(Arrived ‘free’ in VDL per William Metcalfe, 1837; Convicted at Hobart, 1841)


Don Bradmore


Between 1803 and 1853, approximately 75,000 men and women were transported to Van Diemen's Land (VDL) as convicts. Of these, roughly 67,000 were shipped from British and Irish ports. The remainder were either from other British colonies or had arrived in the colony as ‘free’ immigrants and had been convicted later.[1] While poor documentation in the early years makes it difficult to be precise about the number of those convicted locally, about one hundred and twenty-five females in this category have been identified to date. Hellen Copeland Armistead was one of them.[2]

Believed to have been from a respectable family, but possibly one that had fallen on hard times,  in England, Hellen, had arrived ‘free’ at Hobart, single and alone, in 1837. She was thirty-eight years old. Four years later, while employed as a governess at Hobart, she was accused of stealing a tablecloth. Although she denied the charge, she was found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment for six months. After serving her time, she left the colony and never returned. For some years a teacher at Port Macquarie, New South Wales, where she was highly admired, she died at the age of seventy-one in 1870. She had never been in trouble with the law again.

This is her story:


‘Hellen’ was born in London on 7 December 1799 and baptised as ‘Helen Copland Elder’ on 2 February 1800. Her parents were Primrose (a most unusual given name for a man) and Helen (nee Copland) Elder.[3]  Nothing is known of her life in England but it seems likely that her family had been well-connected at some time before her departure for VDL. When convicted in Hobart in 1841, she told the authorities that her cousin was the Archbishop of Aberdeen.[4]

It is unclear whether Helen’s parents were still alive when, in the mid-1830s, she decided to migrate alone to VDL.

At that time, she took advantage of a scheme initiated by the British government and financed by the sale of crown lands in the colonies, which was intended to assist young unmarried women or widows the opportunity to ‘better their condition’ in the distant colonies where maids and domestic servants were in high demand because of the high cost to employers in bringing them from England.[5] No doubt, too, the British government had the existing gender imbalance in mind, knowing that most of these women would quickly find husbands and that the availability of suitable women in the colonies would lead to the creation of more harmonious societies.[6]

The scheme was managed by the London Emigration Committee (LEC). In a series of newspaper advertisements throughout the early 1830s, the LEC promised ‘good wages’ for ‘female servants and other employments’ who were willing to emigrate. The advertisements invited the women to apply by letter if they wished to be considered.[7] Stipulating that all applicants must be of ‘good health and character’ and be able to furnish recommendations from their parish ministers and other ‘respectable persons’, the advertisements advised intending applicants that they would ‘not be bound to any person whatsoever’ in their service in the colonies and that they would be, ‘to all intents and purposes, Free Women’.

Although the scheme was intended primarily to attract unmarried women under the age of thirty, those who were older than thirty, or married, were eligible to apply. The older, or married, women had to pay their own fare, while those under thirty were required to make a minimum contribution of five pounds towards theirs. In return, all were guaranteed that ‘every management toward their comfort during the voyage’ would be made. They were told that an ‘experienced and responsible Man and his Wife’ had been engaged for each vessel as ‘Superintendents’, and that medical assistance would be provided, if required. They were assured that they would be well looked after upon arrival in the colonies, and that waiting for them would be ‘a list of the different situations to be obtained and the wages they offered’.[8] 

The scheme proved very popular. Between April 1833 and August 1837, fourteen ships leased by the LEC for the purpose brought over two thousand seven hundred women to the colonies.[9] Eight ships disembarked their passengers at Sydney - Bussorah Merchant (1833), Layton (1833), David Scott (1834), Duchess of Northumberland (two voyages, 1835 and 1836), Canton (1835), James Pattison (1836) and Lady McNaughton (1837). Another six - Strathfieldsaye (1834), Sarah (1835), Charles Kerr (1835), Boadicea (1836), Amelia Thompson (1836) and William Metcalfe (1837) - sailed direct to VDL.[10] 

Not unexpectedly, perhaps, the arrival of the very first LEC ship to reach Hobart – Strathfiedsaye in 1834 – caused great excitement in the town where the population was just over twenty-five thousand, of whom eighteen thousand were men, the majority of them being unmarried convicts or ex-convicts.[11] The women being brought ashore, however, were terrified by the reception they received. The Colonial Times of 19 August 1834 had reported the landing of the women in this way:

On Saturday, the free females were landed from the Strathfieldsaye. Of all the disgusting, abominable sights we ever witnessed, nothing ever equalled the scene which took place on that occasion ... The mob waiting … could not have been much less in number than a couple of thousand. As soon as the first boat reached the shore, there was a regular rush towards the spot, and the half dozen constables present could scarcely open a passage sufficient to allow the females to pass from the boats; and now the most disgusting scenes ensued — the avenue opened through the crowd was of considerable length, and as each female passed on, she was jeered by the blackguards who stationed themselves, as it were purposely to insult. The most vile and brutal language was addressed to almost every woman as she passed along. Some brutes, more brutal than others, even took still further insulting liberties and stopped the women by force, addressing them pointedly in the most obscene manner. Any woman, with one spark of the feeling of modesty, must have felt this degradation of the most terrible kind … The consequence was that by far the greater portion could bear the insults no longer. Scarcely a female was there but who wept, and that most bitterly. One of the poor creatures was so overcome, that she absolutely fainted — but there was no hand to assist — no one present who appeared to have any power in preventing these disgraceful scenes.[12]

