Mary Latham

(Emma Eugenia, 3, 1844)

by Don Bradmore


Mary Latham was twenty-two years old when she arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) per Emma Eugenia in early April 1844. In July of the previous year, she had been convicted at the Nether Knutsford Quarter Sessions, Chestershire, England, of stealing some items of clothing and sentenced to transportation for seven years.[1] That offence had not been her first. In fact, she had been imprisoned in England seven times previously for transgressions including drunkenness and larceny. While in gaol awaiting transportation, she had been described as ‘bad’. Not surprisingly, she proved to be a recalcitrant prisoner in the colony. She was, in fact, incorrigible. Before the expiration of her sentence in 1850, she had been charged with new offences on no fewer than twenty-five occasions and had spent most of her seven-year term in prison. While some of her offences were relatively minor, together they exhibit an extreme form of rebelliousness and insubordination. Her case is illustrative of the utmost difficulty the authorities in VDL had in dealing with female prisoners who displayed an obstinately uncooperative attitude. Quite remarkably, however, by the time of her death at sixty in 1886, she had transformed herself into a good wife and mother and a useful citizen. What had brought about this change?

This is Mary’s story:  


Little is known about Mary’s upbringing but it is clear that her life before her transportation had been a troubled one. Tellingly, it was her own mother, named only as ‘Jane’ in her convict documents, who had charged her with the theft that had led to her transportation. There is no mention of her father but a note reveals that she had used the alias ‘Mary Evans’ on occasions.[2] Was ‘Evans’ the name of her step-father, perhaps?

Soon after her trial on 2 July 1843, Mary was transferred to Millbank Prison, London. On 13 November, she was put aboard Emma Eugenia which, with George Kettlewell as master, John Wilson as surgeon superintendent and one hundred and seventy female prisoners, left Woolwich on 30 November 1843 and reached Hobart on 2 April 1844.[3]

Upon arrival, Mary was described as being twenty-two years old and single. She was five feet (about 151 cms) tall with a ruddy complexion, brown hair and hazel eyes. She could read but not write. Her religion was noted as Church of England. She was allocated the convict trade of ‘house and nurse maid’.[4] After disembarkation, she was taken to the Anson Probation Station - the hulk of the former British warship HMS Anson moored at Prince of Wales Bay, at Risdon, near Hobart - where, from early 1844, all newly-arrived female prisoners were required to serve a probationary period of six months in order to prepare them for assignment to settlers as servants.[5]

Her unwillingness to submit to convict discipline soon became apparent. On 11 September 1844, she was charged with ‘violently assaulting a warder’ and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment at the Cascades Female Factory, Hobart. There, in short succession, she was charged another three times: 15 February 1845 (‘disorderly conduct’, six days’ solitary confinement); 27 February 1845 (‘riotous and disorderly behaviour’, six months’ gaol with hard labour); and 14 April 1845 (‘misconduct’, fourteen days’ solitary confinement).[6]

Eventually released from the Cascades, she was taken to the Brickfields Hiring Depot to await assignment but, on 15 September 1845, she absconded and was sentenced to another four months’ gaol. Thus, it was not until the second half of 1845 that she became eligible for assignment. That change in her circumstances failed to quell her rebelliousness. On 10 November 1845, in the employ of a settler named Beach, she was charged with being ‘absent without leave and representing herself to be free’. She was sent back to the House of Corrections for a further four months – and her behaviour became even more outrageous.

In the next ten months she was punished five times for offences inside the prison: 22 November 1845 (‘assaulting the matron, existing sentence extended by six weeks); 15 January 1846 (‘wilfully destroying government property’, fourteen days’ solitary confinement); again on 15 January 1846 (‘assaulting a visiting magistrate’, fourteen days’ solitary confinement); 2 February 1846 (‘misconduct in destroying her clothes’, ten days’ solitary confinement); and 24 August 1846 (‘insolence, seven days’ hard labour). 

In early September 1846, possibly thinking that a change of location might bring about some improvement in Mary’s attitude, the authorities transferred her from the Cascades in Hobart to the Female Factory at Launceston. Alas, the stratagem did not work; her unruly behaviour continued unabated. On 25 September 1846, she was punished with breaking twenty-nine panes of glass and sentenced to six months’ gaol with hard labour. On 11 November, she received another term of six months for ‘gross disorderly conduct’. A similar charge was brought against her in December 1846 and her existing sentence was extended by three months. In June 1847, she was ordered to spend eight days in solitary confinement for yet another instance of misconduct.

Nevertheless, by late 1847 Mary had been assigned into service once again. Not unexpectedly, her reluctance to adapt to her circumstances was soon on display. In the following two years, she was charged with offences another seven times: on 30 December 1847 (‘absent from her duties’, fourteen days’ solitary confinement); 8 February 1848 (‘absconding’, six months gaol with hard labour); 19 September 1848 (‘absconding and living with a man named Goss as his wife for three months’, existing term of transportation extended by twelve months); 11 February 1849 (‘absent without leave’, six days in the cells); 16 March 1849 (‘absconding’, four months’ imprisonment with hard labour); 22 March 1849 (‘improperly removing a lock in an attempt to escape’, fourteen days in the cells); and, finally, on 10 October 1849 (‘misconduct’, seven days solitary confinement).  

