(Sir Robert Seppings, 1852)


Don Bradmore


Eliza Johnston arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) as a convict per Sir Robert Seppings in July 1852.[1] She was twenty-three years old. In the previous year, she had been convicted in her native Scotland of the theft of clothing and sentenced to transportation for seven years. That had not been her first offence. In fact, she had been convicted of shoplifting three times previously, for the last of which, five years earlier, she had narrowly avoided transportation and had served two years in prison. She was not so fortunate when convicted for the fourth time. Despite these offences, however, it is difficult to think of her as bad person. Rather, her convict documents suggest that she was simply an immature and silly young girl. In VDL, she was a well-behaved prisoner and, within three years of her arrival, had been granted a ticket of leave. In 1855, she married a former convict, Joseph Bateman, and was never in trouble with the law again. By 1865, she had given birth to four children. Sadly, she passed away soon after the birth of her last child. She was only thirty-seven.

This is Eliza’s story:

On 28 April 1846, six years before her arrival in VDL, Eliza (or Elizabeth) Johnston (or Johnstone), then eighteen years old and working in a cotton mill, was brought before the Glasgow Spring Circuit Court charged with stealing a piece of drugget, a coarse woven fabric, from a shop in the city. With her in the dock was a young accomplice by the name of Isabella King. Although they denied the charge, both were found guilty. While Isabella was sent to gaol for eighteen months, Eliza was dealt with more harshly. Described as ‘a thief by habit and repute’ because of prior convictions for similar offences – for which she had served gaol terms, one of thirty days in 1844 and the other of four months in 1845 – she was sentenced to transportation for seven years.[2]

Soon after the trial, she was taken to Glasgow Gaol to await transfer to Millbank Prison, London, and eventual shipment to VDL. While still at Glasgow, however, a petition begging clemency for her was presented to Sir James Graham, Secretary of State for the Home Department. The petitioner was Eliza’s father, Oliver Johnstone.[3]

Johnstone’s plea for commutation of his daughter’s sentence of transportation to one of imprisonment in Scotland was based on a number of factors: that the item that had been stolen was of no great value; that it had been recovered quickly and returned to its owner; that the young culprits had been apprehended almost immediately; that both he and his wife Bel, Eliza’s mother, were elderly, in ill-health and poor, and they depended on their daughter’s earnings to supplement his earnings as a labourer; and, finally, that he was willing to remove his daughter to some place where she could have no further contact with former associates who had led her astray.[4]

To the petition, Johnstone had appended letters of support from twelve ‘respectable’ local businessmen who had known his daughter and believed her to be ‘a person inclined to well-doing’. However, William Thomas Aitken, the solicitor who had assisted Johnstone to prepare the petition, and through whom it had been forwarded, felt obliged to point out in a covering letter that these businessmen were either unaware that Eliza had had previous convictions or had chosen not to mention them.[5]

On 8 June 1846, while the petition was being considered, Eliza was transferred to Millbank. On 13 July 1846, Archibald Currie, describing himself as an ‘agent’ acting for Oliver Johnstone, forwarded a second petition to Sir George Grey who, since the trial, had succeeded Graham as Home Office Secretary. As in his first petition, Johnstone begged that his daughter ‘might undergo imprisonment in this country’ even if that imprisonment was equivalent to the period of her transportation. He stressed again that Eliza’s prior convictions had been for ‘trifling’ breaches of the law, and stated that she had been ‘in the fair way of Reformation … until the unfortunate night when she fell into the company of Isabella King’. To this petition, Currie had attached more testimonials: one from Eliza’s last employer, one from her Sabbath School Teacher, and a third from yet another prominent businessman. In a covering letter, he told Grey that, should Eliza be spared transportation, her father intended to send her to Canada where she would live with ‘respectable relatives’ who could provide her with ‘the opportunity of returning to the paths of honesty by the influence of religious example and instruction’.[6]   

Upon receipt of Currie’s letter, Grey wrote to the inspectors of Millbank Prison requesting a report on Eliza’s behaviour. In response, the inspectors informed him that she had ‘conducted herself satisfactorily’.[7] Not surprisingly, because she had been there for only six weeks, Grey declined to take further action at that stage.

