AGNES OGILVIE (MASON)

Hector 1835

By Helen Ménard

 

Introduction

Tragically, Agnes’ story is not unique. If a society’s morality is to be measured by the way it treats its most defenceless members, Agnes’ story highlights a society at its lowest moral ebb. The fact that her case was not an isolated one makes her society’s actions even more heinous.

Agnes was an elderly woman (most probably in her sixties) when she was transported to Van Deimen’s Land (VDL). Of the 12,500 female convicts transported to VDL between 1803 and 1853,[1] approximately 34 were 60 or older and only four were over 70.[2] Why would any government subject its elderly and vulnerable citizens, guilty only of minor crimes, to such a fate?

Swiss argues the Transportation Act of Great Britain[3] had a very clear economic motive.

The British wanted to beat the French to colonise Australia because it was rich in timber and flax.  It was also social engineering in that the British government wanted to remove ‘the unsightly poor’ from their streets.

The convict men were transported first and soon outnumbered women nine to one in Australia.  You can’t have a colony without women so the female convicts were specifically targeted by the British government as ‘tamers and breeders’.[4]

Agnes was dragged away from her fundamental social responsibility of caring for her aged and infirm husband and sent to a colony half a world away simply, it would appear, because she was poor.

We are not privy to the beginning or the end of Agnes’ life but, by recounting her short story in between, it may light up one more star in the night sky. 

The early years

Records of Agnes’ early life are patchy. While her birth date is unknown, we do know that she married William Mason (a nailor [sic] and mason)[5] in her hometown Falkirk, Stirling in Scotland on 2 December 1796.[6]

Court records in Scotland and transportation records state that Agnes and William had four children.[7] Josiah (Maison or Marson) was born about 1798 and christened, aged 6, on 24 June 1804 at Falkirk, Stirling, Scotland.[8] He married Janet Dunlop on 6 October 1826 in Barony Parish.[9] They had at least one child, Josiah Mason, born about 1826 and christened, aged 7, on 7 July 1833 at Falkirk, Stirling, Scotland.[10]

William Duncan Mason was born about 1799 and christened, aged 2, on 22 February 1801 at Falkirk, Stirling, Scotland.[11]

John (Marson) was born about 1808 and christened, aged 4, on 19 April 1812 at Falkirk, Stirling, Scotland.[12]

The identity of their fourth child is unknown.

 The in between years

Agnes had one previous conviction for theft of a gown for which she served one month in prison,[13] although no details are known about when this occurred.

On 8 September 1834 Agnes was convicted before the Stirling Court of Justiciary, Scotland of theft by housebreaking and being a thief ‘habit and repute’.[14] She initially pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated housebreaking but subsequently ‘pleaded guilty to housebreaking with the exception of the aggravation of housebreaking’. She was sentenced to 7 years’ transportation.[15]

The petition filed against her sentence suggests that, in pleading guilty to the housebreaking charge, she was ‘urged by her friends to do so in order to secure only a few months confinement.’[16] Regrettably, their counsel was ill-advised.

After being sentenced to transportation, convicts could petition the Government for a reprieve. These petitions give an insight into the lives of women before conviction, including details of family, employment and offence and the sad circumstances of the women and their grief at separation from loved ones.[17] In December 1834, while Agnes was biding her time in Stirling Jail, residents of Agnes’ community in Falkirk filed a petition for mercy against her sentence of transportation, as follows:

we consider ourselves as called upon, in a particular manner, to lay at your royal feet our offer of Aid and Welfare in defence of your Majesty' sacred person, and in support of that constitution and government, which is dear to us as Men and Britains.

At the same time we respectfully beg permission to lay before you your Majesty the case of an unfortunate woman lately tried at Stirling before the assize for the first time, for Royal Mercy AGNES OGILVIE aged 64 years was placed at the bench for a petty theft and upon confession being urged by her friends to do so in order to secure only a few months confinement, was sentenced to seven years transportation.

