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Convict woman and her daughter

Margaret IrelandMargaret (Ireland) Hyland (daughter of Harriett James)

It is 167 years since my great-great grand mother Harriett James arrived at this Island. She came with 164 other convict women on board the "New Grove". She and thousands like her had no love of the 'Mother Country", nor did they entertain the possibility of return as did settlers and establishment figures. Indeed many 'free' settlers maintained links with and travelled back and forth to England. England remained for some the place where they lived, where they had family and business interests, the place to which they would return after terms of service in the colonies.

Harriett was a Nursery Girl. She was, in a way, fortunate to serve as an assigned servant in various households of the colony under the strict system set up by Governor George Arthur. She served four years and nine months of her seven year sentence before being given permission, in December 1839, to marry John Ireland an Irish ploughman and Ticket-of-Leave man.

Harriett James was only 15 years old when convicted at the Warwick Assizes in July 1834. She and two friends, older girls, were transported together for 'highway robbery'. I am glad Harriett was a spirited girl. If she had not been we would have no record of her whereabouts and doings at all. As it is Harriett's convict record is quite colourful. She had a chequered career as an assigned servant, brought before the Magistrates by her Masters for absconding, being absent-without-leave and insolence. She was punished on numerous occasions, enduring several periods in solitary confinement on bread and water and on duty at the troughs washing the filthy linen of the hospital and gaol. In the winter of 1838, for four months, she was in the Female House of Correction (the Female Factory) in the Cascades in Hobart.

The marriage of John Ireland, 30, labourer and batchelor and Harriett James, 20, bondservant, took place at Pittwater in the house of Francis Cunningham on the 14th January 1840, according to the rites and ceremonies of the Catholic Church in the presence of Francis Kearney and Mary Dolan.

Being married she became the responsibility of her husband. The authorities may well have been happy to be rid of the responsibility of supervising Harriett. Her Ticket of Leave was issued in July 1840. Harriett and John had a long and productive marriage. Thirteen children are recorded between October 1840 and January 1863.

Their first baby, a beautiful girl, was born in October of that year. Now this nursery girl had her own child to look after! Margaret grew into a sturdy little girl and was her parent's delight. In winter 1842, just after John's Free Certificate was granted, Charles was born. He was a sickly child. Sadly, despite Harriett's best care, he died at six months. Their next son, called John after his father, was born in 1843 and Michael arrived the next year. Then came Harriett, Bridget, and Mary Ann - after her 'highway robber' friend.

The eldest, Margaret, helped with the other children. As she grew up new babies were frequently added to the family, so for her, caring for infants was part of her life. Her sister, Eliza was born in 1854, the year of her own marriage. Harriett and John were very proud of Margaret. [See photo] In her turn she successfully reared all her children. None died in infancy as so many did in those days. She had learned well from her mother.

Harriett's own Free Certificate was not granted until 1854. By that time transportation of convicts had ceased and the Colony changed it's name from Van Diemen's Land to Tasmania and Harriett and John were farming in the lower midlands. They kept to themselves and were wary of strangers. They knew their ex-convict neighbours and helped each other. Visitors never went home empty handed. There were always some vegetables or eggs to share. They were respectable, having all their children christened. They needed to do the right thing in the eyes of the establishment.

Harriett was English, born in Birmingham, and was not a Catholic. However it is recorded that in July 1859 she was received into the Catholic Church and christened by Rev E. Maram at St Patrick's Colebrook on the same day as her 11th child (Jane), born in June of that year, with Hugh Dolan and Mrs Burgess present. She was then about 40 years old. Something must have happened that year. We know that her eldest son John was killed in a shooting accident in February 1859. He would have been 16 years old. She must have been devastated. It was probably this that spurred Harriett to be baptised into the Roman Catholic Church.

The year of 1887 saw the 'Old Country' Queen Victoria celebrate her Golden Jubilee. In the area of Whitefoord, the little settlement near Rumney Hut (now Baden), John was 77. He was rewarded by seeing Michael, now his eldest son, buy a farm. They were supremely proud. Now they employed farm labourers! John thus saw Michael progress from being an ex-convict's son to being a 'yeoman settler' and landowner. John, Harriett's partner of 47 years, died quietly that year.

Like many 'emancipists' theirs was a healthy mistrust and sceptical view of authority. They had both experienced the injustice of Mother England, the authoritarian rule of Governor Arthur and the harshness and brutality of Masters and Magistrates. Those voices of authority became a distant hollow echo. Harriett and John obedient to Tasmania's new voices of authority only to the extent necessary for retaining their liberty and giving their children a good start. Their hard gained free certificates did not given them access to polite society. John and Harriett learned to keep their own council and smile quietly to themselves. Their boys all learned the skills needed for living on the land. Their daughters were good mothers just like Harriett. They in turn learned from their parents' wisdom gained through hardship. Their spirit and determination were rewarded.

It is 111 years since Harriett (James) Hyland died in Oatlands. She was the mother of 13, grandmother of more than 60 and great grandmother of 3. For 47 years she had been the wife of a farm labourer, later a tenant farmer in the southern midlands. She successfully reared 11 of her 13 children. In the end it has been a good life for a 15-year-old nursery girl and highway robber in her new Mother Country. Official histories are silent about her life as they are about most of the female convicts of VDL. Her story is probably similar to many of the 11,613 female convicts sent to VLD between 1803 and 1853.

In his epic presentation of the convict history of early Van Diemen's Land The Fatal Shore Robert Hughes muses about a different cultural ethos for Tasmania. 'What the convict system bequeathed to later Australian generations was not the sturdy, sceptical independence on which … we [now increasingly] pride ourselves, but an intense concern with social and political respectability'. If, in the 1840s, the calls for abolition of transportation had been made 'in the name of the convicts' own descendants', and not 'on behalf of free emigrants and their stock' who felt their decency impugned by the "convict stain," we Tasmanians may have earlier gained that sturdy, sceptical independence. (Hughes, p. xi)

We might have taken pride in surviving the system and in creating our own values in spite of it. We might have reproached England for treating the convicts as they did instead of suppressing the very memory of those terrible days. Instead of the national pact of silence, as Hughes puts it, which followed abolition of transportation and had the children of free settlers seeking respectability through their Britishness, it may have been possible to celebrate the triumph of our convict and 'emancipist' ancestors over such huge adversity. We may have held our heads up earlier and taken pride in what our ancestors achieved as they endured and then emerged from such brutal repression, such tyrannical control and punishment.

As one of Harriett's many descendants I celebrate her life, her spirit and her legacy, that sturdy, sceptical independence of which I am belatedly proud.

Submitted by Jeanette Hyland (PhD) in celebration of the lives of her ancestors Harriett James and Margaret (Ireland) Hyland. This essay is the copyright of Jeanette Hyland and may not be reproduced without her permission. To obtain permission contact Jeanette at

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