However, just a few months after that last recorded offence, and despite her long record of disruptive behaviour, Mary was a free woman again. On 31 July 1850, with some months of her sentence remitted, she was deemed to have served her time as a convict.[7]

While there can be little doubt that the convict authorities were glad to see the back of her, many of the citizens of the colony believed that the authorities themselves were to blame for the trouble to which she and others like her were putting them. They maintained that a laxity of discipline within the female sector of the convict system was the reason for – and perhaps much of the cause of - the difficulties they were encountering in managing intractable females.

Although few in the colony would have disagreed that with the sentiment expressed in a contemporary newspaper report that ‘the feelings of an Englishman will not permit that a female be treated with the same severity as a man’ – and extreme forms of punishment such as flogging and the use of the stocks and the iron collar had been virtually abandoned in the case of females by the late 1830s – there was a strong consensus that the existing deterrents to misconduct were having little effect.[8]

For at least two decades before Mary’s release, there had been numerous calls in official reports and newspapers of the day for reform of some kind in the system. These are typical:

The Factory System is … [one that can be very properly designated] a nursery of vice and crime … It is notorious that few women ever enter these places who do not come out worse than when they went in.[9]

We are willing to confess that there is much more difficulty in inflicting punishment upon a female … but surely some means ought to be adopted to imbue the House of Corrections with a portion, at least, of terror or disgust in the minds of the refractory and disobedient. As it now stands, there exists nothing of either one or the other. The ‘factory’ is laughed at by nearly all, while very many actually prefer the life of lazy incarceration which its lofty walls supply.[10]    

We have heard over and over again, female servants impudently declare that they had no dread of the Factory for, if they had money, they could procure what they wanted … through the medium of the turnkeys.[11]

Many [female prisoners], indeed, will avow that they would rather be in the Factory than in this or that place, while others have, in our hearing, politely told [the magistrate] when he had sentenced them to three-or-four-months’ imprisonment, that they could easily ‘bowl’ that off …’.[12]

It has been the fashion to cry out about the horrors of the Crime Class … However, many women prefer this Class to the others because it is more lively! There is … more fun there than in the others.[13]

The system is … most radically wrong.  [The females] are subjected to no punishment … or hardship … The wash-tub affords an opportunity for a merry laugh … and the women shout out in derision and perfect ridicule about the punishment inflicted on them in Crime Class … which inflicts upon the poor females  .. the quite picking of a little wool and the almost unrestrained indulgence to tell funny stories and sing funny songs.[14]

The mismanagement of the Female House of Correction is, at last, likely to become investigated … We have always considered that great alteration was required both in moral and physical management of this establishment … in every possible point of view, it is worse than useless because it is pernicious, and ruinous to what little morality or character its inmates occasionally possess.[15]

The difficulties are greater [in the case of the females] with whom we have to deal, who are, in general, as fully depraved as the males … While it is impossible to subject them to the same course of discipline, there is no alternative but either to detain them in actual confinement, or to permit them to enter … into the mass of the population where …they become, with few exceptions, … reckless and hopeless and plunge deeper and deeper into misery and crime.[16]


To what extent Mary’s misbehaviour - and apparent disregard for its consequences - can be blamed on inadequacies within the convict system in VDL is debatable. On the one hand, there is ample evidence to suggest that she was a much-troubled and troublesome young woman even before her arrival in the colony and it is possible to think that she might have remained that way regardless of the prison environment. On the other hand, it seems likely that her penal experience would have done little, if anything, to improve her nature.

It is interesting to note, however, that Mary, who was still only in her late twenties when she was released in July 1850, lived on in VDL (or Tasmania, as the colony became known formally in 1856) for almost another forty years and, as far as is known, was never in trouble with the law again.

As it happens, by the time of her release Mary had married. About a year before she regained her freedom, she and a man by the name of Henry Spur (or Spurr) had applied for permission to marry. The application was approved and the wedding took place at Christ Church, Longford, on 17 September 1849. Mary’s age was shown on the marriage certificate, obviously incorrectly, as twenty-two. Spur was thirty-four. She was described as a ‘passholder’, meaning that she had completed a term of probation and had been deemed to be eligible for assignment as a servant.[17].

