[Persian (1), 1827]
Those who are interested in the stories of the female convicts who were transported to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) between 1812 and 1853 may already be familiar with that of Norah Cobbett who arrived in the colony aboard Persian in August 1827. Her extraordinary tale is inextricably bound with that of the fascinating adventurer, pirate, farmer, painter, police constable, newspaper editor and author Jorgen Jorgenson (Woodman, 1826), who, before his conviction in England and exile to VDL, had sailed to Iceland where he had proclaimed himself that country’s ‘King’. This present account adds little to the several outstanding works about his life that have appeared in recent years. It differs from them, however, in taking as its main focus the astonishing life of Cobbett, a woman who, while being referred to as ‘liquor-addicted’, ‘violent’, ‘disreputable’ and ‘notorious’, was also seen as ‘charismatic’ and ‘celebrated’. It may serve, too, as a useful introduction to the important historical events in which the pair were involved in the colony, describing the way in which Cobbett’s association with Jorgenson led, as one of his friends had predicted, to his eventual ruin.
This is Norah Cobbett’s story:
Norah, the daughter of Patrick Cobbett (or Corbett) and his wife Catherine nee Fitzgerald, was born at Cork, County Cork, Ireland, in 1805. Very little is known about her early life except that she was in England when convicted of the crime that led to her transportation. There, at seventeen, unmarried, she had given birth to a daughter whom she had left in the care of another family when banished to VDL.
At the Surrey Quarter Sessions, England, on 23 October 1826, Norah was found guilty of stealing a shawl as well as nineteen shillings and sixpence from the person of Martha Smith. A report of the trial in the Morning Post of 26 October revealed that the court had been told that Norah was ‘one of the greatest thieves in the Borough’. In passing sentence, the judge had remarked that ‘her infamous conduct had shown her to be too bad a character to remain in this country’ and that she should be transported ‘beyond the seas’ for the term of her life. After the trial, she was taken to Milbank Prison, London, to await a ship to take her to VDL. There, her behaviour was described in one telling word – ‘bad’.
Eventually, she was put aboard Persian which, with Robert Plunkett as master, James Patton as surgeon-superintendent, sixty female prisoners and a number of their children, as well as some free persons, both male and female, sailed from London on 14 April 1827 and reached Hobart on 5 August that year.
At Hobart, Patton was pleased to be able to report that there had been no deaths at sea. However, two circumstances had caused him much trouble. The first was the behaviour of convict Mary Page who had refused to obey orders, struck the chief officer ‘a violent blow to the face’ and attempted to incite a mutiny by urging members of the crew to give no assistance whatsoever to the ship’s officers and asking her fellow prisoners to decline to go below decks when ordered. Failing to get the support of the majority of women, and ignored by many, but not all, of the seamen, she was handcuffed and locked away in the hold of the ship. Patton’s second problem was with a very important male passenger, Mr. Robert McCleland, Esq., who was on his way to VDL to take up the prestigious post of Attorney-General. That illustrious gentleman had reported sick midway through the voyage, insisting that the master, the officers - and even the surgeon himself - were plotting against him. At one time, while still in mid-ocean, he had requested to be put ashore immediately. Patton had been able to observe his ‘mental aberrations’ closely but, by treating him with understanding and patience, was able to say that he had made a full recovery by the time the ship had reached Hobart.
Interestingly, Patton had been lavish in his praise of Norah during the voyage, noting in his medical journal that her behaviour had been ‘good’, and adding that she:
… has done the duty of cook uniformly to my satisfaction as well as that of the prisoners. Is a very hard-working woman and could make herself a very valuable servant to any farmer wanting a woman of her abilities.
From the very first months of her servitude in the colony, however, Norah showed that the ‘bad’ report she had received while in gaol in England was more accurate than the ‘good’ she had received from Surgeon-Superintendent Patton.
Upon disembarkation, the authorities had described her as being twenty-two years old and single. She was five feet four and a quarter inches (about 160 cms) tall with dark brown hair and brown eyes. Allocated the convict trade of ‘farm servant and milk maid’, she was soon assigned as a servant to a free settler.
