A daughter of the British Empire who lived around the world, Mary Anne Barker wrote many articles and books about household management, cooking, and her experiences as a colonial administrator’s wife. The British Empire opened up new worlds to English men and women of all classes. They could (or in some cases were forced to) travel all over the globe. Those who traveled by choice could launch business ventures, take up diplomatic posts, or work in the government’s sprawling administration. Successful men might gain titles and fortune, and women might gain recognition for their writing about exotic locales. One such woman, Lady Mary Anne Barker (1831–1911), experienced life’s twists and turns all over the Empire, writing 22 books that gave English readers a vivid picture of colonial life.
Mary Anne Stewart was the eldest daughter of a family from the upper middle class. She was born on January 29, 1831, in Jamaica, where her father served as Island Secretary. Her first husband, George Barker (1817–1861), was awarded a title for his military service shortly before his death. She subsequently married Frederick Napier Broome (1842–1896), a man 11 years her junior; he was knighted in 1884. Mary Anne Barker wrote under the name Lady Barker until 1884, when she changed to Lady Broome. Her life crisscrossed the world, from Jamaica to England, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Mauritius, and Trinidad.
Mary Anne’s books and articles hit all the right notes in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Travel narratives had become wildly popular among English readers, who wanted to know all about the wider world. Women as well as men published books about their tours and explorations of distant lands (see Kathy Augustine’s article “Amelia Edwards, the Godmother of Egyptology” in Knitting Traditions 2017). But Mary Anne made a long-term career out of travel writing, although she probably never intended to do so.
Initially, Mary Anne Barker turned to writing as a means of support after her first husband died unexpectedly leaving her with two young boys. When she remarried in 1865, she and her second husband (a reputed but minor poet) headed for New Zealand to establish a sheep station. After this venture failed, Frederick served in colonial administrative posts for the British government. Mary Anne accompanied him and wrote books or essays about each of his residencies.
Unlike many other travel writers of her day, who wrote about brief tours and trips, Mary Anne wrote about places she had lived in for several years. Because she was not merely passing through, her travel books conveyed the perspective of an insider who was knowledgeable about domestic and social life as well as the landscape. Mary Anne was a keen observer with much to offer her readers back in England. She shared their positive view of the Empire and did not question its mission of “improving” the native inhabitants. She focused on domestic life, doubtless thanks to her tribulations in New Zealand, and her lighthearted vignettes about housework and servant troubles—in unusual locations, no less—resonated with the middle-class women who devoured books on household management. They must have admired Mary Anne’s underlying message: that British women would always endeavor to make home life pleasant wherever they lived.
Mary Anne’s most popular and enduring book dates from the early days of her second marriage, when she and Frederick tried their hands at sheep farming in New Zealand. Still in print, Station Life in New Zealand is an edited compilation of letters she wrote to her sister describing the difficulties and amusements of colonial life.
Life in New Zealand opened up a new world to Mary Anne. She was amazed by the landscape, the variety and colors of birds, and the exhilarating and dramatic weather extremes. She soon learned, on a bucolic picnic with other expatriates, that the excitement of the adventure might not last long. Her fellow picnickers knew what it was “in the early days of the colony, to work at domestic drudgery in grim and grimy earnest, so it had lost the charm of novelty which it still possessed for me.” Immediately after this event, Mary Anne began her immersion in the “real” life of a colonist by learning how to knit. Almost two years later, she reported that a Scottish neighbor had become her “great instructress in the mysteries of knitting socks and stockings, spinning, making really good butter (not an easy thing, madam), and in all sorts of useful accomplishments.” She also had a great deal to learn about cooking and was proud when she finally succeeded in producing decent meals with limited ingredients and cooking equipment. Mary Anne’s perseverance and optimism kept her going with good cheer, despite various setbacks. Nonetheless, she and Frederick were sadly defeated by a horrendous storm that resulted in the loss of most of their sheep, buried under a “smooth white winding sheet of snow.” They returned to England with mostly happy memories of their adventure, despite its ending.
Station Life in New Zealand (1870) established Mary Anne as a writer, and she followed its success with Station Amusements in New Zealand (1873). In contrast to the first book, Mary Anne refashioned her experiences into a more literary and topical style, focusing on the lighter, more amusing aspects of colonial life. After their return to England, both Mary Anne and Frederick worked as writers, reviewers, and editors. Mary Anne began writing for children, producing a number of well-received books of stories.
She continued her interest in family life and household management as well, probably due to her experiences in New Zealand. There, Mary Anne had learned that young women, including herself, were ill-prepared for colonial life—they had no training in housekeeping, especially in locations where servants were scarce. Her First Lessons in the Principles of Cooking (1874) and The Bedroom and Boudoir (1878) came out at a time when middle-class domesticity was increasingly seen as an almost professional skill. Isabella Beeton’s books on the same subjects were the most authoritative and long-lasting classics among the numerous cookery and household books then in publication. At a time when Western culture prized science and the notion of progress, skills that were formerly passed down orally and through observation and imitation were now subjects to be studied scientifically. (The same phenomenon occurred in other areas of household management such as textile crafts. Mary Anne first learned to knit in New Zealand, under the tutelage of her Scottish neighbor, but by the end of the nineteenth century, women could find many published pamphlets, magazines, and books about knitting and crochet.)