The case is distressing considering the result - she has left a family behind her - the husband is a poor and aged and very infirmed man and your Petitioners from a well-grounded conviction that she has seen the error of the unfortunate stop which has subjected her to the exercise of law, and that her soul is humbled to the lowest dust of debasement and contrition - and yet that she may prove a useful and exemplary member of society, do earnestly recommend her as a fir person to receive your Majesty's mercy and pardon - or such a mitigation of her sentence as may seem fit…[18]

Stirling Jail was described by one of the Circuit judges in 1844 in the following terms ‘ …there has been no jail, to my knowledge, in which such a fearful state of things has existed as has been the case in the prison of Stirling’.[19] Surely, the time spent in such an institution prior to transportation, would itself have been more than sufficient punishment for the petty crime of an elderly woman.

It was undisputed that William, to whom Agnes had been married for almost forty years, was frail and unwell and in need of care and attention. They were a poor family and, in all probability, given her age and scant criminal history, Agnes’ crime was one of necessity. Theirs was a double tragedy. Not only did the government and the King ignore Agnes’ request to remain in the country to support her elderly husband, they deprived William, whose only crime was to be poor, of his legal rights to be cared for by his spouse. This hardly illustrates a society with any level of moral decency.

The age dilemma

Agnes’ age stated on transportation was 48 giving her an assumed birthdate of 1787;[20] court records in Scotland stated her age as ‘c. 50’ giving her an assumed birthdate of 1785;[21] and her age as stated on the petition for mercy was 64 giving her an assumed birthdate of 1771.[22]

On the assumption that Agnes was at least 16 when she married in 1796, (as there was no record of her being a minor) her latest birthdate would be 1780. This suggests the stated age on transportation is incorrect, as are the Scottish court records and her age as stated in the petition is likely to be more accurate.

Many men and women transported to the Australian colonies frequently altered their ages and marital status to suit their circumstances – mostly to improve their prospects of marriage or employment. Record keeping was poor and not compulsory in many jurisdictions in the United Kingdom in the eighteenth century and many records were lost or destroyed over time making it difficult to verify personal details.[23]

More than likely, Agnes hoped that by stating her age as 48 she would have a better chance of securing more favourable employment in the colony or a new partner in life.

 Transportation and beyond

Agnes Ogilvie (or Mason) was transported from Scotland via England to VDL aboard the Hector arriving on 20 October 1835 along with 133 other female convicts.[24]

On arrival in VDL in late 1835, Agnes was assigned to a Mr Richards but only a short time later, in February 1836, she had been reassigned to a Mr Miller.[25] Sadly, Agnes’ pattern of behaviour over the next six years meant that she was reassigned on a regular basis and was under the supervision of no less than nine different ‘masters’, several lasting no longer than a month.[26]

Permission for Agnes Ogilvie (Hector) to marry George Smith (Red Rover) was approved on 12 October 1840[27] but there is no record that the marriage ever took place. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that there would have been at least a forty year age difference between them and George, a much younger single man, may have wished for a family of his own. George had also been granted permission to marry Elizabeth Collins (Edward) a couple of years previously on 3 January 1838 but this marriage did not proceed either.[28] George, a stonemason and cutter, arrived in VDL aboard the Red Rover in 1831 aged 26 and single.[29] He was tried in Chester, England on 30 August 1830 for house breaking and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation.[30] George committed a series of minor offences in VDL from 1831-1841 and received a conditional pardon in May 1841.[31]

 Crime and punishment

Of Agnes’ eleven recorded colonial offences from December 1835 to May 1841, eight were for drunkenness, two for being absent without leave and one for insolence and bad language.  Her punishments, all served at the Cascades Female Factory,[32] ranged from three to seven days in a cell on bread and water, to one month at the ‘wash tub’,[33] to two months ‘second class’ in the house of correction.[34] In January 1837, while assigned to McLachlan, she was charged with ‘being drunk and bringing a strange man into the house’ and was sentenced to ‘crime class’ for one month.[35] Twice, while on a ticket of leave in 1841, she was fined 5 shillings for being drunk.

