Maria Brown (1824?-?)

by Deborah Norris


Maria Brown (aka Burdell) stood trial on 14 March 1848 in the Middlesex Sessions. Maria denied evidence to the contrary that this was her fourth conviction for stealing to no avail. On this her final appearance before a court in England, she was sentenced to 7 years’ transportation for the crime of stealing a pair of boots. Having spent her last four years ‘on the town’, life for this single mother of a young son was set to change.

         Maria was born in Paris and brought up in London. Her voyage to Van Diemen’s Land began onboard the Cadet as it sailed from Woolwich on 1 November 1849, stopping en route at Plymouth on 17 December 1848 to collect more transportees. During the voyage Maria visited the surgeon superintendent for a contusion, perhaps from a fall and spent five days on the sick list just one month before the Cadet docked in Hobart Town on 12 April 1849. According to her convict record she was 21 years of age, but she may have been closer to 25 years of age. Maria stood 4 feet 11 ½ inches (151.13 cm) tall, was Roman Catholic, literate and healthy. Additionally, with no record of her son travelling with her (reported to have been born prior to 1849 in France or England, surname Morelly), her new beginning in a new land would be a solitary one. By 27 March 1850 Maria had managed to have her period of transportation extended for another 18 months after being caught stealing money (larceny) whilst in the employ of Mr Casper. She was placed on probation at the Cascade Female Factory. All was not going well for this young French born house servant and needlewoman.

Perhaps a change of scenery was required for this fresh faced, blue-eyed young woman, obviously not coping with her incarceration. On 9 July 1850, Maria was taken to the Ross Female Factory, known as a lying in place and nursery. Less than a week on and heavily pregnant, Maria received 10 days hard labour for being in bed with another woman. On 27 August she gave birth to a baby boy and named him, Maurice with father unknown. It is most likely she was breastfeeding her son when she again found herself at odds with the authorities on 11 January 1851. On this occasion one month of hard labour followed for the crime of insolence. Whilst we will never know how Maria was really coping, it is certain that she was finding it difficult to adapt. Once her baby boy was weaned he would have been separated from his mother and looked after in the Nursery Ward. This separation may have also added to Maria’s rebellious attitude as she continued to offend. On 15 March Maria received 20 days in the cells for insubordination and her lot did not improve when thirteen-month-old Maurice died on 27 September 1851.

Following an eventful start to her new life in Van Diemen’s Land on 5 January 1852, Maria was now assigned to John Jennings Imrie, the Assistant Superintendent at that time of the Ross Female Factory. Imrie, not unlike Maria, was no stranger to conflict within the Factory. His tenure was marred by a number of complaints against him and his wife Etty (one time Matron) where it was alleged, ‘the Imries had been in the habit of misappropriating articles from the Store’. Whilst we cannot know how that placement worked out, we do know that it only lasted for one month when Maria was then assigned, on 6 February 1852 to Mr S Lord at Fingal. Lord (son of the infamous Simeon Lord who was transported to New South Wales in 1791), owned a farm in the Fingal valley near Avoca called Bona Vista. The Cornwall Chronicle places Simeon Lord Esquire in this residence from about 1843. It appears Maria remained in this area, as she was free by servitude on 14 March 1855, and received her certificate of freedom on 22 May 1857 whilst at Avoca.

From an ignominious start in Van Diemen’s Land, Maria appears to have disappeared from the records, as was not uncommon for convicts once they became free citizens in the colony. Records do show two marriages and three deaths for a Maria Brown, all possible matches. With such a common name it has proved a difficult, if not impossible, task to say for sure what happened to this French born Maria Brown.

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Further reading:

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



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