Betsy McHugh (1831?-?)

by Douglas Wilkie

 

Elizabeth McHugh was known to her friends as Betsy and was born around 1831 at Gibraltar. It is not known what circumstances led her parents to being on the island at that time and in 1851 when, at the age of twenty, she claimed that her four brothers Robert, Thomas, Bartholomew and Richard, and two sisters Martha and Mary were still living at her ‘native place’, it is uncertain whether this meant they were still at Gibraltar or perhaps in England, or even Ireland.

By the age of eighteen Betsy was living in Manchester and on 18 April 1849 was charged with receiving stolen goods at the Manchester Borough Court and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. A year later she was again before the court and on 17 June 1850 was found guilty of stealing a pair of boots and sentenced to transportation for 7 years. Harriet Riley, her accomplice, received the same sentence. Betsy was sent to Millbank Prison in London to await transportation, and was there at the time of the 1851 Census.

The convict ship Aurora left Woolwich on 29 May 1851 with 232 female convicts and thirty-five other adult relatives, children and infants. Fourteen of the infants were still breast-feeding at the time of embarkation. The ship’s surgeon, William Jones, was a kind yet thorough man who treated the women with respect, even allowing one woman, Emma Williams, who had given birth to a premature son, to sleep in his own cabin during the day. Unfortunately, the child died after thirteen days. The secret of his successfully bringing what he believed was the largest group of female convicts to Van Diemen’s Land was summed up at the end of his journal— ‘The admixture of sympathy and kindness, when deserving of it, but blended with firmness of purpose.’

Arriving at Hobart on 10 August 1851, after a voyage during which surgeon Jones thought her conduct had been exemplary, Betsy gave the officials the usual details—she was now aged twenty; she was a housemaid (although a few months earlier she had been a factory worker); and she could read and write. Then the officials measured her and noted her distinguishing features—5 feet 3 inches (160.02 cm) tall, pale complexion, dark brown hair, oval face, low forehead, black eyebrows, blue eyes, small nose, mouth and chin.

Within a week of arriving at Hobart, Betsy had been assigned to work for W. Hardwick at 3 Patrick Street. Hardwick sold music and musical instruments. By November she was back at the Brickfields Hiring Depot and on 18 November an application was approved for Betsy to marry carpenter and cabinetmaker , convict Robert Richardson. Twenty-five-year-old Richardson had arrived at Hobart on board the Nile in October 1850 after being convicted of stealing a watch, but within two weeks of arriving was given a ticket of leave. On 8 December 1851 Betsy and Robert Richardson married at St George’s Church of England at Battery Point.

Although Betsy was now living with her husband, she was still subject to the conditions of probation and on 8 January 1852, after being absent without leave overnight, she was sentenced to one month’s hard labour at the House of Correction. She returned to her husband on 13 February but on 1 March was again out after hours and this time served three months’ hard labour at the House of Correction. Such punishment might seem unfair, but it probably seemed even more so when, on 17 May instead of being returned to her husband she was sent to the Brickfields Hiring Depot to be put in the pool of women available for hire. Or perhaps it was her husband who though she would be better placed elsewhere.

On 25 May 1852 Betsy was assigned to work for Henry Beresford at Brown’s River, a short distance south of Hobart in the Huon District. It was during her time at Beresford’s that Robert Richardson unusually got himself into trouble and in August was found guilty of ‘misconduct, insolence & creating a disturbance.’ It is not clear towards whom all of this was directed, but Richardson lost his ticket of leave for two months and spent the time doing hard labour at the Prisoners’ Barracks in Hobart.

After four months with Beresford, in September 1852, Betsy was returned to the House of Correction and was then assigned to Charles Hardiman, a shipping agent at Pittwater. But she was only with Hardiman a week before she again went absent without leave. This time she was admonished, but a repeat offence early in October saw her back at the House of Correction to undergo four months’ hard labour. The punishment should have expired in February 1853, but it was not until May 1853 that Betsy finally returned to her husband who had moved to South Bruni Island where he was applying his former joinery and coach building skills to building ships.

The reason for the delay in leaving Hobart early in 1853 may be that a child, named Thomas, had just been born, or was about to be born. It appears that Thomas was not registered at the time, and was possibly born at South Bruni Island. A second child was born at South Bruni on 20 April 1855, and Betsy and Robert had a friend, John Dodd, register the unnamed child for them at Hobart on 21 May 1855, giving Robert’s occupation as shipwright. A month later, on 18 June, Robert Richardson collected his certificate of freedom—only the second, and last, entry on his record.

