In October 1843, Ann Dyke was convicted in Staffordshire, England, of the theft of a few small items of clothing and sentenced to transportation for fifteen years. She arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) aboard Angelina in August 1844. Like many of the 13,500 (approx.) females who were exiled to VDL between 1812 and 1853, she was young, single, uneducated, and from a poor family.
After a brief period of probation, she was hired out to free settlers as a servant and, although she was charged again with a number of relatively minor misdemeanours, she was of little trouble to the authorities for the first eight or nine years of her penal servitude. During that time, she had formed a relationship with William Johnson, a former convict, had given birth to two of his children and had been granted a ticket of leave.
In 1855, however, her life changed dramatically.
In May of that year, she and Johnson were arrested on suspicion of their involvement in the murder of elderly Thomas Axford, a well-respected resident of the district in which they were living. Fortunately for the couple, the murder charge was dropped when, shortly after the killing, a man who had been staying with them at the time of the murder, confessed to the crime. He told the police that he had acted alone. That man was John ‘Rocky’ Whelan, a notorious bushranger and one of the most infamous criminals in Australia's colonial history. He is known to have committed at least five cold-blooded murders. He was hanged for his crimes at the Hobart Gaol in June 1855.
Although the details are unclear, it is believed that Ann spent a short time in gaol at Oatlands, accused of being an accessory to the murder but eventually that charge was dropped also. After her release, she gave birth to two more children by Johnson but little more is known of her. In 1864, she surrendered all four of the children to the Queen’s Orphan School at Hobart and, with Johnson, faded into the pages of history. The last mention of the pair appears to have been in the Tasmanian Police Gazette in 1866 when an appeal was made for information as to their whereabouts. Where did they get to? Were they ever found?
This is Ann’s story:
Ann Dyke is believed to have been born near Newport, Staffordshire, England, around 1820. She was one of seven children of Edward, a labourer, and Ann Dyke. Her brothers were John (born 1807), Joseph (1809), Andrew (1811), Edward (1815) and Benjamin (1816). Her sister, Maria, was probably born in 1821.
Ann was about eleven or twelve when her mother passed away at the age of fifty-five in 1832 and her troubles with the law began soon afterwards. By the time she was transported to VDL, at the age of twenty-four, she had had two prior convictions for theft. At one time, she had also been convicted of vagrancy, a charge associated, perhaps, with her later admission that she had been ‘on the town’ - a common euphemism for working as a prostitute - for five years.
Ann’s first known conviction had come in February 1839 when she and her sister, Maria, faced the court at the Walsall Borough Sessions, Staffordshire, charged with the theft of ‘a quantity of sugar, a pepper box, two spoons, an apron and various other articles’. Maria was acquitted but Ann was found guilty and sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour. And then, in January 1840, less than six months after her release, she was convicted of theft again. This time, she was gaoled for three months.
However, it seems that Ann had learnt little from her gaol experiences. On 25 October 1843, the Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser reported that she had been sentenced to transportation for fifteen years for stealing a quantity of wearing apparel at Wednesfield, a small village near Wolverhampton. It seems to have been a particularly harsh sentence for the few items of clothing she had stolen - ‘a gown and two caps.’
Early the next year, Ann was transferred from Stafford Gaol to Millbank Prison, London, to await a vessel to take her away to the other side of the world. On 17 April 1844, the Governor of Millbank Prison received authorisation to discharge her to the convict transport Angelina and, a week later, as the vessel was preparing to sail, she was taken aboard.
Interestingly, Ann’s sister Maria, now using the first name ‘Mary’, was also aboard Angelina as a prisoner. The sisters had been sentenced to transportation at the same court on the same day but it does not appear that they had been charged with the same offence. Like Ann, Mary had been found guilty of theft but she had been accused of stealing ’a petticoat and an apron’ - and in each case the prosecutor (that is, the person from whom the goods were said to have been stolen) was different. Mary had been sentenced to transportation for ten years.
