ELIZABETH ELLIS

Per Hector  1835

By Helen Ménard

 

Introduction

Was Elizabeth really only 15 when she faced court for the fourth time in Scotland in 1834? Or was she 20 on arrival in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) in 1835 as her transportation records stated?[1] 

It is likely that the court records are more accurate as 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.[2]

In any event, Elizabeth was no stranger to petty crime as she already had three prior convictions for stealing clothes for which she had served two terms of imprisonment of thirty and sixty days.[3]

After a further conviction for theft, and recorded at trial as only 15,[4] Elizabeth found herself on a ship with 133 other female convicts bound for a developing, and often brutal, colony half a world away. Did she have any idea what this new life would hold for her? Was she looking to escape a life of misery and poverty in Scotland?

Growing up during the Industrial Revolution

Little is known about Elizabeth’s childhood or family in Scotland.[5] Was she a waif or an orphan? Even at 15, she would have been considered an adult in the family and expected to contribute to the family income. As she grew up in an industrialised city (Glasgow) during the industrial revolution in Britain (1760-1840),[6] 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, the average age children started working was 10, however, in industrial areas many started at the age of 8 and a half, if not younger.[7] Mainly girls were employed as household servants, as there was a servant tax on male domestics. Families with an annual income of £150 would take on a girl of about 13 or 14 as a general maid.[8]

On 16 September 1834, Elizabeth appeared before the Glasgow Court of Justiciary[9] in Scotland charged with theft of wearing apparel from a dwelling house in the neighbourhood of Paisley.[10] She was employed as a domestic servant by Sarah Maitland and her husband Robert McLean in Orchard Street, Paisley[11] from whom she stole a quantity of clothing which Elizabeth alleged she later returned to her mistress.[12] Clearly, this did not prevent the charges proceeding against her.

New horizons

Having been convicted, Elizabeth was sentenced to transportation for 7 years, and travelled from Scotland via England to VDL aboard the Hector arriving on 20 October 1835.[13]

The first few years in the colony were fairly turbulent for Elizabeth as she demonstrated a rather feisty and unsettled character. This is evidenced by the fact that, in two and a half years from January 1836 to July 1838, Elizabeth was assigned to seven different ‘masters’[14] as well as being assigned for a short time as a cook at Liverpool Street Nursery.[15] Maybe her new life wasn’t meeting her expectations! Of course, being a young girl, she would more than likely have been harassed and exploited as a domestic servant and as De Vries maintains:

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’.[16]

Was this the reason for Elizabeth’s pattern of offending under a succession of masters?

Crime and punishment

Of the twelve offences recorded against Elizabeth from January 1836 to December 1839, they mostly involved a combination of being absent without leave, disobedience and insolence. She was reprimanded and admonished on three occasions.[17] Was this because her actions were seen to have been a justifiable reaction to her treatment?

Her first offence on 8 January 1836, while assigned to a Mr Olding, involved being absent without leave for which she was admonished. However, when she came before the same magistrate[18] six days later for the same offence, he clearly had lost patience with her. She was sentenced to fourteen days in a cell on bread and water and to have her head shaved.[19]

The practices of hair cutting and head shaving were widely used in English prisons and asylums for medical or hygiene purposes and also as humiliating punishments for incorrigible female prisoners. Cutting off the hair and head shaving were seen as highly effective punishments precisely because the women detested them. The magistrates could order their application in conjunction with other punishments, such as a term of imprisonment; admittance to the female factories for a period of detention would automatically include having the hair cut short. What is not always obvious from the records was the difference between cutting the hair short, cutting the hair close to the head and shaving the head; having the head shaved was a more targeted and demeaning deterrent.[20]

Thereafter, Elizabeth became a regular visitor to the Cascades Female Factory.[21] Her sentences ranged from three to fourteen days in a cell on bread and water, to ‘crime class’ for one month, to hard labour at the ‘wash tub’[22] for one month.[23]

