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(Mexborough, 1841)


Don Bradmore

Catherine Jane Downey was convicted of theft in Ireland in January 1841 and sentenced to transportation for seven years. Twenty-four years old and unmarried, she arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) with a four-month-old son aboard Mexborough in December that year.[1]  Thirty-two years later she was still a prisoner. During that time, she married and gave birth to at least two more children. A difficult prisoner for the convict authorities to manage, she was charged with new offences frequently and spent many months in prison. On three occasions her original sentence of transportation of seven years was extended – twice by twelve months and, on the third occasion, to penal servitude for life. Her last recorded gaol term was in November 1857 but what happened to her after that is unclear. A note in her convict documents reveals that, in 1873, the remainder of her life sentence was remitted and she was granted a free pardon. She was then about fifty-six. There is evidence that she was a pauper at that time and living on a charitable allowance from the Government. What eventually became of her remains a mystery.

Catherine Downey (also seen as Downie and Dooney) was born at Londonderry, Northern Ireland, about 1817.[2] The names of her parents have not been located and very little is known about her life before her transportation. At her trial at the Antrim Quarter Sessions, Ireland, in January 1841, she was found guilty of stealing a watch and sentenced to transportation for seven years.[3] Her convict documents reveal that that was not the first time that she had been in trouble with the law. She had been convicted of theft twice before and had served gaol terms, one of six months and the other of nine months.

Soon after her trial, Catherine was put aboard Mexborough which, with John Bridgman as master, John Hampton as surgeon-superintendent and one hundred and forty-five female prisoners, sailed from Dublin on 12 August 1841.[4] By 26 December that year, the vessel had reached Hobart.

Puzzlingly, Catherine had arrived with a four-month-old son whom she had named William John Downey. While the age of the infant suggests that he was born at sea, the surgeon-superintendent made no mention of the birth in his medical journal.[5] It is likely, therefore, that the child had been born just prior to the ship’s departure. Catherine told the authorities that the father was a man by the name of James Dick but nothing more is known of him.[6]

At Hobart, Catherine was described as being twenty-four years old, five feet two and a half inches (about 159 cms) tall, with a fair complexion, brown hair and hazel eyes. Her face and arms were freckled. She was a Catholic. She could neither read nor write. She was allocated the convict trade of ‘dairy maid’.[7] After disembarkation, she was required to undergo a probationary period of six months before being hired into service as a convict servant. (The probation period was intended to give all newly-arriving female prisoners moral and religious instruction and to teach them the skills that would be expected of them when assigned to free settlers.)[8]

Upon completion of her probation, Catherine was assigned to a family named Grisby in Hobart but it was not long before she was in trouble with the law again. On 30 June 1842, she was charged with ‘larceny under five pounds.’ It was the first of many offences with which she was to be charged in the years that followed. For this offence, her original sentence of transportation for seven years was extended by a year. In addition, she was sent to the House of Correction (the Cascades Female Factory at Hobart) for a further six months’ probation.[9]

While serving this additional probation, Catherine was involved in ‘a tumultuous riot’. On 23 August 1842, she and three other inmates were charged with insubordination in that they had assisted in a ‘rebellious demonstration’ at the prison a few days earlier. John Hutchinson, Superintendent of the Cascades, told an inquiry that, on the day in question, he had been alerted to a noisy disturbance in the ‘C’ (Crime) Class yard of the prison and had gone to investigate.[10] There, he had seen about a hundred women singing, dancing and making an outrageous racket. Several times he had asked them to desist but they had refused. When he had reminded the women that such disorder was against the rules of the Establishment, and had asked them to give him the names of the ringleaders, he had been shouted down. After the rioting and confusion had been going on for four or five hours, and the uproar had become even greater and more violent, he had called the police. When they arrived, one of the inmates had pointed out Catherine, along with Ann McKenna, Jane Charlton and Mary Smith, all of whom had arrived in the colony aboard Mexborough in the previous year, as the leaders of the disturbance. Although all admitted to shouting and dancing and ‘going around in a ring like the other women’, they had denied that they were guilty of insubordination. They were not believed. Their original terms of transportation were extended by a year.[11]  

