Many of the 13,500 (approx.) women who were transported as convicts to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) between 1812 and 1853 lived miserable lives in a society where females had few rights and were usually denied the means and opportunity to succeed and prosper. Some, unable to adjust to the circumstances of their new lives, continued in their criminal ways and were severely punished by having to spend long years in gaol. Others ruined their lives with alcohol or made bad choices in the company they kept and the men they married. The majority of those transported, however, soon came to realise that they had been given a chance to put behind them forever the evils that had brought about their convictions in the countries from which they had been banished. A few managed to establish and operate successful businesses. Most settled down, worked hard, became good wives and mothers and, in that way, made significant contributions to the development of a new and vibrant nation. One of those in the latter group was Mary Cotterell who, at the age of sixteen in 1845, had been convicted of theft from her employer in England and sentenced to transportation for seven years. In VDL, her behaviour was exemplary; she was never in trouble with the law again. By 1852, she had been granted a certificate of freedom and was a free woman again. She married twice and had nine children. However, while her life appears to have been a comfortable and contented one in the main, it was not untouched by sorrow. Her first husband was killed in a tragic farm accident. One of her daughters died at the age of five when her clothing caught fire in the home. A son died of an illness at the age of three. Her second husband passed away while in his mid-sixties. When Mary died at the age of sixty-six in 1895, she was a well-respected and highly regarded member of her local community. Her convict past had been long forgotten.
This is her story:
Mary was born in 1829 at Horsell, a village in the borough of Woking on the southwestern edge of the Greater London Urban Area, Surrey, England. She was the fifth of six children of David and Mary (nee Marden) Cotterell. She had four older brothers – Jacob (born 1812), James (1815), John (1817) and William (1825) - and a younger sister, Ann (1832).
Nothing is known about Mary’s early life except that her father, David, was absent from the family from the time she was three or four years old. In 1833, he had been found guilty of stealing carpenter’s tools and sentenced to transportation for fourteen years. He had arrived in VDL aboard Stakesby in September 1835 but had passed away five years later after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. He was forty-four years old. His convict documents reveal that the term of imprisonment he was serving at the time of his death was not his first. In about 1819, he had been convicted in England of the theft of wine and sentenced to transportation for seven years. As it happens, the sentence had not been carried out on that occasion. Rather, he had been confined on a hulk moored at Woolwich and was there for five years.
It is likely that David’s wife, left with the children to support during his absences, had struggled financially. Perhaps this is why the England Census of 1841 shows her two daughters, Mary, then about thirteen, and Ann, about ten, living with her sister, Charlotte, at Picbright, a small village some distance from Woking in that year.
Perhaps, too, it was the desire to help her mother that impelled young Mary to steal. On 24 November 1845, then seventeen and working as a laundress, she stood in the dock of the Old Bailey, London, charged with the theft, on 14 September of that year, of two petticoats, two nightgowns, three caps, three shirts, and a frock – with a total value of fourteen shillings - from the home of a Mr. Frederick Crouch by whom she was employed at the time. Separately, she was charged with stealing, on 17 October of the same year, three shawls and a gown, together valued at three pounds and sixteen shillings, while in the employ of a Mr. Charles Andrews. She pleaded guilty to both charges and was sentenced to transportation for seven years.
Records show that, soon after the trial, Mary was taken to Millbank Prison, London, a holding facility for convicted prisoners before they were transported to the Australian colonies. A week later, she was transferred to the nearby Newgate Prison where she remained for about ten months. A brief report on her there stated only that she had ‘poor connexions’, apparently a reference to the fact that her father had been transported to VDL in 1835.
On 10 September 1846, Mary was put aboard Elizabeth and Henry (2) which, with Mr. J. S. Clark as master and Dr. Harvey Morris as Surgeon-Superintendent, one hundred and sixty-nine female prisoners and twenty-five of their children, sailed from London on 17 September 1846 and reached Hobart on 4 January 1847. One child had died during the voyage but otherwise it had been without incident. The surgeon’s report mentioned that Mary had been ‘generally well-behaved’.
Upon arrival, Mary was described as being eighteen years old and single. She was five feet (about 153 cms) tall with a ‘sallow’ complexion, light brown hair and blue eyes. She was a member of the Church of England. She could both read and write. She was designated the convict trade of ‘housemaid and laundress’.
After disembarkation, it is likely that Mary was taken to the Anson Probation Station, the hulk of the former British warship, HMS Anson¸ which had arrived in Hobart in 1844. Moored in the Derwent at Risdon, near Hobart, it had been refitted as a prison in order to alleviate the overcrowding which had occurred at the Cascades Female Factory as more and more convict ships had arrived since the mid-1830s. There, all newly-arrived female convicts were trained in the duties that would be expected of them when hired into the service of free settlers.
