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Hannah Oxley

(William Bryan, 1833)

by Don Bradmore

In April 1833, Hannah Oxley, a married woman in her late thirties and the mother of three children, was convicted at York, England, of stealing meat and sentenced to transportation for seven years.[1] She arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) per William Bryan later that year. Of particular interest in her story is that she was from a notoriously ‘troublesome’ family.[2] A report from the gaol in which she had been kept before leaving England described her as having ‘connexions of the worst description’.[3] Her father had been transported twice. In 1818, he had been convicted of larceny and transported for seven years but, after serving his time and returning home, he had been transported again, in 1827, for a similar offence. Just weeks before Hannah’s departure from England, one of her brothers had been hanged for highway robbery and another brother had been transported for theft. With this family background, the colonial authorities had reason to expect that Hannah might be a difficult prisoner to manage. Was this the case? How did she cope with life as a convict? What eventually became of her?

Hannah Oxley was baptized at the church of St Giles at Pontefract, Yorkshire (West Riding), England, on 24 September 1797. She was eldest of six children of James and Elizabeth (nee King) Law. Her siblings were Sarah (born 1799), William (1803, died 1803), Mary (1804, died 1805), Thomas (1806) and James (1809).[4]

On 30 December 1824, Hannah married John Oxley, a waterman, at St Giles, Pontefract.[5] They had a son, George, who was baptised at St Botolph, Knottingley, on 27 June 1827.[6] (Her convict documents state that she had three children but birth/baptismal records for the other children have not been found.) There is no information about how the family lived at that time but it is likely that they were poor and that life was difficult.

At the York (West Riding) Quarter Sessions on 6 April 1833, Hannah was convicted of stealing a shoulder of mutton.[7] The court heard that she had had convictions in 1826 and 1828 for which she had been imprisoned. She was sentenced to transportation for seven years. There was little sympathy for her in the community where her immediate family was well-known for its criminality. In its report of her conviction on 13 April 1833, the Leeds Intelligencer, commented:

A Troublesome Family: In our report of the proceedings at the Pontefract Sessions, this week, will be found the name of Hannah Oxley, the wife of John Oxley, of Knottingley, waterman…The prisoner is the sister of (Thomas) Law, one of the men who were executed at York on Saturday week, for the robbery of Mr Atkinson, near Pontefract. Another of her brothers, named James Law, was transported for seven years at the last Michaelmas Sessions for the West-Riding, held at Sheffield. Some few years ago, her father (James Law) was transported for seven years; he served his term and then returned to Knottingley, but was shortly afterwards again convicted of felony, and transported for life. Fortunately for the public, the prisoner, Hannah Oxley, is the last of the family.[8] 

While this report referred to Hannah incorrectly as ‘the last of the family’, it was certainly accurate in its assessment of her family as ‘troublesome’.

In January 1818 – thirteen years before Hannah’s transportation to VDL – her father, James Law, then about forty-nine years old, was convicted of larceny at the York (West Riding) Quarter Sessions and sentenced to transportation for seven years.[9] He arrived in New South Wales (NSW) aboard General Stewart in December that year and was shipped on to Windsor, about forty miles (60 kms) north of Sydney.[10] At nearby Wilberforce, he was assigned to a landholder named Cyrus Doyle. By January 1825, he had served his time as a convict and was issued with a Free Certificate. The certificate shows his age as fifty-six and his trade or occupation as ‘labourer and quarryman’. It was now permissible for him to return to England if he wished to do so – and he seems to have done that immediately.[11] By late 1825, he was back at his home in England.

However, it was only a matter of months before he was in trouble with the law again. On 3 April 1826, he was found guilty of the theft of five hundred printed papers (or tracts) valued at sixpence, five hundred printed pamphlets valued at two pence and  five hundred books also valued at two pence, the property of a woman named Mary Scholefield. (Why James wanted such material is not revealed in the court documents.)[12] Sentenced to another term of transportation for seven years, he was put aboard Marquis of Hastings (2) which left England on 14 April 1827 and reached Sydney on 31 July that year.[13] The records show that he was granted a Certificate of Freedom on 23 April 1833 but what became of him after that is unclear.[14] He was then about sixty-four years old.

