LOUISA FERRIS

(Cadet, 2, 1848)

by

Don Bradmore

 

Louisa Ferris, twenty-nine years of age and married with two children, arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) as a convict per Cadet in January 1848.[1] On 5 April of the previous year, she had been tried at the Gloucester Assizes, England, for the murder of a man with whom she had been cohabiting after her husband had left her. After hearing how she had cut the throat of her victim with his own razor and then surrendered herself to the police, the jury had found her not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter. In sentencing her to transportation for life, the judge had told her that she had had a very narrow escape. Incredibly, in VDL just four years later, she used a razor to cut the throat of another man. This time, fortunately, her victim lived. Louisa was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment but did not complete her sentence. On 26 February 1854, she passed away at the General Hospital, Hobart. She was thirty-five.

This is Louisa’s tragic story: 

Louisa Ferris was born Louisa Edwards, the daughter of John and Elizabeth (nee Chapple) Edwards at Bristol, England, on 1 November 1817.[2] She had two brothers – James and William. According to an ‘Ancestry’ family tree, as yet unverified, her father had passed away when she was only two years old and her mother had remarried in the following year. Her step-father was John Franklin (or Franklyn), a police sergeant at Trinity Road police station, Bristol.[3]   

In 1833, at the age of sixteen, Louisa had left home to live in a de facto relationship with thirty-eight-year-old, William Ferris. In 1836, she had given birth to a daughter, Louisa Clara Edwards (or Ferris), the first of her five children by Ferris and, in the following year, the pair had married. Although she was to have four more children by Ferris – William Henry (1838), Frances (1840), Laura (1841) and Henry Edgar (1843) - the marriage was not a happy one. Contributing to the unhappiness, undoubtedly, were the early deaths of three of the children – Frances (possibly at birth in 1840) and both William and Laura (aged four and one respectively) in 1842.[4]  

By 1845, Louisa and William had separated. In early February of that year, William had been charged with an assault upon Louisa in their home. Louisa, described in court as ‘a small, dainty, rather pale woman, with light auburn hair’, had said that William had arrived home in the early hours of the morning and she had cooked a meal for him. He had complained that the meat was over-cooked and had picked up a chair and struck her with it. He had then knocked her down and kicked her. She had run from the house but he had followed her, flinging a knife at her as she fled. In his defence, William had said that the beef-steak Louisa had cooked for his dinner had been ‘burnt to a cinder’. They had begun to argue. After a time, he had begged her to drop the matter but she would not. Exasperated, he had given her ‘a smack under the chin’. She had then flown at him ‘like a cat’ and he had knocked her down. He said that his wife had a nasty temper but that had not been a problem before they married. After the marriage, her temper had become worse. He concluded his defence by saying that, when they had first lived together, he had had two or three thousand pounds in savings but, as his money went, so did Louisa’s love for him. In response, Louisa stated that she was only sixteen when she had gone to live with Ferris, and she had loved him dearly, but she now regretted the two years that she had been with him before they married because she had had to put up with a lot from him since. The magistrates, in finding William guilty as charged, expressed strong disapprobation of his actions but punished him only by ordering him to ‘find sureties to keep the peace.’[5]

There is no evidence that Louisa and William lived together again. William is believed to have gone off to Chepstow, not far from Bristol, where, it is thought, he owned another property.

Louisa and her two surviving children remained in the small house that she and William had shared at Lawrence Hill, one of the poorer districts of Bristol. There, she had been able to maintain herself and the children by taking in a lodger, a thirty-three-year-old policeman by the name of Patrick White. Before long, Louisa had become involved romantically with him and had fallen pregnant to him. To avoid the inevitable scandal, Louisa had been persuaded by White to procure an abortion.[6]

Shortly afterwards, Louisa had moved into a larger house in Lion Street, Easton, a more affluent section of inner Bristol. The house had been found for her by her mother who was worried that, without her husband’s support, Louisa would soon be in financial difficulties. While the new place was not large, it was big enough for Louisa to have more lodgers and, by October 1846, she had four there: Patrick White, who had come with her when she had moved from Lawrence Hill, two other single men and a young, unmarried woman named Elizabeth Jones.[7]

It was there, on 1 November 1846 – the day of her twenty-ninth birthday - that Louisa committed the crime for which she was transported to VDL.[8]

On 5 April 1847, she stood before the court at the Gloucester Assizes charged with the murder of her lodger, Patrick White.[9]

