When Your First Love Is Your Last

I’ve been writing a bit about first loves, first kisses lately. It got me thinking about one of Sydney’s most famous ghosts – a woman who never got over her first love. In fact, she died from grief as a result of losing her love.

For those of you have read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations you will be familiar with the character of Miss Havisham. A woman jilted at the altar, she lives the rest of her life in mourning, going mad with grief, dressing only in the wedding dress she was wearing when she discovered her lover had gone, refusing to let the wedding banquet be cleared away.

When I first read this novel I was entranced by the character of Miss Havisham. Her eccentricity and extremism appealed to me, but at the back of my mind I thought: ‘No one would ever react like that in real life.’

Boy, was I wrong. It is a widely held belief that Charles Dickens based the character of Miss Havisham upon the very real and very tragic Eliza Donnithorne.

Eliza was the daughter of James Donnithorne, an East India Company Judge and Master of the Mint in Calcutta. Some versions of the story state that he arrived in Australia to retire in 1836, bringing Eliza with him. Her mother had died of cholera.

James and young Eliza settled in Camperdown Lodge in the Sydney suburb of Newtown.

 

in 1856, Eliza prepared to marry.  Her wedding was to be the event of the season. The banquet was laid out, the guests assembled, the coaches prepared to escort her the short distance to St Stephen’s church. But the groom never appeared.

Afterwards, she was left in the house alone, except for two faithful servants and the prepared wedding feast. She refused to let the banquet be cleared away, even when the rats took up residence on the table, claiming her love would return, remaining in her wedding dress. He never appeared and she died alone in 1886.

 

 

Eliza is buried in Camperdown cemetery, yet despite dying a wealthy lady as a result of all the property she inherited from her father, she did not have a headstone of her own. Her name appears on her father’s headstone, right at the bottom – Eliza Emily Donnithorne – in small lettering, as if an afterthought.

 

 

 

 Now this is where the story gets interesting.

When I was a student I lived in Newtown in the same street as the cemetery. My next-door neighbour, an elderly lady named Pearl believed that the ghost of Eliza Donnithorne walked in the cemetery grounds at night.

 

 

The church caretaker lived in this charming little cottage which still stands today. A friend of Pearl’s, he also believed Eliza walked at night.

When Pearl’s grandfather was a boy he had lived near Eliza’s home, Camperdown Lodge. All the local children believed it was haunted and crossed the street rather than walk directly in front of it. Once Pearl’s grandfather had peered through one of the windows and had seen a woman inside with long, bedraggled hair, moaning to herself. In 1920 Camperdown Lodge was burned to the ground and it was shortly after that local residents reported seeing a ghost in the cemetery.

 

 

 

Many of the locals still call this pathway, Eliza’s Walk. Many have seen a ghostly figure in a wedding dress trudging up and down the pathway on dark, moonless nights.

I was coming home from Uni one night. It was late, very dark. Imagine this pathway lit only by moonlight. The shadows were dense. I felt if I stepped into the cemetery I would plunge into nothingness, into a place where I would instantly be lost.

I can’t be sure if I was imagining it, it could quite easily have been a trick of the light, but I thought I saw her – Eliza herself. For the briefest of moments she stood framed by the moonlight, her white dress incandescent, otherworldly. I rubbed my eyes and she was gone. I still laugh about it, thinking I was a sentimental fool.

Yet every time I pass the cemetery I think of Eliza in her despair and her loneliness and I wonder if her longing for her love has trapped her in this place, destined to forever walk until her love reappears, her long, white dress dragging in the dirt.

 

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A big THANK YOU to Puddock from The View From The Pond for giving me this wonderful award last month.

 

 

And of course, it is only now that I am getting around to thanking her. I discovered Puddock’s blog when I was doing a search for good blogs from the UK and hers came up. Based in Scotland, it is often a walk down memory lane for me when I read her blog. Just as often I leave feeling a little teary.

Thank you for this honour, dear Puddock. I am very grateful.

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27 thoughts on “When Your First Love Is Your Last

  1. I loved this story – I want to know more! I couldn’t wait to get to the end of the post to find out what happened. I’m sure you saw her ghost! Spooky!

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  2. What an interesting and intriguing story and walk down a memory lane from so long ago.