As might have been predicted, Norah did not take easily to her new circumstances. Her conduct record reveals that, on 9 and 10 April 1828, after just eight months in the colony, she was charged with absenting herself without leave from the house of a Dr. Scott to whom she had been assigned. When found at the Union Tavern later, she was in a state of intoxication. Reprimanded, she was dismissed from Scott’s service and returned to the Female Factory.
That entry on Norah’s conduct record fails to tell the whole truth of her behaviour in her early days as a prisoner. In her study of the life of Jorgen Jorgenson, The English Dane: From King of Iceland to Tasmanian Convict (2006), Bakewell asserts that, in mid-1828, Norah had absconded from her employer and vanished, and that newspapers of the day had listed her as a ‘runaway’ for many months. Later events suggest that this was certainly the case. Sometimes, the newspapers had added a note to the effect that Norah had escaped apprehension by being disguised in male attire.
On 1 December 1828, Norah and a fellow runaway, William Axford (Guildford, 1820), were arrested and charged with being part of a notorious gang of livestock thieves led by another escaped convict, William Sheldon (Medway 1820), who had managed to avoid capture on that occasion. Norah and Axford were sent to the Oatland Gaol to await trial.
The man who had arrested Norah and Axford was Jorgen Jorgenson, himself a former convict in VDL and now a police constable. To say that Jorgenson’s life had already been remarkable would be a gross understatement. Born in Denmark in 1780, the son of a watchmaker, he had gone to sea at the age of fourteen and had sailed on several vessels, including a British man-o-war. In 1801, he was aboard Harbinger which, under the command of Captain John Black, was the second vessel to sail through Bass Strait en route to Port Jackson, New South Wales. There, he had joined the crew of Lady Nelson which, in 1803 and 1804, had assisted in the removal of three hundred convicts, their guards and a small band of free settlers from Sullivan’s Bay, Port Philip, to the Derwent when an attempt at settlement there had proved unsuccessful. Afterwards he had returned to Copenhagen, Denmark, where, as a privateer, he had played a part in the Anglo-Danish War until captured by the British in early 1808. After ten months of captivity in England, he was allowed to return to Denmark, and it was then that he visited Iceland twice on trading ships. On his second visit, in 1809, he had arrested the Danish governor, proclaimed Iceland independent of Denmark and installed himself as the head of government. But his ‘protectorship’ of Iceland had lasted only nine weeks before a British warship had arrived and he had been removed from office. He returned to England where, for the next eleven years, he wrote plays, books, and articles on various subjects, drank heavily and gambled foolishly. In May 1820, he was arrested for petty theft and, afterwards, was in and out of debtor’s prison frequently. In December 1822, he was convicted of a more serious theft, that of pawning his landlady’s furnishings and bed linen, and sentenced to transportation for life. For the next few years, however, he managed – rather miraculously – to stay in England, even working for a time as the assistant to the surgeon at Newgate Prison. Eventually caught up with by the authorities, he was put aboard the convict ship Woodman and arrived in VDL in April 1826. There, he was for the rest of his life, referred to jocularly as ‘the old King of Iceland’ and ‘the Convict King’.
Jorgenson’s first job in the colony was in the local customs house and there he had soon uncovered a number of forged documents by which the perpetrators of a scam were planning to steal four thousand pounds worth of bonded goods. So grateful were the heads of the Van Diemen’s Land Company that they offered him employment, his task being to explore the inland of the colony seeking out opportunities that the company might exploit. What success this brought is unclear but, by 1827, he had joined the ranks of the police force. And it was in this capacity, in late 1828, that he had met, and arrested, Norah Cobbett.
Soon after the imprisonment of Norah and William Axford at Oatlands Gaol, William Sheldon, the leader of the sheep-stealing gang, had also been arrested – and Norah and Axford were coming under heavy pressure from the police to turn upon their former leader. While Axford stood firm and refused to cooperate, Norah, who was far less experienced in criminality of this kind, decided that it would be in her best interests to testify against Sheldon at his upcoming trial. She willingly agreed to corroborate with Jorgenson in laying traps for other members of the gang.
