Esther Henrietta Botibol (1834?-1910)
by Susan Ballyn
The family name Botibol is, without doubt, of Sephardic origin. Just a casual search reveals the name as extant during the eighteenth century in London, registered in the Bevis Marks Synagogue, and also among the Sephardim in such centres of diaspora as Menorca, Gibraltar and Tangier. When she was growing up, Esther Botibol belonged to the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic community in London, whether she was actively religious or not.
On 12 May 1851 Esther Henrietta Botibol was found guilty at London’s Central Criminal Court of stealing ‘1 gown, and other articles, value £3 6s.; and 1 sovereign; the property of Elizabeth Sophia Young, in the dwelling-house of John Botibol: having been before convicted: to which she pleaded guilty’. Whether John Botibol was a relative remains unknown, though it seems likely, and Esther may have been stealing from her own extended family. She was sentenced to 7 years’ transportation, arriving in Hobart on 26 January 1852 on board the Anna Maria. She was seventeen years old, a dressmaker by trade, and unmarried. On her conduct record is written ‘Jewess’. She could read and write.
In answer to questions for the ship’s indent, she named her family as father Isaac, mother Mary and siblings Isaac, Phoebe and Catherine, and yet the 1851 Anglo-Jewry Database names her father as Moses and her mother as Jessie Myers. Given that Esther was proud of her Jewishness and always attempted to get the authorities to spell her family name correctly, it seems strange that she did not give the correct names for her parents. She told the colonial authorities that her place of birth was Portice (a mis-transcription of Portico?), in the north of Italy. That answer, too, would change with subsequent records.
Esther was a troubled girl well before she sailed to Van Diemen’s Land. Although only seventeen, she had already been imprisoned four times for theft. Unsurprisingly, she did not take kindly to a regimented life in Van Diemen’s Land. Though the authorities could send her out to service, they could not transform her into a reliable servant, the sort a master might want in his home. Within her first four months in the colony, she had four different masters, at least three of them Jewish. Throughout her years under sentence, she was sent to a number of Jewish homes, and if she had been a different sort of young woman, amenable, willing to make an effort, some of these employers might well have taken her under their wing. In a colony with a small Jewish population (435 in 1847), and very few young women of marriageable age, she might have found a husband and made a place for herself in the life of an active community centred on a substantial Hobart synagogue opened in 1845.
But Esther was defiant, not amenable. On 1 June 1852 she absconded from the service of her fourth employer, was sentenced to six months’ hard labour, and entered the Crime Class at the Cascades Female Factory. Four weeks later, she vented her wrath on the system by tearing up her apron, and was locked in a solitary cell for ten days. The next month, she tore up another apron, and spent two weeks in solitary confinement. After she tore up a cap on 4 October, she was back in the solitary cell for yet another grim fortnight. Emerging from that stint of darkness, she was locked into one of the separate apartments of Yard 3, where she was again confined. At least women in these apartments had light during the day, and allocated work to pass the time. Esther, however, refused to do as she was told. On 25 October she was charged with some unspecified ‘disorderly conduct’ in the separate apartments, and sentenced to another nine months’ hard labour ‘to commence at the expiration of her present sentence’.
The rebellious teenager must have been quite unpopular with the prison staff at Cascades, and it is not surprising to discover that while Esther was serving her second sentence of hard labour, they transferred her to a female factory in the country town of Ross. Here, for the first time in more than a year, she was sent out to work. Of course she was no more dutiful than before, and nine days later she was returned to the Ross Female Factory. There she stayed until the first of October 1853 when some unspecified illness was sufficiently serious to have her removed to the General Hospital in Hobart. She was still in the hospital a month later when she was charged with ‘Refusing to keep her bed and refusing to allow the nurse to apply remedies prescribed by the Medical Officer &c’. A month’s hard labour at Cascades, and then back to Ross.
Esther Botibol arrived in the penal colony near the end of transportation when the local authorities were keen to move convicts through the system as quickly as possible. In spite of her abysmal record, she was granted a ticket of leave in October 1854, and this would have given her the opportunity to control much more of her daily life—if she had not been convicted of larceny the following month. Back to Cascades for eighteen months’ hard labour. Ticket of leave revoked. She was not to receive another until February 1857 and then only on condition that she did not reside in Hobart. A year later, in May 1858 the troublesome Esther finally became free by servitude.
At some stage, Esther joined up with a man named Thomas Symmonds (Shimmin, Simmons), a timber cutter. Thomas, a native of the Isle of Man, had been a farm labourer when he was sentenced to 7 years’ transportation for larceny. He was twenty-two years old when he arrived in Hobart aboard the Equestrian on 15 October 1845. By the time Esther and Thomas were married on 12 November 1872 at the Wesleyan Parsonage in Hobart, they had seven children: four girls and three boys. The first five children—Esther, James, Thomas, Nicholas and Ann Jane—had been born while their parents were living and working down the Channel at Port Cygnet and inland at Nicholls Rivulet. Conditions were primitive in the camps of the timber cutters, who were often convict emancipists, and it was a difficult place to raise children. The family had moved back to Hobart by the time the last two children—Susannah and Mary Ann Eliza—were born.
One cannot help but wonder why Esther and Thomas finally married. Perhaps they hoped this gesture towards social conformity would help them retrieve their three children admitted to the Queen’s Asylum for Destitute Children in 1870. Nine months after their marriage, in August 1873, Thomas applied for the return of his children. His application was rejected ‘on the grounds of character of himself and wife’. He was to apply again a month later but approval was suspended on the grounds of a pending enquiry. A further application for their children’s release was made by Esther and Thomas in February 1874 to no avail. Finally, later that same month, the children were reunited with their parents.
In August 1876 Esther was again arrested and convicted of larceny. This time she said she was born in Lisbon, Portugal. Esther’s very last conviction on 14 July 1877 was for stealing a pair of boots. For her final entry into the British prison system she ‘naturalised’ herself, giving her native place as Rathbone Place, London. Interestingly, this address corresponds exactly to that given in the JewishGen records as being where her parents and siblings lived in England when she was transported. It was while serving out this final sentence of 12 months’ hard labor at the Cascades House of Correction that Esther learned of the death, on 13 November 1877, of her son Thomas, a labourer who died of ‘meningitis of base of brain’ after going into a coma at Hobart General Hospital.
Both Esther and her husband Thomas now disappear from the records until Esther’s death in 1910 at the Charitable Institution, New Town. Her death was registered in the name of Esther Symmonds which may suggest that the couple remained together throughout the rest of their lives, a stability Esther never knew as a girl. We do not know if Thomas predeceased her, but what is clear is that from 1878 onwards Esther Henrietta Botibol seems to have kept her criminal record clean and remained in Hobart to the end of her days.
Susan Ballyn, ‘Esther Henrietta Botibol, Sephardic Jew’, Convict Lives: Women at Cascades Female Factory, 2nd edn, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart, 2012, pp 154-56.
Susan Ballyn and Lucy Frost, ‘Sephardi Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land’, in P. & A. Elias, eds, A Few from Afar: Jewish Lives in Tasmania from 1804, Hobart Hebrew Congregation, Hobart, 2003, pp. 73-82.
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.
© 2016 Convict Women's Press Inc.