Johanna Brown (1811-1869)

by Babette Smith


Johanna Brown was born in Portugal about 1811. Very likely she was the daughter of a soldier, one of the rank and file of the British army which was based there as part of a long campaign to reverse Napoleon’s conquest of Europe. The war against the French kept the British in Portgual and Spain until 1815. Along with other families of soldiers, Johanna would have spent her childhood following the army as it forced the French back. When the war ended she was repatriated to England with one or both of her parents.

Any security the Army provided to Johanna’s family ended with the war. Once in England, soldiers were discharged by the thousands, left to compete for survival in a period of poor harvests, soaring prices and frequent bad weather. Johanna was a Catholic, which suggests that her father may have been Irish and/or her mother Portuguese, but details of their lives are hidden among the poverty and dislocation of those years. By the age of 18, Johanna had grown to her adult height of a little over 5 feet (152.40 cm). Her brown hair and hazel eyes were matched with a ruddy freckled face that might have been a legacy of childhood years in the sun.

Johanna could neither read nor write. She described herself as a ‘nurse girl’ which suggests that at some point she was employed minding children. There is no available evidence to suggest she was leading a life of crime but, in August 1828, when she and her friend Catherine Steel were arrested for stealing, details of their crime indicate this was not the first time they had tried it.

They began by using the well-worn ploy of begging piteously for a coin. ‘Each of them asked me for a penny a piece,’ recounted Mrs Jane Welby who had taken a wrong turn when she met them. ‘Go and show the lady the way Bet,’ directed Catherine. Obedient to this order, Johanna approached Mrs Welby, who sensing a trap, said hastily, ‘Never mind. I can find the way.’ But Johanna snatched her reticule and her umbrella and ran off. As their victim shouted ‘Stop thief!’ Catherine struck her from behind with such force that she fell against a wall.

From his nearby shop, a sharp-eyed shoemaker watched everything that happened. William Drake told the court that he saw Mrs Welby and Johanna pass his shop. He saw Johanna snatch the reticule. And he saw Catherine strike Mrs Welby on the back before she, too, ran off. He reported every detail to the watchhouse.

Constable Morris Nicholson took Catherine into custody the next day despite her insistence that it was Johanna who committed the crime. As they walked to the watchhouse, she asked the constable to buy her a drink, promising to tell him the whereabouts of the stolen goods. A disappointed Constable Nicholson told the court that ‘I said she might have the beer, but she did not tell me where [the reticule] was.’

In court, Catherine denied everything. ‘I know nothing of Brown. I was in liquor and what I said to the constable I know not.’ Taking her cue from Catherine, Johanna did the same, denying she even knew her friend and claiming she had never seen Mrs Welby. The jury did not believe either of them.

In weighing up their sentence the judge had to take account of the value of the goods they stole which were listed as evidence, each item carefully costed: 1 reticule, value 1s.; 1 scent bottle, value 6d.; 1 thimble, value 6d.; 1 handkerchief value 1s.; 1 sovereign and 10 shillings, the property of Wright Welby, from the person of Jane his wife.

Johanna and Catherine were brought back to court later for sentencing along with other women who had been tried that day. The group included two who had been working as prostitutes and were aggrieved with their clients who had sex and then cried ‘theft’ rather than paying up. When the judge pronounced their sentence they were, as the Morning Chronicle put it, ‘extremely insolent’. In ‘vulgar language’ (which the Chronicle did not repeat verbatim) they told him, ‘We have plenty of law, but little justice.’ Encouraged by this outburst, Catherine and Johanna joined in. When they received a sentence of 14 years, the two of them ‘jumped and capered about’ laughing at the judge and calling out “Thank you, my Lord”.’ They were transported together on the Princess Royal which sailed for Sydney on 9 November 1828.

When the two young women landed in New South Wales in May 1829, their paths soon diverged. Catherine married within a year which meant she was, in effect, free to lead her life as a wife and mother. Given the shortage of women in the colony, Johanna, too, should have achieved this kind of freedom. She started well, staying with her first master in Sydney for over two years. When he returned her to government because there was ‘no future use for her services’, she was sent to the first class of the Parramatta Female Factory for reassignment. It was at this point that Johanna’s life in the colony went wrong. Perhaps she missed the only security she had known since she arrived and couldn’t adjust to a new household. Either that or her next employer was particularly harsh.

Within a month of reassignment, she was charged with being absent without leave and drunk for which she was sentenced to one month in the Third or Criminal Class of the Female Factory. Except for one occasion when she worked on a pastoral estate for a year, the pattern of Johanna’s servitude became a constant turnover of employers, each lasting only a few months. Several gave ‘no further use for her services’ as the reason for returning her, but always without sufficient details to be sure what it meant. At other times she was explicitly returned for being ‘absent’ or ‘drunk’ and on one occasion for being ‘picked up in the streets in company with a sailor after hours’.

In January 1839, Johanna was one of twelve prisoners sent from the Parramatta Factory to Port Macquarie ‘to separate them from the bad connections they have formed.’ Her inclusion is a significant clue to her character. Allowing for the prejudiced perspective of the authorities whose assessment of ‘bad connections’ would take no account of loneliness and the need for friends, it nevertheless indicates that Johanna was a follower rather than a leader. The records at the Old Bailey support this conclusion. ‘Go and show the lady the way Bet,’ ordered Catherine, and ‘Bet’ obediently responded. Johanna allowed someone else to make the decisions for her—not very bright, too eager to please, easily affected by drink—in the rough and tough world of the penal colony she would have been a butt for jokes and an easy target for tricks and treachery. Alone, she couldn’t cope and was lost. And the more alone and lost she was, the more she drank.

Port Macquarie was no longer a penal settlement in 1839. Two months after Johanna arrived, an application was lodged for permission to marry. Her prospective husband was 36-year-old Andrew White, an ex-convict working for a Mr Doyle. The application was supported by Johanna’s master who described her character as good, although he had only a few weeks to form this opinion. However, Andrew White had declared himself married on arrival and the application was rejected. The following year, after a successful application, she married Jonathan Hunt, a convict holding a ticket of leave and working, as she was, for Mr Stacy.

The marriage didn’t last. In March 1844 when the convict office sent Johanna’s certificate of freedom to Port Macquarie, she was already in Sydney, sent down the year before to be imprisoned for a month. From 1843 onwards she was confined each year at least twice, but often almost every other month. Short sentences lasting a month, six weeks, sometimes two or three months reflected the record of a pauper who was vulnerable to arrest from drinking compulsively day after day.

During the 1850s, Johanna also became a regular inmate at the Benevolent Asylum for the Ill and Destitute. As death bore down on her, she reverted to her married name, but again and again the old identification recurred—’per Princess Royal 1829’. Gaol and the asylum were her only home, the police her only family. In May 1860, the master of the gaol recommended her admission into the benevolent asylum yet again. She was suffering now from the delirium tremens of alcoholic poisoning. She staggered on for another seven years until, two days before Christmas, on 23 December 1869, she was found dead in Darlinghurst Gaol. At the inquest the following day the coroner concluded her death was due to ‘exhaustion or bronchitis in a constitution broken down by intemperance, exposure and neglect’.

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Further reading:

Babette Smith, A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson & the prisoners of the Princess Royal’ (1988), 2nd edn 2008, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.



© 2016 Convict Women's Press Inc.