The story of Maria Drake, one of the 13,500 (approx.) females who were transported to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) as convicts between 1812 and 1853, is an unhappy one. In November 1842, she was convicted of the theft of a watch and watch-stand from a house in London, England, and sentenced to transportation for seven years. She was twenty-three when she arrived in VDL aboard the vessel Margaret in 1843. Soon after her arrival, she was living in a de facto relationship with a former convict by the name of John Thompson (Asia, 1, 1823) and, by 1854, had given birth to three children by him. During this time, she was never in trouble with the law. However, when Thompson was convicted of a felony in Hobart around 1855, and sent off to serve four years imprisonment in New South Wales, her life changed dramatically. In 1858, she was charged with the attempted murder, by poisoning, of a twelve-year-old boy and his mother. At her trial in the Supreme Court, Hobart, on 29 July 1858, she strongly protested her innocence. Although it was made clear to the jury that she had not acted with malice towards the boy and his mother, and that she had no motive whatsoever for wanting to harm them, she was found guilty as charged and sentenced to death. Later, the sentence was commuted to a term of imprisonment for life. It is believed that she was released around 1870 but what happened to her after that remains a mystery.
This is Maria’s story:
Maria Drake was born Patience Maria Miller, one of six daughters of Thomas Mills (or Miller) and Rhoda (or Rhonda) Winnell, at Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, England, in 1819. Little is known about her upbringing but it is likely to have been a difficult time for her. When she was just eight years old, her father was convicted of bigamy and sentenced to transportation for seven years. He had arrived in VDL per Roslyn Castle in 1828. Although he managed to return to England after he had served his term, it is not clear whether he re-joined the family. While it is probable that the family struggled financially while he was absent, Maria seems to have had a basic education. She was able to read and write and was working as a ‘milliner and dressmaker’ when convicted of the theft for which she was transported.
At her trial at the Old Bailey, London, on 28 November 1842, Maria was described as ‘a neatly dressed and demure-looking young woman’. She was twenty-three years old and had been married for just two months. Her husband, James Drake, was a carpenter. The register of marriages at the parish of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, London, describes him as a ‘bachelor’ and a ‘minor’. Little else is known about him.
Maria had been charged on two separate counts. On the first, it was alleged that, on 23 February 1842, she had stolen a silver watch and a mahogany watch-stand, together valued at four pounds and eleven shillings, from the lodging house of a Mr. John Myers. Myers told the court that Maria had called at this home that day to inspect a vacant apartment. For a short while, she had been left alone in a room which Myers and his wife occupied and it was thought that she had taken the articles from a mantel-piece at that time. When Mrs. Myers had noticed that the goods were missing two weeks later, she had gone to a house in Stoke-Newington, London, where she had heard that Maria was living and had seen the watch-stand there. She had immediately called the police. Some days later the watch itself had been found in a pawnbroker’s shop on the Kingsland Road, London. The pawnbroker testified that the watch had been pawned by a woman who had given her name as ‘Amelia Miller’ but he was unable to say whether that woman was Maria.
On the second count, Maria was alleged to have stolen a brooch, valued at five shillings, from the home of a Mr. Joshua Lydamont on 23 August 1842. (Curiously, that was the day after her wedding!) Lydamont told the court that Maria had occupied lodgings at his house from 28 March until 1 October that year. Lydamont’s wife told the court that, on 24 August, she had become aware that the brooch was missing. She had asked Maria about it but she had denied all knowledge of it. A subsequent search of pawn shops on the Kingsland Road had discovered the brooch and the pawnbroker’s assistant was able to identify Maria as the woman who had pawned it.
Found guilty on both counts, Maria was sentenced to transportation for seven years.
Shortly after the trial, Maria was put aboard the convict ship Margaret which, with John F. Dye as Master, Mr. B. McAvoy as Surgeon-Superintendent and 156 female prisoners, sailed from London on 5 February 1843 and reached Hobart on 19 July that year.
