Sarah Pettit, the Macarthurs’ first servant?

The vast array of documents associated with Elizabeth Farm list hundreds of employees, both men and women, from assigned and emancipated convicts to those ‘born free’ in the colony. One significant name has, however, remained elusive – the very first. Now curator Dr Scott Hill has discovered a likely candidate.

From both private and official documents we know the names of many women who worked for the Macarthur family at Elizabeth Farm. There were the housemaids Jane Mead and Margaret Shepherd; ‘poor old Nelly Killpack’,1 and her daughter Elinor who would marry the estate gardener Andrew Murray; and laundress Bridget (‘Biddy’) Murphy, to name just a few. One notable question, however, has remained unanswered – the identity of the lone female servant who accompanied Elizabeth and John Macarthur with their infant son Edward on their original voyage to NSW, on the Second Fleet, in 1790.

The voyage was disastrous, with sickness rife and a horrific death toll among the convicts. John Macarthur himself almost died on the second leg of the voyage. The unknown servant is mentioned briefly in Elizabeth’s journal in a description of conditions on board the Neptune,2 the only ship in the fleet that carried female convicts:

About this time my poor little Boy was taken very ill & continued in a most pitiable weak state during our passage to the Cape. Added to this, my Servant was attack’d by a Fever, that reigned among the women Convicts; and I had hourly every reason to expect that the infection would be communicated to us, as our apartments were so immediately connected with those of the women.3

What is not recorded, here or in any other papers, is the servant’s name. We know that she was a free woman first employed in England, and not an assigned convict, as Elizabeth wrote to her mother a year later that ‘[the] same woman is with me that had charge of Edward when I visited you from Plymouth’.4 But who was she, and what became of her?

A later clue

The answers to these questions may be revealed in a letter written years later, in 1822, from John Macarthur junior in London to his sister Elizabeth at Paramatta. Named for his father, John was the Macarthurs’ third child, born in May 1794.5 Since 1801 he had been living in England for his education and then begun a promising career in the law and politics.

He wrote to his sister, named for their mother, that their ‘old nurse’ – a woman named Sarah Pettit – had sought him out. Sarah had spoken to him of Elizabeth Farm and their parents, which indicates that she had definitely lived at the Parramatta estate. John wrote:

Our old nurse Sarah Pettit found me out some weeks since … She looks well and respectable in her dress – very little older than when she left us – I know not how many years since. She inquired often for her dear master and mistress and Miss Elizabeth, and said she would find her way back to be under their roof if she did not feel herself bound to remain here, and attend on an old uncle, now very infirm, with whom she resides.

Sarah had hopes of using her connection with the Macarthurs to enter the colonial textile market. She ‘begged me’, wrote John,

to send out for her a small parcel of lace in order to ascertain whether a larger quantity would find a market thro’ your kind assistance in the colony. From the enclosed, you will see the quality of pieces, and you will find the lace stuff in the tin box under Captain Lethbridge’s care. The prices, she says, are those charged by the makers, and I promised, if worth more in the colony, to remit the balance.6

John was clearly happy to assist, and confident his sister would be also.

That Sarah was nurse to both John and Elizabeth – that is, their nurserymaid – means that she must have worked for the Macarthurs from at least 1792, when Elizabeth was born, until 1801 at the very latest, when Macarthur returned to England, taking with him the three eldest children, Edward, Elizabeth junior and John junior. It is therefore a fair assumption that she was the servant from the 1790 voyage, who was still with the family in 1791. If so, some details of her life over the coming years can be reconstructed.

Sarah Pettit, nee Richardson

The Nursery Maid is generally a girl who does the household work of the nursery, and attends the children when they go out for the air, &c. carrying such of them as may be required.—Wages 6 to 10 guineas.