In October1832, Hannah’s youngest brother, also named James Law, twenty-three years old and single, had been convicted at the Yorkshire (West Riding) Quarter Sessions of stealing poultry. Sentenced to transportation for seven years, he arrived in VDL per Atlas on 24 August 1833. Although the report from the hulk in which he was kept prior to his departure from England described him as ‘orderly’, a note on his Conduct Record refers to him as ‘a very bad character’. The Conduct Record also states ‘father transported twice’. Apart from being ‘out after hours’ and suspected of being involved in a robbery at that time – an offence for which he was imprisoned for six months – he managed to stay out of trouble in VDL. By 1838, he had been granted a ticket of leave and, in 1840, he was issued with his Free Certificate. Nothing more is known of him.[15]

In March 1833, only a month before Hannah was convicted and sentenced to transportation, another of her brothers, twenty-five-year-old Thomas Law, had been hanged at York Castle after being found guilty of a vicious highway robbery.[16] In its report of the execution, the Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser informed its readers that, on 12 January that year, Thomas Law had ‘cruelly beaten’ a man named Atkinson whom he had attacked and robbed.[17]

Thus, with good reason, the convict authorities in VDL might have been very wary of Hannah when she arrived in VDL in August 1833. Her convict documents reveal that they had been alerted to the fact that she had family ‘connexions of the worst description’.[18] 

Immediately following her trial on 6 April 1833, she had been transferred from York Castle to the City Gaol, London.[19] A few days later, she was put aboard William Bryan which, with Mr. J. Roman as master and Dr. Thomas Robertson as surgeon-superintendent, one hundred and thirty female prisoners and nine free women, sailed from Woolwich on 4 July 1833 and reached Hobart on 23 October that year.[20] Although the voyage itself had been without incident, it had not started well. Even before the departure of the vessel, seven of the prisoners had died from cholera. Fortunately, there were no more cases of cholera after leaving England.[21] At Hobart, Hannah was described as being forty years old, married, five feet (about 153cms) tall with a dark complexion, brown hair and grey eyes. Her face was slightly pock-pitted. She was allocated the convict trades of ‘plain cook’ and ‘farm servant’.[22]

As it happened, Hannah was not as troublesome as the authorities had feared she might be. During the seven years of her penal servitude, she was charged with offences on only three occasions, the first coming in 1834 when assigned as a servant to a Mr. Hull of Hobart. On 7 May that year, she was charged with ‘refusing to go back to her service’ and was punished with imprisonment for a month, to be served with hard labour at the wash tubs.[23]

It was to be another five years before she was charged with an offence again – and in that time her life had changed considerably. In May 1837, she had been granted a ticket of leave and was now entitled to find her own employment and accommodation.[24] More significantly, perhaps, she had re-married. Her new husband was a convict named William Bickers. He had arrived in VDL per Lord William Bentinck (1) in August 1832 after being convicted earlier that year of ‘robbery from the person’ and sentenced to transportation for fourteen years. It was his first conviction. Upon arrival at Hobart, he had stated that he was twenty-nine years old and that he had left a wife, Frances, behind in England. He was a gardener by trade.[25]

After receiving approval, Hannah and William were married at St John’s Church, Newtown, on 11 September 1837, and, it is presumed, lived together afterwards.[26] There is no record of any children of the marriage. As William was not granted a ticket of leave until 1841, it is unlikely that the couple had much money – and it was this, perhaps, that led Hannah to commit her second offence in the colony.[27]

On 12 December 1839, she was charged with ‘misconduct in keeping a disorderly house at Newtown’ and being ‘out after hours’. Unfortunately, the charge does not reveal what kind of disorderly house it was. Perhaps it was simply that persons who were known to the police gathered there. However, most commonly, the term ‘disorderly house’ meant that the house was being used as a brothel or for illegal gambling.[28] In any event, the magistrate who heard the charge against Hannah must have thought it a relatively minor offence. She was ordered to the cells, to be fed on bread and water, for only seven days.[29]

