CONVICT SISTERS - MARGARET AND ANN RICHARDSON
[Margaret: Hindostan, (2), 1839]
[Ann: Gilbert Henderson, 1840]
Despite the many thousands of hours spent by researchers in trying to uncover the often-complex stories of the 13,500 (approx.) females sent to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) as convicts between 1812 and 1853, there are still significant gaps in the body of knowledge, and there are facets of the lives of many of the women which are not well understood. Historical records which have been lost or destroyed account for some of the gaps. In other cases, accurate information is hard to find because many women used aliases or fabricated new identities when convicted in order to hide their own shame or to avoid bringing dishonour to their families. Some apparent fabrications, however, are more difficult to explain. A case in point is that of sisters Margaret and Ann (or Hanah/Hannah) Richardson who, in November 1838, were convicted together of shoplifting in London and sentenced to transportation for seven years. A contemporary newspaper report of the trial gives the ages of the siblings as ‘about fourteen and thirteen’. Moreover, a petition seeking clemency for the younger sister, Ann, while she was in an English gaol awaiting transportation to VDL, seems to confirm that she was only thirteen at that time. If these sources are accurate, the sisters were among the youngest female convicts ever to be transported to VDL. However, there is considerable doubt about their true ages. Were they really as young as those records suggest? When they arrived in VDL – Margaret in September 1839 and Ann in April 1840 – the former stated that she was seventeen and the latter that she was sixteen. Were the earlier records of their ages incorrect? If not, why did they claim to be older? What was to be gained by that?
Little is known about the very early lives of Margaret and Ann (or Hanah/Hannah) Richardson. Birth or baptism records have not been found for either of them. Their convict documents reveal that Margaret was born on the Isle of Wight and Ann in London, suggesting that their parents, probably poor, were moving about regularly at that time, perhaps in search of work. Their father’s name was John. There is no mention of their mother. They had a brother, John (or James) and a sister, Mary.
What is known about the girls with more certainty, however, is that they were troublesome from an early age. By the time of the offence which led to their transportation, Margaret had had two prior convictions, one for the theft of ‘a gown piece’, for which she had been sent to prison for three months, and once for her involvement in a ‘row’, for which she had served another fourteen days in gaol. Ann had had three prior convictions, one for theft (although that charge had ultimately been dismissed) and twice for ‘being disorderly’, for which she had been imprisoned for six weeks on one occasion and four weeks on the other. And, as was to become clear at their next trial, both girls were known to be prostitutes.
On 15 November 1838, Margaret and Ann faced the Court of Quarter Sessions, Westminster, London, together charged with ‘stealing nine yards of printed cotton, the property of a Mr. Hall’, a shopkeeper of Regent Street. The jury had little trouble in finding them guilty.
The London Evening Standard carried a report of the trial the next day:
Ann Richardson and Margaret Richardson, each about 13 and 14 years of age, were charged with stealing … The Chairman observed that this was not the first occasion upon which the prisoners had been convicted, for he found by the list which was furnished to him that Ann Richardson had been found guilty of a felony as recently as the month of May last, when she was sentenced to an imprisonment in the House of Correction for three months, whilst both of them had frequently been in confinement as disorderly prostitutes. Under those circumstances the Court could see no prospect of a better line of conduct being to be looked for from them. It would therefore be the most merciful course, not only with respect to the public, but to the girls themselves, that they should not be allowed any longer to remain in this country. The sentence on the prisoners was, that they be transported for the term of seven years.
Tellingly of the characters and youthfulness of the girls, perhaps, the newspaper concluded its report of the trial in this way:
As the prisoners were being escorted from the dock, Ann Richardson had behaved in a very indecorous manner, striking the gaoler a violent blow with an umbrella and hitting her sister on the back because she was crying.
After the trial, the girls were held in a London gaol awaiting a ship to take them to VDL. Their gaol reports were brief, mentioning only that both were single and that they had had previous convictions.
