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Thorpe Talbot

Geoff Adams —

Dunedin barely remembers but should honour a pioneer, formerly internationally famous, writer. She is Frances Ellen Talbot, who wrote under the name “Thorpe Talbot.” A celebrity as a popular novelist in her day, she was also journalist, travel writer, poet and author of fiction in short, and serial forms. She became one of New Zealand’s first and most successful writers. She had very strong links with Dunedin both in residence here and mention of the place and people in her writing. But she has since been largely forgotten by history.

Thorpe Talbot was often published in Australian and New Zealand newspapers, including the Otago Daily Times and the Otago Witness. Her greatest claim to fame was writing the novel Philiberta that won in 1881 the Melbourne Leader novel competition with £100 prize. This led to the story being serialised and then Ward, Lock & Co, of London, decided to publish it as a hard cover book in 1883.

was listed in the publisher’s “Select Library of Fiction” at 2 shillings a copy. Other authors on this included Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Sir Walter Scott, with Mark Twain in a special humour section. Mrs Beeton’s famous cook book was also on offer. Ward, Lock had offices in both London and New York and established an Australian office in 1884 that probably printed the special Coles Book Arcade Australian edition of Philiberta.

Talbot got a good financial deal on this book, receiving not only a purchase contract price but also a promised royalty on every copy sold.

It is difficult to compare the value of the Australian £100 prize money in 1881 with currency in 2015. One website (measuringworth.com) suggests it ranges from A$11,928 in purchasing power to an “income value” of A$81,520. Certainly this prize money together with the book purchase and royalties must have been sufficient for Talbot to afford a six months’ visit to California in 1886 , where she penned a series of travel articles that appeared in the Otago Witness in 1887 as well as other newspapers in Australia and New Zealand.

If money had been short, perhaps her lifelong friend Judge Dudley Ward, (not a relative of Ward the publisher but with rich contacts in England, and purchaser of lots of land in New Zealand) would have helped with some of her expenses. My book “Judge Ward” published in 2011 describes the pair’s relationship, with Talbot mainly living in the Maori Hill, Dunedin house once known as “The Rest” from the mid-1870s for more than 30 years. Since publication a distant relative of the Talbot family living in Australia recently got in touch with me, providing a few more facts about Frances’ early years in Australia.

This house (still standing in Pollock St) appears to have been secretly owned by the Judge from 1876 — although his ownership was not recorded on the title deed until immediately after his wife Anne, notable women’s suffragist and first national president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, died in Christchurch in 1896.

Judge Ward remarried to Frances Ellen Talbot (“Thorpe”) in “The Rest” on January 6 1902 when he was aged 74 and she 51, and he died in the house in 1913. In 1914 a glowing obituary of the Judge appeared in the Otago Daily Times, without signature but obviously written by Mrs Ward

Talbot’s youth was spent in Australia. She arrived there aged only three after being born in, Yorkshire, England in November 1850 and died in Dunedin in 1923. At the age of three her parents had separated, her mother Ellen migrated with her to Australia. Her father must have died as Mrs Talbot remarried four months after arrival in Australia to John Lund and they lived in various towns in Victoria, having six children. Frances Talbot must have received a good education and as a 15-year-old (inflating her age to 16 on the passenger list of the ship Otago) sailed alone to Hokitika in New Zealand in 1867. It was not long before she was touring New Zealand and started writing as Thorpe Talbot.

It is evident that she visited all the main centres in her youth and wrote her sharp-eyed New Guide to the Lakes and Hot Springs as well as appending a daringly cheeky and satirical second half to the book called A Month in Hot Springs. She also described many places in New Zealand, when Dunedin was then the principal city following the Otago goldrush.

Unfortunately copies of Philiberta are now rare and valuable items. The Hocken Collections has one that can only be read in the library. New Zealand’s only other known remaining copy is at the National Library, Wellington. “The Rest” house in Maori Hill is at 2 Pollock St, (built c. 1862).

My wish for the future is that a grave at the Anderson’s Bay Cemetery (Block 93, Plot 135) can be refurbished with a plaque acknowledging that Thorpe Talbot the writer lies below. At present it merely states “WARD” — and the foliage hid that when I was there.

“Dunedin will always live in my heart as the Queen City of New Zealand. The picturesque fashion in which it has spread itself over the hills, its handsome buildings and graceful, artistic and tall-spired churches, its tiny bay nestling in the hills, like a turquoise gem in an emerald and greenstone setting; its vividly bright aspects in fair weather, and its melancholy grey soft tints in the season of rain, when the clouds brood mournfully over the gloomy hills, its lively native bush and feathery forms, its small, clear babbling, sweetly named Water of Leith and its pretty waterfall, so prettily described in Thomas Bracken’s best poems . . . altogether Dunedin is a rare spot to tarry in.”
- Thorpe Talbot (From Philiberta.)