Ellen Develin (1819?-1877)

by Mary Johnson


Ellen Develin was reputedly born in India when her father, John Develin, was an Irish soldier serving with the East India Company. On the family’s return to Ireland their daughter was brought up in Dublin. Nothing more is known about Ellen until 22 October 1840 when at the age of 19 she was tried at Antrim Assizes on a charge of stealing linen. Ellen was convicted and sentenced to 7 years’  transportation. Later, when asked about any prior convictions, she would say that she had been imprisoned once before for six months, and once had been acquitted on a charge of stealing a trunk box. On 12 August 1841 she left London on the Mexborough. Although the ship was plagued throughout the voyage by frequent tempests and water seepage, Ellen maintained good health and according to the surgeon superintendent, was ‘well behaved’. Once the Mexborough arrived in Hobart  on 26 December 1841, about half the women—including Ellen—were transferred to another vessel to sail up the coast to Launceston.

Before those allocated to Launceston left for the northern settlement, their trades, native places, and physical descriptions were entered into the central records. Ellen was described as a housemaid 5 feet 1 inch (154.95 cm) tall, with fair complexion, brown hair, and grey eyes. Her chin was dimpled, and her upper right arm was tattooed with the initials ED and JD. Her native place was recorded as ‘East Indies, brought up in Dublin’.

Initially Ellen seemed to settle in to the regulated life of an assigned convict servant, but after ten months her discipline broke, and she was sent to the Launceston Female Factory for a week’s solitary confinement as punishment for being ‘drunk and absent without leave’. She was sent to a new master, and only four months later was back in the Factory to serve three months’ hard labor as punishment for  ‘disorderly conduct and drunkenness’. While serving this sentence, she went into the solitary cells for ten days because she refused an order to work. When she emerged she must have been sent to a congenial employer because for a year her record was clean. And then the pattern started over again, back to the Female Factory for seven days’ hard labour on a charge of ‘out after hours’, then off to work for a fourth employer, and back to the Factory for drunkenness.

When she entered the Factory in August 1844 to serve this latest punishment, it was clear to the prison authorities that she was pregnant. On 8 December 1844 Ellen was ‘Delivered of an Illegitimate Child’. Ellen named her child Joseph, and she would have remained with him in the nursery of the Female Factory for at least six months. As usual, the child’s father was not named on Ellen’s conduct record, but he may have been Richard Collins with whom mutual attachment would soon become known.

On 25 August 1845, not long after Ellen left Joseph behind in the nursery while she was sent out to work again, an application for permission to marry was sent to the government on behalf of ‘Richard Collins, free, residing at Circular Head, and Ellen Develin, Mexboro’, in the Female House of Correction’. The application was approved because Ellen had managed to get through a year without any charges, aided no doubt by spending most of that time in the nursery with Joseph instead of working in someone’s household as an unpaid domestic servant.

Ellen’s future husband, Richard Collins, had not come free to the colony. In August 1828 he had been sentenced at the Kent Assizes to 14 years’ transportation for stealing two donkeys, one from Martha Wallis worth 30/- and another of twice that value from Thomas Martin. Richard sailed from Plymouth on 15 December 1828 aboard the Georgiana carrying 170 male convicts. It reached Hobart on 20 April 1829. Richard said he was 18 years old, and a basket maker by trade. ‘I have always worked for my father as long as I could do anything’, he told the authorities.

Although the ‘permissions to marry’ register records Ellen’s marriage to Richard as approved in August 1845, no record has yet been found in a marriage register, and the first definitive evidence of a date comes in the convict muster taken on 31 October 1846, which specifically identifies Ellen as ‘Married to Richard Collins free’. Notations on Ellen’s conduct record suggest that for some unknown reason, the marriage approved in August 1845 did not take place until some time between May and October 1846. Meanwhile, Ellen spent most of her time in the Launceston Female Factory—serving sentences totally six months out of the seven months between October 1845 and May 1846. The charges were as trifling as before: twice for being drunk, once for disorderly conduct, once for being absent. These were easy offences for Ellen herself to engineer if her objective was to get inside the Female Factory while her infant son remained in the nursery. Perhaps she was negotiating: until she was allowed to remove Joseph from the nursery, she would not cooperate with the system, would not serve as the reliable domestic servant demanded by the rules and regulations. We will never know, but what is clear is that after she left the Female Factory in May 1846 she was never charged with any offence again—and little Joseph was not transferred from the convict nursery to the Orphan Schools.

