HANNAH (ANN) CUNNINGHAM
By Helen Ménard
We are only able to get but a small glimpse into Hannah’s life. There are far more questions than answers in her story. More shadow than light; more illusion than definition. What we can piece together of her life's journey resembles an unfinished and tattered jigsaw. Nonetheless, her place in society, albeit elusive and ill defined, deserves its mark on the map of history.
What we do know is that Hannah was an elderly woman when she was transported from England to Van Deimen’s Land (VDL) at the age of 61. Of the 12,500 female convicts transported to VDL between 1803 and 1853, only 34 were 60 or older and only four were over 70. Why would any government subject its elderly and vulnerable citizens to such treatment?
Swiss asserts the Transportation Act of Great Britain had a very clear economic motive.
The British wanted to beat the French to colonise Australia because it was rich in timber and flax. It was also social engineering in that the British government wanted to remove ‘the unsightly poor’ from their streets.
The convict men were transported first and soon outnumbered women nine to one in Australia. You can’t have a colony without women so the female convicts were specifically targeted by the British government as ‘tamers and breeders’.
Well beyond the age of breeding, was Hannah simply one of the ‘unsightly poor’?
Given her stated age on transportation, Hannah was born around 1774 in Newry, Armagh and Down, Ireland (now Northern Ireland). Transported under the name Hannah Cunningham, an entry in her conduct records states ‘real name McLane’. Other records suggest that, at various times, she also went by the name of Fletcher. There appear to be no matching birth records for Ann or Hannah McLane in Ireland or Northern Ireland nor are there any relevant birth records for a Hannah Cunningham in Ireland.
This is not surprising as many Irish records were lost when, two days into the Irish Civil War in 1922, a massive explosion destroyed the Public Records Office attached to Dublin’s Four Courts and with it hundreds of years of documented history.
Was McLane Hannah’s single or married name? Was Cunningham Hannah’s single or married name? Was McLane an unrelated alias? Was Fletcher her married name or an unrelated alias? Given her age, had she been married more than once or in more than one relationship? Cunningham was a very common name in Ireland as was Fletcher in England so definitive identification is difficult.
The early years
And so, Hannah’s early years remain a mystery.
Why and when did Hannah leave Ireland? Was her family caught up in the violence and aftermath of the Irish Rebellion when in June 1797, fighting broke out near her birthplace in County Down and was followed by the destruction of many farms and houses by way of reprisal against the rebels?
Whether Hannah married in Ireland or England is unknown. The evidence suggests that once in England, for some time at least, Hannah travelled under the name Fletcher.
Transportation records indicate she was widowed with two children. The exact identity of either her husband or children or where they were born is unknown. Were these events ever recorded or were her records among those destroyed?
Life in England
Nonetheless, by 1832 Hannah had obviously moved from Ireland to England.
In March of 1832 she was charged in the Lent Assizes, Durham as Anne Fletcher (aged 56) for theft of shoes at Sunderland and sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour. By her next court appearance in 1834, in the Midsummer Sessions, Durham she was Ann Cunningham alias Fletcher. She was again convicted of theft of shoes and, with a previous conviction for a felony, was sentenced to 2 months’ imprisonment.
In September 1834 Hannah was committed to the County Gaol in Durham and on 13 October 1834 was convicted of stealing two silk handkerchiefs in the township of Hetton-le-Hole (about half way between Sunderland and Durham) the property of William and Edward Crooks. She appeared as Hannah Cunningham alias Ann Cunningham alias Fletcher (aged 59, widow, late of Ireland) and was sentenced to 7 years’ transportation.
In all her appearances before the courts (1832-34) the name McLane was never mentioned.
Was Hannah still married at this time? When did her life start falling apart? Where were her children? Were these really her first transgressions with the law?
Hannah Cunningham, aged 61 and a widow, was transported from England to VDL aboard the Hector arriving on 20 October 1835 along with 133 other female convicts. Her behaviour on board was described as ‘well behaved’. There is no indication in the records whether or not her children accompanied Hannah to VDL, although it is more than likely, given her age, they would have been adults.
If we were to assume that, arriving as a widow, Cunningham was her married name and therefore McLane her maiden name, there appear to be no relevant marriage records for Ann or Hannah McLane to a Cunningham or Fletcher in England for the period 1790-1830. Nor are there any relevant online marriage records for Ann or Hannah McLane in Ireland or Northern Ireland or any definitive marriage records in Ireland for Fletcher and Cunningham from 1785-1830.
Apart from official records, once in the colony, Hannah was almost always known as Ann Cunningham and does not appear anywhere as McLane or Fletcher.
In and out of the Cascades
On arrival in VDL in late 1835, Hannah was assigned to R. Willis Esquire but only a few months later, in April 1836, she had been reassigned to a Mr Hewlins. Sadly, Hannah’s pattern of behaviour over the next six years meant that she was reassigned on a regular basis and was under the supervision of no less than thirteen different ‘masters’. For a short time in 1836-37 she was assigned to the Orphan School.
