[Providence II (1), 1821]


Don Bradmore


One of the most interesting of the stories of the 13,500 (approx.) female convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) between 1812 and 1853 is that of Elizabeth (or, more commonly, Eliza) Callaghan.[1] In September 1820, at the age of seventeen, she had been convicted of passing a counterfeit banknote in London, England, and sentenced to death.[2] Later, the sentence had been commuted to one of transportation for fourteen years and she had arrived in Hobart the following year. In 1823, she met (and later married) John Batman, soon to  hailed as a hero for his capture of the notorious bushranger Matthew Brady and afterwards to become even more prominent for his role in the infamous ‘Black War’, the violent conflict between settlers and aborigines in VDL from the mid-1820s to 1832, and for the establishment of the settlement at Port Philip, which was to become the city of Melbourne in the neighbouring colony of Victoria. Unfortunately, the marriage was to end acrimoniously.[3] After Batman’s death, reportedly from syphilis, in 1839, Eliza married his clerk, William Willoughby, but that marriage, like the first, ended in sadness. In 1852, described then as ‘a somewhat abandoned character’, she was murdered at Geelong, Victoria. She was forty-nine years old. Although she has been mentioned frequently in books and articles about Batman, relatively little has been written about her exclusively.

Little is known with certainty about Eliza Callaghan’s early life except that she was born at Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, in 1802.[4] In the prestigious Australian Dictionary of Biography, she is referred to as a woman ‘of uncertain origins’ whose surname was probably ‘Thompson’ rather than ‘Callaghan’.[5] Other sources suggest that she was from a wealthy, land-owning family but that, in her childhood, her father had lost favour with his parents and had fallen upon hard times. From the age of seventeen, Eliza had been forced to make her own way in the world. She was said to be ‘beautiful, elegant, fiery and learned’.[6] 

By early 1820, Eliza was in London, England, where she had soon fallen into bad company. On 18 September of that year, she and two male accomplices stood trial at the Old Bailey for passing a counterfeit bank note ‘with intent to defraud the Governor and Bank of England, they well-knowing it to be forged.’ The court was told that, on 10 June 1820, the prisoners had bought liquor at the ‘Lord Hood’ public-house in Limehouse and had attempted to pay for it with a one-pound note. The publican, suspecting the note to be counterfeit, had called the police and all three had been arrested. At that time, they had attempted to destroy a small bundle of similarly-forged notes which they had in their possession. The jury had returned a verdict of guilty against all three. Eliza, who had confessed her guilt, did not speak in her own defence. She was sentenced to death but the sentence was later commuted to transportation for fourteen years.[7]   

After the trial, Eliza was held in gaol for almost twelve months in England before being put aboard the convict vessel Providence which, with James Herd as Master, David Reid as Surgeon-Superintendent and one hundred and three female prisoners, sailed from England on 13 June 1821 and reached Hobart on 18 December that year. There, fifty-three of the women, including Eliza, were disembarked, the remainder being taken on to Sydney.[8]

The report from the gaol in which Eliza had been kept in England before her departure had described her as ‘bad’ and, as could have been expected perhaps, she was troublesome from the beginning of her time in VDL.[9]

On 17 March 1822 – just three months after her arrival – she was charged with being ‘drunk and disorderly’ while assigned as a servant to a Mr. Petchy of Hobart. She was ordered to spend a week in prison, during which time she was to wear the humiliating ‘iron collar’, intended to remind her forcefully that she was a prisoner of the crown and subject to its laws. In addition, she was to sit in the stocks twice, for a period of two hours on both occasions.[10] However, this did not deter Eliza from further misdemeanours. Twice in the following year, while still assigned to Petchy, she was punished for being absent from her service without permission, on the first occasion being sent to the stocks for another three-hour session and, on the second, having to endure the same humiliating treatment for two hours a day for a week.[11]

The iron collar and the stocks were cruel and degrading punishments. Fortunately, female prisoners were subjected to them relatively infrequently. A search of the database of the Female Convict Research Centre, Hobart, which contains the names of 13,500 (approx.) female convicts, reveals that, while some women were subjected to one or the other more than once, the stocks were used on only one hundred and forty-three occasions and the iron collar only sixty-four times. By 1840, the authorities had recognized that both modes of punishment were utterly inhumane and had discarded them.[12]

