Elizabeth Farquharson (McKerracher, Maxwell, Ferguson, Mole/s, Donnelly, Berry)

Arab 1836

By Don Alcock


Elizabeth McKerracher’s life story is one of hardship and survival. She was born in the small market town of Campbeltown, Argyll, Scotland, in 1812, and grew up with little to no education. The coastal town lies on the Kintyre peninsular in western Scotland.

Elizabeth, daughter of John McKerracher, a tailor, was unable write and could barely read. At 19, she was caught stealing from Ralph Langland’s house in Kirk Street, Campbeltown.  She was tried for theft at Inveraray Court on 16 September 1829[1] and sentenced to seven years transportation by Lord Justice Clerk[2], the second most senior judge in Scotland.  There were appeals against the severity of her sentence, due to her age and circumstances, as she was the mother of three small children, at least one to a man named John Maxwell. She remained in jail, next to the court, for several years, as the wheels of justice slowly turned.

Inveraray Jail was the principal jail of the county of Argyll and housed men, women and children, convicted and unconvicted prisoners, in eight cold, damp cells. Conditions were terrible in the cells. Prisoners slept, ate and worked there and were only allowed out for exercise once a day or to go to the washroom. Female prisoners picked oakum, knitted stockings or sewed. In their cell, they were provided with a hammock, mattress, blankets, sheets, a pillow, towel, comb, spoon and salt cup. Each cell had a stool, box and chamber pot with lid. Meals consisted of porridge, bread, a cup of milk, vegetable with meat broth[3].

Elizabeth was eventually granted a remission of her sentence at Edinburgh, 28 January 1833, after serving three years and nine weeks at Inveraray[4].

However, she did not reform. On release, Elizabeth McKerracher, also known as Elizabeth Farquharson, moved to Greenock, an industrial town in Renfrewshire near Glasgow to live with John Maxwell, a chimney sweep.  She had three children to look after, one by Maxwell, who she named James, born about 1828 at Greenock.

Elizabeth again took to petty crime. She was caught thieving from two houses. The first, stealing a silver watch and pair of stockings from Danial Morrison, on High Road, Greenock. The second, stealing a gown from a house owned by Duncan Ritchie, and his wife Isobel Thomson, at the nearby town of Gourock.

She was tried under the name of Elizabeth Maxwell at the High Court in Glasgow on 16 September 1834 for ‘the crime of theft by housebreaking, habit and repute at Greenock and Gourock, Renfrew.’ She pleaded guilty ‘but not to using false keys’[5]. The court heard of her previous convictions, noting she could not write, was married, and had small children.

The Caledonian Mercury reported: ‘Elizabeth Farquharson pleaded Guilty of stealing, on the 21st June, a silver watch and a pair of stockings from a dwelling-house near the road between Greenock and Grunnock also, with stealing a gown from a house in Grunnock. The pannel (accused) was sentenced to seven years’ transportation.’[6]

One year and three months later, after being sent from Glasgow to Portsmouth, Elizabeth, with her son James Maxwell, aged 6, boarded the female convict ship Arab with 132 women and 17 children, for transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.  The voyage was a good one with only two passengers lost, a woman and child. The ship’s surgeon, William Rogers, described Elizabeth’s behaviour as ‘good’.

The Arab left Woolwich on 30 December 1835 and arrived 117 days later in Hobart on 25 April 1836. It was met by Governor George Arthur, with the Hobart Courier reporting: ‘Yesterday morning, His Excellency visited the Arab female prison ship, and soon after, the Rev. Mr. Bedford lead prayers, and delivered an appropriate discourse to the prisoners.’[7]

Before disembarking the convicts were checked by clerks for their physical descriptions, all of which were entered in the massive leatherbound books. Each had a name, conviction, police number and ongoing conduct report.   Elizabeth’s surname was recorded as ‘Farquharson’. Her age was 24. Her convict number was 1881. Her police number was 137. She was described as short - four foot, eleven and a quarter inches - with brown hair, hazel eyes and freckles. Strangely, she was paralysed in her left arm.  She was recorded saying of her son James: ‘John Maxwell is the father of my child. I lived with him 18 months.  I had two children by another man.’[8]

The women were sent to Cascades Female Factory for assignment. The female factory housed women who re-offended, were pregnant or had children. Expanded several times, it comprised cells, some solitary, a nursery, and hospital facilities, kitchen, and laundry.

Elizabeth was granted her ticket-of-leave on 4 December 1839 and certificate of freedom 16 December 1841, seven years since her conviction in Glasgow. She may have been employed at the New Norfolk Mental Hospital in 1841, although records are thin.

