Lady Teresa Hamilton, the Outspoken Governor's Wife


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Teresa Hamilton arrived in Tasmania in March 1887, when her husband, Sir Robert Hamilton, became Governor. She undertook the social activities expected of the governor's wife with panache but, being a forceful lady, she was imbued with new ideas of the activities suitable for women, such as were becoming popular in Britain. 

Sir Robert, having become 'tainted by sympathy for Irish home rule' as Secretary to the Irish Administration in Dublin, was removed from this position and instead, at the age of 50, was made Governor of Tasmania (his wife was then 35) in 1887 until 1892. Hamilton seems a quiet, pleasant figure. He much enjoyed pottering in the gardens of Government House, clipping the hedges and lying in a hammock.

When Maud Montgomery arrived in 1889 as wife of the Bishop of Tasmania, their paths started to cross and ultimately the two strong-minded women end up not seeing eye to eye.

Lady Hamilton arranged, sometimes even delivered herself, lectures on health, diet, sanitation, first aid, nursing and hygiene, open to women of all classes. She formed the Nursing Band which later became the District Nursing Association and involved herself in a women's refuge home, education for girls, sanitary reform and temperance activity. Other interests were women's sport, art and the still-existing Hamilton Literary Society which met at Bishopscourt a number of times in 1890. In two areas she encouraged women to influence public opinion and try to change laws. Teresa Hamilton left Tasmania with its structure much as it had been before her arrival, but with women of all classes shown how to play a more active role in that structure. 

Sanitation and Public Health

Shortly after Teresa Hamilton arrived in the colony, in September 1887, she delivered an address to the women of the colony, on the topic "Sanitation and Public Health".

"To speak in public for the sake of speaking is nor my habit", she said, but she would not be doing her duty as the wife of the Governor if she did not help him improve the colony's health. Their son had had typhoid, and nursing him inspired her to act. She urged women to co-operate with her and learn to nurse intelligently and help stop typhoid spreading. "The situation cries for reform." People must appeal to the City Council to act, and to builders of houses. Mothers should burn all impurities, ventilate rooms, and clean stagnant gutters in front of houses. 

The St John's Ambulance Brigade was established in Hobart in 1887, and from 1889, at the instigation of Teresa Hamilton, held lectures on first aid and nursing. The eight lectures cost three shillings.

 In 1891, she gave a series to the Young Women's Christian Association on Health, Hygiene, Food and Clothing. She explained to her audiences the difference between nitrogenous and carbonaceous food, and urged a balanced diet of fruit and vegetables, meat, grains, cheese and milk puddings and the avoidance of unwholesome food. She condemned alcohol, and spoke about digestion and "banting" (slimming).

Hamilton Literary Society and the Showdown at Government House

The association for which Teresa Hamilton is best known, probably because it bears her name, is the still-existing Hamilton Literary Society. In July 1889, she invited a number of ladies to Government House to form a literary group, which she named, rather condescendingly, the Nil Desperandum Society. In August 1890, Teresa Hamilton entertained about a hundred women at Government House to celebrate the Society's first anniversary, but trouble soon arose. In the following summer, Hobart was packed with visitors, including six naval ships, and Teresa Hamilton gave the most glamorous ball the city had ever seen. 

Not surprisingly, the January meeting of the Nil Desperandum Society was sparsely attended, and in the next month a full-scale argument erupted with Maud Montgomery trying to act as peacemaker. This culminated in a showdown and mass resignations in February 1891. Read about 'Showdown at Government House' here.

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The Final Days of Lady Hamilton in Hobart

In the week before she left, Teresa Hamilton certainly undertook a variety of activities, as well as supervising the packing of a large household after a residence of six years.

She also personally supervised the decoration of the Government House reception rooms with maidenhair fern and scarlet cacti. This was done in preparation for a large reception at Government House, to which a thousand people came (including Lady Dobson, Miss E. Dobson, the Misses Walker, ].B. Walker, but not the Maults). Five hundred and fifty shook hands with the Hamiltons, "all anxious to say farewell to the most generally popular Governor and Governor's wife we have had for many years". The  viceregal couple was presented with an address from the City Council, in which Lady Hamilton's "unostentatious charity, benevolence, and bright example" were praised, and later she was presented with addresses from the women of southern, then northern, Tasmania.

The southern women, organised by a committee which was headed by Lady Dobson and Mrs Montgomery, collected money to present Teresa Hamilton with a diamond ring, but she intimated that she could not accept so handsome a present. So she received a gold bangle, and the rest of the money went to the Benevolent Society. The presentation and the commitree's words of gratitude for her "work amongst us" so affected Teresa Hamilton that she found some difficulty in replying; then she thanked the ladies, and said that her activities were done from a sense of duty first and pleasure afterwards, and that she had made so many friends that she would always look back on her Tasmanian years with delight.

This was only a year after the Literary Club quarrel, but either everyone was conscious of saying the right thing, or they had indeed come to admire Teresa Hamilton's qualities.