During 1854 Robert built a whale boat for Mallett and Powell of South Bruni but, unknown to Richardson, in December 1854 the boat was sold to influential Hobart ship agents William Easton and James Burgess, who in turn left the boat at South Bruni. When Easton visited South Bruni in September 1855 he discovered the boat supposedly hidden in Richardson’s shed. Richardson believed he had built the boat and was therefore entitled to possession of it. When Easton tried to lay claim to the boat, Betsy Richardson stood in the vessel with her four-month-old child, by now named Robert, and refused to move—and we might picture her standing in the prow, defending the boat as a kind of heroine in the form of Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. Easton then charged Richardson with boat stealing, but when the case was heard in October 1855, the magistrate decided he was unable to try the case, being ‘an action in trover’, and dismissed the charge.

Easton was not happy, and a few days after the inconclusive case, on the evening of Friday 5 October 1855, Richardson was in the disputed boat at the New Wharf in Hobart when Easton came alongside in another boat with four or five other men. Although Easton had previously been unwilling to throw Betsy and her son into the water, this time he had his men attack Richardson, knock him into the water, and hit him with a boat-hook. Richardson subsequently took Easton to court on a charge of instigating the assault. When the case was heard on Tuesday 9 October, Easton’s lawyer put up a better argument than Richardson’s and succeeded in having the charged dismissed.

All of this had serious implications for Betsy and Robert Richardson. Easton and Burgess were somewhat influential in Hobart maritime circles, and Robert Richardson soon had to change his occupation from shipbuilder back to cabinetmaker. But there may not have been a lot of cabinets to make on Bruni Island and Easton’s strong-arm tactics would have been disturbing to Richardson’s apparently non-violent character. Robert seems to have disappeared around this time. His fate is unknown, and although he was later believed to have gone to Port Phillip, we are left to speculate as to whether Easton’s men came back to finish their work; or whether Robert left the district looking for work; or whether he left to escape Betsy.

In the absence of her husband, and still officially serving her sentence, Betsy had to return to the House of Correction where, on 31 October 1856, she was found guilty of disturbing the peace. To complicate matters, she was expecting another child, and her children, Thomas, now aged 4, and Robert, 3, were admitted to the Orphan School on 10 January 1857, although no mention is made of the unnamed child registered in 1855 whom Betsy had held to her breast in the prow of the whaleboat. Nevertheless, the new child, named Charles, was born on 1 February 1857 and was registered by John Smith, the Officer in Charge of the Brickfields Nursery. The father was listed as Robert Richardson, which, if true, suggests he did not leave until at least May or June 1856. But then, it may not have been true, and Betsy may have simply used his name to legitimise the birth.

Five weeks after the birth of Charles, on 10 March 1857, Betsy was granted a ticket of leave, and, in December 1857, her certificate of freedom. Robert Richardson was apparently no longer on the scene, and Betsy returned south and lived with Thomas Madix, or Maddocks, a sawyer, whom she had presumably met while her husband was busy building boats on South Bruni. On 26 November 1858 a male child was born and registered at Gordon, on the mainland opposite South Bruni. The father was named as Thomas Madix and the mother as Elizabeth McHugh Madix. The child was named John William Maddock [sic].

By 1859 Thomas Richardson was six and on 22 January 1859 he was transferred to the ‘Male School’. Robert was discharged from the Orphan School on 21 March and went to live with his mother, and Thomas Madix or Mannix—his name kept changing—and his younger brother or half-brother, Charles. The parenting skills of Betsy may have been less than adequate and young John William Maddock died from ‘want of nourishment’ in September 1859. Living in the Huon district required stamina even in the toughest of men and women, and perhaps looking for an easier environment, Betsy and Mannix moved from Gordon to Green Ponds, north of Hobart. But the improvement, if there was any, did not last, and early in February 1860 Betsy absconded leaving 6-year-old Robert with Green Ponds stonemason Charles Bower—even though Bower, who arrived on the Lady Kennaway in 1835, had accrued record of bad behaviour that filled one book and required a supplementary volume. Three-year-old Charles was left with John Ma [illegible], a married labourer of Hunting ground, near Green Ponds.