Quite soon after the completion of her probation, Mary met a former convict by the name of James McKeon and, on 30 November 1847, the couple applied for permission to marry. With approval obtained, and after publication of the banns, they were married at the Catholic Church of St. Joseph, Hobart, on 3 January of the following year. The marriage register of the parish shows Mary as an eighteen-year-old ‘servant’ and James as a ‘constable’ of ‘full’ age.
James had been born in County Longford, Ireland, about 1813. He had been in VDL since his arrival in the colony as a convict per Samuel Boddington in January 1846. Six months earlier, while working as a ‘kitchen gardener’ in Ireland, he had been convicted of stealing three sheep. He had been sentenced to transportation for seven years, the first year to be spent in hard labour. While in gaol awaiting transportation, he was reported to have been ‘quiet’ and ‘orderly’ but of a ‘suspicious character’. Upon arrival at Hobart, he was described as being thirty-two-years-old, five feet seven and a half inches (about 172 cms) tall, with a slightly freckled face, red whiskers, brown hair and grey eyes. He was a Catholic. A widower, he had left two young children behind in Ireland. In the colony, James had been sent first to the Rocky Hills Probation Station near Swansea on the east cost of the island. He had conducted himself well there and had not been charged with any offence during the twelve-months he had spent there.
Soon after the completion of his probation, James had taken up his appointment as a constable in the colony’s police force. As strange as it might seem, the appointment was not an unusual one. During the previous two decades, settlers in the interior of the island had been terrorized constantly by bushrangers, many of whom were escaped convicts desperate for their freedom and survival. Of equal concern to the settlers were the indigenous people of the island who, since the earliest days of settlement, had become increasingly resentful of the encroachment of settlers on their traditional hunting grounds and, in the conflicts that had ensued, they had suffered appallingly. Attempts by the authorities to control these situations by attracting free men with the appropriate backgrounds to the police force had been largely unsuccessful due primarily to the reluctance of the British Government to provide adequate funding for the purpose. Forced to rely on their own resources, successive lieutenant-governors had hired recently-arrived convicts to do what was required to ensure the safety and security of the population. While it was known that this measure had deficiencies – in that convict constables were frequently remiss in their duties and often charged with corruption - it was generally believed that the community as a whole was safer than it would have been otherwise.
How Mary and James lived in the early years of their marriage is not clear. Some aspects of their lives at this time are puzzling.
Family sources maintain that the first child of the marriage, also called James, was born in 1847 but that seems improbable. Mary did not arrive in VDL until January 1847 and had spent her first six months at the Anson. No record of the registration of the birth has been found.
Puzzling, too, is the fact that muster records in VDL show that, in 1849, the year after her marriage to James, Mary was at ‘Fenton’s Forest’, the property of wealthy landowner and politician Michael Fenton in the New Norfolk district, about twenty miles (thirty-two kms) north-west of Hobart. There, inexplicably, she is listed as ‘Mary Cotterell’ rather than ‘Mary McKeon’.
Nor is it known with certainty how long James remained a constable. His conduct record shows that, on 12 July 1850, he was convicted of ‘misconduct’ and fined after being charged with being ‘drunk’ and ‘out after hours’ and for ‘resisting a constable in the course of his duties’. Is that when he left the police force?
Notwithstanding his offence, on 24 July of the same year, James was granted a ticket of leave. In the following year, Mary also received a ticket of leave and husband and wife were now both free to find their own accommodation and employment. Descendants believe that, by 1852, they were living together in the Oatlands district. On 31 August 1852, James was issued with his Certificate of Freedom and on 25 January 1853, Mary received hers. They were now free to travel anywhere, including the United Kingdom if they wished to do so.
Like thousands of others in VDL at around this time, James and Mary decided to move to the neighbouring colony of Victoria where, in 1851, the discovery of gold at Ballarat and nearby Bendigo, considered at the time to be the world’s richest alluvial goldfields, were attracting fortune-seekers from all over the world. Prior to their departure from VDL, Mary had given birth to a second child, a daughter whom she named Jane Frances.
In Victoria, Mary and James appear to have moved around frequently on the goldfields. It is thought that Mary’s third child, Catherine Jane, was born at Creswick, near Ballarat, in 1854. Her fourth child, William Terrence, was born at Lockwood, near Bendigo, in 1856. Her fifth child, Anne, and her sixth, Sarah, were born somewhere on the Victorian goldfields in 1859 and 1860 respectively. However, like the vast majority of those on the Victorian goldfields, James seems to have had little success and, after nine years there, he decided to try his luck elsewhere.
By late 1861, the McKeon family was at Forbes in the central west of New South Wales where gold had been discovered earlier that year. There, however, success eluded James as it had done in Victoria. While the gold strike at Forbes had seen about thirty thousand hopeful diggers rush to the district initially, most soon departed after finding the mining conditions there extremely difficult.