When word got out about what she was intending to do, Norah was soon being subjected to extreme abuse and dire threats from Sheldon’s convict sympathisers - of whom there were very many in the district. That these threats were being taken seriously by the police is made clear by this report published in The Hobart Town Courier on 14 March 1829:
Serious fears have been entertained here during the last two days that Jorgen Jorgenson, and a most important witness named Norah Corbett, under his charge, will be put to death by some of the numerous wretches denounced by this woman. Her important disclosures render her life of immense value to the community. William Sheldon, a man involved in many felonies, and for whose apprehension a reward was lately published in the Gazette, has, with a companion, been lurking near the road for some days with the declared intention of shooting Jorgenson and the woman.
Fearful that Norah would be so worried by all of this that she would decline to give evidence, the police knew that measures had to be taken urgently to keep her safe. The solution that they came up with was to place her under Jorgenson’s personal protection. His task was to protect her and get her to court as a witness in good shape. Immediately, he had her removed from the prison and accommodated at the nearby Campbell Town Inn, partly, it seems, as a decoy to attract other gang members to the place, some of whom seemed to consider it their headquarters. There, despite Norah being surrounded by villains and sundry unsavoury types, she remained safe and was able to give evidence when Sheldon’s trial got under way.
On 9 May 1829, Sheldon and some of his gang stood at the bar at the Supreme Court, Hobart, and Norah gave her testimony. The police, however, must have been bitterly disappointed with the outcome of the trial. All of the gang were given light sentences.
At Hobart, Jorgenson had arranged for Norah to stay at the Waterloo Tavern for the duration of the trial but was fearful that she, already known to be much addicted to strong liquor, would drink too much and be persuaded to recant her evidence. One day, when Jorgenson saw her drinking with nine or ten men, he grabbed her by the hair and pulled her away - and for that he himself was charged with being drunk and violent and for using obscene language. He was dismissed from the police immediately but after arguing that he was only trying to protect Norah, his job was restored.
After the trial of Sheldon, Norah had been compelled to go back to her assigned convict service and, for the next few months, she was well-behaved. On 26 December 1829, then at Ross in the centre of the island, she was granted a ticket of leave. Meanwhile, Jorgenson had gone back to his police work. In June 1830, he received a conditional pardon.
From the beginning, a strong bond between Norah and Jorgenson had been developing. She was to say later that, as early as December 1828, he had asked her to marry him. Twice her age, he had felt very protective of her and was reported as saying that he could not help looking on her ‘with infinite compassion’. With him, it seems to have been a case of both infatuation and feelings of guilt that it had been he who had been responsible for her being persecuted now by fellow convicts. The leniency of judge and jury at Sheldon’s trial had done nothing to appease the ire of the sympathisers of the gang members and she was still exposed to ‘extreme danger’. As for Norah, she obviously liked Jorgenson but had no intention of taking him for a husband. In fact, in April 1829, as she was preparing to give evidence at Sheldon’s trial, The Hobart Town Courier had reported that she would have been now ‘lamenting deeply her breach of promise of marriage with Mr. William Elliott, both of the parish of Bark Hut Plains.’ And then, in January 1830, a man by the name of John George Honskie* had applied successfully, apparently with her agreement, for permission for the pair to wed. For some reason, however, the marriage did not eventuate.
Nevertheless, the bond between Jorgenson and Norah persisted and, on 25 January 1831, they were married at St. Matthew’s Church, New Norfolk, a town they had chosen because they felt that few people would know them there.
In marrying Norah, Jorgenson had gone against the advice of a friend and former employer, Thomas Anstey, who had told him that his life would be ruined if he married her. Anstey was to write at the time:
I know nothing of this woman [Norah] save that she is often very addicted to liquor, and of her propensity to beat and scratch Jorgenson when she is intoxicated … But Jorgenson was in love and there was no reasoning with him. Norah was ‘charismatic at her best.