Unable or unwilling to care for Betsy’s oldest son Thomas, on 20 February 1860 Thomas Mannix applied to have the boy readmitted to the Orphan School. This took place on 1 March 1860. A few days Charles Bower also departed from Green Ponds and left Robert with John Hartwell, a licensed victualler, or publican, who applied for the boy’s admission to the Orphan School on 15 March 1860. On the same day Hartwell also applied to be declared insolvent. By June 1860 he had been sentenced to four months’ imprisonment ‘for contracting debts without any reasonable expectation of being able to pay them.’ It was not the first, or last, time Hartwell had been in trouble for similar transgressions. On 10 September 1861, Mary Whittaker of Green Ponds applied to have the youngest boy, Charles, admitted to the Orphan School because she was ‘quite unable to support’ him. She gave his name as Charles McCue [sic]; said she thought his father was at Port Phillip; and did not know where his mother had gone.

After Betsy Richardson absconded from Green Ponds she headed north to Launceston where she fell in with a person named George Buckley, made out she had married him, and changed her name to Elizabeth Buckley. After being convicted of robbery with violence and picking pockets, Buckley had originally been transported for 7 years on the Maria Soames in 1850, but constant misdemeanours extended his sentence and he was reissued with a ticket of leave in July 1860 and not granted a conditional pardon until March 1861. Within a short time Betsy was pregnant, and on 10 November 1860 gave birth to a daughter who was baptised at St John’s church in Launceston as Rosanna Buckley. The civil registration gave the parents’ names as Elizabeth McQue [sic] and George Buckley.

In May 1861 Buckley was sentenced to three months’ hard labour for being an idle and disorderly character after a charge of stealing an axe could not be proved. While Buckley was in prison, Betsy took up with certain George Wilson, whose name had appeared in the Launceston press on numerous occasions during 1859 and 1860 in connection with thefts, robberies and assaults. He always managed to be fined or acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence. In 1859 Wilson had been living in a de facto relationship with Elizabeth Long in George Street, Launceston, but in July 1859 she charged him with assault after he kicked her. A week after this he, too, was fined for being ‘an idle and disorderly person’. In March 1860 he was lodging with James Sellers and his wife and assaulted Sellers. Mrs Sellers subsequently ‘took her four children and all the bedding’ and went to live with Wilson in a hotel in George Street. In July he was again charged with assault and robbery, but this was withdrawn and he was sentenced to three months’ hard labour for being ‘an idle and disorderly character, frequenting public places with intent to commit felony’¾ it was apparently a common pastime in Launceston. He was back again in April 1861 after William Brumley charged Wilson with assault and robbery. But Brumley himself was locked up for being drunk and later could remember nothing of the assault, so Wilson was discharged.

On 5 July 1861 George Mayberry came to Launceston with £10 in wages, of which he had £9 in bank notes in his breast pocket and the rest in silver in his trousers. He went to a public house to have a drink or two and found Elizabeth Buckley and several others also there. After he was ‘the worse for liquor’ Elizabeth Buckley asked him to buy her a drink, which he did. She then put her hand in his trousers pocket and took out some silver. When he challenged her she denied having his money. He then went to pay for the liquor and found his purse missing from his breast pocket. A sailor told him that Buckley had taken the purse and passed it to another man, Wilson, who left the house. Mayberry and the sailor reported the theft to the police. Betsy and Wilson were arrested, charged with stealing £9 from Mayberry and committed to prison awaiting trial.

In the meantime, George Buckley was released from prison in August and discovered that Elizabeth was in gaol. He immediately went to see Captain Reid, the governor of the prison, demanding to see ‘his wife’, whom the press reported was ‘imprisoned for some offence’. Unsurprisingly, Buckley was drunk, and when Reid refused his request he became abusive and threatening and ended up being sent back to gaol for another month, being released just in time for the trial of Elizabeth Buckley and George Wilson, which took place on Saturday 21 September 1861. They were defended by Mr Douglas who managed to cast enough doubt in the minds of the jury as to whether Mayberry’s purse had been lost or stolen that the prisoners were acquitted.

Back home again, in October Buckley charged his Elizabeth Street neighbour, Sarah Bell, with stealing his trousers, but by now Buckley was regarded as unreliable witness, the trousers were found in the street, and the charge was dismissed. However, in December 1861, Elizabeth Buckley was charged with stealing £3 from Mrs Green, of the ‘Hibernian Inn’, in Brisbane Street. Once again the evidence was unreliable and the charge was withdrawn. Not to be defeated, the police then charged her with the usual catch-all ¾ ‘being an idle and disorderly character, frequenting public places for the purpose of committing a felony.’ To support this, the police provided their own evidence, and Elizabeth was sentenced to hard labour for three months.