    I have seen several people who have passed on, I believe wholeheartedly that they are still with us and can appear to us at times. You probably did see this woman Selma. Amazing but certainly possible.

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  3. TBALL – it is a really fascinating story.There are really interesting stories about Eliza’s life after the wedding day. She lived in her house with her two servants who were sisters and she never went out. They handled all her affairs and when she died she left them her fortune. The rest of the house was tidy except for the room where the wedding banquet was going to be held and the smell from all the rotting food spread right down the street. Sounds like a good movie, doesn’t it?

    HILLY – there were rumours he was paid off by her father or that he was involved with another, wealthier woman. I also read somewhere that her father had him killed. No one seems to know for sure.

    EPIPHANY – it is a tragic tale, isn’t it? She must’ve really loved him to mourn him for that long. Her story is part of local folklore now.

    GERALDINE – I can’t say for sure. Sometimes the power of suggestion can make us see things that aren’t really there. However, I have seen a few ghosts in my time, so you never know!

    KATE – that is one of the stories. There is widespread belief that she was pregnant and had a son who was given up for adoption to a family named Kelly who were quite a well-known family in the Newtown area(still are, I believe). Apparently, she knew of his existence because she got her maids to give him money on a regular basis but according to many sources they never met. Can you tell I’ve researched this? Believe it or not I have written a novel about one of her descendants. Haven’t looked at it for years. Many people believed Eliza was a witch. I took that premise as the starting point for my novel, so you can guess what her modern-day descendant was….maybe it’s time to get it out of the drawer….

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  4. well as one who has begged for a ghost of my own,, and never really received one,, even for a moment,, i was surprised in the last year or so with two such happenings,, not visual so much as in act… i do believe.. i always have.. and now i am sure,, i know…

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  5. I have read Great Expectations a number of times and had no idea there was an Australian connection! This astounds me! Love stories like this! Now I am kicking myself that I did not visit that cemetery when I was a student at Sydney Uni! I certainly had the opportunity!

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  6. PAISLEY – many people scoff but I do believe. I’ve seen too many things to think otherwise. Quite an incredible revelation, really.

    NAT – it was a sad tale. Real life can sometimes be much more tragic than fiction, don’t you think?

    KAREN – definitely something I’d get in a time machine for. I want to know. I want to know…..

    GEMMA – you’ll just have to visit the next time you travel to Sydney. Now that would be great.What a pleasure to hear from you!

    ANTHONY – there are so many ghost stories out there. I really love the Irish ones. Very spooky. There are so many haunted houses in Ireland. I’ve been in one or two of them and it was chilling. I also love a good ghost story.

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  7. I loved this story. You’ve written a novel about one of her descendants? Where can I get a copy? Is it published?

    They say that grief so deep can send us mad and it certainly sounds like poor Eliza had gone over the edge. I couldn’t help focusing on the wedding banquet being left out for the rats to eat. Even in my deepest grief I think I’d have to get the glad wrap out and get that lot into the fridge.

    Congrats on your blog award young miss. Can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.

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  8. GYPSY – sadly, it isn’t published but I read some of it today and it’s not bad. I really should get my finger out and re-edit it.
    I am so like you – I would have had the tupperware containers and the glad wrap out in a flash. I hate rats, especially Sydney rats. Gross. Puddock was very kind to give me that award. She is lovely.

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  9. LINDA – now that’s not a bad idea. It might just be what I need to get myself out of my novel-writing rut. For some reason I seem to have lost faith in myself. Thanks for your constant encouragement.

    RICHARD – nobody knows. I researched it exhaustively. I even spoke to a couple of historians at Sydney University and they couldn’t say for sure. One day, I hope to find out!

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  10. MELEAH – I can’t be sure. You know that way you think you saw something but it’s not definite in your mind? I like to think I did see her though and that the local legend is real!

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  11. one afternoon in 1991 while living in sydney, I was walking from the suburb of annandale across to newtown and listening on a walkman to a radio broadcast of the story of eliza donnithorne. I happened to be passing the walls of camperdown cemetry just as the radio narrator was describing eliza’s death and burial there. I felt such an overwhelming sympathy an admiration for eliza that I wanted to immediately see her grave. I found the entrance to the cemetry. I almost turned back when I saw all the graves before me. Which one could be Eliza’s. Without thinking I started to walk quickly down the central avenue. I turned to the left walked a little more and suddenly stopped and turned a half circle. There before me was a headstone with the name eliza donnithorne.

