Caroline Carleton – South Australian poet

As I’ve mentioned, I’m looking at Australian poets in the period mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries because we seem to be listing lots at the moment, and difficult lives is a common theme, particularly for the women.

Each has a unique story, and yet each is nonetheless typical in the struggles and privations experienced. For over 150 years now Carleton is remembered as the creator of the lyrics for one song, its impact being sufficiently longlasting that it came close to becoming our national anthem, losing out to ‘Advance Australia’. She won a handsome sum of money for her efforts and given that she had a gainfully employed husband, one might be forgiven for thinking ‘pin money’ then. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Caroline Carleton

Caroline had married in England and a few years later in 1839, with two young children, they boarded a ship to take them to a new life in Adelaide. Both children died during the voyage, the horrors of which I don’t think we can even imagine. Her husband had been a medical student when they married and never finished his studies. Perhaps this is reflected in his dizzy progression from job to job in Adelaide, which wiki describes thus:

After a few false starts making cordials, castor oil, and other commodities, Charles (who never completed his degree) became around 1844 medical dispenser to the Colonial Surgeon, Mr. James George Nash F.R.C.S. They may have resided at the Adelaide Hospital, where Caroline had two more children. In 1842 he was assayer with Alexander Tolmer’s expedition to Mount Alexander which subsequently escorted a quarter of a ton of gold to Adelaide. In 1845 he and a Dr. Davy built a trial lead-smelting furnace. In 1847 they moved to Kapunda, where Charles was employed as assayer and perhaps as medical officer.

In 1849 they returned to Adelaide, where he opened a chemist’s shop at 37 Hindley Street, then in August 1851 to ca.51 Rundle Street. He visited the gold diggings at Forest Creek, Victoria, perhaps working as an assayer and gold buyer, and returned to his Rundle Street shop with new advertising directed at miners. The shop was taken over early in 1853 by James Parkinson and throughout 1853 to May 1854 he was selling bottled English porter and stout at Blyth’s Building, Hindley Street.

He was returning officer for Grey Ward in the 1855 Census.

He took a position as superintendent of the West Terrace Cemetery in November 1855.

He may have taken on the position, but it was Caroline who did the work. He spent his time ill and then dying. It was towards the end of this period that she wrote ‘The Song of Australia’ under the name of Nil Desperandum. Surely, if you have heart strings, reading that tugs at them, doesn’t it? We read in a recollection of Carleton written in 1922, that the clergymen of Adelaide petitioned the government to permit her to continue on the work she had been doing for her husband, but the plea was declined. If her son has been old enough, it could have been awarded to him and she could have done it for him – or for any male – but not on her own account.

And so the government officials of Adelaide made the decision that Carleton should be a desperate mother of 5 children with no means of supporting them other than selling poetry. She set up a school – as was another common ploy of destitute educated women in the colonies – indeed, we recall the relatively successful example of MJ Franc in South Australia – but found it hard going and so we see her next in the court notices of the newspapers of the day:

South Australian Register
Thursday 8 August 1867 ‘The Undersigned, CAROLINE CARLETON, of North-terrace, Adelaide, Schoolmistress, do hereby declare that I am unable to meet my engagements with my Creditors. Dated at the hour of half-past two o’clock in the afternoon, this seventh day of August, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-seven.’
Wednesday 28 August 1867 She is one of a long list of paupers listed to appear in court for insolvency.
Wednesday 18 September 1867 She is too ill to present herself to the insolvency court and so her case was adjourned.
Wednesday 9 October 1867 ‘In that of Caroline Carleton, the insolvent was again absent, aud the Official Assignee was empowered to issue a warrant for her arrest if he thought proper.’ and the same day:
Wednesday 9 October 1867 ‘In re Caroline Carleton, late of North-terrace, schoolmistress; an adjourned final hearing. Mr J. W. Downer for the insolvent. The insolvent did not appear, and after a few remarks by His Honor animadverting on her contemptuous treat ment of the Court, the Official Assignee was em powered to issue a warrant for her arrest if he thought fit.’
Wednesday 23 October 1867 In the matter of Caroline Carleton, the insolvent was awarded a second-class certificate without suspension.

She struggled on with her notion of opening schools and died utterly exhausted in her early fifties.

The Mail
Saturday September 1, 1934 published the following about Carleton written by Beatrice Bevan who I understand to have been a critic and poet.

Authoress of ‘The Song of Australia’

WHEN an Act of Parliament created the Colonisation Commission of South Australia to deal with the new colony’s settlement on lines worked out in Newgate by the notorious lawyer abductor of heiresses, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, there was in the house of the Gordon’s at Layal in the Azores, the baby who was later to come to South Australia and to be acclaimed ‘Australia’s National Poet’ and, in England was the girl who was to be the authoress of ‘The Song of Australia.’ ‘ Caroline was the daughter of William Baynes of Bonner’s Hall, near London. At 18 she mar ried Charles James Carleton, of an old English family, and a few years later left with him and their two little children for South Australia.. It was a sad voyage, for their two children died, but soon after reaching the new land Mr. Carle- ton was given a medical appointment in Ade- laide, and later, at the Kapunda mines. He had studied medicine in England, and intended some time to return and fully qualify for his degree. Prospects in South Australia were bright. Mr. Carleton bought up land at Glenelg, and opened a chemist shop.

