JEAN BRASH

[Sir Robert Seppings, 1852]

by

Don Bradmore

One of the most extraordinary stories among those of the 13,500 (approx.) women who were transported as convicts to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) between 1812 and 1853 is that of Jean Brash.[1] In January 1852, at the age of twenty-seven, she had been found guilty in a Scottish court of stealing half a sovereign and sentenced to transportation for ten years. She had arrived at Hobart aboard Sir Robert Seppings later that year. Before her transportation, she had been a most notorious character in Edinburgh’s seedy underworld where and had had more than twenty convictions for offences including disorderly conduct and theft. She had been dubbed the ‘Princess of Pickpockets’ and the ‘Queen of Thieves’.[2]

It had been the legendary James McLevy, Edinburgh’s first official detective, who had finally put an end to Jean’s criminal ways. He had pursued her doggedly before being able to bring her to justice but, even while doing so, he admitted to having had a grudging respect for her. She had been able to outwit him frequently. After he had retired from the police force, he became a widely-published writer of crime stories, most of which were based on cases in which he had been involved during his career. In some of them, Jean Brash appears as his wily antagonist.[3] More recently, Scottish novelist David Aston has used the McLevy stories as the basis of a highly-acclaimed BBC Radio 4 series in which a character named Jean Brash plays a leading role. The same character is also the subject of a series of books, ‘The Jean Brash Mysteries’, which Ashton is presently writing.[4]

Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, Jean settled down quickly after her arrival in VDL and, after overcoming some mental health problems initially, was of little trouble to the authorities. In 1860, she married former convict William Apsey (Pestongee Bomangee, 1852) and lived quietly. She passed away at the age of seventy in a Launceston hospital in 1894.  

This is Jean’s story:

The fourth of six children - and the only daughter - of Hugh and Martha (nee Gowers) Brash, Jean is thought to have been born at Mid Calder, West Lothian, Scotland, a village about fifteen miles (24 kms) west of Edinburgh, on 16 June 1824. While her convict documents show her name as ‘Jean Brash’, it is believed that her given name at birth was ‘Jane’. She was known variously as ‘Jean’ or ‘Jane’ in Scotland before her transportation. [5] Her brothers were Richard (born 1811), Hugh (1815), Thomas (1818), David (1827) and Walter (1828).[6]

Described later as ‘a child of the streets’, Jean is likely to have had a difficult childhood. When she was thirteen, her father, a sawyer by occupation, had been found guilty of assaulting a woman with whom he was having an extra-marital affair and sentenced to transportation for seven years. He had had prior convictions for similar assaults. He had arrived in VDL per Blenheim in 1838, and had remarried there in 1847. He died in 1872 without ever having returned to Scotland.[7]  

Three of Jean’s brothers had also been transported to VDL. Her brother Thomas had been convicted of picking pockets at Edinburgh in 1838 and sentenced to transportation for seven years. He had been sent first to the penal colony on Norfolk Island, arriving there per Mangles in 1840. In 1844, he had been transferred to VDL per Duke of Richmond. He was still only twenty-two years old. Her brother Walter had been convicted of housebreaking at Edinburgh in early 1845 and had also been sentenced to transportation for seven years. He had arrived in VDL per Mount Stewart Elphinstone later that year. He was seventeen years old. Her brother David was convicted of assault and robbery at Edinburgh in 1847 and sentenced to transportation for ten years. He had arrived in VDL per Maria Soames in 1850. He was twenty-three.[8]

Jean herself had come to the attention of the Edinburgh police when she was still only eleven or twelve years old. By the time she was brought to trial, in December 1851, for the crime for which she was ultimately transported to VDL, she was twenty-seven years old. At the trial, the arresting officer, Detective James McLevy, told the court that he had known her for sixteen years and, for at least twelve of those, she had been ‘by habit and repute a common thief’ who had had many convictions. Another police officer, John Charles, testified to his having known her as a common thief for ten years.[9]

