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Love in the age of convicts

Far from the romanticism of today, colonial authorities emphasised pragmatism in convicts’ relationships. Sarah Trevor looks at their private (and not-so-private) lives.

If every unmarried man in possession of a good fortune in the early 19th century was naturally in want of a wife, as a tongue-in-cheek Jane Austen assured us, the love lives of the lower classes in Britain and her early colonies appear to have been rather more complicated.

Though it’s generally impolite to pry into other people’s love lives, the marriages and relationships of our early convict Australian ancestors can provide surprising insights to the family historian — and, on this particular topic, we certainly wouldn’t be the first to snoop!

The colonial authorities scrutinised what we today would call the convicts’ “private lives” as a means of social control. In turn, the convicts occasionally attempted to “work” the system, to fool the authorities in order to be with the partner of their choice.

A female and male convict, in a watercolour by Juan Ravenet in 1789–94. Courtesy State Library of NSW.
A female and male convict, in a watercolour by Juan Ravenet in 1789–94. Courtesy State Library of NSW.

The entrenched gender roles in late 18th and early 19th century culture played an important role in the penal policy of the early colony. Female convicts in particular were thought to be morally destitute, lacking the upper class standards of piousness and subservience. Marriage was thought to help correct their perceived vices.

On a broader level, marriage helped transform the nascent colony from a penal outpost to
a fully-functioning society. Governor Phillip, who sought to make the colony agrarian, initially rewarded married male convicts with land grants.

Love from afar
Doomed to a sentence on the other side of the world, it was rightly assumed that, for the most
part, most convicts would never see their relatives again. Some left their beloveds tokens to remember them by, through an adaptation of a traditional sailor’s custom whereby a coin would be rubbed down to a flat surface and then engraved with a message or picture. These tokens attest to the sadness and loss these convicts felt at bidding their loved ones their last goodbye.

The letters written by convicts (or, in some cases, their more educated employers) to their loved ones back home makes for interesting reading. A long, eloquent letter written in January 1835 by Alexander Boyce, originally from Belfast, pleaded for his wife to join him. “I am left to linger in silent expectation of both you and my beloved children, while my panting bosom [sic] and extended arms are every moment open to receive ye, therefore come my dear, dear wife.” It doesn’t appear that his wife Eliza ever joined him.

The Crippin family was among the fortunate few who were reunited. Joseph Crippin was sentenced to 15 years for “uttering forged notes”, and was transported to Western Australia under the alias of James Osborne in 1861. Back in Birmingham, his wife, Eliza Bryant, worked as a boot binder to support their children. When Joseph received his Ticket of Leave in 1863, his family set sail to join him. One year later Eliza and their four children (and Joseph’s stepson) arrived in his new home in WA, where they too assumed the Osborne surname.

“This story has a ‘love endures’ feel to it,” says Andrew Bowman, from Carnamah Historical Society. “We can only speculate as to why he gave a false name when convicted for forgery. Perhaps it was to hide the fact that he had a prior conviction to avoid a harsher penalty, or perhaps it was to protect his wife and children.”

Among the convicts who left their spouses in the motherland, remarriage in the colony was common. The Hobart Town Courier bemoaned that bigamy was “by no means unfrequent [sic]”. In an apparent attempt to set an example, Sarah Nicholls was charged with bigamy in 1841 in Hobart Supreme Court. Sarah had first married in 1839. While her husband was off whaling, she not only married another man, but joked about it as she returned from church!

Laws and restrictions
Bigamy was not the only romantic vice the authorities condemned, however. Governor Macquarie largely blamed the colony’s perceived immorality on its convict women, and sought to remedy it by introducing legislation that made it illegal for any woman — convict or otherwise — to inherit her deceased partner’s property unless they’d been legally married. In other words, Macquarie’s 1810 laws intending to regulate marriage effectively sought to curb the practice of “cohabitation” between unmarried couples.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie, by Richard Read Snr, 1822. Courtesy State Library of NSW.
A portrait of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, by Richard Read Snr, 1822. Courtesy State Library of NSW.

Though regarded by the elite as sinful, cohabiting was accepted and traditional in the working classes. In 1806, it was estimated that only 28 per cent of adult women in NSW were married, while Governor Bligh assessed the ratio of “natural” to “legitimate” children as two to one in 1812.

In any case, for Catholics, as the Irish convicts predominantly were, Catholic marriage wasn’t an option after 1808 until 1820 when two Irish priests arrived to minister in NSW and Van Diemen’s Land. Non-Anglican marriages were not legally recognised until 1834.

Margaret Fannon (née Murray), an Irish former convict, was charged with cohabitation in May 1835. By then in her mid-30s, she’d already been married and widowed, twice. As reported in the Sydney Herald on May 18, 1835, Margaret was initially brought to court for stealing money from a government official named Boyle. However, the court concluded that her thievery didn’t count as such since the pair had been living together.

She didn’t get away that easily, though. Feeling obliged to prosecute her for “cohabiting” with Boyle only six months after her husband’s murder in Sydney’s Hyde Park, the court instead turned its attention to Margaret’s private life.

Despite his self-confessed awareness that Margaret had been recently widowed, Boyle wasn’t prosecuted. Instead he testified against her, complaining that she’d been receiving visits from a “certain black man”, presumably a tailor of Mauritian origin named Pierre Moussie. Margaret described herself as a “weakly woman” seeking a protector for her and her infant. She explained that during Boyle’s courtship, she found him to be “very cross” and had instead chosen to marry Pierre as he was “a nice, quiet man with whom she could live happy”.

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