Not surprisingly, James decided at about this time that he had had enough of the life of a gold-miner and returned to the kind of work he had done in Ireland before his conviction and transportation. In 1862, he applied for, and was granted, permission to grow vegetables at ‘Garnsey’s Paddock’ at Forbes. And, in this venture, he was successful. Soon, he had obtained land at Wongajong, near Forbes, as a free selector. He called his farm ‘Clover Hill’.
With their living circumstances now improving, this should have been a happy time for Mary and James. In 1862, Mary had given birth to her seventh child, Margaret, and another daughter, Bridget, followed in 1865.
Between those two joyous events, however, tragedy struck!
In 1864, the fifth child, Anne, then five years old, was accidentally burnt to death when her clothes caught fire in the family home.
And more sadness was soon to follow.
In mid-September 1867, James was involved in a shocking accident when working on a farm at Lachlan River, near Molong, close to Forbes. While trying to open a gate in one of the paddocks, he was badly injured when crushed by a horse and cart. He was taken back to his home but passed away five days later. He was fifty-five years old.
It must have been an awful time for Mary. At the time of her husband’s death, she was pregnant with her ninth child, Henry Edward. He was born the following year but, sadly, lived for only three years. He died of an illness in 1871.
In 1870, then aged forty-one, Mary, now a widow with seven surviving children whose ages ranged from five to twenty-one, married again. Her second husband was a forty-seven-year-old grazier of Forbes by the name of Adam Daniel James Elliott. Although nothing is known about their lives together, it is assumed that they lived, with Mary’s younger children, in relative comfort at Adam’s property, ‘Green Ponds’, near Forbes.
When Adam passed away at the age of sixty-six in 1889, he and Mary had been together for nineteen years. There were no children of the marriage. In his will, Adam left his substantial property and assets to Mary.
After Adam’s death, Mary moved in with her eldest daughter, Jane, at ‘Oatlands’, near Forbes. There she died, a relatively wealthy woman, five years later. She was sixty-six.  She was buried in the Church of England section of the Forbes cemetery on 16 April 1895. An obituary published in a local newspaper in the days after the funeral read in part:
The deceased, who was well known and respected in the district, leaves by her first husband a large number of descendants, comprising two sons, five daughters, forty-two grandchildren and one great grandchild. Mrs. Elliott’s funeral took place on Tuesday and was a lengthy one consisting of no less than forty-six vehicles, some coming from a long distance to be present.
There was no mention in the obituary of the circumstances that had brought Mary to Australia as a convict almost fifty years earlier and few, if any, of those who attended her funeral, except for close family members, might have been aware of them.
The author acknowledges the outstanding contribution to this account of the life of Mary Cotterell of researchers/descendants Murray Ellis and Bret Wymer.
 ‘Convict Constables in Tasmania’ at https://www.richardjohnbr.blogspot.com/2013/10/convict-constables-in-tasmania.html; Petrov, S. (1999), ‘After Arthur: Policing in Van Diemen’s Land’, A paper presented at the ‘History of Crime, Policing and Punishment Conference’, Canberra, 9-10 December at https://stors.tas.gov.au/1351491$stream; The Courier (Hobart), 13 October 1849, p.2; The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston), 6 November 1841, p.4.
 Public family Trees per ‘Ancestry.com.au’, accessed 1 September 2021.
 No record of the departure of James and Mary from VDL has been found; gold rush, Victoria, 1850s: https://earthresources.vic.gov.au/geology-exploration/minerals/metals/gold/gold-mining-in-victoria
 Registration of the birth of Jane Frances McKeon has not been located but family sources via ‘Ancestry’, accessed August 2021, give the birth year as 1851.
 Registration of Catherine Jane’s birth has not been located but it is possible that the registration at Creswick, Victoria, in 1855 of a ‘Catherine McKay’, with father ‘James’ and mother ‘Mary’ (maiden name shown as ‘Rewcastle’), was Catherine Jane McKeon; see Vic. Reg. 1550/1885, Creswick.
 Birth of William Terrence McKeon: Vic. Reg: 10245/1856, Lockwood.
 Birth registrations of Anne and Sarah have not been located.
 ‘Individual Report for James McKeon’ by Murray Ellis, researcher/descendant, via Female Convicts Research Centre, Hobart, August 2021; Public Family Trees via ‘Ancestry.com.au’; family sources via Bret Wymer, Sydney, August 2021.
 Adam Elliott, death: NSW Reg: 9508/1889, Forbes.
 Adam Elliott, will: see New South Wales Government Gazette, 14 January 1890; see also Mary’s will, reproduced in ‘Individual Report for Mary Cotterell’ by Murray Ellis, researcher/descendant, via Female Convicts Research Centre, Hobart, August 2021; New South Wales Government Gazette, 23 April 1895, p.2670, per ‘Ancestry’.