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Nichola Cooke:

Port Phillip District's first headmistress

Liz Rushen

2009 Number 8 Pages 1 2 3 4 5 6

Nichola Anne Cooke's will lies quietly in its archive box at Public Record Office Victoria (PROV).1 How different from the way that she lived her life!

Nichola was born in Ireland, circa 1800, the daughter of Agnes and Thomas Sargent, a Surveyor of Excise and a Sub-Commissioner for Great Britain and Ireland for 41 years.2 In October 1816 Nichola married Benjamin Cooke, Esq. of Midleton, near Cork.3 The couple made their home at Ann Street, Cork, but Benjamin died in May 1822, aged 29.4 It appears that the couple had no children.

Following the subsequent death of her father in January 1828, Nichola moved with her mother and younger sisters to Bristol where in 1832 her mother wrote to the Commissioners for Emigration seeking assistance to emigrate. At this time, the British Government was encouraging impoverished women to migrate to the Australian colonies, but the Commissioners declined to assist the Sargent women, writing 'it is quite out of their Power to make any further allowance in cases such as yours, than is stated in the accompanying Papers'.5 The Emigration Commission encouraged the migration of women who had assistance from patrons, benefactors or charitable institutions: the Sargent women did not qualify for the government's assistance under these provisions.

By 1836 there was renewed interest in the possibilities of emigration to the Australian colonies, and the London Emigration Committee had been established to assist women from all backgrounds to emigrate. Agnes and her daughters took this opportunity to establish a ladies' school in Van Diemen's Land. Recent research has shown that the ladies' school enterprise provided a professional path and a livelihood for women without a male breadwinner. Women such as the Sargent family, with teaching experience and some capital, left behind the over-crowded education market in Britain and came to the colonies seeking new opportunities.6

Poster advertising sailing of Amelia Thompson, Suffolk Record Office, M942, Papers, Earl of Stradbroke

Poster advertising sailing of Amelia Thompson, Suffolk Record Office, M942, Papers, Earl of Stradbroke

On 28 April 1836, Agnes Sargent and her four daughters boarded the Amelia Thompson at Gravesend, arriving at Launceston on 26 August that year.7 The ship's passenger lists describe the family as Mrs Agnes Sargent (also Sargeant/Seargeant) aged 50, and her four daughters, who all received the bounty for single women: Mrs MA Cooke a widow aged 28, Catherine A 23, Frances M 20 and Arabella 17.8 The shipping lists show Nichola's name as Mrs MA Cooke, but following her arrival she was known as Mrs Nichola Ann/e Cook/e. The age requirement for women receiving the bounty was between 15 and 30 years, and it would appear that Nichola's age was reduced by a few years to meet the bounty requirements, thus only Agnes had to pay her passage.


The arrival of the Amelia Thompson at Launceston was a desperate affair. Unable to find suitable accommodation for the 312 passengers, including 173 bounty women, the commandant in charge of the reception facility, Major Ryan, sent frantic messages to Lieut. Governor Arthur declaring that he had made many enquiries but could not obtain a place large enough for the women who were expected to arrive any day. His last message before the arrival of the ship stated: 'There is a telegraph signal just made from George Town that a Bark [sic] is in sights from the Westwards and I fear this will prove to be the Amelia Thompson. If so, I am in a pretty mess'.9 It was the Amelia Thompson and Major Ryan was forced to house the immigrants in a government-owned cottage.

Five weeks after their ship docked at Launceston, Mrs Sargent, her four daughters and Ann Rogers their maid, still remained at the government cottage provided for their reception.10 The next month, Major Ryan wrote to the Colonial Secretary in Hobart stating that the Sargent women were planning 'to establish a school for young ladies', but had been unable to locate suitable premises:

I could not possibly turn this family out in the streets. They are in expectation of getting into a house on the first of next month, after which day I propose ... to discontinue this party further on the bounty of Government.11

The women eventually moved out of the government cottage and it is believed that they opened a school for girls in Brisbane Street, Launceston. However, things were not going well for the Sargent women in Launceston. A year after their arrival, Agnes petitioned Lord Glenelg for a grant of land, to which she believed she was entitled on account of her husband's long government service. Writing from Moncton Cottage, Brisbane Street, she stated:

Memoralist and four daughters, influenced by the glowing representations of this colony, emigrated from England ... in 1836 with the view of establishing a ladies seminary. That Memoralist on arriving in this “Land of Promise” after encountering all the dangers and disagreeables of a long sea voyage finds herself greatly disappointed in the encouragement held forth to emigrants, add to this house rent and every necessary of life is more than double the ratio here than in England.12

2009 Number 8 Pages 1 2 3 4 5 6 Next Page

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