EMMA WELLS (Tasmania, 1844)

by Don Bradmore

 At the time of her conviction in England, Emma Wells, twenty-eight years old and single, was employed as the ‘friend and travelling companion’ of Mrs. Ann Elizabeth Earnshaw, a woman of independent means, almost ten years her senior.[1] In April 1844, both were found guilty of shoplifting and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. They arrived together in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) aboard Tasmania in December 1844. Of the two, Mrs. Earnshaw had more difficulty in adapting to their new circumstances. She was gaoled twice for new offences in the colony and, within five years of her arrival, had passed away. Emma, on the other hand, managed to serve out her time without being charged with any new offence. In 1849, she married forty-five-year-old Edward Desmond, a former convict, who was working as a police constable at that time. A couple of years later, however, she was convicted in the Supreme Court, Launceston, of the theft from a shop of a roll of fabric and was imprisoned for eighteen months. Soon after her release, the marriage, which had been troubled from the start, disintegrated completely and she and her husband separated. There were no children. What happened to Emma after that remains a mystery. Did she remarry? Did she leave the colony? Frustratingly, there are no answers to these questions yet.

This is Emma’s story:


While very little information about the origins of many of the convict women in VDL in the transportation era is available, a considerable amount is known about Emma’s family, early life and upbringing. She was born at Walworth, Surrey, England, about 1815, the third child of Thomas Wells and his wife Charlotte (nee Brown). Emma’s siblings were Charlotte Frances Wells (born 1809), Samuel Pullen Wells (1810), Thomas Allen Wells (1817), William Hobart Wells (1818), Elizabeth Wells (1820), Louisa Wells (1821), Henry Edmund Wells (1823), Frederick Charles Wells (1824), Norfolk Walter Wells (1828) and Julia Wells (1830). Quite a number of the family achieved prominence – or, in some cases, notoriety - in the Australian colonies.

In 1816, when Emma was still an infant, her father was convicted of embezzlement from the firm for which he worked as a clerk in England and sentenced to transportation for fourteen years. On the ship carrying him to VDL, he was fortunate enough to meet William Sorell who was on his way to the colony to become its new Lieutenant-Governor. So impressed was Sorell with Thomas’s business acumen that, upon arrival in 1818, he appointed him as his clerk. Greatly favoured by Sorell, within a year he had been granted a conditional pardon and had acquired land. Soon, he had become a successful exporter of fine merino wool. By 1824, however, he had outstretched himself financially and, when his wool speculations failed in 1828, he was declared insolvent. He spent the next five years in the debtors’ prison at Hobart but, even there, he had considerable success. Setting himself up as an accountant inside the prison, he did so well that, by the time of his release, he had managed to pay off most of his creditors. Upon his release in early 1833, he continued with his business dealings for a short while but died, at forty-six, later that year.[2]   

Emma’s mother, Charlotte, a first cousin to the Rev. Samuel Marsden, the senior chaplain in the colony of New South Wales, seems to have been as energetic and resourceful as her husband.[3] When Thomas was transported in 1816, she had decided to follow him to VDL. In 1818, she arrived at Hobart with three of her four children. Sadly, she had had to leave her third child, little Emma, behind in England. She was a sickly child and it was thought that she would be unlikely to survive the long voyage. She had been left in the care of her grandmother, Mrs. Bellamy Wells.[4]

By 1830, Charlotte had given birth to seven more children. In their adult lives, most of these children were successful. From the 1840s, Charlotte’s sons Thomas and Henry were achieving recognition for their work in opening up large tracts of the interior of the Australian mainland for the beef industry.[5] By the 1860s, her son William had become prominent in the wool industry in South Australia.[6] In the 1890s, her son Charles won renown as one of the leaders of the ‘Calvert Scientific Exploring Expedition’ which explored the largely-unknown Great Sandy Desert area of Western Australia.[7] Her youngest son, Norfolk, had gone off to the United States where, by the mid-1860s, he had prospered. In 1842, her daughter Charlotte Frances was running a school at New Norfolk.[8]

Less successful was Charlotte’s eldest son, Samuel. As a young man, he had become the farm overseer for a widow at Hamilton, west of Hobart, but, in 1834, was convicted of cattle-stealing and sentenced to death. That sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment at Port Arthur but, following a change in the laws, it was further reduced to fourteen years. Ultimately, he was released after three years, the remainder of his sentence having been remitted. He moved to Victoria, married there and avoided further trouble with the law.[9] .

