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.