Fortunately, by the time of the arrival of William Metcalfe on 23 January 1837, things had settled down and the women were disembarked without incident. That ship’s manifest shows ‘Helen Copland Elder’ as one of LEC women aboard.[13] While a record of the employment she accepted upon arrival has not been located, it is assumed that she, like most of the LEC women, would have had a position already waiting for her, or have found her own work quickly.

Somewhere during her first year in the colony, Helen, who at thirty-eight must have been one of the oldest of the LEC women, had met a sixty-nine-year-old former convict by the name of John Armistead. He had been in VDL since his arrival per Morley in January 1823. In March 1822, he had been convicted of forgery at York, England, and sentenced to transportation for life. From all reports, he was an exceptional man. Upon arrival, it was noted in his Conduct Record that he had been in an ‘extensive line of business’ in England and ‘was highly respected by all his acquaintances’. While awaiting transportation in an English gaol, it was said of him that he was ‘well-behaved and in every way commendable’.[14] In VDL, he had been granted a ticket of leave in 1832 and a free pardon in 1835.[15] Afterwards, he had established himself in business as a timber merchant.[16]  

On 23 January 1838, one year to the day after Helen’s arrival in VDL, she and John Armistead were married in the parish of Trinity, Hobart. In the marriage register, John’s name is shown incorrectly as ‘Armitstead’. He is described as a widower. (His Convict Record reveals that he was married when transported.) Helen is described as a spinster. It was her first marriage.[17]

After the marriage, the couple lived together at Kangaroo Point, John continuing to work as a timber merchant and Helen devoting herself to domestic duties. However, about a year after the marriage, John had suffered a broken arm. The break was not properly set and he had been unable to work. Helen had been forced to return to paid employment.

Unfortunately, she was soon in trouble with the law!

On 8 June 1841, this notice appeared in The Hobart Town Advertiser:

John Armistead and wife were fully committed for trial for stealing a tablecloth, the property of Mr. Jonathan Watson at Kangaroo Point. Armstead was discharged on giving bail, his wife was committed.[18]

A month later, Helen – described in a newspaper report as ‘a respectable looking woman’ - stood before Chief Magistrate Mr Joseph Hone and two Justices of the Peace in the Quarter Sessions Court, Hobart, indicted for ‘stealing in the month of May last, a damask tablecloth, value ten shillings, the property of Mr. Watson of Kangaroo Point.’[19]

The court heard that, three or four months earlier, Helen had been engaged by Mr. Watson and his wife as a teacher for their two children and four others of a neighbour, Mr. Dawson. Working as a ‘daily governess’, she had lived at her own home but had come to the Watson’s place from ten in the morning until three or four in the afternoon each school day. She was paid four shillings a week. A room in the house, which no-one but she, the Watsons and the children were permitted to enter, had been set up as a classroom.

Mrs. Watson told the court that she had always kept the tablecloth in question in a closet in the classroom. In early June of that year, she had realised that it was missing. She had had the cloth for some years and could recognise it by some particular stains upon it. As she employed no ‘indoor’ servants, and as the farm servants were not allowed to come inside the house, she suspected that it must have been Helen who had taken it. A search warrant had been executed by a Constable Rook. He had gone to the Armistead home and found the tablecloth concealed in the bottom of a dirty-clothes bag. 

A pawnbroker, Mr. Alcock, testified that Helen had come to his shop on 29 May and pawned a tablecloth but had returned to redeem it two days later. He believed that tablecloth to be the one produced in court.

Given the opportunity to speak in her own defence, Helen handed the magistrate a ‘well-worded’ address. In it, she denied ever having seen the tablecloth after Mrs. Watson herself had removed it from the closet some time earlier. She said that, although the classroom had been used exclusively by her for lessons, there were no locks on the doors and anyone could have entered the room at times at which she was not at the house. She admitted pawning a tablecloth at Mr. Alcock’s shop but claimed that it was a different cloth and not the one in question. She thought that Alcock had been ‘tipsy’ when she had gone to his shop and that, therefore, he might have been mistaken about its appearance. She asked the court to consider the improbability of her keeping the stolen tablecloth in her own home – if, indeed, she had stolen it - after Mrs. Watson had made it known that it was missing. In concluding. she begged the court’s mercy, saying that she did that not so much for her own sake but for that of her husband who, since suffering his injury, depended upon her totally for support.

Called by Helen as a witness, Mr. District Constable Hance said that he had known her for some time and was well able to speak to her good character. He had never heard anything bad about her. He corroborated the statement she had made about her husband’s infirmity.