It might well have been the heartless treatment that Eliza had received for her offences that led to her resolve to attempt to escape when the next opportunity arose. That opportunity was not long in coming. In 1824, her Master, Petchy, left VDL on a short visit to England and in his absence, she was assigned to Mr. P, A. Musgrave, the Superintendent of Police at Launceston.  In early 1825, she absconded from her service with Musgrave – and seemed to have vanished completely.[13]

On at least thirteen occasions throughout that year – from late February until late November - the following notice appeared in the Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen's Land Advertiser:

Elizabeth Callaghan, 5 ft. 2½ in. brown hair, brown eyes, 19 years of age, a servant, tried at London Sept. 1820, sentence 14 years, arrived per Providence 1821, native place county of Clare, absconded from the service of P. A. Mulgrave, Esq. —£2 Reward.[14]

Despite the assiduousness of Musgrave’s search, the reward was never collected. Eliza was nowhere to be found. Where could she have gone?

As it happens, Eliza was never far away. She had fled to ‘Kingston’, the grazing property of John Batman in the foothills of Ben Lomond, a mountain in the north-east of the colony only about forty miles (sixty kms) away. Batman, yet to have won the renown in the colony that he was soon to achieve, was just a year older than Eliza. It is believed that the couple had met in 1823 but the circumstances of their meeting are unclear.[15]

Batman had been born the son of a convict in New South Wales in 1801 and had arrived in VDL at the age of twenty in 1821. By 1823, he was leasing grazing land near Hobart, supplying meat to the government stores and making good money. By 1824, he had been granted six hundred acres (243 ha) near Ben Lomond. Described by Brown (1966) as ‘alert and active … sufficiently literate for any practical purpose, sociable, of fine physique … [and] a promising bushman’.[16]

It is possible that Eliza was already pregnant to Batman when she had fled to the sanctuary of his property in early 1825. In any event, the pair were very soon in a loving relationship and, although the date is uncertain, Eliza gave birth to a daughter, Maria, later that year.[17] The child was the first of eight - seven daughters and a son - that the union would produce.

Again, the details are vague but it is obvious that something of the connection between Eliza and Batman was known to the police. Soon after Eliza’s disappearance, Batman had been accused of hiding her and a police constable had been sent to search his property. The constable had later reported that he had seen signs that a woman was, or had been, living there but that he was unable to confirm her identity. Batman was not charged with any offence and the investigation was dropped.[18] 

In the following year, 1826, Batman was catapulted to prominence in VDL when he was credited with the capture of the notorious bushranger, Matthew Brady. In 1820, Brady had been convicted of theft in England and sentenced to transportation for seven years. He had been a recalcitrant prisoner in the colony. After being lashed many times for various offences, he had been sent to the grim penal settlement at remote Macquarie Harbour in 1823 but, with a gang of similarly desperate men, he had escaped the following year. For the next two years, he and his band had created havoc, fighting a number of running battles with government troops and private settlers. Perhaps their most audacious feat had been the capture of the township of Sorell. An increasingly worried government had offered rewards of up to one hundred guineas or, alternatively, three hundred acres (121 ha) of land, with the added inducement of a free pardon for any convict who succeeded in bringing the gang to justice. On the night of 1 April 1826, Batman had spotted what he thought might be Brady’s campfire and had led a small party of citizens to investigate. There, he had found Brady ill and in pain from injuries he had received during his escapades. Batman had had little difficulty in inducing him to surrender and in delivering him to the Launceston gaol the next morning. Later that same month, Brady was tried and, as expected, found guilty. He was hanged a week later.[19]

Whether or not Batman was rewarded financially for Brady’s capture is unclear but there is no doubt that his role in it had attracted the attention of influential people, including the Lieutenant Governor, George Arthur, and that it had earned him ‘official indulgence’ of a kind that was to benefit him in the years to come. In 1828, for instance, when Eliza and Batman married, Arthur, whose consent was required because Eliza was still a convict, saw fit to note that her last offence had been in 1823. There was no mention of the offence she had committed in absconding from Musgrave in 1825, nor any suggestion that she should be returned to her convict service.[20]

On 29 March 1828, Eliza and Batman were married in a ceremony conducted by the Rev. James Norman at St John’s, Launceston. Interestingly, the parish register shows Eliza’s name as ‘Eliza Thompson or Elizabeth Callaghan’. By that time, Eliza had given birth to two more daughters, Lucy in December 1826 and Eliza in November 1827.[21]

While Eliza was busy with the children, Batman had his mind on other things. First, there was the constant threat of convicts who escaped into the bush, became bushrangers and attacked remote homesteads like his. After Brady’s demise, Batman regularly participated in the efforts to round up others.

