This dress was worn by John Marsden (1801 - 1803), the fourth of Reverend Samuel and Elizabeth Marsden's eight children. Reverend Samuel Marsden was an important figure in colonial Australia. On 1 January 1793 Marsden accepted the appointment as assistant to the chaplain of New South Wales, and was ordained deacon on 17 March at Bristol and priest in May of the same year. Samuel married Elizabeth Fristan on 21 April and the newly married couple, expecting their first child, left London on 1 July 1793 on the ship 'William'. They arrived in Port Jackson with their newborn daughter, Ann, eight months later in March 1794. As the chaplain to New South Wales, Marsden endeavoured, with some success, to improve the standard of morals and manners. Samuel soon became a leading figure in colonial life, combining, sometimes controversially, his job as the colony's clergyman with that of magistrate, missionary, wealthy landowner and farmer.
This dress is a rare example of children's everyday wear from the early 1800s. Such an unassuming garment would not normally survive but two-year-old John was wearing the dress when he died after falling into a pot of boiling water in the Marsden's kitchen in August 1803. His death was a heavy blow to Elizabeth Marsden, whose first son Charles died in a carriage accident two years earlier in August 1801. In a letter to Captain John Piper in August 1804, Elizabeth wrote: 'I think I need not remind you that this is a month that has been fatal to me and mine - I have therefore made a determination not to leave home or suffer my dear children out of my sight as little as possible until this fatal month has expired...The loss of those I have parted from weighs so much on my mind that at times I am as miserable as it is possible to be - outwardly I may appear cheerful but I am very far from being happy - indeed happiness and me seem long since to have parted and I have a presentiment that peace will never more be an inhabitant of my bosom'.
The darned and faded fabric and its pieced construction suggest that the dress was cut down from another garment and worn as everyday wear. The garment is particularly modest considering the status of the Marsden family; rather than the white muslin that was commonly worn by children of privileged families, this dress is made from printed cotton. The high waisted style of the dress mirrors the fashion of women's costumes, as was common during this period.
The Marsden costume collection was transferred from the Royal Australian Historical Society to the Museum in 1981. This collection includes some of the earliest surviving examples of colonial dress worn and made in Australia. The provenance of this dress gives extraordinary insight into the life of the Marsden family, and is a sad reminder of the hardships and suffering that were commonly endured by early Australian colonists.
Michelle Brown and Glynis Jones, 2007