for an Artist’ by John Murray.1

When writing my own biography of Elizabeth von Arnim2 (born Mary Annette Beauchamp), I was always aware of the considerable debt owed to the extensive work of her two previous biographers, Leslie de Charms and Karen Usborne.3 Moreover, two unpublished books by Elizabeth Beauchamp Naylor (1924 – 2015), a grand-daughter of Mary Annette’s brother Sydney, later Sir Sydney Beauchamp, provide additional information on the Beauchamp family history. One of these, Louey’s Story, focuses on the life of Mary Annette’s mother, Elizabeth Weiss Lassetter (known as Louey). The other, A Colourful Tapestry, is a comprehensive history of the Beauchamp and Lassetter families.

Although we know that Mary Annette Beauchamp was born on Kirribilli Point in Sydney, the precise birthplace location has always proved elusive. Information from successive newspaper announcements of births in the Beauchamp family helps trace their frequent moves, first around Sydney and later Kirribilli Point. Clifton House on Kirribilli Point appears in the birth announcement of their sixth child, Harry, on 23 August 1864 (Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Sept 1864). I therefore assumed that Clifton House was the probable birthplace of their next and final child, Mary Annette, just two years later. Further research, however, undertaken in 2018 by David Norton4 has cast doubt on this conclusion.

Family background: the Beauchamps and the Lassetters

In January 1855, Mary Annette’s father, Henry Herron Beauchamp, married Louey (born Elizabeth Weiss Lassetter), in Sydney, Australia. The Beauchamp and Lassetter families were already interlinked by family and business ties, and this remarkable closeness was to determine much of their futures. Their homes in Sydney were never far apart, so when the Lassetters eventually moved to Kirribilli in 1857, it is unsurprising to find that the Beauchamps followed them to the area in 1861. By this time, the Lassetters were living at Beulah House, from where they moved to Wotonga (now Admiralty House), a grand residence on Kirribilli Point, in 1865. Birth announcements for Sydney and Walter Beauchamp (1861 and 1862) reveal that prior to living in Clifton House, the Beauchamp family’s home on Kirribilli was Woodlands (also known as Thuelda), North Shore.

An amazing view of these various homes on Kirribilli Point to be inhabited by the Beauchamps and Lassetters can be found in the background of the painting Government House by G E Peacock, ca. 1850, which is reproduced in Murray’s article.

Government House by G W Peacock, ca 1850 (Dixon Galleries, State Library of New South Wales)

Taking a closer look, in Peacock’s painting, Kirribilli Point can be seen across the bay, behind and to the left of Government House.

Residences on Kirribilli Point taken from the background of G W Peacock’s painting shown complete above.

While we can take some pleasure in seeing something of the beautiful surroundings into which Mary Annette was born in the nineteenth century, our appreciation is somewhat dampened when we realise that because of more recent development, little remains of this environment.5 We can also regret the loss of these historic and beautiful buildings, one of which could have been her birthplace.

The plan below helps identify the situation of the properties as shown in Peacock’s painting.

Plan showing the layout of the properties on Kirribilli in 1892 (Sydney Water Board block plan, 5 April 1892), courtesy of North Sydney Heritage Centre, Stanton Library, and also with thanks to David Norton who reproduced it in his piece on the Beauchamps and Lassetters. Clifton House is not visible but would have been located just a little above Campbell Street.

In ‘Search for an Artist’, John Murray also presents a picture (shown below) of Sydney Cove, apparently signed by an unknown artist ‘S W C’.6 He establishes that the painting shows the view ‘from the veranda of one of the important villas at Kirribilli Point, Sydney’, and that this is most likely to be either Clifton or Beulah House. He also tells us that the painting is dated August 1866, immediately bringing to mind the striking coincidence between the painting’s location and the location and date of Mary Annette Beauchamp’s birth. The splendid view across the bay from Kirribilli Point illustrates how the residents could view the comings and goings of their ships containing the supplies and merchandise on which their businesses depended.

Ships in Sydney Cove from Kirribilli Point: watercolour by an ‘unknown artist’ (August 1866).

Moves around Kirribilli Point

There is, as mentioned above, lingering doubt as to whether Mary Annette’s birthplace could have been Clifton House. The doubt comes from the lack of any reference on her birth certificate to the actual location of her mother Louey at the time; this is simply given as ‘Kirribilli Point, St Leonard’s East’.7 The birth announcements in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 and 22 September 1866 specify: ‘at her residence, North Shore, the wife of Henry H Beauchamp, of a daughter’, and the phrase ‘at her residence’ avoids mention of a precise location.