During those years, Jean was living at Edinburgh. First settled in the early Middle Ages, the town had grown up around the stronghold that had been built on Castle Rock (now Edinburgh Castle) and, by the end of the fourteenth century, it was being described as the capital of Scotland. It remained Scotland’s biggest city until it was outgrown by Glasgow early in the nineteenth century. Because of the scarcity of land within Edinburgh’s walls, the inhabitants commonly lived in tall, tenement buildings, some of them of ten or more levels. In many places, these tall structures leaned inwards to overhang narrow, cobble-stoned passageways which were dark and dank. Generally, the upper levels of the tenements were occupied by the people who were better-off, leaving the lower levels to the poor who shared the winding lanes with wandering livestock. In 1825, the celebrated author Daniel Defoe wrote of it: ‘I believe that this may be said with truth, that in no city in the world so many people live in so little room as in Edinburgh’. From the middle of the eighteenth century, however, those with money had been moving out of the area to adjacent land which became known as the New Town, leaving the Old Town to the poor and avoiding it whenever possible. In the meantime, the Old Town continued to decay into an increasingly dilapidated, overcrowded slum with high mortality rates. Prone to fires and ravaged by disease, it had become notorious for drunkenness and violent crime and, by the end of the eighteenth century, it represented the very worst in medieval squalor.[10]

Needless to say, conditions within the Old Town had suited admirably the nefarious purposes of Jean Brash and others ‘of notoriously bad character’ with whom she had associated.[11] It was the haunt of pickpockets, thieves, robbers, burglars, foot-pads, prostitutes, blackmailers, child-strippers, body-snatchers and murderers. In 1827 and 1828, William Hare and William Burke, had made international headlines when arrested and charged with the murder there of sixteen people whose cadavers they had sold to physician Robert Knox for use in dissection in his anatomy lectures. Burke was hanged for his atrocious crimes in 1829; Hare escaped the death penalty by providing evidence to the Crown.[12] 

It was not until the 1860s – ten years after Jean had been banished to VDL – that work was begun to remodel the Old Town. Wide new streets were formed to replace many of the most unpleasant lanes. Numbers of the half-ruinous tenements were knocked down and open courts formed on their sites. The wooden fronts of many of the houses, some more than three hundred years old, which had been propped up with temporary posts and were in a very frail condition, were removed and made safe.[13]

It was within the dark and twisting lanes of the Old Town that Jean had earned the reputation of ‘Princess of Pickpockets’ and ‘Queen of Thieves’.

There, despite her busy criminal life and frequent convictions, Jean had found the time to marry. In fact, according to a number of publicly-available family trees on ‘Ancestry’, she had married three times before her transportation – and that seems to be confirmed by marriage records in Scotland. The register of the parish of St Cuthbert, Edinburgh, shows that, on 8 December 1838, she married a James Barrie, a shoemaker. Jane, who would have been only fourteen at the time, was described as the ‘daughter of Hugh Brash, sometime a sawyer in Edinburgh, now in New York.’[14] (Had she lied about her father being in New York? Is it possible that she did not know that her father had been transported to VDL earlier that year?) Five years later, in the church of St Andrew, Edinburgh, she married Francis Rose, a stabler. She was then nineteen. The entry in the parish register, dated 25 September 1843, described her as the ‘daughter of the late Hugh Brash’.[15] (Jean’s father did not die in VDL - by then Tasmania - until 1872.) Four years later, now twenty-three, she had married Robert Shiels, a baker, in the parish of Canongate. This register, dated 28 December 1847, described her this time as the ‘daughter of the late Hugh Brash, a wood merchant, of Mid Calder’.[16]   

Unfortunately, nothing is known of the circumstances under which Jean was able to marry three times between 1838 and 1847. At the time of her conviction and transportation, some newspaper reports referred to her as ‘Jane Brash or Shiels’ but whether her previous husbands had passed away or whether she had married bigamously is unclear.[17] No record of children of her marriages has been found.