Two years later, Eliza was still at Millbank, the authorities seemingly unsure about whether or not to proceed with the order of transportation. On 7 April 1848, Grey received yet another petition on Eliza’s behalf, this one presented by the Millbank inspectors themselves. In it, they stated that Eliza ‘had behaved herself in a most exemplary manner during the whole period of her confinement’ and that they were now submitting her case for Grey’s consideration with a view to the remainder of her sentence being remitted. The matron of the prison, they added, had assured them that, in the event of her being pardoned, there would be no difficulty ‘in placing her advantageously in service.’[8]   

On 15 April 1848, Grey formally confirmed Queen Victoria’s wish that Eliza be granted a Free Pardon:

Victoria R –

Whereas Elizabeth Johnstone is now under sentence of transportation in Millbank Prison, she having been convicted of felony at Glasgow in April 1846 – We, in consideration of some circumstances humbly reported to Us, are Graciously pleased to extend Our Grace and Mercy unto her and to Grant her Our Free Pardon for the Crime of which she stands Convicted.

By H M Command

G. Grey

And so, Eliza was free to return to Glasgow.

Her freedom, however, was to be short-lived. In the Glasgow High Court of Justiciary on 22 December 1851, just a little over three years after her release from Millbank, Eliza, now twenty-two and described as a fruit-dealer, pleaded guilty to the theft, in the previous September, of ‘four polka jackets’ from a draper’s shop in Argyle Street, Glasgow.[9]

For the second time in five years, she was sentenced to seven years’ transportation. This time there was to be no petition – and no escape from her fate.[10]

Soon after the trial, she was put aboard Sir Robert Seppings which, with Mr. R. S. Stewart as Master and Dr. L. S. Cunningham as Surgeon-Superintendent, two-hundred and twenty female prisoners and a number of their children, sailed from Woolwich, England, on 18 March 1851 and reached Hobart on 8 July that year.[11] There, Cunningham was pleased to report that her behaviour had been ‘very good’ throughout the voyage.[12]

Eliza’s indent (or, more correctly, the ship’s manifest) described her as being twenty-three years old, five feet (about 154 cm) tall, with red hair and blue eyes. She could both read and write. Her religion was noted as ‘Protestant’. She was allocated the convict trade of ‘plain cook’. Intriguingly, her indent states clearly that she was ‘married’ but no record of a marriage, prior to her transportation, has been located.[13]

Another interesting revelation in the indent was that Elizabeth’s only brother, George Johnstone, had also been sentenced to seven years’ transportation for theft. Two years earlier, he had had arrived in VDL per William Jardine. (What, if anything, does this imply? Had Eliza’s family life been more difficult than her father’s petition would seem to suggest?)  

Unlike most of the women who had arrived in VDL as prisoners in the previous ten years, Eliza was not required to serve a term of probation. The probation system, which had been introduced for female prisoners in VDL in 1843 – and under which all new-arrivals were given moral and religious instruction as well as training in the domestic skills they would require when assigned to free settlers as servants - had not been a success and was soon to be abandoned.[14] As a consequence, Eliza was sent immediately after disembarkation to the Brickfields Hiring Depot in Hobart to await employment as a convict servant.[15] Within days, she had been assigned to Dr. William Lodewyk Crowther, at that time an eminent surgeon and naturalist and, later, to become premier of the colony.[16] It was there that she committed the one and only offence with which she was charged in VDL.

On 11 November 1852, having been at Crowther’s residence for only four months, Eliza absconded. Apprehended soon afterwards, she was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment with hard labour.[17] The probable reason for her absconding was soon to become clear. On 9 March 1853, while still at the Female House of Correction, she gave birth to an illegitimate child. The birth does not appear to have been registered and the identity of the father is unknown.  As there is no evidence of Eliza having had the child with her in later years, it is likely that it was adopted out.[18] After release from imprisonment, Eliza was returned to her assigned position with Crowther and, on 31 October 1854, she was granted a ticket of leave.[19]

At some time during these early years in the colony, Eliza had met a young man by the name of Joseph Bateman and, on 13 December 1854, the pair applied for permission to marry.[20] Bateman had arrived in VDL per Rodney in November 1850 after having been convicted of burglary in his native Chelmsford, Essex, England, in July 1847 and sentenced to transportation for ten years. He was then seventeen. Apart from two relatively minor indiscretions, he had conducted himself well in the colony. By October 1854, he had been granted a ticket of leave and, in May 1855, had been issued with a conditional pardon.[21] 

