FRANCES FRANCIS (Tasmania, 1844)

by Don Bradmore

The story of Frances Francis is not a pleasant one to read. In March 1843, she was convicted in England of ‘stealing from the person’ and sentenced to transportation for ten years.[1] She was married and about thirty years old. On board the ship which brought her to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL), the surgeon-superintendent was so appalled by her physical condition that he described her as ‘a beastly, disgusting, dirty woman’. Not surprisingly, she was an unsettled prisoner in the colony and, even after regaining her freedom in 1854, her troubles with the law continued. In 1859, she was referred to in a newspaper report of one of her many court appearances as ‘a wretched-looking object’. Her last documented offences - for using obscene language and begging in the streets – were in 1878 when she was about sixty-five. Frustratingly, nothing more is known of her. What happened to her in her final years? Did she eventually find a place where she could be properly cared for?

This is her story:


Frances (or Fanny as she was sometimes known) was the daughter of Robert and Fanny (nee Thornton) Gudgeon. She was born at Lancaster, Lancashire, England, where her father was a twine spinner by trade. Her mother, not mentioned in her convict documents, may have died early. She had three brothers, James (born 1909), Robert (1819) and William (birth date unknown).[2] Although it is believed that Frances was born in 1816, there is some uncertainty about that as conflicting accounts of her age are given in court and convict records.[3]

Little is known about her early life and upbringing but, as was customary in working class families at the time, it is probable that she was sent out to work as soon as she was able to earn her own living.[4] According to a report in the Kendal Mercury (Westmoreland, England) of 11 April 1835, a young woman named Frances Gudgeon, a servant, gave evidence in the trial of a man charged with the theft of an item of clothing from the home of her employer.  At that time, she would have been about seventeen. While it cannot be confirmed that that was her, it is likely that it was.[5]

On Christmas Day 1838, Frances, then in her early twenties, married a man by the name of Henry Francis at St Phillip’s Church, Birmingham, England. It was the first marriage for both of them. Apart from the fact that Henry was a brass worker, nothing is known about him.[6] No children of the marriage have been located.

Clearly, the marriage was unsuccessful. When, on 1 March 1844, just six years later, she was convicted at the Lancaster-Manchester Quarter Sessions of the crime that led to her conviction – stealing eleven shillings and two pence from the person - she was using the alias ‘Launcelot’ and had, reportedly, been ‘living partly by prostitution for the past five years.’ Moreover, the court heard that she had previously been gaoled three times – twice for stealing money and once for ‘talking to a gentleman’. She was sentenced to transportation for ten years.[7]   

After her trial, Frances was kept in prison at Lancaster for some months. In mid-August 1844, she was transferred to Millbank Prison, London, to await embarkation on a ship to take her to VDL to serve her time. Interestingly, her age is shown in Millbank Prison records as thirty-six. Did she look older than she was, perhaps? A report on her behaviour at the prison described her as ‘quiet and industrious’. Later that month, she was put aboard the convict vessel Tasmania which, with William Black as Master, Thomas Seaton as Surgeon-Superintendent, one hundred and ninety-one female prisoners and a number of their children, sailed from London on 8 September and reached Hobart on 20 December that year.[8]

In the medical journal that he was required to keep during the voyage, Surgeon-Superintendent Seaton revealed that, at the time of her arrest months earlier, Frances had complained of pain and swelling in her legs, constant pain in the head and shortness of breath. At that time, she had been low-spirited and had had trouble remembering things that she had heard only the day before. At Millbank, she had received some medical care, Seaton stated, but she had neglected herself after coming aboard the ship and had been reluctant to seek further treatment. It was not until he strongly insisted on examining her, that he discovered the full extent of her condition – and he was shocked at what he saw. He wrote:

Sick or hurt … old neglected venereal sores, combined with piles, filth and gonorrhoea; an inveterate drinker; a beastly, disgusting, dirty woman: her whole history is a narrative of continued disease and her disregard of it. For five years she has never been free from venereal taint, and piles in addition … For many weeks, she was in the “Lock” [prison] at Liverpool where some of the piles were removed by ligature and the warts by caustic … It was some time after I took charge before she applied to me and was then … [not permitted by me to leave] till I insisted on an examination … but what with old cicatrices and accumulated filth it was quite impossible to say what [her] disease was.[9]

