Margaret McRae (1828-1867)

by Darryl Massie


Margaret McRae was born in 1828, the daughter of a soldier in the Scottish 92nd Regiment of Foot based in Jamaica. By 1832 her family had relocated to Edinburgh, and eleven years later she appeared to reject the relative security of being a “daughter of the regiment” and embarked on a life of petty crime.

On 25 October 1843 Margaret was convicted of theft and sentenced to 60 days in Edinburgh prison. By the beginning of 1847, she had three theft convictions for which she had been sentenced to a total of 13 months’ imprisonment. Still, Margaret was very fortunate. Under Scottish law, in certain circumstances such as breaking into locked premises the crime of theft was elevated to an aggravated offence and exposed the repeat offender to heavier punishment—generally, 7 years’ transportation. At least one of Margaret’s theft offences was aggravated but she was nonetheless sentenced to imprisonment for 9 months.

Margaret’s good fortune did not last. On the morning of Sunday 31 January 1847 she stole a watch and chain guard from a house in Milne’s Court, Lawnmarket, in Edinburgh. The following day she persuaded an acquaintance from her father’s regiment to pawn the watch and chain for her and they both shared the proceeds—a meagre three shillings. Following a timely complaint by the victim, Margaret was arrested and on 5 February 1847 brought before a Magistrate to whom she confessed to the theft of the watch and chain. During the process, Margaret provided the following background information:

  • She was aged about 19;
  • She was a native of Jamaica;
  • She resided in Grassmaker, Edinburgh; and
  • She was not married.

Margaret was indicted for the offence of aggravated theft and tried by the High Court at Edinburgh on 15 March 1847. She was found guilty and sentenced to 7 years’ transportation. One of 164 female convicts on board the Cadet, Margaret spent the four months of the journey to Van Diemen’s Land in the ship’s galley cooking for the passengers. Apart from a minor ulcer that had been successfully treated by the Surgeon-Superintendent, Margaret, at 5 feet 3 inches a relatively tall woman for her time, arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in good health on 2 January 1848.

Margaret’s conduct on the journey to Van Diemen’s Land stood her in good stead; the convict overseer went to the trouble of recording in her Conduct Record his conviction that she “will make a useful servant”. She didn’t. During the first two years in the colony Margaret committed six offences including a theft and absconding from her work four times. Her punishment was severe—a total of 21 days in the cells and 15 months’ hard labour. By the end of 1850 however, Margaret had started to modify her behaviour. This change of direction can be attributed—at least in part—to matrimony. In mid-1850 Margaret successfully sought permission to marry John Gibbons, a 26-year-old convict who arrived in late 1848 on the Mount Stewart Elphinstone. The couple married on 12 August 1850 at the impressive Church of St George in Battery Point.

John Gibbons was, at the time of his conviction, a gun filer by trade and in Hobart evidently acquired the skills of a brass founder. In 1863, perhaps with Margaret’s encouragement, he embarked on a hospitality career when he purchased the licence for the ‘Manchester Unity Hotel’ in Harrington Street, Hobart. Margaret’s involvement in the management of the hotel was evident when on 10 March 1863 she successfully applied to the Magistrates’ Court for an order to bind over to the peace a bothersome patron for using “violent and threatening language” to her. John sold his interest in the ‘Manchester Unity Hotel’ in 1865 to purchase the licence for the ‘Sir John Franklin Hotel’ on the corner of Murray and Brisbane Streets. He retained the licence until 7 November 1870.

After a long illness Margaret, aged just 39, succumbed to congestion of the liver and hydrothorax and died on 13 March 1867 at the ‘Sir John Franklin Hotel’. John passed away at the age of 50 on 8 April 1873 and was interred at Cornelian Bay.

While John and Margaret would have led busy and productive lives with the bustling demands of hotel licensees, their extended family endured a disproportionate share of tragedy. The couple had four children in Hobart: Mary Ann was born on 8 June 1851; Margaret Eliza on 17 November 1852; John on 30 August 1854 and Thomas on 17 December 1858. Mary Ann married William Johnson, a cab proprietor in 1876. The couple had seven children. The youngest, William, died at a very young age from tuberculosis and meningitis.  The other children lived well into the 1900s. Margaret Eliza had ten children with her first husband—George Mathew Mason whom she married in 1873. Mathew was a blacksmith by trade employed by Burdons & Sons, Coach Manufacturers. Of the couple’s ten children, four (including twin boys) died within a year of birth from medical disorders. A fourth died when he was 43 after being electrocuted during the construction of the Hydro building at the bottom of Murray Street Hobart.

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