Mary Johnson (1807-1838)

by Jan Richardson


Mary Johnson was tried and convicted of robbery at the Portsmouth Borough Quarter Sessions at Southampton in January 1832. The Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle reported that ‘the following prisoners were tried and sentenced:—Mary Johnson, J. Evans, and Mary Evans, for robbing their ready-furnished lodgings … —seven years transportation each’.  Mary arrived in New South Wales on board the Fanny in February 1833. The indent described her as a married but childless housemaid from Sussex. She was 26 years old and had brown hair, grey eyes and a ‘Fair and freckled’ complexion.

Immediately after arriving in Sydney, Mary and fourteen other female convicts from the Fanny were sent 200 kilometres northwest of Sydney to Bathurst, where Mary was assigned to a Mrs Dillon.  A letter from the Colonial Secretary’s office advised that:

the fifteen Women named in the Margin will be forwarded on Monday by the Factory Van to Bathurst for assignment by the Magistracy to proper applicants in that district. They will be accompanied by a Constable of the Sydney Police, and a Police Man.…

Two years later, in May 1835, Mary was admitted to the Sydney Gaol where she was held for five days before being sent to the First Class section of the Female Factory. She was recorded in the gaol entrance and description books as having been born in the West Indies in 1807 and possessing black hair, ‘hazle’ eyes and a ‘light’ complexion. While this physical description differs from that contained in the indent, there was only one Mary Johnson on board the second sailing of the Fanny that arrived in Sydney in 1833 and none of the other women were listed as being born in the West Indies.

In December 1837 and January 1838, Mary Johnson of the Fanny, a ‘Widow’ aged 30, applied to marry Samuel Bird, a bachelor aged 44 who ‘Arrived a prisoner at Hobart Town by the Earl St Vincent [sic] and [was] ordered by the Secretary of State to be sent to Norfolk Island’. Mary’s mistress said she was ‘Well conducted’ and Samuel was described as ‘Sober’ and ‘Honest’ but the application was marked ‘Disallowed—Johnson married’.  There is no record of the marriage taking place and Mary died at the Sydney General Hospital not long afterwards. She was buried on 15 or 16 April 1838 in the Parish of St James, Sydney, just over five years after first setting foot in New South Wales.  While we can be sure where Mary died, there is far less certainty about her connection to the Caribbean. She stated that she was born in the ‘West Indies’ in 1835 but in ‘Sussex’ in 1833. Did she mean Sussex county in England or, perhaps, a location named Sussex in the West Indies, such as the Sussex Estate plantation in the parish of St Ann, Jamaica, where there were 1,400 white inhabitants, 450 free people of colour and 13,700 slaves in 1788?

Sadly the mystery of Mary’s place of birth appears to have gone with her to the grave when she died aged about 31 in 1838. With a name as common as Mary Johnson, and without knowing whether Johnson is her maiden name or married surname, there is very little chance of ever being able to pinpoint exactly where she was born. 

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 Further reading:

Jan Richardson,’ Caribbean stories: born in the West Indies, tried in the British Isles, transported to New South Wales’, in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press,  Hobart, 2015, pp. 114-130.


© 2016 Convict Women's Press Inc.