Although the September 1861 case involving Elizabeth Buckley was recorded on Betsy McHugh’s conduct record, the December case was not, but the press reported that she ‘cried bitterly on account of having to leave her three children,’ thus causing the magistrate to allow her to take the youngest, Rosanna, with her. It is unclear who the other two children were—Thomas had been readmitted to the Orphan School in March 1860 and did not leave until 1865; Robert was last heard of when he was left with Charles Bower at Green Ponds in 1860; and Charles was admitted to the Orphan School in September 1861.

George Wilson was convicted of housebreaking and robbery in June 1863 and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. George Buckley appeared in the Launceston press again in January 1862 when he was charged with gambling on the wharf. There are no further references to George and Elizabeth Buckley in Launceston, but they soon emerge again, bolder than ever, in Melbourne.

After some minor court appearances in June 1862 and May 1863, both George and Elizabeth Buckley were back in court on 29 June 1863 on a charge of receiving money knowing it to be stolen. It was a similar scheme to those carried out in Launceston  a miner, Frank Bolton, had gone to a hotel with about £80 in his pocket; a woman, in this case Ann Curran, took the money from his pocket, and later gave £40 to the Buckleys. It turned out the Buckleys lived in Elizabeth Street, but kept a brothel in Little Bourke Street. When questioned by the detectives Curran said she gave the money to Betsy, who told them that she ‘did not rob “blokes” herself … but the “molls” did, and it came to her in the end.’ Curran and Betsy were each found guilty and sentenced two years’ hard labour in prison, and George Buckley to two years’ hard labour on the roads.

Amid all of these devious activities it would be easy to forget that Betsy had a daughter with her — Rosanna, born at the end of 1860. What was to be done with the girl who was not yet four years of age? She was made a ward of the state and enrolled in the recently established Industrial School located at the former Immigrants’ Home near Princes Bridge.

After serving their time, Betsy and George Buckley left Melbourne for Ballarat where they established a brothel in Esmond Street and continued the profitable mode of operation started in Launceston and fine-tuned in Melbourne. Court appearances continued at regular intervals through 1866. As in Launceston, they often escaped without punishment because of unreliable evidence, but in June they were both sentenced to three months’ imprisonment after one of Betsy’s girls gave evidence against them.

By December 1866 Betsy and George Buckley were out of prison again and back home at Esmond Street as if nothing had happened, but within weeks they were back in court and back to prison for another six months each. Out of prison again by June 1867, almost immediately George Buckley was back before the court on a charge of stealing some cloth from a shop doorway, but again he was discharged for lack of evidence. However, even before he could leave the court the police announced a charge of theft, with reliable evidence provided by the police officers themselves This time the police could give their own evidence and Betsy and Buckley were back in prison for another six months, although Betsy was back home by September 1867 and soon facing a charge of having no visible means of support. With George still in prison, Betsy seems to have left Ballarat for other places, and when George was released at the end of 1867 he stayed in Melbourne and very soon was arrested for theft and wounding. This time he was sentenced to three years’ hard labour.

While Buckley was in prison it appears that Betsy died. At least, that is what Buckley told the Industrial School in March 1872, although no official record of her death under her known names has been located. Her daughter, Rosanna remained at the Geelong and Ballarat Industrial Schools until February 1873 when she was ‘licensed’ to work for Thomas Taylor, a Ballarat draper. After three months she went to work for farmer McRae at Clunes. Three years later, aged sixteen, she gave birth to a boy whom she named George Buckley. George Buckley, Rosanne’s father, died in the Geelong gaol in 1875 while serving yet another twelve month sentence, this time for vagrancy. It would appear, after Betsy’s death, he was no longer able to maintain a ‘regular income’.

Betsy’s son, Thomas Richardson, remained in the Queen’s Orphan School in Hobart until 31 October 1865 when he was apprenticed to Mrs Catherine Madden at Bicheno, where he remained until his apprenticeship expired on 3 July 1871. His brother, Charles Richardson, or McHugh as he was now known, was discharged from the Orphan School on 23 March 1871 to be apprenticed to Stephen Daley. It would appear that Charles completed his apprenticeship and on 23 December 1881, at the age of twenty-two, he married Sarah Merrington at the residence of the bride's father, Edward Merrington, at White Hills just east of Launceston. They subsequently had eight children. It is not known what happened to the other brother, Robert Richardson, or to Robert Richardson the father.

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