Of her 24 recorded offences from April 1836 to December 1841, 23 were for drunkenness and six of those for also being absent without leave or staying out after hours. She was admonished and reprimanded on four occasions and then returned to her current service. Her other punishments, all served at the Cascades Female Factory, ranged from four to ten days in a cell on bread and water to one month hard labour at the wash tub to two months’ imprisonment with hard labour.
Was Hannah’s life so miserable that she only found relief in the ‘demon drink’? Or did she find comfort and companionship in the confines of the Cascades as a preferred alternative to life under her assignees?
Permission for Ann Cunningham (Hector) to marry Stewart Currie (free) was approved on 8 September 1836 but there is no record that this marriage ever took place. Stewart arrived in NSW aboard the Guildford in January 1812 having been tried in Durham Assizes, England on 21 August 1810 and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation. He was then transferred to Hobart aboard the Ruby along with eighty other male convicts arriving in VDL in March 1812. Stewart committed a series of offences from 1816-1831 despite receiving his certificate of freedom in September 1824. A tailor, born in Glasgow, Scotland he was 38 when he arrived in VDL. This made him the same age as Hannah and both were immigrants to England but, even with some shared history, maybe at this late stage of their lives marriage was not for either of them.
Female convicts transported to VDL from 1813-1842 were treated under the assignment system whereby each convict was assigned as unpaid domestic labour to a ‘master’. The aim of the system was to encourage reform through a system of rewards and indulgences, such as the ticket of leave, which permitted the holder to work for any employer for wages and to choose their own residence. Generally, those women transported for seven years received a ticket of leave after four. Unfortunately, Hannah’s experiences never earned her a ticket of leave.
But Hannah did receive her certificate of freedom on 16 October 1841. She was finally a free woman but, unhappily, life did not free her. Less than a year later, in June 1842, she was charged with ‘being an idle and disorderly person’ and committed to the House of Correction (Cascades Female Factory) for two months. Was this ‘going home’ for Hannah?
On 29 February 1844, her appearance before the Hobart Court of Quarter Sessions was reported as follows:
Ann Cunningham, a poor decrepit old woman sixty-nine years of age, was charged with stealing on the 16th of February, a fife of the value of 3s, the property of James McCarthy.
The prosecutor stated that being a fifer by profession, he attended at the Travellers' Rest in Goulburn street [sic], on the evening of the 16th February, to entertain the inmates with a tune or two. Having occasion to leave the room, he put his fife down, and when he came back the fife was gone!
Constable Daley took the prisoner in charge for drunkenness about ten o'clock the same night, and found the fife in her hand.
The prisoner declared that she was quite innocent of the charge: she trod upon the fife, in the street, and thinking it was a piece of stick, took it up, and carried it with her.
The jury found her Guilty, but recommended her to mercy, upon what grounds was not stated.
Despite the jury’s recommendation for mercy, Hannah (Ann) found herself back in the Cascades for a term of 12 months’ imprisonment. Could it be she was not unhappy with the court’s sentence?
A short time after her release, she was again before the court on 22 May 1845 and fined 5 shillings for drunkenness.
On 15 November 1845, Hannah (Ann) had once again attracted the attention of the law and appeared before the court whereupon she was described, again, as ‘a decrepit old woman, with no visible means of subsistance, [and] was convicted of stealing a tumbler from Mr. Syke's public-house on the New Wharf.’ She was sentenced to imprisonment for twelve months. A somewhat hefty sentence for stealing a glass! But was it blessing in disguise for Ann?
The last published ‘sighting’ for Hannah (Ann) was in October 1848 when, aged 74, she had the following conversation with the court:
“Ann Cunningham, your Worship,” Said the officer in attendance, “can't pay the fine of five shillings for being drunk and disorderly on Saturday night last, and she wants a week allowed to pay it in.” “Yes, your Worship,” replied Ann, most respectfully bending her body in imitation of a curtessy [sic], “if you will only grant me one week, you may depend upon the money being forthcoming.” Mr. Gunn's memory was too powerful for Ann's elocution, for his rejoinder was “Oh no! You have been here so often that 1 cannot think of such a thing, besides you only came out a day or two back.” Ann attempted a reply, but was marched off to her old quarters for fourteen days.
Clearly, from the court’s comments, she had not long emerged from her ‘old quarters’ (presumably the Cascades) which were quite possibly ‘home’ for Ann.
In the end
There is no recorded death for Hannah (Ann) in Tasmania and it would seem that she was as elusive in death as she was in birth. There is no record of her having been buried in the paupers’ graves or having been an inpatient at the General Hospital Hobart.
Despite what would appear to have been a life on the streets, largely ‘under the influence’, she lived a relatively long life. Was life always this hard for Hannah? What happened in her first fifty years before she appeared on the legal landscape in England? Did she ever see her children?
