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Forrest, Lady Margaret Elvire (1844–1929)

by Airlie

from Western Mail (Perth)

News was received in Perth with widespread regret last Friday of the death of Lady Margaret Elvire Forrest, widow of the late Lord Forrest, which took place at Springfield, the home of Mr. and Mrs. A. B. Hamersley, at Georgina, near Geraldton.

Lady Forrest, who was born in France, at Havre, in 1844, was the eldest daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. Edward Hamersley, of Pyrton, near Guildford, who were settlers in this State in the early forties. Her mother was formerly Anne Louise Corneille, a Breton. She had several brothers, and one sister, Mrs. F. D. North, of Catlidge, Cottesloe. From there the funeral moved on Saturday, when Lady Forrest was buried in the Karrakatta grave of Lord Forrest, who served his country well and truly from early manhood till his death in 1918.

Lady Forrest was a unique and striking personality. From her French mother she inherited remarkable vivacity and joie-de-vivre and she seemed to possess the spirit of perpetual youth.

From girlhood she was most attractive and courageous, and accomplished in many respects. She had an indomitable spirit, and made an excellent horsewoman. It is interesting to note that the first pony she ever had came from Garden Island. He rejoiced in the name of The Moke for the term of his natural life. Lady Forrest was clever with her paint brush—she had many wildflowers and scenic sketches to her credit—and an accomplished musician.

More than once she saved the lives of girls who were thrown from their horses, and also from drowning. On one occasion a number of young people were riding together, when a girl was thrown and dragged some distance with her foot in the stirrup. Lady Forrest (Margaret Hamersley she was then) called to some of them to stop the horse, but she really acted herself. Quickly jumping from her own horse, she dashed at the runaway and stopped it, thereby saving the life of the girl. Lady Forrest was a true sport all her life, and this, to a great extent, no doubt, accounted for her general popularity.

Her early life was spent at Pyrton, Champion Bay, Toodyay, and North Beach. It was a life full of fun and happiness, for those were the days of riding parties, picnics, etc., which older generations speak of as "the good old days of early settlement."

Her marriage took place in 1876 to Lord Forrest (then Mr. John Forrest). On her father's death she inherited The Bungalow, and after their marriage she and Lord Forrest made that their home. Thousands of people here remember that beautiful old house in Hay-street (where J. and W. Bateman and other business premises now stand), and the lavish hospitality and delightful entertainment there by the genial host and his gracious wife. It is common knowledge that "John Forrest" had a difficult wooing. But all his life he was a "sticker," and after much persistence, just before his famous trek across from Perth to Adelaide, "Margaret Hamersley" said "Well, Jack, if you cross Australia and come back. I'll marry you." He said he would. He did, and she kept her promise. So they were married.

Lady Forrest was a very real helpmate. It is true she married a splendid type of Australian man, but she helped him tremendously, especially in his political life, even at one time fighting an election while Lord Forrest was absent from the country, and winning it for him. She was tremendously proud of "Jack" as she always called him, and naturally pleased when he was knighted, and more so when he was created a peer.

As the Irish say, she "had a way with her." She was fair and comely, and had the kindest heart and a winning tongue. She was gracious and sympathetic and anyone seeking her help was never denied.

She, like so many women with an artistic temperament, had an idol, and "Jack" was that idol. For him her ambition had no limit, and she urged him on to many of the big things he accomplished in his distinguished career. They were a delightful and happy couple, and life was good to them in many ways. Just one thing was denied them—they had no children. Both were devoted to young people, and they were very good to their young relatives.

Lady Forrest was as enthusiastic about the making of Fremantle Harbour and Mundaring Weir as Lord Forrest and the late Mr. C. Y. O'Connor, the Engineer in-Chief of that time, who accomplished those two great engineering feats. It was she who steered the first mail boat into the harbour. She was also enthusiastic about the Coolgardie railway, and was among those at the opening, and all the festivities associated with that event. She was one of the cheeriest and liveliest at all the functions.

Utter naturalness was one of Lady Forrest's greatest charms, and unconventionality was another. The following incident illustrates both these qualities:—She and Lord Forrest, with a number of others, were the guests of the late Warden Finnerty and Mrs. Finnerty, at the Residency in Coolgardie. The writer remembers how one evening, when everyone was dressing for a big dance in honour of the railway opening, Lady Forrest popped her head in the door of a room where four girls were dressing and exclaimed: "Oh! I say, girls, can any of you lend me something to put round my neck? I've forgotten my jewellery." Whereupon we all offered her necklets or pendants with which we were decking ourselves. "No, no," she said, "any old bit of velvet or something, not your jewellery; I might lose it." No such thing was forthcoming, so off she went.

A quarter of an hour or so later, we went into dinner, curious to see what adorned Lady Forrest's neck. It was simply a rather dusty bit of yellow art muslin. When asked where on earth she got it, she replied, "Oh! I just tore this little bit off the curtain in our bedroom." No one else would have done it—or worn it—but somehow it seemed all right upon Lady Forrest. Her hostess laughed and said she did not mind. So much for her unconventionality.

She again accompanied Lord Forrest on the occasion of the opening of the railway at Kalgoorlie, and was always the life and soul of the parties. 

No more popular host and hostess ever entertained in Perth and The Bungalow was the scene of many memorable parties of all kinds—private, political and philanthropic.

After Federation, Lord and Lady Forrest had to spend much time in Melbourne, as he was Federal Treasurer, and had to be there when Parliament was sitting. The recess months they spent in Western Australia, mostly in Perth.

In Melbourne, Lady Forrest's charm won her many friends and admirers. Lady Forrest accompanied Lord Forrest to England several times, and was presented at Court. Her last visit was when Lord Forrest was so ill. He died on the way and was buried at Sierra Leone. Later his body was brought to Perth and laid to rest at Karrakatta Cemetery.

Lady Forrest continued the journey to England, and while in London was received by the Queen and received great sympathy from her.

After her return to Western Australia, she resided for some time with her sister, Mrs. F. D. North, at Cottesloe, and later in a house of her own, a few doors from Mrs. North. She lived there until about eighteen months ago, when she went to Georgina to stay with her nephew and niece, Mr. and Mrs. A. B. Hamersley. It was there she passed away.

Such a happy passing it was. She had been sitting having afternoon tea with them all in the sitting room, chatting and quite natural. She sat back quietly after a time. Someone remarked she did not look very well, and those present thought they would get a doctor from Geraldton to come out and see her. She seemed to be dozing. However, they did not disturb her. A little later, on looking more closely to see how she was, they found she had simply slipped away out of this work-a-day old world into the "Great Beyond." Her body was brought to Perth the next day, and the following day was laid to rest beside her great explorer and statesman husband, who had journeyed into the "far country" a few years before her. She leaves behind her many relatives who will miss her greatly, but she also leaves many happy and personal memories of kindly acts and much happiness shed along the path of life she trod here.

Original publication

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Citation details

Airlie, 'Forrest, Lady Margaret Elvire (1844–1929)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/forrest-lady-margaret-elvire-13735/text24538, accessed 21 November 2017.

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