Perhaps it was Catherine’s concern about the extension of her sentence, and her uncertainty about whether she would ever be able to provide adequately for her son that led her to admit him to the Queen’s Orphan School at Hobart at this time. He was then two years old. The admissions register, dated 21 June 1843, incorrectly shows the boy’s name as John Downie and his mother’s name as Margaret Downie.[12]   

None of this, however, did anything to curb Catherine’s rebelliousness. In September 1843, assigned as a servant once more, she was charged with being drunk and admitting a man to her master’s premises. She was sent back to the Cascades for another three months to be served with hard labour – but no sooner was she released than she was in trouble again.[13] On 2 May 1844, she was charged with some unspecified misconduct but was fortunate enough to escape with a reprimand on that occasion. Three weeks later, she was charged once more. On 17 May 1844, she was ordered to spend ten days in solitary confinement at the Cascades for being absent without leave from the home of her employer.[14]

However, perhaps there were some happier moments in Catherine’s life. On 1 April 1844, a man by the name of Andrew Jamieson (or Jameson) applied for permission to marry her. The application was approved subject to the clergyman being satisfied that she was single. Apparently, whatever doubts had been in the minds of the authorities were resolved quickly because, on 4 July 1844, the pair were married in the St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Hobart.[15] Jamieson, from Leith, Scotland, was about twenty-nine at the time of the marriage. A mariner by trade, he had arrived in the colony as a free man some years earlier.[16]  Soon afterwards, the couple went to Launceston to live.

Although it cannot be confirmed, it seems likely that Catherine and Andrew had been in a relationship for some time before they applied to marry. Birth records in VDL show that, on 31 March 1844, a woman with the surname ‘Cassidy or Jamieson’ had given birth to an illegitimate daughter. The father’s name, the mother’s first name and the name of the child were not recorded. And the name ‘Cassidy’ is puzzling! However, that this was Catherine’s child seems to be confirmed by the death of a child named Mary Jane Jamieson, aged three, at Launceston on 29 November 1847. The record of the death shows the mother’s name as Catherine and the father’s occupation as ‘mariner’. The cause of death was given as ‘inflammation of the bowels.’[17]    

Unfortunately, marriage did not curb Catherine’s inclination to steal. In May 1845, less than a year after the wedding, she was gaoled for nine months for larceny.[18] However, it was her next offence that was to have the most significant effect on her marriage. In February 1848, she and Andrew were charged with having stolen a cigar case containing seventeen pounds in bank notes, the property of William Beveridge, a Launceston publican.[19] At their trial at the Launceston Quarter Sessions a month later, Beveridge told the court that the pair had entered his hotel together and had called for something to drink. After he had taken their drinks to them in a parlour adjacent to his own private rooms in the hotel, he had gone off to attend to other business. Later, he had noticed Catherine going into his rooms but, assuming that she needed some privacy, he had not stopped her. Other witnesses testified that they had seen Catherine going into Beveridge’s rooms on three separate occasions and that, on one occasion, Andrew had followed her there. Continuing his evidence, Beveridge said that, after the Jamiesons had finished their drinks and left the hotel, he had noticed that the cigar case and money were missing from under a mattress in his rooms where he had hidden it. He had called the police and the missing items were discovered in a linen basket at the home of the Jamiesons that evening. Andrew and Catherine were charged jointly with the theft. In court, a Mr. Rocher, counsel for the couple, called for Catherine’s immediate discharge on the grounds of marital coercion. He argued that it would be impossible for anyone to say whether the cigar case and money had been stolen when Catherine was in Beveridge’s rooms by herself, or whether she and her husband had taken them when they were in the rooms together. If it were the latter, he maintained, the law held Catherine blameless. He pointed out that, for a very long time, it had been the case in English common law that if a woman committed a crime - other than murder or treason - in the presence of her husband, she was presumed to have been forced by him into doing it. He told the jury that, in such circumstances, a wife was not required to defend herself in any way; in law, it was simply taken for granted that the husband had forced her to act as she did. The judge, however, did not entirely agree. He advised the jury that they were not obliged to accept Mr. Rocher’s argument and that it was entirely up to them to decide if there had been coercion. Ultimately, a guilty verdict was returned against both husband and wife. Both were sentenced to transportation for life. In Andrew’s case, this meant penal servitude for life and a two-year gaol term. Catherine’s original sentence was extended to a life sentence and she was returned to prison for another year.[20] There is no evidence that they were ever re-united.