Five months after the trial, Margaret was put aboard Hindostan which, with George Lamb as Master and Thomas McDonald as Surgeon-Superintendent and 179 female prisoners, sailed from the port of London on 9 May 1839 and reached Hobart on 12 September that year. Surgeon McDonald noted in his medical journal that Margaret was ‘badly disposed’ during the voyage.
There is no record of the sisters ever meeting again after Margaret’s departure. Ann was held in the London gaol until April of the following year. The probable reason for that is that a petition for clemency had been received on her behalf and it had not been fully dealt with by the time Margaret had left.
The petition, possibly written by one or other of Ann’s parents and addressed to The Right Honorable Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for Home Affairs from 1835 to 1839 and Secretary of State for War and the Colonies from 1839 to 1841, read as follows:
The Humble Petition of [Ann] Hanah Richardson aged 13 years convict and your miserable petitioner begs leave to state, that she received sentence, of transporation For Seven Years. By The Just Laws of her Offended Country! Which she has Transgressed. And your petitioner, Begs to state that she is now a prisoner in the Penitentiary; Since Her Sentance, now four months, and in Consequence, of The Grief, at The Crime of Theft, she Committed and the shance she takes to herself, and allso to her Aged Parents....Your Petisioner states that she is in a state of bad health and is Tearful she will die on the Passage … And your Petisoner prays Humbly That your Right Honorable Lordship in your great Humanity will take your miserable prisioners Case into your Consideration so as that your Petisioner, may not be sent Beyond the Seas. And your Petisioner shall for Ever Pray as an Humble and Afflicted Convict.
Lord Russell was unmoved by the plea. He declined to interfere with the decision of the court.
Accordingly, Ann was put aboard Gilbert Henderson which, with Mr. J. Tweedle as Master and Sir John Hammett as Surgeon-Superintendent, 185 female prisoners, fifteen free women and twenty-four children, sailed from Woolwich on 14 December 1839 and reached Hobart on 24 April 1840.
As was the practice in the case of all prisoners at the time, a quite detailed physical description of both Margaret and Ann was entered into their convict documents upon arrival at Hobart. The prime purpose of these descriptions - which, for females, usually listed age, complexion, shape of head, nose, mouth, nose, chin and forehead as well as colour of eyes, hair and eyebrows - was to enable the authorities to make a positive identification of any convict who absconded or who was using a false name to conceal their convict status.
As would be expected, the descriptions of the sisters show marked similarities. Margaret was described as being four feet and nine inches (about 145 cms) tall with a fresh complexion, round face, black hair, dark brown eyes and a small nose, mouth and chin. Ann was also four feet and nine inches (about 145 cms) tall and with a round face but her complexion was ‘dark’ and her hair was ‘very dark brown’. Both girls had ‘marks’ (that is, tattoos of a kind) on their arms or hands. Margaret had the initials ‘LJB’ on her left shoulder and a ‘square with four dots for each corner and one in the centre’ on that arm. Ann had the initials ‘DMM’ on her right arm and dots on her left hand. What these initials and dots signified is unknown.
Of greater importance to the story of the lives of the Richardson sisters, however, are the ages of each that were entered into their convict records. Margaret was noted to have been seventeen years old on arrival and Ann sixteen.
But could that have been their true ages?
If Margaret were really ‘about 14’ at her trial in November 1838 - as per the London Evening Standard report – how could she have been seventeen upon arrival at Hobart in September of the following year? And if Ann were really ‘aged 13 years’ – as per the petition presented in her favour four months after her sentencing (that is, in March 1839) – how could she have been sixteen upon arrival at Hobart in April 1840?
How might these anomalies be accounted for?
One possible explanation is that the girls’ ages as stated in England before their transportation were incorrect. However, while it is easy to imagine that the London Evening Standard report which had referred to them as ‘about 13 and 14 years of age’ might have been incorrect – an estimation, perhaps, and one possibly based on the girls’ height as both were of short stature – it is less likely that Ann’s age, thirteen, as given in the petition was incorrect.