The journey was a relatively long and uncomfortable one due to ‘unfavourable winds’ and ‘the wet and leaky state of the ship’. Four women had died before the ship reached the Cape of Good Hope where McAvoy, who was very ill, had to be replaced by Dr. John A. Mould. In his medical journal, McAvoy had remarked of the prisoners: ‘… the behaviour of the convicts with few exceptions were as good as could be expected from people of their class, it is true their Morals were rather loose, and they thought stealing from each other no crime.’ Of Maria specifically, he had commented: ‘Will require to be closely watched if she complains of illness having tried to sham.’
Upon arrival at Hobart, Maria was described as being twenty-four years old, five feet and three inches (about 160 cms) tall and of a fair complexion. She had long brown hair and hazel eyes. She gave her religion as ‘Wesleyan’.
Soon after disembarkation, it is likely that Maria was hired as a servant by a free settler. An extant record shows her in the service of a Mr. Yardley of Hobart in 1846 but nothing more is known about her life at that time. No new charges were brought against her during the years of her penal servitude and, by January 1847 she had been granted a ticket of leave.
Somewhere during this time, she had met a former convict by the name of John Thompson and was soon living in a de facto relationship with him. Then in his early forties, he had been in VDL since his arrival on Asia (1) in January 1824. In the previous year, he had been convicted of the theft of carpenters’ tools at Liverpool, England, and sentenced to transportation for seven years. In the colony, he had committed numerous new offences and had been punished severely for them. He had been lashed for insolence, using obscene language and failing to obey orders. For his more serious offences, he had served time in the prison settlements of Maria Island, Sarah Island and Port Arthur. It was not until May 1846, that he had been granted a ticket of leave.
For the first seven or eight years of the relationship, things seem to have gone well for Maria and John Thompson. In 1846, Maria gave birth to a daughter, Jane Elizabeth. In 1849, both Maria and John, were ‘free by servitude’; their time as convicts was over. In 1850, a son, John Thomas, was born and, in 1854, Maria gave birth to a second daughter, Hannah. The birth registrations of each of the children show their father working as a tailor in Hobart.
Then, however, a series of tragic events changed Maria’s life dramatically.
First, on 14 April 1854, just four days after the birth of baby Hannah, Maria’s eldest child, Jane, passed away. She was four years and ten months old. The death certificate shows the cause as ‘inflammation of the brain’.
Shortly afterwards, Maria’s husband, John, was arrested and convicted of a felony. The crime he had committed has not yet been ascertained. He was transported to New South Wales to serve a term of imprisonment for four years. Left alone with two young children to support, Maria returned to her former occupation as a dressmaker, working from her home at 71 Melville Street, Hobart, where she also let rooms to lodgers.
But worse was to follow!
On 12 April 1858, Maria was arrested and charged with having, four days earlier, ‘voluntarily and unlawfully administered to Oliver and Mary Adams a deadly poison, to wit, white arsenic, with intent to kill and murder.’
At a remand hearing on 16 April, Oliver Adams, a twelve-year-old boy, told the police magistrate that, on the evening of 8 April, Maria, who had seemed agitated, had asked him to take a parcel containing cakes and confections to the nearby lodging-house of a Mr. James Hollington. He was to tell Hollington’s wife that the sender of the parcel was a ‘Mrs. Toogood’. However, the boy had taken the parcel to the wrong house. When the proprietor of that residence – a Mrs. Holland - had refused to accept it, he had tried to take it back to Maria but was unable to find her. He had then decided to take the parcel home to his mother. The next morning, he and his mother had eaten a small piece of one of the cakes and, as a result, had become ‘very ill’, with ‘fits of vomiting all day’.
As it happens, the police had come to the conclusion – even before the remand hearing had begun – that the boy and his mother had not been Maria’s intended victims. Rather, they thought, the poison had been meant for a man by the name of John Wilson.