The Class system classified and segregated convict women based on their behaviour. It was simultaneously a system of reward and punishment.  It was also a method of keeping incorrigible females separate from those who were well-behaved and capable of reform.  The system consolidated into three distinct classes, or wards: First Class (Assignable Class); Second Class (Probationary Class); and Third Class (Crime Class).[24] Convicts sentenced to ‘Crime Class’ undertook a punishment handed down by magisterial sentences or by the Supreme Court.  This sentence could include a period of bread and water diet in the solitary cells, separate treatment cells, or hard labour in the wash house yard. Crime Class prisoners also had an inferior diet with oatmeal replacing sugar and coffee. After a certain portion of their sentence was served and they were of good behaviour, they could be moved to the Second Class. When their punishment sentence at the Female Factory was served they were moved to the assignable class for assignment or hiring.[25]

After Elizabeth married Thomas Morris in 1838, her last offence in December 1839 involved ‘misconduct in being found in an improper situation with a man’ for which she was sent back to the Cascades to the wash tub for three months.[26] While her offending then settled down, this incident throws some light on the nature of their relationship as discussed later in this story.

Elizabeth was granted a ticket of leave in January 1840.[27] Female convicts transported to VDL from 1813-1842 were treated under the assignment system whereby each convict was assigned as unpaid domestic labour to a ‘master’. The aim of the system was to encourage reform through a system of rewards and indulgences, such as the ticket of leave, which permitted the holder to work for any employer for wages and to choose their own residence. Generally, pending good behaviour, women who were transported for seven years were entitled to a ticket of leave after four.[28]

In September 1841 Elizabeth was issued her certificate of freedom.[29] Convicts were eligible to receive a certificate of freedom (or free certificate) when they had completed their sentence of transportation (but not if they were sentenced to life). The certificate allowed them freedom to travel anywhere including back to the United Kingdom – should they have been able to afford it.[30]

Elizabeth and Thomas

Permission for Elizabeth Ellis (Hector) to marry Thomas Morris (Medina), a sawyer, was approved on 23 November 1837[31] and they were married a year later on 5 November 1838 in St John’s Church, New Town.[32]

Thomas, single, arrived in VDL aboard the convict ship Medina on 14 September 1825. He was tried and convicted in the Bristol City Quarter Sessions on 18 October 1824 for stealing a watch and was transported for 14 years.[33] He had a previous conviction for stealing apparel for which he served 12 months in prison.[34] While in VDL he recorded a series of minor, non-violent offences including being absent from muster; out without a pass; failure to report according to orders; escaping a constable and drunkenness. In relation to four of the offences he was either admonished, reprimanded or the charge dismissed; he was sentenced to the tread wheel on two occasions, once for 48 hours and once for eight days.[35] The most significant of his offences might be considered to have been in March 1833 when he was charged with being drunk and threatening to assault and beat one Jane Henderson and destroying her cap. For this he was fined 5 shillings, reprimanded and discharged on paying the costs.[36] Thomas was granted a ticket of leave in February 1832 and his certificate of freedom on 18 October 1838.[37]

There is no record anywhere of Thomas’ age.

So what of Elizabeth and Thomas’ relationship?

In November 1841 The Hobart Town Advertiser reported as follows:

Elizabeth Morris complained of her dearly beloved Thomas that he was continually beating and ill-treating her, and that on a certain day, on Friday last, he had threatened to cut her amiable throat with an instrument called a razor which he then and there had in his right hand.

'Now Thomas Morris what do you say to that,' said his worship.