Meanwhile, back in England, Emma – the sickly child who had been left behind - had grown up in the home of her grandmother. There had not been a lot of money in the household but they had managed to support themselves by taking in lodgers, with their needlework and with the occasional help of relatives.

However, by 1840, Emma, now about twenty-four and still single, was looking for more in life. At that time, she happened to hear that a Mrs. Ann Elizabeth Earnshaw, a woman in her mid-thirties who was separated from her husband and had received ‘considerable property’ in her settlement with him, was looking for a travelling companion. Despite her grandmother’s misgivings about Mrs. Earnshaw’s character, Emma applied for the position, which paid an annual salary of fifteen pounds, and was accepted. Soon, Emma’s grandmother had lost almost all contact with her. Four years later, however, she was told by friends that Emma had been convicted of shoplifting in London and sentenced to transportation.[10]

As it happens, at their trial at the Old Bailey, London, on 8 April 1844, Emma and Ann Earnshaw had faced four separate counts of theft. At one retail establishment they had stolen a fruit-knife valued at six shillings and sixpence. At another they had stolen three rings valued at three pounds and seventeen shillings. At a third, they had stolen a watch valued at thirty pounds. At a fourth, they had stolen a locket valued at twelve shillings and sixpence. The court was told that their customary way of operating was for one of them to distract the shop attendant while the other took the desired items and hid them in ‘pockets’ they had cut into the feather boas they wore around their necks. Emma was found guilty on all four counts and Ann on two of them. Although it was the first time that either woman had been convicted, both were sentenced to seven years transportation.[11]

On 27 May 1844, the women were transferred from Newgate Prison, where they had been held since their arrest, to Millbank Prison, London, to await embarkation on a ship to carry them off to a penal colony on the other side of the world.[12] While there, petitions for mitigation of the sentences were presented to the authorities. In Emma’s case, the petitioner – her grandmother – maintained that that Emma had been brought up ‘religiously and honestly’ and that she had had ‘no habit or propensity towards shoplifting’ until she met Ann Earnshaw. Ann had petitioned on her own behalf, maintaining that Emma had betrayed the trust that she had had put in her as a servant and that she had been the initiator of the crimes.[13] Both petitions failed.[14]

On 30 August 1844, the women were put aboard the convict vessel Tasmania which, with William Black as Master, Thomas Seaton as Surgeon-Superintendent, one hundred and ninety-one female prisoners and a number of their children, sailed from London on 8 September and reached Hobart on 20 December that year.[15] At Hobart, Emma was described as being twenty-eight years old and single, five feet four and a quarter inches (about 163 cm) tall, with light brown hair and hazel eyes. Her face was slightly pock-pitted. She professed to being of the Church of England faith. She could both read and write. She was allocated the convict trades of ‘nurse and needlewoman’.[16]

After disembarkation, both women were taken to the Anson Probation Station where, for the next six months, they were given training in what was expected of them when assigned to free settlers as convict servants.[17]

Soon after the completion of their probation, both women were hired into service in the Launceston area. There, Ann was charged with two new offences. In December 1845, she was sent to gaol for three months, to be served with hard labour, for ‘disturbing the peace’ and, in April 1848, she received the same punishment for ‘being out after hours and drunk’. Nevertheless, by May 1849, she had been granted a ticket of leave but, sadly, she lived for only another few months. On 9 November 1849, she passed away at Launceston.[18] The cause of her death was given as ‘apoplexy’, a condition caused by a cerebral haemorrhage or stroke.[19]

