Death sentence

A sentence of death was a widely used penalty imposed by the courts on guilty felons in 18th  & 19th century Britain.  Many of these sentences were commuted, either through the judiciary or by a successful petition for a royal pardon, which contributed significantly to the overcrowding of gaols, as explained by Tony Moore:

But reprieve from the gallows meant a long incarceration as a prisoner of His Majesty, and as the new laws for property took effect the country’s small number of gaols were swamped by the tide of commuted prison sentences. Transportation of criminals to colonies across the sea had begun in the seventeenth century, and evolved in the eighteenth century as a more humane alternative to the death sentence that removed the criminal with the finality of death, while cementing social control at home.[1]


Approximately 246 of the female convicts transported to Van Diemens Land had previously received a sentence of death in Britain. Their crimes ranged from the seemingly minor acts of stealing/robbery/burglary, coining/counterfeiting, house breaking, arson, highway robbery and wounding, to the more serious acts of attempted murder and murder. Perhaps the most obscure death sentence was handed down to Mary Ann Fielding in 1800 for ‘returning from transportation before her time had expired’.  Fielding was originally a convict on the Indispensable in 1796, transported to NSW for seven years for stealing shoes.  She was sent back to NSW on the Nile in 1801, ending up in VDL around 1808, having had her death sentence commuted to transportation for life. 


Of the female convicts who ended up in VDL, the earliest trial resulting in the death penalty was that of Ann Steel in 1787 for a felony (highway robbery). Steel was ‘respited during His Majesty’s pleasure’.[2] As an indication of how indiscriminate the penalty was, that same year Jane Tyler was just 11 years old when she was tried for stealing 5 guineas and sentenced to death. A statute passing in 1713 made the crime of stealing over 40/- a capital offence, and unfortunately for Tyler, it was legal to hang children over the age of seven years. [3] [4] Tyler was respited and transported, along with Steel, on the Lady Juliana to NSW in 1780, although she remained in NSW.


Two hundred and five of the convict women who ended up in Van Diemens Land had their sentences commuted to transportation for life, while eleven were commuted to seven years and twenty-four commuted to fourteen years transportation.

Ann Margaret Wright per Providence II in 1826, escaped the hangman’s noose twice.  The first time in London in 1825 at the age of twenty when she was charged with the theft of three sovereigns, forty half crowns, eighty shillings, and forty sixpences. The second time was in Hobart Town in 1833 for the wounding of her husband with intent to murder him. Wright,at 27 years of age, was sentenced to be hanged, however a last minute reprieve by His Excellency, the Lieutenant-Governor, commuted the sentence to imprisonment for life. She ended up serving only 7 years of the sentence before she was freed.


Hangings in VDL

Twenty-two female convicts were colonially punished with the judgement of a death sentence in Van Diemens Land.  In all but four of the cases, the sentences were commuted.  The method of execution was by hanging. If dissection or anatomisation was part of the sentence, the body was cut down and removed to the General Hospital for dissection for medical study in accordance with the English  Murder Act 1752.[5] [6] [7] [8]

The four women hanged in Van Diemens Land were:

Mary McLaughlan (Harmony 1830) in 1830, for the murder of her infant child.

Eliza Benwell (Hector 1835) in 1845 was charged with "feloniously, wilfully, and with malice aforethought," being present, "aiding, abetting, and assisting" in the murder of Jane Saunders on the18th of January last.[9] After hanging her body was dissected and anatomized..

Mary Sullivan (John William Dare 1852) in 1852, for the wilful murder of Clara Adeline Fraser. Her body was given up for dissection.

Margaret Galvin (Arabian 1847) in 1862 for the murder of her husband John Coghlin. Her body was dissected.


In the early years of the colony, hangings took place in public at the gallows set up on the docks in Hobart Town.[10]  

The Old Wharf, as its name implies, was the first constructed on the shores of the Derwent. At that time it only consisted of a small jetty, launches being used for conveying cargo to and from the vessels which lay out in the stream. A small island, which now does not exist, having been reclaimed from the river, was then used as the usual place of execution, and many a poor wretch has there on the gallows expiated his crimes. This island was named Hunter's Island, and is also, remarkable as the spot upon which Governor Collins landed and built a store. It was from this store that provisions and other requisites were, for some time, issued to the early settlers.[11]


