(Greenlaw, 1840)


Don Bradmore


Surely one of the most depressing stories among those of the 13,500 (approx.) women transported as convicts to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) between 1812 and 1853 is that of Irish-born Ellen Hanley, one of a number of convict women who were sentenced to transportation on more than one occasion.[1] She had arrived in the colony aboard Greenlaw as a much-troubled youthful offender in July 1844 and died in a Victorian gaol in her sixties in May 1893. Described then as ‘dirty and debilitated’, her entire life had been one of almost unrelieved degradation and misery.[2]

This is her story:

The daughter of Richard and Bridget Hanley (or Hanly) of Limerick, Ireland, Ellen is thought to have been born on 9 May 1826.[3] There are, however, significant discrepancies about her age in her convict documents. Her conduct record and indent both show her age as eighteen upon arrival in VDL but other documentary evidence suggests that she might have been only sixteen.[4]

In 1840, four years before her arrival in VDL, Ellen had been convicted at the Limerick Quarter Sessions of the theft of ‘sundry items of silver plate, men’s wearing apparel and an umbrella’ and sentenced – for the first time - to transportation for seven years.[5] On that occasion, the sentence had been postponed pending consideration of a petition for clemency presented to Lord Viscount Elrington, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, by Ellen’s father, a policeman of the parish of St Michael, Limerick, and supported by a long list of respected members of the local community.[6] Reportedly, Ellen was then only twelve years of age.[7]

Richard Hanley had claimed that he had been shocked by his daughter’s ‘depravity’ but insisted that her crime had been instigated by a more experienced criminal who had taken ‘a base advantage’ of her extreme youth. Subsequent enquiries made by officers of the court, however, revealed that Hanley’s own credibility was dubious. It was soon discovered that he had ‘importuned’ those who had supported his petition to do so and that he had threatened a witness who was about to give evidence against his daughter at her trial. It was believed that both of Ellen’s parents, if they had not actually connived with their daughter in the execution of her thefts, had taken no measures to prevent them. It was well-known, in fact, that they had profited ‘extensively’ by their daughter’s ‘villainy’.[8]

The judge who had sentenced Ellen to transportation had also written to Lord Elrington. He told him that he had not passed sentence on Ellen until after he had made enquiries about her. He had learned that she had been charged with similar offences ‘repeatedly’ in the past but that, rather than commit her for trial, the magistrates who had heard her cases had ordered that she be sent to the ‘old Poor House’ in Limerick in the hope that she might be reformed. Upon release, however, she had resorted to her old ways. The opinion of the judge was that Ellen was ‘an incorrigible thief’. He made it clear that he favoured the idea of her being transported immediately.[9]  

In his mercy, however, Lord Elrington decided that Ellen, described in petition documents as ‘this wasted child’, should be given one more chance. He ordered that, for the time being at least, she should be incarcerated at Grangegorman Prison, Dublin. He requested that the prison matron keep him informed about Ellen’s conduct on a regular basis and decreed that, if there were no improvement, she should be transported on the first available ship.[10]

For the next two years, Ellen was held at Grangegorman. In June 1842, the Lord Lieutenant, apparently satisfied with the reports he had received from the matron, wrote to the prison governor informing him that he was pleased now to mitigate Ellen’s sentence and ordering that she be discharged immediately. He told the governor that he had received an assurance from a Mr. James Alton, Secretary of St Michael Parish, Limerick, that a situation was open for her in the Convent of Limerick where she would be prevented ‘from coming again among those evil-minded associates to whom she owed her earlier disgrace.’ It is likely that the Lord Lieutenant’s decision had been influenced also by information he had received earlier from the judge who had sentenced Ellen to transportation that the thieves with whom she had been ‘intimately connected’ earlier – ‘as nefarious a gang of felons as ever infested the City of Limerick’ – had been broken up.[11]

And so, by late 1842, Ellen was back at Limerick. Regrettably, however, Alton’s hope that she would be kept out of trouble there was misplaced.