‘Wash tub’ was a secondary punishment handed down by magistrates, and was the only punishment specifically nominated as hard labour for female convicts in VDL. This sentence was mostly a stand-alone punishment for female convicts, although it was sometimes accompanied with other punishments, including sleeping in a solitary cell at night and assignment to the interior.[36]

The Class system classified and segregated convict women based on their behaviour. It was simultaneously a system of reward and punishment.  It was also a method of keeping incorrigible females separate from those who were well-behaved and capable of reform.  The system consolidated into three distinct classes, or wards: First Class (Assignable Class); Second Class (Probationary Class); and Third Class (Crime Class).[37]

First Class or Assignable Class: These were the best behaved convicts or those who had been returned by their employers for re-assignment.  They were not required to undergo any special punishment, but were required to undertake lighter tasks. First Class convicts were allowed to apply for the indulgence of getting married.[38]

Second Class or Probationary Class: Prisoners in the second class at a female factory were those working their way up from third (or crime) class to first class, those imprisoned for general sentences of less than three months and those awaiting confinement. The second class women were assigned tasks such as spinning, weaving or needlework.[39]

Third Class or Crime Class: Convicts sentenced to Crime Class undertook a punishment handed down by magisterial sentences or by the Supreme Court.  This sentence could include a period of bread and water diet in the solitary cells, separate treatment cells, or hard labour in the wash house yard. Crime Class prisoners also had an inferior diet with oatmeal replacing sugar and coffee. After a certain portion of their sentence was served and they were of good behaviour, they could be moved to the Second Class. When their punishment sentence at the Female Factory was served they were moved to the assignable class for assignment or hiring.[40]

Dealing with the demon drink

Was Agnes’ life so wretched that she only found relief in the ‘demon drink’? Maybe she also found comfort and companionship in the confines of the Cascades as a preferred alternative to life under her assignees.

De Vries maintains that:

Most female convicts were given a hard time when they were assigned to work as domestics in households. The harshness of the penal system did not encourage convict women to be virtuous: an assigned female convict who rejected the sexual advances of her master could, on his word alone, be returned to the Female Factory as being of ‘bad character’. There women of ‘bad character’ were placed in the despised Third Grade and punished by being put in the stocks, having their head shaved or a heavy spiked iron collar placed around their necks.[*] Should an assigned domestic become pregnant to her master, she was turned out to sleep on the streets and denied a reference, making it almost impossible for her to get another job, or she was sent back to the Female Factory as Third Class ‘incorrigible’.[41]

 The end of the road

After serving her sentence, Agnes received her certificate of freedom in September 1841[42] and this is when the door on her life closes.

There is no recorded death for Agnes in Tasmania nor is there any no record of her having been buried in the paupers’ graves.[43] There are no shipping records evidencing her return to the United Kingdom;[44] and, the likelihood of this occurring is remote given that she would have been at least seventy by this time, most probably without an income and very likely in poor health. Indeed, as De Vries observes, ‘while men could serve their term and earn their passage back to Britain as sailors, women could not do this and, lacking the money for the fare back home, were, in effect, transported for life’.[45]

Agnes’ misery must surely have been exacerbated by the realisation that she would almost certainly die in a foreign country never being able to see any of her family again. In the end, did her punishment fit the crime?

Where Agnes spent her last days remains a mystery. In all likelihood, she died alone and in desperate circumstances that did not qualify her for a dignified death or a marked place in the earth. Her life, along with many others, bore witness to the refusal of a class ridden society to value the lives of its poor and underprivileged.

 

Helen Ménard (29/09/2021)

 

[*]

De Vries, Susanna, Strength of Spirit – Pioneering Women of Achievement from First Fleet to Federation, (1995), Millennium Books Australia, p14; Evidence in relation to the use of spiked iron collars (as opposed to iron collars) on female convicts appears to lack substantive proof and is largely anecdotal. In this instance, De Vries cites Miriam Dixson, The Real Matilda. Women and Identity in Australia 1788 to the Present. Penguin Books (Rev Edn 1884) p141 who in turn cites George Loveless, The Victims of Whiggery, London 1837, p 24 who writes "  ... I have been told [emphasis added] that a practice once prevailed, if the woman committed a misdemeanour after they were in the factory, to put iron collars around their necks, with spikes in them, to increase their punishment." This observation, of itself, is far from definitive. For further discussion on this topic see article on Iron Collar punishment: https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/punishments
 

 

[1] Alexander, Alison, ed., The Companion to Tasmanian History, Snowden, Dianne, “Female Convicts” (2005), Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, University of Tasmania.