Another possible explanation is that the girls themselves did not know exactly how old they were. Even today, when records of births, deaths and marriages are kept in a more sophisticated way than in the nineteenth century, people are known to have been surprised, after obtaining a copy of their birth certificate for the first time, to find that they are a year or two younger or older than they thought they were. But, again, this explanation fails to account for the petition. Is it likely that their parents would have been unaware or forgetful of the true ages of their daughter? Or might the petitioner have claimed that Ann was only thirteen in an attempt to strengthen the case for clemency?
Could the discrepancy be accounted for simply by thinking that the girls felt themselves to be older than they actually were? They had certainly been acting as older people before their conviction and transportation. Both had had multiple prior convictions. Upon arrival at Hobart, Margaret admitted that she had been ‘on the town’ – that is, a prostitute - for twelve months in England. The sentencing judge at the trial confirmed that Ann, too, had been engaged in prostitution.
Closely connected to that possible explanation is the notion that the girls might not have wanted to be treated as girls or as children, that they wanted to be treated as women. As the children of poor parents, it is likely that their experience of childhood had been a miserable one - as, in fact, it was for most children at the time and for centuries before that. It was not until the 1830s that there began to emerge an acceptance that children were not simply smaller versions of adults, that they were innocents who needed to be loved, nurtured and protected from the adult world, and that they be allowed to enjoy their childhood.
Even the children of well-to-do parents usually found growing up to be a difficult time. Although they might have been well-fed, pampered by a caring nanny, given every material comfort and the level of schooling deemed appropriate for their place in society, many were denied communication with their aloof parents. Constantly being reminded that they were expected to be proper and to behave like adults at all times, many were lonely and lived frustrating and boring lives.
But childhood in poorer families could be an even more difficult time. Most children of the poor had to work in order that their families could survive. Parents tended to think of their children as income and most were sent out to work at an early age. Because children did not have to be paid as much as adults, they were in high demand – in farming, mining, factories and mills, and as servants, chimney sweeps and prostitutes. Their working hours were long and their conditions often dirty and unsafe.
It is little wonder that the Richardson sisters looked forward to the time when their childhood was behind them.
Nor is it surprising that Margaret and Ann were both troublesome after their arrival in the colony.
Margaret’s Conduct Record lists multiple new offences before she had completed her seven-year sentence. Although most of her misdemeanours were of a relatively minor nature, together they indicate that she was difficult to control. In 1840, her first year in VDL, she was charged with being ‘out after hours’, ‘absent from her service without permission’ and ‘insolence’. For these offences, she spent at least four months in the Female House of Corrections, for much of the time in solitary confinement. Between 1841 and 1845, she was charged another eight times - for offences which included ‘gross insolence’, ‘repeated misconduct’, and being ‘idle and disorderly’. As punishment, she was sent to prison for periods ranging from one month to six months, usually to be served with hard labour. While there, she was housed in ‘Crime Class’, the section of the gaol reserved for the very worst prisoners. It was when she was in prison in 1841 that she was charged with her most serious offence – that of having tobacco concealed on her person. For this, her original sentence of seven years was extended by three months but whether that penalty was applied is uncertain. On 15 November, 1845, seven years to the day since her trial and conviction, she was granted a Certificate of Freedom’.
Ann was less troublesome than her sister. Her Conduct Record lists only three new offences in the colony, all of them in 1841. On 7 January, she was charged with being absent from her duties and was gaoled in solitary confinement for seven days. On 18 February, she was found guilty of using indecent language and with being absent again – and spent another fourteen days in the cells. On 19 July, she was sent to gaol once more, this time for a month, for ‘disobedience of orders’. Nevertheless, her seven-year sentence was eventually completed and, on 15 November 1845, she too received her Certificate of Freedom.
Before the sisters had received their Certificates of Freedom, however, both had married.