Regrettable, also, is the fact that little is known from first-hand accounts of the many crimes of which Jean had been convicted before her transportation. Most of what is known of her notorious criminal career comes from the stories of James McLevy, Edinburgh’s first detective, who worked there from 1830 to 1860 and solved over two thousand cases. After retiring, he published two very popular books of stories based on his work as a detective and these are said to have been part of the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In many of the stories, Jean is prominent as his crafty adversary, one for whose ability to evade his legal grasp he admitted - albeit unwillingly - to having considerable respect.[18]  

In ‘The Ingenuity of Thieves’, for instance, a story from his book At War with Society (1871), McLevy wrote:

One of the most successful artists of the tender sex that ever appeared in Edinburgh … was the well-known Jean Brash. I knew her very well but, strange as it may appear, her ladyship always contrived to keep out of my hands … [She] seduced and robbed by instinct … [and] justified the inborn propensity by a kind of devil’s logic, to the effect that, as she had ruined her immortal soul for the sake of man, she was not only entitled to receive from him the wages of sin, but also to take from him whatever her subtle fingers could enable he to lay hold of by way of compensation.[19]

In this story, McLevy related a particular incident in which Jean was involved which revealed her astuteness in evading the law. One evening, while she was out on the street, she had attracted the attention of a man whom she intended to rob. In her ‘demureness’, she had appeared ‘a real jewel’ to the poor unsuspecting fellow but, soon after accompanying her back to her room, he had become aware that she had ‘extracted’ a bank-note to the value of one hundred pounds from his pocket. Suspecting that she had stolen it, the man had called the police and Jean had been thoroughly searched. When no bank-note was found on her person, the policeman had decided to do a methodical search of her dark and dingy room. Jean had offered to assist and, courteously wrapping the end of a lighted candle in paper, she had handed it to the policeman. However, the search was fruitless. No money was found. After her victim and the police had gone, Jean had carefully unwrapped the paper from the candle that she had handed to the policeman and there, neatly folded inside, was the bank-note![20]     

Eventually, however, Jean was brought to justice. In the Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh, on 26 January 1852, she and an accomplice by the name of Helen Davidson were charged with the theft of a purse containing eighteen shillings and sixpence from a soldier whom they had accosted in a stairway in Shakespeare Square in the Old Town. After hearing evidence from McLevy, the jury had found the accused guilty. Both were sentenced to transportation for ten years.[21]    

A month after the trial, the Edinburgh Evening Courant, reported that:

Yesterday afternoon eleven female convicts, including the notorious Jean Brash, were embarked on board the steamer ‘Royal Adelaide’, at Graton Pier, for the penitentiary, Millbank, London.[22] 

Jean was held at Millbank Prison for only two weeks. On 16 March 1852, it was noted in the prison register that ‘Jean Brash, Prisoner No. 4322, twenty-six years old, single, and of no occupation, who had arrived from Edinburgh on 28 February, had been discharged to the transport Sir Robert Seppings’ that day.[23]

With Mr. R. S. Stewart as Master, Dr. L. S. Cunningham as Surgeon-Superintendent, two hundred and twenty female convicts and a number of their children, Sir Robert Seppings sailed from Woolwich on 18 March 1852. By 8 July that year, it was at Hobart.

Although one of the prisoners and five children had died at sea, the journey had been a relatively quick and comfortable one.[24] However, it may have been a most uncomfortable voyage for Jean. In the medical journal he was required to keep during the voyage, Dr. Cunningham, the surgeon, had noted that she had required treatment for a particularly large tumour on her face. He had written:

One case of Chronic Tumour of long standing situated under the median line of the lower jaw was nearly removed by the frequent application of Blisters. It was at first brought to my notice as large as a good-sized orange and by the time we arrived here it was not larger than a hen’s egg.[25]

Although no mention of the apparently ‘long-standing’ tumour had been made at her trial or at Millbank Prison, it is likely that Jean had arrived at Hobart in considerable pain.