Called to testify, Wilson said that he had lodged at Maria’s house for some time but had moved quite recently to the Hollington’s house, a short distance away. Stressing that there had never been any ‘illicit connection’ between himself and Maria, Wilson said that he had left Maria’s house ‘on perfectly good terms.’ There had never been any quarrel between them and she had never complained of his leaving. He said that he was quite unaware of any ill-feeling, or reason for any ill-feeling, on the part of Maria towards him.
Hollington, however, told the hearing that all might not have been as well between Maria and Wilson as Wilson himself had imagined. He said that, although Maria had ‘expressed herself with a perfectly good temper’ at the time, she had told him that she had been ‘somewhat dissatisfied’ with Wilson as a lodger. Continuing, Hollington said that, a day or so after Maria had asked Oliver Adams to deliver the parcel to his home, someone unseen had left another box of cakes on his front door-step. Later that day, his female servant had eaten one of those cakes and had become violently ill. He had then thrown the remainder of the cakes to his fowls and they had died immediately.
William Adams, the father of Oliver Adams, was the next to give evidence. He said that he had known Maria by sight for some years. On the night in question, he had seen her standing on the footpath in Melville Street. She had been carrying a parcel wrapped in a white handkerchief but he had not seen her give the parcel to his son.
A fourteen-year-old boy named Brown told the magistrate that he had met Oliver Adams, whom he knew as a friend, as Oliver was carrying the parcel to his home after his unsuccessful attempt to return it to Maria. After urging Oliver to open the parcel, he had dipped his fingers into a custard pie and then licked them. The next morning, he had been very sick.
A local pharmacist, Charles Calvert, said that he remembered a woman, who had given her name as Thompson and her address as 71 Melville Street, purchasing six-pennyworth of arsenic from his shop three weeks earlier. A few days later, she had returned to the shop and had bought the same quantity again. She had told him that she intended to use the poison to kill rats.
A Dr. McCarthy testified that that he had been asked to examine an ounce of cake from the parcel that Maria had given to Oliver Adams. He had found it to contain eight and three-quarter grains of arsenic. He estimated that that was ‘more than sufficient to destroy life’.
Detective McGuire, a police officer, told the hearing that when he had arrested Maria, charging her with intent to kill Oliver Adams and his mother, she had exclaimed: ‘Oh, my God! How could I have done such a thing to people I do not know. I do not know such people as Adams’. McGuire said that he had found arsenic at Maria’s home on the day of her arrest but that she had said that she had used the arsenic to poison mice and slugs.
Two witnesses were then called in Maria’s defence. Neither had anything to say in regard to the parcel which Maria had asked Oliver Adams to deliver but were able to cast some doubt about whether it was she who had left the second box of cakes on Hollington’s door-step.
Not unexpectedly, Maria was fully committed for trial at the next criminal sittings of the Supreme Court.
Brought before the Supreme Court on 3 June 1958 and, after a lengthy postponement, again on 29 July 1858, Maria was capitally charged with ‘feloniously, unlawfully and maliciously causing to be taken by one Oliver Adams, on 8 April, a large quantity of a deadly poison … with intent to kill and murder [him].’ On a second count, she was charged with ‘causing the poison to be taken by the boy’s mother, Mary Ann Adams [also known as Mary Ann Paul] with the same felonious intent’.
Asked to plead, Maria, who was described in court as ‘elegantly dressed’, said in a firm voice: ‘I am not guilty’.
In his opening address for the prosecution, the Solicitor-General went to great lengths to explain to the Jury the law applicable to this case. It might be said, he asserted, that Maria could not have known that the boy would eat the cake. And, it might also be said that, because Maria had not known Oliver Adams before she asked him to deliver the parcel containing the poisoned cakes, she could not have borne malice towards him. Therefore, it might be said, she had no intent to murder him.
However, he went on, the law had provided for this very circumstance.