Tellingly, the marriage had taken place between the petty thefts and bouts of drunkenness and violence with which Norah was being charged almost continually. In August 1830, she had been charged with being drunk and disorderly and fined five shillings. In August of the following year, she was guilty of drunkenness again but escaped with a reprimand. In June 1832, she had assaulted two women, Mary Scott and Elizabeth Mholes, and had been ordered to find sureties for her future good behaviour. Five days later, however, she had been charged again, this time with the theft from the person of a Mr. Holt of a one-pound bank note. In January 1833, she was charged again with being drunk and fined another five shillings. In December 1834, she was gaoled for being drunk, violent and in a turbulent condition at Oatlands – and her ticket of leave was suspended for three months. In July 1834, with her ticket restored, she was charged again with drunkenness, this time being released with an admonishment when Jorgenson promised to remove her from Oatlands. A month later, she was found guilty of drunkenness again and of using obscene language in the streets. Her punishment was to be sent to the Female Factory and her ticket suspended for three months once more, the magistrate noting that her husband had ‘neglected to perform his promise’ to remove her from the town. And so it was to continue – charge after charge - as poor Norah became ever more addicted to drink, unruly and disorderly.
For some of the time during the early years of her marriage, and even before, Jorgenson had been away from the home, working as a leader of a scouting party in the infamous – and now universally deplored – ‘Black Wars’, which Governor Arthur had initiated in 1824, soon after his arrival in the colony. In 1828, he had proclaimed martial law and, in 1830, had given orders that all able-bodied should form a line, a human chain, across the whole of the settled regions of the inland to clear them of the indigenous population so that white settlers could farm them in safety. Jorgenson, however, had found the task irksome. Hunting down remnants of the tribes of so-called ‘hostile natives’ with the likes of the noisily self-assertive John Batman, the man who later was one of the main founders of Melbourne, and others, was not to his liking. By 1832, he had grown tired of this duty and asked to be relieved of it and permitted to return to some more peaceful mode of work.
For a short time, he tried to make ends meet by writing books and papers on a variety of subjects that appealed to him as well as articles for the colony’s newspapers but soon found that that was driving him deep into debt. Somewhat in desperation, he begged Governor Arthur to find him something – anything - to do that befitted his many talents and by which he hoped to be able to make an important contribution to the development of the young country. Although he was not altogether happy about doing so, he eventually accepted the post of Division Constable at Ross where, at Arthur’s command, work had already commenced on a significant project, a major new stone bridge across the Macquarie River. Accompanied by Norah, he arrived there in July 1833.
He quickly discovered that his real job was to act as a spy for Arthur who, very shrewdly, had judged that Jorgenson’s past travels and experience ideally suited him for this task. Jorgenson, himself, however, was far from pleased to come to this realisation because it set him against the scores of convicts and their supervisors who had been engaged in the bridge-building preparations since 1828. But progress towards its actual construction had been slow and, eventually Arthur had been alerted to the reason. The convicts and guards, as well as free settlers in the district, had been pilfering huge quantities of the stone and other materials that the Government had been sending there for the bridge in order to build huts and farm sheds for themselves.
Although Jorgenson did not like the spying aspect of his job, and while both he and Norah, earned the scorn of the convict labourers, he seems to have been successful in stopping the thievery. By 1836, the bridge had been completed and, today, is regarded unquestionably as one of the most picturesque and unusual bridges in Australia. The stonemason who contributed most to the new bridge was Daniel Herbert, a convicted highway robber, who had arrived Van Diemen's Land per Asia (3) in 1827. He and another convict stonemason, James Colbeck (Manlius, 2, 1828) were granted free pardons for their work.
A very notable feature of the new bridge are the portraits, still clearly visible, of Jorgenson and Norah that the convict masons had carved into the stonework of the first arch of the northern face. Probably an indication of the mocking regard in which the pair were held by the workmen because of their spying activities, the portraits show Jorgenson, ‘the old King of Iceland’, wearing a crown and Norah, his queen, in a tiara. Her face is gaunt, her nose thin and long-ish and her lips down-turned. She is surrounded by a number of strange symbols, some bordering on the obscene, and none of them flattering.
