Mary Ann and Captain Piper by Jessica North

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

Colonial Australia contains many stories. Some are dominant and so are often seen as the only stories of the colony’s founding years while others have bubbled below the surface waiting for an opportunity to speak and be heard.

Jessica North’s biography of Mary Ann Sheers who became the lover and later wife of Captain John Piper tells a story that has been hidden in shadow for two hundred years. Born on Norfolk Island and the daughter of convicts, Mary Ann caught the eye of Captain John Piper who rose through the ranks of the New South Wales Corps to be appointed as the Lieutenant-Governor of Norfolk Island in 1804. Piper was charming and flirtatious who managed to father nine illegitimate children with five different mothers. It is a credit to Mary Ann’s strength and perseverance that she not only continued the relationship but also married Piper who, as North points out, had not given it much thought until she raised it with the future of their children in mind. By then, Mary Ann had borne five children to Piper and another was on the way. The only problem was that Mary Ann and Piper had been living together for some years and, in the minds of their friends, family and acquaintances, they were already a married couple so a special licence had to be obtained and a small quiet service of marriage conducted in St Philip’s Church Sydney.

Colonial women who had given birth to children out of wedlock were, more often than not, ostracised by society at that time. Mary Ann managed to avoid that and, in the process, transform herself into a person of fashion and substance who organised and hosted parties and balls at the Piper’s grand home in what is now Point Piper one of Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

North’s attention to detail gives us a rich description of life in colonial Sydney as it changed from a penal settlement into a thriving centre of trade and commerce. Piper’s position as Naval or Customs Officer placed him and Mary Ann at the centre of Sydney’s social and political life.

Unfortunately, this hectic activity meant that the Pipers lived beyond their means. This came to a head in 1827 when in order to pay debts all the properties and assets were sold in order to meet the monies owed to creditors. The Pipers then departed Sydney to make a more modest life in the growing settlement of Bathurst.

By telling Mary Ann’s story, North shows us that colonial life was more than just explorers and convicts. Mary Ann and her contemporaries such as Elizabeth MacArthur, Mary Reibey and Sarah Wills were strong willed and held their own in both the business and social worlds in which they lived and operated. North’s research enables us to see the rich and vibrant life of early Sydney as it grew to become the capital city of the State of New South Wales.

Jessica North loves to research and reveal the lives of women of early colonial Australia. She is the author of Esther: The extraordinary true story of the First Fleet girl who became First Lady of the colony.

Mary Ann & Captain Piper

by Jessica North


Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 176087 943 3

$34.99; 346pp

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