On 24 August 1842, a free settler named Thomas Richmond had sought permission to marry Margaret but his application had been denied, the authorities ruling that ‘the woman must show amendment of conduct first’. However, when he applied for permission again, on 30 November of the same year, his request was approved. The marriage took place at St John’s Church of England, Launceston on 11 January the following year.
On 20 August 1842, convict William Collins (Maria, 1820), a man serving a life sentence, had applied for permission to marry Ann. The application was approved and the couple married at St David’s Church of England, Hobart, on 10 October that year.
Very strangely – because the marriages took place within four months of each other – the entries in the parish registers give the ages of both Margaret and Ann as twenty. But how could that be right? If Margaret were actually twenty at her marriage in January 1843, then she must have been born in 1822 (or very early 1823), making her sixteen at the time of her trial in 1838. And if Ann were actually twenty at her marriage in October 1842, then she, too, must have been born in 1822 and also sixteen at the time of the trial in 1838 - and, obviously, that cannot be correct either!
And, so, the mystery remains! How old were the Richardson sisters when transported to VDL?
Compounding the mystery is the fact that, according to her death certificate, Margaret was forty-seven when she died in May 1876. If that is so, then she must have been born in 1828 or 1829 – making her only ten or eleven years of age at her trial in 1838! And, of course, that is incorrect, too.
As it happens, Margaret passed away in the neighbouring colony of Victoria. Shipping records show that she and her husband Thomas Richmond had sailed from Launceston to Port Albert in Gippsland, Victoria, aboard the vessel Alpha on 1 February 1846. Margaret never returned to VDL.
At the time of their departure, Margaret and Thomas had been married for four years but it seems unlikely that they had stayed together for much longer. Even before their departure from VDL, there had been trouble in the marriage.
On 12 February 1844, then with a ticket of leave, Margaret had been charged by her husband with ‘repeated misconduct’. Thomas told the Police Court that he had ‘lost all control over his wife’; that she had ‘left his house whenever she pleased’; and that she was leading ‘an idle and disorderly life’. Police witnesses corroborated Thomas’s testimony, one telling the magistrate that he had seen Margaret ‘repeatedly exhibiting herself in a cab’ (that is, soliciting as a prostitute.) In response, Margaret had sworn that her husband was ‘too idle to work and consequently unable to support her, and that she was ‘compelled to seek her own living’. The magistrate was not impressed by her testimony and sentenced her to six months imprisonment in the Female House of Corrections. Her ticket of leave was revoked.
Unhappily, her behaviour was to grow steadily worse in Victoria. Between her arrival in 1846 and her death in 1867, she was charged with offences numerous times – ‘stealing from the person’ (1848); ‘stabbing a man with a knife’ (1854); ‘vagrancy’ (1857); ‘fighting in the streets’ (1857); ‘drunkenness’ (1858 and 1864); ‘using disgusting language in a public place’ (1858); ‘soliciting in the street’ (1861); ‘receiving stolen property’ (1864); ‘being a disorderly prostitute’ (1864) ‘indecency in a public place’ (1864); and ‘stabbing a man - a brothel-keeper - in the head’ (1865). These are just examples; there were many more charges. She was gaoled frequently. In court, her ‘habitual profligacy’ was noted. Indicative both of her small stature and her aggressiveness, perhaps, she was referred to by police and acquaintances as ‘the Bull Pup’. She also used the alias ‘Annie’ on occasions.
Not surprisingly, Margaret died in gaol. She passed away in a Gippsland (Victoria) gaol in mid-May 1867. An inquest into her death revealed that she had died of natural causes.