The success of Mary Anne’s cookery book—note the scientific appeal of the word “principles” in the title—led to her appointment as the superintendent of the National Training School of Cookery in London. Initially established to train lower-class girls as cooks for higher-class households, the school soon drew the majority of its students from the middle and upper classes. Its cookery program emphasized working from the very basics, with detailed instructions—the very thing Mary Anne said she needed desperately during her early cooking experiences at the sheep station.
Mary Anne’s work at the school lasted only a year, because in 1875 her husband obtained a government appointment that led to a series of colonial residencies stretching over 20 years. She returned to travel writing during this time, but these books were not as well received or enduring as the New Zealand works. As before, her writing focused on her determination to make the best of difficult situations and to amuse her readers. She embodied the British ideal of the desirable colonial who works hard, makes the best of the circumstances, and endeavors to improve the country where she finds herself.
Throughout her travel writing, Mary Anne never questioned the British colonial project or its stated purpose of “progress.” As disturbing as these attitudes are to us today, they were very much part of the attitudes of the Victorian period and the mission of the Empire. In the New Zealand books, the native Maori are practically invisible; Mary Anne’s efforts at improving people (what she called “civilizing”) were aimed at the poor and lower-class immigrants from Scotland and England. However, in A Year’s Housekeeping in South Africa (1877), she expressed the inherent racism of colonizers, portraying the Africans as childish mischief-makers. She similarly assessed Aboriginals in a subsequent book on Australia. Although her views were not uncommon at the time, they were far from universal. One reviewer for the Westminster and Foreign Quarterly cuttingly remarked that “it is not any one’s business to laugh at people suffering under the injustice of English officials.”
In her later years, Mary Anne continued to write descriptively and amusingly while also portraying the difficulties of maintaining comfortable domesticity. Her later travel works on Mauritius and Trinidad delight with their depictions of plant and bird life (she often traveled with a large collection of parrots, canaries, and parakeets). After Frederick died in 1896, Mary Anne lived in London for the rest of her life.
Mary Anne was a woman of her times in terms of her conservative adherence to the ideals and prejudices of the British Empire. Yet she distinguished herself with her resilience, adaptability, practicality, humor, and positive outlook—life’s twists and turns never fazed her. For me, her personal qualities and narrative style are best summed up in a passage from Station Amusements in New Zealand. On several occasions, young expatriates gathered at her station house for impromptu balls on the moonlit veranda. Mary Anne described their efforts to re-create a typical English party without typical English resources:
The boards had a tremendous spring, and the verandah (built by F——, by the way), was very wide and roomy, so it made an excellent ball-room. As for the trifling difficulty about music, that was supplied by Captain George and Mr. U—— whistling in turn, time being kept by clapping the top and bottom of my silver butter dish together, cymbal-wise. It takes my breath away now even to think of those evenings! I see Alice A—— flitting about in her white dress and fern-leaf wreath, dancing like the slender sylph she really was, but never can I forget the odd effect of the gentlemen’s feet! No one had their dress boots up at the station, and as Alice and I firmly declined to dance with anybody who wore “Cookham” boots (great heavy things with nails in the soles), they had no other course open to them except to wear their smart slippers. There were slippers of purple velvet, embroidered with gold; others of blue kid, delicately traced in crimson lines; foxes heads stared at us in startling perspective from a scarlet ground; or black jim-crow figures disported themselves on orange tent-stitch. Then these slippers were all more or less of an easy fit, and had a way of flying out on the lawn suddenly, startling my dear dog Nettle out of his first sleep.
She so easily combines the sublime and the ridiculous in this vignette. It is no surprise that her two most popular books during her lifetime are still in print and enjoyed by many today.
Carol Huebscher Rhoades of Madison, Wisconsin, has a doctorate in comparative literature, specializing in nineteenth-century British and Swedish women’s writing. She teaches workshops on and writes about traditional British and Scandinavian knitting and crochet. She has also translated numerous Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish knitting, crochet, and cookbooks into English.
This article was originally published in the special issue Knitting Traditions 2018.
Barker, Lady Mary Anne. Station Life in New Zealand. London: Macmillan, 1870.
__. Station Amusements in New Zealand. London: Hunt, 1873.
__. First Lessons in the Principles of Cooking. London: Macmillan, 1874.
__. Houses and Housekeeping: A Fireside Gossip upon Home and and Its Comforts. London: Hunt, 1876.
__. The Bedroom and the Boudoir. London: Macmillan, 1878.
Gilderdale, Betty. The Seven Lives of Lady Barker. Auckland, New Zealand: David Bateman, 1996.
Huebscher Rhoades, Carol. “Lady Mary Anne Barker.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol 166: British Travel Writers, 1837–1875: Victorian Period. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996.