Again, these punishments appear to have had no effect on Catherine, and her wilful behaviour continued. Back in convict service by January 1849, she was charged with being found in a water closet with a man and sentenced to three months’ gaol at the Female Factory, Launceston.[21] On 12 November 1850, she was charged with ‘not proceeding according to her pass and having a false Certificate of Freedom in her possession’. She was returned to the Female Factory at Launceston for another three months.[22]

The date of Catherine’s imprisonment on 12 November 1850 is significant because, on 14 November 1850, The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston) reported that she had been charged with bigamy ‘in having, on the 8th October last, married at Evandale one Martin King, during the lifetime of her former husband Andrew Jamieson’ - and that she had been fully committed for trial. However, no report of a trial has been located and Catherine’s convict documents reveal that the bigamy charge was eventually dismissed. It appears that this was a case of mistaken identity. Records show that there was only one man named Martin King in VDL at the time and that, on 8 October 1850, he had married a woman by the name of Mary Nowlan at St Andrew’s Church, Evandale.[23]

In April 1852, Catherine was absent without leave from her service and spent another three months in gaol at Launceston.[24] On 8 August that year, while still at the House of Corrections, she gave birth to another daughter. The child’s name was registered as ‘Mary Jane Downie’. That surname, and the fact that the father’s name was not recorded, suggests that Andrew Jamieson was not the father. Sadly, however, this child died in infancy, too. It passed away at eleven months, at Launceston on 27 July 1853. The following day, at an inquest into the death, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of ‘by a visitation of God by natural causes, to wit, diarrhea.’[25]

In December 1853, Catherine was granted a ticket of leave for the first time but it appears to have been revoked following offences for drunkenness in May 1855 and March 1856.[26] She was fined twenty shillings on each occasion. In October 1856, she was found guilty of another theft and sent back to prison for six months. Her ticket of leave was restored in October 1857 but, a month later, she was sentenced to three months’ gaol for being drunk.[27]  

What became of Catherine after she had served that term of imprisonment is difficult to follow, due in most part to the dramatic political and social changes that had taken place in VDL since she had arrived almost two decades earlier. From the early 1830s, a strong feeling of antipathy towards the transportation of convicts had been growing and the calls by anti-transportationists for its cessation had become increasingly louder. The discovery of gold in the neighbouring colonies on the mainland in the early 1850s had awakened the British Government to the folly of sending more convicts to the region. The last ship to bring female convicts to VDL, Duchess of Northumberland, arrived in April 1853 and the last to bring male convicts, St Vincent, a month later. In 1855-1856, VDL achieved self-governing status and, anxious to rid themselves of the taint of the brutalities of convict transportation, legislators changed the name of the colony to Tasmania.[28]

Amid all of this, the reporting on, and record-keeping of, the movements of convicts became less rigorous. Consequently, knowing where Catherine was and how she was living at this time is difficult. However, what is certain is that, on 2 January 1873, the remainder of the life sentences of both Catherine and her husband Andrew Jamieson was remitted and both were granted free pardons.[29] Catherine was then about fifty-six years old.

The last known mention of Catherine in official documents was in 1873. At a meeting of the Municipal Council at Pontville in early January of that year, a list of persons to receive charitable allowances from the government was presented. Catherine’s name, which had been on previous lists, had been removed from it. The Chairman, Mr. Gunn, tabled a query from Police Magistrate William Tarleton asking why Catherine, a pauper, had been struck from the list. After some consideration, the Council decided to adhere to its decision. A newspaper report of the Council meeting gave no reason for this.[30] So, was she a pauper? If not, how was she supporting herself? Where was she living? Why was a police magistrate still making enquiries about her? There are no answers to these questions yet.


[1] Conduct record: CON40-1-4, image 43; Description list: CON19-1-3, image 57; Police No: 313; FCRC ID: 9157; Indent: Not located.

[2] Birth year calculated from age on arrival at Hobart.

[3] CON40-1-4, image 43.

[4] https://www.perthdps.com/convicts/shipsTAS.html

[5] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/docs/ships/Mexborough1841_SJ.pdf

[6] CON40-1-4, image 43.