In evidence, James Edwards, Louisa’s brother, said that, on the day in question, he had decided to visit his sister for her birthday. He had been accompanied by one of his friends, a man by the name of Charles Sainsbury. At the house, they had been met by Louisa, White and the young woman, Elizabeth Jones. White had asked Jones to go out to buy beer and soon all five were drinking. After a couple of hours, Jones had said that she had had enough to drink and had gone upstairs to lie down. Within minutes, White had followed her. A little later, Louisa had gone upstairs also. After some time, Louisa had come downstairs again and it was apparent that she was ‘in a dreadful state of mind.’ ‘Oh, that wretch,’ she had said, ‘they are both upstairs on the bed.’ She had then left the room again. While she was away, White had also come down and had resumed drinking. As he sat speaking to Edwards, Louisa had re-entered the room and, looking at White, had exclaimed: ‘Ah, you wretch, you nasty wretch. Is this your promise?’ She had then rushed to stand behind him and had put her arm around his shoulders. Her hand had then moved across White’s throat ‘in a very swift movement’. Bleeding badly, White had fallen to the ground. He had crawled to the open front door and then out on to the street where neighbours, who had heard the commotion, had gathered quickly. While the onlookers attended to White, Louisa had begged her brother to take her to the police station.

Next to give evidence was Elizabeth Jones. She told the court that White himself had drunk very little that day but had been forcing beer on to Louisa and her. It was for that reason that she had taken herself off to bed. She had fallen asleep quickly and had awoken to find White standing by her bed and Louisa in the doorway. White had then left her room to go downstairs again and Louisa had followed him. When Jones had gone downstairs soon afterwards, she had seen White crawling on his hands and knees. Louisa had accosted her immediately, shouting that she had ‘a mind to serve her in the same fashion.’

Inspector Henry Phillips Webb of the Bristol police told the court that he had been at the police station when Louisa arrived there. She was distressed and had said to him, ‘Oh, Mr. Webb, you must take me into custody. I have cut a man’s throat.’ Also present at the station was John Franklin, Louisa’s step-father. Louisa was heard to say to him, ‘That man has disgraced me – and you.’

Robert Coombs, one of Louisa’s neighbours, testified that he had seen White, bleeding profusely, crawling along the footpath outside Louisa’s house. Another neighbour was wiping blood from White’s throat with a handkerchief. He had heard White say, ‘Mrs. Ferris has cut my throat with a razor. Pray for me. Lord have mercy on my soul.’

Charles Hanson, the police surgeon, told the court that he had performed a post-mortem examination of White’s body. He had thought that it had all the appearances of a person addicted to drink but, although there were signs of disease of the liver, he was certain that death had been due entirely to the wound to the jugular vein and artery. In answer to a question from the court, he said that he thought the type of injury was one that could possibly have been caused by a man intent on suicide but that he had never seen a self-inflicted wound so deep. He was of the opinion that White’s life could not have been saved even if a surgeon had been present at the time of his wounding. 

When all of the witnesses had given their testimony, Mr. Keating, Louisa’s legal counsel, addressed the jury, pleading with them to bring in a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder – and, after retiring for only ten minutes, that was the decision they had reached.

Louisa was then asked to stand to receive her sentence and the judge had addressed her as follows:

You have had a very narrow escape. You have been found guilty of killing a person with whom you had been living in adultery. It shows the dreadful course of vice leading from one crime to another. It is necessary to make a severe example of you. Human life has been sacrificed, probably without premeditation on your part, and no doubt causing you much regret. You have given way to a dreadful passion … You have sent [your victim] before his Maker without time for repentance. You, [on the other hand], will have time, and probably a long time, for repentance, but you must repent in a foreign land, never more to return.

At this, Louisa was heard to cry out, ‘Do not banish me, my lord, from my poor children!’ Her pleas were in vain. She was sentenced to transportation for life.

After the trial, Louisa was held at Millbank Prison, London, for some time while awaiting a vessel to take her to VDL. Eventually, in early September 1847, she was put aboard Cadet which, with William Forsyth as Master, Mr. Charles Kinnear as Surgeon-Superintendent, one hundred and sixty-four female prisoners and twenty-nine of their children, sailed from London on 9 September 1847 and reached Hobart on 2 January 1848. The voyage had been safe and incident-free. One of the women had died at sea but otherwise the prisoners had arrived in good health. In his report, Surgeon-Superintendent, Kinnear had said of Louisa that she was ‘very good and trustworthy’.[10]

