ESSY MARKHAM

(John William Dare, 1852)

by Don Bradmore

 

Essy Markham arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) as a convict in May 1852.[1] In the previous year, she had been convicted at Wicklow, Ireland, of stealing wearing apparel and sentenced to transportation for seven years. She was twenty-seven years old and single. Her life had not been easy. Her convict documents reveal that she had been born in a foundling home in Dublin and had grown up without family support. She had come to adulthood at the time of the Great Famine in Ireland, the terrible catastrophe which led to the deaths of over a million people and saw more than two million flee the country. By the time of her transportation, she had been ‘on the town’ – that is, working as a prostitute – for four years and had been arrested more than a dozen times for offences including theft, drunkenness, destruction of property and threatening to do bodily harm. Not surprisingly, she was quite troublesome during her early years in VDL. However, soon after the expiry of her sentence, she met a man with whom she appears to have lived happily, gave birth to a son and was never in trouble with the law again. She died at Irish Town at the age of seventy in 1896 when, possibly frail and ill, she fell into a shallow stream and drowned.

This is Essy’s story:

On 16 January 1851, Essy (or Esther) Markham, then twenty-six years of age, was convicted at the Court of Petty Sessions in the city of Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland, of the theft of a cloak, a bonnet and part of a wrapper (a loose robe worn as a dressing gown) and sentenced to transportation for seven years. The court had heard that that had not been her first offence. In fact, she had had thirteen previous convictions. After the trial, she was taken to Wicklow Gaol to await transfer to Dublin from where, eventually, she would be shipped to the other side of the world. Upon admission to the prison, it was noted of her that she was of ‘character and habits bad’, that her ‘motive of crime was to support an idle, vicious course of life’ and that she had ‘lived in a state of crime for several years.’ Her previous convictions were listed as ‘breaking windows six times’, ‘once stealing cabbage’, ‘once trespass on lands’, ‘four times drunkenness’ and ‘once threatening to do bodily harm’.[2]

Essy was no stranger to gaol. She had served short prison terms, at Wicklow and elsewhere, before. Because Wicklow Gaol registers prior to 1846 have not been located, the year of her first prison term has not been verified. However, the available records show that, when she was committed there on 8 July 1846 – five years before she was transported to VDL – it was for her fifth conviction. On that occasion, she served twenty days in prison after being found guilty of breaking two panes of glass in a shop window, valued at two shillings.[3]

Between that gaol term in July 1846 and her transportation to VDL in December 1851, Essy was imprisoned for offences in Ireland on at least another six occasions. On 10 August 1846, just a day or two after her release from her 8 July charge, she was tried at the Bray Petty Sessions with breaking a pane of glass in the window of a dwelling house. Ordered to pay a one shilling fine and costs of two shillings or to spend another two calendar months in prison, she chose the latter. She was released on 3 October that year.[4] On 22 December 1846, with an accomplice named Mary Murry, she was charged at the Newtown Mt Kennedy Petty Sessions with ‘maliciously’ breaking the window of the home of a man named George Nevin. She was ordered to pay two shillings in damages as well as a fine of ten shillings, with costs of another two shillings, or to spend two more months in gaol. Again, she chose the latter option and was not released until 24 February 1847.[5] On 10 November 1847, she was charged with being ‘disorderly’ at Kingstown. She was offered the choice of a fine of two shillings and sixpence or a week’s gaol at Dublin-Kilmainham Prison. Once more she chose the gaol term.[6] On 20 February 1848, she was found guilty at the Bray Petty Sessions of the theft of some cabbage, valued at one shilling and fourpence. She was gaoled for two months and discharged on 19 April 1848.[7] On 29 December 1848, she was gaoled for seven weeks with hard labour after being found guilty at Enniskerry Petty Sessions of breaking glass windows. She was released on 19 April 1848.[8] On 15 September 1849, she was found guilty of ‘wilfully and maliciously’ breaking one pane of glass in the Barrack window at Newtown Mt Kennedy. She was sent to gaol for two months with hard labour but was discharged ‘on bail on order of the Queen’s bench’ on 16 October.[9]

The striking feature of Essy’s criminal history to this stage, of course, was her partiality for breaking windows. Unfortunately, the prison registers do not provide the reasons for her actions in that regard. What could it have been that impelled her to act in that way?