With approval obtained, Eliza and Joseph were married at St. George’s Church, Battery Point, Hobart, on 23 January 1855.[22] Although the parish register shows the age of both bride and groom as twenty-two, Eliza was probably twenty-six and Joseph a year younger. After the wedding, the pair appear to have lived together in harmony, neither coming to the attention of the law again. On 22 July 1856, Eliza received her conditional pardon.[23]

On 29 May 1855, Eliza gave birth to a daughter, whom she called Elizabeth, and on 18 August 1857, a son, Joseph Thomas, was born. The births were registered at Hobart where Joseph worked as a labourer.[24] Ten years later, however, on 19 July 1865, when a second daughter, Isabella, arrived, the birth was registered at Launceston. It seems that the couple had moved to the north of the colony.[25]

On 21 September 1866, a little over a year after the birth of baby Isabella, Eliza passed away. Her death certificate shows her name as ‘Eliza Bateman’, her age as thirty-seven and the cause of death as ‘enlargement of the liver’.[26]

In the following year, Eliza’s husband, Joseph, remarried.[27] His second wife was Emma Iverson. They had six children together. Bateman died of heart disease in December 1894.[28]  

It is difficult not to feel great sympathy for Eliza. Like the vast majority of the 13,500 (approx.) women who were torn from family and friends and transported to VDL as convicts between 1813 and 1853, she was young, uneducated and poor. That she died at such an early age adds a special poignancy to her story. That said, however, it is impossible to escape the thought that she had brought much of her misfortune upon herself. The evidence of her later life shows her to have been a good person fundamentally but, in failing to mend her ways after narrowly avoiding her first sentence of transportation, she was obviously, in her early years at least, sadly lacking in self-discipline and decidedly foolish.

Eliza’s story is noteworthy, too, for the light it sheds upon the workings of the petition system in England in the transportation era.

(The author acknowledges the outstanding contribution to this research of FCRC volunteer Brenda Pollock.)



[1] Conduct record: CON 41-1-34, image 110; description list: CON19-1-10, image 131; indent CON15/1/17, images 274 and 275; police no: 441; FCRC ID: 11221. 

[2] Glasgow Herald,  1 May 1846; see also JC26/1846/221 @ scottishindexes.com via ID:11221 in d/base at www.femaleconvicts.org 

[3] Petition dated 5 May 1846; see findmypast.co.uk via ID:11221 at www.femaleconvicts.org 

[4] JC26/1846/221 @ www.scottishindexes.com via ID11221 in d/base at www.femaleconvicts.org 

[5] Second petition - dated 13 July 1846 via ID:11221 at www.femaleconvicts.org 

[6] Currie’s overing letter, 13 July; see findmypast.co.uk.

[7] Letters to and from Millbank, 28 July and 1 August 1846 via ID:11221 in d/base at www.femaleconvicts.org

[8] Petition letter from Millbank Prison, 7 April 1846 via

[9] CON 41-1-34, image 110.

[10] Glasgow Herald, 26 December 1851 via ‘Research Notes’, ID:11221 in d/base at www.femaleconvicts.org

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

[12] CON 41-1-34, image 110.

[13] CON15/1/17, images 274 and 275.

[14] See https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/administration/probation-system

[15] CON 41-1-34, image 110.

[16] See ‘W. L. Crowther’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography online at https://adb.anu.edu.au/

[17] CON 41-1-34, image 110.

[18] CON 41-1-34, image 110.

[19] CON 41-1-34, image 110.

[20] Permission to marry: CON52/1/7, page 35.

[21] CON33-1-99, image 27.

[22] Marriage: RGD37/14/218/1855, Hobart; Eliza’s surname is shown as ‘Johnstone’.

[23] Conditional pardon: CON 41-1-34, image 110.

[24] Births: Elizabeth Bateman, RGD33/154/1855, Hobart; the mother’s name is shown as ‘Elizabeth Johnson’; Joseph Thomas Bateman, RGD33/755/1857, Hobart; the mother’s name is shown as ‘Eliza Johnston’.

[25] Isabella Bateman: RGD33/254/1865, Launceston; the mother’s name is shown as ‘Elizabeth Johnson’.

[26] Eliza, death: RGD35/1/35, no. 166.

[27] Marriage, Bateman and Emma Iverson: RGD37/459/1867, Hadspen.

[28] Death, Joseph Bateman: RGD35/1763, no.73.


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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].