‘As exotic as a bird of paradise, still a beauty, with black dazzling eyes, a flawless cream complexion and a figure that, even in the dresses of the period, was the envy of many younger matrons’ – One commentator on Diamantina Bowen
This week we continue the story of Diamantina di Roma, Lady Bowen (1833-93).
After her husband George Bowen was appointed inaugural Governor of Queensland in 1859, the family sailed to the new colony on HMS Cordelia. They landed in Moreton Bay on 9 December. The next day they sailed up the Brisbane River, greeted by enthusiastic crowds. There was even more cheering when Bowen declared the new state of Queensland.
Diamantina’s role was mostly ceremonial; she turned the first soil at Ipswich for the first Queensland Rail in 1864, using a silver spade and cedar wheelbarrow. The first train did not run until 1865, to Grandchester (Bigges Camp). She was known as a great hostess at Government House, as is her role in the novel.
However, Diamantina did a lot more for the new colony than playing piano and singing. The high-born contessa was a caring lady who worked for charities, making her loved by most Queenslanders. One eulogy mentioned “the deep interest she took in the poor and distressed.”
Diamantina’s most valuable contribution to Queensland was her work establishing the health system. In 1863 she set up the Lady Bowen Lying-In Hospital. Three of the Bowen’s five children would be born in Queensland; she did plenty for other mothers. This hospital reduced infant mortality, a serious problem of the time. Today it is the Royal Women’s Hospital of Brisbane.
She also set up a hospice called Diamantina Home for Incurables. In 1864 she established the Diamantina Orphanage. This building would become, in 1956, the well-renowned Princess Alexandra Hospital.
In 1868 Bowen became the Governor of New Zealand. A group of women organized to give Diamantina a going away present of a diamond necklace, also a bracelet. In a farewell speech they said: “Eight years ago you came among us as a stranger and foreigner. You leave us having won the hearts of many and the goodwill of all. The poor, the destitute, the afflicted and the orphans have alike shared your sympathy”. Some accounts say that Diamantina went to the ship in tears.
They would return to Australia in 1873, when Bowen became the Governor of Victoria. By this time Diamantina had become the grande dame that her role expected. ““Her English was picturesque, her manner regal and she was the subject of mingled awe and admiration in the somewhat unsophisticated world of the colonies”, wrote one columnist.
It wasn’t all roses. In 1876, Diamantina was attacked outside the Athanaeum Club in Collins Street by a fortune teller named Esther Gray, later found insane. This kept the colony talking for years.
They would leave Australia in 1879, when Bowen was appointed the Governor of Mauritius. There was a banquet held for them at Melbourne Town Hall on 19 February 1879. Marcus Clarke wrote ‘Victoria’s Farewell to Lady Bowen’ for the occasion, sung to music by Alfred Plumpton.
Diamantina would have even more experience as the governor’s wife. They served in Mauritius up to 1882. Then he was the Governor of Hong Kong from 1882-86. Diamantina organized a club there, for ladies only. Finally he retired in 1890, the Bowens and their single daughters going “home” to London.
Here Diamantina Bowen would die on 17 November 1893, of acute bronchitis. She is buried at the family plot in Kensall Green. This obituary praises her as a pioneer: “Time has marched with such rapid strides since Queensland was formed into a separate colony that people may forget that only thirty-four years have elapsed.”
IN HER HONOUR
So many places and things were named in honour of her:
Roma St, Brisbane – where all roads lead to up there.
Roma – a town in Queensland.
Lady Bowen Park – in Brisbane.
Diamantina River – like Herbert, she has a river named after her.
Diamantina Shire – in the outback
Diamantina Falls – in Victoria.
Diamantina Street – in Canberra.
Diamantina Trench – in the ocean off Western Australia.
Lady Bowen’s Creeper – the vine bignonia venusta with orange flowers.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to her is the Diamantina Health Care Museum. In 2004 it was opened at Princess Alexandra Hospital, in the only original building. It shows how much she did to establish the Queensland Health.