Happily, Seaton was pleased to be able to say that, by his insistence on strict cleanliness, a great change was soon effected. He admitted, however, that he did not understand her continual refusal to take the medicines he had prescribed for her and that he had been unable to force her to do so. On the other hand, he had had success in both getting her to wash herself and in making her get up instead of lying in her bed continually. Although he thought that there was no doubt that, with the assistance of medicine, she would get well in time, he had to conclude his remarks by saying that she was ‘still uncured’ when disembarked at Hobart.[10]

There, she was described as being thirty years old and married. She was five feet, three and a half inches (about 161 cm) tall, with a dark complexion and brown hair and eyes. She said she was a Protestant. She could read but not write. She was allocated the convict trade of ‘house maid’.[11] After disembarkation, she was taken to the Anson Probation Station, where, for the next six months, she was given training in what was expected of her when assigned to free settlers as a convict servant.[12] It is not known what, if any, medical treatment she received there but, in any event, by late 1845, she was considered well enough to be assigned to free settlers as a convict servant.

It was not long before she was in trouble with the law again. On 18 March 1846, she absconded from the home of her employer and, when apprehended shortly afterwards, was sent to prison at the Cascades Female Factory, Hobart, for three months, to be served with hard labour. Afterwards, she was almost continually being brought before a magistrate for offences. None of these were particularly serious but, for most of them she was gaoled. She absconded twice again - in 1847 and in 1850 - and was imprisoned for fourteen months and four months respectively. She was gaoled for fourteen days in 1846 for being ‘absent from her service’ and, for the same offence, spent four days in gaol in 1847, fourteen days in 1849 and another four days in 1850. She was gaoled for another fourteen days in 1851 for ‘not proceeding according to her pass’. She was fined five shillings on three occasions - twice in 1851 and again in 1852 - for being drunk. She was gaoled for two months in 1853 for being ‘out after hours’ and she was returned to prison in 1853 for three months when found ‘living in a disorderly house’.[13]    

In view of the problems with her health, it is not altogether surprising that Francis did not remarry in VDL. However, she did have opportunities to do so. On 25 February 1851, a former convict named Charles Woodbine applied for permission to marry her. He had been in the colony since his arrival per Lord William Bentinck in 1832. In the previous year, he had been convicted of larceny in England and, because of a number of prior convictions, he had been sentenced to transportation for seven years. His gaol report described him as being of a ‘bad character’ with ‘bad connexions’. Although he had continued to offend in various ways in the colony, he had served his time and was ‘free’ by the time of his application to marry Frances. On 1 March 1851, the application was approved but the marriage did not proceed. A note on the application form reads: ‘Woman objecting to the marriage’. No reason is given for Frances’s objection. Was her health the issue – or did she have other grounds for refusing to accept Charles as a husband?[14] 

On 31 December 1851, a convict by the name of Thomas Hanling applied for permission to marry Frances. In 1840, he had been convicted of burglary in England and sentenced to transportation for life. He had arrived in VDL per Lady Raffles the following year. His application was approved but, again, the marriage did not proceed. The reason for this is less certain than in the case of Woodbine’s application but, as the abbreviation ‘abs’ (absent?) appears beside Frances’s name on the application form, might it be reasonable to assume that she did not want to marry him either?[15]              

On 20 January 1850 – after five years in VDL - Frances applied for a ticket of leave which would have enabled her to find her own accommodation and to choose her own employment but, presumably because of her offences, it was refused. She was told to re-apply in six months’ time. Her second application, in March of the following year, was successful. However, two years later, at the time of her arrest when discovered living in the ‘disorderly house’, the ticket was revoked.[16] Three years later - on 1 March 1854 - ten years to the day from the date of her conviction in England, her sentence had expired. On 10 April 1854, she was issued with a conditional pardon and she was a free woman again. She was then in her early forties.[17]