Upon arrival, Louisa was described as being twenty-nine years old and married with two children, both of whom she had had to leave behind. She was five feet and one-and-a-quarter inches (about 159 cms) tall with a pale complexion, brown hair and blue eyes. A Protestant, she could both read and write. She was allocated the convict trade of ‘needlewoman’.[11]

Immediately after disembarkation, Louisa was taken to the Anson Probation Station, the hulk of a British warship which had arrived at Hobart with male convicts in 1844. After disembarking its 'cargo', it had been fitted out as a prison and moored in Prince of Wales Bay, Risdon, near Hobart, in order to alleviate the overcrowding which had occurred at the Cascades Female Factory in the previous decade. There, rather being assigned to settlers immediately upon arrival, all newly-arriving female prisoners were kept for at least six months, during which time they were given moral and religious instruction and taught the domestic skills required of servants.[12]

Before the end of 1848, Louisa had completed her probation and, as a ‘passholder’, was hired as a carer for his children by a Mr. George Washington Walker, a prominent shopkeeper and banker of Liverpool Street, Hobart, described by Sir William Denison, Lieutenant-Governor of the colony at that time, as 'the very personification of a mild, benevolent, and excellent Quaker’. For this, Louisa was paid a wage of eight pounds a year.[13]

Louisa was to remain in Walker’s service for nearly four years. Later, he was to say of her that ‘on the whole, she was a faithful servant.’ Her Conduct Record shows that, while she was in his employ, and living at his home, her behaviour was exemplary.[14] On only one occasion had she come to the notice of the authorities during that time. In 1850, she had requested approval for her daughter, Louisa Clara Edwards (Ferris) whom she had left behind in England and was now about fourteen, to join her in VDL. In transmitting Louisa’s request to Lord Grey, Britain’s Home Secretary from 1846 to 1852, Sir William Denison, had noted that ‘her conduct has been without offence since her arrival’. The request was approved. Within a few months, mother and daughter had been reunited in VDL.[15]    

However, in March 1852, Louisa left Walker’s service unexpectedly and, a few weeks later, she was in very serious trouble with the law again.

In early April, she was charged with an offence that bore an extraordinary resemblance to the crime for which she had been transported to VDL four years earlier!

On 6 April, the Colonial Times (Hobart) reported that:

On Saturday morning last … a horrible attempt was made by a female passholder to assassinate Mr. John Turnbull, who is connected with the establishment of Mr. G. Walker … Louisa Ferris secreted herself in a room she formerly occupied on the premises [of Mr. Walker] … and when Turnbull had retired to rest, she stealthily entered his room … armed herself with a razor and inflicted two desperate wounds on his neck and throat …[16]   

The report concluded by stating that Mr. Turnbull was ‘convalescent’ and that Louisa had been remanded for further questioning.

Two days later, at a hearing in the Magistrate’s Court at Hobart, the basic facts of the case were outlined. The court heard that, until quite recently, both Louisa and Turnbull had lived in the home of Mr. Walker, Louisa as a convict servant and Turnbull as an employee in one of his business enterprises. There, each had had a separate room on the same level of the building. About three weeks before her attack on Turnbull, Louisa had left Walker’s service and had taken work elsewhere. However, because she still had some unfinished work to do for members of the Walker family, she had frequently returned to the house and it was not considered unusual for her to be there. It was on one of her visits that she had hidden herself in the house and, late at night, had entered Turnbull’s bedroom and slashed him with a razor. Turnbull, who according to reports appeared to be ‘extremely weak and scarcely able to give his evidence’, said that he was unable to give a reason for Louisa’s attack upon him.

In being called upon for evidence, Walker spoke highly of Turnbull saying that, as far as he was aware, he had always conducted himself with propriety towards Louisa. Of Louisa, Walker said that, although he had been aware of her quick temper and had thought that she was ‘naturally highly excitable’, she had always acted with consistency while in his service. Louisa, highly agitated throughout the proceedings, had sobbed continually. She had declined to put questions to the witnesses and had nothing to say in her defence. After the depositions of a number of other witnesses, all of which tended to substantiate the charge against Louisa, had been read to the court, she was fully committed to trial.[17]  

Accordingly, on 23 April 1852, Louisa was arraigned at the bar of the Supreme Court, Hobart, charged with two counts: the first ‘with having cut and wounded John Turnbull with intent to kill and murder him’; the second ‘with intent to do the said John Turnbull some grievous bodily harm’. She pleaded not guilty to both.[18]  