Emma, on the other hand, managed to serve out her sentence without being charged with any new offence. On 22 August 1848, she was granted a ticket of leave and, on 30 July 1850, her conditional pardon was approved. She was a free woman again.[20]

At some time during her period of convict service, Emma had attracted the attention of a former convict by the name of Edward Desmond.[21] On 14 August 1849, they applied for permission to marry and, with approval granted, they were wed at Holy Trinity Church, Launceston, on 28 September that year.[22] Emma was then thirty-three; Edward was about forty-five. Interestingly, just two months before her death, Ann Earnshaw was one of the witnesses to the marriage. Obviously, Emma and Ann had been able to stay in contact with each other during their penal servitude.[23]

Edward Desmond had been in VDL since his arrival per Morley, at the age of nineteen, in 1823. In the previous year, he had been convicted at the Old Bailey, London, of burglary and sentenced to death, that sentence later commuted to transportation for life.[24] In the colony, he had been quite a troublesome prisoner but, despite a number of new offences, had been appointed as a constable in the police force by 1828. (Such appointments were not uncommon at the time as the colonial authorities struggled to maintain order in a society in which lawlessness had increased alarmingly as more and more convicts had arrived.) Even then, however, he did not conduct himself well and was punished for a variety of offences. In 1828, he was given twenty-five lashes after being found in a state of intoxication while on duty. Later that year, he absconded from the police barracks and was found on a ship, apparently attempting to leave the colony, and sent to gaol for four months. He was fined several times for neglect of duty and, at one time, was punished for it by being sent to the road gang at Grass Tree Hill near Risdon, a little north of Hobart. He was sentenced to two days on the tread-wheel after being found in a house of ill-repute. On more than one occasion, he had been dismissed from the force but, curiously, re-appointed soon afterwards. Nevertheless, in 1835, he had been granted a ticket of leave and, in 1848, was issued with a conditional pardon.[25] He was a still a police constable when he and Emma married in 1849.[26]    

There is evidence that the marriage of Emma and Edward was an unhappy one from the start.[27] However, it seems that they were still together when, in May 1852, three years after their wedding, Edward was transferred from the Hobart police department to a more senior position at Launceston. In view of his troubled thirteen years of service at Hobart, it is interesting that the Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania, in announcing his promotion, praised him highly, telling its readers that he had always maintained ‘a character for strictness and uprightness of conduct, enforcing the law for the good of the public; possessing as he does a deal of discernment and sound judgment …’[28] It is assumed that Emma accompanied Edward to Launceston.

It is likely that Edward was highly embarrassed, however, when less than a month later Emma was arrested for the theft from a Launceston shop of thirty yards of satinette, valued at over seven pounds.[29]

At her trial in the Supreme Court at Launceston on 7 July 1852, the owner of the shop testified that, on 25 June, Emma had asked to look at feathers and fabrics. While she was examining these in his show room, he had to leave her alone for a few moments and, when he returned, she had vanished and a roll of satinette was missing. A shop assistant who had seen Emma leaving the premises in a suspicious manner, and with something bulky under her cloak, had gone after her and had brought her back. Emma had then produced the roll and had begged the owner not to prosecute her. The police were called and Emma had been taken into custody. The jury returned a verdict of guilty immediately. In addressing Emma before sentencing, the judge, implying that he could have awarded a much harsher penalty, had said: ‘You were transported for a similar offence; you obtained your freedom last year; your character has been good since you have been here, and from the family to which you belong, I trust there is still some hope of recovery.’ She was sentenced her to eighteen months gaol with hard labour.[30]

There can be no doubt that the circumstances of Emma’s arrest and imprisonment exacerbated the tensions that appear to have already existed in her marriage. According to a report of the trial in The Cornwall Chronicle of 10 July 1852, Edward had been called to the scene after Emma had been arrested - and, after hearing what she had done, told the owner of the shop that she should be prosecuted.[31]