'Why I says it’s all contrary,’ said Thomas, ' I'll tell you and all these here gin'lemen present, the truth and the whole truth, you see I cames home a Friday with 30lb of flour and 20 o' mate at my buck, and I goes to the door and I finds it fastened—hallo says I, what's up now—so I says 'Betsey,' and not hearing nothing I concludes she is laying down along o' the child. Well a' that I look in at the winder, and there I sees her all snug an comfortable along of a man, that's all, and that's the way the row began.' [38]

Elizabeth protested, saying ‘that’s false,' … 'not nothing of the sort never occurred, you know you haven't given me n loaf this three months.’[39] 

After trading a series of insults with each other, the magistrate called for witnesses – of which Thomas had none – and Elizabeth called Charles Dean and Johnne Penroy. Dean testified that Thomas had threatened to kill Elizabeth with ‘a razure’ which, of course, Thomas denied, saying:

'I wish to live comfortable with her,' added Thomas, looking over to his wife with a sort of sheep's eye over the rails 'but she’s eternally drunk and going along of other men and that puts my blood up.' [40]

When asked by the magistrate about his version of the row, Penroy said

 ‘I know that he [Thomas] doesn't care so long as she gets money for him what she does for it … Yes I knows he won’t work, have heard him say so, and also heard him threaten to smash the brains out of that same 'oman … I’ve seen him bring men to the house, … and go away, and leave them along with his wife … It’s the real honest truth … you’re a bad un and well everybody knows it as knows you.' [41]

To which Mr Constable Tester added ‘that's true enough … he doesn't care how she gets it if he gets it from her.’[42]

The magistrate ordered Thomas ‘to find sureties to keep the peace for the next six months, yourself in 20/- and two sureties in 10/- each … if you do not find bail I shall commit you, let him be removed.’[43] As Thomas passed his wife on the way to the lock up, he ‘shook his fist at her, and said “you've done me some good at last, this is just what she wanted in order that she might carry on her games.”’[44]

So, the evidence suggests that, at best, Thomas was somewhat work shy, didn’t always provide Elizabeth with adequate food and encouraged her to bring money into the house ‘by fair means or foul’. If the evidence of him bringing men to the house was accurate, his assertions that her being with men ‘put his blood up’ seem rather vacuous. While Elizabeth accused him of beating and ill treatment, the evidence only supported threats to do so. Even though Thomas’ previous conviction was only for threatening to assault a woman, and none of his other offences involved actual violence, it is more than likely that he ‘crossed the line’ with Elizabeth. Was he really ‘her dearly beloved Thomas’?[45]

That brings us back to Elizabeth’s final offence in December 1839 when, a year into their marriage, she was charged with ‘misconduct in being found in an improper situation with a man’ and sent to the Cascades at the wash tub for three months.[46] Presumably, Thomas initiated this charge – otherwise, who else would have known? Did it involve a man brought to the house by Thomas as suggested by others? Or was this purely an attempt by Elizabeth to earn money when Thomas was not providing an income? How did her sentence of hard labour for three months affect their relationship? Given her son was born in July 1840 she must have been pregnant at this time. Was Thomas really the father of her child?

Was Elizabeth’s formal complaint against Thomas payback? In the end, given that they both seemed to have a propensity for drink, possibly the truth lay somewhere in between.

Son Thomas

In the midst of all the fracases in their lives, Elizabeth and Thomas (then a blacksmith in Glenorchy) had at least one child, Thomas, born on 28 July 1840.[47] There is no evidence of any other children born in VDL nor is there any relevant record of a marriage or death for son Thomas in VDL. There is record of a Thomas Morris, ‘native of VDL’, travelling from Launceston to Melbourne aboard the Clarence on 6 July 1853.[48] If this was Thomas (Junior), maybe he wanted to escape the domestic turmoil in the family and went to Victoria looking for gold. Where he went from there is unknown - there are many possible marriages and deaths in Victoria under the name Thomas Morris.[49]

Ongoing troubles

An Elizabeth Morris was ‘held to bail for stealing a chest containing plate and jewels, the property of Mr. Watkins, a South Sea Traveller’[50] in early February 1841 but, three weeks later, on 22 February was found not guilty.[51] Was this Elizabeth? It is quite possible given her lifestyle around this time.[52]

In November 1842, Elizabeth’s attempt to make justice work on her side failed, when ‘Charles Twyney and James Edwards were acquitted on a charge of stealing, on the 10th October, from the person of Elizabeth Morris, of Glenorchy, two dollars, a quarter dollar, and one shilling, the property of her husband, Thomas Morris.’[53]