    It might have been by sheer chance that I happened to walk straight to her grave that day but I felt that I was being drawn by her great and powerful spirit From that uncanny experience I can well believe that her ghost has appeared to others in the same cemetry.

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  12. GERARD – thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your incredible story. I am blown away. That was definitely happenstance. I am a little lost for words but delighted to hear from you. I really appreciate the visit!

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  13. Hi Selma,

    Just a quick note to say I like your article about Eliza Donnithorne’s ghost, there are many ghost stories associated with that historic cemetery.

    Check out the following URL, Click On: http://www.ssdec.nsw.edu.au/history/camperdown/watson.html

    Please find here following a famous story recounted in the early 1970’s about Eliza written by a man called Colbert Moore, he was a journalist with old Sydney paper The Sun. A childhood resident of Newtown in the years after Eliza’s death his parents had helped her very elderly servants the Bailey sisters, who told them this story about it all.

    Alan

    ==============================================

    Jilted Bride Became Famous Newtown Legend

    ‘The Sun’, Daily Magazine, Stories of Australia’s History.
    By Colbert Moore.

    NEWTOWN may not look a very romantic suburb compared with Darling Point, King’s Cross or even Fairy Bower at Manly.

    But woven into its history is a love story that no other Sydney suburb can match. It is the story of the Judge’s daughter, beautiful Eliza Emily Donnithorne, who was laid to rest in Newtown cemetery some time in May, 1886, with a broken heart.

    After having faithfully served the East India Company’s Bengal Service for many a day, Judge Donnithorne retired and took up residence in Sydney. He brought with him his lovely daughter, Eliza Emily, and the couple moved into a fine mansion called Camperdown Lodge in King Street, Newtown.

    In those days the suburb was considered quite posh. Being a raving beauty Eliza Emily Donnithorne created a furor amongst the eligible young men in Sydney. She particularly inflamed the passions of a young gentleman named Mr Cuthbertson, Eliza was likewise aroused.

    Judge Donnithorne who had a nasty liver, probably from too much curry and gin consumed in India, didn’t like the idea of anyone taking his daughter from him and did not hesitate to give Mr Cuthbertson an insight into his feelings. A direct result was that his daughter took to climbing out her bedroom window at Camperdown Lodge to exchange a kiss or two with her admirer. Whenever he could, the Judge would intrude on this romantic maneuver with the result that the courtship became quite nerve-wracking business.

    Eventually Mr Cuthbertson swore that he would not come near the house unless he was assured that the fiery father was out for the night.

    In spite of the Judge’s opposition the love match developed to the point where there was no use opposing it further. Judge Donnithorne tartly told his lovely daughter that even though she was marrying beneath her he would no longer oppose the union between her and Mr Cuthbertson. Wile giving his reluctant blessing he could not resist adding the comment that the young man would desert Eliza Emily after he had taken the best years of her life from her.

    The girl said she would take any risk involved and a formal note was sent to Mr Cuthbertson advising him that he was required to present himself at Camperdown Lodge, King Street Newtown, if he wished to hear something to his advantage.

    Cuthbertson turned up and Judge Donnithorne had a word with him. It was made clear that the Judge didn’t really want to hand over his lovely daughter and if Cuthbertson made one false move after the wedding ceremony he would be hit with a whole series of legal mallets.

    It was explained to the young man that the wedding would take place on a certain date in 1848 at Camperdown Lodge and that he would be required to turn up on time. The Judge said that he personally would take care of all the arrangements and all that was expected of the groom was that he say “I do” when ordered to do so.

    The whole show was to take place at Camperdown Lodge. Eventually everything was ready for the nuptial knot to be tied. The guests were assembled and Emily was ready in her bridal gown to be given away by her liverish father into a state of holy wedlock.

    But where was young Mr Cuthbertson?.

    Where was he indeed. Sad to say Cuthbertson had decided that while he loved Emily ardently he just could not imagine spending the rest of his life being nagged by a father in law like Judge Donnithorne. On that note the bridegroom had decided not to enter the normally cherished bonds of holy matrimony.

