MARGARET BRAYSON

(Gilbert Henderson, 1840)

by

Don Bradmore

 

In 1839, Margaret Brayson was convicted of theft at Liverpool, England, and sentenced to transportation for seven years. She was seventeen years old when she arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) the following year.[1] Three years later, she married emancipist William Jackson, a fifty-nine-year-old widower who had been married twice previously. Despite the big difference in their ages, the marriage appears to have been harmonious, and, between 1844 and 1854, Margaret gave birth to five children. Very shortly after Jackson passed away at the age of seventy-six in 1860, however, Margaret was co-habiting with a former convict Charles Frost, a man with a disreputable past. In 1865, then forty-three years old, she was found dead in her home, her body naked and badly burnt. Frost, who was alleged to have bashed her around the head just hours before she died, set fire to her body and left her to die, was charged with her murder. Some weeks later. to the astonishment of many, he was discharged before trial, the police prosecutor claiming that there was insufficient evidence of his intention to kill.

This is Margaret’s story:

The eldest of the five known children of labourer James Brayson (Brazen, Bryson) and his wife Bridget (nee Sloane), Margaret was born on 7 November 1822 and is thought to have grown up in Liverpool, England.[2] Apparently troublesome from quite an early age, she had already been convicted of theft five times – for which she had served short gaol terms on three occasions – before being charged with the offence that led to her transportation.[3]

In mid-April 1839, then sixteen years of age, Margaret had been charged with the theft of a cloak from a clothing retailer.[4] On 22 July 1839, she was convicted of the offence at the Liverpool Quarter Sessions. Beside her in the dock that day were two girls of a similar age, Catherine Harrison and Sarah Dobbins, who, it was claimed, had participated in the theft.[5] All were sentenced to transportation for seven years.[6]

After the trial, Margaret spent four or five months in an English prison awaiting a vessel to take her away. While she was there, three petitions were forwarded to the authorities on her behalf, all begging mitigation of her sentence. One, presented by four respected members of the local community. and addressed directly to Queen Victoria, provided a version of the events that led to Margaret’s arrest. According to the petitioners, Margaret had committed no crime. She had been walking one of her younger brothers to school when the pair had strayed inadvertently into an open yard at the back of the shop from which, earlier, the cloak had been stolen. Margaret had stayed in the yard for only a brief moment but, as she was leaving, she had been seized by the police who had assumed that she was an associate of the two other young women – Harrison and Dobbins – who had already been arrested for the theft. Stressing that the guilty pair had told police that Margaret was ‘a perfect stranger’ to them, the petitioners had begged the Queen to restore this ‘extremely young female’ ‘to religion, to society and to her mother’ and to save her from transportation, a fate that would condemn her to a life ‘among the most abandoned of her sex’.[7]  

Describing Margaret as an ‘unfortunate child … of poor but honest parents’, the other petitions were similar pleas for leniency on the grounds of her ‘tender age’. Presented to the Right Honourable Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for Home Affairs, both expressed the hope that Margaret could be detained in an English prison for the duration of her sentence rather than being sent away.[8]

Ultimately, all of the petitions were rejected and, by early December 1839, Margaret had been put aboard Gilbert Henderson which, Mr. J. Tweedle as Master, Sir John Hammet as Surgeon-Superintendent and one hundred and eighty-four female prisoners, fifteen free women and twenty-four children, sailed from the port of London on 14 December that year and reached Hobart on 24 April 1840.[9]   

As was customary in the case of all newly-arrived convicts, a full physical description of Margaret was entered into her conduct record upon arrival. Curiously – because she would have turned seventeen in the previous November – her age is shown as sixteen. She was single. She was five feet and one inch (about 156cms) tall, with a dark complexion, brown hair and hazel eyes. She had a large scar on the right side of her forehead. On her right arm were the initials ‘D’ and ‘M’ and, on her left shoulder, ‘N’ and ‘B’. She was designated the convict trade of ‘house servant’.[10] 

After disembarkation, it is likely that Margaret and her fellow prisoners were marched from the docks to the Cascades Female Factory in South Hobart, there to await assignment as servants to free settlers.

