Mary Ann Atkins (1823-1895)

by Douglas Wilkie


When 23-year-old Mary Ann Atkins appeared before the Stafford Quarter Sessions on 29 June 1846 on a charge of stealing money from Samuel Perry in the Staffordshire Potteries, it was noted that she had previous convictions. Indeed, only a year earlier, on 19 July 1845 Mary Ann was sent to prison for six months for larceny, and four years before that, at the time of the Census in June 1841, Mary Ann was not at home with her mother and siblings, but was residing in the County Prison at St Mary and St Chad, Staffordshire, where she was spending twelve months after being found guilty on a charge of theft. Committing such offences once or twice might bring time in the local prison, but a third time called for more severe punishment, and she was sentenced to 7 years in Van Diemen’s Land.

In mid September 1846, less than three months after the trial, Mary Ann, along with another 168 female prisoners started the voyage to Australia on board the Elizabeth and Henry. The women were accompanied by 25 of their children. Mary Ann’s child, fathered by William Cartledge, was not one of them. The ship’s surgeon later reported that although one of the children died on the voyage, another was born, so the number arriving at Hobart was the same as left England.

Arriving at Hobart on 4 January 1847, Mary Ann told officials that she was a housemaid who could also wash. At the time of her incarceration at the County Prison in 1841 she said she was a potter, a common occupation of Staffordshire children. Indeed, Mary Ann told the officials at Hobart that her mother, Mary; her two brothers, Joseph and Thomas; and her sisters Ann and Jane, were all at the Potteries. In fact, Mary Ann had grown up among the Potteries, although she said was born somewhere in the East Indies.

Mary Ann’s father, Joseph Atkins, was born at Leek, Staffordshire, in the 1790s, and later went to Birmingham, where it seems he married—his wife’s name being Mary—and in 1813 signed up with the 80th Regiment, the Staffordshire Volunteers. He was posted to India where he remained until 1824. Between 1814 and 1823 a number of children were born in India, some of whom apparently did not survive. The children’s birthplaces match the movements of the 53rd (or Shropshire Regiment) during those years. On 9 March 1823 the 53rd Regiment left Madras to return to England, but Joseph transferred to the 13th Regiment which arrived in May the same year and had proceeded to Fort William in Bengal. The last of the Indian children was Mary Ann, who was baptised in the Bengal Presidency, on 15 December 1823.

However, Joseph had been suffering from chronic hepatitis for a number of years, a condition that had resulted in so many deaths among the soldiers that Andrew Nicholl, the Surgeon with the 80th Regiment, wrote a comprehensive study of the disease and its causes, and named drunkenness among the soldiers as one of the main causes. Indeed, when the 13th Regiment arrived in May 1823 its strength was 653 soldiers. By the end of 1824 it had lost 276 to disease.

Unfit to continue in India, Joseph and his family returned to England where he was discharged from the army on 16 June 1824, having served for nearly eleven years. He spent the next few years as a farm laborer in Staffordshire, and a daughter, Jane, was born at Longton in 1827, and another son, Thomas, around 1833. Joseph Atkins died not long after the birth of Thomas, and at the time of the 1841 Census we find Joseph’s widow, Mary, now aged 35, along with her children Thomas, aged 6, and Jane, 14, living with the eldest daughter Ann, her husband William Hollis, and their children Hannah and Henry. Of course, 17-year-old Mary Ann Atkins is not with them—she was spending a year at the county prison.

Having noted her occupation, origins, and previous convictions, the Hobart officials dutifully noted Mary Ann’s physical description. She was 5 feet 3 ¼ inches (160.66 cm) tall and had a ‘swarthy complexion’. Her head was oval with brown hair, hazel eyes, and a small mouth. She was then sent off to the Anson to spend six months after which she had her status promoted to the 3rd class and was allowed to be employed outside.

By September 1847 she was working for the Murray family, but, after being absence without leave, getting drunk and using abusive language to her mistress, she was given four months hard labor. She was then sent to the Ross Female Factory, but soon returned to the Cascades Factory where she gave birth to a child in December 1848. The child’s name was Ann, but the father was not named. The girl died from ‘hooping cough’ [sic] at the Dynnyrne Nursery on 19 October 1849.

At the beginning of 1850, while working for Mr Thomas, Mary Ann failed to return to the depot according to the conditions of her pass, and was found ‘secreted in a bed room at the Waterloo Hotel &c’. It is not clear what the ‘&c’ implied, but we might imagine. She was given six months’ hard labor as punishment. After serving her time, Mary Ann went to work for the Secombes, but in June 1850 she again went absent without leave and was given another six months’ hard labor with three months in solitary confinement.

The temptations of Hobart were just too great for Mary Ann and at the end of June 1850 a note was made on her record that she was not to be offered any more employment in the Hobart district. She was next sent to Sorell from where a request for a ticket of leave was made in March 1851. The request was refused and she was advised to apply again in six months.

Determined to gain some degree of freedom Mary Ann then applied to marry one Thomas Morgan Evans in May 1851. Evans, a former soldier, had been transported for stealing a horse. He arrived at Hobart on the Nile in October 1850 and by February 1851 had been given a ticket of leave and an appointment as police constable. In the meantime, Mary’s application to marry Evans was refused. But she persisted and applied again, for both the marriage and the ticket of leave, and this time both were approved on 29 July 1851. She married Thomas Evans at St. George’s Church of England at Sorell on 22 September 1851. Her age was recorded as 26 and his as 24.

Less than twelve months later Thomas Evans’s ticket of leave was revoked and he was dismissed from the police after being found guilty of larceny and being absent from his post. Nevertheless, Mary Ann was issued with a certificate of freedom on 30 August 1853 and both Thomas’s ticket of leave, and his job as constable were reinstated in 1854. He gained a certificate of freedom in January 1858.

Numerous children were born over the next ten years, including a son, David at Hobart on 26 November 1853; Thomas on 9 August 1856; Jane, at O’Brien’s Bridge on 25 April 1859; Maria at Hobart on 31 March 1862; and Ann Elizabeth at Hobart on 8 July 1864. Mary Ann Evans died at Hobart on 1 February 1895, aged 70.

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Further Reading:

Ralph Crane, ‘Out of India: Convict Women in the Web of Empire’, in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine,Convict Women’s Press, Hobart, 2015, pp. 13-34



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