Mary Ann Douglas (Nee Simpson) was born in London on 25 August 1827. Her parents, William Simpson and Jane (Nee Leake), along with their then eight children were unassisted passengers aboard the Earl Grey, which sailed from Plymouth on 29 October 1839, and arrived in Sydney on 25 February 1840. Her parents were married in London on 9 March 1824 and had a further four children after their arrival in Sydney. Rev. William West Simpson, eventually became the second headmaster of King’s School, Parramatta.Her first marriage was to Henry Callander on 29 November 1848. Henry, an employee of the Customs Service, died in an accident on 19 August 1852, aged 31 years. Mary then married William Howe, of Sydney, and they had a child, Mary West Howe, born on 1 March 1857. William Howe subsequently died, leaving the unfortunate Mary Ann a widow for the second time.
In 1860 John Douglas met Mary Ann in Sydney. He had been the member for the Darling Downs in the New South Wales parliament and was now a squatter at Talgai on the Darling Downs. They were married on 22 January 1861 at St James Church, Sydney. Douglas was 32 years old, Mary Ann a year older.
By late 1876, John and Mary Douglas had been married for over 15 years and were living in Brisbane where he was a minister in the Queensland government. Mary was well known throughout Brisbane for her charitable works, prominent in the management of the Brisbane Servants Home, the Lady Bowen Lying-in Hospital, and a founder of the Diamantina Orphanage, all situated in Brisbane. She had been by her husband’s side throughout his political career in Queensland, from the highs of his ministerial and agent-general posts, to the lows of his traumatic bankruptcy. Deeply religious, she was his bedrock and foundation, always present to listen, to offer advice and to comfort him if need be. They shared many of the same interests and passions and faced the world together, united by a sense of duty and purpose.
On the morning of 23 November 1876, Mary, her daughter Mary Howe, and a friend, Miss Perry, were travelling by horse and buggy from their home at Bartley’s Hill along the Sandgate Road into Brisbane. They had just crossed the Breakfast Creek Bridge, when their pony shied at a dray wheel, and, running up the steep bank on the north side of the creek, overturned the vehicle. Mary Douglas was thrown underneath and the carriage landed on top and crushed her. She was taken to her home, and Doctors Hobbs and Bancroft summoned. However, she lost consciousness at 4.30 in the afternoon and died that evening around ten o’clock, with John Douglas and her daughter at her bedside.
The funeral, attended by nearly all the leading members of the community, including the governor, the ministry, bishops and clergymen, and most of the parliament, was held in the Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane, on Saturday 25 November 1876. There was a genuine sense of loss in the city, with the Brisbane Courier calling it, “one of the saddest incidents in the social annals of our community it has ever been our lot to record.” The Queensland Times considered Mary to be, “in the highest sense of the word a lady, and her untimely end will be deeply felt by all who had the privilege of her acquaintance.” A writer to the Queensland Evangelical Standard described her as “the kindly benefactress of the poor,” and the orphanage’s loss to be irreparable.”
John Douglas was devastated. He had an imposing mausoleum erected at the cemetery, with a lengthy message written on three of its sides.
“He who afflicts me knows what I can bear, and when I fall and can endure no more, will mercifully take me to himself. So through the cloud of death her spirit pass into that pure and unknown world of love. Her injury cannot come and here is laid her mortal body. Thrice happy, then the mother may be deemed, the wife from whose consolatory grave return, that we in mind might witness where and how, her spirit yet survive on earth.
If suffering be indeed our law of life, if this world through our father’s sin and ours, may not be perfect any more until the slow development of centuries do bring to birth a higher race than we, it is so much the more a fitting school of patience for the time we must remain of charity towards fellow wayfarers beside us, bearing each his human CROSS, in secret or in sight, but each his own; and furthermore of hope, the unblamed hope of the new world where all things are new.
The ultimate symbol of divinity how can we dream of? We have got no sense whereby to seize it; but in the CROSS we find the ultimate symbol of HUMANITY. HUMANITY, that touches the divine by some fine link intangible to us. Upon that side of mortal consciousness that looks towards death; and we must pass the gates of death linked with him, holding by the hand our BROTHER gone before.”
This extraordinary epitaph, still standing, indicates the extent of his loss, as well as throwing some light on both the depth of his religious belief and his Masonic leanings. He also financed the building of the stone pulpit at their place of worship, Holy Trinity Church in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane. Douglas found some comfort in his religion, and it enabled him to continue performing his ministerial duties.
The Douglases originally worshipped at All Saints Anglican Church at Wickham Terrace, but moved to the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Fortitude Valley when it was built. The stone pulpit dedicated to Mary Douglas is still in use, and bears the inscription, “In Memory of Mary Douglas, who died on 25th November 1876, aged 49. Much endeared to many, she lived an unselfish life, and died in the blessed realisation of the divine presence.”
I had wondered what was meant by this, until I came across a letter from John Douglas to his brother Edward, in which he wrote, “Mary, when she was dying, and just before she passed into that wonderfully ecstatic state which proceeded her death asked us to say ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus.’ It is in moments such as these that I have felt drawn nearest to our blessed Lord, nearer and dearer to us then than any earthly brother. May he be ever present to us, nearer to us now, and nearer to us when our last hour calls.”
Douglas was left with Mary’s daughter, Mary West Howe, aged 19 and who went on to marry Charles George Holmes A’Court (1843-1924) the following year, on 12 April 1877. Holmes A’Court was private secretary to Governor Cairns until 1 March 1877, and then clerk assistant to the Queensland legislative council. They had three children, Harold Charles (1878-82), Reginald Albert (1879-1973) and Alan Worsley (1887-1957.) Mary died in Toowoomba on 29 October 1889, aged only 32.