Not surprisingly, the bitterness and resentment which must have lingered in the relationship while Emma served her eighteen-month gaol term flared openly within a couple of months of her release. Under the heading ‘A Family Affair’, the Colonial Times of 24 March 1855 reported that Emma had appeared at the police court earlier that month complaining that her husband had been ill-using her and that he had threatened ‘to knock her head off’. After a number of witnesses had corroborated her claims, Edward was required to find two sureties of thirty pounds each and was bound over to keep the peace for three months. The newspaper concluded its report with the observation that: ‘Drunkenness appeared to have been the cause of contention between the man and his wife, who have not been living on amicable terms for the last six years.[32] 

Unfortunately, disharmony between the pair continued and, within a year, they were back in court. In February 1856, Emma again begged a police magistrate to impose sureties on Edward – who by this time had been dismissed from the police force - to keep the peace.[33] She testified that he had come home intoxicated recently and had threatened to murder her. She had told him to go away but, instead of leaving, he had hidden in the yard. Later, when she had gone outside to fasten the gate, he had struck her several times about the head. Concerned for her safety, she had left the home but, a day or two later, she had met him in the street. He had seized her by the arm and repeated his threats. She told the magistrate that she had had to run into a nearby shop for protection and was now afraid to walk the streets. On being asked if he had any cause to show why he should not be bound over, Edward replied that ‘it was not likely that a man who was fond of his wife would wish to murder her’ and that he had done nothing to cause him to be bound over. The magistrate, however, said that, in view of the fact that Edward had been bound over for three months only a year earlier, he would now bind him over for six months, with a thirty-pound surety in his name as well as two further sureties of thirty pounds each to be found. When Edward said that he was unable to procure these sureties, the magistrate said that he was sorry to do so but that he had no alternative but to commit him to gaol. Before being taken away to the lock-up, Edward said that ‘it was a pity that Emma was not better known or the public would sympathise with him [because, since marrying her,] he had been reduced from a most respectable position to a degraded one.’[34]  

As he was being led from the court, Edward had turned towards Emma and said enigmatically: ‘Give my compliments to Mr. Gray, Emma. You've gained your point.’ What did Edward mean? What ‘point’ had Emma proved? Who was this ‘Mr. Gray’? According to a report of the case in The Hobarton Mercury, the allusion to ‘Mr. Gray’ was to an elderly person who had accompanied Emma to court.[35] But who could he have been? An acquaintance? A lover, perhaps?  It is unlikely that the identity of ‘Mr. Gray’ will ever be known or Edward’s comment understood.

Edward does not appear to have fared well after his release from prison. Eighteen months later, having been employed for some time as a barman at the Black Prince Hotel in Elizabeth Street, Launceston, he took the proprietor of that establishment to court claiming that he was owed thirteen pounds and eighteen shillings in unpaid wages. His case failed.[36] On 22 January 1971, he passed away. The cause was ‘malignant disease of the stomach. He was sixty-seven.[37] There is no indication that he had ever met Emma again.

Regrettably, nothing more is known about Emma’s life after her parting from Edward. She was then about forty years old. There is no record of her having remarried or having left the colony. No record of her death has been found.

While it is impossible not to feel great sympathy for most of those transported to VDL for their crimes in the convict era, it is difficult to escape the thought that Emma had brought her problems upon herself. Although she had been separated from her parents and siblings at an early age, she had grown up in relative comfort with a caring of a grandmother and should have been able to make a good life for herself. However, she always seemed to want more than her grandmother - and a husband who seems to have been genuinely fond of her – could give her and so she resorted to theft to get it. Did she eventually find happiness? Perhaps further research will provide an answer.


The author acknowledges the outstanding contribution to the research for this story of FCRC volunteer, Eileen Ball.