Samuel and Sarah Adams, The complete servant: being a practical guide to the peculiar duties and business of all descriptions of servants, from the housekeeper to the servant of all-work, and from the land steward to the foot-boy, Knight & Lacey, London, 1825

There was indeed a Sarah Pettit in the colony in the 1790s. A Sarah Richardson had married Zadoc (sometimes written as ‘Zadock’ or ‘Zedock’7) Pettit, a private in the newly formed NSW Corps, at St Philip’s Church on 21 May 1793. As Zadoc was enlisted, he had to request permission to marry, which request was approved by Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose. The couple must have been illiterate, as both signed the registry with an ‘X’. Sarah likely met her future husband through John Macarthur, who as lieutenant and then captain of the Corps was one of Pettit’s superior officers. Both Pettit and Macarthur had arrived on the Second Fleet, and Pettit may have been stationed on board the Neptune or the Scarborough, the two ships on which the Macarthurs travelled and which also carried a Corps detachment. Perhaps he met Sarah on deck, or while she fetched water for her mistress from the ship’s supply. Frustratingly, the name Sarah Richardson does not appear on any ship’s manifest for the first or second fleets, an omission that could be explained by her role as a private servant in the Macarthurs’ cabin, rather than being a transported convict, ship’s crew, or member of the military.

Daily dress

One of the key features that would have distinguished Sarah from the convict women around her in NSW was her clothing. The provision of clothing was a significant issue in the early years of the colony. The small amount that was issued to convict women in Britain before their departure (supplemented by any personal clothing) quickly wore out, and for several years it was nearly impossible to replace items. Initially, Sarah’s clothes would have been better fitting and of a noticeably higher quality than those of the convict women around her. Though she would have been more simply and cheaply dressed than her mistress, Sarah as a free woman would have arrived with her own wardrobe – her standard dress was a chemise with stays, a cotton gown and fichu (a light scarf worn around the shoulders), high-fitting apron and bonnet, and a jacket when out of doors – and she may also have received hand-me-downs from Elizabeth’s own clothing. Sewing, for repairs and adjustments, would have formed an important part of her domestic role.

Zadoc, wearing the bright red of his regimental uniform coat with its yellow facings – the contrasting lining which was exposed on the upturned collar and cuffs8 – and stark white cross-bands, would have been instantly recognisable as a member of the NSW Corps. The uniform was broadly similar to that seen in the 1808 cartoon of Governor Bligh being arrested, though in that famous view the soldiers wear the tall cylindrical ‘shako’ hat with its plume, which was only added to the uniform after 1802.

Land grants

In 1794, Zadoc was granted 25 acres in what became known as the ‘Field of Mars’ (today the Sydney suburb of Ryde), where many of the military had received land.9 Two years later, on 15 September 1796, Sarah also received a grant – 20 acres adjacent to her husband’s. Sarah’s is the only obviously female name to appear on the grants delineated in the map of the ‘Plan of the Settlements in New South Wales’ drawn up that same year by Charles Grimes, the Deputy Surveyor General (in the following years Elizabeth Macarthur would also receive a succession of grants, though substantially larger than Sarah’s and across the colony). A land grant was a standard incentive offered to soldiers – but not their superiors – to settle in a colony. In NSW, however, this benefit was extended to officers such as Macarthur, who received the first grant for Elizabeth Farm in 1793. As an incentive to settle down and farm, however, the Pettits’ grants were questionable. Sarah’s was sold almost immediately, passing in a series of quick sales to John Macarthur himself. Zadoc’s grant was sold in 1800. The rapid exchanges of these and neighbouring grants raise questions as to Macarthur’s and other officers’ influence and involvement behind the scenes, and particularly whether Pettit had an arrangement with his superiors.

Elizabeth Farm

Other than these few references, Sarah remains an elusive figure. If, as seems likely, she was indeed the Macarthurs’ first servant, then after disembarking she would have lived with the family at their first Sydney home, a rough hut. Shortly afterwards she would have moved with them to a more substantial, two-roomed brick dwelling, which had been vacated by a departing officer from the First Fleet Marine Corps, whom the NSW Corps were replacing. As it was a small cottage, Sarah likely slept in the adjoining kitchen building. It was here in this house that Elizabeth junior was born.

In December 1793, seven months after Sarah and Zadoc married, the Macarthurs moved to their newly built home at Parramatta, and six months later another son, John junior, was born. As a nurserymaid Sarah must have still lived with them, while Zadoc (who in 1798 was listed as being in ‘Captain M’Arthur’s regiment’10) was likely in the garrison stationed at Parramatta, only a short walk away. In these early years, the house at Elizabeth Farm was only a simple cottage – albeit one of the largest private dwellings in the colony, and even fractionally larger than the nearby Government House at Parramatta. Here, Sarah may have slept in the main house, to be closer to the children.

