Susan Hunn (1832?–?)

by Susan Ballyn

 

Susan Hunn turns out to be as elusive in Van Diemen’s Land as she had been slippery on the streets of London’s East End. Her life of crime comes vividly alive in the Old Bailey court records, but her conduct record in Van Diemen’s Land shows no colonial offences, nothing. She just seems to disappear into thin air, no record for departure from the colony, no marriage record, no record of children born to her, no death record. She is, however, a fascinating young woman, born apparently in Spain, but very much at home on London’s most crowded streets, and no stranger to its courts.

On 17 December 1849 sixteen-year-old Susan Harriss was indicted at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) for ‘stealing 1 gown, 1 frock, and 1 cloak, value 16s.; the goods of Thomas William M'Duell, from his person: to which she pleaded GUILTY’. Beside her name on the trial record the family name ‘Hunn’ appears in brackets. For this crime she was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. The record also shows that she had another indictment against her, but the Old Bailey records reveal nothing either for Hunn or Harriss or any variations of those names.

Susan Hunn appears again at the Central Criminal Court on 3 February 1851 indicted on two counts of theft. Unlike the vast majority of convicts, Hunn’s trial was long and comprehensively transcribed in the Old Bailey sessions papers. She was indicted in the first case for ‘stealing two coats, value 13s.; the goods of John Nicholls’. The first witness was Mary Ann Nicholls, wife of a dock labourer, who worked at home as a tailoress. Her employer was a Mr Robinson in Commercial Road. Mrs Nicholls told the court that ‘for the last seven years’ her daughter Sarah had acted as courier, taking the finished clothes to Robinson. On the day of the crime, ‘I sent my daughter with a bundle containing two coats, tied up in a yellow and blue handkerchief’. Sarah, said her mother, was thirteen years old, and completely reliable.

Sarah herself then took the stand, surprisingly composed and eloquent for a thirteen-year-old in a crowded London court room. It was now that Susan Hunn’s criminal method became clear. Hunn had followed her victim on occasions so that she knew exactly where Sarah was going. On the day of the theft,

I left my mother's about half-past ten o'clock; and as I was going along Lower Chapman-street the prisoner came to me and said, "Are you going to Robinson's?"—I said, "Yes"—she said, "I am going to Robinson's almost directly, come along with me"—I went with her up Catharine-street, and round by the London Hospital—we then went up another street, where there was a lot of cows and cow-barns—she took me to the top of that street, and told me to go down another street, and at the bottom of it I should see a white milk-house, where I was to get five coats, and to bring them to her—she said she worked for Robinson's, and was going to take them there….

Hunn said she would look after Sarah’s bundle because the five coats would be heavy and to carry them plus her own bundle would be too much. Hunn would wait with Sarah’s mother’s coats, and together they would go on to Robinson’s.

I went to look for the white milk-house; I could not find it, and returned to where I left the prisoner, and she was gone, and my bundle too—I cried….

Rescued by a policeman and taken to Worship Street police station, Sarah identified Hunn among some six prisoners. Policeman John Long testified to the unequivocal identification:

I was present when she was shown to Sarah Nicholls—she was not pointed out to her—the moment the cell-door was opened, she said, "That is the woman"—the jailor opened the cell-door—she was told the [sic] was taken there to see if there was any one there that she knew.

For some reason which is not clear from the account of the trial, Susan Hunn escaped this indictment with a verdict of Not Guilty.

But she had not escaped the court. Immediately afterwards ‘SUSAN HUNN was again indicted for stealing 2 shirts and other articles, value 19s.; the goods of Edward Laing Smith, having been before convicted’. This time the victim was eleven-year-old William Hurlock, son of ‘a hearth-rug weaver in Nottingham-place, Shoreditch’. William made some money by doing errands for various people, and on 11 January 1851, a laundress named Mrs Smith asked him to return to its owner a bundle of linen ‘tied up in a towel’:

as I was going along Maria-street, the prisoner came up to me—she said, "Little boy, will you go to Huntingdon-street for me to get a basket of starched things; I will give you a penny now, and a penny when you come back"—I agreed to go….

