Catherine Ross (1779—?)
by Susan Ballyn and Lucy Frost
According to her convict records Catherine Ross was born in Gibraltar in 1779. By 1801 she was living in Edinburgh, Scotland, where on 17 March she married a labourer named Charles McGee. They had at least three sons and one daughter. The eldest son, about whom nothing is known, was probably born during the first seven years of Catherine’s marriage. The family had moved to Glasgow when Catherine’s son Charles was born about 1808. In 1812, they were in Portugal when her daughter Helen was born, suggesting that perhaps Charles senior was employed by the British during the Peninsular War. The family may have been in Edinburgh when the third son Andrew was born about 1818, and it was in Edinburgh that Catherine and two of her children were tried before the High Court of Justiciary and sentenced to transportation.
The first of the family sent into exile was Charles, an errand boy with sticky fingers who was tried on 21 February 1825, convicted of theft, and transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. In August he sailed for Sydney on the Marquis of Huntley. After the ship docked on 3 January 1826 he was compelled to hand over to a Savings Bank the £2 11/ which he had managed to bring with him and would ask for a decade later.
Acquiring money through the regular economy seems to have been a constant problem in Scotland for Catherine Ross and her offspring. Whatever employment they managed to find with their few skills was apparently supplemented by thieving. In 1827, the year after Charles reached Sydney, Catherine was convicted twice: on 7 July for stealing from a cart, and on 23 August for stealing a white gown, the property of a soldier’s wife, on Edinburgh Castle Green. The theiveing mother seems to have been treated rather leniently, sentenced on the second occasion to three days in police custody and bound over to good behaviour which if broken would send her to the Tolbooth prison for ten days. Two years later on 7 October 1829 she again was found guilty of theft, and this time was confined to the Tolbooth for eight days. She was not to be deterred, however, and on 29 December 1831 she declared she was not guilty of stealing `a small bag of white pease´, but was found guilty and sent to the Bridewell prison for thirty days.
Catherine’s thefts were small and seem opportunistic rather than planned. She stole from the people around her. The thefts which got her transported were actually from a neighbour who like the McGee family lived in North Gray’s close (laneway), off the High Street in Edinburgh’s Old Town. The witnesses at Catherine’s trial whose evidence was most damning (intentionally or otherwise) were her husband and her 14-year-old son, Andrew. The charge of theft was proved to the satisfaction of the jury, and on 13 July 1832 Catherine Ross alias McGee (as was the custom in Scotland, she continued to use her maiden name) was sentenced to transportation for seven years.
Five months later, on 9 November 1832, her daughter Helen was tried at the same court and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation for the theft of a considerable sum of money from a ‘man of colour’ who was a medical student at the University. Helen, already known to the pólice, was soon arrested with two accomplices. As she waited for her trial, she probably met up with her mother, awaiting transportation. Catherine, whose thieving had been singualarly unsuccessful if persistent over the years, was in no position to advise her daughter how to escape conviction at her trial before the High Court, and in early May 1833 >mother and daughter sailed together as fellow convicts on the Buffalo.
According to the ship’s indent, Catherine Ross, aged 54 was a Protestant who said she could read and write (the latter claim, at least, was dubious since she had not signed her name on her court records). Identified as a laundress born in Gibraltar, Catherine was measured as shorter than the average convict woman, just 4 feet 10¼ inches (147cm) tall (her daughter Helen was shorter still by almost two inches). On the right side of her forehead was a distinctive scar. Years later when she had finished her sentence, her certificate of freedom elaborated on her facial scarring: ‘Horizontal scar right side of forehead, small diagonal scar & blue dot on right cheek bone’. Her eyes, like her daughter’s, were categorised as grey, and her hair was brown mixed with grey.
There is little information regarding Catherine’s life in New South Wales. On arrival she was assigned near Sydney to Susan Eyre at Parramatta, but by the time she was granted a ticket of leave late in 1838, she was in the Southern Highlands. Her ticket of leave permitted her to live in the district of Berrima, 130 kilometres south of Sydney. On 13 August 1839 Catherine Ross, now 60 years old, was issued a certificate of freedom. Where she lived out her last days or years remains unknown.
Susan Ballyn and Lucy Frost, ‘The Elusive Iberian Connection: Catherine Ross and Helen McGee’, in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart, 2015 pp. 235-248.
Sue Ballyn acknowledges the help received from the “Ministerio de Economia y Competitividad” for the Project Postcolonial Crime Fiction : A global window into social realities for all her publications on the FCRC web site and in print since 2014.
© 2016 Convict Women's Press Inc.