Then things went quite for about twenty years. In 1863, Louise Priest and Elizabeth Morris - ‘both well-known disreputable characters’ - pleaded guilty to fighting in public and were each fined 10 shillings.[54] Again, this could quite possibly have been Elizabeth.[55] In 1864 an Elizabeth Morris was tried in Hobart Town for larceny (committed in the Bothwell area) but the verdict was ‘ignored’.[56]

One year later in Hobart Town

Elizabeth Morris an elderly female, was charged with having no visible or lawful means of subsistence, with wandering about and sleeping in the open air. She pleaded guilty and was committed to gaol for one month and the medical officer to examine as to the state of her mind.[57]

Did these offences all involve the same person and was it Elizabeth? Would 45-50 (as Elizabeth would have been by then) be considered to be ‘elderly’?

From 1843 to 1862 there were a series of reported crimes involving a Thomas Morris including theft of apparel,[58] passing counterfeit money,[59] burglary[60] and larceny.[61] Was Thomas involved in any of these offences? While the crimes were consistent with his earlier offending, there were several men in the area with the same name and some of the offences were committed away from where Thomas was living at the time (Hobart, Glenorchy).[62] Did he eventually move out of this area?

The end of the road

So what happened to Elizabeth and Thomas? There is no record of either of them ever leaving VDL.  Were they estranged? If the 13 year old boy who left Tasmania for Victoria in 1853 was Elizabeth’s son, was she left alone with no means of support destined to die a lonely and invisible death?

There is no relevant recorded death for Elizabeth in Tasmania under either her single or married name.[63] Nor is there any record of her having been buried in the Tasmanian paupers’ graves.[64] While there are several possible deaths for a Thomas Morris in Tasmania, without any record of his birthdate, verification is speculative.[65]

In the end, as was so often the case, Elizabeth’s final days were not recorded - a heartbreaking outcome for many of the young women who found themselves thrust into colonial life in the nineteenth century.

 

 

 

[1] LIB TAS Names Index: CON19/1/13 p154 DI 168

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

[3] LIB TAS Names Index: CON40/1/3 DI 136

[4] NAS Reference: AD14/34/70; Related record JC26/1834/307; FCRC database/ pre transportation

[5] There are four registered births for an Elizabeth Ellis in Scotland from 1817-1822, but none of them is in the parish of Paisley, Renfrewshire or Glasgow. scotlandspeople.gov.uk

[6] https://www.theglasgowstory.com/story/?id=TGSC0 / Michael Moss

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

[8] Ibid

[9] LIB TAS Names Index: CON40/1/3 DI 136

[10] Caledonian Mercury, Saturday 20 September 1834

[11] NAS Reference: AD14/34/70; Related record JC26/1834/307; FCRC database/ pre transportation

[12] LIB TAS Names Index: CON40/1/3 DI 136

[13] Ibid

[14] See footnote 28 below

[15] LIB TAS Names Index: CON40/1/3 DI 136; FCRC database / colonial offences

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

[17] LIB TAS Names Index: CON40/1/3 DI 136;

[18] William Henry Breton left the Royal Navy in Britain to come to VDL and was a police magistrate in Richmond from 1835-1841 and then at Launceston, before returning to the UK. https://www.ourtasmania.com.au/hobart/richmond.html; https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/docs/lists/Magistrates.pdf

[19] LIB TAS Names Index: CON40/1/3 DI 136

[20] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/punishments

[21] Five female houses of correction, known colloquially as female factories, operated in Van Diemen's Land during the period of transportation, housing female convicts who were: awaiting assignment, awaiting childbirth or weaning children or undergoing punishment. The Cascades Female Factory operated in South Hobart from 1828 to 1856. https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/index.php/convict-institutions/female-factories

[22] At the Cascades Female Factory, washing was carried out for the colonial hospital, military hospital, military barracks, ordinance store, orphan schools, penitentiary and mental asylum, in addition to the Factory itself. The washing included all manner of clothes, bedding and towels. https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/punishments#