    It took some time for everyone waiting at Camperdown Lodge to realize the significance of this decision. Disappointed as the wedding guests were they generally agreed that it would be a sin to waste the splendid wedding feast that had been prepared. All eyes were turned towards the banqueting chamber when the young bride, normally a gentle uncomplaining soul cried in a bitter voice: “No one shall touch the wedding feast. My bridegroom shall come to me through that front door. Everything shall remain exactly as it is until he shall come!”.

    After speaking her mind Emily fainted away and the wedding guests left hungry. From that day on Miss Donnithorne became quite strange. She insisted on leaving the front door Camperdown Lodge wide open. She wanted Mr Cuthbertson to be able to walk right in should he decide to return to her. Judge Donnithorne was irritated by this open door policy and kept slamming the portal shut. Every time he closed the door his daughter would quietly open it again. One result of all this was that Camperdown Lodge was subject to the invasion of flies, mosquitoes, cats and dogs. Miss Donnithorne didn’t seem to mind, but her father certainly did.

    Eventually the angry Judge Donnithorne tried scare tactics on his daughter. He warned her that the ever open door was a clear invitation to thieves and robbers and even murderers to walk right in and do their wicked deeds. The girl was no so touched in the head that she failed to see the wisdom of his argument. In fact she came to around to completely agreeing with her father. But she did not stop leaving the front door open.

    She bought a huge and savage mastiff and tethered it in the hall as a guard dog. As time passed Miss Donnithorne did not lose her faith that one day her Mr Cuthbertson would come back to her. Against that day the wedding feast remained just as it was. The food of course began moldering away, the cutlery became tarnished and dust settled on the fine linen table cloths.

    In May 1852, four years after the projected wedding day, Judge Donnithorne died and was buried in the Newtown cemetery. His daughter was now 24 and alone in the world except for her two female servants. With no man about the house it became clear that Miss Donnithorne could not continue to leave the door open day and night. The guard dog was not enough. So she put a chain on the door and left it partly open – wide enough perhaps for Mr Cuthbertson to poke his head through and call out that he had arrived at last.

    Eliza Emily became ever odder. She refused to leave the house even for a minute or two on the grounds that she wanted to be home to greet her lover if and when he did come back to her.

    The two servants did the shopping but they never spoke to anyone other than to place their orders. Beggars in the area got to know that if they went to the chained door at Camperdown Lodge in King Street and asked for charity a white hand would appear with a coin. Miss Donnithorne may have been a recluse but she had retained her philanthropic instincts. In May, 1886, just 34 years to the month after her father had passed away, the tragic woman died at the age of 58. She was buried in Newtown cemetery beside Judge Donnithorne.

    The years rolled away but the strange and romantic legend of the pretty lady in the locked house with the uneaten wedding breakfast lived on particularly in the Newtown area.

    In 1907 Camperdown Lodge was demolished, but nothing could kill the story associated with it. In 1912 a Sydney journalist found himself wondering if the legend was really true. He was intrigued by a popular belief that Charles Dickens the famous writer had used the case of Miss Donnithorne as a model for his Miss Havisham in his book “Great Expectations.” The parallels between the judge’s daughter and the fictional character were too strong to be purely coincidental, people claimed.

    The journalist began probing around Newtown and eventually tracked down the two servants who had served Miss Donnithorne for much of her life time. They were now very old. One seemed willing to talk when the other sharply stopped her, saying: “Remember, we know nothing. Our lips are sealed to everyone and everything.” After that the old woman had nothing more to say.

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  14. ALAN – thanks for your very thorough comment. It just goes to show that the tale of Eliza Donnithorne is an enduring one. I appreciate you taking the time to comment and for the extra info. Very interesting. I hope that someday someone gets to the bottom of what really happened.

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  15. Hi Selma, I think what happened is pretty well attested, but given the distance in time and fact it all happened behind closed doors it gives the air of other worldly mystery people love so much. Newtown in the 1840’s was only a small rurual town, rolling hills and countryside unlike the urban sprawl of today, Australia hardly existed, small under populated colonies trying to carve a country out of the wilderness with convict labor. What amazes me is people like them, the Donnithorne’s, even settled given their wealth blue blood. It really must have been like living in the jungle!.

    Alan

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  16. ALAN – that is a very pertinent point – it must have been a huge shock to some of these people when they set foot in Newtown. They were used to a much grander existence. I have really enjoyed your input on this. Thank you so much!

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