He told the jury that there is a statute known as ‘9th George 12 v. e. 31, Section 11’ (usually termed the ‘Huskisson Act’) which declares that if any person administers, or causes to be administered, any poison with intent to murder, that person shall be adjudged guilty of felony. He then cited a case of poisoning in England to which the ‘Huskisson Act’ had applied. That case was so similar to Maria’s case, he argued, that it could be taken as a precedent. In it, a woman had gone to a shop to buy some salt. After she had left, the shopkeeper had noticed that she had left a small parcel, addressed to a ‘Mrs. Dawes’, on his counter. Later, the shopkeeper had mis-read the name on the parcel and had forwarded it to a ‘Mrs. Davies’. The parcel had contained sugar which had been laced with poison. Mrs. Davies had eaten a portion of it and had become so extremely ill that she had eventually died. The Judge in that case had asked the jury to decide whether the sugar had been left at the shop counter with the intent to kill someone. If it was left there for Mrs. Dawes, he said, but eventually found its way to Mrs. Davies, then the person who had left it was guilty of murder. Accordingly, the woman had been convicted.
The Solicitor-General concluded his opening remarks with an analogy. Suppose, he said, a person took a loaded gun and fired it at Person A intending to commit murder. If, however, the bullet missed Person A but hit and killed Person B who just happened to be standing nearby, then the person who fired the gun was still guilty of murder.
The prosecution then called its witnesses, most of whom had appeared at the earlier remand hearing and whose testimony was substantially the same.
The prosecution case then being closed, Maria’s solicitor, a Mr. Lees, presented the case for the defence.
Addressing the Jury at length, he asked whether they could be totally satisfied that it had been Maria who had sent the parcel that contained the poisoned cakes and confections. Could they be absolutely sure, he asked, that it was Maria who was seen in Melville Street with a parcel in her hands on the night in question. He asked the Jury to consider whether she had any malicious intent to poison Oliver Adams or his mother or, indeed, any other person. He contended that nothing had been shown to implicate Maria in any murderous intent. Animatedly reviewing the evidence of several witnesses, and pointing out a number of discrepancies in it, he asked whether there was, in fact, any testimony at all to support the fearful ‘life or death’ charge against his client. Concluding his address, he called only one witness, a Mr. Drew who, it was argued, would be able to prove that Maria could not have been the person who had left the second parcel on the door-step of Mr. James Hollington’s house. However, Drew was not present in court and so his evidence was not heard.
The judge then summed up the evidence. It mattered not, he said, how the poison was sent, or how it was administered, but if it was taken by anyone and injurious consequences ensued, then the crime was completed – provided that a felonious intent was proved. He informed the Jury that, if they believed Maria had given the poison in the manner alleged, she was unquestionably both morally and legally guilty of the crime with she was charged. If, on the other hand, they entertained any doubt, they should, of course, give her the benefit of the doubt.
After retiring for about an hour, the Jury returned with a verdict of guilty.
Called on to say why a sentence of death should not be passed upon her, Maria said that she was innocent of the crimes with which she had been charged and asserted that the witnesses had sworn falsely. A sentence of death was recorded against her. Within a short time, that sentence had been commuted to a term of imprisonment for life.
Shortly after her arrest on the attempted murder charge in April 1858, Maria’s two surviving children, son John Thomas Thompson and daughter Hannah Thompson, then about eight and four years old respectively, were taken into the care of a Mr. Thomas Towers, possibly a friend of Maria, at Hobart. In February 1860, however, a request for admission of John to the Queen’s Orphan School, Hobart, was made by the Sub-Inspector of Police. A note on the ‘Application for Admission’ form’ reads: ‘Mother under sentence for administering poison; father undergoing sentence in New South Wales.’ A second note reads: ‘The boy has become so unruly that [the Towers family] cannot do anything with him and consequently request his admission.’ Elsewhere on the form, the policeman had written: ‘The mother is at the Cascades under sentence for administering poison; the father, about four years since, under sentence in Sydney but I have heard that he has returned to Hobart but has not been to see his wife and children’. The application was approved and young John Thompson remained at the Orphan School for the next eight years. In September 1868, he was discharged to a Mr. Charles Cockerill of New Norfolk, probably to work as his apprentice. It is assumed that little Hannah remained with the Towers family.
