fcrc banner 2

Janet Johnston

Hector, 1835

By Helen Ménard

(Postscript added 21/04/2023)


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.



Hector, 1835


It is always exciting when family descendants provide additional information that shines a brighter light on the lives of our convict women.*

Our initial story about Janet’s life evaporated when she was barely 20, had completed her sentence and received her certificate of freedom in 1841. We speculated that she either left the colony or changed her name – in fact, she did both, several times! We now know that Janet’s father was James Johnston, a mariner, and her mother Janet.[1]

There doesn’t appear to be any record of her marriage but Janet (aka Jessie, Jane or Jeanette and frequently using either Johnson, Johnstone, Williams or Metcalf) was in a relationship with John Thomas Metcalf Williams (aka John Metcalf, Williams, Johnson or Thomson). Evidence suggests that John Williams (real name John Thomas Metcalf), tailor, single and 21, arrived in VDL in 1837 aboard the convict ship Sarah having been sentenced to 7 years’ transportation at the Old Bailey in October 1836 for larceny.[2] He received his certificate of freedom in 1843.[3] However, Williams later denied coming to VDL as a convict stating he emigrated and was involved in the anti-transportation movement.[4] Together Janet and John had five children in VDL – Jessie (Janet) (1844-1891); James Thomas (John) (1846-1892); Rosa Jane (1848-1902); Mary Ann (Annie) (1850-) and Joseph Alexander (1851-1890).[5] At some stage before 1854, the family moved to Victoria and the next ten years saw John and Janet moving from state to state, most probably, in furtive attempts to evade the law.

In Victoria they had a further five children four of whom died in infancy – Charles (1854-1854); twins George (1855-1856) and Alexander (1855-1861); Mary Maria (c. 1856-1928) and Jane (c. 1857-1859).[6] Initially, the family was living in Richmond, but by 1857 had moved to Geelong where John Metcalf, contracted as drayman to deliver rope (valued at £500) and other articles to Mt Ararat in June 1857, absconded with the goods and a warrant for his arrest was issued in September 1857.[7] A month later ‘Johnson, wife with’ six of their surviving children travelled aboard the London to Sydney.[8] In December 1857 John Williams was issued a publican’s licence for the King’s Head Hotel, in George Street, Sydney;[9] was fined for breaching licence conditions in Sept 1858;[10] buried his daughter Jane who died of scarlet fever in 1859;[11] by May 1859 had abandoned his licence at the King’s Head;[12] and returned to Victoria.

It appears Williams left Sydney after being charged with a female co accused[13] with fraudulently obtaining funds from the Union Bank, Sydney.[14] Once back in Victoria the family went to the Caledonian diggings[15] where Williams took out another publican’s license for the St Andrews Hotel as well as trying his hand at gold mining. But the saga continued. In August 1859 John Metcalf was arrested for breaching bail in 1857 in relation to the rope theft charge; was discharged on the basis of a legal technicality; and was released from the bail warrant.[16] A few months later in December 1859 Williams was again arrested at the Caledonian diggings and remanded to appear in Sydney on the fraud charge against Union Bank;[17] the case was abandoned due to lack of evidence;[18] Williams was again discharged from custody;[19] and returned to the St Andrews Hotel where his youngest son Alexander died of typhoid fever in 1861.[20]

In 1862 Williams unsuccessfully sued the Union Bank for £1000 for malicious prosecution in relation to the fraud case.[21] By 1865 both John and Janet were living in Fitzroy,[22] John having resumed his trade as a tailor. Janet Williams died on 20 February 1877 in Fitzroy, Victoria from typhoid fever, pneumonia and exhaustion.[23] John Williams died on 20 June 1887 after falling down the stairs at his home in Fitzroy.[24] Both were buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery.[25]

* Additional research by descendants Vicki Strickland and Kaye Stewart, and FCRC Database Manager Colette McAlpine.


[1] VIC/BDM Death 932/1877

[2]LIB TAS: Names Index: CON31/1/47 p 199 DI 205; CON18/1/20 DI 71; see also John Thomas METCALF | Oakman of Ireland

[3] Ibid; see also John Thomas METCALF | Oakman of Ireland

[4] TROVE: Sydney Morning Herald 10 May 1862; TROVE: Sydney Morning Herald 12 May 1862

[5] See records in FCRC database under ‘relations’ for Janet Johnston (ID 6078); LIB TAS: Names Index; ancestry.com; familysearch.org; findagrave.com; VIC/BDM

[6] Ibid; NSW/BDM Death 88/1859

[7] TROVE: The Geelong Advertiser Mon 27 Aug 1859; Victorian Police Gazette 10 Sept 1857

[8] It seems baby Jane didn’t appear on the passenger list. https://prov.vic.gov.au/explore-collection/explore-topic/passenger-records-and-immigration/outwards-passenger-lists

[9] TROVE: Sydney Morning Herald 27 Sept 1858

[10] Ibid

[11] NSW/BDM Death 88/1859

[12] TROVE: Sydney Morning Herald 31 May 1859

[13] Falsely representing herself as Fanny Bennett; TROVE: Sydney Morning Herald 7 Jan 1860; TROVE: Sydney Morning Herald 10 May 1862; TROVE: Sydney Morning Herald 12 May 1862

[14] TROVE: The Argus Mon 19 Dec 1859; about £200

[15] About 30 kms northeast of Melbourne.

