Margaret Mawcourtney Brown (1814?-?)

by Deborah Norris


Born in Paris, Margaret Mawcourtney or Mary Mawcourtney or Margaret Courtney arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on 20 October 1835. Margaret appeared at the Central Criminal Court in London on 6 April 1835 charged with theft. More specifically ‘stealing, but not from the person’. She had been co-habitating for four or five months in Whitechapel, as if husband and wife, with a like minded gentleman, Mr Doyle and prior to this liaison Margaret had been living ‘on the town’ for three months.

On the evening of 4 February 1835, an unsuspecting and maybe a little naïve timber-yard clerk Stephen Walton, accused Margaret of accosting and inducing him to go home with her to her lodgings in Essex Street. Walton claimed he was sober and gave Brown about six or seven shillings. He recalls he removed his boots and waistcoat, keeping on his trowsers. Lying down on, and not in the bed, Walton declared he fell asleep until about five in the morning.

Partners in crime, Brown and Doyle were both well known to the police. On the night in question when Walton met with Brown, Brown and Doyle were seen together from nine to twelve midnight by policeman Henry Cotton. It was alleged that between twelve and one o’clock in the morning, whilst Walton slumbered, Brown acquired five sovereigns, coat, waistcoat, and a pair of shoes and absconded. As day broke, Doyle was apprehended, but Brown proved to be a little more difficult to catch. Cotton reporting, ‘I used every exertion to find her, but could not’. Indeed, another policeman George Seaman reported using ‘all diligence to find her’. Brown was finally bought into custody, identified by Walton and three policemen, brought before the magistrate in the Central Criminal Court on 6 April 1835 and found guilty. On 13 June 1835 she boarded the Hector and sailed out of Woolwich, London, to serve out a sentence of seven years in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land.

Margaret Brown caused no problems for the ships crew, reportedly being well conducted by the ship’s surgeon. But, once in Hobart Town a very different Margaret, or Mary, emerged. Standing 5 feet 1 ½ inches (156.21 cm) tall, this dark haired, hazel eyed and pockpitted woman, with ‘a large scar from a cut inside [her] left wrist’, soon made her presence felt. Her impressive list of colonial offences over eight years exposes a young woman at odds with the system that would attempt to keep her confined. Repeated drunkenness, insolence, disorderly conduct, absence from service without leave, out all night, disobedience and using obscene language made up over 20 reasons for her being placed on bread and water in the cells, given months of hard labour, placed on wash tub duties and returned to the government. Certainly her penchant for drunken behaviour did nothing to impress those to whom she was assigned. The above indiscretions, including an outburst of obscene language in front of one master’s children and representing herself as a free woman, all combined to result in her sentence being extended from seven to eight years.

Margaret was in the Cascade Female Factory when the 1835 muster was carried out, spent time assigned in Richmond and New Norfolk and she appeared for the 1841 muster. In 1844, 30-year-old Margaret, or Mary Brown, received her Free Certificate. In an attempt to continue Margaret’s story, tracing the whereabouts of a woman, who had fought so hard and long to be free, has proved to be a challenge.

Records do reveal the marriage of a Margaret Brown (with no middle name of Mawcourtney) to Michael Coulter on 3 May 1841 in Hobart. This marriage resulted in the births of three children, Michael (1842), Peter Browne (1843) and William Hastings (1848). This is possibly the same Margaret Brown, but there is no way of establishing this fact when considering the number of Margaret or Mary Brown’s in Van Diemen’s Land at that time. Other marriages of a Margaret Brown appear in 1846, 1852 and 1857. Or perhaps the death of a Margaret Brown in Hobart in 1847 is evidence of Margaret Mawcourtney Brown not surviving long at the cessation of her incarceration.

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Further reading:

Alison Alexander, ‘French Female Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land’, From the Edges of Empire, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart 2015, pp. 158-171.



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