THEN came the financial crisis. The Government was practically insolvent, and so were many individuals. Mr. Carleton was urged to go through the insolvency court, as others were doing. He and his wife decided somehow to meet their liabi- lities, without taking that step, and they did so, though with a young family to provide for, the struggle was too much for Mr. Carleton’s never too robust health. He was given the position of Superintendent of Cemeteries, not too cheerful an occupation, and too much work for his health. Caroline Carleton did the work in his name, and it was under these conditions that she wrote our ‘Song of Australia.’ which won the prize given by the Gawler Institute on the occasion of its second anniversary. Herr Carl Linger won the prize for the musical setting. On Mr. Carleton’s death the Governor was petitioned to allow her to keep on the work she had been doing in her husband’s name. There was objection to the position being held by a woman. Her son was too young for it to be in his name, so she lost it. She then began to teach. but. though her bright spirit remained indomitable to the end, she had reached the limit of physical resistance. She caught a chill was unable to teach, and went to live at Wal laroo with a daughter who had a school there. She died in 1874, four years after Adam Lindsay Gordon, died in Victoria. IN the Wallaroo Cemetery is the obelisk of polished red granite, set on a square base. One side has a scroll on which is inscribed:— ‘In memory of Mrs. Carlton, authoress of The Song of Australia.’ who was interred in this cemetery on July 12, 1874. Aged 54 years; Erected by her admirers. November. 1923.’ The baby from Layal has been acclaimed ‘Australia’s National Poet.’ and has the niche next to Lord Tennyson (another link with South Australian history) in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey. How shall we honor Caroline Carleton? By making her song the national song of Australia?

I’ve started thinking – too much perhaps – about the bravery of these women who came to Australia, leaving behind their families, their safety, their homes. To what extent was their poetry the thing that made it bearable for them? Carleton wrote this, a regular theme of these women who came to this utterly alien primitive place on edge of the world, while life was utterly desperate.

Oh, say not that no perfume dwells
The wilding flowers among;
Say not that in the forest dells
Is heard no voice of song.
The air is laden with the scent
Borne from the clustering flower
With which the wattle is besprent,
Like Danae’s golden shower.
And silvery wattles bending low
Sweet incense scatter far,
When light winds kiss the pensile bough
Beneath the evening star.
And forest flowers of varying dye,
Now white, now blushing red,
In modest beauty charm the eye,
And fragrant odours shed.

There’s perfume breathed from Austral flowers,
And melody is there —
Not such as in far Albion’s bowers,
Falls on the accustomed ear.
But thrilling snatches of wild song,
Poured forth from lonely glen,
Where winds the hidden creek along,
Far from the haunts of men.
And hoarser notes in wild woods heard
Sound like strange harmonies,
As flashes past the bright winged bird,
Gleaming in azure skies.
Then say not that no perfume dwells
The wilding flowers among.
Say not that in the forest dells
Is heard no voice of song.

They were able to elevate themselves above the shitty drudgery of life in exile and elevate their readers at the same time. Thousands of people turned out to remember Carleton on Centenary day in Adelaide, 13 March 1936. In the mid-1970s when the competition was held to decide the new national anthem, Carleton’s Song of Australia was one of only three which were seriously considered. There is no entry for her in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. There is one for the man who composed the music. When you read it, you might keep in mind that the only reason that there is a remembrance to him, created in the 1930s was because one was built for Carleton.

Carleton’s most famous legacy

6 thoughts on “Caroline Carleton – South Australian poet

  1. In hindsight it was a facile comment I’m afraid, given the seriousness and quality of the post. Can you provide a link to ‘The Song of Australia’? I couldn’t see one in the post, but I may have missed it.

  2. It follows. I see you can here it sung by Peter Dawson, no less, here. Judging from the comments there are a lot of people who would have preferred to see it as our anthem.


    There is a land where summer skies
    Are gleaming with a thousand dyes,
    Blending in witching harmonies, in harmonies;
    And grassy knoll, and forest height,
    Are flushing in the rosy light,
    And all above in azure bright –

    There is a land where honey flows,
    Where laughing corn luxuriant grows,
    Land of the myrtle and the rose,
    On hill and plain the clust’ring vine,
    Is gushing out with purple wine,
    And cups are quaffed to thee and thine –

    There is a land where treasures shine
    Deep in the dark unfathomed mine,
    For worshippers at Mammon’s shrine,
    Where gold lies hid, and rubies gleam,
    And fabled wealth no more doth seem
    The idle fancy of a dream –

    There is a land where homesteads peep
    From sunny plain and woodland steep,
    And love and joy bright vigils keep,
    Where the glad voice of childish glee
    Is mingling with the melody
    For nature’s hidden minstrelsy –

    There is a land where, floating free,
    From mountain top to girdling sea,
    A proud flag waves exultingly,
    And freedom’s sons the banner bear,
    No shackled slave can breathe the air,
    Fairest of Britain’s daughters fair –

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