What happened to Maria eventually has not been verified. However, two possible leads to the life she was able to lead after her release from prison warrant further research.
The first of these is a brief newspaper report published in Tasmanian News on 29 May 1899. The report mentioned that a ‘quite feeble’, seventy-six-year-old woman named Maria Thompson had been arrested in a Hobart Street and charged with the theft of a waterproof overcoat. She told the police that she had recently come from Melbourne in search of a son and daughter that she had left behind in Tasmania eighteen years previously. Was this Maria (Miller/Drake) Thompson? The ages do not match exactly – Maria would have been eighty in 1899 - but they are close enough to create interest.
The second lead is a yet-to-be-confirmed account of Maria’s life on ‘Ancestry’. According to a publicly-available family tree there, Maria was released from gaol in Hobart on 8 July 1871 and shortly afterwards left Tasmania with her son John – who by that time was using the alias ‘Francis Sanderson (or Saunderson)’ – to settle in New Zealand. There, two years later, she married a man by the name of George Vennell. She was then about fifty-three. While marriage records in New Zealand do indeed confirm that a woman with the given names ‘Henrietta Maria Patience Lydia Sanderson’ and the family name ‘Thompson’ married a ‘George Vennell’ in 1872, there is no absolute proof – either on the marriage certificate or in the ‘Ancestry’ family tree - that this was Maria (Miller/Drake) Thompson.
According to the same ‘Ancestry’ tree, Maria died at Wellington, New Zealand, on 22 September 1898 but, as a death certificate has not yet been located, this cannot be confirmed.
And so ends Maria’s unhappy story. It is frustrating that there are still gaps in our knowledge of her. What was it that impelled her to act as she did in April 1858? What was the nature of her grievance against John Wilson, the man whom it is supposed was the intended recipient of her poisoned cakes? Was she ever re-united with her children? Did she find some kind of happiness in her old age? As yet, there are no answers to these questions.
 ‘New South Wales and Tasmania, Convict Musters, 1806-1849, Tasmania, Ledger Returns S-Z, 1846’ at https://www.ancestry.com.au/imageviewer/collections/1185/images/IMAUS1787_114238-00198?treeid=&personid=&hintid=&queryId=9a20c31cc857b518d5ea6ad98217c060&usePUB=true&_phsrc=Khe855&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&_ga=2.239542474.870089904.1633736688-150054879.1602971724&pId=418965
 CON40-1-4, image 67; ticket of leave: Hobart Town Gazette, 26 January 1847.
 John Thompson, conduct record: CON31-1-42, image 94.
see also Hobart Town Daily Mercury, 3 June 1858, p.3; 30 July 1858, p.2; Tasmanian Telegraph, 31 July 1858, p.3.
 Supreme Court trial: AB693-1-1; SC32-1-7, pages 212 and 223, via www.femaleconvicts.org.au; Hobart Town Daily Mercury, 3 June 1858, p.3; 30 July 1858, p.2; Tasmanian Telegraph, 31 July 1858, p.3.
 Death sentence: Launceston Examiner, 31 July 1858, p.3.
 Plater, D. and Milne, S. (2014). ‘All That’s Good and Virtuous or Depraved and Abandoned in the Extreme? Capital Punishment and Mercy for Female Offenders in Colonial Australia, 1824-1865’ in UTasLawRw 5; (2014) 33(1) University of Tasmania Law Review 83 at http://www8.austlii.edu.au/cgi~bin/viewdoc/au/journals/UTasLawRw/2014/5.html#Headings51