Mary Heather (1806?-?)

by Kay Buttfield


Mary Heather was 16 years old when she was convicted of stealing a one quart pot valued at 1/– at the property of Richard Balls, a publican in Upper Grosvenor Street, London. She was seen acting suspiciously in the street by John Boston, who then apprehended her. Mary was tried at the Old Bailey on 3 July 1822 and sentenced to 7 years’ transportation for the crime of Grand Larceny. 

After the trial Mary was taken to Newgate prison to await transportation. Brown-haired Mary was born at the Cape of Good Hope in 1806, she was 5 feet (152.40 cm) tall, with a fair to ruddy complexion, dark hazel eyes, and a nose ‘rather cock’d’. When arrested Mary gave her occupation as a brush-maker.

On 11 September 1822, Mary and 96 other convicts set sail from Woolwich for Van Diemen’s Land, and then New South Wales, aboard the Lord Sidmouth, finally arriving in Hobart on 10 February, and then Sydney on 28 February 1823. Of the 97 on board, Mary McGowan died at Rio de Janeiro, 50 were disembarked in Hobart and 46, including Mary, were sent on to Sydney. The ship’s Master was James Ferrier and the Surgeon was Robert Espie.

Presumably, the ship sailed with high hopes, as it is believed to be the first female convict transport fitted out to the recommendations of Commissioner John Thomas Bigge.Robert Espie was an experienced ship’s surgeon and in his journal he attributes his success at caring for his charges to the fact that he gave them tasks which they needed to manage to maintain themselves while on board. However, he made note of Mary in his journal on Friday 27 September, when he, ‘ ... had occasion to punish Mary Heather ... 24 hours in solitary confinement in the Coal Hole, ... for indolence accompanied with insolence’.

Although records are sketchy about this time in Mary’s life, after disembarking in Sydney the convicts would have been processed and assigned to employment. However, in December 1823 in Castlereagh, Mary was married to fellow convict John Duncan who had arrived in the colony aboard the Neptune in July 1820. John was convicted in Northumberland for larceny and his sentence was also 7 years. In the musters of 1822 John was employed in the Liverpool area and, by March 1824, the couple had a son whom they named John, like his father. In the General Muster of 1825, Mary was in the Government’s employ in Bathurst while John was still employed under the same master in the Liverpool area. John received his certificate of freedom in February 1827. Mary seems to have been assigned to her husband during this period, as in October 1828 the Principal Superintendent put an order out in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, asking for the apprehension of Mary Heather or Duncan who had absconded from John Duncan. Presumably she was found or returned, as in the following year (1829) in July she was awarded her certificate of freedom.

The records do not supply any more details of Mary’s life. We are left to wonder if Mary and John had more children, and if they had a long life together. Mary was very young when she was transported from England, and then sent half way around the world to New South Wales. In this strange environment the young girl was married, and a mother, by the time she was 18. It is easy to imagine that Mary would find it very hard to settle down. Certainly, as a young child in South Africa she could never have imagined where her life would take her.

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