Eliza Sparrow (1795-?)
by Jan Richardson
Eliza Stoddart and Joseph Sparrow were married at the Church of St Martin in the Fields, Westminster, in January 1824. Ten years later Eliza was charged with bigamy, after she was accused of marrying John Shepherd while her first husband was still alive. Eliza told the court that she had been separated from Joseph Sparrow, with whom she had one son, for eight years. The charge having been proved, Eliza was sentenced to 7 years’ transportation and arrived in Sydney on board the Buffalo in October 1833. She was 37 years old, could read and write, and was a ‘Nursery Governess’ born in Barbados. The indents described Eliza as ‘genteel looking’ with a ‘fair ruddy’ complexion, auburn hair and hazel eyes. Eliza left her first husband, Joseph Sparrow, behind in London when she was transported, along with their son Joseph Sparrow Jnr, also known as Joseph Mortimer Sparrow. Joseph Sparrow did not remarry and remained living in St Martin in the Fields where he raised their son on his own.
During her trial in London, Eliza claimed to be the illegitimate child of Dr Mortimer of the Haslar Hospital in Portsmouth. John Mortimer was born in 1783 and joined the Royal Navy in 1805, serving as an assistant surgeon on board HMS Africa in the Battle of Trafalgar. He married in England in 1806 and sailed for the West Indies where he served as Principal Naval Medical Officer of the hospital in Barbados from December 1809 to May 1816. Mortimer then sailed for Australia as ship’s surgeon on the convict ship Fame, before returning to England in 1817 and taking up a post as naval surgeon at the Haslar Hospital in 1820. Mortimer died in 1856 but, having had no children with his wife, his estate passed to his niece. It seems unlikely that Mortimer fathered Eliza in 1795 when he was only 12 years old, but questions remain as to why Eliza named her son Joseph Mortimer Sparrow and how she could have know about John Mortimer’s naval service in Barbados and at the Haslar Hospital in Portsmouth without being intimately acquainted with either him or his family.
In New South Wales, Eliza was assigned to the service of S.A. Perry of Darlinghurst, the Deputy Surveyor General. Within the space of a year she was admitted to gaol twice and forwarded to the Female Factory at Parramatta. The gaol description book described Eliza as being born in ‘Barbadoes’ in 1795 and, in contrast to the indents, as having a stout build with light brown hair and blue eyes. In April 1837, Eliza absconded from the service of ‘E. Hunt’ of Sydney, but two months later it was reported in the New South Wales Government Gazette that she had been apprehended. All trace of Eliza then disappears. She does not appear to have married or had any children in New South Wales and there are no further convict records or newspaper reports mentioning Eliza. She did not receive a ticket of leave, a certificate of freedom or a convict pardon and her name did not reappear on any lists of convict runaways after 1837. It seems that Eliza deliberately engineered her own disappearance, most likely by changing her name, or, alternatively, that if she married again (presumably bigamously) or died in New South Wales, these events were not officially registered, nor reported in the newspapers.
Jan Richardson,’ Caribbean stories: born in the West Indies, tried in the British Isles, transported to New South Wales’, in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart, 2015, pp. 114-130.
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