However, even after regaining her freedom, there was no improvement in Frances’s conduct. When, in May 1859, she was charged with being ‘idle and disorderly’ and ‘having no visible means of subsistence’, she was described in a newspaper report of the hearing as ‘a wretched-looking object’. A clerk of the court told the magistrate that, to his knowledge, she had frequently been convicted of similar offences during the previous five years. She was sentenced to three months’ hard labour.[18] In October of the following year, she was sent to gaol again, this time for a month, for ‘begging in a public street’.[19]

Curiously, between 1861 and 1878, Frances appears to have avoided trouble with the law – and that can be explained, perhaps, by an almost illegible pencil-note on her conduct record which reads: ‘Govt. funds’. Does that indicate that she was receiving financial aid of some kind from the government during those years? Was she committed to an institution at that time, perhaps?

If that was the case, it does not appear to have solved Frances’s problems entirely. On 19 September 1878, the Tribune (Hobart) reported that she, then in her mid-to-late sixties, and an associate named Margaret Dixon were charged with ‘making use of obscene language in the streets’. Both pleaded guilty and each was fined ten shillings and sixpence, with an option of ten days’ gaol.[20] A report of the same court hearing in the Hobart Mercury of 21 September revealed that, inexplicably, Frances was using the alias ‘O’Connor’ when arrested.[21] Disappointingly, nothing more is known about Frances. What eventually happened to her? A record of her death has not been located.

Frances’s story is sad and depressing. What circumstances or events had started her life on its downward spiral? Could the answer to that question lie in the words of Surgeon-Superintendent Seaton in the medical journal he kept of the voyage of the vessel Tasmania back in 1844?  At the commencement of his report on Frances he had written ‘sick or hurt’?[22]  What did he mean by ‘hurt’ here? His report certainly reveals how ‘sick’ she was at that time, but nothing that would indicate that she had been ‘hurt’ physically. Had her husband Henry Francis hurt her? Was it only emotional hurt to which he referred, perhaps? There are no answers to these questions yet.


[1] Conduct record: CON41-1-4, image 64; description list: CON19-1-4, image 141; indent: CON15/1/3, pp. 64 and 65; police no: 303; FCRC ID 11882.

[2] CON15/1/3, pp. 64 and 65.

[3] Birth in 1816? See Lancaster Bishop’s Transcripts Ref. No. Drb 2/128b as per FCRC d/base at

[4] CON41-1-4, image 64; child labour:

[5] Kendal Mercury, 11 April 1835, p.3 at

[6] Marriage as per CON15/1/3, pp.64 and 65.

[7] Trial and prior convictions as per CON41-1-4, image 64.

[8]  Voyage:

[9] Medical journal:

[10] As for Note 9.

[11] CON41-1-4, image 64; CON19-1-4, image 141.

[12] Anson Probation Station:

[13] CON41-1-4, image 64; abscondings: Hobart Town Gazette, 9 March 1847, 13 April 1847 and 15 October 1849.

[14] Woodbine: CON31-1-46, image 182; application for permission to marry: CON52-1-4, ‘W’ Jan-Apr 1851.

[15] Hanling: CON33-1-6, image 140; application for permission to marry: CON52-1-4, ‘H’ Nov-Dec 1851.

[16] Ticket of leave: CON41-1-4, image 64; Hobart Town Gazette, 4 March 1851 and 5 April 1851.

[17] Conditional pardon: Hobart Town Gazette, 11 April 1854.

[18] Launceston Examiner, 3 May 1859.

[19] Launceston Examiner, 2 October 1859.

[20] Tribune (Hobart), 19 September 1878.

[21] Hobart Mercury, 21 September 1878.

[22] ‘Sick or hurt’ – see Folio 89, ADM 101/7/1 as per ‘Research’ notes for Frances Francis (ID 11882).





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For academic referencing (suggestion only) Database: [http address], FCRC Female Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land database, entry for xxxx ID no xxx, accessed [date].

For academic referencing (suggestion only) Website:  Female Convicts Research Centre Inc., accessed [date] from [http address].