And then there was the difficult problem of the relations between settlers and aborigines. From the very beginning of settlement of the colony in 1803, there had been trouble. As more and more settlers began to occupy their choice hunting areas for sheep raising, the indigenous people had become increasingly bitter. Settlers had continually harassed them and kidnapping, rape and murder were common. Understandably, the native tribes retaliated by attacking isolated individuals and small groups of travellers. By the 1820s, hostilities had intensified to such a degree that, in late 1828, Lieutenant Governor Arthur had declared martial law and organised the formation of ‘roving parties’ with orders to go in pursuit of the aborigines, to capture their ring leaders and to bring them to trial for their actions. After extracting a promise of a further grant of land from Arthur, Batman had agreed to lead one of the parties. However, this initiative failed - more aborigines were killed than captured – and, in 1830, Arthur had ordered every able-bodied man in the colony to take part in the infamous ‘Black Line’– an armed cordon of men stretching across the entire settled regions of the colony – aimed at driving all of the aborigines out of the bush, herding them from north to south and down to the south-eastern peninsula of the island where a segregated reservation was to be established for them. Again, Batman had played a leading role.[22]

Probably a more important issue for Batman at this time, however, was his need for more land if he were to continue to prosper by supplying much-needed meat to the government to feed the ever-growing convict population. While his property at Ben Lomond covered more than seven thousand acres (2833 ha), it was too rugged to be highly productive. Since 1827, when most of the best land in VDL had already been taken up, Batman had been contemplating moving his entire enterprise across Bass Strait to Port Philip where, according to reports, there was excellent grazing land in abundance. For the next few years, however, his plans to relocate there were thwarted by Arthur and the British Government amid uncertainty about how best to develop that part of the mainland.[23]   

Nevertheless, by June 1835, Batman, in association with other investors and pastoralists – a small band soon to be expanded into the Port Phillip Association - was determined to go. He had already made several reconnaissance trips across Bass Strait, had noted ‘a spot for a village’ - later to become the township of Melbourne - and had outlined the basis of a treaty by which he intended to appease the aboriginal tribes which inhabited the Port Philip district. Throughout the remainder of that year, having arranged shipment and hired additional stockmen and servants, he sold ‘Kingston’ for ten thousand pounds and ferried his entire livestock, equipment, building materials and all else he needed to establish himself across to the mainland. He had left VDL for ever.[24] 

But Batman was not the only one keen to take advantage of the new opportunities which the development of the southern end of the mainland could provide. Among the many who were interested was Launceston businessman, John Pascoe Fawkner. In August 1835, his ship had brought a large party of intending settlers across Bass Strait.[25] Other groups soon followed and within a year of Batman’s arrival, the settlement on the Yarra was a bustling hive of activity.

In April 1836, Batman called for Eliza and the children to join him – and they, too, left for Port Philip. Not long before her departure, Eliza might have been well pleased to see her name listed in the Hobart Town Chronicle as the recipient of a ‘free pardon’.[26] Although it would have meant little to her in practical terms at that stage, it was formal and official recognition that she was now a free woman again. Her convict past was behind her.

At Port Philip, Eliza was re-united with her husband in a new weatherboard dwelling that he had had built for the family at ‘Batman’s Hill’, just north of the main settlement on the Yarra River. It was already surrounded by a garden and the beginnings of an orchard.[27]

By the time of her arrival, Eliza had given birth to four more daughters – Elizabeth Mary in 1829, Ellen in 1831, Adelaide in 1832 and Pelonomena (or Pilenamina) in 1834. John Charles Batman, the couple’s eighth child – and their only son – was born at Port Philip seven months later.[28] To make life easier for Eliza, Batman had hired Miss Caroline Newcomb, a refined young woman who, on medical advice, had emigrated to Hobart Town in 1833, as governess for the children. In addition, there were thirty servants to help with household chores.[29] 

As it happens, however, Eliza’s life was not to be easy at Port Philip as she might have imagined. Upon arrival, she found her husband seriously ill. By July 1836, he was unable to walk without difficulty and by the end of that year, he was so physically weak that he had to be pushed about in a wicker hand-cart. When James Backhouse, the English naturalist and Quaker missionary, visited Melbourne in 1837, he noted that Batman had been ‘much of an invalid’ since the time of his departure from VDL.[30]

