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(John William Dare, 1852)


Don Bradmore

One of the most tragic stories of those of the 13,500 (approx.) women who were transported to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) between 1812 and 1853 is that of Mary Sullivan who, in December 1850, was convicted of stealing a quilt in County Cork, Ireland, and sentenced to transportation for seven years.[1] She arrived at Hobart per John William Dare on 22 May 1852. Just six weeks later, assigned as a servant, she strangled to death a two-year-old child in her care. On 5 August 1852, she was hanged at the Murray Street Gaol, Hobart. She was seventeen years old.[2]

Mary Sullivan was born in County Cork, Ireland, about 1834.[3] Little is known about her life before her conviction. She appears to have grown up without a mother. Her father’s name was John but he and one of her sisters, Julia, had gone off to America some time earlier. Another sister, Catherine, and two brothers, John and Patrick, were living in Ireland.[4]

At the Macroom Sessions in County Cork on 26 December 1850, Mary was found guilty of the theft of a quilt and sentenced to transportation for seven years.[5] Although she was still only sixteen, she had had two previous convictions for theft and had been gaoled for six months for each offence.[6] After the trial, she spent a few days at the Cork City Gaol before being transferred to Grangegorman Prison, Dublin, to await a ship to take her away.  She was there for twelve months.[7]

In mid-December 1851, Mary was put aboard the John William Dare which, with Thomas Walter as master, Robert Whitmore Clarke as surgeon-superintendent and one hundred and seventy-two female prisoners sailed from Dublin on 28 December. By 22 May 1852 it had reached Hobart.[8] Upon arrival, Clarke reported that Mary had been ‘well-conducted’ during the voyage. Later, a local newspaper claimed that she had been ‘one of the best convicts on board’.[9] Her convict indent shows her to have been seventeen years of age, single, four feet seven and three-quarter inches (about 142 cms.) tall, with a fresh complexion, dark brown hair and dark eyes. Her face was slightly freckled. She was allocated the convict trade of ‘nurse girl’.[10]

On 11 June 1852, Mary was assigned to George Dudfield of Melville Street, Hobart, but was in his service for only four days before being returned to the Government. Dudfield was to say later that, although she had ‘appeared to be fond of children’, she had complained of continual pains in her head and had been unable to do the work required of her.[11] It was another three weeks before she was well enough to be assigned again.

On 30 June, Mary was hired as a nursery maid by Mrs. Emma Jane Langley of Campbell Street, Hobart.[12] Some weeks earlier, Mrs. Langley, a widow with young children of her own, had taken on the care of a boy of four and a girl of two, the children of Mr. and Mrs. John Fraser, when their mother, a friend of Mrs. Langley, had been admitted to hospital with a debilitating illness. Earlier, Mrs. Fraser’s husband, formerly the landlord of the Old Commodore Inn in Brisbane Street, Hobart, had gone off to the Victorian goldfields.[13] Mrs. Langley was also providing lodgings at her home for an elderly blind woman, Alice Mary Barton, and a single gentleman named William Robb, a house agent.[14]

Previously, Mrs. Langley had hired a thirty-year-old convict servant by the name of Mary Ann Farmer (Anna Maria, 1852). Her task was to assist with the general household chores while the new servant, Mary Sullivan, was to attend to the two Fraser children: two-year-old Adeline Clara Blackburn Fraser, commonly known as ‘Addy’, and her four-year-old brother, John. The servants were to share a bed in a room with the Fraser children, Addy in a cradle and John in a crib on the other side of the room.[15]

Mary Sullivan had been at the Langley home for only a week when, early on the morning of 8 July, the body of little Addy Fraser was found floating in a water-butt (a large barrel) at the back of the house. A doctor was called at once but he had been unable to revive the child. In his opinion, she had been dead for some time. The police had also been called and, suspecting that Mary, who could not be found, had killed the child and absconded, they began a search for her immediately. She was arrested in Hobart the following day.[16]

