James Stirling and the tomboy


Ellen Mangles, looking very pensive

Dear readers, sometimes we have to face the unspeakable. Could it be that our founding father was in fact something of a creep? The relationship between James Stirling and Ellen Mangles has been portrayed as a great love story, like this from the late 1970s:

Theirs had been a most romantic love-match; he had been instantly swept off his feet by her that first day when, at her home, Woodbridge, in Surrey, as a laughing tomboy of thirteen, she had rushed by him on two donkeys, one foot on each.

Apparently in the late 1970s, it was romantic for a middle-aged man to fancy a girl of thirteen. (See Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris, etc.) Okay, let’s not call in Operation Yewtree just yet. Perhaps this was more normal in the 1820s.

Let’s ask Ellen’s mother, Mary, what she thought of this “love-match” when Stirling proposed marriage to her fifteen year old daughter.

Mary considered her daughter to be childish for her age, and completely incapable of forming a relationship with a middle-aged man. She preferring horses, carts, and rowing to dancing and talking to boys. In fact, she had recently declared she did not like men at all, and had no interest in them.

Mum was extremely concerned by Stirling’s interest in her daughter, but doubted Ellen would see much in a man “double her age” in any case. What a “love-match” for Ellen, then. Wooed by an underemployed sailor on half-pay and more than twice her age.

Mr and Mrs Mangles discussed Stirling’s obsession with Ellen, and they agreed not to mention it to her. She had two more years at school, and because of her “extreme youthfulness and inexperience” (as Mary put it) it was best she not be informed about creepy sailors.

Stirling promised the Mangles he would respect this decision and wait until she had finished education. Mary did not believe him. She said he would either break the agreement, or—in an eerie phrase—break the spirit and keep to it only to the letter. Reading this prophesy is as disturbing today as it was in the 1820s.

Mary’s scepticism proved correct. Stirling could not keep his hands off her for the agreed time. Instead, he married her just before her sixteenth birthday. (Some WA historians are so embarrassed by this, they claim she had turned sixteen. She had not.)

There will be those who will say “Times were different then.” And indeed they were. Just as times were different in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. But that’s no excuse today, is it?