Little is known of the life of Margaret’s sister, Ann, after her marriage. Although there are reports of offences being committed in VDL by an ‘Ann Collins’ in newspapers of the day, it is difficult to say with certainty that these can be attributed to Ann (Richardson) Collins as there were other women named ‘Ann Collins’ in VDL at the time. However, the description of the woman involved in the following incident, reported by the Tasmanian Colonial of 5 October 1854, does seem sufficiently like that of Ann to raise suspicion:
Anne Collins, a most diminutive specimen of feminine humanity, was placed at the bar and charged with having, on the preceding evening, been drunk, disorderly and disturbing the peace. The fair accused appeared to be over-whelmed with distress, applying a corner of her shawl to her eyes, giving audible vent to her sobs. In reply to the enquiring in whose service she was employed, she pleaded being a married woman, and consequently only in the service of her 'lord and master.' His Worship remarked, that the possessor of such a treasure must be indeed a 'happy one,' but as he did not appear to claim the partner of his heart, the lady must only be content with a temporary separation … [a] sojourn for 4 months at the Cascades Factory.
If, indeed, that report does refer to Ann, it appears that her marriage was no more successful than that of Margaret. Unfortunately, no record of Ann’s death has yet been located.
And, so, for the time being at least, the true ages of the Richardson sisters when they were transported to VDL remains a mystery.
But there persists a nagging question of a general kind: What advantages would there have been to Margaret and Ann – or, indeed, to any other young female convict - in putting their ages up upon arrival at Hobart? Although there might be a good answer to this question, it does not present itself at this time and further research is warranted.
 Margaret Richardson: conduct record, CON40-1-8, image 198; description list, CON19-1-13, image 303; indent, CON15-1-9, images 33-34; police no: 199; FCRC ID: 6352. Ann Richardson: conduct record, CON40-1-8, Image 201; indent not located; description list, CON19-1-13, image 582; police no: 207; FCRC ID: 5836.
 Margaret’s age in both Description List and Indent is seventeen; Ann’s age in both Description List and Surgeon’s Journal is sixteen.
 CON15-1-9, images 33-34.
 CON40-1-8, image 198.
 CON40-1-8, Image 201.
 CON40-1-8, image 198; CON40-1-8, Image 201.
 As for Note 9, above.
 Lord Russell: https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/member/russell-lord-john-1792-1878; the petitioner’s name has not yet been verified.
 As for Note 3, above.
 Physical descriptions: https://www.nla.gov.au/research-guides/convicts/transportation-arrival; Margaret, CON19-1-13, image 303; Ann, CON19-1-13, image 582.
 Gubar, M. (2005). ‘The Victorian Child’, http://www.representingchildhood.pitt.edu/pdf/victorian_child.pdf
 ‘Victorian Children in Victorian Times’ @ https://victorianchildren.org/victorian-children-in-victorian-times/; https://victorianchildren.org/; ‘What Was Life Like for Children in Victorian Times’ @ https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/application/files/1414/5579/2208/what-was-life-for-children-victorian-London.pdf; http://web.uvic.ca/vv/student/orphans/childhood.html
 As for Note 16, above.
 CON40-1-8, image 198: CF: Hobart Town Gazette, 28 October 1845.
 CON40-1-8, Image 201.
 CON40-1-8, Image 201; Hobart Town Gazette, 28 October 1845.
 Richmond, permission to marry Margaret: CON52/1/2, pp.167 and 168; marriage: RGD37/1/3, No.119, Launceston.
 Collins, permission to marry Ann: CON52/1/2, p.27; marriage: RGD37/1/3, No. 71, Hobart.
 Margaret6, death: Vic. Reg. 1876/6440.
 CON40-1-8, image 198; Launceston Examiner, 21 February 1844, p.3.
 https://trove.nla.gov.au/, accessed 10 June 2021, for years 1840-1846 (VDL) and 1846-1867 (Victoria).
 As for Note 27, but see, for example, The Age (Melbourne), 30 October 1854, p.5 and Argus (Melbourne), 5 May 1857, p.5 and 21 August 1857, p.6; see also Victorian Public Records Office – VPR516, Vol.1, p.167 P/N917..
 Tasmanian Colonist (Hobart), 5 October 1854, p.2.