The hospital originally an Invalid Barracks, for invalid convicts and those considered mentally ill who had been transported to Van Diemen’s Land. The New Norfolk Lunatic Asylum was expanded in 1830 by Lt-Governor Arthur and held more than 130 invalids and mentally ill.

Elizabeth Farquharson was often confused with another convict, an Elizabeth Ferguson, also born in Campbeltown, Scotland, and transported on the same ship, the Arab. Both were illiterate, of similar height, and spoke with the same Scottish accent.  It was no wonder the guards, clerks and police in Hobart were confused by each of them, and occasionally mixed up and recorded their conduct details in the wrong place.

Elizabeth ‘Ferguson’ married Isaac Mowles/Moles/Mole in January 1841, at the Uniting Church, New Norfolk[9]. Moles, aged 36 (he was actually 43), a brickmaker, was a freed convict (under surname Mowle) from Dover, England, who was transported ‘for life’ on the Hibernia, which arrived in Van Diemen’s Land[10] in May 1819. He finally gained his pardon in November 1842, after twenty-two years of hard labour at various assignments since his initial conviction in Essex. Moles was a widower, having married Janet Morrison in Hobart in September 1839[11], but who died three only months later in New Norfolk[12]

For a time, Elizabeth and Isaac settled into working life at New Norfolk and raising children. Elizabeth’s eldest son, James, lived with them and began working as a labourer. She soon gave birth to more children with Moles. Charles, who died aged three in 1843 from dysentery, then Elizabeth, born in May 1843, and Hannah in May 1845. 

However, on 12 April 1847, Elizabeth was again caught for theft and tried at Hobart Quarter Sessions. She was found guilty of stealing a £1 note and monies and sentenced to be kept in the Female House of Corrections in Hobart for eighteen months[13].  When admitted, she was four months pregnant.

Elizabeth gave birth to Euphemia (Phoebe) in August 1847 at the Cascades Female Factory. Her surname is recorded as ‘Ferguson’ formally Mowles.[14]  Euphemia was baptised at the Female Factory on 7 September.

Elizabeth did her time and returned to pick up her life in New Norfolk. She had two more children with Isaac Moles: a son Isaac, born in January 1850, and a girl Martha, born in July 1853.

Then, in February 1854, her life once again changed in tragic circumstances. Isaac was brutally murdered in their house by a neighbour, Ezra Cox, in a drunken, frenzied attack, seemingly over Cox’s promiscuous wife being ‘harboured’ and sleeping at their house.  After a weekend drinking at a public house, and complaining about his wife’s behaviour, Cox broke in and said he’d kill Isaac, Elizabeth and his own wife, then ‘go to the gallows like a man’. Cox struck Moles on the head and body with a pickaxe. Moles managed to crawl to the table, then Cox struck him again several times about the body, and left the house saying, ‘I've finished one of them.’ Cox was apprehended by a local constable and a doctor treated Moles severe wounds. He lingered and died three months later.

The murder trial, at Hobart’s Supreme Court, called a number of witnesses, including Elizabeth, her son James, Mrs Cox, a police constable, and the doctor. Elizabeth deposed that she: “called out, ‘In the name of God, Cox, what do you mean?’ He gave me a hit on the back and knocked me against the table, saying, "I mean murder, and murder I'll have”. I screamed out, and all my children screamed out. My husband jumped out of bed in his night-cap. I ran in to the bedroom with my child in my arms.”

Elizabeth described the attack in detail saying Cox, “knocked my husband down by a blow with on the head. I saw the blow actually struck on the right side of the head, a violent blow. My husband fell down, and the blood flowed from his head. During the time he was lying down the prisoner hit him three times about the body. My husband got on his hands and knees as well as he could on to a chair. He leant his head on a table and said, "Cox, I never done you no harm."

The policeman, Constable Sheehan, deposed Cox has told him earlier that day: "I'll get a broad axe and kill the three - my wife, and Moles, and his wife for harbouring her, and when I've killed the three, I'll go to the gallows like a man."

The jury found Ezra Cox guilty and he was hanged on 27 June, with another criminal, Edward Shaw, on the gallows set up outside Hobart Gaol. The Tasmanian Colonial newspaper reported, ‘the usual military guard did duty outside the prison walls, and a strong police force was in attendance, under the direction of district constable Hadley. A motley group of boys, little children, women, and men witnessed the sad spectacle, but it is time such scenes were enacted beyond the public gaze?[15]’  One wonders whether Elizabeth and her son James were watching in the crowd.