Like the majority of female convicts, Margaret took some time to adjust to the circumstances of her new life. On 4 October 1841, while in the service of the Parker family at Hobart, she was charged with ‘refusing to work’ and was returned to the Cascades to spend seven days in solitary confinement. Two weeks later, she was charged by Mr. Parker again, this time with being drunk. She was ordered back to the Cascades for another month to be served with hard labour.[11]

Fortunately, these were the only offences with which Margaret was charged during her penal servitude.

By December 1841, Margaret was in the service of a Mr. Kew in the Hamilton district, about forty miles (54kms) north-west of Hobart. There, she met a widower by the name of William Jackson, and, after obtaining the approval of the government – because, while Jackson was a ‘free’ man, Margaret was still a convict - they married at St. Peter’s Church of England, Hamilton, on 6 August 1843. The marriage register describes Margaret as a twenty-one-year-old ‘spinster’. Jackson’s occupation is shown as ‘hawker’.[12] His age was shown as fifty but he was actually almost ten years older than that.[13]

However, what the documents relating to the marriage do not reveal is that Jackson was a former convict. Records at the Old Bailey, London, show that, in April 1815, while working as a tailor in London, he had been found guilty of ‘feloniously being in possession of forged bank notes, knowing them to be forgeries’ and had been sentenced to transportation for fourteen years.[14] Forced to leave behind his wife Sarah (nee Pryor) and three sons - James (born 1806), Henry (1811) and William (1816) – he had arrived in Sydney aboard Ocean 1 on 30 January 1816. In 1823, he had married Catherine Quin, a convict who had arrived on Mary Anne in 1822, but that marriage, which appears to have been childless, is thought to have ended shortly afterwards when Jackson was charged with a new offence and sent to the Port Macquarie Penal Settlement in the north of the colony.[15] He was there for three years. After earning his freedom, he had made his way to VDL where, he had established himself as a storekeeper at Ouse, a small village close to Hamilton. There, he had been re-united with his sons, James and Henry, who had followed their father to the Australian colonies. Arriving in NSW as young boys in 1818, they had settled in VDL eventually. They had prospered, and by the time of their father’s marriage to Margaret in 1843, were well on the way to becoming substantial property holders, publicans, bakers and shopkeepers. They were then in their early thirties.[16]

How William and Margaret lived in the years after their marriage is uncertain but, notwithstanding the difference of forty years between their ages, all appears to have been well between them.  In October 1844, Margaret was granted a ticket of leave and, in July 1846, she received her certificate of freedom. She was a free woman again.[17] While William is presumed to have been working with his sons in the businesses they were establishing at that time, Margaret was probably kept busy caring for the five children of the marriage. In July 1844, she had given birth to a son, William James, and then followed Rachel Eliza in 1847 Samuel in 1849, Alfred Alexander in 1852 and George Thomas in 1854.[18]

On 20 July 1860, Margaret’s husband, William, passed away. The cause of death was ‘influenza’. His death certificate shows his age as seventy-six. His occupation was given as ‘storekeeper’.[19]

It is obvious that William had been thought of as good-living man by the local community. A notice, published in The Mercury (Hobart) in the days following his death, invited friends to attend his funeral, adding that he had been a member of the Wesleyan Society for twenty-three years.[20]

Because William had died without leaving a will, James Jackson, his son, had applied to the Supreme Court of Van Diemen’s Land for Letters of Administration of his father’s estate. The application was granted in the following October. Although court documents reveal that William’s ‘goods, chattels, credits and effects’ at the time of his death ‘did not exceed in value the sum of one thousand pounds’, he would have been considered a quite wealthy man.[21]  

It is not known what provision, if any, James Jackson had made for Margaret after her husband’s death. She had been left with five young children to support.  And, although, she was fourteen years younger than James, she was his step-mother.