On 9 July 1852, an inquest into Addy’s death was held before Mr. A. B. Jones, Esq., Coroner, at the York Tavern, Brisbane Street.[17] He outlined the circumstances in which the body had been found and informed the jurors that their task was to ascertain whether the child came to its death naturally or by any other means and whether it was dead before it was placed in the water. Stressing that the cause of death was presently ‘shrouded in mystery’, he told the jurors that they would have to arrive at their conclusion from the evidence which would be laid before them, discarding all reports they may have heard and any impressions they may have formed already. All then proceeded to view the body which, dressed in its shroud and ornamented with flowers, was still at Mrs. Langley’s house. It was pointed out to the jurors that the neck of the child exhibited a livid circular mark, indicative of strangulation, but that there were no other marks of violence visible. The jurors also inspected the child’s bedroom and the area at the back of the house where the water-butts were kept.[18]  

Mrs. Langley was the first witness called. She told the court that on the fateful morning, she had asked her servant Mary Ann Farmer to start preparing breakfast for her lodgers. Shortly, Farmer had come to her to say that the bread was missing from the safe. It was subsequently discovered that the other servant, Mary Sullivan, had left the house, apparently taking the bread with her. Soon afterwards, Farmer had come again, this time to tell her that little Addy Fraser was missing also. At first, both had assumed that Mary had taken the child with her but, minutes later, when Farmer had gone to the back of the house to fill the kettle, she had discovered the lifeless body of the infant in the water barrel. In response to questions from the Coroner and jurors, Mrs. Langley said that John, Addy’s brother, had told her that he had seen Mary take the baby from her cradle during the night. In regard to Mary’s character, Mrs. Langley said that she had found her to be of ‘a silent but sullen disposition’ in the week she had been with her but that, overall, she had been ’neither good nor bad’. On one occasion, she said, she had had to rebuke Mary for behaving unkindly to little Addy, who was an ‘uncleanly child’, when she had soiled herself in her cradle.[19]     

Dr. Huxtable, the doctor who had been summoned to the house when the body was discovered, deposed that the cause of death was strangulation. In his opinion, the child had been dead for about four hours when he arrived. A ligature had been tied so tightly around the neck of the child that he had had difficulty in inserting the blade of a scissors to remove it.[20]

Mr. Robb, one of Mrs. Langley’s lodgers, testified that as he sat down for breakfast that morning he had noticed a child’s ‘dirt’ on the hearth rug and had assumed that someone had attended to the child there but had not cleaned up afterwards. Then, Mary Ann Farmer had told him that they were rather behind that day because the other servant, Mary Sullivan, had ‘bolted’, taking away the sugar and tea as well as the bread, and that they had had to send out for more. At that point, Mrs. Langley, much distressed, had come into the room crying, ‘The hussy has taken the child with her.’ Minutes later, he had heard screams from the back of the house and Mrs. Langley had rushed back into the room exclaiming that the child had drowned in the water cask. Hurrying out to the back, Robb had observed that the barrel in which the child had been found was about five feet (152 cms) high. He thought it was impossible for the child to have climbed into it by herself.[21]

Mr. Frederick Piesse, a neighbour, told the court that he had been called to the Langley house by Robb shortly after the body had been discovered in the water-butt. As he arrived, Mrs. Langley had said to him, ‘That woman has put my dear baby into the water barrel’ but he was not aware at first which woman she meant. Later, he had helped the doctor to take the lifeless body into the parlour and remove the cord from its neck. As that was being done, he had heard Farmer cry out: ‘Oh, dear, the child has been strangled, and that’s the garter that she wore.’[22]

Miss Alice Barton, Mrs. Langley’s other lodger, told the jury that, although she was blind, she knew the two servants by their voices and was easily able to tell them apart. She testified that, early on the morning of the murder, before the body had been discovered, she had got out of bed to get some water for one of Mrs. Langley’s own little girls who slept in her room with her. Feeling her way into the kitchen, she had been surprised to run up against Mary Sullivan and had asked her to get water for her. She had assumed that Mary would go out to the water-butt to fetch it but she had said that it was too cold to go out there and so had had poured her a small amount from a container that was already in the parlour. Miss Barton had then gone back to bed and slept until awoken by the screams of the women at the water-butt at about eight o’clock.[23]