[2] FCRC database; based mostly on ages stated on transportation

[3] Transportation Act 1717 Great Britain (4 Geo. 1 c. 11); Transportation Act 1768 (8 Geo. 3 c. 15) 

[4] Swiss, Deborah J., The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women, (2010), The Berkley Publishing Group, London. Extracted from

 https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2018/06/the-founding-mothers-the-little-known-story-of-australias-convict-women/

[5] National Records of Scotland AD14/34/147B; NAS JC26/1834/297; LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/7 DI 160

[6] familysearch.org

[7] National Records of Scotland AD14/34/147B; NAS JC26/1834/297; LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/7 DI 160

[8] familysearch.org; there is a possible death on 15 January 1848 aged 66 for a Josiah Mason but it is registered as female; this may be a typographical error and referring to Janet the wife; scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[9] scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[10] familysearch.org

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/7 DI 160

[14] A term in Scots criminal law to mean an habitual criminal or in this case a thief by reputation. www.nrscotland.gov.uk/Index of Legal terms

[15] National Records of Scotland AD14/34/147B; NAS JC26/1834/297; LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/7 DI 160

[16] Geo McNair Chairman, The Petition and representation of the Heritors, Freeholders, and Inhabitants of Camelon in the Parish of Falkirk Stirlingshire North Britain, 6 December 1834; HO17/22/B13; findmypast.co.uk

[17] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/pre-transportation/petitions

[18] Ibid

[19] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/pre-transportation/the-prisons/scottish-prisons

[20] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON19/1/13 DI 200

[21] NAS JC26/1834/297;

[22] Geo McNair Chairman, The Petition and representation of the Heritors, Freeholders, and Inhabitants of Camelon in the Parish of Falkirk Stirlingshire North Britain, 6 December 1834; HO17/22/B13; findmypast.co.uk

[23] https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/The_Growth_of_Record_Keeping_about_Convicts

[24] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/7 DI 160

[25] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/7 DI 160

[26] Ibid

[27] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON52/1/2 p179

[28] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON52/1/1 p184

[29] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON18/1/22 DI 196;

[30] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON31/1/39 p105 DI 110

[31] Ibid

[32] The Cascades Female Factory operated in South Hobart from 1828 to 1856. After it ceased operation as a female factory in 1856, it continued as a gaol under the administration of local authorities from 1856 until 1877.

 See https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/female-factories/cascades-ff

[33] At the Cascades Female Factory, washing was carried out for the colonial hospital, military hospital, military barracks, ordinance store, orphan schools, penitentiary and mental asylum, in addition to the Factory itself. The washing included all manner of clothes, bedding and towels. https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/punishments#

[34] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/7 DI 160

[35] Ibid

[36] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/punishments

[37] Ibid

[38] Ibid

[39] Ibid

[40] Ibid

[41] De Vries, Susanna, Strength of Spirt – Pioneering Women of Achievement from First Fleet to Federation, (1995), Millennium Books Australia, p14

[42] FCRC database; The Courier (Hobart, Tas.: 1840 -1859) Fri 3 Sep 1841 p4 Gazette

[43] www.gravesoftas.com.au

[44] LIB TAS Names Index; PROV.vic.gov.au

[45] De Vries, Susanna, Strength of Spirt – Pioneering Women of Achievement from First Fleet to Federation, (1995), Millennium Books Australia, p11

 

 

 

 

 


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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].

For academic referencing (suggestion only) Website:  Female Convicts Research Centre Inc., accessed [date] from [http address].