While it is clear that Margaret was not left entirely destitute after William’s death, there is some evidence to indicate that she was not coping well. She appears to have had a drinking problem. A police report, published in The Mercury on 24 January 1861, six months after her husband’s death, named her as ‘the proprietrix’ of a Hamilton shop from which a burglar had stolen eight shillings and sixpence. Labelling her conduct ‘disgraceful’, the report stated that, at the time of the alleged burglary, she had been so drunk that she had no memory of what had happened. Her fifteen-year-old daughter, Rachel Eliza, had been the only witness to the crime. Not surprisingly, the man accused of the burglary was eventually acquitted.[22]

Nothing more is known about Margaret for another five years. On 30 September 1865, however, The Mercury reported that a woman by the name of Margaret Jackson had been found dead in her home in Clyde Street, Hamilton, six days earlier. It was suspected that she had been murdered. All that was known at this time was that the dead woman, who was ‘of weakly body’, had been living with a man by the name of Charles Frost and that she had been ‘the subject of frequent attacks’ by him. Frost had been taken into custody.[23]

Charles Frost was a former convict with an unsavoury past. He had arrived in VDL per Blenheim (3) in July 1850 after being convicted at the Old Bailey, London, of the theft of clothing and money and sentenced to transportation for seven years. He was twenty-one years old upon arrival.  In the colony, he had been charged with a number of new offences but all had been relatively minor and, in September 1854, he had been granted his certificate of freedom.[24] In May 1858, however, he had been found guilty of ‘attempting to carnally know a girl under ten’ and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment at Port Arthur, a place of strict confinement for convicts who had re-offended since their arrival in VDL.[25] Obviously, he had met Margaret soon after his release.

On the day that Margaret’s body was discovered, an inquest was convened and in the following days further shocking details of the alleged murder emerged. A neighbour, who was aware that Margaret and Frost had been cohabiting ‘for some years’, told the coroner that on the day that Margaret was found dead, Frost had knocked on his door seeking help because his house was on fire. He had said that he could not find Margaret. Hurrying to assist, the neighbour had seen Margaret lying on her bedroom floor. She was dead. She had a black eye and a bruise on the side of her face. The floor was splattered with blood. The neighbour had then called the police and Frost, who appeared to have blood stains on his clothing, was arrested. Another neighbour, also quickly on the scene, told the coroner that the body was still on fire when he saw it. He said that there were marks on the floor indicating that the body, which appeared to have fallen into a fire on the hearth, had been dragged by the feet from the living room into the bedroom. The deceased’s clothing, except for her boots and stockings and some smouldering shreds still around her waist, had been burnt from her body. Small pieces of the tattered clothing, some still in flames, were scattered around the floor. Other witnesses testified that Margaret and Charles had been frequently ‘tipsy’ and had often been heard quarelling. Some said they had seen Charles beating Margaret but none had never heard him threaten to kill her. A doctor who had been called to the scene and had later performed a post-mortem examination, gave medical evidence about the cause of death.[26]  

On 19 October 1865, the coroner’s jury returned the verdict that Margaret Jackson had died of asphyxia (deprivation of oxygen; suffocation); that the bruise on her face had been given to her by Charles Frost within two hours before her death but that there was insufficient evidence to say whether this had accelerated her death; that after her death Frost had set fire to her body deliberately; he had then dragged her body from the front room of the house to the bedroom and had left it there.[27] Not unexpectedly, Frost was committed for trial for murder and taken under escort to Launceston to await trial.[28] 

On 22 November 1865, the Cornwall Chronicle informed its readers that the coroner’s jury, in returning ‘so singular a verdict’, one that had both inculpated (accused) and exculpated (excused) Frost, it had been necessary for the police to take the whole of the evidence given at the inquest again. Nevertheless, the newspaper had assured readers, Frost would be fully committed for the ‘wilful’ murder at the next sitting of the Supreme Court on 6 December.[29]

As it happens, however, Frost was never brought to trial. On 13 December 1865, the Cornwall Chronicle announced that he had been discharged from custody on 1 December, the Attorney-General deeming the evidence against him to be insufficient to justify putting him on trial for murder.[30]

In recent times, considerable attention has been given by researchers to the effect of transportation to VDL on the lives of those females who were among the youngest to arrive. Although, Margaret Brayson was older than many others, her conviction in England at the age of sixteen means that she was among those who were the most vulnerable. To what extent can the somewhat puzzling choices she made in life be accounted for by her youthfulness and inexperience - torn as she was from family and friends, without the prospect of ever being reunited with them again – at such a tender age? Would she have made these choices if she had had better guidance? What was it that led her into marriage with William Jackson who was forty years older than she was? Why did she choose to share her life with a man like Charles Frost? Was it economic necessity in both cases, perhaps? Was it the need for protection in a male-dominated society? Can the tragedy of her shocking death at the age of forty-three be attributed to the lack of opportunity to develop a more mature outlook in her formative years or to a convict system that justified the banishment of susceptible young girls, alone and unprotected, to the other side of the world?