Norah Cobbett immortalised on the convict-built Ross Bridge, Macquarie River, Ross, Tasmania.
Source: Debra Cadogan-Cowper
For the duration of their time in Ross, Jorgenson and Norah had lived in a small, rented hut near the bridge. After the bridge had been completed and Jorgenson’s task had been done, the couple moved from town to town, always wary of the animosity of those who knew of, and despised, their pasts. While Jorgenson tried to get on with his writing – and, in particular, with an account of the Black Wars – Norah’s continual drunkenness and violence were wearing him down. Unable to get much of his work finished, he was frequently in debt. Even the free pardon which Norah had been granted in September 1835 had done nothing to curb her ways.
From the beginning of their time together as a married couple, their lives had been chaotic. Jorgenson, too, had started drinking heavily, a habit that was to get worse as the years passed. There were financial ups and downs – and many very bad times. On one occasion, Jorgenson had returned to their home to find a stranger in Norah’s bedroom. Incensed, Jorgenson had attacked the man. He was arrested and charged with assault. At his trial, Norah had been loudly remorseful. Weeping, she had screamed in her husband’s defence until, eventually, she had been removed from the court. At another time, Jorgenson had told Governor Arthur that, on three or four occasions, Norah had attempted to take her own life - once by swallowing a small piece of copper sulphate. Once, Jorgenson had had to call a friend to protect him from her violence. More than once, he had tried to get rid of her, to get her to go away and leave him in peace. He told friends that he had left her at times but, if he had, he had soon returned.
There is evidence that Jorgenson had genuinely tried to help Norah. One occasion in 1834 he had written to Governor Arthur to solicit his assistance in tracing the daughter that she had left behind in England. Regrettably, however, it was discovered that the child had died six years earlier. Known as ‘Mary Macdonald’, she had been raised by another family. Nothing that Jorgenson had been able to do for Norah was of any avail.
By late 1839, the pair were at Hobart. They had been married now for over eight years but the marriage had never settled down. It had produced no children. At about that time, Jorgenson had complained to friends that Norah was ‘continually dragging me downhill and her friends are of the most disreputable character.’ He had written to another friend that he was ‘extremely weak and struggling to cope with his wife’s difficulties.’ On 26 February 1840, Norah was found drunk in the streets and fined five shillings. It was to be the last offence recorded against her.
Norah passed away at Hobart on 17 July 1840. She was only thirty-five. The cause shown on her death certificate is ‘Visitation by God’, the phrase used by medical practitioners at the time when there seemed to be no other explanation. There can be little doubt, however, that the cause was alcoholic debilitation.
After Norah’s death, Jorgenson, shabbily dressed and miserable in appearance, was seen frequently walking in the streets of Hobart. There may have been little sympathy for him. As one of his friends had remarked to another, ‘He married a woman … of abandoned character and very drunken habits.’ After the marriage, they had slid downhill together.
Almost a year to the day after Norah’s death, Jorgenson died also. He was about sixty-one. The cause was shown on his death certificate as ‘inflammation of the lungs’.
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* John George Honskie was the convict Godfry Hanskie, (CON45/1/1) also know as Gottfried Hanske, Ankey Godfrey and John Godfrey Hanskey, previously married to convict Mary Kerr per Alexander 1816. Godfrey Hanske was transported for life at a Court Marshall 13th Sept 1810 at Bexhill . He is listed on the Guildford 1811 into NSW. He was born abt 1776 Kammond, Silesia,(Schlesien) Prussia Germany. Died 8 Aug 1852 Hobart Tas. Much has been written about the convict Hanske, including:
 Conduct record: CON40-1-1, image 278; Police No: 96; FCRC ID: 9999.
 Conduct record: CON31-1-23, image 124.