On 6 November 1843, she was brought before the courts again, charged with the theft of a frock and petticoat. Found guilty, she was sentenced to transportation for seven years - for a second time – and on this occasion there was to be no escaping her fate.[12]

On 24 November, she was admitted again to Grangegorman to await transfer to VDL.[13] Her age at admission was shown as seventeen. Three days later, she was among the one hundred and twenty female prisoners who were put aboard the vessel Greenlaw which, with John Edgar as Master and James Clarke as Surgeon-Superintendent, sailed from Dublin on 5 March 1844 and reached Hobart on 2 July that year.[14] Apart from a relatively high incidence of scurvy among the prisoners – for which Clarke blamed the excessive amount of salt meat in the diet of the prisoners – the voyage had been unremarkable. Clarke’s only comment on Ellen during the voyage was that she had been ‘unruly but not badly disposed’.[15]   

Upon arrival, Ellen was described as being eighteen years old, five feet one and a half inches (about 154 cms) tall, with a fair complexion, dark brown hair and blue eyes. Her face was pock-pitted and she had two large scars on her forehead. She was a Catholic and single. She could read but not write. She was designated the convict trade of ‘housemaid’. It was also noted that she had been ‘on the town’, a term that usually meant working as a prostitute, for a month before her conviction.[16]  

After embarkation, Ellen, like all newly-arrived female prisoners at that time, was required to a serve a probationary period of six-months before being hired into service. The purpose of this was to give the women, and especially those from impoverished rural Ireland, training in what would be required of them by the mostly well-to-do free settlers who would employ them as servants. Just prior to Ellen’s arrival, the hulk of a former British warship, HMS Anson, had been refitted as a prison and moored in the Derwent, near Risdon, to serve as the probation station in order to alleviate overcrowding at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart which had grown steadily worse since the mid-1830s as more and more convict ships had arrived.[17]

Not unexpectedly, perhaps, Ellen was soon in trouble at the Anson. On 25 January 1845, she was charged with ‘impertinence to a warder’ and punished by being ordered to spend eight days in solitary confinement. This, her first offence in the colony, was quickly followed by others. In February 1846, having now been transferred to the Launceston district and hired into service there she was gaoled for three months, with hard labour, for being absent from her master’s house without leave.[18]

And so it was to continue. In total, she was to spend almost two of the next four years in prison, charged on ten separate occasions with offences which included misconduct, drunkenness, using indecent language, absconding and unlawfully smoking. On one occasion, when she had been absent without leave, she had been apprehended in a disorderly house.[19]

In Launceston, Ellen had caught the eye of man by the name of John Roberts and they were married, after the publication of banns and with the consent of the government, at St John’s Church of England, on 3 June 1850. Very little is known about Roberts. The marriage register of the parish shows that he was a free man, single and thirty-two years old. Ellen’s age is shown as twenty-two, giving some support to the idea that she might have been only sixteen when she arrived in Hobart in 1844.[20] 

On 30 July 1850, just two months after the marriage, Ellen gave birth to a son whom she named John. Ellen’s husband, the informant to the birth certificate, is described as a ‘seaman’.[21] On 18 November of that same year, Ellen was granted her Certificate of Freedom. Her period of penal servitude was at an end. She was a free woman again.[22]

On 14 March 1852, Ellen gave birth to a second child, William. Again, her husband was the informant to the birth certificate, his occupation still shown as ‘seaman’.[23] However, as no reference has been found to Ellen having had contact with Roberts after the birth, it is thought that their marriage had come to an end at about that time.

By 1854, Ellen had left VDL and was in the neighbouring colony of Victoria, apparently without her husband. It is unclear what she had done with the children. No record of them has been located after this time.

Between November 1854 and December 1860, the name ‘Ellen Roberts’ appeared frequently in Melbourne newspapers in lists of wrong-doers brought before the courts. Although it is known that there were other women of that name in Victoria at the time, the nature of the offences – and the evidence of her later life – strongly suggests that it was Ellen (Hanley) Roberts who was responsible for them. On one occasion during these years, she was imprisoned for twelve months on a charge of drunkenness, using obscene language and vagrancy- and just two days after her release was returned to the gaol for another month for brawling in the streets. At another time, she was imprisoned for six months for being the occupier of ‘a low brothel’ in Little Bourke Street. Later, she was sent to gaol for a month for ‘indecency committed in a right-of-way’. She spent two months in prison for accosting drunken men and rifling their pockets. She was either fined or imprisoned for short periods for having no visible means of support and for the theft of clothing.[24]   

Puzzlingly, however, by early 1870, Ellen’s troubles with the law appear to have come to a halt. Nothing more is known of her with certainty for another ten years. What could she have been doing at this time? Where could she have been?