[7] CON40-1-4, image 43.

[8] See ‘Convict Institutions/Probation System’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[9] CON40-1-4, image 43.

[10] Hutchinson: https://sites.google.com/view/australian-dictionary-of-evang/h/hutchinson-mary-1810-1880

[11] See ‘Inquiry into Female Convict Prison Discipline 1841-1843’, transcribed by Lucy Frost and Sally Rackham at https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/inquiry-1841-1843

[12] https://orphanschool.org/showorphan.php?orphan_ID=1571

[13] CON40-1-4, image 43.

[14] CON40-1-4, image 43.

[15] Permission to marry: CON52/1/2, p.91; marriage: RGD37/4, no 1331.

[16] CON37-1-4, image 119.

[17] Birth of unnamed illegitimate child per TPI Digger: RGD33/179/1844; death: RGD35/1/6, no 862, Launceston.

[18] CON40-1-4, image 43.

[19] CON40-1-4, image 43.

[20] The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston), 23 March 1848, p.2. Catherine (nee Downey): CON40-1-4, image 43; Andrew: CON37-1-4, image 119.

[21] CON40-1-4, image 43.

[22] Offences in 1849-1852:

[23] The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston), 14 November 1850, p.800; CON40-1-4, image 43; marriage King/Nowlan:  RGD37/1/9 no. 915.

[24] CON40-1-4, image 43.

[25] Birth, Mary Jane Downie, 8 August 1852, RGD33/1/124, no 3656; death, registration not located; inquest: SC195/1/33, no 3050.

[26] Ticket of leave: CON40-1-4, image 43.

[27] Hobart Town Gazette, 6 October 1857.

[28] Encyclopedia Britannica at https://www.britannica.com/place/Van-Diemens-Land; Companion to Tasmanian History at https://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/index.htm; Convict System/Cessation of Transportation at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[29] CON40-1-4, image 43; CON37-1-4, image 119.

[30] The Cornwall Chronicle, 2 January 1873, p.3.

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FCRC Seminar: Sunday 5 May 2024:  Call for papers

Topic: Freedom: Time served, moving on

This seminar will focus on the pathways to freedom for convict women and will explore the lives they led once emancipated.

Possible topics may include:

  • Pathways to freedom.
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If you would like to present a 20-minute paper at the seminar, please forward an abstract for consideration to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. by 20 October 2023. The abstract should outline your intended topic, the points you will highlight and the sources you will be using to inform your paper.


Call for submissions for the next Convict Women's Press book: Convict Motherhood

Cut-off date for submissions extended to 14 October.

You are invited to submit a chapter for the next CWP book, provisionally titled Convict Motherhood. It will cover all aspects of this fascinating topic:

  • women with children in Britain prior to conviction
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How did women cope with the stresses of the convict system? How did they experience childbirth and child rearing? How many did/could not have children? How did these experiences affect children?

We are looking for papers under 2000 words, about individual convict women, groups of women or more abstract discussions of the topic.

If you are interested, please submit a 100-word abstract by 14 October to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 



The 13th BIENNIAL CONFERENCE of the George Town & District Historical Society Inc.


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The Marita Bardenhagen Memorial Award

The Marita Bardenhagen Memorial Award for Local History is a biennial prize acknowledging outstanding original research in the field of local history with significant Tasmanian content.  Applications are now open for the 2023 Award and will close on 30 September.

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Voyages: The Voyage of the Tasmania 1844, including a map of the voyage, by Dee Hoole (14/09/2023)

Convict Ships  Martin Luther 1852, Surgeon's Journal, transcription courtesy of Colleen Arulappu (10/07/2023)

Books, Theses & Reports - Convict Orphans by Lucy Frost. (14/06/2023)

Books, Theses & Reports - Convict Lives:  Young girls transported to Van Diemen's Land edited by Alison Alexander (4/05/2023)

Freedoms - The Path to Freedom. Page updated and edited by Helen Menard 1/05/2023, to include  'Freedom v emancipation'.

Featured in Publications - A list of VDL convict women featured in publications (compiled and updated by Ros Escott April 2023).

Pre-Transportation: The British Justice System in the 18th & 19th Centuries -  A new page for the website, contributed by Helen Menard 18/03/2023.

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