By 1828 the gallows had moved to the Hobart Town gaol at the corner of Murray and Macquarie Street where they were on view to the public who were encouraged to attend as a deterrent.*   From the Colonial Times, it can be established that the old gallows were replaced in 1834:

We understand that the Reverend Mr. Bedford, having made some very strong representations to the Government that the old gallows was quite worn out, after a long and faithful service, a new one has been this week erected, which, from its huge proportions, bids defiance to every exertion that may be  made against it. Mr. Bedford's anxiety on all these matters of his duty is most laudable, and entitles him to the very highest praise!![12]


In 1856 the gallows were placed behind high walls and were no longer visible to the public:

First Private Execution under the New Act.-Yesterday Thomas Rushton and John Mellor, the bushrangers, convicted before Mr. Justice Home, at the late session of oyer and terminer and general gaol delivery of the supreme court, of shooting at Hugh Simpson, an overseer at St Peter's Pass, with intent, &c, underwent the extreme  penalty of the law within the walls of Her Majesty's gaol at Hobart Town, this being the first execution under the New Criminals Execution Act. The gallows was placed in a secluded portion of the yard behind the prison, the ground having been excavated to a depth of eight feet to admit of the requisite drop. The space was enclosed with a wooden fence and covering, to render the sad ceremony as private is possible.[13]


There was also a gallows outside the Launceston gaol which was removed in 1853 and rebuilt within the walls of the gaol.[14][15] A description of the structure of the Launceston gallows is given in the Colonial Times 11 June 1853:

One Step in Advance.-It is one of the happy results of the cessation of transportation to this colony, that instructions have been given to pull down the gallows at Launceston. Facing the river, the first object which met the stranger's eye was the permanent gallows, a substantial affair, built up with bricks and stone, and having a huge beam securely let into the walls ; altogether designed for any amount of service. But convictism has ceased, and it is rather significant that the removal of the gallows should be ordered immediately. [16]


Abolitionists and the public spectacle

Hangings in both Britain and Australia were traditionally conducted in public as a means of deterrent and entertainment. The hanging of Mary McLaughlan in Hobart in 1830 was a public spectacle, as was the 1845 hanging of Eliza Benwell, which attracted a crowd (reported by the Launceston Examiner 1 Oct 1845) estimated to be in excess of 5000 people:

EXECUTION of ELIZA BENWELL-This miserable woman expiated the dreadful crime of which she was convicted at the last Sessions, this morning, at the usual time and place. A large crowd had assembled to witness this horrid ceremony, and much do we regret to state, that many, very many females, respectable enough in appearance, as far as that goes, formed a large portion of the multitude: children, too, especially boys, were there in abundance, amusing themselves, so long as they had room on the pavement to do so, by playing leap-frog, marbles, and other juvenile games.

Colonial Times, Tuesday 30 September 1845 p 3 Article


Eliza’s death prompted a second edition of the Herald Extraordinary, which documented her trial and hanging:





By the middle of the eighteenth century the idea of capitally punishing women was increasingly met with public outcry, condemned by abolitionists as cruel and immoral. In Britain in 1847, Charles Gilpin, an abolitionist Quaker, designed a satirical poster inviting the public to ‘A Grand Moral Spectacle!’ to observe a young girl, Catherine Foster, aged 17, ‘publicly strangled in front of the County Jail, Bury Street, Edmonds’. Catherine Foster was the last woman to be hanged in Suffolk.[17]

GrandMoralSpectacle lr


The pregnant Charlotte Harris, (per Anna Maria 1852) sentenced to death in 1849, also galvanised the abolitionists, who endeavoured to enlighten the masses and employed shock-tactics, garnering petitions with over 4,000 signatures to further their cause.  After giving birth, Harris was eventually respited by Her Majesty, and transported per Anna Maria in 1852.

A petition was also raised against the hanging of 16-year old Mary Sullivan in Hobart in 1852 but was unsuccessful and her execution still attracted crowds of spectators

EXECUTION*. — On Thursday morning last, a large number of females (the worst class in Hobart Town) as well as a great concourse of the male population, assembled opposite the gaol, to witness the execution of the girl Mary Sullivan, for the murder of Mr. Frazer s child.

Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania, Saturday 7 August 1852 p 3 Article


By 1862, Margaret Galvin’s hanging would take place behind the gaol’s wall, thus denying the curious public a morning’s entertainment:

 But few persons beside the officials and a small body of police were present, and although several collected outside the gaol, and some applied for admission, they were very properly refused.