Only a month or so after her release from that charge, Hannah was in trouble again. On 10 February 1840, she was charged with ‘misconduct in the Police Office’. The nature of the misconduct is not specified in the charge – but she was sent back to prison for a month, again to be served with hard labour - and her ticket of leave was suspended.[30]

Although that was not the end of her troubles with the law – more were to come later in her life – it was the last of the charges brought against her as a convict. In April 1840, she was issued with her Certificate of Freedom.[31] Her convict days were over. She was a free woman again. For the next eight years nothing was heard of Hannah and William. While it is likely that they lived together happily enough most of the time, it is probable that there were times when this was not the case. On 26 February 1848, for instance, the Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania reported that the pair had been charged with drunkenness and with making use of obscene language in the streets. Both were compelled to pay a fine of ten shillings each.[32]

Although few details of Hannah’s middle and later life have been located, it is clear that things became more difficult for her, and that her behaviour deteriorated, as she aged. In January 1864, she was charged with being ‘an idle and disorderly person’ and ‘begging alms in the public streets’. She was sent to the Female House of Corrections for three months. She was then sixty-seven.[33]

Unhappily, this was not to be the last time that Hannah would be gaoled for the same or similar offences. In its report of another ‘begging in the streets’ charge being brought against her in August 1866 – and imprisonment for three months again - The Mercury (Hobart) revealed that she had ‘several times been convicted of the same offence’:

An elderly woman named Hannah Bickers was charged with begging in Liverpool Street, and pleaded not guilty. Constable Evans stated that he noticed the woman begging at several shops in Liverpool Street yesterday and, in answer to the Bench, [he] informed the Court that defendant had been several times previously convicted of the same offence, notwithstanding that she had a good home to go to at O'Brien's Bridge. Defendant was sentenced to imprisonment for three months.[34]

Whether or not The Mercury’s report was accurate in its assertion that Hannah ‘had a good home to go to at O’Brien’s Bridge’ (near Hobart) is impossible to confirm – but it seems unlikely. Only a year later, in August 1867, The Mercury reported that she had been sentenced to three months' hard labour ‘for begging alms. She was described in the report as ‘an inveterate beggar’ and a ‘vagrant’.[35]

Sadly, within months of her release from prison on that occasion, Hannah’s husband, William, passed away, his death brought on by an accidental fall. On 13 July 1868, The Tasmanian Times (Hobart) carried this report:

On Friday evening [10 July], as a man named William Bickers was proceeding home up the ‘Dusty Miller's Lane’, at Glenorchy, he, by some means, fell down and broke his right leg, just above the ankle. [He] was taken to hospital by the Rural Police on Saturday morning, and his wounds, a compound fracture of both bones, attended to by the Assistant-Surgeon and Dr. Butler.

William died at the General Hospital, Hobart, a week later.[36] He was sixty-seven. An inquest into his death, held on 21 July, confirmed that the fall had been purely accidental and that, despite the medical attention he had received, gangrene had set in and that had been the cause of his death.[37] Supporting the notion that life for Hannah and William had been a continual struggle financially is a hospital record showing that William was buried as a pauper.[38]  

A month after William’s death, Hannah was charged with her last offence. The Tasmanian Times report of the incident, on 22 September 1868, read:

Hannah Bickers, an elderly woman, belonging to Glenorchy, whose husband died some time ago from the effects of a broken leg, was charged by Constable Jackson with begging alms on Saturday in Murray Street. She positively denied the offence; but was sentenced to a month's imprisonment. Shortly before being apprehended, the old lady told another constable that she was going to take proceedings against the Warden and Council Clerk of Glenorchy for refusing to deliver up her husband's watch.[39]


Whether Hannah was able to recover William’s watch is unknown. A month later, on 27 October 1868, she was admitted to the General Hospital, Hobart, and died there -on 1 November. Hospital records show the cause of her death as ‘senilis’ (old age), her age as seventy and her occupation as ‘servant’.[40]  

While it is impossible to feel anything but the greatest of sympathy for Hannah, there is little else that can be said about her. Uneducated, impoverished all her life, torn from her husband and children when transported - and with family ‘connexions of the worst description’ - perhaps she had done as well as could have been expected in VDL.