In the physical description that was made of Jean before disembarkation, the tumour under her chin was noted. She was described as being twenty-eight years old, five feet one and three-quarter inches (about 157 cms) tall, with a fresh complexion, black hair and hazel eyes. She was a ‘Protestant’. She could read but not write. She told the authorities that she was married but that her husband, Robert Shiels, had left her about four years earlier and was now in America.[26]

Hired into service as a ‘housemaid’ soon after disembarkation, Jean appears to have spent the first years of her penal servitude at Hobart.

Curiously for one who had arrived in the colony with such a bad reputation, she was of little trouble to the settlers to whom she had been assigned or to the authorities. She was charged with offences in the colony on only two occasions and these appear to have been minor in nature. On 1 November 1852, just five months after her arrival, she absented herself from the employ of a Mr. Jones and, when found, was ‘drunk’. She was sentenced to a three-month term at the Cascades Female Factory, to be served with hard labour. Eighteen months later, on 31 March 1854, she was found drunk again and returned to the Cascades for another three months.[27]

Jean’s comparative quietness in VDL - after the notorious, vice-riddled life she had led in Edinburgh – can probably be accounted for by the fact that she was not well. Although there is no record of it being a problem to her in VDL, the ugly tumour on her face might still have been troubling her. In any event, in January 1853, just as her three-month sentence for being absent from her employer’s house was coming to an end, she was transferred from the Cascades Female Factory to the New Norfolk Hospital for the Insane. There, a report on her condition reveals her state of mind at that time:

Admitted from the Cascades Factory … on voyage [of Sir Robert Seppings] avoiding all communication with her fellow passengers except upon religious topics … Shortly after her admission here she was placed under observation but she betrayed no symptoms of [mania] … until three days ago [6 Jan 1853] … became violent in her conduct, tearing up her bedding … refusing to dress herself or take her food … habits intemperate.[28]     

Jean appears to have been discharged from the New Norfolk institution in October 1853. Afterwards, there is no record of her requiring further treatment for her mental condition or for the tumour.

On 20 January 1855, she was granted a ticket of leave and in June of the following year, she received a conditional pardon.[29] Her time as a convict was over. She was free again.

For the next five years, nothing was heard of her but, somewhere during those years, Jean had met a former convict, William Apsey, and, on 16 April 1860, they married at the Independent Chapel, Tamar Street, Launceston. Both were about thirty-six years old.[30] Interestingly, and happily for Jean, the witnesses to the marriage were her former convict brother David and his wife Mary (nee MacCallum).[31]

Jean’s husband, William Apsey, was a blacksmith by trade. In July 1847, he had been found guilty of burglary at the Dorchester Assizes, England. He had been sentenced to transportation for ten years but he had not arrived in VDL, per Pestongee Bomangee, until July 1852. Although he was still only twenty-eight, he was a widower. In the colony, he had conducted himself well and, in May 1854, he had been given permission to marry twenty-five-year-old convict Ellen (or Elinor) Sullivan (Duke of Cornwall, 1850) and they had married in the following month.[32] Sadly, however, Ellen had died less than three years later and Apsey was widowed for the second time.[33]

After their marriage, Jean and William settled down at Carrick, not far from Launceston in the north of the colony. However, the marriage did not run smoothly – in its early years, at least.

In early 1862, the following notice appeared in the Launceston Examiner:

WHEREAS my wife, Jane Apsey, having left her home without any provocation, I hereby caution parties from harbouring her, for I will not be responsible for any debts that she or any other person may contract in my name, without my written authority. William Apsey, near Carrick, January 31ST, 1862.[34]

What had gone wrong between Jean and William? The answer to that question will probably never be known. Nor is it known how long Jean was away. What is clear, however, is that they were eventually re-united and seem to have lived settled lives. There were no children of the marriage. Brief mentions of them living together appeared in the Launceston Examiner in June 1869 when the house in which they were living was burgled and again in May 1888, when both would have been in their sixties, when their two-roomed cottage near the Westwood bridge at Carrick was accidentally burned to the ground. William was still working as a blacksmith. Neither of them had ever been in trouble with the law again.[35]

