Mrs Martha Wilson was Mayoress of the City of Adelaide (married to the Mayor) from 1842-1843.
Martha Wilson née Gréenell was born in 1790 in Hertford, England, to Martha senior and her husband John Gréenell. The younger Martha’s future husband, Thomas Wilson, acted as solicitor for the Gréenell family, and this may have been how they met. Martha and Thomas were both very artistic. Like Thomas, Martha was a collector of fine arts, and she was also a skilled painter. She became adept at floral painting, and made many miniatures for her friends’ amusements, both in England and later, in South Australia.
Martha and Thomas were wed on 5 October 1812. Over a twenty year period they had eight children: Dorothea Gréenell, George, Charles Algernon, Theodore Percival (Percy), Edmund Major (Teddy), Agnes St. John, Theodore Augustus Gréenell, and Minna Florence.
A new home in Adelaide
In 1838, Martha and Thomas made the big decision to migrate to the new Province of South Australia. They booked onto the Duke of Roxburgh, sailing from London with five of their children. Dorothea remained in England with her husband, George continued to teach at a school on the Isle of Wight, and Percy was shortly to begin his studies at Oxford. But Percy followed eight years later.
On 3 April 1838, son Charles noted in his diary:
We set off for the Duke of Roxburgh, in a boat at three o’clock, having a good deal to do in putting things to rights in the cabin before night. Papa, Teddy and myself, had to ascend the side of the vessel by means of the ropes and steps. Theodore and Minna were carried up, but a chair was hoisted over for the rest, mamma took Agnes in her lap, and they were hauled up, and landed on deck. Maria was afterwards pulled up and all said they did not dislike the sensation. This chair is of a particular construction adapted for the purpose and everyone who ascends is wrapped round with the British colours which are let down in a chair, the reason of this I do not know but it seems to imply the protection by English seamen from foes.
Maria was the family’s maid, and had come to farewell them. The family must have felt much sadness as they bid farewell to loved ones; perhaps Martha in particular. Her first little granddaughter, Emily Burningham, was then only a few months old. They also left behind many treasures, including several large oil paintings of Martha’s ancestors. But Martha and Thomas had before them a new life, in a new Colony unlike any other. After nearly four months, the Duke of Roxburgh finally reached the Gulf St. Vincent. Thomas had ordered a Manning cottage (a portable wooden house), and the family set up home in Finniss Street, North Adelaide. According to their son Charles, Martha was not very strong physically, and at first would not have adapted well to colonial life.
However, it is clear that Martha and Thomas were devoted to each other. To celebrate the couple’s 28th wedding anniversary in 1840, Thomas penned this poem for Martha:
The cheek that closely presses mine
Is furrow’d now by years,
For we have known the cares of life,
And we have wept its tears.
But God was ever kind to us,
Although the world was cold,
And we are growing happier
As we are growing old.
There seems a brighter world in view,
A home from sorrow free,
A dwelling of eternal years,
For my dear wife and me.
And O, the angel of my youth,
So good, and very fair,
I know will take her wings again,
And be my angel there.
Contributions to the Colony
By July 1842, most members of the Wilson family had become well ensconced in the life of the Colony. As Martha found friends amongst other wives who shared similar interests, she was at last able to join in with more of the social activities. While conversing with the other women she was no doubt relieved to find the best means of handling the many domestic inconveniences they often experienced.
Thomas, now an Alderman, had become established in his legal work. Although not keen to become greatly involved in public matters, he was persuaded to stand for the mayoralty in October 1842. But Thomas was elected Mayor when the Colony was at its lowest ebb, and the finances in very poor state indeed. He was to have little chance of improving it. As the Mayor, however, he was the first person in South Australia to give a public lecture on art. Thomas designed the Municipal City of Adelaide’s corporation seal; it is not difficult to imagine Martha’s influence here, nor later, for his 1854 lecture to the North Adelaide Institute on eminent female artists.
On 26 January 1858 at Childers Street, North Adelaide, Martha Wilson died, six years before her husband. She is buried in West Terrace Cemetery. Like her contemporary, Elizabeth Fisher, Martha had given birth to a family dynasty devoted to community service.
Charles Algernon became South Australia’s first Registrar of Probates as well as its first entomologist. Percy was the first headmaster of St. Peter’s College, Hackney. A grandson, Charles Ernest Cameron Wilson, became a doctor and was president of the South Australian Branch of the British Medical Association in 1931–32. A great-grandson, Sir Keith Cameron Wilson, solicitor and a prominent federal politician, founded Aged Cottage Homes (now ACH Group). Sir Keith’s son, Ian Bonython Cameron Wilson, followed his father into politics and is a former member of the federal House of Assembly. Descendant Shirley Cameron Wilson, who wrote her ancestors’ biography, was a talented artist in her own right.
Wilson, SC, and Borrow, KT, The Bridge over the Ocean, (Adelaide, Hyde Park Press, 1973)