Annie Dawbin

Annie Maria Baxter Dawbin (1816-1905), diarist, was born in Exeter, Devonshire, on 24 November 1816, second daughter and third child of Elizabeth Hadden (born Hall) and Major William Frederick Hadden. Her father died when she was five. This loss she lamented always, feeling that her life might have been different if he had lived. All references to her mother convey a deep sense of alienation. Annie was certain that for some reason her mother, who married twice again, did not like her.

The happy memories of childhood centre on Twyford Abbey, the girls' school in Kensington where Annie boarded under the watchful eye of Mrs Chalken. It must have been here that she acquired the skills for her journal: the elegant handwriting which barely changes with the years; the command of English prose and a grounding in English literature; enough French to write with romantic flourish while concealing the romance from her badly educated husband, the son of a mere quartermaster.

The journal she wrote is one of the most remarkable kept in Australia during the nineteenth century. It opens on 12 September 1834 when as a bride of seventeen Annie has joined her 20-year-old husband, Lieut Andrew Baxter aboard the Augusta Jessie bound for Van Diemen's Land. Baxter was an officer in charge of the guard on this convict ship. The voyage provided one of the few happy interludes in an otherwise incompatible marriage. There were to be no children.

They were a mis-matched pair. They left Hobart to take up a run in the Macleay River valley of New South Wales in 1839. Annie worked hard at 'Yesabba', looking after the fowls and the dairy, making cheese, the duties common to station wives. She also made the homestead a place where the lonely, unmarried men from surrounding runs liked to come for dinner and conversation.

No matter how hard the Baxters worked, 'Yesabba' was bound to fail. These were depression years and there was no market near enough to take advantage of the excellent state of their fat cattle. In 1844, broke, they sailed to Sydney and from there began a two-month journey overland to the Port Fairy district of Victoria where they again set up a new station, 'Yambuck'. By 1849 the marriage had deteriorated into violence and mutual abuse and Annie left. She had an excuse. Her brother was stationed in Hobart with the Royal Engineers and his wife had recently died, leaving two small children. Annie looked after them and in 1851 returned with her brother's family to Britain where she lived until 1857. Andrew Baxter had died in Melbourne in 1855, an apparent suicide, and in a bid to get her share of his estate, Annie sailed south again.

On the voyage she met Robert Dawbin, the son of a Somerset farmer. A veteran of the Crimean war, and now in his late twenties, Dawbin was seeking his fortune in Australia and may have thought he found it, in the widow he married shortly after she reclaimed her legitimate property. They took up a run in the Western District, Victoria, did badly, took up another - and went entirely bankrupt. During the early 1860s Annie was in Melbourne, trying to keep up appearances while living in boarding houses and waiting for her husband to send her the passage money to join him in England. This he eventually did in 1865.

No journal survives from this interlude in her homeland. The final volume again records a voyage, this time with Dawbin to Dunedin, New Zealand. In 1873 she was back in Melbourne and, drawing on early parts of her journal, published anonymously a nostalgic memoir entitled Memories of the Past by a Lady in Australia. Annie's second marriage proved no more sustainable than the first, and when she died on a small farm near Melbourne in 1905, she had been for many years separated from her husband. The farm was her own, nevertheless, and there in a tin box she preserved against time and the elements her 32 journals.

Lucy Frost

Lucy Frost No Place for a Nervous Lady 1984.