On 28 April 1844, with Mr. John Gray as Master, Dr. Thomas Ring as Surgeon-Superintendent, one hundred and seventy female prisoners and eighteen of their children, Angelina sailed from Woolwich bound for VDL. By 24 August of that year, it had reached Hobart. While three of the women had died at sea, the voyage had been ‘a successful one’ according to the surgeon. In his medical journal, he had written: ‘… although we had occasional bad language and riotous conduct, yet those unfortunate women, generally speaking, were more manageable than I had calculated upon sailing.’ Both Ann and Mary had been ‘orderly’ during the voyage.
Upon arrival at Hobart, Ann was described as being twenty-four years old and single. She was five feet and four inches (about 162 cms) tall, with a sallow complexion, sandy brown hair and grey eyes. She had a pock-pitted scar on her right cheek. She could neither read nor write. She was a member of the Church of England. She was allocated the convict trade of ‘country servant’.
After disembarkation, the Angelina prisoners were taken to the Anson Probation Station which had been established earlier that year. The Anson Probation Station was, in fact, the hulk of a British warship, the HMS Anson, which had arrived in Hobart in early 1844 carrying male prisoners. Later, it had been refitted as a prison and moored in Prince of Wales Bay, Risdon, near Hobart. Its purpose was to alleviate the overcrowding that had occurred at the Cascades Female Factory as more and more convict ships had arrived.
As with all newly-arriving prisoners at that time, Ann and Mary were required to complete a six-month probation period, the main aim of which was to train the women in the duties that would be expected of them when hired into the service of free settlers. As demand for convict labour was high at this time, it is probable that Ann and Mary were hired into service soon after the completion of their probationary period. There is no evidence of the sisters ever seeing each other again.
In the first six years of her penal servitude, Ann was charged four times by her employers for offences including ‘insolence and disobedience of orders’, ‘being absent without leave’, ‘misconduct’ and ‘larceny’. As punishment, she was imprisoned at the Cascades on three occasions, once for two months, once for six months and once for twelve months, all of those terms to be served with hard labour. Nevertheless, by October 1851 she had been granted a ticket of leave and was free to find her own employment and accommodation. A condition of her ticket of leave was that she not reside in Hobart Town.
Somewhere before this, Ann had met a ticket-of-leave man, William Hunter. He had arrived in VDL per Lord Lyndoch (3) in July 1841 after being convicted at the Norfolk Assizes, England, two years earlier of ‘robbery from the person’. He had been sentenced to transportation for fifteen years. On 5 September 1848, he and Ann had applied for permission to marry but, although approval was granted, the marriage did not proceed. No reason for this has been located.
Before long, Ann had formed a relationship with another man, William Johnson. He had arrived in VDL as a convict aboard Marion (2) in 1845 but as there were two men with that same name on the vessel – as well as one named William ‘Johnston’ – his identity has not been fully confirmed. However, it is likely that he was the William Johnson who had been transported to VDL for seven years after being court-martialled for desertion at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, where he had served with the Fifth Rifle Brigade, an infantry regiment of the British Army. He had been a member of the regiment for five years. Twenty-three years old upon arrival at Hobart, he had been appointed shortly afterwards as a ‘watchman’ attached to the police force. A note on his convict record reveals that, in that capacity, he had been recommended for an award for meritorious conduct when he had apprehended two men who were subsequently convicted of larceny. By November 1849 he had been granted a ticket of leave. In 1851, he had served his time as a convict and had been issued with a Free Certificate.
On 9 December 1851, William and Ann applied for permission to marry. (Confusingly, William’s surname is shown on the application form as ‘Johnston’.) However, although approval was granted, there is doubt as to when – or, indeed, whether – they married. No formal record of the marriage has been located.
At some time during 1851, Ann had given birth to a son by William but registration of the birth has not been found. The boy’s name appears in later records as ‘George Edward Johnson’. On 28 December 1853, a second child, Mary Ann Johnson, was born to the couple. That birth was registered at Brighton, about seventeen miles (27 kms) north of Hobart.