Forced to abandon most of his farming activities, Batman set himself up as a merchant, opening a general store and acting as a middleman between local graziers and the VDL government for the supply of meat. Importantly, however, Batman’s financial position was deteriorating as steadily as his health. His capital had been depleted by his purchase at auction of a number of prime allotments, and the erection of buildings on them, in the heart of the new settlement. Moreover, to keep his various enterprises going, he had found it necessary to delegate their operation to paid managers. He had over-borrowed and he had made unsecured loans. With his once-vast empire crumbling, he was left ‘financially defenceless’.[31]

While Eliza continued to maintain that her husband’s ill-health had been caused by his too-frequent exposure to the elements, others were less sympathetic, blaming ‘grog and venery’.[32]   Whatever the case, Batman’s declining vigour and deteriorating financial position were having a deleterious effect on the marriage. Now a ‘thwarted cripple’, and no longer the man she had married, Eliza had turned for companionship and solace to William Willoughby, Batman’s storeman-clerk, and was soon in a close relationship with him.[33] When Batman became aware of this, he threatened to cut Eliza and the children from his will. In an attempt to ameliorate the situation, perhaps, Eliza decided to get away for a time and, in February 1839, she had sailed alone to England, leaving the children in Batman’s care.[34] 

Upon her return the following year, Eliza heard that Batman, close to bankruptcy, had passed away on 6 May 1839, just three months after she had gone.[35] Although there has never been absolute confirmation of it, the cause of his death is thought to have been ‘nasal syphilis’.[36] 

Shortly before his death, Batman had changed his will, leaving Eliza the mere sum of five pounds. Moreover, to recoup money owed to it, the government had confiscated the ‘Batman's Hill’ home. Eliza wrote to Queen Victoria pleading for compensation in recognition of all her husband had done in developing the Port Philip district. Her appeal was unsuccessful.[37]

For the next few years, during a long and complicated series of court battles, Eliza, with the help of Willoughby, contested Batman’s will, attempting to get possession of whatever remained of his assets but most of the property he had owned had already been sold off to cover his debts. The cost of the court actions soon absorbed the balance.[38]

In 1841, Eliza and William Willoughby married at St James’s Church, Melbourne and they settled down together at Geelong.[39]  However, the marriage was not a happy one and, within five years, the pair had parted. Willoughby took himself off to Craigieburn, twenty miles (37 kms) north of Melbourne, where he was to die following a stroke in 1856.[40]

Undoubtedly contributing to Eliza’s unhappiness at the time of the breakdown of her second marriage was the tragic death of her much-loved only son, John Charles, who was accidentally drowned while fishing in the Yarra in 1845.[41] He was eight years old. 

Afterwards, Eliza had been seemingly ‘lost’. According to one report, she had worked as a governess for a time. Another report suggests that she had rented a house in in Autumn Street, Ashby (now Geelong West), at which she ‘used to entertain gentlemen for pleasure’. By that time, she was using the name ‘Sarah Willoughby’ and described as a woman ‘of somewhat abandoned character’.[42]

Shockingly, however, her life was soon to be cut short. On 31 March 1852, she was murdered in her home during an alcohol-fuelled quarrel with acquaintances.[43]

Pointing out that the murder scene presented ‘as horrible an appearance as ever human eyes beheld’, The Argus of 1 April 1842 reported the ‘atrocious’ killing in this way:

Information was given to police … this afternoon that the unfortunate woman was found dead in her house at Ashby … They were informed that a disturbance had taken place between the deceased [and] a woman named Eliza Wilson and one or two men … Police have apprehended the woman … and a man named John Trigg … On searching the woman at the watchhouse [police found] a pound note with fresh blood stains on it … concealed under her arm pit … it has caused a great sensation … [44]

Other reports mentioned that Eliza had been ‘kicked and beaten’ to death in what resembled a ‘bar brawl’.[45] She was about forty-nine years of age.

