Janet Johnston

Hector, 1835

By Helen Ménard



Sadly, Janet’s story is a short one. The window into her life is miniscule – it barely covers eight years. We don’t know when she was born; anything about her family; where she went after she served her sentence; whether she ever married or had children; or where she died. What sets Janet’s story apart from many others is that she was probably only 12 years old when she was sentenced to be transported half a world away to a developing and often brutal colony. Of the 13,500 female convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) from 1803 to 1853,[1] roughly 190 were 15 or younger – 1.4 percent; and approximately 39 were 13 or younger – 0.3 percent.[2]

Although Janet had prior convictions for theft, she was hardly old enough to be a seasoned criminal and, like many of her contemporaries growing up in Glasgow during the industrial revolution, survival was undoubtedly her primary driving instinct. 

Growing up during the Industrial Revolution

Records suggest that Janet was born in New Wynd, Glasgow sometime between 1820 and 1823.[3] The New Wynd,[4] demolished around 1930, was an area located between the Grammar School Square and Castle Street, within the Old Town area of Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, Scotland.[5] The Hamilton Tolbooth,[6] which existed from 1642-1954, was on Castle Street and towered over New Wynd.

Historic Hamilton.

New Wynd, Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, Scotland[7]

Although, purportedly, one of the grandest jails in Scotland, sitting between the Hamilton Palace and what is now known as the Old Town, life inside for many of the inhabitants was not so grand. The jail population was also made up of many debtors who seemed to enjoy far better treatment and freedoms than their criminal counterparts.[8] Could his have been where Janet served her early sentences?

Was Janet a waif or an orphan? As she grew up in the industrialised city of Glasgow during the industrial revolution in Britain,[9] did she ever work in a factory or a cotton mill? In 1821 approximately 49 percent of workers were under the age of 20. In the early nineteenth century, children started working at an average age of 10. However, in industrial areas many started at the age of 8 and a half, if not younger.[10] Mainly girls were employed as household servants, as there was a servant tax on male domestics.[11] Janet’s transportation records state she was a ‘nurse girl’ suggesting she may have been in employment at some stage.[12]

The age dilemma

How old was Janet really? When she appeared before the court in Scotland in 1834 the court records state she was 12.[13] Yet, when she was transported a year later she was 15.[14] Is the court record likely to be more accurate? Many men and women transported to the Australian colonies frequently altered their ages and marital status to suit their circumstances – mostly to improve their prospects of marriage or employment. Record keeping was poor and not compulsory in many jurisdictions in the United Kingdom in the eighteenth century and many records were lost or destroyed over time making it difficult to verify personal details.[15] 

Janet and the law

Allegedly, Janet had two previous convictions, one for housebreaking and one for stealing a glass for which she served 6 months and 60 days’ imprisonment respectively.[16] On 16 September 1834 Janet appeared before the High Court, Glasgow charged with stealing cloth from the shop of George Kerr, Queen Street, Glasgow.[17] Being ‘habit and repute’ (an habitual criminal)[18], she was convicted and sentenced to 7 years’ transportation. Janet was 12 years old.[19] No one, it seems, petitioned against her sentence. Presumably, she was held in prison somewhere until her transportation nine months later in June 1835.

Janet was transported aboard the Hector with 134 other convict women and arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) on 20 October 1835.[20] She had no recorded illnesses on the voyage[21] and, when she landed in Hobart during the assignment period, her first assignment was to a Thomas Nicholls at Knocklofty.[22] Shortly thereafter she was assigned to a Mrs Morris.[23]

But, for Janet ‘life was not meant to be easy’.[24] During the four years from July 1836 until August 1840 she was assigned to another ten different masters and seemed to spend most of her time running away from them. Quite possibly, for good reason.

De Vries maintains that:

Most female convicts were given a hard time when they were assigned to work as domestics in households. The harshness of the penal system did not encourage convict women to be virtuous: an assigned female convict who rejected the sexual advances of her master could, on his word alone, be returned to the Female Factory as being of ‘bad character’.[25]

One of the masters to whom she was assigned in early 1837 was a Mr Mason.[26] Could this have been the Thomas Mason who emigrated penniless to VDL in 1829 after losing all his savings in a banking collapse in England? Mason was made a justice of the peace and, in March 1831, was appointed assistant police magistrate and muster master in Hobart. He was promoted in April 1835 by Lieutenant Governor Arthur to the police magistracy in New Norfolk in 'approbation of the zealous & independent conduct he has displayed' in Hobart. He also served as coroner and commissioner in the Court of Requests. However, Mason was unpopular amongst his fellow magistrates and, after several controversial rulings, became known as a ‘ruthless hanging magistrate’.[27] Nonetheless, his career was not affected by his unpopularity and in February 1844 he was appointed deputy-chairman of the General Quarter Sessions, only two weeks after being denounced by a fellow-magistrate, William Sharland. He retired in 1879 and died at Campbell Town in 1888.[28] If this was the same Mason, Janet was charged in February 1837 with disobedience of orders while under his service and after a month on the wash tub she was reassigned.[29]

