Susan Robb (1823 - ? )
by Deborah Norris
The Gilbert Henderson departed Woolwich in November 1839, en route to Van Diemen’s Land. When the expectant 17-year-old Susan Robb boarded the ship in London just eleven days before Christmas on 14 December 1839, she was seven months pregnant. She was one of the 189 convict women who sailed for 132 days to serve out their sentences of transportation. Nine babies were born on this voyage under the supervision of ship’s surgeon Sir John Hammett. Seven infants survived.
Susan Robb was born in France. Her trial record shows that she had a sister Mary Ann and that they both resided with their father Charles Robb, a Harbour Porter at Overgate, Dundee. So what happened in Susan’s world that resulted in her transportation? To understand some of the circumstances leading up to Susan’s sentence, we need to step back five years to 1834.
A very young 12-year-old Susan first appeared before a magistrate on 6 December 1834. She was not alone, as her sister Mary Ann was also indicted for the theft of ‘two pieces of printed Cotton Cloth’ from haberdasher Robert Guthrie in High Street, Dundee. On this occasion Mary Ann was incarcerated for 15 days. Her younger sister was saved from any punishment as the magistrate James Drummond took into account Susan’s ‘extreme youth’ and dismissed her. Why did the girls resort to theft, and where was their mother? Surely it was for the necessities of life that the young Robbs resorted to crime. Perhaps their father’s earnings just were not enough. Perhaps also the girls had not mastered basic domestic skills which would have enabled them to secure work.
Four years passed, during which time Susan managed to earn herself the reputation of being ‘habite and repute’, meaning she was well known to the authorities for convictions of theft. Then, on 4 April 1838, both Susan and a Margaret Robb appeared before Judge John Calman for stealing three pairs of boots from shoemaker William Crawford in Dundee. The court records reveal Margaret also resided at Overgate. Was Margaret the absent mother, or did Mary Ann assume a new name in order to confuse the authorities? Either way, Mary Ann does not appear again with Susan. On this occasion the girls both received ‘periods of hard or continued labour in the Bridewell Department of the said Gaol or Tolbooth’. Margaret and Susan were arrested again in September of the same year. This time it was for sealing a carpet, the property of George Rimmers, from a dwelling house in Dundee and again, both were imprisoned.
Then in July 1839, Susan’s life of crime in Scotland came to an abrupt end when she appeared before the Perth Autumn Circuit Court hearing accused of the theft of a gown belonging to Sarah McCrea of Nethergate Street, Dundee. The many witnesses were left in no doubt, and when pawnbroker’s assistant William Mills identified the ‘blue and white checked gown’ as the one Susan had pawned on 11 July, the magistrate showed no mercy. Sentence was handed down, and on 14 December 1839 Susan embarked for Van Diemen’s Land, having served over 100 days behind prison walls in Scotland.
At about the half way through the voyage, on 8 February 1840, Susan Robb gave birth to a healthy baby girl, ‘safely delivered’. What now did the future hold for this young single mother with seven years of sentence ahead? When they arrived in Hobart Town on 24 April 1840, Susan’s baby girl was about 10 weeks old. Susan and her fellow travellers were then placed in service, but what of Susan’s baby? She survived the voyage as she does not appear on the ship’s surgeon’s list as having died, or on the list of infant deaths in Hobart Nurseries. Perhaps the family Susan was placed in service with accepted her unweaned baby as well?
Susan now appears to have settled down, staying away from her old habits, an indication perhaps of her dedication as a mother. The next reference to Susan is in September 1841 when she was accused of being absent without leave from Mr. Watson, for three days and nights. By the December 1841 convict muster, Susan was in the service of Mr. Evans of Hobart.
On 14 November 1843 the convict department received an application from George Roberts for permission to marry Susan Robb. George was six years older than Susan and had been transported for 7 years for stealing ‘wearing apparel’, was reputed to be ‘a London thief’ and had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in May 1834. He received his free certificate almost three years earlier to the day that he and ‘Sarah’ married on 18 December 1843 at St Georges Church, Battery Point. Susan was now Sarah, not unlike the earlier mystery surrounding the identities of Mary Ann and Margaret Robb. Another mystery is the fate of Sarah’s daughter. Sarah received her ticket of leave on 25 August 1845. What we do know for sure is that George Roberts, with his wife and two children, later left Van Diemen’s Land.
George and his young family moved to Launceston in 1848. When, on 29 September 1849, the David Malcolm sailed from Launceston bound for San Francisco, on board were George and Susan (aka Sarah) Roberts, with their children (a son aged about five) and daughter Eliza (aged about two). George was no doubt drawn, as were so many who became known as the ‘49ers’, to the gold fields. For George and Susan to travel half way across the world again, they must have felt that what lay at the end of the voyage would be a new beginning, free from any ties to their convict past. Susan Robb’s story seemed set to continue.
Alison Alexander, ‘French Female Convicts in Van Diemen's Land’, in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart, 2015, pp. 158-171.
© 2016 Convict Women's Press Inc.