They were still together when Jean passed away in a Launceston hospital on 23 September 1894. The death certificate shows her surname as ‘Apcey’. The cause of death is shown as ‘pneumonia’. She was seventy.[36]  William Aspey died of ‘heart failure’ the following year. He, too, was seventy.[37]  

It is interesting to speculate what Detective McLevy would have made of the life that Jean had been able to make for herself in Tasmania. While he must have been pleased to have seen the end of her at Edinburgh in 1852, he had obviously made enquiries about her later. He knew, for instance, that she had remarried. In concluding his story ‘The Ingenuity of Thieves’ in 1871, he had written:

She made occasionally great catches, having once “done” [stolen] £400; but she was at length “done” [transported] for the paltry sum of 7s.6d. I have heard that she is now in Australia, and married, perhaps driving, like a pastoral Arcadian, ‘the yowes (ewes) to the ‘knowes’ (hills)’.[38]

In a literary sense, the legend of Jean Brash as ‘The Queen of Thieves’ is still very much alive today.

McLevy’s books, in which Jean figures so largely, are still in print and widely read. And, during the last three decades, Scottish writer, David Ashton has written a series of twelve BBC radio plays, ‘The Inspector McLevy Mystery Stories’, based on the famous detective’s work. Some have also been televised. In them, Jean Brash plays a prominent role. More recently, Ashton has produced two books, Mistress of the Lost Land: A Jean Brash Mystery 1 (2016) and The Lost Daughter: A Jean Brash Mystery 2 (2017) in which Jean, now the well-to-do proprietor of ‘The Just Land, the best bawdy-house in Edinburgh’, is the central character and McLevy plays a supporting role.[39]

Jean’s story is a remarkable one.

 

[1] Conduct record: CON41-1-34, image 26; description list: CON19-1-10, image 107; indent: CON15-1-7, images 252 and 253; police number: 1184; FCRC ID: 11142.

[2] https://www.scotsman.com/whats-on/arts-and-entertainment/meet-james-mclevy-original-no1-detective-2468858

[3] McLevy (1796-1875), biography:  https://jamesmclevy.com/.

[4] Ashton. D. (2016). Mistress of the Just Land. A Jean Brash Mystery (Book 1); Ashton, D. (2017). The Lost Daughter. A Jean Brash Mystery (Book 2); London: Two Roads Publishing (Hachette); see also  https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/30353892-mistress-of-the-just-land

[5] See ‘Jean Brash’ on conduct record and indent but ‘Jane Brash’ in ‘Libraries Tasmania’ website at  https://linctas.ent.sirsidynix.net.au/client/en_AU/names/search/results?qu=NI_NAME%3DJane&qu=NI_NAME%3DBrash; birth: Old Parish Register (OPR) 694/0000400006 via ‘Ancestry’ (unconfirmed);

[6] Brothers: see Public Family Trees at ‘Ancestry’, www.ancestry.com.au, accessed 20 October 2021.

[7] ‘Pre-cognition Statement Leading to Deportation – Hugh Brash’, Tollbooth, Edinburgh, 1836, via ‘Ancestry’ at  https://www.ancestry.com.au/mediaui-viewer/collection/1030/tree/3441123/person/6026536054/media/df615d46-7041-479c-ab8e-8ca55354d49e?_phsrc=Khe904&usePUBJs=true; Hugh Brash: marriage: 1847, RGD37/1/6, no. 582, Bothwell; death: 1872, RGD35/1/41, no.41, Bothwell.

[8] Thomas Brash: CON33-1-52, image 24; Walter Brash: CON33-1-66, image 34; David Brash: CON33-1-96, image 42.

[9] Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh), 29 January 1852 via www.femaleconvicts.org.au.

