Helen Elizabeth Mackay (1819?-1888)

by Ralph Crane


Helen Elizabeth Mackay, governess and child killer, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the daughter of Ellen Mackay, and the sister of John Mackay (per Templar). She worked in Leicester as a governess before moving to Calcutta in 1850 to join her widowed brother, a teacher with the protestant Church Missionary Society. Along with her brother, she was tried in the Supreme Court, Calcutta on 8 December 1851, charged with the killing of her young niece, Helen Mackay. Specifically, the siblings were indicted for having ‘feloniously made divers assaults with a whip and hempen cords, giving her [Helen] mortal wounds and bruises in different parts of her body, of which she died on the 9th October,’ and for ‘contriving and intending to starve and murder the child.’

Testimony at the trial showed that the seven-year-old Helen Mackay had been half-starved as well as regularly and systematically flogged by her aunt, and that her father, who was aware of his sister’s brutal treatment of the child, did nothing to protect her.

Transported for the term of her natural life for the aggravated manslaughter of her niece, Helen Elizabeth reached Van Diemen’s Land aboard the Templar on 18 April 1852, and was transferred to the Launceston Female Factory, where she was to serve two years and six months probation.

She was not charged with any offences while in the Launceston Female Factory. On 23 February 1854, less than two years into her sentence, she was placed in the employment of Mr J. Ralston, a respected businessman, later elected the first Warden of the municipality of Evandale, though that assignment was short-lived. By 5 March 1854 she was working for Mr Alexander Learmonth, Secretary of the Tamar Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Launceston, and Honorary Secretary of the St Andrew’s Immigration Society. That position lasted for over a year. She was returned to the Female Factory on 12 May 1855, and then assigned to J. Stevenson—possibly James Stevenson, a free settler and farmer who may have arrived in Van Diemen’s Land from Melbourne on the Cacique in 1852—at East Tamar, two months later, on 24 July. 

Helen Elizabeth’s initial application for a Ticket of Leave was refused, but a further application was granted in May 1856, and a Conditional Pardon followed on 7 September 1858. 

She put in an application to marry on 10 March 1857, and married Frederick Thomas Clark, a draper, who claimed to be a free settler (but could have been one of a number of Thomas Clarks or Thomas Fishers transported to the colony), according to the rites of the Church of Scotland at the home of a Mr McKillop in Launceston, on 28 March 1857. 

Shortly after Helen Elizabeth gave birth to a son, James Frederick, on 2 March 1858, the family left Tasmania for New South Wales. Another son, Alexander, was born in Sydney in 1859.  When Edgar Henry was born in October 1862, the family were in Victoria, where Thomas Frederick Fisher, the name he now preferred, was a draper in Candover Street, in an area of Geelong then known as Ashby (now West Geelong).  Both he and his wife were by this time forty-one years old. Frederick may have died in February 1870; Helen Elizabeth lived on for another quarter of a century, dying at the age of sixty-eight on 31 July 1888. Her death, due to intestinal obstructions, was registered by her son Edgar Henry, who was unable to name his grandparents, but was able to record that his mother had lived in Victoria for the last thirty years, having previously spent about two years in New South Wales, and two years in Tasmania, where she had been married.  She is buried in the Presbyterian section of the St Kilda Cemetery.

Her convict description list shows that she was unremarkable in her appearance: five feet two inches (157.48 cm) tall, with sallow complexion, a round head, dark hair, an oval face, a medium forehead, dark eyebrows, blue eyes, a medium nose, a small mouth, and a round chin. What separates her from the majority of female convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land are her middle-class origins, her transportation from India, and the gruesome nature of her offence.

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Further reading:

Ralph Crane, 'Out of India: convict women in the web of empire', in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart 2015, pp. 14-33.



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