[16] TROVE: The Geelong Advertiser Mon 27 & 29 Aug 1859; The Argus Mon 29 Aug 1859

[17] TROVE: The Argus Mon 19 Dec 1859

[18] TROVE: Sydney Morning Herald 10 May 1862; TROVE: Sydney Morning Herald 12 May 1862

[19] TROVE: Sydney Morning Herald 7 Jan 1860

[20] Pioneer Index Victoria 1836-1888; https://prov.vic.gov.au/archive/08A7D45F-F1B2-11E9-AE98-9782F258DAA7?image=2

[21] TROVE: Sydney Morning Herald 10 May 1862; TROVE: Sydney Morning Herald 12 May 1862

[22] TROVE: The Argus Mon 29 Dec 1865

[23] VIC/BDM Death 932/1877

[24] VIC/BDM Death 6329/1887

[25] findagrave.com/memorial/200881038/janet-williams; Grave Baptist C 455; Grave Baptist C307




[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



Latest News:

Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Facebook

FCRC Seminar: Sunday 5 May 2024:  Call for papers

Topic: Freedom: Time served, moving on

This seminar will focus on the pathways to freedom for convict women and will explore the lives they led once emancipated.

Possible topics may include:

  • Pathways to freedom.
  • Emancipation – prosperity or poverty? How the emancipated women lived out the rest of their lives. Individual stories.
  • Exploring subsets – return to their home country, moving to another colony or country; marriage; non-marriage; business women; relying on the State to survive.

If you would like to present a 20-minute paper at the seminar, please forward an abstract for consideration to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. by 20 October 2023. The abstract should outline your intended topic, the points you will highlight and the sources you will be using to inform your paper.


Call for submissions for the next Convict Women's Press book: Convict Motherhood

Cut-off date for submissions extended to 14 October.

You are invited to submit a chapter for the next CWP book, provisionally titled Convict Motherhood. It will cover all aspects of this fascinating topic:

  • women with children in Britain prior to conviction
  • those who brought children with them
  • childbirth on board ship
  • the loss of children and mothers
  • children born under sentence at convict institutions
  • children born elsewhere
  • children born once women free again

How did women cope with the stresses of the convict system? How did they experience childbirth and child rearing? How many did/could not have children? How did these experiences affect children?

We are looking for papers under 2000 words, about individual convict women, groups of women or more abstract discussions of the topic.

If you are interested, please submit a 100-word abstract by 14 October to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 



The 13th BIENNIAL CONFERENCE of the George Town & District Historical Society Inc.


This conference will be held in the Performing Arts Centre at the Port Dalrymple School with registrations from 8.45 am ready for a 9.15 am start and finishing around 4 pm. Registration required.

Website: www.gtdhs.com


The Marita Bardenhagen Memorial Award

The Marita Bardenhagen Memorial Award for Local History is a biennial prize acknowledging outstanding original research in the field of local history with significant Tasmanian content.  Applications are now open for the 2023 Award and will close on 30 September.

To obtain an entry form, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or phone 0409 140 657.

Recent Updates

Whats new?

Latest Convict Stories

View all Convict Stories


Latest Blogs

View all Blog Posts


Other Updates:

Voyages: The Voyage of the Tasmania 1844, including a map of the voyage, by Dee Hoole (14/09/2023)

Convict Ships  Martin Luther 1852, Surgeon's Journal, transcription courtesy of Colleen Arulappu (10/07/2023)

Books, Theses & Reports - Convict Orphans by Lucy Frost. (14/06/2023)

Books, Theses & Reports - Convict Lives:  Young girls transported to Van Diemen's Land edited by Alison Alexander (4/05/2023)

Freedoms - The Path to Freedom. Page updated and edited by Helen Menard 1/05/2023, to include  'Freedom v emancipation'.

Featured in Publications - A list of VDL convict women featured in publications (compiled and updated by Ros Escott April 2023).

Pre-Transportation: The British Justice System in the 18th & 19th Centuries -  A new page for the website, contributed by Helen Menard 18/03/2023.

Terms of Access - Additional Policy for accessing and using our website (6/02/2023)


GTDHS 13th Conference   

jf hob hl