Edward Chandler, a detective constable, was the next witness. He produced a piece of tape which had been given to him by Dr. Huxtable after he had removed it from the dead baby’s neck. It was, Chandler said, similar to the tape issued by the Government to female prisoners. He told the court that he had seen Mary Sullivan in Murray Street, Hobart, the following day, and, putting his hand on her shoulder, was about to tell her that he was arresting her on a charge of murder. However, as soon as he said ‘I’m a constable’ - and before he could say anything else - she had said, ‘I didn’t murder the child.’ He had arrested her and taken her to the watch-house. There, she had been searched by the female searcher, Mrs. Caroline Watkins, who had handed him a petticoat (which he produced to the court), the tape of which was of exactly the same texture as that given to him by Dr. Huxtable. A piece of the tape, exactly corresponding to the tape he had produced to the court, had been torn off and another piece put in its place.[24]

The last witness to be called was Mary Ann Farmer. After being warned by the Coroner not to say anything that might incriminate herself, she said that she had been surprised when Mary got up earlier than usual on the morning of Addy’s death. It was about six o’clock and still dark. She herself did not get up until well after seven o’clock when she heard the slamming of the front door of the house. Without looking at the children’s beds, she had gone immediately to see if Mary had started the preparations for breakfast.[25] Corroborating the evidence of previous witnesses about the events which followed, she added that, after discovering that Mary had absconded, it was found that she had also taken away a hat, a pair of boots and some other items that had been left at the house by a previous lodger and that she had left her own government-issued shoes and clothes behind. Farmer added that the tape that had been found on little Addy’s neck was very like the string Mary had used for garters. In response to a question from a juror, she said that Mary might easily have been able to take the child out of its cradle without her hearing it and, as it seldom cried, without it making a noise.[26]      

After the Coroner had summed up the evidence, the jurors retired but returned in a short time with a verdict of ‘Wilful Murder’ against Mary. She was committed to gaol on the Coronor’s warrant to stand trial at the Supreme Court in the following week. All of the witnesses were bound over to give evidence at her trial.[27]

In its report of the inquest, the Colonial Times (Hobart) referred to Mary as ‘a short, stout, rough-looking girl of forbidding appearance and sullen disposition.’ The motives which could have prompted Mary to such an act, it said, were as yet incomprehensible but the evidence presented had shown that she ‘had manifested considerable impatience when entrusted with the care of children’.[28]

On 21 July 1852, Mary was tried for murder before Chief Justice John Lewes Pedder and a jury of twelve men at the Supreme Court, Hobart. All of the witnesses who had appeared at the Coroner’s inquest were called again to give evidence. According to a report of the trial in the Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of the Tasmanian Colonist, Mary had taken no interest whatsoever in the proceedings and had stood quite unconcerned throughout.[29] The Colonial Times reported that Mary had called no witnesses of her own and had had nothing to say in her defence. However, when asked directly if she had any questions, she had remarked that Mrs. Langley had been untruthful in saying that she had only rebuked her once because she had been scolded by her frequently. In fact, she said, it was Mrs. Langley and the other servant who had treated little Addy roughly when she had soiled herself. She added that she never wore garters.[30]

At the end of the session, the judge summed up at length and, after a short retirement, the jury returned a verdict of ‘Guilty’. Addressing Mary as to the solemnity of the crime and the necessity for repentance in preparation for another world, the judge passed the sentence of death, ordering that her body be given up afterwards for dissection.[31] The Tasmanian Colonist reported that ‘the unhappy woman had received the fatal intelligence with great indifference’.[32]  

The date set for the execution was 3 August 1852. In the days which followed the trial, however, there was much discussion and debate in the community about Mary’s state of mind at the time of the murder. While some claimed that ‘the wretched woman’ deserved no mercy for the diabolical act she had committed, others thought she was undoubtedly subject to fits of insanity.[33] The Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of the Tasmanian Colonist informed its readers that it was known that when Mary was at Grangegorman Prison in Ireland awaiting transfer to VDL the Matron, apparently fearing a violent reaction, had warned other inmates not to excite her.[34]