[1] Conduct record, Emma Wells: CON41-1-4, image 179; description list: CON19-1-4, image 171; indent: CON15/1/3, pp. 94 and 95; police no: 602; FCRC ID: 11988. Conduct record, Ann Elizabeth Earnshaw: CON41-1-4, image 48; description list: CON19-1-4, image 137; indent: CON15/1/3, pp. 60 and 61; police no: 131; FCRC ID: 11866.

[2] ‘Thomas Wells (17887-1833)’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, online at https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wells-thomas-2779

[3] Charlotte’s relationship to Marsden: see ‘Emma Wells (ID11988), Research’ in FCRC d/base at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[4] Petition of Mrs. Bellamy Wells, Emma’s grandmother, via, ‘Research Notes’, Emma Wells (ID 11988), in FCRC d/base at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[5] Research Notes for Emma Wells (ID 11988) via E. Ball (FCRC volunteer), in FCRC d/base at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[6] As for Note 5.

[7] ‘The Calvert Scientific Exploring Expedition, 1896-7’ at https://www.samemory.sa.gov.au/site/page.cfm?u=205

[8] As for Note 5.

[9] See Bradmore, D. J. (2015). Sarah Bromley: Success, Sorrow and Sandal in Van Diemen’s Land. Maldon (Vic.): Published by the Author; see also Bradmore, D. (2016). “George Steele: Some Questions about ‘A Man of Bad Character’” in Tasmanian Ancestry, Vol. 32, No.3, pp153-157; and Bradmore, D. ‘Samuel Pullen Wells: Preferential Treatment for the Son of an Influential Convict?’ in Tasmanian Ancestry, Vol.37, No.2, pp. 78-84.

[10] As for Note 4.

[11] Reference Nos: t18440408-1051, t11840408-1052, t11840408-1053 and t11840408-1054, 8 April 1844, at www.oldbaileyonline.org

[12] ‘Millbank Prison Register’ per ‘Research Notes’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[13] Petitions at findmypast.co.uk transcribed by E. Ball (FCRC volunteer) and available at ‘Research Notes’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au 

[14] As for Note 13.

[15] https://members.iinet.au/~perthdps/convicts/shipsTAS.html

[16] CON19-1-4, image 171.

[17] Anson Probation Station: https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/probation-stations/anson

[18] CON41-1-4, image 48.

[19] Ann Elizabeth Earnshaw, death: RGD35/125/1849, Launceston.

[20] CON41-1-4, image 179; TL, Hobart Town Gazette, 22 August 1848; CP, Hobart Town Gazette, 22 May 1849. 

[21] CON31-1-9, image 106.

[22] Permission to marry: CON52/1/3, p.112.

[23] Marriage, Emma and Edward Desmond: RGD 37/1/1, no 509.

[24] Desmond, trial at OB: Ref: t18220417-139 at https://www.oldbaileyonline.org

[25] CON31-1-9, image 106.

[26] As for Note 24.

[27] Unhappy marriage: Colonial Times (Hobart), 24 March 1855, p.3.

[28] Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania, 8 May 1852, p.3; The Courier (Hobart), 19 May 1852, p.2.

30 Arrested: The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston), 30 June 1852, p.412; Launceston Examiner, 30 June 1852, p.5.

[30] Launceston Examiner, 3 July 1852, p.420 and 10 July 1852, p.5; The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston), 30 June 1852, p.412.

[31] The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston), 10 July 1852, p.434.

[32] Colonial Times (Hobart), 24 March 1855, p.3.

[33] Edward dismissed from police: The Tasmanian Daily News (Hobart), 6 March 1856, p.2.

[34] The Hobarton Mercury, 25 February 1856, p.3; Colonial Times (Hobart), 23 February 1856, p.2; The Hobart Town Advertiser, 23 February 1856, p.2; Launceston Examiner, 26 February 1856, p.2; The Tasmanian Daily News (Hobart), 23 February 1856, p.5.

[35] The Hobarton Mercury, 25 February 1856, p.3;

[36] The Hobart Town Advertiser, 5 September 1857, p.2.

[37] Edward Desmond, death: RGD35/1/40 no 1385.



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