Possible clues as to the whereabouts of the birthplace might be found by looking at previous births in the family, of which the most recent was of a son, Harry, born 23 August 1864 at ‘Clifton House, North Shore’.8 Prior to that, the births of Sydney and Walter Beauchamp on 22 May 1861 and 30 December 1862 respectively, were recorded as being at ‘Woodlands’ (North Shore), formerly the home of the prominent citizen Thomas Jeffrey. We can see that the grounds of this home (also known as Thuelda), had grounds adjoining those of Beulah (where the Lassetters lived before the Beauchamps moved in) on the one side; and on the other was the even larger Wotonga.

David Norton’s investigation raises the possibility that the Beauchamp family was between residences (Clifton and Beulah) at the time of the birth of Mary Annette. He points out that the wording of the birth announcement (ie ‘at her residence’) had been used in a previous Beauchamp birth notice. This occurred following the birth of the Beauchamps’ first son, on 24 November 1855 at St Peter’s, Cook’s River.9 He died the same day. Two years later, on 7 August 1857, it is known that the next son, Ralph, was born at Fred Lassetter’s house, Cook’s River. Charlotte,10 the Beauchamp’s third child, a daughter, was born at Auburn Cottage in the Surry Hills, a property owned by Frederick Lassetter’s uncle, Lancelot Iredale.

Notes on the Beauchamp and Lassetter Family Connections11

In the early 1850s, first Frederick Lassetter, and later his younger sister, Louey, moved from Melbourne to stay in Sydney. They went to live with family members, the Iredales. Lancelot Iredale, married to their aunt Kezia, was also Frederick’s employer (he joined Iredale & Co. in 1850).

As young teenagers in the Iredale household, the cousins Charlotte Iredale and Louey Lassetter attended boarding school together in Sydney and became close friends. This relationship became even closer when Charlotte, at the age of sixteen, married Frederick Lassetter. Indeed, it was through this connection that Louey Lassetter was introduced to her future husband, Henry Herron Beauchamp.

We find too, as David Norton notes, that Louey and Henry’s wedding took place ‘at the house of her brother, Frederick Lassetter, at Radnor-place, Surry Hills, about two kilometres south of downtown Sydney, the men’s place of business’. Both wives were considerably younger than their husbands. As time went on, the families became almost inseparable and, as can be traced from their various dwellings and synchronised moves around Sydney, always endeavoured to live not very far from each other.12

This continuing close friendship of the two young wives and their families adds credence to the intriguing possibility that when Mary Annette was born, Louey might again have been staying with her brother, Fred Lassetter and her cousin, his wife Chad. This seems all the more likely when we consider the history of Louey’s choice to stay with them for the births of at least one of her previous babies.

Mystery of the Birthplace

A remaining question must hang over the timings of the various moves in and out of the houses on Kirribilli Point around the time of the birth of Mary Annette in August 1866. From 1857 to 1865, the Lassetters had been living in Beulah. The previous occupant had been Lassetter’s friend and mentor, George Lloyd. Lloyd had moved out of Beulah and into Wotonga, which he occupied until 1865 when the Lassetters moved in.13

To quote from David Norton:

When Lloyd left ‘Wotonga’ in 1865, it was Lassetter who moved in under an arrangement sufficiently informal for him to be designated an occupant, rather than a lessee, in the East St Leonards rate books.’

Records obtained from Admiralty House (Office of NSW Environment and Heritage) also state: ‘In 1860, George Alfred Lloyd bought the estate, and 5 years later, leased it to Mr Fred Lassetter’. It appears therefore that the Lassetters were in possession there by 1865.

It remains unclear exactly when the Beauchamps moved into Beulah,14 but the phrasing ‘at her [Louey’s] residence’ on the birth certificate of Mary Annette seems to imply that they had probably left Clifton House by August 1866 and did not move into Beulah until later that year. Although they owned St Leonards Lodge, there is no evidence to suggest they went to live there. It is possible therefore that the family (or Louey and their children) may have joined the Lassetters in Wotonga for a while, until Louey Beauchamp had given birth to Mary Annette and recovered from the birth which, as we are told in Louey’s Story, was a difficult one:

‘Her birth unfortunately coincided with news of the loss of two of Henry’s ships. So that the birth, a particularly difficult and draining one for me, was also for him a worrying time with serious financial problems….’ (p. 32. Note that the story is told as if by Louey herself. J.W.)

It took Louey several weeks to recover from the birth. According to Naylor, Louey then took ‘necessary steps’ to avoid having more children, a decision which in those days would have meant abstinence. Apparently, as Naylor continues:

the idea of taking the necessary steps to limit our family appalled and, at first, infuriated [her husband]. Eventually, concerned by the serious problems that May’s birth had confronted me with, and comforted by already having four heirs as well as two girls, he gave in to my insistence that six [surviving children] really was enough.’ (p. 33)

Naylor also gives a strong sense that the family was facing financial problems around this time. Even if the narrator assumes a fictional stance to enhance her story, her account does add another dimension to the circumstances surrounding the birth of the writer who, as ‘Elizabeth’, was to include detailed descriptions of sufferings in childbirth in her novel ‘The Pastor’s Wife’ (1914).