 

[1] CON40-1-2, image 71; description list: CON19-1-2, image 519; FCRC ID: 5715.

[2] Birth: Liverpool, England, Catholic Baptisms, 1741-1919; Census, England, 1841, Class HO107, Piece 566, Book 18, Civil Parish of Liverpool, Co. Lancashire, Enumeration District 34, Folio 49, p.33, Line 20, GSU roll 438718, both via Ancestry.co.uk at www.femaleconvicts.org.au.

[3] CON40-1-2, image 71.

[4] Liverpool Standard and General Commercial Advertiser, 19 April 1939.

[5] Liverpool Record Office, Quarter Sessions Indictment, Felonies and Misdemeanours, 347 QUA, 1/21, 22 July 1839, 1 Vol. - via d/base at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[6] Dobbins: CON49/1/4, image 28; Harrison: CON40/1/6, image 38.

[7] Petition dated 19 August 1839: HO 17/131/ZZ15, via www.femaleconvicts.org.au.

[8] Petitions dated 27 and 28 August 1839: HO 17/131/ZZ15, via www.femaleconvicts.org.au.

[9] http://members.iinet.au/~perthdps/convicts/shipsTAS.html

[10] CON19-1-2, image 519.

[11] CON40-1-2, image 71.

[12] Permission to marry: CON52/1/2, p.88; marriage: RGD37/1/3, No.659.

[13] Jackson’s death certificate – RGD35/650/1860, Hamilton - shows his age as seventy-six.

[14] https://www.oldbaileyonline.org, Reference No: t18150405-32.

[15] Jackson- Quin marriage: NSW Reg. 3077/1823 V18233077 3B.

[16] Flannery, R. (2008). ‘Arthur Gordon Jackson: My Maternal Grandfather’ in Tasmanian Ancestry, Vol.29, No.3, PP. 158-163. (Note that Flannery acknowledges Rieusset, B. (1993). The Jacksons of Hamilton: A Brief Study of a Pioneering Family in Tasmania. Hobart: Published by the Author.)

[17] ToL: Hobart Town Gazette, 8 October 1844; CF: CON40-1-2, image 71.

[18] Births: William James RGD33/198/1844; Rachel Eliza RGD33/1/27/1847/23; Samuel RGD33/325/1850; Alfred Alexander RGD33/1/30/1852/155; George Thomas RGD33/1/32/1854/219; all births registered at Hamilton.

[19] William Jackson, death: RGD35/650/1860, Hamilton.

[20] Funeral notice: The Mercury (Hobart), 23 July 1860.

[21] AD961-1-4 [Will No.429] at https://www.stors.gov.au

[22] The Mercury (Hobart), 24 January 1861, p.3.

[23] The Mercury (Hobart), 30 September 1865, p.2.

[24] Frost: CON33-1-95, image 84.

[25] Frost’s trial: AB693-1-1, 1958; Port Arthur: https://www.worldabandoned.com/port-arthur

[26] Margaret’s death: RGD35/1/34, No. 226, Hamilton; Inquest: SC195/1/50, inquest 5994; Mercury, 30 September 1865, p.2; Launceston Examiner, 3 October 1865, p.3; Cornwall Chronicle, 7 October 1865, p.2 and 14 October 1865, p.3.

[27] Inquest: SC195/1/50, inquest 5994

[28] Launceston Examiner, 11 November 1865, p.5.

[29] Cornwall Chronicle, 22 November 1865, p.5.

[30] Cornwall Chronicle, 13 December 1865, p.3.

 

 

 


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For academic referencing (suggestion only) Database: [http address], FCRC Female Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land database, entry for xxxx ID no xxx, accessed [date].

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