All in all, Janet was brought before the court on twelve occasions – eight times for being absent without leave or out after hours; three times for being drunk and disorderly; once for disobedience of orders; once for abusing her mistress; and once for misconduct in being in a public house.[30] Her punishments ranged from 7 days to one month in solitary confinement on bread and water; two periods of one month on the wash tub; and three periods of incarceration in the female House of Correction (the Cascades) for 2, 3 and 6 months -  the last being with hard labour.[31]

So, over a four year period, Janet spent about fifteen months in detention, much in solitary confinement and six months under hard labour. Did she find solace and companionship ‘inside’? What was happening with the rest of her life? When her sentence expired she would have been barely 20 years old.

Janet and James

Janet was given permission to marry James Chamberlain on 16 July 1840[32] but there is no record that the marriage ever took place. One month later in August 1840, while holding a ticket of leave, Janet was charged with misconduct in a public house and sent to the Cascades for 6 months of hard labour.[33] Was this the reason the marriage never eventuated?  James, aged 22, had been tried in Bedford, England in July 1832 for house breaking and was convicted and sentenced to transportation for life. He arrived in Hobart aboard the convict ship Surrey in April 1833.[34] With prior convictions his character was described as ‘very bad as can be’.[35] Maybe this was a lucky escape for Janet.

What happened to Janet?

How Janet’s life ended is a mystery. Many of her convicted counterparts suffered a similar fate in the annals of history. It is more than likely she changed her name and possibly even left the colony. Nonetheless, it is indeed a dark chapter in history when a government, for purely political motives and without a shred of humanity,[36] forcibly evicts a young, socially disadvantaged girl from her birthplace, without her family, to serve its imperialist interests; and, ‘having served her time’ in a foreign colony, having little option but to ‘disappear’ in order to have any prospect of a reasonable life. Society should be better than this. Janet’s life was worth more than this.


[1] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/

[2] FCRC database; these are approximate figures only as many women had more than one recorded age on official documentation.

[3] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON19/1/13 p170 DI 185; NRS AD14/34/84; JC26/1834/312; there are several possible births for a Janet Johnston in and around Glasgow from 1815-1825 none of which can be verified as Janet. scotlandspeople.gov.uk; familysearch.org

[4] A wynd is a narrow lane, alley or path, especially one between houses; https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/wynd

[5] https://hamiltonhistorian.wordpress.com/2020/01/17/new-wynd/

[6] A tolbooth or town house was the main municipal building of a Scottish burgh, from medieval times until the 19th century. The tolbooth usually provided a council meeting chamber, a court house and a jail. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tolbooth

[7] https://historic-hamilton.co.uk/tag/new-wynd/

[8] Ibid

[9] 1760-1840; https://www.theglasgowstory.com/story/?id=TGSC0 / Michael Moss

[10]http://www.amalgamate-safety.com/2018/06/12/horrible-health-and-safety-histories-child-labour/12/6/2018/Allan MacDonald

[11] Ibid

[12] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON19/1/13 p170 DI 185

[13] NRS AD14/34/84; JC26/1834/312

[14] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON19/1/13 p170 DI 185

[15] https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/The_Growth_of_Record_Keeping_about_Convicts

[16] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/5 p63 DI 223; there are no entries on the prison register for Scotland for theses offences; scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[17] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/5 p63 DI 223; NRS AD14/34/84; JC26/1834/312

[18] A term in Scots criminal law to mean an habitual criminal or a thief by reputation. www.nrscotland.gov.uk/Index of Legal terms

[19] NRS AD14/34/84; JC26/1834/312

[20] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/5 p63 DI 223

[21] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/docs2/ships/SurgeonsJournal_Hector1835.pdf

[22] See FCRC database under locations

[23] Ibid; 1835 Census

[24] George Bernard Shaw; https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/393269-life-is-not-meant-to-be-easy-my-child-but;

[25] De Vries, Susanna, Strength of Spirit – Pioneering Women of Achievement from First Fleet to Federation, (1995), Millennium Books Australia, p14

[26] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/5 p63 DI 223

[27] https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mason-thomas-2436

[28] Ibid

[29] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON40/1/5 p63 DI 223

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid

[32] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON52/1/1 p32

[33] Ibid

[34] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON31/1/7 p183 DI 187

[35] Ibid

[36] Transportation Act 1717 Great Britain (4 Geo. 1 c. 11); Transportation Act 1768 (8 Geo. 3 c. 15); see also Swiss, Deborah J., The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women, (2010), The Berkley Publishing Group, London. Extracted from




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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].




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