(The author acknowledges the special contribution to the research for this story of FCRC volunteer, David Guiver.)

 

[1] Conduct record: CON40-1-7, image 157; description list: CON19-1-14, image 191; indent not located; police number: 18; FCRC ID: 13027.

[2] Leeds Intelligencer, 13 April 1833.

[3] CON40.

[4] Baptismal records show that Hannah’s mother, Elizabeth, gave birth to another son, John, in 1815 but no father’s name was given.  Research Notes for Hannah Oxley (ID13027) in FCRC d/base at www.femaleconvicts.org.au;

[5] Yorkshire Gazette, 20 April 1833.

[6] Public trees at ‘Ancestry.com’, accessed 8 February 2023.

[7] Yorkshire Gazette, 20 April 1833.

[8] Leeds Intelligencer, 13 April 1833.

[9] Class: HO 27; Piece: 16; Page: 300 via ‘Ancestry.com’: ‘England and Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892 for James Law: England-Yorkshire-West Riding-1818.

[10] https://convictrecords.com.au/ships/general-stewart/1818

[11] ‘All New South Wales, Australia, Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 1788-1856 results for James Law’ via ‘Ancestry.com’; Free Certificate No 119/3115 via ‘Ancestry.com’; permissible to return home: see https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/administration/freedoms

[12] https://convictrecords.com.au/convicts/law/james/11515; Class: HO 27; Piece: 32; Page: 319, ‘England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892’ via ‘Ancestry.com’.

[13] https://convictrecords.com.au/ships

[14] Certificate of Freedom: 3 April 1833 – see Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser, 25 April 1833 via ‘Ancestry.com’.

[15] CON31-1-28, image 109.

[16] http://www.britishexecutions.co.uk/execution-content.php?key=6179&termRef=Thomas%20Law

[17] Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser, 6 April 1833; https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/

[18] CON40-1-7, image 157.

[19] York Herald, 1 June 1833 via ‘Research Notes’ at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

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

[21] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-ships/convict-ship-records - see surgeon’s medical journal transcribed by Rhonda Arthur, FCRC volunteer, at www.femaleconvicts.org.au

[22] CON40-1-7, image 157.

[23] CON19-1-14, image 191.

[24] Hobart Town Gazette, 19 May 1837, The Hobart Town Courier, 26 May 1837, p.4; Launceston Advertiser, 25 May 1837, p.4.

[25] CON31-1-5, image 18.

[26] Permission to marry: CON52/1/1, p.13; marriage: RGD36/1/3 no 3792.

[27] William’s ToL: see CON31-1-5, image 18; William’s conditional pardon: The Courier (Hobart), 4 October 1841, p.1.

[28] https://www.lexisnexis.co.uk/legal/commentary/halsburys-laws-of-england/criminal-law/disorderly-houses; https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/disorderly+house

[29] CON40-1-7, image 157.

[30] CON40-1-7, image 157; Colonial Times (Hobart), 18 February 1840, p.7.

[31] Hobart Town Gazette, 27 March 1840; The Hobart Town Courier and Van Diemen's Land Gazette,27 March 1840, p.2.

[32] Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania (Hobart), 26 February 1848, p.3.

[33] The Advertiser (Hobart), 11 January 1864, p.2.

[34] The Mercury (Hobart), 22 August 1866, p.2.

[35] The Mercury (Hobart), 9 August 1867, p.2.

[36] William Bickers, death: RGD35/7499/1868, Hobart.

[37] Inquest: SC195/1/52, no 6461, 19 July 1868.

[38] Hospital record, pauper: HSD146-1-1 (1868, p .3)

[39] The Tasmanian Times (Hobart), 22 September 1868, p.2; The Mercury (Hobart), 22 September 1868. p 2.

[40] Hannah, death: RGD35/1/7, no 7627; hospital records: HSD145/1/1, Nov. 1868 and HSD146/1/1, 1868, image 4.

 

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

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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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