Beatrice McBarnett (1811-1859)

by Colette McAlpine


The jailors in Edinburgh found Beatrice McBarnett ‘bold and intriguing’. She was tall, dark and dignified, the daughter of Alexander McBarnett, a wealthy slave owner from St Vincent in the West Indies. Beatrice was born at Grenada.

The evidence in the 1841 trial against Beatrice was weighty; the charge was setting a fire with criminal intent. She claimed, “I did not do it. I took the blame myself to save my husband.’ It was too late. Beatrice received a life sentence. She never saw her husband or three small children again.

Beatrice was just 21 when she married Francis Davidson on 17 June 1830. Prospects were good. Francis was a successful merchant trading in wine, spirits and groceries. Over the next nine years, Beatrice worked with her husband in his business and gave birth to four children. She named them Alexander, Elspeth, Robert and Mary Helen after both their Davidson and McBarnett relatives.

By the early 1840’s, the Davidsons’ business was failing and Beatrice hatched a plot to redeem the family finances. She rented a store at North St Andrew Street just around the corner from her residence in Clyde Street and established a millinery warehouse. She insured furniture and non-existent goods with the Scottish Union Insurance Company in her own name and she advertised her produce. All she needed to do was light a fire and claim the damages. However, the evidence against her was damning, the fire having started in two separate locations within the property. It seemed her clever plan had failed and she was arrested.

Beatrice languished in the Bridewell Prison just blocks away from her children for three months until her trial date in July 1841. Beatrice shared her day with other prisoners, but at night, she slept in a separate cell. After all, solitude might lead to repentance.

Alexander, Beatrice’s eldest son, died before her transportation and she farewelled her three surviving children knowing she would never see them again. The youngest was just a toddler. Beatrice was sent to Woolwich, from which she sailed on 24 November 1841.

Arriving in Van Diemen’s Land in April 1842, Beatrice was immediately sent to Launceston. She stated she was not only a governess, but also an experienced dressmaker. A position with the Harrison family proved unsuccessful, and Beatrice was returned to the Government with a recommendation that she never be assigned anywhere with children. Did the loss of her children make it too painful to care for the children of others?

In April 1844, Beatrice gave birth to her fifth child, James William Hickling, at the Launceston Factory. James’ father was another convict, Joseph Hickling. Joseph’s relationship with Beatrice did not last.  When her child was four months old, Beatrice was charged with being absent without leave. She served her sentence of one month’s hard labour at the Launceston Factory. In 1847, her three-year-old son entered the Queen’s Orphan School under the name James William Davidson. He remained there until he was almost seven. Beatrice returned to her service.  

Beatrice did not take to servitude. Mr Robinson charged her with insolence and she returned to the Factory late in 1845. She did not last long at her next post either, absconding in March 1846 from the service of the magistrate Edward Dumaresq, probably from his property ‘Illawarra’ near Longford. Twelve months’ hard labour at the factory awaited her. And she was pregnant again. Was Beatrice absconding to spend time with the father of this child or was she trying to see young James? Her sixth child, registered as William Arthur McBarrett, was born at the Launceston Factory on 15 July 1846. This child would inherit Beatrice’s ‘bold and intriguing’ nature. He would become a well-known politician and unionist known as Billy Trenwith.

His mother did not stay out of trouble after his birth. In June 1848, Beatrice was caught in a bedroom in her master’s house for an ‘improper purpose’ and she returned to the Factory for another three months’ hard labour. Whilst awaiting hire, she was rude and disrespectful to the medical officer and spent ten days in the cells.

In December 1848, Beatrice married William Trenwith, a bootmaker, at St John’s in Launceston. By now, she was describing herself as a widow. Her first husband, Francis Davidson, may have seemed just a distant memory, but he did not actually die until December 1851. William Trenwith was also a convict. He was a native of Cornwall who had served time on Maria Island. When he married Beatrice, he was free. He raised William Arthur as his son, and perhaps the boy was. Beatrice’s seventh child, Edward Trenwith, was born in April 1850.

Married life did not guarantee Beatrice’s good behaviour, and she was refused her ticket of leave in 1850. Over the next few years, she was only in trouble for drunkenness. She had three small children to care for and she was a busy bootmaker’s wife. On 5 August 1859, Beatrice died in Launceston of ‘inflammation’. She was only 52.

The very ‘forcible and very logical’ Billy Trenwith was thirteen when his mother died. We can never know what she told him, what he heard her mutter, what she said about the world and its doings. Somehow, somewhere, young Billy learnt that things were not right and that he had the power to make them better.

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Further reading:

Colette McAlpine, ‘Beatrice McBarnett: bold woman, bold son’, in Convict Lives at the Launceston Female Factory, eds L. Frost & M. Hodgson, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart, 2013, pp. 219-225


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