The Mercury, Wednesday 19 February 1862 p 2


Sentenced to death with respited sentences in Van Diemen’s Land

The following 18 women were sentenced to death in VDL/Tasmania between 1833 and 1879, with their sentences later commuted. Sixteen were convicts or had previously been convicts who were transported to Van Diemens Land, Mary Ann Ellington was a native of Tasmania, and 25 year-old Caroline Smith was born in England and arrived free with her family at age 2.  Full records are available from the Female Convicts in Van Diemens Land database.


Prisoner name

Ship & arrival date




Death communted to:

Ann Margaret Wright (Ann Edwards)

Providence 11 1826


Attempted murder of her husband


Eliza Owen

Hindostan 1839


Stabbing Dr G Maddox


Mary Sheriff

Atwick 1838


Stabbing Dr G Maddox


Elizabeth Elemore

Gilbert Henderson 1848


Stabbing Dr G Maddox

Death recorded; transported for life beyond the seas and confined in Female House of Correction in a separate working cell for 3 years

Ann Edwards

Margaret 1843


Stabbing with intent to murder James Howard; stabbing with intent to do bodily harm

Death recorded; transportation for 15 years

Mary Carroll

Asia 1847


Setting fire to H.M gaol

Death recorded; 18 months hard labour.

Margaret Cleary

Tory 1848


Setting fire to H.M gaol

Death recorded; imprisoned

Bridget Long

Kinnear 1848


Setting fire to H.M gaol

Death recorded; 2 years separate imprisonment with solitary confinement on the 6th, 12th and 18th months

Maria Drake

Margaret 1843


Attempting to poison Oliver Adams

Death recorded; life of penal servitude

Sophia Kennedy

Sea Queen 1858


Feloniously assaulting Eliza Rowe and putting her in bodily fear; stealing 14/s and other property from her

Death recorded; 7 years penal servitude

Mary Mulhair (Mary Lott)

Phoebe 1845


Shooting with intent

Death recorded; 10 years penal servitude

Ann Conolly

Maria 1849



Penal servitude for life

Julia Gunderson

St Vincent 1850


Assault & armed robbery

Death recorded; 10 years penal servitude in a House of Correction

Ephemia Lawson

Borneo 1828


Feloniously stabbing Mary Worster with intent

Death recorded; transportation for life and detention in the Female House of Correction  in the Crime Class for 5 years

Mary McDonough

Martin Luther 1852


Administering poison to John Lane

Death recorded; 21 years penal servitude

Catherine Brian (Lee)

Woodbridge 1843



Imprisoned for life in the House of Correction

Mary Ann Ellington

Native of VDL


Murdering her illegitimate child

Imprisonment for life

Caroline Smith

Arrived free


Feloniously administering poison in an attempt to poison herself and her infant

Death recorded; 6 months imprisonment. To be released on finding an approved person to provide surety for her good behaviour.



* Researcher and Author, Richard P. Davis in his book The Tasmanian Gallows: A study of Capital Punishment, provides the figure of 260 executions from 1824 - 1836 (during the appointment of Governor Arthur), many of them men found guilty of sheep stealing.


[1] Moore, T. (2010), Death or Liberty rebels and radicals transported to Australia 1788-1868, Pier 9, p.35

[2] Northampton Mercury, Oct. 27, 1787



[5] The Tasmanian (Hobart Town, Tas. : 1827 - 1839) Friday 22 February 1833 p 7 Article




[9] Colonial Time, Friday 5 September 1845 p 3

[10] The Hobart Town Daily Mercury, Wednesday 13 January 1858 p 2

[11] The Hobart Town Daily Mercury, Wednesday 13 January 1858 p 2

[12] Colonial Times, Tuesday 6 May 1834 p 5

[13] Colonial Times, Wednesday 20 February 1856 p 2

[14] The Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 7 January 1854 p 4

[15] THE GALLOWS. —The permanent gallows, which for so long a time disgraced the appearance of the Launceston gaol, is now entirely removed. The Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 10 December 1853 p 3

[16] Colonial Times, Saturday 11 June 1853 p 2

[17] Charlotte Harris 1818-1862Convict conduct record CON41/1/32



Further Resources:

Mary Sullivan by Don Bradmore


 By E. Crawford (Aug 2020)



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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].