By 1855, Ann and William were living together in a bush hut near Constitution Hill, a few miles north of Bagdad, about twenty miles (37km) north of Hobart.
In May of that year, their lives were to change forever!
On 25 May 1855, under the heading ‘Another Missing Gentleman’, The Courier (Hobart) reported that sixty-three-year-old Thomas Axford, described as ‘an old and respected colonist’ and as ‘one who was both kindly and gentle in his manners’, had not been seen for fourteen days and that great fears were being held for his safety. What made the disappearance of Axford particularly disturbing – as the heading of the report suggested - was that he was not the first man to have gone missing in the district in similar circumstances in recent months.
Axford had left his home at Bothwell two weeks earlier to walk to Pontville about nine miles (14 kms) away but had not reached his destination. He had been carrying a valuable gold watch and a considerable sum of money. It was strongly suspected that he had met with foul play and all hope of finding him alive had been abandoned. On the following day, the Colonial Times (Hobart) carried an advertisement offering a reward of one hundred pounds - as well as the recommendation of a conditional pardon if the finder happened to be a prisoner of the crown - to anyone who found Axford, dead or alive. The notice revealed that Axford had last been seen walking down Constitution Hill on 8 May.
On the same day, The Courier reported that Axford’s battered and blood-soaked body had been found four or five hundred yards off the road at Constitution Hill. The body had been stripped of all clothing, except the shirt. The head and face had been brutally beaten and the gold watch and money were missing. A man named Cooper, who lived near the Johnsons in a small hut on Constitution Hill, close to where the body had been found, had been arrested on suspicion of having been concerned in the murder.
Within days, Ann and William Johnson had also been taken into custody on suspicion of their involvement in the murder. An inquest into Axford’s death had heard that a large quantity of blood had been seen on the road near their hut on Constitution Hill and that Axford’s body had been discovered so close to it that the smell of decomposition must surely have been ‘troublesome’ to the occupants. Also arrested were two local men, James Watkin and James McEwan, both of whom were thought to have had some connection to the crime.
However, while the police were still gathering evidence to prove the complicity of those they had arrested, the case took an unexpected twist! A man by the name of John ‘Rocky’ Whelan had confessed to the murders of several of the missing men, including that of Axford!
Whelan had been arrested quite by chance when a sharp-eyed police constable had noticed the name ‘Dunn’ printed on a pair of boots that Whelan had left for repair at a shoemaker’s shop. The constable had recalled that a Mr. Dunn, a magistrate of the Huon district, was one of the men who, like Axford, had gone missing in mysterious circumstances and, when Whelan had returned to the shop to collect his boots, he had been arrested on suspicion of having stolen them. At his trial for the theft of the boots in the days that followed, Whelan had startled the court by confessing to having murdered Dunn. He had admitted also that he had been responsible for the killing of a number of the other missing men, including Axford.
On 25 June 1855, Whelan was hanged for the murders at the Hobart Gaol. Before he went to the gallows, he had described the place where the body of Axford – believed to be the fourth of his five known victims - had been found. He solemnly declared that he had acted alone in committing the crimes.
Over six feet (185cm) tall and of heavy build, Whelan had been nicknamed ‘Rocky’ for the rough appearance of his face which was heavily-lined and deeply pock-pitted. At the Chester (England) Quarter Sessions in early 1827, he had been found guilty of stealing and sentenced to seven years transportation. He had arrived in Sydney aboard Marquis of Hastings in July of that year. He had escaped from custody in New South Wales and had taken to highway robbery for which he was arrested, convicted and shipped off to the penal colony of Norfolk Island where he had spent the next eighteen years. During his time there, he had committed at least forty offences and had received seven hundred lashes. After the closure of Norfolk Island in 1853, he had been relocated to VDL where, soon after his arrival, he had absconded again. Operating from the rugged bushland of Mount Wellington which overlooks Hobart, he had become a feared bushranger.