As a consequence, the date set for the execution was extended. A petition to save Mary on the grounds of temporary insanity was quickly organized and a Medical Board was appointed to enquire into her actual condition. However, when it had been brought to the notice of the Board that there had been two prisoners named ‘Mary Sullivan’ on the ship John William Dare in May, and that it was the other Mary Sullivan who had exhibited signs of mental aberration, the Board concluded that there were no extenuating circumstances and that Mary was in a sound state of mind when she murdered the child.[35]

And so, on 5 August, Mary went to the gallows.[36]

On the following day, the Colonial Times reported that Mary, who had been attended in her cell by William Hall, the Vicar-General of the Catholic Church in Tasmania, had confessed her crime and that when the time came for her to leave her cell she had walked ‘with much firmness’ to the scaffold.[37] She had spent her last moments in prayer. She had stood quite still while the hangman adjusted the rope. Her hair had been combed back plainly. A cap, or hood, was placed over her head and the lever pulled quickly. She had dropped to her death and died without a struggle.[38]

The Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of the Tasmanian Colonist reported that a large crowd had gathered to see the execution which, as was customary, took place above the walls of the gaol. While the executioner was adjusting the rope, only Mary’s head could be seen and the exclamation of the vast multitude was ‘She is only a little girl.’[39]

On the following day, Father Hall, the priest who had walked with Mary to the scaffold, wrote to the editor of Hobart Town Advertiser expressing his ‘surprise and pain’ at the comments it had made regarding Mary’s ‘hardened state of mind’ as she awaited her execution. He absolutely denied having described her as ‘obdurate’, as the paper had suggested. While it was true that she had exhibited no external signs of grief, such as the loud wailing and weeping that is sometimes seen in the condemned cell, it was the construction of her weak mind, he believed, that made her incapable of expressing her feelings in such a manner. But, he said, in her ’constant, calm, humble and penitent demeanour’ she had expressed heartfelt sorrow for her crime.[40] 

In concluding Mary’s story, it is interesting to note that Mary Ann Farmer, the other convict servant employed by Mrs. Langley when Addy Fraser was murdered, was also arrested on that fateful day, apparently for no other reason than that she might have colluded with Mary in the crime. She was taken to gaol but released seven days later when it had been firmly established that Mary had acted alone. However, it was some days after her release before she returned to Mrs. Langley’s home and, when she did get there, she was drunk. Angry, Mrs. Langley charged her with being absent without leave and with being intoxicated. Later, when brought before a magistrate, Mary Ann explained that her mind had been unsettled since the murder and that she could not bear to live in the house. The magistrate decided that, under the circumstances, her offences could be overlooked but ordered her to return to Mrs. Langley’s service and to remain there until her services were no longer required.[41]        

The author acknowledges the work of Brian Rieusset whose paper,‘The Due Course of the Law’, presented at the Female Convicts Research Centre seminar at Hobart in Autumn 2016, included the story of Mary Sullivan among those of three convict women who were hanged at Hobart between 1830 and 1852 .




[1] Conduct record: CON 41-1-33, image 164; Indent: CON15-1-7, images 241 and 242; Description List: CON19-1-10, image 96; Police No: 1031; FCRC ID: 7105.

[2] CON41-1-33, image 164.

[3] Birth date calculated from age on arrival in VDL; see indent, CON15-1-7, images 241/242.

[4] CON15-1-7, images 241/242.

[5] Macroom is a small market town close to the city of Cork.

[6] CON41-1-33, image 164.

[7] Cork City Gaol Court Book 1850-1852, Book no 1/8/25, items 3 and 4 and Grangegorman Prison Register via www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[8] https://www.perthdps.com/convicts/shipsTAS.html

[9] CON15-1-7, images 241/242; Courier (Hobart), 10 July 1852, p.3.

[10] CON19-1-10, image 96.

[11] CON30-1-2, p.269; Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania, 4 August 1852, p.2.

[12] CON41-1-33, image 164.

[13] Courier (Hobart), 10 July 1852, p.3.

