Helen McGee (1812—?)
by Susan Ballyn and Lucy Frost
When Helen McGee arrived in Sydney on board the Buffalo on 5 October 1833, the ship’s indent gave her native place as Portugal.She sailed with her mother Catherine Ross (born in Gibraltar), although they were convicted in separate trials and for different offences. One of her three brothers, Charles (born in Glasgow), had already been transported to New South Wales. This peripatetic family shared one place in their unstable lives: Edinburgh, Scotland, the scene of their trials for petty crimes.
On 21 February 1825, Helen’s older brother Charles was tried before the High Court of Justiciary, and sentenced to transportation for life. Later that same year he sailed for Sydney on the Marquis of Huntley. On 13 July 1832 Helen’s mother appeared before the same court and was sentenced to 7 years’ transportation. Almost four months later, on 9 November 1832, it was Helen’s turn, and she stood in the court accused like her mother and brother before her of stealing.
Helen, who was almost 20, and 17-year-old Margaret Campbell, both known in the neighbourhood as ‘Women of the Town’, were accused of stealing a pocketbook containing coins and £9 in bank notes from a medical student named Anthony Illery Bellot, described by Helen as a ‘man of Colour’. Perhaps Bellot was a foreigner whose naiveté made him a vulnerable target late on a summer’s night when he allowed himself to be lured away by the two prostitutes. The women sidled up to him on the High Street, asking him two buy them a drink. ‘One of them’, he would later tell the authorities, ‘took hold of him by the hand, and led him to a close [laneway] immediately opposite the Iron Church on the North Side of the High Street, called Bull’s close while the other Prisoner kept behind a little’. As they were walking along, he ‘felt the hands of the woman behind about his Coat pocket but he did not suspect anything was wrong at this time’. He even allowed them to lure him inside a house in the close. When he belatedly discovered he had been robbed, they fled.
Next day they took the stolen bank notes to their fence, a woman named Mary Hill who was a soldier’s widow and eating-house keeper aged about 50. All three women were soon arrested, indicted on charges of theft and reset of theft, and put on trial. All three pleaded not guilty, but were found guilty by the jury. Margaret Campbell and Mary Hill were each sentenced to 7 years’ transportation. Helen McGee, previously convicted and deemed by the police to be ‘habite and repute a thief’, received a sentence twice as long as the others, fourteen years. Along with her mother (but not her co-accused), she sailed down the Thames on the Buffalo in early May the next year.
On its long voyage south to the Australian colonies the Buffalo carried not only 179 convict women but also detailed information about their lives, information systematically entered onto the form called a ship’s ‘indent’. According to the indent, Helen was a laundry maid and needlewoman aged 20 who could read (but not write), and was like her mother a Protestant. Physically too she was short like her mother, measured as just 4 feet 8¼ inches (143.51 cm) tall. She may have been striking to look at, with her red hair and grey eyes. Like her brother Charles and her mother, Helen’s face was marked by a scar. Hers was on the outer corner of her right eyebrow.
Once the Buffalo arrived in Sydney after a lengthy voyage of 146 days by way of Rio, Helen was sent out to the Female Factory at Parramatta to await assignment. Her mother had been assigned to a local woman in Parramatta, but Helen was still in the Female Factory in mid-November when an order arrived for women to be sent by boat from Sydney up the coast to the settlement of Maitland, close to the tidal reach of the Hunter River in the lower Hunter Valley. The names of eleven women, including ‘Ellen McGee’, were ticked off on the list of those to be distributed by the Maitland bench of magistrates.
How long Helen remained in the fledgling northern settlement is unclear but her name appears on the goal entry list for the Parramatta Female Factory in January 1835, with a sentence of one month in the Factory for some unspecified offence. In 1837 when a muster of convicts was conducted across the colony, Helen was listed as assigned to a master in Parramatta. Six years later, on 26 July 1843, an application was lodged asking permission of the government for the marriage of ‘Ellen McGlen or McGhie’, aged 30, transported on the Buffalo, and a ticket-of-leave man named William Mills. The application was approved by a clergyman in Richmond, but no marriage seems to have followed. And that is the final confirmed sighting of Helen/Ellen…McGee/McGhie/McGie/McGlen.
Susan Ballyn and Lucy Frost, 'The Elusive Iberian Connection: Catherine Ross and Helen McGee', in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart, 2015 pp. 235-248.
Sue Ballyn acknowledges the help received from the “Ministerio de Economia y Competitividad” for the Project Postcolonial Crime Fiction : A global window into social realities for all her publications on the FCRC web site and in print since 2014.
© 2016 Convict Women's Press Inc.