One possible reason is that she was simply seeking attention. Experts in the field of adult attention-seeking define that form of behaviour as ‘a conscious or unconscious attempt to become the centre of attention or to gain validation or admiration’. They argue that such behaviour may be driven by jealousy, low self-esteem or loneliness.[10] Born in a Foundling Home in Dublin, and raised in institutions, Essy had never known the love and care of parents or other relatives.[11] The notoriety she received after breaking windows may have helped to provide her with lost attention and to reassure her of her worthiness. Perhaps, too, it was her way of overcoming loneliness, of forging her connection to a group, of giving her a sense of belonging and of earning for herself the admiration of those with whom she associated.[12]

It is possible, too, that Essy’s window-smashing behaviour had a political rather than a personal motive. She had come to adulthood at an exceedingly difficult time in Ireland. In 1845, when she was about nineteen, the ‘Great Famine’ had descended upon Ireland, due in large part to the failure in successive years of the potato crop. For almost a century, the nutritious potato, relatively easy to grow in the Irish soil, had been a staple crop in Ireland, and much of the population, and especially the poor – who were largely subsistence farmers - had come to depend on it for their diet. By 1847, the worst year of the famine, as many as three million people were receiving rations from soup kitchens set up by charitable institutions. It is estimated that about a million Irish people died from starvation or famine-related diseases during the famine years and that more than two million others had migrated to the United States, the Australian colonies and elsewhere. By 1851, when the blight which had been affecting the potato crop had run its course, the population of Ireland had fallen from almost eight and a half million to six and a half million. Compounding the crisis was the social and political structure in Ireland at the time. Since the 1820s, rich and greedy land-owners, most of them absentee English landlords, had been subdividing their properties to such an extent that forty-five percent of their Irish tenants' holdings consisted of fewer than five acres. Although rents were as much as a hundred percent higher than for similar plots in England, tenants had no choice but to pay the rent or be evicted and starve to death. Being evicted usually meant that overseers acting for the landlords - often accompanied by a bailiff, a sheriff and a police or military escort - not only ejected tenants forcefully from their homes but also commonly burned the dwellings to the ground to prevent them from being re-occupied. Frequently, this led to violent resistance on the part of the tenants and to revenge - in the form of property destruction, physical assault and even murder - being exacted upon those responsible. [13] What involvement, if any, Essy had in violence of that kind is unknown but it is interesting to note that it was the window of a police barracks that she had broken when gaoled in September 1849.[14]

Perhaps the most likely motive for Essy’s many window-breaking offences is one suggested in the literature of many groups – from suffragettes of the early twentieth century to insurgent groups in developing nations in more recent times – that property destruction is an effective, and even essential, part of their struggle. They argue that such damage can punish or pressure opponents by inflicting an economic cost, that it can help to mobilise the support of like-minded others, that it can demonstrate that the ruling forces are not invincible and, most importantly, that, in conveying a rejection of the prevailing order, it allows people to imagine an alternative.[15]         

It seems improbable, however, that Essy was acting on behalf of any particular group. For her, breaking windows was more likely to have been spontaneous and opportunistic acts of vandalism or bravado, born out of frustration, anger, envy and boredom, and possibly fuelled by alcohol. Like many other powerless individuals, perhaps, she was striking out against the institutions which controlled her, attempting to show in her own way that she refused to be trampled on by the forces which ruled her life. In any event, Essy’s trial and conviction in January 1851, and her transportation to VDL shortly afterwards, brought an end to her window-breaking behaviour. She was never charged with that offence again.

Late in 1851, Essy was put aboard the vessel John William Dare which, with Thomas Walters as master and Robert W. Clarke as surgeon-superintendent, 172 female prisoners and a number of their children, sailed from Dublin on 28 December that year.[16] Of interest is the list of clothing with which she was issued before departure: “2 x chemises, 2 x caps, 2 x aprons, 1 x handkerchief, 1 x wrapper, 2 x petticoats, 2 pairs of stockings, 1 pair of shoes, 1 x bonnet, 1 x cloak, 1 x bag.”[17] (Was Essy able to see the irony in being issued with this amount of clothing after having been sentenced to transportation for seven years for stealing much less?)