Female companionship

… having no female friend to unbend my mind to, nor a single Woman with whom I could converse with any satisfaction to myself …

Elizabeth Macarthur to Bridget Kingdon, 7 March 1791. Mrs Elizabeth Macarthur, journal and correspondence 1789–1840, State Library of NSW, A2906

In those first years in the colony, Elizabeth, who had farewelled her close friend Bridget Kingdon in England, felt keenly the lack of female companionship. Educated, and interested in the world around her, she instead struck up friendships with several of her husband’s fellow officers, with whom she discussed nature, astronomy and music. Though in later years there were several women servants in the Elizabeth Farm household, in that first year Sarah would have been Elizabeth’s main female companion. She was a constant presence in the household and can be reliably ‘written in’ to various events. In March 1790, for example, Elizabeth described the interaction between the colonists and Aboriginal people: ‘Bannylong and Coleby, with their wives, come in frequently’, she wrote. ‘Mrs Coleby, whose name is Daringe [Daringa], brought in a newborn female infant of hers for me to see about six weeks since ... I ordered something for the poor woman to eat, and had her taken proper care of for some little while. When she first presented herself to me she appeared feeble and faint. She has since been regular in her visits.’ It was most likely Sarah who brought food for Daringa at Elizabeth’s instruction, though her own interaction with the young Aboriginal woman, and what she herself thought of an encounter so beyond anything in her past experience, can only be imagined.


THE undermentioned persons have obtained His Excellency’s permission to depart the Colony, in His Majesty’s Ship Buffalo; viz. Zadock Pettit, John Williams.

Sydney Gazette, 11 January 1807

The later relationship between the Pettits and the Macarthurs is hazy at best. Zadoc was discharged from the NSW Corps on 24 October 1799 because of injury, and it is thought that he worked in the Parramatta area after that. Following the customary announcement in the Gazette, the couple left the colony in early 1807. In 1838 Emmeline Macarthur, born in 1810, referred to her ‘old nursery maid Mary Denning’, giving a name to Sarah’s replacement in that role. The conversation that John junior records in his 1822 letter to his sister, revealing that Sarah’s infirm relative was now her focus, suggests that Zadoc must have died in the intervening years. With this tantalising glimpse, the story of Sarah Pettit, her connection to Elizabeth Farm, and her attempt at laceworking entrepreneurship, ends.


1. Elizabeth Macarthur to her son Edward, 12 October 1842, State Library of NSW, ML A2907. Though she had married Thomas Higgins in 1799, in 1842 the elderly Eleanor was still referred to as ‘Killpack’, the surname of her first husband, David Killpack (d 1797), who had also worked for the Macarthurs.

2. The Macarthurs and their servant transferred to the Scarborough once the ships reached Cape Town.

3. Mrs Elizabeth Macarthur, journal and correspondence 1789–1840, State Library of NSW, A2906. Written between 1789 and 1798, Elizabeth’s journal provides an account of the Macarthurs’ journey to Australia, and then of the colony’s first years, from a rare female perspective.

4. Elizabeth Macarthur to her mother, Grace Veale, in Cornwall, 18 March 1791. Mrs Elizabeth Macarthur, journal and correspondence, 1789–1840, State Library of NSW, A2906.

5. Their second child, an unnamed daughter, died in childbirth and was buried at sea.

6. Letter from John Macarthur junior to his sister Elizabeth, 7 December 1822. State Library of NSW

7. The name may be familiar from the anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’ that has been a part of British coronations since 1727, when it was composed by Handel for George II. The title references the Jewish high priest Zadok, who anointed the head of King Solomon (in 1 Kings 1:38–40).

8. The similarly dressed marines had uniform facings of white. See R H Montague, Dress and insignia of the British Army in Australia and New Zealand 1770–1870, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1981.

9. Mars, the Roman god of war, was associated symbolically with the military.

10. The family originally spelled the name M’Arthur, then McArthur, settling on Macarthur by the late 1820s.

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Dr Scott Hill

Dr Scott Hill


Formal studies in architecture, along with travels through Asia and Europe, furthered Scott’s interest in colonial building, domestic design and the intrinsic relationship between architecture and landscape.

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