A further quote from Louey’s Story gives an idea of the Beauchamp family’s moves around Sydney as they followed Fred Lassetter and his family: 

Not long after our marriage, Fred moved to ‘Eastbourne Lodge’ at Darling Point and we managed to find a suitable house close by. Then Fred shifted to a lovely property called ‘Beulah’ on Kirribilli, the headland on the North Shore opposite the centre of the city. Finally, when his friend George Lloyd leased his large Kirribilli mansion ‘Wotonga’ to Fred, to our great joy, we could move into ‘Beulah’… This was a wonderfully spacious and altogether charming home, set in a large garden. Through tall gums there were splendid views over the harbour to Sydney Cove and well laid-out garden steps went right down to the water’s edge. No wonder it captivated us. As Henry remarked, even its name was fortuitous – in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress ‘Beulah’ is a pastoral paradise of birdsong and eternal flowers.’ (p. 33)

It seems that the Beauchamps moved into this lovely home sometime in the late autumn of 1866, after Henry’s financial situation had recovered and her mother’s health improved. Mary Annette’s very early childhood would then have been spent in Beulah until the family left to sail to England early in 1870.

It is scarcely surprising that, given the series of moves made by the family as they followed the Lassetters around Sydney, the birthplace location remains obscure. It can be imagined however, that the two families would have frequently met up at Wotonga and that little Mary Annette, along with her brothers, her older sister, and the Lassetter children, was for a while able to enjoy the spacious grounds, most of which have fortunately been preserved. However, this happy proximity of the families came to an end with the removal of the Lassetter family first to ‘Redleaf’ and then to London early in 1869.

 Farewell to Sydney

For the Lassetters, the move seems to have been undertaken partly to enable them to travel around Europe and also to further the education of their sons at Eton. The highly successful business career of Frederick Lassetter had made them a wealthy family.15 We find an interesting account of this removal and of the strong influence of the Lassetters on the Beauchamp family in the biography by de Charms, who quotes from a letter written by Frederick Lassetter to Henry Beauchamp in the July of that year, encouraging Henry and all his family to join them in London.

‘what I would suggest is to come if only for one year and we will all return together… you and I could occupy our time travelling; Louey and Chad would enjoy themselves immensely together…’ (p. 12)

The letter continues in a similarly persuasive tone. It seems the close friendship between the Beauchamps and the Lassetters supplied a very good motive for the Beauchamp’s final move to Europe one year after the Lassetters had left.

Following their arrival in London, the Beauchamps had arranged to be accommodated once more in a house with the Lassetters, but unfortunately their oldest boy Rally went down with scarlet fever, upon which Chad Lassetter ‘despatched her own children to lodgings in Blackheath.’16

The adventures of both families once they arrived in Europe (including a long trip to Switzerland together to stay on the shores of Lake Geneva), could easily make another book. For now, however, we remain concerned with the future career of the youngest member of the Beauchamp family: Mary Annette.

I hope this article will be of use to future biographers of Elizabeth von Arnim. It would be of interest to discover the elusive birthplace of Mary Annette Beauchamp, but we can nevertheless dream that her ghost still wanders around the shores of Kirribilli, gazing out at the view of Sydney Cove once seen by her mother and father.

We might also think of the lines from Walt Whitman’s Passage to India which ‘Elizabeth’ quoted at the beginning of her journal for 1901:

“O, we can wait no longer,

We too take ship, O soul, Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas,

Fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail

Amid the wafting winds (thou pressing me to thee, I thee to me,

O Soul)”

The sea and ships were there from the beginning.