While awaiting his execution, Whelan had told the authorities that, after his brutal treatment at Port Arthur and Norfolk Island, he had decided to go to war against society. After escaping from a road gang, he had hidden in the Huon area for several months, waylaying and murdering men whenever he needed money. Reputed to have been VDL’s first serial killer, he had admitted to more than ten atrocious murders but was unable to remember where all of the killings had taken place. Some of the bodies had not been recovered.
A couple of days after Whelan’s execution, Ann and William Johnson, as well as Cooper, Watkin and McEwan, all of whom had been arrested earlier, were released from custody. Almost immediately, however, the Johnsons were arrested again because the police had not been able to satisfy themselves that they were entirely innocent of the crime.
On 30 June 1855, Ann and William were brought before a bench of magistrates that had been assembled to inquire further into Axford’s murder. At that hearing, a witness had told the court that, before Axford’s body had been found, he had been searching the bush on Constitution Hill for him. There, he had met Ann who had asked him if he were looking for the ‘murdered’ man. He had thought that this was a very strange question because, at that stage, it was not known that Axford had been murdered. At the conclusion of the hearing, Ann and William were remanded in custody to allow enquiries to continue.
When the hearing was resumed a week later, another witness told the magistrates that he had been imprisoned with the Johnsons during the previous week and had overheard them discussing the Axford murder. At one point in their discussion, William had said to Ann: ‘You remember him. He slept at our house that night.’ Ann, apparently aware that the conversation was being overheard, had replied: ‘Hold your tongue, you wretch’, and this had led the witness to suspect that she knew more about the murder than she had revealed previously. Not surprisingly, Ann and William were fully committed to trial as accessories to the murder.
However, it does not appear that a trial ever ensued. A document in the court records of Tasmania, headed ‘Return Showing the Number of Persons Committed to Trial during 1855 and the Result of the Cases’, includes the names ‘William Johnson’ and ‘Ann Johnson’ but their names are followed by the single word ‘Ignored’. It is presumed, therefore, that all charges against them were dropped.
Soon after her release, Ann gave birth to her third child, Wilemina (also seen as ‘Amelia’ and ‘Ann’) Johnson. Two years later, her fourth child, Henry Thomas Johnson, was born at Oatlands.
Regrettably, little more is known with certainty of the lives of Ann and William.
According to a note on Ann’s conduct record, the couple married in ‘1861’ but that seems unlikely. Was an error made? Should the date of the marriage have been shown on the conduct record as ‘1851’ – the year in which they had been given permission to marry – rather than as ‘1861’? As noted above, registration of the marriage has not been found.
On 26 April 1864, Ann admitted all four of her children to the Queen’s Orphan School, Hobart. George, the eldest, was then thirteen years of age, Mary Ann was eleven (although her age is shown in the admission records as nine), Wilhelmina (admitted as ‘Amelia’) was nine and Henry, the youngest, seven. While the records state that Ann was married to ‘William Johnson’, the surname of the children, in all cases, is shown – inexplicably - as ‘Dyke’.
Neither parent ever returned to collect the children. When all were ultimately discharged from the Orphan School, possibly to be employed as servants or apprentices, it was to other residents of the colony.
Two years after the children had been admitted to the Orphan School, the following notice was published in the ‘Reports of Crime’ section of the Tasmanian Police Gazette, 1866:
INFORMATION is requested respecting William Johnson, per Marion 2, and his wife Ann Dyke, per Angelina. They resided in the Green Ponds District about eleven years ago. Johnson was attached to the Richmond Police in 1851.
Was any information ever received? Where were the Johnsons?
That the story of Ann Dyke ends so abruptly is frustrating. There are still many unanswered questions about her life.
Had Ann and William separated before she admitted the children to the Orphan School? Is that why they were admitted with the surname ‘Dyke’? If so, did Ann re-marry in Tasmania? She was still only in her mid-forties at that time.
