Mary Gilbert: Melbourne’s first mother

Mary Gilbert: Melbourne’s first mother
Sylvia Black

There has been much publicity lately about the large imbalance in the numbers of statues of men as opposed to women in Melbourne.

A google search puts it at 580 to 10!  One of these 10 statues is in the Conservatory in the Fitzroy Gardens, hidden away among the foliage.

The work was commissioned in 1975 to celebrate International Women’s Year. The sculptor was Ailsa O’Connor who used her own daughter as the model, there being no record of the subject’s appearance, she having died almost 100 years earlier.

The subject selected for this statue was Mary Gilbert. She was the first European woman to give birth to a child in what was to become Melbourne. The child was born on December 29, 1835, and his name originally was John Port Phillip Gilbert.

However, by the time he was baptised on April 30, 1837, in the small timber procathedral of St James in William St, the new town had been given its name and the baby became John Melbourne Gilbert.

The pregnant Mary had sailed to Port Phillip on the Enterprize with her blacksmith husband, James, arriving on August 30, 1835. Both were servants of John Pascoe Fawkner. Mary was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1805. In 1826 she was convicted of housebreaking in company with her first husband and other family members. She was sentenced to seven years transportation and arrived in Tasmania aboard the Harmony on January 14, 1829. Her husband was sent to NSW.  She was free by servitude in 1833 and married James the same year.

She and James worked initially for Fawkner, and they were still in Melbourne in 1848 when her youngest son, William was born. He too was baptised at St James. By the 1870s they were living with William, then described as a labourer, in Berthong, west of Young, NSW, and it was here that James died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1876.

By the following year Mary, William, his pregnant wife Jane, his young son, and also his brother John, were living in South Talbingo, near Tumut on the edge of the Snowy Mountains, sharing two small bark humpies.  They had nothing, a few rags for bedding and only the clothes they were wearing.  Here William’s wife, Jane, gave birth to a still-born child and soon after died herself of the extreme cold.  One day in early March 1878 John was at work on a station some miles away and William was off in the bush splitting timber. Mary huddled over a small fire, she got too close and soon her clothes were ablaze.  The boy splashed some water over her but she could not be saved. •

Sylvia Black, secretary, East Melbourne Historical Society  


Image: Photo by Marion Shepherd, 2023

Like us on Facebook