After the attack, Elizabeth’s three children, Hannah (9), Phoebe (6), and Isaac (4) were admitted on 15 May to the Queens Orphan School in Hobart[16].  The orphanage remarked the reason for their admission was ‘father dying, mother crippled and imbecile’[17] (the crippled reference was to her paralysed left arm, and ‘imbecile’ may be a moral judgement for foolish). The youngest child, an infant, Martha, stayed in her mother's care.

The children were discharged back to their mother's care on 7 December 1855, following her marriage to William Donnelly.

Elizabeth had occasionally rented a room at her house. After her husband’s death she had a boarder, an Irish ex-convict named William Donnelly. Elizabeth wasn’t alone in realising that her best prospects were in marriage. With her children in an orphanage, and little means of support, she set her future on Donnelly, a short man, prone to drinking, with a talkative nature.

Within a few months, Donnelly, a labourer, became involved with a court dispute involving a ‘missing’ gun. He claimed his gun was stolen by a neighbour, Mary Carey. The Colonial Times disparagingly reported that Donnelly, after an evening drinking grog with the Carey’s, ‘about nine o'clock, on his return to his own house, (or rather that of Mrs Moles, where he resides, but upon what terms is rather too delicate for a present investigation. Mrs M being the widow of an unfortunate man, who died from blows received in a not very creditable affair, about 18 months past) he missed the gun from over the mantel shelf. He proceeded back to the Carey’s, saw Mrs Carey, through a crack in the window with the gun in her hand.” The gun was found next morning in the garden at Donnelly's back door. The judge described it as a drunken affair and dismissed the case[18].

On 15 August 1855, Elizabeth married William Donnelly at the Wesleyan Church in Hobart[19]. However, the forthcoming marriage didn’t seem to stop him drinking. A week before the wedding, Donnelly was charged 40 shillings by the Police Court in Hobart for being a drunkard. Their relationship must have withered towards the end. William Donnelly eventually died a pauper at the Cascades Invalid Depot in Hobart in September 1875[20].

Elisabeth moved to Green Ponds, now known as Kempton, to be closer to her children and grandchildren. In February 1874 she married again, at age 52, and for the fourth time, to Solomon Berry[21], a labourer, aged 50. She lived in the small township until her death, at 70, in October 1881.

Elizabeth McKerracher, a small, resilient, illiterate woman with many surnames: Maxwell - Farquharson - Ferguson - Moles - Donnelly - Berry, lived a remarkable life, transported to the other side of the world, outliving four husbands, and several of her children.  She endured as best she could, in often brutal circumstances, overcame tragedy and a physical handicap, to become a founding mother of many descendants living in Australia today.


[1] Scottish Indexes, NRS Reference  JC26/1829/173. Related Documents AD14/29/305

[2] Scottish Indexes, High Court of Justiciary Trial Papers', NRS Reference JC26/1829/173, JC8/29

[3] Inverary Jail Museum website: https://www.inverarayjail.co.uk/

[4] Scottish Indexes, High Court of Justiciary Trial Papers', NRS Reference JC26/1829/173, JC8/29, f.113v

[5] National Records of Scotland, Glasgow Court of Judiciary trial papers, JC26/1834/306

[6] Caledonian Mercury, 20 September 1834

[7] Hobart Town Courier, 29 April, p2

[8] National Records of Scotland, Glasgow Court of Judiciary trial papers, JC26/1834/306

[9] Tasmanian Archives, Marriages, NAME_INDEXES:828419, CON52/1/2 p.115

[10] The Digital Panopticon, VDL Founders and Survivors Convicts, 20th July 1818, Record ID fasai51210

[11] Tasmanian Archives, Marriages, NAME_INDEXES:828420

[12] Tasmanian Archives, Deaths, NAME_INDEXES:1181527

[13] Tasmanian Archives, incorrectly recorded under Elizabeth Ferguson, CON40/1/4 Page 156, no 137

[14] Tasmanian Archives, Births, NAME_INDEXES:952108

[15] Colonial Times, 29 June, 1854

[16] Children in Queen's Orphanage Hobart Town 1828-1863 - Compiled by Joyce Purtscher

[17] Tasmanian Archives, SWD28, CSO24/248/9976

[18] Colonial Times, 12 July 1855 New Norfolk

[19] Tasmanian Archives, Marriages, NAME_INDEXES:851949

[20] Tasmanian Archives, Deaths, 5 September 1875, NAME_INDEXES:1152381

[21] Tasmanian Archives, Deaths, NAME_INDEXES:1226311




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