Sadly, however, by the early 1880s, Ellen - now in regional Victoria and being referred to in police reports as ‘Nellie’ Roberts - was in continual trouble again. In February 1880, she was sent to gaol at Beechworth Prison for three months, with hard labour, after being convicted of vagrancy at Benalla.[25] In December 1885, a Bendigo newspaper reported that she had been remanded for a week when brought up on a charge of ‘lunacy’.[26] In December 1886, she was ordered to gaol for another three months, with hard labour, for being ‘idle and disorderly’. The police officer who had arrested her on that occasion referred to her as ‘Limerick Nell’, telling the court that she was well-known in the district as one who made a precarious living by begging at hotels.[27] In 1890, once more arrested for being ‘idle and disorderly’, she was sentenced to another six months’ imprisonment with hard labour.[28]

Ellen’s last conviction was on 19 May 1893 when she was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment at Beechworth, again on a charge of being ‘idle and disorderly’.[29] She did not complete the sentence. On 28 April 1893, she passed away. Her name appears on her death certificate as ‘Nellie Roberts’.[30]  Her age was given as sixty-five, again strengthening the notion that she was sixteen rather than eighteen when she had arrived at Hobart in 1844.

An inquest into Ellen’s death was held the next day. A doctor who had treated her in gaol told the coroner that she had been unable to walk and had been suffering from acute debility and bladder trouble since her admission. She had been unconscious and breathing heavily before her death. A second doctor, who had performed a post-mortem examination, deposed that, although Ellen’s kidneys were ‘markedly cirrhotic’, the actual cause of her death had been ‘acute softening of the brain’. He had estimated her to be about sixty years old.[31]

One can only wonder what the court official who had described Ellen as ‘this wasted child’ when she was sentenced to transportation for the first time in 1840 might have said if he could had known of the events and circumstances of the rest of her life. While none who read her tragic story can help but feel the greatest of sympathy for her – torn, as she was, from family and friends and banished to the other side of the world when still little more than a child – it is difficult to escape the thought that her whole life had been a waste. 


[1] Ellen Hanley: CON41-1-2, image 56; CON19-1-4, image 62; CON15-1-2, images 320/321; police number, 557; FCRC ID: 5941; FCRC database at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[2] Death: Vic. Reg: 4780/1893.

[3] Register of births in the Parish of St Michael, Limerick, Ireland, 1826-1828, via www.findmypast.com.au

[4] CON41-1-2, image 56; CON15-1-2, images 320/321; petitions, CRF-1840-H50 and CRF-1844-H12; marriage, RGD37/1/9, no.611; death, Vic. Reg: 4780/1893.

[5] CON41-1-2, image 56; CON15-1-2, images 320/321.

[6] CRF-1840-H50 and CRF-1844-H12.

[7] Petitions: CRF-1840-H50 and CRF-1844-H12; Lord Elrington: https://www.dib.ie/biography/elrington-charles-richard-a2914

[8] CRF-1840-H50 and CRF-1844-H12.

[9] Petition: CRF-1844-H12; www.workhouses.org.uk/Limerick

[10] CRF-1840-H50 and CRF-1844-H12.

[11] CRF-1840-H50 and CRF-1844-H12.

[12] CON41-1-2, image 56.

[13] Grangegorman Prison Register p.93 – via www.femaleconvicts.org.au

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

[15] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/docs2/ships/SurgeonsJournal_Greenlaw1844.pdf; CON41-1-2, image 56.

[16] CON41-1-2, image 56.

[17] https://femaleconvict.org.au/convict-institutions/probation-stations/anson

[18] CON41-1-2, image 56.

[19] CON41-1-2, image 56.

[20] Permission to marry: CON52/1/3, p.380; marriage: RGD37/1/9, no.611.

[21] Birth of son, John: RGD33/2799/1850, Launceston.

[22] Hobart Town Gazette, 19 November 1850.

[23] William, birth: RGD33/3516/1852, Launceston.

[24] The Argus (Melbourne): 9 November 1854, p.5; 6 December 1854, p.8; 16 August 1855, p.5; 31 July 1857, p. 6; 18 January 1858, p.5; 6 December1859, p.6; 7 March 1860, p.1. The Age (Melbourne): 31 July 1857, p.6; 21 May, 1859, p.6; 28 December 1859, p.5; 14 August 1860, p.7; 14 December 1860, p.6.

[25] PROV, VPRS 516/, p.002, ‘Central Register of Female prisoners, Vol.8, Prisoners Nos. 4503-4973’, per ‘Ellen Hanley’ in d/base at www.femaleconvicts.org.au.

[26] Bendigo Advertiser, 8 December 18985, p.4.

[27] Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 18 December 1886.

[28] PROV, VPRS 516/, p.002, ‘Central Register of Female prisoners, Vol.8, Prisoners Nos. 4503-4973’, per ‘Ellen Hanley’ in d/base at www.femaleconvicts.org.au.

[29] As for Footnote 28.

[30] Death: Vic. Reg: 4780/1893.

[31] Inquest: https://hmgaolbeechworth.com/Home/DeathsInCustody.



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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 online [date].

For academic referencing (suggestion only) Website:  Female Convicts Research Centre Inc., accessed online [date] from [http address].




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