  1. Reproduced by the kind permission the author, Frank Murray’s son John Murray.
  2. Elizabeth of the German Garden – a Literary Journey, (Hove, The Book Guild, 2013)
  3. The first biography, Elizabeth of the German Garden, (Heinemann, 1958), was written by Leslie de Charms, the pseudonym adopted by Liebet, the second daughter of ‘Elizabeth’. This comprehensive and authentic biography places her birth in Sydney, Australia. The second biography, by Karen Usborne, ’Elizabeth’ (London, Bodley Head, 1986), places her birth on ‘Kiribilly [sic.]’ (p.7) but locates this in New Zealand. This follows records from the death certificate (held in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California) of Mary ‘Elizabeth’, the Countess Russell. Usborne’s work should be treated with caution but is nevertheless of great interest.
  4. David Norton’s great grandmother was Charlotte, Mary Annette’s older sister. His piece ‘Beauchamps and Lassetters in nineteenth-century Sydney’ was written following his investigation in Sydney during the summer of 2018. It is unpublished; extracts in this article appear with his kind permission.
  5. Another painting, by Mrs Heriot Anley, ‘Sydney Cove after 1845’ (call number ML 374) can be found on the website of the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW. This shows an alternative aspect of Kirribilli again with the residences in the background.
  6. There is a possibility that this painting was done by a sister of Charlotte Iredale (later Charlotte Lassetter), Emily, who was known for her accomplished watercolours of ships. Another of her paintings is reproduced in Louey’s Story. We could then speculate that ‘S W C’ is an indication of the subject: Sydney West Cove).
  7. National Library of Australia, BDM database, New South Wales: no. 4512/1866 at St Leonards. Father Henry and mother Elizabeth Beauchamp.
  8. Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Sept. 1864.
  9. Bell’s Life, 24 Nov., 1855
  10. Charlotte was born on 17 March 1859 at Auburn Cottage, a property bought by Frederick Lassetter’s employer, Lancelot Iredale in the mid-1830s in the Surry Hills. Lancelot Iredale, an ex-convict, was married to Kezia, the aunt of Frederick and Louey Lassetter.
  11. See also Jennifer Walker, ‘After Hornsey Lane
  12. De Charms writes of the early life of Louey and Henry Beauchamp: ‘They lived in and around Sydney, modestly no doubt at first, but more easily later, so the Henry on revisiting the land where he had worked so hard and done so well, several years after leaving it, would exclaim regretfully: “I could not help wishing we were again comfortably installed at Beulah”’ (p. 12).
  13. James Kerr, Admiralty House, p. 18
  14. No Beauchamp children were born here, so this residence does not appear in the birth records and does not feature in my biography.
  15. Frederick Lassetter became a very successful businessman and later alderman of Sydney. He eventually returned to Sydney and was buried at the age of 88 with full honours in the place where he made his career. Henry Herron Beauchamp returned from Europe to visit Sydney on occasions but spent his old age in England.
  16. Usborne, p. 13

6 thoughts on “Family Life on Kirribilli Point in the 1860s: The Enigma of Elizabeth’s Birthplace

  1. Thank you for such a lovely post.

    I’m currently reading Elizabeth and Her German Garden after enjoying Carey’s latest bio-memoir on EvA and I came across the evocative, nostalgic section for Nov 11, where she was reminiscing about her childhood and feeling a desire to go a see the place where she was born and her annoyance at cousins who had inherited (because she was only another girl not a son) and were changing the rose gardens etc.

    Which got me googling! I saw that Beulah house was sold off in 1905 to be turned into the first apartment block in North Sydney. Did the Lasseter cousins live there until then? Is this who May was thinking about in 1898?

    But then I read on further, and the family home she seems to be referring to is somewhere in Germany or Prussia and within a day’s train journey? Did the Beauchamp’s have a place there?

    I look forward to reading through the rest of your site as I have the time 🙂

    1. Hello Bron,

      Thanks for your comment – it’s a really good question. To my knowledge, the Beauchamps did not own any property in Germany, and I don’t know how closely von Arnim would have stayed in contact with her relatives in Australia. I’ve always read the November entry as a fictional element inspired von Arnim’s general outrage at the general disenchranchisement of women with regards to property. But it’s an interesting question – perhaps others have more information or are reading the entry in other ways?

      Have you read Jennifer Walker’s very insightful post on von Arnim’s birth place and the Beauchamps’ living places around Kiribilli? I am just including the link again:

      Best wishes

  2. Yes thank you Juliane, Jennifer’s post was how I first found this wonderful website. I loved the painting depicting Kirribilli at the time, showing the houses on the point.

    As I read further on into EAHGG, I realised I had got all excited about nothing. I was so caught up in reading it as a memoir, that I forget there was fiction involved too! So thank you for your kind response and not just dismissing my over-enthusiasm! It does seem from further reading that she was keen to forget (at least in public) her Australian heritage.

    1. The painting is lovely, isn’t it? I actually do think you raised a good point. We really don’t know how Elizabeth thought about her Australian roots. She became friends when Katherine Mansfield later on and apparently they spent some of their conversation ‘reminiscing’ – but about what exactly we can only speculate. Being so little when she left, Elizabeth would have had few memories of her early years in Sydney. But Gabrielle Carey wonders if some of the idyllic descriptions of houses are not inspired by early memories of Beulah House and its, presumably, abundant plant life. At her book launch Gabrielle Carey said she thought she could detect an Australian element in E’s complicated brand of feminism: her unconventionality, her defiance, her practicality and industriousness. Could there be something in this?

  3. I am a Labor Candidate in the September 2021 North Sydney Council local elections. Is there a public monument or plaque that acknowledges her birthplace? Is there any kind of campaign ?

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