Agnes Green – education pioneer

Margaret Agnes Ann Green (known as Agnes) would have been about 11 when her father was transferred to the Cape Colony from Canada. She was born in Nova Scotia, where her father, William Green, was in the commissariat department of the British Army, and her mother, Margaret Gray, died when she was about 9 or 10. Several of her brothers went on to make names for themselves in southern Africa, but she soon left for New South Wales.

She married William Wilson, presumably at the Cape, when she was about 15 or 16, and went with him to Australia in about 1853 on the Countess of Yarborough. Their first child was born at Sydney early in 1854. They moved to Moruya, about 300 km south of Sydney, soon afterwards, and her husband was storekeeper on the Kiora Estate. He was drowned in the Tuross River in April 1856, leaving her a widow at the age of 20 with two young children, one aged 2 years and the other 8 months.

In 1858, at the age of 22, she married again to Alfred Dawson Francis. Between them they had four children, and went on to have another four, and continued to live at Moruya.

Francis committed suicide in 1864. Agnes was then 28 years old, and had four young children, ranging in age from almost 10 to 18 months, and was pregnant with a fifth (her second child had died five years previously). There was not much chance of opening a school at Moruya, so she moved inland to Queanbeyan, New South Wales, and opened a school there, which later became the Queanbeyan public school. Perhaps it was because it would have been impractical for her to run a school and look after a toddler that she left the youngest, Edith Lilian, with the McLeod family of Bateman’s Bay (also on the south coast, just north of Moruya). Her assistant teacher was a Miss Goote, who later married her brother Alfred.

The new school was recognised as a National School in August 1864, but met with some opposition from local clergy, especially the Anglicans and Presbyterians. who preferred denominational schools. This, coupled with the fact that the school was just across the road from the Methodist Church, may be why she was a Methodist in later years. There were several incidents of harassment, with people prowling in the garden and windows being broken.

When the new baby arrived, she found it difficult to make ends meet, and Captain E.M. Battye, a former military officer turned policeman, persuaded her to leave the youngest child, Louisa, with them. Captain Battye had been stationed in Nova Scotia, and so knew Agnes Francis’s family, and no doubt knew her as she was growing up there (letter from Caroline Brathwaite to her niece Katie Pollock, see Cowley 1996:198). Caroline claimed that Captain Battye was with her grandfather (William Goodall Green) at the Cape Colony, but the dates make this seem unlikely, and it is more likely that they knew each other in Nova Scotia, since the Battyes went to New South Wales in 1847, about the time that the Greens went to the Cape.

It is possible too that Captain Battye was the natural father of Louisa, since Alfred Dawson Francis died 8 months before she was born, and had been living away from the family, in Sydney, for four months before his death.

Agnes Francis sent in her resignation in June 1865, barely a year after starting the school, and after an unsuccessful attempt to take private pupils moved to Sydney, probably before the end of 1865.

The family had not been in Sydney long when her eldest daughter, Caroline Wilson, was sent to stay with her brother Edward Lister Green in New Zealand.

In 1871 Agnes married Walter William McLean Thwaites in Sydney, and had four more children by him. She married him again in Adelaide in 1879, after the birth of their children (his first wife was still alive at the time of their first marriage – see Cowley 1996:82). In 1887 she was back at Queanbeyan, trying to open another school.

According to Bruce McLeod, a relation said she remarried “Napoleon Wilson in 1869, possibly a member of her family”). According to her death certificate, she was born in Nova Scotia, North America, and she had lived 3 years in South Australia, 4 years in Victoria, and 20 years in N.S. Wales. Her first marriage took place in Cape Town, South Africa, when she was 15 years old.

Her three years in South Australia were possibly at the time of her second marriage to Thwaites, though they do not seem to have stayed together long after that.

She was the “Arthur Francis’s mother” who had a letter from “Judge Wiekalet” (probably Gustavus Wicksteed, who married her mother’s sister). This letter, of which handwritten copies circulated among the family in South Africa, contributed to the legend of royal descent. Margaret A.A. Green also received a monthly pension from the Bank of Montreal, of which her grandfather John Gray was founder and first president.

She seems to have had a pretty tough life, and none of her three husbands seem to have been much of a support to her.

There is more about her on our Family Wiki site.

Much of the research on her life was done by Bob Cowley of New South Wales, who wrote a comprehensive (though unpublished) history of the Cowley, Green and related families of Australia. Agnes Green’s son-in-law was Sir William Throsby Bridges, who founded the Australian military college at Duntroon, near where she had opened her pioneer school.

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This post is part of a Carnival of Genealogy on Women’s History. Click the link to read some of the other posts.

5 Responses

  1. Terrific article, Steve., and a nice addition to the COG. Thanks for participating!

  2. What an interesting, and rough life she seems to have lived. Enjoyed reading about it.

  3. What an incredibly hard life Agnes lived. I wonder if she felt that at the time or if the challenges she faced were more commonplace during that time period. Whew! What a great lady and a great post about her. Thanks.

  4. Great job with such a difficult life. She seems to have had no safety net and had to rely on her own resources to care for herself and her children. Hard to imagine these days.

  5. [...] I read this a few years ago, I wondered if it was the same person who had married Agnes Green in Australia. It now seems probable that it is, and we can construct an outline of the life of [...]

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