Catherine McKenna (1834?-?)

by Leonie Mickleborough


Catherine McKenna (alias Catherine Murray and Catherine Blair), whose name was Catherine Docherty,  and who had, about January 1851, assumed the surname of her uncle, John McKenna, ‘a dealer in old clothes and crockery-ware’ at 77 Saltmarket Street, Glasgow, was born in Gibraltar, Spain about 1834. Catherine’s father Jacob was in the 64th Regiment, and she had two brothers Jacob and William and a sister Mary. At the time Gibraltar was a key base for the British and due to its strategic location, played an important role prior to the Battle of Trafalgar and during the Crimean War of 1854–56.

At the Glasgow Court of Judiciary on 22 April 1851, 17-year-old Catherine McKenna, a country servant, was charged with the theft of a towel belonging to John Fyffe and also three gowns, a frock and a petticoat, the property of Fyffe’s servant, Mary Forret from Fyffe’s home, ‘Dalmarnock House’, Lanark, Glasgow.

When she appeared in court in Glasgow, Catherine admitted that on 27 December 1850 she stole two cotton gowns, a muslin frock, a Merino petticoat, a Merino gown and a towel from Mr Fyffe’s house, and that an acquaintance, Jean McMillan was with her, and they gained access to the house through an unlocked door. The articles were later divided between the two, and Catherine sold one of the cotton frocks to Thomas Bremmer, a dealer in Scanlin’s Close, and while standing on Saltmarket Street that afternoon she was apprehended.  Found guilty, Catherine was sentenced to 7 years’ transportation.

Catherine had been imprisoned three times before this conviction, and for at least two of these she used ‘the name of Catherine Docherty’, which, John McKenna’s wife Betsy claimed, was Catherine’s true name. On 19 April 1849 Catherine had been found guilty of theft and imprisoned for sixty days, and on 8 October 1849 she was sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment.

Following her conviction in 1851, until transported, Catherine, whose occupation was given as a weaver, was held in custody at the North Prison Lanarkshire Scotland, where she was on the night of 30 March when the Census was taken, and on which night she was listed as Catharine Mckinnon.

Catherine, along with 200 female convicts from Millbank Prison and 46 children from ‘workhouses and parishes throughout the Kingdom’, was removed from the prison and taken aboard the Anna Maria on either 30 September or 1 October 1851. The surgeon, W. McCrea, described the convicts as being in a ‘clean and healthy condition, but the children generally bore marks of deficient nutrition’.

The Anna Maria, a barque of 421 tons built at Calcutta in 1836, sailed from Woolwich on 6 October, from Gravesend the following day, and the Downs on 8 October. Almost the entire way to the Cape of Good Hope the ‘winds were foul, & the weather stormy’. The voyage was consequently very slow for the first eleven weeks and when ‘fair winds arrived, the weather was wet cold & boisterous’. The captain did not make any stops, and 196 female convicts arrived at the River Derwent at Hobart Town on 26 January 1852, four convicts having died on the 112 day voyage. Of those who arrived, ‘many’ were suffering from dysentery and several required hospitalisation, otherwise, the women were ‘clean & healthy’.

On arrival Catherine was recorded as 5 feet 2¼ inches (158.75 cm) tall with a fair complexion, brown hair and eyebrows, oval visage, hazel eyes, a medium nose, mouth and chin, and she could read but not write, and was of the Roman Catholic faith.  She was sent to the hospital in Hobart Town, and may have been one of those who had ‘suffered severely from dysentery’ on board. The ship’s surgeon was ‘inclined’ to attribute the ‘numerous’ attacks of dysentery to the state of the weather, the change of diet from the prison to the ship or the biscuit supplied to the ship, a great part of which was ‘mouldy to a greater or less extent, and nearly the whole of it gave indications to the sense of smell of decomposition’, but, according to McCrea, if consumption of the biscuit had a ‘share in producing dysentery it was impossible’ to determine.

Catherine’s conduct record in Van Diemen’s Land is extensive.  On 8 April 1852, less than three months after arrival, for ‘tearing off a portion of a blanket’ while assigned to J.E. Chapman who lived in Elizabeth Street, she was sentenced to four months’ hard labour at the Cascades Female House of Correction. This was the first of at least ten times she was sentenced to the Cascades, Launceston or Ross Female Houses of Correction and where she was ordered to spend at least 37 months at hard labour. As well, Catherine was sentenced to solitary confinement seven times, totalling 62 days, and also five days in a ‘Female Factory’ on bread and water. Her misbehaviour included indecent language, having a dirty apartment, neglect of duty and profane language to a visiting magistrate. While for twice abusing her ‘illegitimate male child’, Jacob McKenna, born at the Brickfields Hiring Depot on 24 May 1856, Catherine was sentenced to hard labour at Cascades in March 1857 when he was ten months old and again on 23 April 1857, when he was eleven months old.

Catherine’s masters and places of assignment also included Mr Murdoch; C. Trapps at Battery Point; Robert Meikle of Harrington Street (late of Liverpool Street); Richard Bowman of South Street Battery Point; W.E. Lewis of Macquarie Street; Mrs Rhodes; T. Mead of Battery Point; J. Dunning of Elizabeth Street; W.R. Bennett at O’Briens Bridge; A.M. Pearsall of Davey Street; C.B. Brewer of New Town; Thomas Oldham of Liverpool Street; J. Lyon; H. Stephenson of Launceston; Dr Smith at the New Norfolk Asylum; Mr Morris at Bridgewater and Mr Todd at Bothwell.

Catherine was not permitted a ticket of leave on 15 June 1857 as she was breastfeeding her son Jacob, but instead, was required to serve as a passholder. Her ticket of leave was granted the following January, and her free certificate on 22 April 1858, but four months later, on 19 April, she was fined 10/- for being drunk.

On 1 April 1861 in Hobart, Catherine McCanna [sic] gave birth to a female child, the baby’s father listed as James Baker. A second child, Mary, was born to Catherine McCanner [sic] and James Baker on 12 February 1863,and on 2 August 1864 Catherine McKinnon [sic] aged 32 and 35-year-old James Baker were married in Hobart. Two more children followed, both born in Hobart, Fanny on 27 October 1864 to Catherine McKenna and James Baker, and James on 2 August 1866 to Catherine McCannar [sic] and James Baker.

No later records have been located for Catherine, James or their children, and having been transported far from her place of birth, Catherine may have deliberately covered her tracks to commence a new life with her colonial family.

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