Strangely, the man and woman who had been arrested following the discovery of Eliza’s body were never brought to trial. In late July 1852, they were discharged by order of a judge on the grounds that they had been in gaol for two sessions without being tried. In a turn of events that appalled many people at the time, the Crown did not appeal the judge’s decision.[46]

Eliza’s remains lie in an unmarked grave at the Geelong Cemetery, her story now largely forgotten and, sadly, likely to be further neglected as controversy about John Batman’s treatment of the aboriginal people in both VDL and Victoria continues to swell and his place in Australia’s early history is re-evaluated.

It is to be hoped that on-going research will provide an even more complete picture of her life.    


[1] CON40-1-1, image 256; FCRC ID: 1126.

[2] https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18200918-57-defend705&div=t18200918-57#highlight

[3] See ‘Eliza Batman’, Geelong Cemeteries Trust at https://www.gct.net.au/eliza-batman/

[4] See ‘John Batman’ by P.L. Brown in Australian Dictionary of Biography at https://adb.anu.edu.au/

[5] As for Note 4, above.

[6] See ‘Elizabeth Callaghan’ as per http://poi-australia.com.au/eliza-batman-nee-Callaghan/ and http://www.founders-storylines.com/mugsheets/convicts/profile/1126/elizaberth­callaghan at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Callaghan

[7] https://www.oldbaileyonline.org, Ref. No: t18200918-57

[8] CON40-1-1, image 256; http://members.iinet.net.au/~perthdps/convicts/shipsTAS.html; the surgeon-superintendent’s journal for this voyage has not been found.

[9] CON40-1-1, image 256.

[10] CON40-1-1, image 256;

[11] CON40-1-1, image 256

[12] ‘Convict Institutions/Punishments’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[13] CON40-1-1, image 256.

[14] Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen's Land Advertiser, 25 February 1825 – 26 November 1825.

[15]  ‘John Batman’ by P.L. Brown in Australian Dictionary of Biography at https://adb.anu.edu.au/

[16] As for Note 15.

[17] See ‘Relations’ in ‘Eliza Callaghan’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au; Maria Batman, baptism, 5 September 1825: RGD32/3959/1830, Launceston.

[18] http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/colonial-melbourne/pioneers/wives-batman-fawkner

[19] https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brady-matthew-1822

[20] As for Note 15, above.

[21] Marriage: RGD36/1/1, no. 1170, Launceston; baptisms: Lucy, RGD32/3596/1830, Launceston; Eliza, RGD32/3597/1830, Launceston.

[22] https://theconversation.com/the-truth-about-john-batman-melbournes-founder-and-murderer-of-the-blacks-1025; https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/arthur-sir-george-1721; https://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/F/Frontier%20Conflict.htm; https://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/A/George%20Arthur.htm

[23] https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batman-john-1752

[24] https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batman-john-1752

[25] https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fawkner-john-pascoe-2037

[26] Hobart Town Chronicle, 23 April 1833, p.4.

[27] https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batman-john-1752

[28] Baptisms: Elizabeth Mary, RGD32/3598/1830, Launceston; Ellen, RGD32/3979/1831, Launceston and RGD32/5879/1834, Campbell Town; Adelaide, RGD5880/183, Campbell Town; Pelonomena (or Pilenamina), RGD32/5881/1834, Campbell Town; John Charles, Vic. Reg: 1837/12229.

[29] https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/newcomb-caroline-elizabeth-2238

[30] https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batman-john-1752; https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/backhouse-james-1728

[31] https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batman-john-1752

[32] https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batman-john-1752

[33] https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batman-john-1752

[34] https://www.gct.net.au/eliza-batman/

[35] Batman, death: Vic. Reg: 3415/1839.

[36] https://www.tasmaniantimes.com/2015/10/john-batman/

[37] https://portphillippioneersgroup.org.au/pppg5jl.htm

[38] https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batman-john-1752

[39] Marriage, Eliza Batman/Willoughby: Vic. Reg: 4328/1841.

[40] Willoughby, death: Vic Reg: 4450/1856.

[41] Death, John Charles Batman: Vic. Reg: 40089/1845.

[42] ‘governess’, ‘somewhat abandoned character’: https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batman-john-1752; ‘entertained gentlemen for pleasure’: https://www.gct.net.au/eliza-batman/

[43] Death: Vic. Reg: 24387/1852.

[44] The Argus (Melbourne), 1 April 1852.

[45] E.F. Ltd. Ed. (1978). Callaghan and Batman: Van Diemen’s land, 1825. Adelaide: Sullivan’s Cove.

[46] The Argus (Melbourne), 27 July 1852.




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