In the first half of the nineteenth century, almost 200,000 individuals from the UK chose to migrate to Australia to start a new life. But for some 13,500 women from Ireland, the voyage across the oceans to what was then called Van Diemen’s Land (later named Tasmania) was a new beginning that was forced upon them.
These were the women transported as punishment for crimes that today we would consider minor in nature. But society at the time deemed them serious enough to warrant not just a fine or imprisonment but transportation. These women were forcibly separated from family and friends and sent to a strange new world knowing it was unlikely they ever see Ireland again.
Among these women was a 24-year-old girl called Catherine Heenan, a native of County Galway. Her crime: the theft of clothes. Her punishment: transportation for seven years.
She appeared before the court in Nenagh, one of the principal towns in County Tipperary on August 2, 1845 on a charge of larcency. The records give no details of this crime and I’ve not found any newspaper report of the hearing so all we know is that she had stolen clothes, was a single woman who could read and write and had been occupied as a plain cook.
After her conviction she was probably taken to a local goal and then moved to Richmond female penitentiary in Grangegorman, Dublin, the only prison in the British Isles established exclusively for women. It was where convicts were held briefly before transportation, the prison authorities using it as an opportunity to train the prisoners so they would be ready for employment on arrival in Tasmania.
Other women prisoners in the penitentiary at the same time as Catherine Heenan had been convicted of larceny, arson, vagrancy and, in one case, infanticide. Some were to be transported for seven years, others for 14 and one or two for life.
Leaving the Old World
On the afternoon of Sept 2, 1845 Catherine Heenan together with 136 women and 37 children were taken to the pier at Kingstown Harbour (now called Dún Laoghaire) to begin their journey to their new home. An eye witness account of the scene, reported in The Dublin Christian Record, described how the crowd gathered to watch the departure found “a melancholy sight”.
The day was beautiful, the sky was serene, the sea unruffled and smooth as a mirror—all nature was hushed in a hallowed repose, and everything indicated peacefulness and happiness; but when the eye turned to the gloomy form of the convict ship as it lay upon those calm blue waters, a floating dungeon, the prison-home of the felon exile, a sadness came o’er the mind from the reflection that however bright and lovely, and joyous all things around it seemed to be, within its dark and tomblike bosom were enclosed many suffering spirits, whose crimes had expatriated them from their native land, and to whom the beauties of “the firmament above and the earth beneath” were but as a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.Statesman and Dublin Christian Record 02 Sept 1845 page 3 of 4
While the women waited to be taken on board, some of them were seen occupied in sewing, others reading books and letters but some simply sat silent in a melancholy mood.
Their accommodation was on a barque called the Tasmania, a 500 tonne sailing ship built in 1841. The women were taken to the “prison” section under the ship’s decks, entering through a gated doorway. Tables separated by wooden railings took up most of the space, used for meals and then converted at night into beds.
According to the Dublin Christian Record report the women would spend their time during the voyage “making shirts, stockings and other articles of clothing”, being allowed onto deck at specified hours “to amuse themselves.”
It took just over three months for the Tasmania to make the crossing, reaching Hobart on Dec 4 1845. By then one woman and one child had died, others had suffered pneumonia, rheumatism, diarrhoea and scrophula. But the general health of the convicts had improved according to Jason Lardner, the Surgeon Superintendent, with some having gained just over 7 lbs in weight.
At the end of the voyage, he reported that “the behaviour of the Convicts was on the whole very good….” though “they were very ignorant and made but slight improvement in their education during the voyage.”
A New Life
Once the ship had landed, Catherine Heenan and all the other convicts were sent directly to Anson probation station. It was actually a converted naval ship that was moored in the Derwent River. There she and the other convicts spent six months undergoing training in domestic skills and obedience. On completion they were eligible to become probation passholders and able to gain work, usually as domestic servants.
The conduct of the women was closely monitored. Their probation pass could be revoked for serious breaches of the rules and the offending women sent to a House of Correction (also known as A Female Factory) for punishment, reform and then employment.
Records relating to Catherine Heenan indicate that she was subjected to punishment on at least two occasions. In her first year in Tasmania, she was punished for insolence on October 14, 1846 – the exact nature of the punishment is hard to decipher from the records. In December 1850 she was given a period of hard labour for being “absent from her authorized place of residence.”
We don’t know whether she found work quickly or in what capacity. Female labour had been much in demand in the early part of the nineteenth century to support a growing population of settlers and prospectors for gold. But the 1840s saw a period of economic depression which worsened with the exodus from the goldfields in the 1850s resulting in a decline in opportunities for female employment.
The one thing we do know about Catherine Heenan is that she began a new phase of her life five years after landing in Tasmania.
On November 12,, 1850 she was granted permission to marry a freeman by the name of Michael Leonard. The marriage tool place in St George’s church on November 26. Michael Leonard is described on the marriage register as a bachelor of full age and occupied as a farmer.
Of Catherine there is scant information recorded beyond the fact she is a spinster of full age. Although her prison records had recorded her as being of the Roman Catholic faith, Catherine’s marriage took place according to Church of England rites.
What happened to her after her marriage we don’t know. Did she become a mother? Did she enjoy a long life? The trail goes cold after that November day in 1856. All we can hope is that this was the beginning of a happier period of her life.
Richmond Penitentiary Records; “irish prison registers 1790-1924” database and image via findmypast.co.uk; book number 1/9/40
“New South Wales And Tasmania: Settlers And Convicts 1787-1859” database and image; findmypast.co.uk
Companion to Tasmanian History, Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies; University of Tasmania
Female Convicts Research Centre, Tasmania
Statesman and Dublin Christian Record, 02 Sept 1845, page 3
Medical and Surgical Journal of His Majesty’s F. C. S. “Tasmania”, 28th of August 1845 – 9th of Dec 1845; National Archives, Kew, collection ADM 101
State Records Authority of New South Wales: Shipping Master’s Office; Passengers Arriving 1826 – 1900; Part Colonial Secretary series covering 1845 – 1853, reels 1272 [4/5227] -1280 [4/5244].
Tasmania Libraries; Marriage Permissions; CON52/1/3 Page 278 CON52/1/24 RGD37/9 : 1850/325
Australia, Tasmania, Civil Registration, 1803-1933, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9CH-7JCY?cc=2125029&wc=QDTQ-3BY%3A387523601%2C387551301%2C387582601 : 3 October 2018), All localities (combined) > Marriages > RGD 37/09. Marriages, 1850 > image 130 of 391; Archives Office of Tasmania, Hobart.