In the end, it seems Hannah simply dissolved into the mist from which she had emerged a short sixteen years beforehand. Her life was a testimony to the failures of a class ridden English society that placed no value on the lives of its poor and underprivileged.
 Alexander, Alison, ed., The Companion to Tasmania History, Snowden, Dianne, “Female Convicts” (2005), Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, University of Tasmania.
 FCRC database
 Transportation Act 1717 Great Britain (4 Geo. 1 c. 11); Transportation Act 1768 (8 Geo. 3 c. 15)
 Swiss, Deborah J., The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women, (2010), The Berkley Publishing Group, London. Extracted from
 FCRC database; LIB TAS: Names Index: CON19/1/13 p141 DI 155
 FCRC database; LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/1 DI 370
 FCRC database: research notes / findmypast.com.uk
 nidirect.gov.uk/campaigns/public-record-office-northern-ireland-proni; familysearch.org
 The Irish Times, Friday 13 August 2021: The census records for the whole of the 19th century going back to the first in 1821 were incinerated. Chancery records, detailing British rule in Ireland going back to the 14th century and grants of land by the crown, were also destroyed along with thousands of wills and title deeds. The records of various chief secretaries to Ireland and centuries of Church of Ireland parish registers vanished in the fire. The list of documents which were stored in the office’s record treasury departments are contained in a single manuscript which is 300 pages long and dates back seven centuries.
 LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/1 DI 370
 The Assizes was a regional court circuit held twice-yearly at Lent (March/April) and Trinity (July/August). They could also be held in winter if there were a large number of cases. On the whole, Assizes dealt with the more serious offences such as murder, rape, infanticide, felonies, highway robbery, coining, forgery, vagrancy and witchcraft. However, just like the Quarter Sessions, they were also places where civil actions, often relating to issues around land or money, were heard. Most of the counties of England were grouped together into six Assizes circuits, which included Home, Midland, Norfolk, Northern, Oxford and Western. The exceptions were London and Middlesex, where trials were held at the Old Bailey or Middlesex Sessions House, and Cheshire, Durham and Lancashire, who did not join the Assizes circuit until the 19th century. https://ourcriminalancestors.org/assizes/
 One source suggests this was attached to a prison sentence although CON40 only refers to one term of imprisonment. LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/1; FCRC database: research notes / findmypast.com.uk
 LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/1; FCRC database: research notes / findmypast.com.uk
 LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/1 DI 370
 familysearch.org; findmypast.com; It seems Fletcher was a very common name in England and there are many possible marriages from 1790-1820 that could have been Hannah (nee Cunningham) and as many more possible deaths that could have been her husband (Fletcher). [findmypast.com] There are also many possible deaths for a male Cunningham in England and Ireland for the period 1800-1830.
 Ibid; see also FCRC database / research notes
 See text under paragraph ‘Freedom’
 LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/1 DI 370;
 LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/1 DI 370; FCRC database
 FCRC database / colonial offences
 The Cascades Female Factory operated in South Hobart from 1828 to 1856. After it ceased operation as a female factory in 1856, it continued as a gaol under the administration of local authorities from 1856 until 1877.
 At the Cascades Female Factory, washing was carried out for the colonial hospital, military hospital, military barracks, ordinance store, orphan schools, penitentiary and mental asylum, in addition to the Factory itself. The washing included all manner of clothes, bedding and towels. https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/punishments#
 LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/1 DI 370; FCRC database
 LIB TAS: Names Index: CON52/1/1 p25
 LIB TAS: Names Index: CON31/1/6 p2 DI 7; CON13/1/1 p19 DI 22; there is no record of his offence or his marital status. See also convictrecords.com.au
 LIB TAS: Names Index: CON31/1/6 p2 DI 7
 DHT database; CON23/1/1; TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser (Tas.: 1821 -1825) Fri 3 Sep 1824 p1 Classified Advertising
 DHT database; CON23/1/1
 Alexander, Alison, ed., The Companion to Tasmania History, Snowden, Dianne, “Female Convicts” (2005), Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, University of Tasmania
 Ibid; TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston, Tas.: 1835 -1880) Sat 9 Oct 1841 p4 Advertising
 TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas.: 1828 -1857) Tues 28 Jun 1842 p3 Hobart Town Police Report
 TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas.: 1828 -1857) Tues 5 Mar 1844 p4 Quarter Sessions
 LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/1 DI 370; FCRC database
 TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: The Courier (Hobart, Tas.: 1840 -1859) Sat 24 May 1845 p3 Hobart Town Police Report
 TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas.: 1828 -1857) Tues 18 Nov 1845 p4 Quarter Sessions; LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/1 DI 370; FCRC database
 TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston, Tas.: 1835 -1880) Wed 1 Nov 1848 p130 Police Report
 There is no indication where this offence took place and Ann seemed to spend her time around Hobart. This article did not appear in a Hobart publication but simply because it was in a Launceston publication doesn’t necessarily mean the offence took place there.