Eugenie Lemaire (1815?-?)
by Douglas Wilkie
On 9 May 1836 23-year-old Frenchwoman, Eugenie Caroline Lemaire, was convicted of ‘Larceny in a Dwelling House’ and sentenced to transportation for life. She and another woman, who was never brought to trial, were accused of stealing 59 yards of lavender silk from the shop of William King. Eugenie’s accomplice, her husband Alexandre Julien Duchene, was convicted of ‘Receiving Stolen Goods’ and sentenced to fourteen years. At the Marlborough Street Police Court, the press described them as ‘very fashionably dressed foreigners … believed to form part of a gang of foreign swindlers who have for a long time committed the most expensive depredations upon the jewellers and silk-mercers at the west end of town.’
Eugenie Lemaire was ‘very well connected’, and hoped friends in high places could secure her release. Indeed, ‘attempts had been made to tamper with the prosecutors’. Thomas Clements, one of the policemen at Marlborough Street, recalled how Lemaire ‘had friends among the highest nobility, and everything was done that was possible to get them off’. Clements added, ‘She was the chere amie of a noble lord then holding high position in the government,—and who had, of course, great influence with the Home-office’.
Alexandre Duchene was transported to Van Diemen’s Land on the Henry Porcher. Eugenie was placed on board the Westmoreland ready to follow the Henry Porcher to Hobart, but she still ‘firmly protested her innocence’ and Lord John Russell ordered her off the Westmoreland while he investigated. The sceptics demanded to know ‘whether a certain lady … who is well known in high life for administering to the pleasures of men of rank and fashion, was not the party at whose instance this convict was brought back to Newgate’. Unnamed members of Parliament were accused of helping the lady ‘to procure the release of her former protégé’.
However, Lord Russell’s only concession was to reduce Eugenie’s sentence to fourteen years. She left England on 28 December 1836 on board the Sarah and Elizabeth bound for Sydney rather than Hobart.
The Sarah and Elizabeth arrived at Sydney on 23 April 1837 Eugenie Lemaire was assigned to John Ryan Brenan, the Superintendent of Convicts, at Parramatta. In 1838 Eugenie was transferred to James Atkinson, nearby at Toongabbie. All of this time Alexandre Duchene thought his wife had been pardoned and sent back to France.
Atkinson’s property was owned by Major D’Arcy Wentworth, who was appointed Police Magistrate at Launceston between 1837 and 1841, but visited Toongabbie regularly, and thus Duchene discovered the whereabouts of Eugenie Lemaire.
On 7 March 1840, Duchene petitioned Van Diemen’s Land Governor, Sir John Franklin, to secure Eugenie’s transfer to Launceston. Duchene’s employer James Barclay, offered to employ Eugenie, and Major D’Arcy Wentworth offered a glowing testimonial. By 8 September 1840, the petition was signed off by Sir John Franklin. In Sydney, Atkinson’s wife, Emily, agreed that Eugenie should be allowed to join her husband, and by 22 October Governor George Gipps approved the transfer.
It had taken nearly eight months.
Arrangements were made to get Eugenie Lemaire to Van Diemen’s Land. Eugenie’s convict record suggests that she arrived at Hobart on board the Abercrombie on 12 December 1840. However, Eugenie actually travelled on board the William, which left Sydney five days after the Abercrombie and was bound for Launceston—she was listed as Madame La Mer.
Arriving in Launceston, Eugenie was allowed to live with her husband, who was not granted a ticket of leave until 12 August 1841. Almost immediately he opened his own business in Charles Street and offered watch making, jewellery, and ‘a choice selection of French music for piano-forte, by the best Italian and French masters, and some lately improved instructions for violin.’ Presumably Eugenie became his business partner.
In October 1841, a fire destroyed the Duchene’s house and they were ‘turned almost naked into the streets.’ They managed to recover and by December 1842 the business had expanded to occupy both 105 and 106 Charles Street. They also took over a neighbouring pastry cook’s premises, and in February 1843 were offering confectionery and meals.
Eugenie Lemaire was granted a ticket of leave on 7 April 1843. Within a week she was selling tickets to a Musical Soiree. They also promoted tickets to a Grand Oratorio in St Joseph’s church.
The Duchenes managed to find French compatriots, and in October 1843, dentist, Auguste Beurteaux, joined them and saw patients at Duchenes between 10 and 4 daily. Late in 1843, Beurteaux hired a horse and gig and took Eugenie for ‘an excursion into the country’. The horse ran away, resulting in the gig being damaged and the horse injured. Eugenie was uninjured, however the livery stable unsuccessfully tried to sue her husband for damages.
Eugenie was granted a conditional pardon in 1845 with the recommendation that she had displayed ‘extremely good conduct’ and had completed seven and a half years of her fourteen year sentence. A son, William, was born around 1843 or 1844.
The business thrived and in November 1845 Madame Duchene travelled to Sydney on board the Shamrock accompanied by her son. She returned to Launceston five weeks later on board the Agostina. The purpose of the visit is unknown, but she may have been visiting her former employer Emily Atkinson at Toongabbie.
By late 1848 the Duchenes decided to leave Launceston. They went to Melbourne in December 1848 and within weeks Duchene was involved in the discovery of gold at a place called Daisy Hill in the Pyrenees ranges of the Port Phillip district. He tried to take advantage of the discovery by claiming a reward from Superintendent Charles La Trobe. However, in March 1849 La Trobe and Governor Charles Fitz Roy both refused the request, and Alexandre and Eugenie Duchene left Melbourne and sailed for California.
In San Francisco the Duchenes at first ‘engaged in a public house’ but within a few months Duchene decided to visit the Southern Goldfields. He did well on the goldfields, but returned to San Francisco to find his business partner had absconded with all his money—about $5000. Nevertheless, with the help of Eugenie, they paid off their debts and in mid-1850, headed to the northern goldfields near Marysville, at the junction of the Feather and Yuba Rivers. Leaving Eugenie ‘in a hotel’ in Marysville, Duchene took 6-year-old William and went to visit the diggings along the Feather River.
While Duchene and William were away, Eugenie was ‘seduced by a man in Marysville, and the guilty pair fled to San Francisco’. The Californian gold fields were a place of both risk and opportunity for Frenchwomen.
Unaware of Eugenie’s departure, Duchene and William visited the newly opened Grass Valley diggings, about 35 miles east of Marysville. He did not make his fortune at Grass Valley, but it was there that he heard that Eugenie had left Marysville with another man. Duchene and William immediately returned to San Francisco and found lodgings at the St Charles Hotel in Portsmouth Square.
On 16 December Duchene contracted cholera, and died the next day. Young William was evicted from their hotel, and was found by a police officer, wandering alone in the streets. Duchene, aged 47, was buried at the new Yerba Buena cemetery in San Francisco on 20 December 1850.
We might wonder whether Eugenie ever heard of Alexandre’s untimely death and the fate of her son William, who told his rescuers—‘They told me at the house where I had been staying … that I could not stay there any more. I could find no place to go. I had no dinner nor supper, and I got pretty hungry.’
No doubt the authorities tried to find William’s mother—Madame Duchene—who William believed had gone to the southern gold fields. But there appears to be no record of either the search or the result, and all that remains is the name Duchene on a passenger list for the steamship Antelope, which left San Francisco for Panama on Tuesday 17 December 1850, the same day that Alexandre died. Was this Eugenie?
Douglas Wilkie, ‘Where, oh where, is Eugenia Lemaire?’ in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart, 2015 pp. 172-187.
© 2016 Convict Women's Press Inc.