The Jury returned a verdict of ‘guilty’ against Helen but strongly recommended her to mercy. The magistrates consulted together for about ten minutes before Mr. Hone sentenced her to six months' imprisonment with hard labour.[20]

Regrettably, little is known with certainty about the rest of Helen’s life. At some time after her release from prison, she left VDL, probably to relocate to New South Wales, but a record of her departure has not been found.

On 12 April 1848 - seven years after Helen’s trial - her husband, John Armistead passed away at Hobart.[21] He was seventy-nine years old. His death certificate shows the cause as ‘decay of nature’. The informant to the certificate was a friend, Francis Anderson of Macquarie Street. Was Helen still with John when he died?  

In February 1856, the name ‘Helen Armistead’ appeared among a list of missing persons published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Was that Helen Copland (Elder) Armistead? Who was looking for her? Who could have reported her missing?

Helen died at Port Macquarie, New South Wales, on 5 January 1870. Her surname is spelt incorrectly in the death register as ‘Armstead’. She was seventy-one years old.[22] She was buried in the Port Macquarie Cemetery. A headstone later erected to her memory reads:

Sacred to the memory of Helen Copeland Armistead who died 5 January 1870, Aged 69 years. Erected by her pupils and friends, some of whom had known her for many years.[23]

It would be pleasing to know more of Helen’s later life and her teaching career in New South Wales. It is to be hoped that this information will eventually come to light.

It would be satisfying to know, also, whether Helen, who seems to have been a good, honest person, did steal Mrs. Watson’s tablecloth. Had it been an act of desperation? Had she needed money - urgently, perhaps - because her husband was unable to work? The fact that the tablecloth was found at her home seems to suggest that she did take it to pawn but had she intended to return it to the classroom closet after redeeming it? Had she planned to wash it first? Is that why it was in the dirty-clothes bag? Sadly, it is unlikely that these questions will ever be answered.




[1] https://libraries.tas.gov.au/convict-portal/pages/convict-life.aspx

[2] Conduct record: CON40-1-2, image 17; indent: CON16/1/1, images 174 and 175; police no: 134; FCRC ID: 13064.

[3] Birth and baptism: London Metropolitan Archives via ‘Ancestry’ per www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[4] Indent: CON16/1/1, images 174 and 175. Helen’s connection to the Archbishop of Aberdeen has not been confirmed.

[5] https://www.thesocialhistorian.com/female-emigration-australia/

[6] https://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/G/Gender.htm

[7] See Rushen, Elizabeth. (2005). Single & Free: Female Migration to Australia, 1833-1836. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing; Rushen believes that the original application forms were destroyed in the bombing of London during WW2.

[8] Rushen, op. cit.

[9] Rushen, op. cit.

[10] Rushen, op. cit. See also: Haines, R. (1994). Indigent Misfits or Shrewd Operators? Government-assisted Emigrants from the United Kingdom to Australia, 1831-1860, in Population Studies, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Jul., 1994), pp. 223-247 at https://www.jstor.org/stable/2174890

[11] Moyle, H. (2020). Australia’s Fertility Transition: A Study of 19th-century Tasmania. Canberra: ANU Press; see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Hobart

[12] Colonial Times (Hobart), 19 August 1834, p.4.

[13] https://www.rushen.com.au/australian-bounty-women-database

[14] Armistead CON31-1-1, image 44.

[15] Ticket of leave: Launceston Advertiser, 16 May 1832, p. 156; free pardon, Launceston Advertiser, 24 December 1835, p. 4.

[16] Armistead is described on his death certificate as a ‘timber merchant’ – see Note 21 below.

[17] Marriage, Elder/Armistead: 23 January 1838, RGD36/4117/1838, Hobart.  

[18] The Hobart Town Advertiser, 8 June 1841, p.4.

[19] Trial: The Hobart Town Advertiser, 9 July 1841, p.2; Colonial Times, 13 July 1841, p.3; Joseph Hone: https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hone-joseph-2195

[20] Trial: The Hobart Town Advertiser, 9 July 1841, p.2; Colonial Times, 13 July 1841, p.3.

[21] John Armistead, death: RGD35/1/2, no. 1921, Hobart. (His name is shown incorrectly as ‘Armstead’.)

[22] Helen, death, NSW BDM: 5520/1870 Port Macquarie.

[23] https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/51348166/helen-copeland-armistead




Please acknowledge our work, should you choose to use our research.  Our work may be subject to copyright therefore please check our Copyright Policy, and Disclaimer policy.

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].




Initiatives of the Female Convicts Research Centre Inc.

Female Convicts Research Centre Convict Women's Press Female Convicts Database Edges of Empire Biographical Dictionary


Terms of Access     Privacy Policy    Copyright     Disclaimer     Contact us     Search    Sitemap

Find Us on Facebook

FCRC is a registered charity.

ACNC Registered Charity Logo RGB

Hosted by Red Rook

© Female Convicts Research Centre Inc.