Governor of Queensland takes the road from Diamantina to Roma

The Governor of Queensland Penelope Wensley AC was in Roma and Mitchell this weekend and I caught up with her in both towns. The Governor met flood victims though her visit was organised off the back of an art gallery exhibition opening in Roma last night. The Governor is patron of 120 organisations one of which is Royal Queensland Art Society. Brisbane husband and wife artist team Joan and Len Cooper are holding the exhibition in Roma as they also celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary and invited the Governor and her husband Stuart McCosker to attend.

Governor Wensley speaks in Roma
I sent a journalist to catch up with the Governor at the meet-up of Roma flood victims and I met her later at the art opening. She spoke at length at the opening and well used to boring speeches I was expecting the worst. I was pleasantly surprised by a touching, humorous and well considered speech she spent considerable effort researching and putting together.

Governor Wensley noted Roma was celebrating its sesquicentenary. Founded on the site of three pubs in 1862, it is 150 years old this year. It was one of the first towns to be gazetted after Queensland separated from NSW and the town gained its name from the wife of Queensland’s First Governor Lady Diamantina Bowen (nee Roma). In Wensley’s speech it was Bowen’s wife she identified most with, not Queensland’s First Governor.

The young Contessa Diamantina di Roma was born on the Greek Ionian island of Zante near Corfu in 1833. Corfu had briefly been in French hands during the Napoleonic era but by the time of Roma’s birth her aristocratic Venetian family ruled Corfu for Britain. Her mother was Contessa Orsola, née di Balsamo and her father Conte Giorgio-Candiano Roma was president of the Ionian Senate and known to Queen Victoria who appointed him poet laureate.

George Ferguson Bowen was a protestant Irishman educated at Oxford and served briefly in the Navy. In 1854 he was made chief secretary to the government of the Ionian Islands, where he met Diamantina. They married in April 1856 and they stayed on Corfu until 1859. That year Queensland broke free from NSW and Bowen was called by his country to serve as first Governor. Lady Bowen headed to unfamiliar territory but was made immediately welcome by 4000 people on the Brisbane docks waving British and Greek flags.

The colony of Queensland was officially declared on Saturday, 10 December 1859. Two days later there was a function for the new Governor and his wife at the Botanic Gardens. Bowen remained Governor of Queensland for eight years, an occasionally unpopular interventionist. The colony began with debts after NSW closed down all its Queensland bank accounts and he had to create a civil service from scratch. It didn’t help his politicians were naive. Robert Herbert had arrived as Bowen’s private secretary and was just 28 when he became Queensland’s first premier.

But Queensland would thrive as did the Bowens. Without the demands of office, Roma was extremely popular. Governor Wensley said despite her privileged upbringing in Greece, Lady Bowen loved Queensland. She felt instantly at home in the climate and brought a sense of nobility and grace lacking in the young rough and tumble colony. Three of her six children were born in Brisbane. She was active in social welfare and patron of many charitable societies. Her daughter, also Diamantina, married a Queensland grazier. Bowen and his wife later served in New Zealand, Victoria, Mauritius and Hong Kong before retiring to Britain.

Twenty-three more governors of Queensland followed Bowen before Wensley took over in July 2008. A distinguished diplomat, she was appointed after predecessor Quentin Bryce became Governor-General of Australia. Penelope Wensley was a country girl born in Toowoomba in 1946. She joined the Australian Foreign Service in 1968 – the only woman selected in an intake of 19.

Wensley had a stellar diplomatic career across the world following in Bowen’s footsteps as Consul-General in Hong Kong. She helped put together the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention to combat Drought and Desertification. She is keenly interested in humanitarian and human rights issues, women’s rights, and environmental and sustainable development. When she told Roma and Mitchell flood victims this weekend she would act as an advocate for them with the new State Government, it was easy to believe her.

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