  It seems likely that in those months before the October muster which wrote her marriage into the convict records, she was in fact assigned to her free husband, and had set up housekeeping with him. Joseph of course may well have been the couple’s first son, even though his birth was recorded as ‘illegitimate’ on his mother’s record simply because she was not married. Everything points to a very stable relationship between Ellen and Richard, and a determination to work together for themselves and their family.

  On 23 December 1847, the couple’s first daughter, Sarah, was born in Launceston. The parents did not register her birth, and waited to baptise her until a year later when they had left the penal settlement of Van Diemen’s Land with both children, and crossed Bass Strait for a new life. Ellen sailed from the prison island as soon as she became free by servitude and could get a copy of her certificate of freedom in case she ever needed proof that she was not an absconder. The Collins family was headed for the town named ‘Belfast’ where the entrepreneur James Atkinson was was busily transforming the early whaling station of Port Fairy into a thriving colonial town. On 7 November 1849, a year after Ellen and her family arrived, ‘Richard Collins, Belfast, basket maker’ signed a contract with James Atkinson to lease two hectares of land on James Street. The convict emancipist was now a leaseholder entitled to vote. The youth transported for stealing donkeys became the law-abiding citizen who tackled horse thieves, as the Belfast Gazette reported on 25 December 1852:

Two men named Edward Pickett and Robert Williams were fully committed on Thursday last for attempting to steal some horses tethered outside Mr Avery’s paddock on the previous night … Mr Richard Collins detected one of the vagabonds attempting to saddle one of the horses and courageously captured one.

The Collins family was growing, with the birth of Mary in 1849 and a namesake for Ellen in 1852. Belfast looked like a stable place for workers, and the family might have stayed there if not for the lure of gold. In 1854 Ellen and Richard set off with their four young children to follow the rush to Ararat. A little girl named Anne, born in 1854, lived only 10 months. In 1855 a son was born, named Richard after his father. Four more children were born to Ellen in the township. Then about 1860, as gold was dwindling in Ararat, Richard the basket-maker turned miner moved his family on to the flourishing gold fields of Wedderburn. His skill with horses ensured a supplement to the precarious life of a miner because he could always find work carting mineral ore to those who owned crushing machines.

Triplets were born to Ellen in Moyston near Wedderburn on 5 June 1864. Emily and Charles lived 9 days, Rebecca, 14 days. Two children, John and Anne, had died previously and the family’s grief intensified with the loss of the triplets. Following the birth in 1866 of Ellen’s youngest child, also named Charles, the family moved to Sandhurst (as Bendigo was then called), where Richard worked as plumber. After tough years on the goldfields, the comparative comforts of town may have been most welcome, but unfortunately about 11 years later Ellen became seriously ill. A letter from Richard, probably dictated about the time of Ellen’s death, relates: ‘my wife . . . had enjoyed remarkably good health up to four months since when she was admitted to the hospital. She left there three months since’. Ellen went home to McLaren Street, but she did not recover and died on 1 December 1877. An inquest held in Butt’s Hotel confirms Ellen’s death as the result of natural causes. Her certificate of death names in chronological order nine living children, with Joseph aged 32 heading the list.

Ellen Develin’s travels were extensive, from her birth in the East Indies to Dublin, Antrim, London, Van Diemen’s Land and on to coastal Port Fairy and the goldfields of Victoria. Her life, without public fame, stands out as a remarkable housewife and impressive dedicated mother of seventeen children. Ellen bequeathed to her progeny a legacy of sustained hope.

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Further reading: 

Ralph Crane, ‘Out of India: Convict Women in the Web of Empire’, in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart 2015. pp. 13-34.



© 2016 Convict Women's Press Inc.