Adam Lindsay Gordon, a myth and Alice in Wonderland.
By Lindsay Smelt
6 April 2020
For the last 140 years every biography on Adam Lindsay Gordon will tell you that Australia’s founding poet was born in the ruggedly beautiful island of Faial in the Portuguese Azores islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Every biography is wrong.
Gordon was born on 19 October 1833 in Charlton Kings England, a small village nestled beside the old spa resort town of Cheltenham and the rolling green hills of the Cotswolds. Gordon has long been associated with Cheltenham. He is associated with Cheltenham College, Cheltenham’s horse racing scene and his family home at 28 Priory Street Cheltenham still stands (with a neat tile sign beside the door to note the famous former resident).
It has been known for some time that Gordon was baptised in Charlton Kings on 3 December 1833 (see image below). His birth date was scribbled into the margin. Biographers had assumed that the family sailed home from the Azores in November 1833 to allow for the December baptism.
Source 1: Adam Lindsay Gordon’s birth certificate
I remember the lowering wintry morn,
And the mist on the Cotswold hills
‘By Flood and Field’, Adam Lindsay Gordon
Jill Waller is a warm and jovial Cheltenham local. She’s an expert on all the people and places of Gordon’s pretty English hometown (you can read more on her work here). In 2019, I flew from Australia to Cheltenham to see Gordon’s English landscape with my own eyes. I also took the opportunity to meet Waller and talk Gordon. She quickly became a friend.
The fastidious historian put forward two new documents that confirmed Gordon’s birth in England.
Source 2: Birth notice in the Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette 31 October 1833
“At Charlton Kings, near Cheltenham, the lady of A D Gordon Esq; formerly of the Bengal Army, a son.”
Reference: British Newspaper Archive
Source 3: 1851 National Census – Gordon, who is at the Woolwich Military Academy in London at the time, states his place of birth to be Charlton Kings.
Jill Waller could only find one correct report of Gordon’s England birth – Gordon’s nephew Henri Ratti (born the year after Gordon left for Australia) correctly told the Norwood News on 26 December 1913 that his uncle was born in Cheltenham.
Waller recently wrote that “So firmly have the contents of earlier biographies been accepted that, despite three primary sources providing evidence for the Charlton Kings birth, key Gordon references and organisations still perpetuate the myth that Lindsay was born in the Azores, despite a complete lack of documentary evidence.”
She also recently told me, “I was astonished at how the myth of Gordon’s birth can still persist, until I realised that none of his biographers actually knew him, and they all wrote about him well after his death. There were very few people left who would have known him during his boyhood.”
Gordon is not a prominent figure in contemporary Cheltenham. Waller remarked that “sadly Cheltenham appears to have lost interest in Gordon – perhaps he is out of fashion?” Quite possibly true. For both Australia and England.
It remains somewhat baffling as to how the myth of the Azores birthplace has lived on for so many years. Gordon was known in Australia to be reticent about discussing his past in England. But even so, family and friends in England and Australia never sought to correct biographies that came out during their lifetimes. His widow Maggie Park corrected some facts of his life but never this. Perhaps she never knew his place of birth or did Gordon tell her the Azores tale? No one will ever know.
Gordon lived beyond his tragic suicide in 1870 more as myth than man. The story of his birth upon a rocky, volcanic isle in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean provided a solid foundation for a mythical life.
But Charlton Kings also has its own touch of magic. It was here 30 years after Gordon’s birth that the Reverend Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, met a young girl related to some friends. Her name was Alice Liddell. She must have made an impression on Reverend Dodgson because she would go on to be immortalised as Alice in Wonderland.
Gordon and Alice. Two mythical creatures born in Charlton Kings.
“For we have played in childhood thereAdam Lindsay Gordon
Beneath the hawthorn’s bough”
Photos: Lindsay Smelt