 Bakewell, S. (2006). The English Dane: From King of Iceland to Tasmanian Convict. London: Vintage; Sprod, D. (2001). The Usurper: Jorgen Jorgenson and His Turbulent Life. Hobart: Blubber Head Press; Hogan, J.F. (2018). Being the Life and Adventures of Jorgen Jorgenson. Trieste Publishing @ www.triestepublishing.com; Dally, J. (1967). ‘Jorgenson, Jorgen (1780-1841)’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol.2, pp. 26-28; ‘Jorgenson, Jorgen’ in Companion to Tasmanian History at https://www.utas.edu.au/tasmanian-companion/biogs/E000534b.htm.
 Parents: see Dally (op. cit.); Year of birth calculated from CON40-1-1, image 278 but death certificate indicates birth in 1800.
 Bakewell (2006), op. cit.
 Mary Page: CON40-1-7, image 188.
 https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/docs/ships/Persian1827_SJ.pdf; Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser (Hobart), 24 August 1827, p.3; Although still unwell upon arrival, McCleland eventually took up the post of A-G but remained in VDL for only a couple of years. By the end of 1829, he was in Ireland and had taken up a ‘lucrative appointment’ there – see The Tasmanian (Hobart Town), 8 January 1830, p.7.
 https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/docs/ships/Persian1827_SJ.pdf; see also CON40-1-1, image 278.
 CON40-1-1, image 278.
 CON40-1-1, image 278.
 Bakewell, op. cit. As yet, a search of ‘Trove’ has failed to find these newspaper lists.
 Axford CON31-1-1, image 25; Sheldon CON31-1-38, image 109.
 See Note 39, below.
 Jorgenson, conduct record: CON31/1/23, image 124; https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jorgenson-jorgen-2282; https://www.utas.edu.au/tasmanian-companion/index.html; http://www.danesinaustralia.com/jorgen-jorgensen.html
Bakewell, op. cit.
 The Hobart Town Courier, 14 March 1829, p.2.
 Bakewell, op. cit.
 The Hobart Town Courier, 16 May 1829, p.2; see also Sheldon, CON31-1-38, image 109 and Axford CON31-1-1, image 25.
 CON31-1-23, image 124.
 At Ross: The Hobart Town Courier, 4 April 1829, p.3; ticket of leave: The Hobart Town Courier, 26 December 1829, p.2.
 CON31-1-23, image 124.
 Protectiveness, developing bond and feelings: see Bakewell, op. cit.
 The Hobart Town Courier, 4 April 1829, p. 2; the facts of this matter seem not to have been recorded.
 Permission to marry: CSO1/378/8600, via Bakewell (2006); marriage: RGD36/1/2, no. 1696..
 Quote from Bakewell (2006), op. cit; see short biography of Anstey, a member of the Legislative Council of Van Diemen’s Land from 1827 to 1844 at https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/anstey-thomas-1709.
 CON40-1-1, image 278; The Colonist and Van Diemen's Land Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Hobart), 6 July 1832, p. 4.
 CON40-1-1, image 278.
 Black Wars: National Museum Australia at https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/the-black-line
 Bakewell (2006), op. cit.
 The Colonist and Van Diemen's Land Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Hobart), 20 August 1833, p.2.
 Herbert: CON31-1-19, image 106; Colbeck: CON31-1-6, image 310.
 See Bakewell (2006) for a for list of Jorgenson’s books and articles.
 Married life: Bakewell (2006), op. cit.;
 Free pardon: No. 145, 26 September 1835, CON40-1-1, image 278.
 The Tasmanian (Hobart), 3 August 1832, p.6.
 Bakewell (2006) op. cit. Bakewell names the friend as ‘Dodd’.
 Bakewell (2006) op. cit.
 Bakewell (2006) op. cit.
 Bakewell (2006) op. cit.
 Bakewell (2006) op. cit.
 Hobart Town Courier, 26 August 1840.
 Norah, death: RGD35/1/1, no. 512.
 Bakewell (2006), op. cit.
 RGD35/1/1, no. 578.