Janet (Jessie) George (1829?–1915)

by Joyce Purtscher


 Although we know from the Scottish 1841 Census that Jessie George was born in Aberdeen, she was always referred to as a mulatto and that fact isolated her and gave her a foreignness that dogged not only her, but her descendants. DNA Testing of a fourth generation descendant indicated that Jessie was 50% African. No trace of Jessie George’s father has been found, nor any trace of her parents’ marriage or relationship. The parents of her mother, Esther McKenzie, were John McKenzie, a soldier in the Aberdeenshire Militia, and Christian Munro. Because her grandparents on both the McKenzie and Munro sides have traceable Scottish heritage, it would be fair to say that Jessie’s father was a full-blood African, though whether he had been a slave in America or the Caribbean is impossible to know.

Jessie’s mother had two daughters before she eventually married William Garvock in 1854.3 David Brown, acknowledged as the father of her first daughter, Isabella (born about 1825), was a seaman, and Aberdeen being a large port, it seems likely that Jessie’s father was a crew member of a visiting ship. By the time Esther discovered she was pregnant, ‘George’ may long since have sailed away from Aberdeen and out of the life of the struggling mother. Every indication suggests that Jessie grew up in dire poverty, and her mother probably had to survive by prostitution. She was imprisoned twice in 1840 and 1845 at Aberdeen, charges unknown.

On 19 April 1848 the Aberdeen Journal reported the proceedings of the Circuit Court of Justiciary, meeting in Aberdeen:

Jess or Janet George, a mulatto girl, was next brought up, and pled not guilty to a charge of stealing a bed tick from a house in Marywell Street to which she often went soliciting charity. The case went to proof, and the prisoner’s guilt was fully established. She had been four times previously convicted. After an impressive admonition, the prisoner, who appeared in nowise concerned about her position, was sentenced to seven years transportation.

Witnesses at the trial also stated that Jessie went about bare-footed and was frequently seen begging. Aberdeen in April would still be very cold, thus accentuating her poverty. Her prior criminal record in Aberdeen followed her to Van Diemen’s Land on her convict record. It included stealing stockings, boots and a plaid for which she served a total of eleven months in prison while she was still in her mid to late teens. Prior to transportation she was incarcerated in Millbank Prison, London, for six months.

On 12 April 1849 Jessie arrived in Hobart Town aboard the Cadet. Her convict records described her as ‘mulatto’, and as ‘a woman of colour’. She was 19 years old, with black curly hair, black eyes and eyebrows, thick lips and flat nose. In Scotland and later in Van Diemen’s Land, she would have been easily recognised at any crime scene, so she had to be on her mettle to adjust to her three handicaps—colour, poverty and being a convict.

Jessie George’s convict record in the colony wasn’t altogether clean either. In the early 1850s, she was charged with being drunk, having sexual intercourse with a man in a cab, being absent without leave, striking a fellow prisoner, and (twice) absconding. On 4 January 1853 she gave birth to an illegitimate child named Alfred at the Cascades Female Factory, and then had to leave him in the convict nursery while she was sent out to work. After she received her freedom on 18 May 1855, she was again in trouble. The Mercury for 7 September 1857 gave a lengthy description of Jessie George along with William Burgess and William Thomas drugging and stealing money from Isaac Chapping. She was acquitted of this charge. In April 1864 at Swansea, she received a 3-month sentence with hard labour. In 1865 she was charged with prostitution at Pontville, and in 1866 was charged with ‘indecency’ at Westbury and with ‘wilfully damaging property’ at Ross. Jessie by now was in her mid-30s, and these charges in various country towns suggest that she was moving from place to place with no home and no reliable means of support.

By this stage Jessie had given birth to four children. Three were born while she lived with William Thomas, a furrier transported to Van Diemen’s Land on the Cornwall:  Ann/Annie (1856), and the twins Jessie and William (1859).  All four of Jessie’s children spent time in the Queen’s Orphanage, New Town. Alfred George was admitted when he was only 18 months old, and released to his mother a year later. He was again admitted in 1858 and stayed there until 1866 when he was apprenticed to William Denham in Launceston. Ann, or Annie, Thomas was admitted in 1861. According to the application form:

Jessie George has no means of supporting the child whose admission is applied for except begging and the reason why she makes the application is her sad condition. She has two other children depending upon her for support—Jessie and William Thomas 17 months old. … She has one child a boy 6 years old now in the Queen’s Orphan School born while she was a Passholder. The father John [sic] Thomas in Hobart Town was seen this morning by DC Bryan.

Annie was at the orphanage until she was apprenticed in 1869 to Joseph Griggs of Franklin. She was released to her mother the following year. The twins, Jessie and William George (aka Thomas) were admitted to the orphanage when their mother was sentenced at Swansea to 3 months’ hard labour. The application form13 was signed by the warden and councillor of Glamorgan, who

recommended the admission of the children and would further strongly recommend that they be permanently retained in the Asylum in consequence of the notoriously immoral charge and depraved habits of their mother whom we consider utterly unfit to be entrusted with the charge of young children. The man, William Thomas has deserted the children.

Despite the recommendation, the twins were discharged to their mother on 19 September 1870. At last Jessie’s fortunes had taken a turn for the better, and she could provide a stable home.

Six months before the twins were released to her care, Jessie, giving her age as 38 (though she was probably at least 40), married John Clark at the residence of David Jones in Scottsdale. No children were born to this marriage, but Jessie’s children often used the surname ‘Clark’, a sign that Jessie’s husband became a real father to them. Although Alfred and Annie had spent many years in the Queen’s Orphanage, Jessie must have been a caring mother as the children all went to live either with her or near her in adult life at Ringarooma. She became a member of the Salvation Army in 1890 and was buried by them in 1915 at Scottsdale. According to Lieut R.C. Smith, of the Scottsdale Salvation Army, a lady from the area remembered her as dark-skinned and presumed she was Aboriginal. The same presumption was held by many of her descendants. If her family and people in the neighbourhood thought that, then the convict and African connection would not have had to be explained.

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