[14] Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania, 17 July 1852, p.3.

[15] Mary Ann Farmer: CON41-1-32, image 64.

[16] The Tasmanian Colonist, 8 July 1852, p.2; Courier (Hobart), 10 July 1852, p.3; death: Adeline Clara Blackburn Fraser, aged 2, death: RGD35/1/3, no 1798.

[17] Inquest: SC195/1/31, Inquest 2762.

[18] Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania, 14 July 1852, p.3.

[19] Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania, 14 July 1852, p.3; Tasmanian Colonist, 15 July 1852, p.2; Hobart Town Advertiser, 16 July 1852, p.4.

[20] As for Note 19.

[21] Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania, 14 July 1852, p.3.

[22] Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania, 14 July 1852, p.3; Hobart Town Advertiser, 16 July 1852, p.4.

[23] Hobart Town Advertiser, 16 July 1852, p.4.

[24] As for Note 23.

[25] Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania, 14 July 1852, p.3.

[26] As for Note 23.

[27] Colonial Times (Hobart), 16 July 1852, p.3; Argus (Melbourne), 27 July 1852, p. 2.

[28] Courier (Hobart), 10 July 1852, p.3; Colonial Times (Hobart), 16 July 1852, p.3.

[29] Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania, 4 August 1852, p.2.

[30] Chief Justice Pedder: https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pedder-sir-john-lewes-2542; Colonial Times (Hobart), 27 July 1852, p.2

[31] Colonial Times (Hobart), 27 July 1852, p.2; Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of the Tasmanian Colonist, 4 August 1852, p.2.

[32] Tasmanian Colonist (Hobart), 29 July 1852, p.3.

[33] Colonial Times (Hobart), 6 August 1852, p.2.

[34] Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of the Tasmanian Colonist, 4 August 1852, p.2.

[35] Colonial Times (Hobart), 6 August 1852, p.2.

[36] The Tasmanian Colonist (Hobart), 5 August 1852, p.3; Colonial Times, 6 August 1852, p.2.

[37] Father William Hall: see https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hall-william-2146

[38] As for Note 34.

[39] Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of the Tasmanian Colonist, 4 August 1852, p.2.

[40] Hobart Town Advertiser, 6 August 1852, p.3;

[41] The Cornwall Chronicle, 7 August 1852, p.498; see also CON41-1-32, image 64.

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Convict Lives: Young girls transported to Van Diemen's Land.

Edited by Alison Alexander

Launched  May 7, 2023 by Emeritus Professor Kate Warner, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania

Female Convicts Research Centre and Convict Women's Press are pleased to announce the latest publication in the Convict Lives series.

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Lost Voices Presents FORGOTTEN - Hobart Playhouse 14-16th July

This haunting, unforgettable drama by acclaimed playwright and social historian Cate Whittaker relives one of the few female rebellions in World History at the Parramatta Female Convict Factory Penitentiary in 1827 led by Irish Catholic women. Struggling to survive starvation after two women have died these courageous women go on strike, and then overpower their guards to take control of the Factory yard. When the military are called ,they are fired on at point blank range and rise phoenix-like to hurl back their stones and fill the yard to bursting such that the soldiers dare not enter. It is a pyrrhic victory for the new Matron arriving the next day has been told to get the ringleaders names and they are to be hanged at the gates. Facing final defeat they break down the gates and dodging bayonets make it to the town to tell the press of the Governor’s mismanagement and manslaughter. Governor Darling’s contract was not removed yet all records of the event were wiped from colonial records, til now. Now Forgotten gives these brave women, from whom one in seven Australian’s descend, their rightful and respected place in our History.

This production is under the gifted direction of NIDA MFA Madeleine Diggins leading a young cast for new Drama Graduates in a not-for-profit Actors Cooperative. It comes to Hobart, after its second sell-out audience success at the National Theatre of Parramatta and has been endorsed by the Irish Consul General to appear in the Dublin Festival as a fine example of Irish Australian Art.

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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.  Entries are to be in the form of a published work appearing in the three years preceding the year of the award. More information is available here...

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