Elizabeth Bidwell was born in 1825, the first daughter and second child of Nicodemus Bidwell and Melley Chamberlain. She was christened on 23 October 1825 at Nether Exe, Devon, England. Nether Exe is a small parish beside the river Exe, 5 miles from Exeter. In 1831 it had a population of 97.[i]

 

Nicodemus was a 25 year old farm labourer at the time of Elizabeth’s birth. His ancestral roots however were far different. He was a descendent of the Bidwell families of Newton St Cyres. Members of the family had once been landholders. Bidwell Barton at Newton St Cyres still carries their name. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries some land near Newton St Cyres was given to Thomas Bidwell, presumably for services rendered. The custom was that land passed from the eldest son to the eldest son, but Thomas Bidwell only had daughters. Richard Quicke married Thomas' daughter Elizabeth and the land passed to the Quicke family. The Quicke family still own the land and are well known for their cheesemaking today.[ii]

 

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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:

 

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Mary Braid could hardly have imagined the dramatic turns her life would take and the social controversy that would emanate from some of her life choices. First born in a large family, her father died when she was only twenty. She married three years later, had a daughter and then her husband died in a work accident before she was thirty. She returned, with her daughter, to live with her widowed mother in the family home. Thereafter, Mary’s life embarked on a path of self-destruction and tragedy that would result in permanent banishment from her homeland.

 

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In 1839, Margaret Brayson was convicted of theft at Liverpool, England, and sentenced to transportation for seven years. She was seventeen years old when she arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) the following year.[1] Three years later, she married emancipist William Jackson, a fifty-nine-year-old widower who had been married twice previously. Despite the big difference in their ages, the marriage appears to have been harmonious, and, between 1844 and 1854, Margaret gave birth to five children. Very shortly after Jackson passed away at the age of seventy-six in 1860, however, Margaret was co-habiting with a former convict Charles Frost, a man with a disreputable past. In 1865, then forty-three years old, she was found dead in her home, her body naked and badly burnt. Frost, who was alleged to have bashed her around the head just hours before she died, set fire to her body and left her to die, was charged with her murder. Some weeks later. to the astonishment of many, he was discharged before trial, the police prosecutor claiming that there was insufficient evidence of his intention to kill.

This is Margaret’s story:

 

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Introduction

Approximately 12,500 female convicts were transported to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) between 1803 and 1853.[1] Of these 782 were transported for life.[2] Sarah was one of these women. Ten percent of the women in this cohort had no offence recorded and, of the remainder, roughly thirty percent were convicted for serious violent crimes. The balance was convicted largely for property offences.[3] Sadly, many of those transported for life did not commit what today would be considered serious offences nor were they repeat offenders.[4]

Was it fair that murderers, arsonists, rapists and recidivist offenders (some of whom had been pardoned from execution) were lumped into the same basket as those who committed non violet crimes of theft, burglary, house breaking and the like, often for reasons of survival and many of whom were first time offenders? Of course, this is consistent with the prevailing government policy to populate the colonies with young women of child bearing age,[5] but unjust nonetheless.

As far as we know, Sarah was a first time offender and was convicted of stealing £12 and a hat valued at 20 shillings.[6] At the time, this represented the cost of two cows or eighteen stone of wool or sixty days pay for a skilled tradesman. It is the modern day equivalent of approximately £725.[7] For this she was sentenced to spend the rest of her life in a developing and often brutal colony thirteen thousand miles away from her home and family. Was it not slavery?

 

[1] Alexander, Alison, ed., The Companion to Tasmania History, Snowden, Dianne, “Female Convicts” (2005), Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, University of Tasmania.

[2] FCRC database

[3] FCRC database

[4] Alexander, Alison, ed., The Companion to Tasmania History, Snowden, Dianne, “Female Convicts” (2005), Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, University of Tasmania.

[5] Ibid

[6] Old Bailey t18350406-1007

[7] https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/

 

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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].