Did Ann and William leave Tasmania? Had William decided to return to his native Canada? Did Ann go with him? Could that be why she never collected the children from the Orphan School?
What was the connection between the Johnsons and the vicious outlaw Whelan? Why had he been staying with them on the night before Axford was murdered? Did they know more about his atrocious crimes than they ever revealed?
It seems unlikely that these questions will ever be answered.
 Conduct record: CON41/1/3, image 33; description list: CON19/1/4, image xx; indent: CON15/1.3, images 12 and 13; police no: 457; FCRC ID: 1045.
 CON15/1.3, images 12 and 13; findmypast.co.uk; ancestry.co.uk via www.femaleconvicts.org.au
 Death of mother: findmypast.co.uk; ancestry.co.uk via www.femaleconvicts.org.au
 CON41/1/3, image 33.
 Staffordshire Advertiser, 2 March 1839 via www.femaleconvicts.org.au
 Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser (date unknown); Criminal Register for Walsall Boro Sessions, 10 January 1840 via www.femaleconvicts.org.au
 CON41/1/3, image 33; Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser, 25 October 1843 via www.femaleconvicts.org.au
 Millbank Prison Register via www.femaleconvicts.org.au
 findmypast.co.uk www.femaleconvicts.org.au
 Mary Dyke: CON41-1-3, image 34.
 https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/probation-stations/anson; https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/index.php/convict-institutions/probation-stations.
 CON41/1/3, image 33.
 William Hunter: CON33-1-5, image 143; permission to marry: CON52-1-3, page 190-191.
 ‘Johnson/Johnston’ on Marion (2) in 1854: https://www.hawkesbury.net.au/claimaconvict/shipDetails.php?shipId=848https://www.hawkesbury.net.au/claimaconvict/shipDetails.php?shipId=848
 Johnson: CON33-1-70, image 148; indent CON14-1-31, images 68 and 69; see also: https://www.rootschat.com/forum/index.php?topic=717438.0
 Johnston/Dyke, permission to marry: CON52-1-3, pages 242/243.
 George Edward Johnson: see admission records of Queen’s Orphan School, Hobart: https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=queens+orphan+school+hobart
 Mary Ann Johnson, birth: RGD33/49/1854, Brighton.
 The Courier (Hobart), 25 May 1855, p.3; Colonial Times (Hobart), 28 May 1855, p.2; The Tasmanian Daily News (Hobart), 30 May 1855, p.3.
 Colonial Times (Hobart), 26 May 1855, p.3.
 The Courier (Hobart), 26 May 1855, p.2 and 1 June 1855, p.2; Hobarton Mercury, 27 June 1855, p.3.
 Report of inquest: Tasmanian Daily News, 20 June 1855, p.2.
https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/whelan-john-rocky-22901; Colonial Times, 27 June 1855, p.2; https://aguidetoaustralianbushranging.com/2021/06/26/spotlight-rocky-whelans-statement/; http://ourtasmania.com.au/people-whelan.html;
 Hobarton Mercury (Hobart), 27 June 1855, p.3.
 https://www.hobartwalkingtours.com.au/rocky-whelan-murderer-on-the-mountain/; see also Cox, Robert. (2014). A Compulsion to Kill: The Surprising Story of Australia’s First Serial Killers. Brisbane: Glass House Books.
 The Tasmanian Daily News (Hobart), 7 July 1855, p.3.
 Colonial Times, 4 July 1855, p.3.
 Colonial Times (Hobart), 13 July 1855, p.3.
 Court document: https://stors.tas.gov.au/AB693-1-1$init=AB693-1-1_025
 Births, Wilhelmina (Amelia) Johnson: 15 September 1855, RGD33/1287/1855, Oatlands; Henry Thomas Johnson: 1 June 1857, RGD33/1693/1857, Oatlands.
 CON41/1/3, image 33.
 https:// www.orphanschool.org.au/records_source.php
 Tasmania, Reports of Crime, 1866, p.86, via ‘Ancestry’, accessed 2 November 2021.