In opening the case for the prosecution, the Solicitor-General called upon Turnbull to give his evidence. Reiterating that he could think of no reason whatsoever why Louisa would have wanted to hurt him, Turnbull said that he had had ‘no acquaintance or intimacy whatever’ with her during the time they had lived at the Walker house. He swore that he had never had any ‘criminal intimacy’ with her, nor had he abandoned her afterwards. He strongly denied the suggestion put to him under cross-examination by Louisa’s counsel that he had given Louisa a ‘love-lock’ (a lock of hair from his head) but admitted that he had given her a gift of an inexpensive papier-mâché enamelled ‘portfolio’ (a note-book) as a keepsake when she was leaving Mr. Walker’s employ. He admitted also that he had gone to visit her once after she had left but claimed that that had been merely to ask if she would make some night-shirts for him. He also agreed that, on the day before she had attacked him, he had written a letter to her. [19]

George Walker was the next to give evidence. He said that, on the night in question, he had heard the sounds of quarrelling coming from upstairs. Going to investigate, he found Louisa ‘in a great state of excitement and agitation’. Referring to Turnbull as ‘a ‘wretch and a hypocrite’, she had said to Walker, ‘Oh master, he has deceived me … he is not what he seems … I left your house because I would not live in sin’. She had said that she was ready to go to gaol, or to be executed, for what she had done. Walker had then handed her over to the police whom, by this time had arrived on the scene. He had then gone to Turnbull’s room where he found him lying on the floor with blood running from a deep wound in his neck. He concluded his testimony by saying that he could not understand why Turnbull had gone to visit Louisa after she had left his service; if he had wanted her to make him some night-shirts, he would have had ample opportunity to ask her to do that when she was at his house.

Louisa’s counsel, a Mr. Brewer, then presented the case for the defence. In a long address, he directed the attention of the jury to Turnbull’s evidence. ‘Was it worthy of credit?’ he asked. ‘Had he told the truth?’ ‘Was there any person in court who heard his evidence who did not feel that he must have suppressed and concealed a part of what had taken place? Intimating that Turnbull had told ‘wilful, deliberate lies’, Brewer then pointed out a number of ‘improbabilities, inconsistencies and falsehoods’ in what he had told the court. Turnbull had denied that an ‘intimacy’ had existed between himself and Louisa - but surely, Brewer had argued, his gifts of the lock of hair and the portfolio, as well as the letter he had written to Louisa and the visit he had paid to her after she had left Walker’s service, contradicted this. While none of this justified Louisa’s action in slashing Turnbull with the razor, Brewer conceded, the fact that Turnbull had ‘seduced’ and ‘abandoned’ her would explain why, ‘in an act of frenzy’, she flew at him with a weapon that happened to be close at hand.

In concluding his address, Brewer told the jury that, if they agreed with him about Turnbull’s behaviour towards Louisa and her response to it, then they should find her not guilty of attempting to murder him and not guilty of intending to do him grievous bodily harm. Her actions, Brewer suggested, had amounted to no more than a ‘common assault’.

After Mr. Justice Home, the judge, had summed up all of the evidence, the jury retired but, after only twenty minutes, returned with a verdict of not guilty of the first charge (attempting to murder) but guilty on the second (intending to do grievous bodily harm). The foreman informed the court that the jury begged strongly to recommend the prisoner to mercy.

In passing sentence, the judge remarked upon the fact that Louisa had been convicted of manslaughter in Gloucestershire five years earlier and, for that crime, had been transported to VDL for life. While informing the jury that he would pass on their recommendation for mercy to the Executive Council, he said that he was unable to abstain from passing upon Louisa ‘the just sentence of the law’. He then delivered the sentence of death in the usual way.  

At this, Louisa shouted, ‘My Lord, I do not wish for life!  I want truth!’ As she was escorted from the court, she exclaimed several times that she was an ‘injured woman’.[20]

A few days later, The Courier (Hobart) carried the news that the Executive Council had commuted the sentence of death to transportation for life.[21] In effect, this meant that she was to serve a term of five years’ imprisonment at the Cascades Female Factory, Hobart.[22] A note on her Conduct Record reveals that she was released from ‘separate treatment’ in September 1853, probably indicating that she had been kept in solitary confinement for the first eighteen months of the term.[23]

Four months later, Louisa was dead.

She passed away in the General Hospital, Hobart, on 26 February 1854.[24] She was thirty-five years old. Her death certificate has not been located and the cause of death is unknown. There is no evidence of an inquest having been held.

