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Two long distance relationships — one from the nineteenth and the other from the twentieth century — come to life through letters in the State Library of NSW collection.
The first, between Elizabeth Waterhouse and George Bass involved a lightning courtship. They had known each other for just two months when they married on 8 October 1800 at St James’s Church in London. He was 29 and she was 32, and it was only after the ceremony that George wrote to Elizabeth’s father seeking his blessing for their union.
George had only recently returned from his journey as ship surgeon on Matthew Flinders’ 1798–99 voyage. The expedition had circumnavigated Tasmania, and the waters between the island and the mainland — Bass Strait — now bear his name.
Ten weeks after the wedding, George set sail for Sydney, leaving Elizabeth behind. He had left his naval career for a commercial venture — with business partner Charles Bishop, he purchased the brig Venus and a cargo of goods to sell in Port Jackson. For the next two years, he sailed between Sydney, the far south of New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii, buying and selling goods.
George wrote the first of a series of letters to his wife from Portsmouth, even before his ship had set sail, sending the letter back with the boatman who took him to his brig in a small vessel.
‘My dear Bess,’ he wrote on 9 January 1801, ‘I have no cash to entrust to your care and have only time to say God bless you my love. Remember me to our father most kindly Adieu adieu. Yours most affect’ly, Geo Bass.’
He would write to her whenever he reached a port with a ship going back to England. His first letter written at sea took seven months to reach Elizabeth, and her replies express her longing for their reunion. As she wrote in August 1801, ‘be ashured my dear you have never been out of my thoughts a moment since we parted, and I must be wonderfully changed if you ever are’.
The Library is fortunate to hold both sides of this correspondence, having purchased 22 letters at an auction in 1998. Although it spans a short timeframe (compared to the letters of some other distant lovers), it runs to 107 closely written pages.
These affectionate letters not only provide an insight into a romantic relationship from an earlier era, but also offer a personal perspective on historical events. Elizabeth Bass’ letters detail the preoccupations and fears of the English middle class at a time when war with Napoleon and France was imminent. From Sydney, George Bass writes that Governor King was not well liked nor respected — ‘His death would have been little lamented here’.
But the letters stand out most for their intimacy. George enjoyed teasing ‘his Bess’, as he did in a long letter of 3 January 1803:
I wish Bess I could just put out my arm across the globe and grapple thee. I’ll warrant I’d bring thee over. But I am called off, it is my dear to visit a lady, a lady too of much fashion and beauty, one whom I much esteem for love her I dare not … the lady has a scabby bottom, which I mean to inspect most minutely for such a sight you know my dear is seldom to be seen. Well I have seen her bottom and have recommended the use of copper to be applied in large sheets.
The ‘lady’ in question was, of course, a ship. George ends the letter with the words ‘your loving husband till death us do part’.
A month later, on 5 February 1803, Bass set sail from Port Jackson, as captain of the Venus, bound for Chile. Months went by with no word from him, and Elizabeth wrote to her husband on 8 October 1803, their third wedding anniversary, chiding him on the cruelty of their ongoing separation. She was ‘ready to go wherever you please to take me’.
Eventually, she received news that George Bass, the Venus and its crew were believed to be lost at sea. Elizabeth’s father, William, and brother, Henry, traced every possible lead to discover the seaman’s fate, but in 1806 the British Admiralty confirmed the loss.
Elizabeth was granted a widow’s pension of £40 per year. She refused a marriage proposal because she still thought of herself as Bass’ ‘little wife’, and died at the age of 56 on 23 June 1824.
A hundred years later, another set of separated lovers set pen (or pencil) to paper — one of them a member of the British royal family.
Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David — known as David to his family and close friends and the Prince of Wales to everyone else — had fallen in love with a married woman, Freda Dudley Ward, in February 1918. The two met when they took shelter in the same London cellar during a bombing raid.
Freda had been married for five years to a Liberal Party MP several years her senior, and the couple had two daughters. The marriage, described by friends as ‘all but over’, was sustained by social convention and political ambitions.
Petite and charming, Freda welcomed the attentions of other men. For the next 16 years, she was a lover, confidant and faithful correspondent to the handsome prince.
In 1920, the prince’s father, King George V, sent him on a tour of the Empire. Over seven months he covered 45,000 miles, visiting 208 places, and writing to Freda every day — sometimes more than once.
The lovers numbered their letters so that they could refer back to them — ‘as you mentioned in letter no. 14, page 3’ and so on. The prince’s letters, written in pencil, often ran to 15 pages. He invented words that he would only use in letters to Freda; for example, in his letter of 11 June (the second time he wrote that day) he signs off, ‘your vewy vewy own devoted adoring petit amoureux, your little David’.
This passion infuses every letter. He may not be poetic, but he is fervent. Regarded as the most eligible bachelor in the British Empire, the prince would often tell Freda that he danced with gorgeous women, but none compared to her:
As a matter of fact I danced most of the evening with a certain Miss Nancy Moule who I’ve danced with quite a lot this week merely because she can jazz and has nice scent and doesn’t stink as most of the women out here do!! [. . .] Pleath don’t be thulky sweetheart … she’s neither pretty nor attractive; merely chic and a good dancer! (13 June, 1920, 1 am)
There’s no doubt these letters are all the more compelling because they are exchanged between a future king of England and a married woman. But they’re also a reminder of the prince’s fragile mental state. He suffered depression on the tour, and the letters were a personal lifeline after days filled with ceremonies, speeches and formal dinners.
He tells of his trepidation on visiting Newcastle — ‘quite a big city and port and vewy bolshie’. He was also nervous about addressing the Labor-dominated federal parliament in Melbourne and was stunned when over 750,000 people (more than the population of Melbourne) turned out to see him.
Despite the Prince of Wales’ ardent declarations of love for Freda, they both had other affairs. After exchanging over 2000 letters with her, he ended the relationship in 1934 when he fell in love with American divorcee Wallis Simpson. He abdicated the throne in 1936, having only that year taken up the crown after the death of his father, King George V.
David married Wallis Simpson in 1937, and his younger brother Albert, ‘Bertie’, became the King of England. Freda’s marriage to William Dudley Ward had officially ended in 1932. She remarried and remained remarkably discreet about her relationship with the Prince of Wales until her death in 1983 at the age of 88.
The Prince of Wales’ letters to Freda Dudley Ward were discovered in a suitcase in Canada (where her first husband moved after their divorce) in 1996. The Library purchased 10 of the letters, written during the Prince’s royal tour to Australia, from an auction house in London in 2006.
Reading them now reminds us of how the digital era has revolutionised personal communication — with fewer letters available for the Library to collect. As the practice of writing letters dies out, we lose a valuable historical perspective.
Alison Wishart, Senior Curator, Research & Discovery
This article will be published in SL magazine Autumn 2018.
The Letters of George and Elizabeth Bass, Miriam Estensen, 2009.
Letters from a Prince, edited by Rupert Godfrey, 1998.
‘Travelling for love: Long distance relationships in Australia’, Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, Alison Wishart, 2016.