November 30, 2021

Princess Caroline of Brunswick

Princess Caroline of Brunswick was involved in one of the 18th century's most notorious scandals. It is why her name is now on one of Melbourne's best known suburbs.

Map of Hoddle's plan for the new suburb of Brunswick
Map of Hoddle's plan for the new suburb.

Brunswick was one of Melbourne’s first suburbs.

Surveyor Robert Hoddle, famous for laying out Melbourne’s orderly inner city ‘grid’ of streets, assessed the area in 1839, less than two years after the city was founded. He thought the area suitable for settlement and surveyed a large swathe of territory, that the young city could expand into.

The boundaries of the new, unnamed, suburb would be; the newly created Moreland Road to the north, Park Street to the south (both still in existence), Moonee Ponds Creek to the west, and Merri Creek to the east. Connecting Moreland Road and Park Street would be a broad thoroughfare, running north-south, originally called Pentridge Road (later renamed ‘Sydney Road’, the name it bares today).

The land on either side of Pentridge Road was divided into eleven equal sections, which were then offered for sale.

They were mostly bought by land speculators; investors who sat on the property, and waited for it to appreciate. Melbourne was still small in 1840, when the land went on sale, and the new suburb five miles from town was not heavily in demand.

But a few hardy types bought and settled on their properties straight away. One of these was Thomas Wilkinson.

Thomas Wilkinson
Thomas Wilkinson

Wilkinson was born in Sunderland County, in England, in 1799.

In 1833 he emigrated to Van Dieman’s Land; like many British settlers in this era, hoping to make his fortune in a new country. He worked a variety of jobs in Launceston, followed by a stint on Flinders Island.

In 1840 Wilkinson moved to Melbourne, and found work as a law clerk. Within a year he had saved a sufficient sum to allow him to buy one of the new parcels of land, north of the city. He built a small house on the corner of Albert Street and Sydney Road, and so became one of the first residents of the new suburb.

Wilkinson called his property 'Brunswick.' It was named after Caroline of Brunswick, a German Princess who had become something of a 19th century celebrity.

Princess Caroline of Brunswick, painted in 1798
Princess Caroline of Brunswick, painted in 1798

Caroline was born in Brunswick, a region in Northern Germany near Hannover, in 1768.

Her father, the Duke of Brunswick, was a minor nobleman in the German Royal family. Caroline’s mother, Princess Augusta, was English and considerably better connected; she was the elder sister of George III, King of England.

George’s son, George IV, was heir to the British throne, and his selection of a future queen was much discussed. It was joked that every German Princess was taught English, so that she would have a chance of being selected as George’s wife.

But Princess Augusta’s connections gave Caroline an advantage. She was also young, pretty and had a gay, carefree air; a perfect marriage candidate, in other words.

Princess Caroline of Brunswick gets married
The royal couple together

This was duly arranged.

Caroline was engaged to George IV in 1794, and married him the following year. The two never met prior to their engagement. Their families arranged the wedding; Caroline’s looking to gain the prestige of producing the British queen, and George’s as they had been promised a larger allowance by Parliament if he selected a European princess as his wife.

But the two were ill suited.

George was an authoritarian person with a bombastic personality, completely at odds with his gentle natured wife. He also complained that Caroline was uneducated, and treated her condescendingly. He drank heavily, and was rude and insulting to Caroline’s face.

After Caroline gave birth to a daughter, Charlotte, in 1796, the pair began to live apart. It is likely that both Prince and Princess took lovers, and had little to do with each other.
Caroline was so unhappy that she left England altogether in 1814 and lived in Italy for six years. She returned in 1820, after the death of George III, for her husband’s coronation.

George was not happy to see her.

George IV, on the eve of his coronation
George IV, on the eve of his coronation

He had effectively returned to a bachelor lifestyle; with a string of mistresses and the freedom to do as he pleased.

He spent, and entertained, lavishly and his excessive consumption of alcohol was widely gossiped about. With Caroline now back in the country, and determined to take her place as Queen, his style was about to be cramped.

George began to make plans for a divorce.

But there was a complication. George was not a popular leader; his excessive lifestyle was well known to the public, and had damaged his reputation. He was also accused of ruling despotically, ignoring Parliament and forcing his policies on his subjects.

Caroline, by contrast, was well liked. She was viewed as sweet natured and pious, and it was thought that she still had the ‘common touch’ when she met and spoke with everyday people.

The Trial of Princess Caroline of Brusnwick
The Trial of Princess Caroline, by Sir George Hayter

George knew a divorce, instigated by him, would be unpopular. And so he set out to damage his wife’s reputation. Caroline was publicly accused of adultery, then a serious criminal offence.

The House of Lords, charged with the preliminary investigation, called witnesses from her time in Italy. English society was scandalised as it was revealed that Caroline had spent considerable time with one of her servants, Bartolomo Pergami. One witness claimed that he had seen them in bed together, and that it was widely known they were lovers.

But as salacious as these details were, they were never widely believed. Even at the height of the investigation, Caroline remained enormously popular with the masses. 800 petitions, with more than a million signatures in support of her, were lodged during the investigation.

George’s subterfuge had been easily seen through.

Portrait of Princess Caroline of Brunswick
Caroline; portrait near the end of her life

While the House of Lords found Caroline guilty of adultery, criminal proceedings could not continue until this was ratified by the House of Commons. This was never even attempted; George knew his wife’s popularity would have ensured her acquittal in that house.

Furious that his will was not carried out, George excluded Caroline from his coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. When she tried to attend, her way was blocked several times by soldiers.

Shortly afterward, Caroline became seriously ill and deteriorated steadily over the next few weeks.

Funeral procession for Princess Caroline of Brunswick
Caroline's funeral procession

She died on 7 August 1821, aged 53, and was buried in her native Brunswick. Her death was widely, and publicly, mourned. People speculated that agents of the King had her poisoned.

The scandal surrounding George’s behaviour turned Caroline into a celebrity, and a symbol.

She was venerated, and even adopted as a figurehead of political movements, agitating for Parliamentary reform. Her story, the ‘wronged wife’, mis treated by her bullying husband, was well known around the English speaking world.

Sketch of Brunswick Rd, Brunswick, circa 1850s
Sketch of Brunswick Rd, Brunswick, circa 1850s

A young Thomas Wilkinson lived through this period of history, and knew Caroline’s story well. He named his new property in Melbourne after her, a small tribute to the fate of the late Queen.

Wilkinson’s house also doubled as the area's first church and post office. He started, and for a time edited, the new suburb’s first newspaper. He was the early, dominant personality in the area, and was synonymous with it.

So when the local government finally got around to naming the new suburb, they had only one real candidate. The whole suburb would be known as ‘Brunswick’, taken from the name of the house of its best known resident.

It has retained the name to this day.

Sydney Rd, present day
Sydney Rd, present day

Although, in 1914, there was an effort to have Brunswick re-named.

As the First World War erupted in Europe, and anti-German fever ran high across the British Commonwealth, the North Brunswick Progress Association lobbied the local council to change the name. They knew of Brunswick’s German origin, and they did not want to be associated with a label taken from the enemy.

The council's response is not recorded.


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