She told him to go to

the house of a person named Harris, where I should see a cow hanging out—she took my bundle out of my arms, called a little girl who was sitting on the other side of the road, and said, "Will you hold this bundle for the little boy?"

William went to Huntingdon Street, found the sign of the ‘Cow’ but no one named Harris, and when he returned for his bundle, he found only the little girl, about five years old, who told him that the woman took the bundle away from her. Like Sarah Nicholls before him, William was dreadfully upset by the theft, and when Mrs Smith’s husband was alerted and came looking for him, he ‘found the boy crying’.

A week later, Smith, a gas-fitter, was in Ivy-lane when he saw a woman fitting William’s description of the thief. She was ‘speaking to a boy who had a basket of clothes—I heard her say, "Leave me your bundle, and I will leave it at the public-house".’ Smith went up to her, and told her to come with him. No, she said, you are not a police constable. Smith then found a policeman who took Susan Hunn to the station, where William identified her.

The Old Bailey Prosecutor made quite sure that William had not been induced to identify Hunn: ‘Was she pointed out to you?’. The boy was adamant: ‘No, directly I saw her I knew her—she was not in the cell—I have no doubt about her being the same person‘. The final compelling piece of evidence against Hunn came from the policeman who produced ‘a certificate of the prisoner's conviction at this Court by the name of Susan Harris—(read—Convicted Dec. 1849, and confined six months)—she is the person—there are about twelve charges against her now, and seven or eight before for robbing children.’ This time Susan Hunn, aged eighteen, was sentenced to 7 years’ transportation.

Susan returned to Newgate Prison, where she had been kept as she awaited her trial, and from there she was transferred to Millbank Prison to be medically examined and declared fit for travel across the seas to Van Diemen’s Land. The 1851 United Kingdom Census reveals Hunn was in Millbank on the evening of 30 March when the census was taken. This census was the first to include complete details of birth location. In the column ‘Where Born?’ Hunn’s birthplace is noted as ‘Spain and Britt[ish]: subject’. Hunn’s physical appearance detailed on her convict description list could well refer to a Spaniard. She was about four inches shorter than average at 4 feet 9 inches (144.87 cm) tall,  with a dark complexion, hair and eyes.

W.J.B. Jones, appointed Surgeon Superintendent on the Aurora, inspected the prisoners at Millbank on 11 April 1851, embarking 232 women from there on 14 April. On 26 April the Aurora sailed down the Thames. There is no record of Susan Hunn on the sick list, and Jones reported her behaviour on board as very good. On 10 August 1851 the Aurora docked in Hobart, and before disembarking the passengers, the authorities went laboriously through the usual paperwork. The only living relative Susan named for the ship’s indent was her mother, also named Susan, left behind in Whitechapel. Among the details copied into a volume containing conduct records for each woman, Hunn’s entry states that she was single, a native of Spain and ironically—given her victimisation of young children—records her occupation as ‘Nurse girl’.

Later entries on Hunn’s conduct record reveal that she was in the Brickfields Hiring Depot on 18 August 1851, and on 25 August 1851 was employed by J. Parker at High Plains. On 24 September 1852, she was back at the Cascades Female Factory, from where on 29 September 1852 she was sent to work for W. Livingston in Liverpool Street, Hobart. After that notation there is nothing except a mysterious entry later crossed out, and almost illegible except for the first words, ‘August 3 Murdered.…’ Why this notation? And then why cross it out? And where did she go? Hunn’s final years in colonial Australia remain as mysteriously elusive as her childhood in Spain.

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Sue Ballyn acknowledges the help received from the “Ministerio de Economia y Competitividad” for the Project Postcolonial Crime Fiction : A global window into social realities for all her publications on the FCRC web site and in print since 2014.

 

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