[23] LIB TAS Names Index: CON40/1/3 DI 136

[24] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/punishments

[25] Ibid

[26] LIB TAS Names Index: CON40/1/3 DI 136

[27] Ibid

[28] Alexander, Alison, ed., The Companion to Tasmanian History, Snowden, Dianne, “Female Convicts” (2005), Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, University of Tasmania

[29] LIB TAS Names Index: CON40/1/3 DI 136

[30] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/administration/freedoms

[31] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON52/1/1 p118

[32] LIB TAS: Names Index: RGD37/1/1 No 154 DI 54

[33] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON31/1/29 p175 DI 179; convictrecords.com.au

[34] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON31/1/29 p175 DI 179;

[35] The treadmill was a punishment … devised to make an economic profit out of the Convicts’ transgressions. It was introduced into Sydney in 1823 as an alternative to floggings … The Convicts had to walk up a revolving set of steps which powered mills grinding grain into flour … it was tiring work and if they did not walk at a sufficient speed, they could be flogged like a donkey. If they slipped, their legs could fall into the blades and be mutilated. http://www.convictcreations.com/history/punishments.html

[36] LIB TAS: Names Index: CON31/1/29 p175 DI 179

[37] DHT database / levels of freedom

[38] TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: The Hobart Town Advertiser (Tas.: 1839 -1861) Fri 5 Nov 1841 p4 Mornings at the Police Office

[39] Ibid

[40] Ibid

[41] Ibid

[42] Ibid

[43] Ibid

[44] Ibid

[45] Ibid

[46] Ibid

[47] LIB TAS: Names Index: RGD33/1/1 No 137 DI 22

[48] LIB TAS: Names Index: POL220/1/3 p227

[49] VIC/BDM

[50] TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: The Hobart Town Advertiser (Tas.: 1839 -1861) Fri 12 Feb 1841 p2 Police

[51] TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas.: 1828 -1857) Tue 23 Feb 1841 p3 Quarter Sessions

[52] There was another Elizabeth Morris who arrived as a convict on the Sea Queen but not until August 1846. And, there could easily have been another Elizabeth Morris.

[53] TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas.: 1828 -1857) Tue 22 Nov 1842 p3 Quarter Sessions

[54] TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.: 1860-1954) Tue 27 Oct 1863 p2 Law

[55] However there could easily have been another Elizabeth Morris. (There was another Elizabeth Morris who arrived as a convict on the SEA QUEEN in August 1846, however, she married Richard Allsbrook in 1849 and died as Elizabeth Allsbrook in 1867.)

[56] LIB TAS: Names Index: AB693-1-1 1864; ‘ignored’ usually means a guilty verdict of the jury is set aside for legal reasons and the accused is acquitted.

[57] TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.: 1860-1954) Fri 24 Nov 1865 p2 Police Court

[58] TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: Launceston Advertiser (Tas.: 1829-1946) Thu 1 Jun  1843 p2 Quarter Sessions

[59] TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas.: 1828 -1857) Tue 20 Jan 1846 p3 Oatlands Criminal Sittings

[60] TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas.: 1828 -1857) Fri 29 Jun 1849 p3 Supreme Court Oatlands

[61] TROVE: Newspapers & Gazettes: Launceston Examiner (Tas.: 1842-1899) Tue 29 Jul  1862 p3 Country Intelligence

[62] Nor do any of the offences appear on his CON records but he did get his certificate of freedom in 1838.

[63] LIB TAS: Names Index; TROVE

[64] www.gravesoftas.com.au

[65] LIB TAS: Names Index; on the assumption that he was about 20 when he arrived in VDL in 1825, giving him a birthdate of ~1805, the most likely possibilities are (i) a labourer at Fingal aged 71 on 27/4/1880 by accidental drowning (ii) a storekeeper at Fingal on 4/12/1874 aged 74 of old age from Essex.

 

 

 

 


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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 [date].

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