Although Spur was described as ‘free’, he had arrived in VDL as a convict per Isabella in November 1833. In August of the previous year, he had been convicted at York, England, of sacrilege - the disrespect, misuse, violation or injurious treatment of a sacred object, site or person – and sentenced to transportation for life. Twenty-two years old when he arrived, he had had to leave behind a wife and two children. In VDL, he had caused little trouble. By December 1841, he had been granted a ticket of leave and, in July 1845, he received a conditional pardon.[18]

After their marriage, Mary and Henry settled in the mid-north of the colony where Henry worked as a labourer and neither attracted the attention of the law. In April 1850, Mary gave birth to her first child, a son, whom the couple named Henry. On 24 December 1862, a daughter, Mary Ellen, was born. On 8 February 1869, however, Mary’s husband of nineteen years passed away. He was forty-nine. The death certificate shows the cause as ‘organic disease of the stomach’.[19]

Within a year, Mary, then forty-seven, had married again. On 29 November 1869, she married a man by the name of William Johnson in the parish church at Westbury.[20] Sadly, the marriage was to be short-lived. Six months later, Johnson died. Little is known with certainty about him but his death certificate reveals that he was also about forty-seven years old and had been working as a waggoner before his death. The cause of his death seems likely to have been septicaemia brought on by the fracture of a leg.[21]

On 6 March 1878, Mary, now fifty-five, married for the third time. Her new husband was fifty-one-year-old former convict John Meek who had arrived in VDL per Hyderabad in September 1846 after being convicted at the Old Bailey, London, in July 1844, of the theft of paint brushes and sentenced to transportation for ten years. He was twenty-five. Soon after his arrival he was transferred to the penal station at Norfolk Island where he remained until shipped back to VDL per Tory in May 1847. Granted a ticket of leave in April 1850, he managed to stay out of trouble for the next twelve years. In April 1862, however, he was convicted at the Launceston Quarter Sessions of sheep-stealing and sentenced to eight years imprisonment at Port Arthur.[22] In the seven or eight years since his release, he had avoided trouble and earned his freedom.

The marriage certificate describes Mary as a widow but, inexplicably, gives her surname as ‘Spurr’ rather than as ‘Johnson’. Her occupation is shown as ‘housekeeper’ and Meek’s as ‘sawyer’. After the marriage, the couple appear to have lived together quietly in the Deloraine district, without troubling the authorities, until Mary’s death eight years later. The death certificate shows her age as sixty but she was probably a little older. The cause of death was colloid cancer.[23] In the last forty years of her life, she had transformed herself from an outrageously troublesome, and sometimes violent, prisoner into a good wife and mother and a law-abiding citizen.

What had brought about this extraordinary change? While the details of Mary’s life before her conviction and transportation are unknown, the evidence of a fractured relationship with her mother and an absent father might be sufficient to suggest that she was much troubled and bitter when she arrived in VDL. Her multiple prior convictions and incarceration in England may well have left her scarred and led to the extremes of resistance to convict discipline she displayed – a recalcitrance which conditions within the prison system in VDL did nothing to ameliorate. Presumably, it was not until the expiry of her sentence that she was able to find – in marriage and motherhood – the love and caring, peace and stability that had been missing from her early life.


By Don Bradmore


[1] Conduct record: CON41-1-1, image 93; description list: CON19-1-4, image 28; indent: CON15-1-2, images 284 and 285; Police No: 302; FCRC ID: 4812.

[2] CON15-1-2, images 284 and 285.


[4] CON19-1-4, image 28.


[6] Mary’s offences as a convict: CON41-1-1, image 93.

[7] CON19-1-4, image 28.

[8] Bent’s News and Three-Penny Register (Hobart), 19 March 1836, p.2).

[9] Bent’s News and Three-Penny Register (Hobart), 19 March 1836, p.2

[10] The Colonial Times (Hobart), 6 April 1841, p.2.

[11] The Colonist: Van Diemen’s Land Political Despatch and Agricultural and Commercial Advertiser (Hobart), 26 May 1837, p.6.

[12] The Colonial Times (Hobart), 13 March 1838, p.8.

[13] The Colonist: Van Diemen’s Land Political Despatch and Agricultural and Commercial Advertiser (Hobart), 26 May 1837, p.6.

[14] The Colonial Times (Hobart), 18 February 1840, p.4.

[15] The Colonial Times (Hobart), 13 March 1838, p.8.

[16] The Observer (Hobart), 4 July 1845, p.2.

[17] Henry Spur: conduct record, CON31/1/40, image 42; application to marry: 21 August 1849, CON52/1/3, page 406; marriage: 17 September 1849, RGD37/1/8, no. 662.

[18] CON31/1/40, image 42; according to ‘Convict Records’ at, thirty-nine men and three women were transported for sacrilege but as Meek’s name is not on the list, it appears that there were more than this number.

[19] Births: son Henry: RGD33/1139/1850, Longford; daughter Mary Ellen: RGD33/1610/1863, Westbury; death: Henry (senior): RGD35/524/1869.

[20] Marriage to Wm. Johnson: RGD37/1/28, no. 635.

[21] Death, Johnson: 14 July 1870, RGD35/1/39, no. 1252.

[22] Meek: CON33-1-86, image 139 and CON37-1-9, image 615; Old Bailey trial: Ref. No: t18440701-1822; marriage to Meek: RGD37/1/37, no. 80; John Meek, about 69, died at the Invalid Depot, Launceston on 23 April 1892.

[23] Death, Mary: 24 March 1886, RGD35/135/1886, Launceston; see also The Tasmanian (Launceston), 17 April 1886, p.14. Death, John Meek: RGD35/1/61, no. 146.


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