At Hobart, Essy was described as being a little over five feet (about 154cm) tall, with a fresh complexion, black hair and blue eyes. She was twenty-seven years old and single. She could both read and write. She was a Protestant.[18] Surgeon-superintendent Clarke was able to report that she had been ‘well-conducted’ throughout the voyage.[19]

Soon after disembarkation, she was taken to the Brickfields Hiring Depot in Hobart where, having been allocated the convict trade of nurse-girl/needle woman, she was to await assignment to a settler as a servant. Within days, she had been employed by a Captain Miller of Campbell Street but was there for less than eight weeks before she absconded. Soon apprehended, and brought before a magistrate on 11 August 1852, she was sentenced to six months’ gaol with hard labour.[20]     

That was to be the first of four occasions on which Essy absconded from the home of her employer. In 1852, she was sentenced to twelve months’ gaol with hard labour for absconding again. In 1854, was she punished with an eighteen-month gaol term, with hard labour, for the same offence and ordered to undergo a period of eighteen months’ probation before being eligible for assignment once more. In 1856, she was imprisoned for absconding yet again, this time for two months; the ticket of leave she had been granted a little earlier was revoked. Fortunately, Essy had only one more charge brought against her before her sentence expired. In September 1856, she was sentenced to three months’ gaol for being absent without leave. In April 1857, she was issued with a conditional pardon. She was a free woman again.[21]

At about this time, Essy met a former convict, Thomas Ribbon, who had been in VDL since his arrival per Blenheim (4) in October 1851.[22] Two years earlier, he had been convicted in County Galway, Ireland, of stealing a cow. Although that was his first offence, he had been sentenced to transportation for ten years. Thirty-seven years old when he arrived in the colony, he had been forced to leave a wife and two children behind in Ireland. Apart from one minor offence, in July 1854, when he was charged with misconduct for being out after hours and ordered to spend five days in solitary confinement, his conduct in VDL was exemplary. In November 1854, he was granted a ticket of leave and in August of the following year was issued with a conditional pardon.[23]

In 1859, Essy gave birth to a son, John Samuel Ribbon.[24] Although it is probable that she and Thomas were living together as husband and wife at that time, they did not marry for another seventeen years. The wedding took place at St John’s Church, Franklin, Tasmania, on 11 September 1876. The parish register described the bride as a fifty-year-old ‘spinster’ and ‘housekeeper’ and the groom as a fifty-nine-year-old ‘widower’ and ‘farmer’. It seems that they had elected to wait until after the death of Ribbon’s wife in Ireland before marrying.[25]

The marriage, in which both partners seemed to live contented lives, appears to have been a good one. Neither Essy or Thomas was ever in trouble with the law again.

Thomas passed away at the age of sixty-six, at Irish Town in the northeast of the state where he and Essy had been farming for some years, in August 1883. The cause of his death was inflammation of the liver. The informant to the death certificate was his son John. Shortly before his death, Thomas had prepared a will, leaving all his assets, amounting to about fifty pounds, to Essy.[26]

Notwithstanding that, there is evidence to suggest that Essy struggled financially after her husband’s death.[27] On 17 October 1895, she was admitted to the Pauper Establishment at New Town, Hobart, and not discharged until 23 December that year.[28] She returned to her home at Irish Town where she lived with her son who, by this time, had married and had a young family. Tragically, she was accidentally drowned there a few months later. On 14 February 1896, The Hobart Mercury reported her death in this way: 

On Friday … an old lady named Esther Ribbon, aged 70, was found drowned at Irish Town in a creek near the township. It appears that between 5 and 6 pm she left her house to fetch some water for tea. Seeing that she did not return, her grandson was sent to look for her, and found deceased lying on the bank with her head and shoulders in the water. Assistance was obtained, but life was found to be extinct. She had evidently been dead for some time, and the body was quite cold. Deceased was subject to occasional fainting fits, and it was supposed that while stooping down to fill the bucket she was seized with one, and fell forward into the water, which was only 10 inches deep. There being no sign of a struggle or foul play, an inquest was not considered necessary. The deceased was a very old resident in the district. The funeral took place on the 16th, and was well attended.[29]

It is impossible to feel anything other than sadness for the way in which Essy, possibly frail and in poor health, met her death. However, it is pleasing to think that, in her final years, she had found a measure of happiness that, almost certainly, would have been impossible for her in Ireland. Her life there had been dreadful and the prospects for any improvement in her situation were abysmal. Nor had the seven years of her sentence of transportation been easy. However, in finding a man who had obviously cared for her in the thirty years of their marriage, and with the support of her son, she had been able to turn her life around. Like a great many other females who were transported to VDL in the convict era, she had made a small but valuable contribution to the development of a new nation.

