Sidney Keelan (aka Sydney Keelan)
Sidney Keelan stole a cow, or perhaps two, at Armagh, Ireland in 1849. Her gaol report noted that the 18-year-old from Monaghan was ‘good and useful’ and she had never before been convicted. Why then did Sidney request to be transported?
The Newry Telegraph of 11 September 1849 reported that
The five female convicts removed from our gaol on Thursday last, preparatorily to their embarkation for a penal settlement were: Mary Eastdom convicted for burglary and robbery. Margaret Lucas, Ellen Wilson, Susan O’Neill and Sydney Keelan for stealing two cows. The four last are very young girls, who, after trial, might have “gotten off” with a short imprisonment, but were transported at their own special and urgent request.
Perhaps they were so poor that they wanted the security of food and accommodation transportation would bring. After all, Ireland had suffered four years of famine causing a million deaths and another million to leave the country.
When she sailed aboard the Earl Grey, arriving in Hobart in May 1850, Sidney left behind her father, Michael, and a brother in the 19th Regiment. She was just 5 feet tall, and she had black hair and dark hazel eyes. Sidney said she was a dressmaker.
Though she committed few offences in the colony, Sidney refused to stay in the service of Mr Chapman in 1850 for which she was sentenced to hard labor at Cascades for one month. An application to marry her, submitted by John Franklin in 1850, failed to gain approval. In 1851, deemed unfit to remain in Hobart Town and refused a ticket of leave, Sidney was sent to Launceston. There, in April 1852, she married Thomas Jones, a police sergeant, and in 1854, she gained her conditional pardon enabling her to travel out of the island, but not to return home. By 1856, her certificate of freedom was granted in Launceston.
How then did Sidney Keelan come to be entertaining on the speaking circuit in Ireland in 1860? And what had happened to her husband?
The Northern Whig of 5 June 1860 advertised the -
HORRORS OF TRANSPORTATION BY A RETURNED FEMALE CONVICT.
A LECTURE WILL BE DELIVERED IN THE Gallery of Art on Thursday and Friday evenings the 7th and 8th June by SYDNEY KEELEN on the “Horrors of Transportation”. She was transported from Armagh in July 1849 and will give details of her whole life. Reserved Seats 1s Second Seats 6d. Doors open at 7.30pm Lecture commences at 8.00pm. Tickets to be had at Mr Henderson’s Castle Place and at the door. Belfast 4th June 1860.
Sidney was enterprising if nothing else. News of her success on the lecture circuit was reported in at least three Australian newspapers. The Mount Alexander Mail (South Australia) reported this on 17 August 1860.
Lecture by a Returned Convict. - A young woman named Sidney Keelen, who was convicted at Armagh summer assizes, 1849, on a charge of stealing cattle, and transported for seven years, has just returned to Ireland, from Van Diemen's Land, and is at present delivering a course of lectures on her personal history and the horrors of transportation, in various towns in Ulster. During the past week, she appeared in Castlebayney and Keady, and on Wednesday evening she addressed an audience in the Market House, Armagh. She was introduced by the Governor of Armagh Gaol. Miss Keelen speaks very fluently, though, occasionally, she betrays her imperfect education. She is about twenty-eight years of age, neatly attired, and seems perfectly at home before an audience. Her remarks show that she is an attentive observer, and desirous of doing something for her sex, especially warning them against whisky drinking, the bad effects of which she has seen so much of during her absence from Ireland. - Northern Daily Whig.
An article in the Northern Whig 1 June 1860 contains far more detail. Sidney told her audience that her mother died when she was three or four, and that Lady Blayney, for whom Sidney’s father was a gardener, paid for her care. The placement with Mr and Mrs Boyd was not a success and Sidney returned to her father who treated her harshly. Sidney gained employment, but went to the Castleblayney workhouse in the hope of being sent out as an emigrant. The emigration scheme was cancelled too soon for her plan to work. Sidney then hatched another plan with three servants; resolving to run away, commit a crime to ensure transportation. This worked and she sailed to Van Diemen’s Land. There her first master acted tyrannically towards her and during her second engagement, a shopkeeper proposed to her. She declined. Finally, a cabinetmaker hired her and taught her to upholster. Sidney said she might even return to VDL after she finished on her speaking circuit, as she was able to earn quite a good living there. Interestingly, Sidney did not mention her marriage to Thomas Jones!
Sidney had married Thomas Jones in the April of 1852. To complicate matters, in December 1852, a woman named Sydney Jones married a mariner named John Naden – in the same Launceston church, with the same minister and with one witness who also attended the marriage of Sidney Keelen to Thomas Jones. Mrs Sydney Naden bore a child, Martha, in Launceston. Martha Naden died in Little Scotland, Victoria in December 1854, two months after the family arrived in the colony. Her death registration lists her birthplace as Launceston and her mother as Sydney Jones. John Naden died at Ballarat in July 1856. Sydney Naden bore another child, and, in 1856, she and the one-year-old baby left Victoria aboard the Morning Light bound for Liverpool. Could this have been Sidney? Did she leave Thomas Jones and run away to Victoria with another man? Certainly, Sidney returned to Ireland.
What we do know is that eventually Sidney returned to Tasmania and to Thomas Jones. When he died in Launceston in October 1872, Jones left his wife Sidney well provided for. She inherited £1040. Two years later, in Melbourne, she married James Maxwell.
The Argus 28 January 1874 advertised the event.
MAXWELL - JONES - On the 27th inst. At the Privative Methodist Church, Lygon Street, by the Rev. Joshua Smith, assisted by the Rev. Mr. Hunt, James Maxwell, draper, Smith Street, Fitzroy, third son of the late W. H. Maxwell, captain in H.M. 72nd Regiment, to Sidney Jones, widow of the late Thomas Jones Esq., retired merchant, Launceston, Tasmania. No cards sent.
The marriage certificate recorded Sidney’s birthplace as Castleblayney, Monaghan, Ireland. Sidney, a widow, was a retired storekeeper of Smith Street, Fitzroy. Her father, Michael Keelan, was a gardener, and her mother, Alice, had died when Sidney was an infant.
Sidney became a successful property developer in Melbourne. The Age of 9 December 1884 advertised -
To be Sold, in that fast increasing and rapidly rising suburb of Yarraville, about fifteen
Cottages, all lately erected, and let to respectable tenants. They are all thoroughly finished, and will be sold separately or in lots for cash, or easy terms.
Apply Mrs. Sidney Maxwell, Stephen-street, Yarraville.
By September 1886, Sidney was dead, and she died in suspicious circumstances. The Age 5 October 1886 reported -
THE inquiry into the death of Mrs. Sidney Maxwell, whose decapitated corpse was found lying on the railway line, near the Ascot Vale station, on the 27th ult., was resumed on Monday before Mr. Candler, district coroner. The additional evidence in no way tended to clear up the mystery attending the woman's death. The jury found that the deceased was found dead on the railway line near the Ascot Vale station, having been killed by a passing train, but there was no evidence to show how she got on the line.
Sidney left her assets of over £5360 to her husband.
Researched by Colette McAlpine and Keith Searson and Terence Creaney