[10] Defoe, D. (1727). A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain. London: Penguin Books (Reprint, 2005). https://artsandculture.google.com/story/the-history-of-edinburgh-39-s-old-and-new-towns-cyark/pwWx_dt1dJRCcA?hl=en; https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/mar/29/story-of-cities-10-edinburgh-new-town-old-town-scottish-enlightenment-james-craig; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History-of-Edinburgh; https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/civil­war_revolution/scotland_edinburgh_01.shtml

[11] Caledonian Mercury, 25 September 1848 via www.femaleconvicts.org.au.

[12] https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/Burke-Hare-infamous-murderers-graverobbers/.

[13] See ‘Improvement of Edinburgh’ in Mercury (Hobart), 26 February 1866, p.3.

[14] Marriage to Barrie: 28/12/1838, Brash, Jean (O.P.R. Marriages 685/02 0440 0120, St. Cuthbert’s) via ‘Ancestry.

[15] Marriage to Rose: 24/10/1843, Brash, Jean (O.P.R. Marriages 685/01 0670 0275, St Andrew’s, Edinburgh) via ‘Ancestry. 

[16] Marriage to Shiels: 29/12/1847, Brash, Jean (O.P.R. Marriages 685/03 0290 0482, Canongate) via ‘Ancestry. 

[17] ‘Jane Brash or Shields’: Edinburgh Evening Courant, 26 February 1852, via www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[18] https://jamesmclevy.com/; https://www.edinburghlive.co.uk/news/edinburgh-news/real-life-edinburgh-policeman-whose-21089708

[19] McLevy, J. (1871). ‘The Ingenuity of Thieves’ in At War with Society, or Tales of the Outcasts.  Glasgow and London: Cameron and Ferguson.

[20] McLevy, ‘The Ingenuity of Thieves’, pp.2-15; see Note 19, above.

[21] Edinburgh Evening Courant, 26 February 1852, via www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[22] Edinburgh Evening Courant, 26 February 1852, via www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[23] findmypast.co.uk via www.femaleconvicts.org.au

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

[25] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/docs2/ships/SRS-Journal-General-Remarks.pdf

[26] Shiels in America: see indent, CON15-1-7, images 252/253

[27] CON41-1-34, image 26.

[28] Patient Records – Case Books (All Patients), HSD246 Female (mental) (Volume No. 13; HSD246-1-9, Folio 90, 110 – via www.femaleconicts.org.au

[29] Ticket of leave: CON41-1-36, image 26; Hobart Town Gazette, 23 January 1855; The Cornwall Chronicle, 27 January 1855, p.8. Conditional pardon: CON41-1-36, image 26, recommended, Hobart Town Gazette, 12 June 1855.

[30] Apsey: CON33-1-108, image 5; indent CON14-1-37, images 171/172; marriage, Apsey/Brash: RGD37-1-39/467/1960, Launceston.

[31] David Brash had married convict Mary McCallum (Cadet, 3) at Launceston in July 1851, RGD37-1-10, no.1008, Launceston.

[32] Apsey/Sullivan, permission to marry: CON52/1/7, page 1; marriage: RGD37/133/1854; Ellen Sullivan: CON41-1-28, image 193.

[33] Ellen (Sullivan) Apsey, death: RGD35/100/1857, Fingal.

[34] Launceston Examiner, 4 February 1862, p.5.

[35] Launceston Examiner, 29 June 1869, p.2 and 26 May 1888, p.4.

[36] Death, Jean (Brash) Apcey: RGD35/285/1894, Launceston. 

[37] Death, William Aspey: RGD35/840/1895, Westbury.

[38] McLevy, “The Ingenuity of Thieves’, p.15, in At War with Society. (See Note 19, above.); here McLevy quotes from the poem ‘Ca the Yowes to the Knowes’ by Robert Burns – (available on Youtube)

[39] Ashton: https://www.thebookseller.com/news/two-roads-acquires-book-series-behind-bbc-r4-drama-mclevy-316937; books: Mistress of the Just Land. A Jean Brash Mystery (Book 1); Ashton, D. (2017). The Lost Daughter. A Jean Brash Mystery (Book 2); London: Two Roads Publishing (Hachette).

 

 

 

 

 


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