 

[1] Conduct record: CON41-1-33, image 126; description list: CON19-1-10, image 86; indent: CON15-1-7, images 230 and 231; police no. 1354; FCRC ID: 7055.

[2] Wicklow Prison General Register, 1848-1880, Book no. 1/41/1, item 3 – via findmypast  as per ‘Research Notes’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au; CON41-1-33, image 126.

[3] Wicklow Prison General Register, 1846-1851, Book no. 1/41/2, item 4; see also old Registry, p.187, No.137 – via ‘Research Notes’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au;

[4] Wicklow Prison General Register, 1846-1851, Book no. 1/41/2, item 4, via ‘Research Notes’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[5] Wicklow Prison General Register, 1846-1851, Book no. 1/41/2, item 4, via ‘Research Notes’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[6] Dublin-Kilmainham Prison General Register 1845-1848, Book no. 1/10/7, item 5, via ‘Research Notes’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[7] Wicklow Prison General Register, 1846-1851, Book no. 1/41/2, item 4, via ‘Research Notes’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[8] Wicklow Prison General Register, 1846-1851, Book no. 1/41/2, item 4, via ‘Research Notes’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[9] Wicklow Prison General Register, 1846-1851, Book no. 1/41/2, item 1, via ‘Research Notes’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[10] https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/attention-seeking-behavior

[11] Wicklow Prison General Register, 1848-1880, Book no. 1/41/1, item 3, via ‘Research Notes’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au; see also CON15-1-7, images 230 and 231.

[12] https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/attention-seeking-behavior

[13] Dorney, John. (2016). ‘The Great Irish Famine 1845-1851: A Brief Overview’ at  https://www.theirishstory.com/2016/10/18/the-great-irish-famine-1845-1851-a-brief-overview/#.Ys4aEoRBzq4; ‘Great Famine, Ireland’ at  https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Famine-Irish-history; resistance/revenge/murder: see, for instance, the story of convict Mary Connolly in ‘Convict Lives’ at FCRC website, www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[14] See Note 9, above.

[15] https://crimethinc.com/2014/12/10/why-break-windows; Vicky Igilkowski-Broad, Fox, K and Hillel, R. (2018). “’Suffragettes, 1912: ‘Rather Broken Windows than Broken Promises’” at https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ratherroken-windows-broken-promises/.

[16] http://members.iinet.net.au~perthdps/convicts/shipsTAS.html.

[17] Wicklow Prison General Register, 1848-1880, Book no. 1/41/1, item 3 – via findmypast  as per ‘Research Notes’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au; CON41-1-33, image 126.

[18] CON41-1-33, image 126; CON19-1-10, image 86; CON15-1-7, images 230 and 231.

[19] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/docs/ships/JohnWilliamDare1852_SJ.pdf

[20] CON41-1-33, image 126.

[21] CON41-1-33, image 126.

[22] Thomas Ribbon: CON33-1-104, image 264;  

[23] CON41-1-33, image 126; ticket of leave: The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston), 11 November 1854, p.8; conditional pardon: The Hobart Town Advertiser, 15 November 1854, p.2.

[24] Registration of birth not located; Thomas Ribbon acknowledged his son in his will - see AD960/1/17, no. 3292, pages 1 and 2 at https://stors.tas.gov.au/AD960-1-17-3292; son John Samuel Ribbon was the informant to death certificates of both Essy and Thomas.

[25] Marriage: RGD37/1/35, no 103, Franklin.

[26] Thomas Ribbon, Will: AD960/1/17, no. 3292, pp. 1 and 2; death: The Mercury (Hobart), 2 April 1887, p.1.

[27] In her will, AD960-1-23, no. 5115, dated October 1896, Essy left her total assets – one pound – to her son.

[28] Tasmanian Police Gazette: POL709/1 via www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[29] Essy, death: RGD35/1/65, no 561, Port Cygnet; The Mercury (Hobart), 18 February 1896, p.2.

 

 

 


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