Wilhelmina de Roocke (1813?-1871)

by Kay Buttfield


Wilhelmina de Roocke was born in Cape Town around 1813. By 1815 the Dutch had formally passed sovereignty of the Cape Colony to the English. When Wilhelmina was 17 years old she was employed as a live-in needle woman. This position was in the service of the Attorney General of the Cape, Anthony Oliphant, in the elite Camps Bay area. Wilhelmina’s live-in position with one of the most prestigious families in the Cape was considered very good, and certainly would have removed the burden from her widowed mother of providing for another mouth.

However, Wilhelmina’s circumstances changed in October 1830 when she, along with her mother, was convicted of receiving stolen goods and stealing from the home of her employer and other well known people. That the daughter, and widow of a respected, educated man should audaciously take advantage and steal from these well known people would be unthinkable —but the evidence proved that the missing goods were found at the widow’s home.

The mother and daughter were tried on 15 November 1830. The jury found Wilhelmina guilty of stealing many items of fabric and linen as well as jewellry although she, like her mother, had declared herself innocent. She was sentenced to transportation to Van Diemen’s land for 7 years, with the jury recommending clemency be shown – owing to her youth. Letters of support were received for the two women, amongst them a teacher from Wilhelmina’s old school offered a glowing reference in the young woman’s favour. Regardless, Wilhelmina’s fate was sealed and she and her mother were likely consigned to Robben Island prison while they waited for the next convict ship to drop anchor in Table Bay en route to Van Diemen’s land.

Whatever impelled the crime can never be known. The charges against Wilhelmina and her mother were out of character as both women had no prior convictions and both insisted their innocence. The amount of goods was large and it is inconceivable that the women imagined the removal of such an amount would go unnoticed.

In September 1831 the convict ship William Glen Anderson bound for Van Diemen’s land pulled into Table Bay. After taking on supplies the ship received onboard eleven male and two female convicts (Wilhelmina and Eliza de Roocke), together with a dispatch from the Cape Governor. In the dispatch the Governor requested that the two women – mother and daughter, should not be separated.

Upon arrival Wilhelmina and her mother were processed for assignment. Dark-haired Wilhelmina was described as a needle woman, 5 feet 3 inches (160.02 cm) tall with a small, sallow face and hazel eyes.

As requested by the Cape Governor, Lowry Cole, the Colonial authorities kept the women together, both being assigned to the same Master, Joseph Hone. Wilhelmina served her time without event and was freed by servitude at the end of her sentence. On 25 February 1840, when she was 27 years old, she married William Punshon—it was William’s second marriage. William was a a publican who built and ran public houses all named ‘Gray’s Inn Tavern’: first in Argyle Street (1835), then Patrick Street, then on the corner of Elizabeth and Warwick Street (1843) in Hobart. The couple had at least four sons, William, Frederick, Charles, John Albertus and four daughters —Harriet, Eliza, Wilhelmina and Amelia. Sadly William Senior suffered a breakdown due to business worries, and he spent over 20 years in the New Norfolk Asylum. Wilhelmina successfully ran the business in his absence. Wilhelmina died in December 1871, she was about 58 years old and was outlived by her husband, who remained confined to the Asylum.

Although the de Roocke name has not carried on in Australia, there are descendants of Wilhelmina’s children living in Tasmania. 

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Further reading:

Kay Buttfield, 'Convicts from the Cape Colony', From the Edges of Empire, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart 2015, pp. 90-111.



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