Mary Anne Stewart was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, on 29 May 1831, the eldest daughter of Walter George Stewart, Jamaica's last island secretary, and his wife, Susan Hewitt. Mary Anne Stewart seemed destined for a life of travel, being sent back to England (where she received her education) at the age of two. Probably in 1852 she married George Robert Barker, an officer in the Royal Artillery, who was knighted in 1859 for his distinguished service during the Indian mutiny. Two sons, John Stewart and Walter George, were born in 1853 and 1857 respectively. Having remained in England during her husband's campaigns in the Crimea and India, Mary Anne Barker joined him in Bengal in 1860 but in July 1861 he died. Returning to England with their two young sons, she lived quietly with her family until 1865 when she met Frederick Napier Broome. They were married at Prees, Shropshire, on 21 June 1865.
Frederick Broome, who was 11 years younger than his wife, was the eldest son of the rector of Kenley, Shropshire. At the age of 15 he had emigrated to New Zealand, working as a farm cadet in Canterbury until his visit to England in 1864. A tall, strongly built, black-bearded man, he persuaded the vivacious widow to take the 'wild and really almost wicked step' of leaving her sons to be educated in England and beginning a new life with him in New Zealand. They arrived at Lyttelton on the Albion in October 1865, having sailed via Melbourne along with 300 diggers bound for the West Coast goldfields. On 8 February 1866 Broome and his partner, H. P. Hill, bought Steventon, a Canterbury sheep run of 9,700 acres, on the south bank of the Selwyn River, from Richard Knight. Knight, who was the nephew of Jane Austen, had named the run in the Malvern Hills after his aunt's Hampshire home.
On 12 March 1866, while Mary Anne and Frederick were still living in a Christchurch boarding house, their first son, Hopton Napier, was born. Soon after, they moved into their new, prefabricated house, Broomielaw, but their child lived for only two months. Despite this loss, 'three supremely happy years' followed. The couple were well suited. Frederick, who was a keen sportsman but not a very practical sheepfarmer, divided his time between writing poetry and pig-hunting. Mary Anne (or Lady Barker as she still called herself) shared her husband's routine of writing in the mornings even as she threw herself with gusto into the outdoor life of the station. Disaster struck with the great snowstorm of 1867, however, when they lost 4,000 out of 7,000 sheep. In December 1868 Frederick sold his interest in Steventon and returned with Mary Anne to England.
In London they both took up journalism as a living. Frederick Broome contributed to The Times, The Cornhill Magazine and Macmillan's Magazine and published two volumes of poetry. But as a writer Mary Anne Barker outshone him. At the instigation of their friend, the publisher Alexander Macmillan, in 1870 she published Station life in New Zealand, a compilation of the letters she had written home to her young sister, Jessie Stewart. This highly successful book, which went into several editions and was translated into French and German, established Mary Anne Barker's literary reputation. Intimate in tone and written with an infectious enthusiasm for pioneer life, the book recounts in detail the vagaries of housekeeping and entertaining on a high country sheep run, the excitements of travel on horseback, wild cattle hunting and 'burning off' tussock, as well as the natural hazards of snowstorms and floods. Her refreshingly unconventional attitudes are apparent when she describes an expedition in pursuit of wild cattle: 'I am afraid that it does not sound a very orderly and feminine occupation, but I enjoy it thoroughly, and have covered myself with glory and honour by my powers of walking all day.'
Her next published work was A Christmas cake in four quarters (1872), which includes a story for children about Christmas Day at Steventon. Travelling about over old and new ground was published in 1872, and Station amusements in New Zealand, a sequel to Station life, appeared in 1873. Here, in the same entertaining style as in her first book, Mary Anne Barker writes of the pleasures of eel-fishing, pig-stalking, skating and toboganning in Canterbury. For the edification of intending colonists, she provides first-hand information about such problems as buying a run in New Zealand, coping with swaggers and servants, and administering first aid. Although they are written from the point of view of an upper middle class Englishwoman, whose experience was in some ways atypical, Station life and Station amusements vividly portray life in colonial New Zealand.
Described as 'a fine tall woman, with well-marked features and a somewhat decided manner', Mary Anne Barker made up in charm what she lacked in physical beauty. She was genuinely interested in her surroundings, especially in birds and animals, and full of concern for the welfare of her fellow human beings. She evinced an adaptability and a sense of humour that served her well both as a traveller and a writer. Indeed, the resourcefulness and energy that sustained her as a settler characterised the remainder of her life. Between 1870 and 1880 her literary output alone was prodigious: she produced some 15 books on subjects ranging from travel to children's stories, domestic furnishing and cookery. Drawing on the culinary skills she had been forced to acquire in New Zealand, she published in 1874 First lessons in the principles of cookery. This led to her being appointed first lady superintendent of the new National Training School for Cookery in South Kensington, London. The same year she became editor of the family magazine Evening Hours. She also had two more children: Guy Saville, who was born in 1870, and Louis Egerton, born in 1875.
In February 1875 Frederick was made colonial secretary in Natal. Mary Anne joined him there in mid 1875 with their sons. Returning to England with the boys in 1877, she published an account of her most recent experiences as A year's housekeeping in South Africa. After Frederick's appointment as lieutenant governor of Mauritius in 1880, Mary Anne again went out to live with her husband, but after contracting malarial fever, was forced in 1881 to return to England. In December 1882 Frederick was appointed governor of Western Australia. Early in 1883 Mary Anne sailed from Mauritius to Australia with her husband, her son Louis and a favourite pet dog. Guy was left at school in England.
Although Frederick Broome's irascible temperament made him some enemies as governor, the couple spent eight happy and vigorous years in Western Australia. As well as undertaking a full round of duties as the governor's wife, Mary Anne Barker wrote Letters to Guy (1885), a lively description of her first year in Australia, and edited the travel books of her friend Lady Brassey. After Frederick was knighted in 1884, she changed her name to Lady Broome.
The Broomes departed from Australia in 1889. In 1891 Frederick became governor of Trinidad. Again, Mary Anne accompanied him on this posting. His early death in 1896 left his wife desolate and without adequate financial provision. Forced to petition the government of Western Australia for a pension, she was granted in 1897 an annuity of £150. This enabled her to spend her last years without hardship in Eaton Terrace, London. Here she wrote occasional magazine articles and one last book, Colonial memories (1904). She died at London on 6 March 1911.