Tragically, Agnes’ story is not unique. If a society’s morality is to be measured by the way it treats its most defenceless members, Agnes’ story highlights a society at its lowest moral ebb. The fact that her case was not an isolated one makes her society’s actions even more heinous.
Agnes was an elderly woman (most probably in her sixties) when she was transported to Van Deimen’s Land (VDL). Of the 12,500 female convicts transported to VDL between 1803 and 1853, approximately 34 were 60 or older and only four were over 70. Why would any government subject its elderly and vulnerable citizens, guilty only of minor crimes, to such a fate?
Swiss argues 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’.
Agnes was dragged away from her fundamental social responsibility of caring for her aged and infirm husband and sent to a colony half a world away simply, it would appear, because she was poor.
We are not privy to the beginning or the end of Agnes’ life but, by recounting her short story in between, it may light up one more star in the night sky.
While it is not difficult to feel sympathy for almost all of the 13,500 (approx.) women who were transported as convicts to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) between 1812 and 1853, the stories of some of the women evoke more pity than others. One of the most pitiful, perhaps, is that of Jane Nottingham. Born at Brimfield, Herefordshire, England, around 1820, she was only six or seven when her mother died and afterwards seems to have had to fend for herself. Before she was in her twenties, she had turned to crime, often with violence. She was imprisoned frequently. Unattractive, unloved, unmarried and unwanted, she was wretchedly unhappy when, in 1851, she was convicted of arson. Sentenced to transportation for her crime, she admitted to being pleased that she was about to be sent away because she would be better off anywhere else than where she was presently. In late 1852, she was put aboard Duchess of Northumberland, the last ship to take female prisoners to VDL before the cessation of transportation, but, tragically, did not even get to set foot on the land to which she had been banished. On 15 February 1853, after only forty days into a voyage that was expected to take about one hundred and fifty, she passed away and was buried at sea.
 Conduct record: CON41/1/37, image 164; Indent 15-1-8, image 100; Police No. 137; FCRC ID: 131653.
Sophia Nightingale was born 17 March 1789 in England, married somebody Graham circa 1809 and then married John Nightingale on 31 August 1818 at St Annes, Liverpool, UK. The marriage record shows Sophia was a widow. On 26 April 1819 Sophia was tried for larceny at Lancaster (Liverpool Borough) Quarter Session, found guilty and sentenced to 7 years transportation. Her police number was 7, she was a housemaid and could not write.
After arriving in Sydney, Sophia and sixty of the other convicts were transferred to the “Princess Charlotte” for the trip to Van Diemen’s Land. Sophia was one of the very early female convicts to have arrived in Hobart Town. The population in 1810 was about 1,300 and this had grown to about 10,000 by 1823.
Sophia’s convict number was 52959, she was 30 years of age and is recorded as having a child with her. The child is Mary Ann Nightingale, born 10 August 1819 whilst Sophia was in prison in England.