Is it possible to have sympathy for Louisa? Certainly, it can be said that she lived at a time when women were expected to remain subservient to their fathers and husbands, where they enjoyed few of the legal, social, financial or political rights that are now taken for granted in western societies, where they had limited control of personal property after marriage, and where they had little choice in occupations. In all probability, too, she had been badly wronged by the two men whose throats she had cut with their own razors. Nothing, however, can condone the ghastly attacks she made upon them. It is obvious that she was a woman who felt badly aggrieved – but it is equally obvious that she had a quick and nasty temper. It is clear, also, that, in making the decisions she did, she had contributed to the problems that she encountered. At the age of sixteen, she had left home to live in a de facto relationship with William Ferris. Later, she had lived in a similar arrangement with Patrick White. And, despite her protestations that she had been unwilling to ‘live in sin’ with John Turnbull, it seems probable that she had had a deeper romantic connection with him than she ever admitted. Is it fair to say, as the judge at her trial for the murder of White in England in 1847 had commented, that the dreadful course of her life had been determined by ‘vice leading from one crime to another’?

The author acknowledges the outstanding research of volunteer members of the Female Convicts Research Centre on which this article is based. For details, see ‘Research Notes’ for Louisa Ferris (Convict ID: 3257) at www.femaleconvict.org.au

 

[1] Conduct Record: CON41-1-15, image 56; Description List: CON19-1-6, image 55; Indent: CON15-1-4, images 194 and 195; Police No: 372; FCRC ID: 3257.

[2] CON15-1-4, images 194 and 195; birth date and mother’s maiden name from Ancestry (unverified).

[3] https://www.ancestry.com.au/family-tree/person/tree/1419973/person/-974205803/facts

[4] Marriage to Ferris: 19 April 1837, at All Saints, Long Ashton, Somerset; children via Research Notes at www.femaleconvicts.org.au; registrations of the births and deaths have not been located but such registrations were not compulsory in England before 1875 – see https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Civil_Registration

[5] Bristol Times and Mirror, 15 February 1845, p.2; ‘Sureties to keep the peace’ are a form of preventive justice. They consist of ordering persons whom there is a probable ground to suspect of future misbehaviour to give assurance that the same offence will not take place by finding other people who will take responsibility for the offender’s actions by pledging money that can be forfeited if the offender misbehaves again.

[6] Morning Advertiser (London), 3 November 1846, p.3.

[7] Morning Advertiser (London), 3 November 1846, p.3; see also Revelle-Smith, C. (2018) Weird Bristol: The Ultimate Guide to City’s Secrets. Kindle edition at https://twitter.com/weirdbristol/status/1450175785369800704?lang=ar

[8] Inquest: Hull Packet (England), 6 November 1846, p.4; The London Illustrated News, 7 November 1846, p.301.

[9] Bristol Times and Mirror, 10 April 1847, p.2 at https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/search/results?NewspaperTitle=Bristol%20Times%20and%20Mirror&BasicSearch=Louisa%20Ferris%20Trial%201847&page=2

[10] https://members.iinet.au/~perthdps/convicts/shipsTAS.html; https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/docs2/ships/SurgeonsJournal_Cadet1848.pdf

[11] CON41-1-15, image 56; CON19-1-6, image 55; CON15-1-4, images 194 and 195.

[12] CON41-1-15, image 56; https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/probation-stations; https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/probation-stations/anson.

[13] CON41-1-15, image 56; https://www.parliament.tas.gov.au/tpl/datasheets/Governors_Table.htm.

[14] Cornwall Chronicle, 28 April 1852, p.267.

[15] Denison to Earl Grey, 4 June 1850, Item No: GO25-1-17 50 No. 124, pp.172-173 per www.femaleconvicts.org.au; mother and daughter reunited: Cornwall Chronicle, 28 April 1852, p.267.

[16] Colonial Times, 6 April 1852, p.2.

[17] Colonial Times, 9 April 1852, p.2; Hobart Town Advertiser, 9 April 1852, p.1; Colonial Times (Hobart), 13 April 1852, p.2.

[18] Supreme Court trial: SC32-1-7, page 8 and page 10; Cornwall Chronicle, 24 April 1852, p.260; Colonial Times, 23 April 1852, p.4 and 27 April 1852, p.4.

[19] Cornwall Chronicle, 28 April 1852, p.267.

[20] Cornwall Chronicle, 28 April 1852, p.267.

[21] The Courier (Hobart), 28 April 1852, p.3.

[22] CON41-1-15, image 56.

[23] CON41-1-15, image 56.

[24] Registration of death not located.

 

 

 

 


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