Emme Felicite Gabrielle Chardonez Malhomme (1814­–1886)

by Lynn Lamble


Marie Gabrielle Felicite Malhomme née Chardonnet was born on 8 January 1814 in northeast France, the fourth child and first daughter of a miller and his wife. What happened to this seemingly prosperous landowning family over the next decade, and why their eldest daughter became a servant in England remains a puzzle, but by December 1835 the daughter now known as Emme Felicite Gabrielle Chardonez Malhomme was employed in the London home of Thomas Edwards, tailor, draper and livery-stable keeper.

Emme had been working for the Edwards family (there were five children) for about seven months when she disappeared on the evening of Saturday, 4 June 1836, taking with her all the valuables and household goods she could carry. Next day she travelled by coach to the port of Southampton and might have caught the ferry for France if she had not over-reached herself by stealing from a fellow passenger ‘a band-box, containing the whole of the wardrobe of a child who was going to school’. The theft was reported to the local police, and on Monday morning at 6.45am Emme was arrested at Tubb’s Hotel, opposite the pier gates. With valuable loot in her possession (including three silver spoons and a sauce-ladle found in the bed where she slept), Emme’s earlier theft was quickly discovered and back she went to London that same day. There she was charged, committed to stand trial, and sent to Newgate Prison.

Less than a fortnight later the young French woman, aged 22, stood in the dock of the Old Bailey. Here her ‘foreignness’ became an issue. Could she understand the language of the courtroom? ‘The prisoner’ said her former mistress, ‘can understand English very well—she understands every word that is said to her, but cannot express herself well’. Certainly she did not understand court procedure, and (being unrepresented) pleaded ‘Guilty’ until the recorder told her that if that was her plea, ‘the Court would have no discretion, but must transport her for life’. Hearing this, ‘she begged to plead Not Guilty’.

As far as the court was concerned, she was a non-English speaker, and was treated accordingly. An interpreter was appointed ‘to convey to her the evidence, as she said she did not understand English’. The ‘Jury by her desire was composed of 1/2 Englishmen and 1/2 foreigners’. Such juries, apparently unique to the Old Bailey, seem an enlightened acknowledgement of cultural difference, but how they were selected and how they actually functioned is unknown. Were the jurors French-speaking, or whether they were merely required to be ‘foreign’? Perhaps Emme hoped to persuade other foreigners that she was really a bewildered stranger in a strange land. It would have to be a compelling performance, because the evidence against her seemed compelling.

Through the interpreter, she wove a tale straight out of gothic fiction with herself as the vulnerable female imperilled by unknown men who had invaded the domestic space where she was a servant. The words of the text, whether contributed by Malhomme, the translator, or the court’s shorthand writer, are shaped by the rhythmic cadences of an oral story-teller:

The day I went away three gentlemen came, at three different times, and told me that they would wish me to leave my mistress, and they would be my friends—

I said, ‘No’—

they said if I did not like to give my mistress, to give myself—

I said, ‘No’—

and they said they would set fire to the house—they said if I liked to give  my mistress, they would give me some money—

I said, ‘No’—

the other gentleman came down by the kitchen, and then he went into the room—he brought a knife facing up towards my throat, and then he went into my mistress’ room—mistress rang the bell for me to come down and fetch some stale bread—one gentleman went up-stairs, and went into mistress’ room, took things out of it, and then I was willing to start away, but was not willing to rob my mistress as far as that—he said if I did not like to start that night he would cut my throat—

The jury remained impervious to this wild and wonderful story, and found Emme guilty as charged. She was sentenced to transportation for life.

On 12 August 1836 Emme sailed to Van Diemen’s Land on the Westmoreland. After a rough start to the voyage, with many women including Emme on the sick list as the ship tossed for days in the English Channel, the voyage itself was generally uneventful, and in less than the usual four months, the Westmoreland anchored in the River Derwent.  Before Emme disembarked she was measured, and at 5 feet 4 ½ inches (163.83 cm) tall, was a couple of inches taller than the average female convict. A bout of small pox had left her ‘slightly pockpitted’. Nothing particularly distinctive about her appearance was recorded, and in general she did little to call attention to herself under sentence. On three occasions she was sent to the Female Factory for punishment in the cells.  Those were her only punishments. She was once reprimanded for ‘insolence and disobedience of orders’; once admonished for some unspecified ‘misconduct’; and once discharged from an accusation of ‘using obscene language’. Six charges in the eleven years before she was granted a conditional pardon. A mild record of offending.

Though Emme may have been less than enthusiastic when she was sent to George Town on the other side of the island, that assignment to the port officer gave her a future partner. The coxswain of the port’s guardboat was John Batten, who had arrived on the Maria in 1820, and was now free by servitude. On 13 April 1840 John applied to marry Emme. Permission was granted and on 29 May they were married at St Johns Church of England in Launceston.

Emme was then assigned to her husband, and in August 1841 their first child was born, a daughter they named Frances Mallum Batten, incorporating an anglicised version of her mother’s French surname. According to the census of 1 January 1842, the family was living in a government-owned house in Cimitiere Street, George Town, where John was the head of a household including seven convict men, probably assigned to the Marine Department. John, who claimed to have come free to the colony, and the baby were identified as Anglicans, and Emme as a Roman Catholic.

Marriage did not bring stability into Emme’s life. In March 1842 John was dismissed from his job after he was charged with being intoxicated and appearing in an unkempt state. The family lost their home, but did not leave George Town. John found other employment as a boatman, though without the pay or status he had achieved in the Marine Department. One can imagine what pressures this put on the marriage.

On 25 April 1844 Emme received her ticket of leave, and on 13 October 1846—the day she gave birth to a son—she was recommended for a conditional pardon. The pardon was granted on 23 November 1847, making Emme in effect free, except for a prohibition against returning to the British isles. This was unlikely to bother a Frenchwoman whose experiences there had been far from happy in the first place.

For almost forty years after her conditional pardon, Emme made a life for herself in northern Tasmania, giving birth to four children between 1841 and 1853. All the children all lived to adulthood, a major achievement for Emme as a mother. In 1864 Emme and John witnessed the marriage of their daughter Frances to a 25-year-old butcher, and it was at his daughter’s Launceston home that John Batten died in 1877, ‘In the 81st year of his age’.  The newspaper notice of the death did not mention his wife, which seems odd. Had she and John separated or did the family choose a minimal, low cost advertisement?

Emme lived on for another decade, dying of ‘senility’ on 4 March 1886 at Port Sorell. She may have been living with, or close to, her son Theodore, a butcher who was registering the births of his children in the Port Sorell district about this time.  When Emme died, she left two generations of descendants, including 26 grandchildren. Although she probably spoke with a distinctive accent echoing her French homeland, she had been known for years as the anglicised ‘Amy’. The flamboyantly named French woman whose performance at the Old Bailey had caught the eye of newspaper reporters in London had found a home and a personal identity in northern Tasmania. Her eldest son,  James, was my great-grandfather. 

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Further reading:
Alison Alexander, 'French Female Convicts in Van Diemen's Land',  in Fromthe Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart, 2015, pp. 158-171 



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