Matilda Trevelian (1829-1904)

by Deborah Norris


Matilda Trevelian was born in France in 1829 and two years later was living in the seaside town of Weymouth at Dorset, England. We do not know why they moved, but perhaps it was to enable Matilda’s father, Job Trevlyon, to gain employment. Matilda’s mother Ann, siblings Edward, William, John, Marianne and Elizabeth all travelled to England, where Matilda and Edward were both christened on 18 September 1831 in Dorset, perhaps an indication that they were the youngest children. Living in a seaside town sounds quite idyllic, but for Matilda life seems to not have been all that easy. By the time she was 19 years of age, Matilda had been convicted of larceny and joined 168 other women on board the convict transport ship Tory, bound for Van Diemen’s Land. The Tory set sail from London on 30 April 1848 and arrived in Hobart Town on 6 August 1848.

Matilda Trevelian (aka Trevalian, Treviyan, Trevlyon) appeared before the Dorchester Session on 19 October 1847, accused of stealing a coat (or jacket). Having had a prior conviction for stealing, predictably she was sentenced to 7 years’ transportation. According to her convict record, Matilda was one of five children living with father Job. Interestingly there is no mention at this stage of Matilda’s mother. Did her mother pass away leaving Job with a young family to provide for? If so, could the resultant struggle for food and shelter have driven Matilda into a life of crime? Matilda was literate, stating she could read and write, so had managed to obtain some education, but we have no way of knowing why Matilda resorted to theft. In the opinion of Charles Smith, the ship’s surgeon, her demeanor was ‘indifferent’. Perhaps she was just contemplating what her life would be like, estranged from family and placed in unfamiliar surroundings.

Upon arrival Matilda was sent to the Anson, a hulk (refitted warship) moored near Hobart Town and set up as a probation station to house female convicts, due to overcrowding at the Cascade Female Factory. The usual probation period was six months, meaning Matilda could have been placed in service from February 1849. Her movements, however, from then to July 1849 are unknown. But she obviously managed to spend time away from the Anson, as on 24 July 1849 Joseph Burt applied for permission to marry her. Joseph, now a free man, arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on board the convict ship Marquis of Hastings in 1839 and was ten years older than Matilda. His application was approved and by 27 August 1849 labourer Joseph married housemaid Matilda at St. John’s Church in New Town. But still Matilda was restless, perhaps homesick, because by November 1850 she had twice appeared before the appeared before the police magistrate. She was charged with being ‘out after hours’, andthe magistrate ‘admonished and discharged’ her. Was the marriage in jeopardy? For whatever reason it appears this was possible, as when the new year dawned Matilda once again fled and was charged with being ‘Absent from her husbands residence’ from the 10th to the 13th’ of January 1851. This time she spent seven days in the cells. Matilda continued to be unsettled and restless: she was desperate to move on, as four weeks later a memo revealed she was ‘not to be allowed to engage in any service in Hobart Town District’. What did this mean for this childless couple? In May 1851 Matilda was residing in Launceston, but all was not well as on 2 May 1852 Joseph departed Launceston for Melbourne on board the Water Witch.

Joseph had only been gone for six months when on 10 November 1952 Matilda married James Blackbury (aka Blackberry). James arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1843 on board the convict ship Forfarshire having received 10 years’ transportation for convictions including pickpocketing and destruction of property. What was Matilda thinking? Did she believe Joseph to have passed away? Surely she was aware of the crime of bigamy? In his advice to Emigrants intending to make the voyage to Van Diemen’s Land in 1834, Henry Parker wrote of a household, where the ‘cook has committed murder, our footman burglary, and the housemaid bigamy…such is the admirable arrangement of the present government’. This is certainly an interesting insight life in the penal colony at that time. Whatever Matilda’s thoughts were, this offence earned her 18 months’ hard labour in the Cascade and Ross Female Factories. Matilda was now twice married and twice left alone. She had been placed in the custody of the convict system and was still causing trouble through absconding. Then, as if hunting down a female bushranger, in December 1852 the authorities put in place a five-pound reward for her recovery. Where Matilda was when her ticket of leave was revoked on 7 February 1853 remains a mystery. Perhaps she tracked down James and settled with her second husband. If so, this attempt for a harmonious liaison was short lived, for James (not unlike Joseph), left the colony for Melbourne on 24 June 1853. Matilda was in custody at the Ross Female Factory when her Free Certificate was granted in 1854.

Sometime before December 1855, John Smith, a 35-year-old dealer living in Hadspen in the north of the colony, and Matilda became acquainted. And, with still no record of the demise or otherwise of either of her first two husbands, John and Matilda were married by Thomas Reibey at the Hadspen Church of England on 7 December 1855. The now 25-year-old Matilda was with child and apparently settled at last with John, even turning her hand dressmaking. The couple moved to Longford where on 29 February 1856 baby Harriet Eliza Smith was born. She died aged only two months. Matilda remained childless and continued to reside in the north of the state. It is not known what happened in Matilda’s life over the next 14 years, but by September 1870 John Smith was no longer a part of her life. It appears that he passed away (although no record has been found), because on 1 September 1870 Matilda declared herself to be a widow when she married William Baker.

William, twenty years Matilda’s senior, was also a widower. Matilda had now been in the colony for over twenty years. Could she finally now settle down to married life, free of conflict with the authorities and personal hardship due to broken relationships and the loss of a child? Matilda’s marriage to William seems to have been successful. It was not until 11 years later on 14 December 1881 that William and Matilda Baker were mentioned in the Mercury newspaper. This time they were the victims of a crime when their house near the Sorell Rivulet was broken into. ‘Henry and Thomas Douglas were charged on the 1st November, feloniously breaking into the dwelling house of William Baker, and stealing there from.’ Both were sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. William died four years later in 1885, leaving Matilda £50.

Nursemaid Matilda had begun her life in Van Diemen’s Land to pay her dues for stealing, had tested the authorities, shown resilience through her many relationships and suffered through the death of her only child. Her first husband, Joseph Burt, returned to Van Diemen’s Land and died in 1863 (aged 40), when accidentally killed by a falling tree. Her second husband, James, also returned to the colony and had a common law relationship with Ann Condon. James died 1887 (aged 65) of cancer of the bowel.

Matilda had tested the limits of the world that surrounded her and that led to her transportation, only to become an inmate of another system to which she could not adapt. She had travelled a long way from a seaside village in England and had experienced the harsh realities of a convict colony. Once free she still could not settle, was unlucky in love and died childless in 1904 at Port Sorell aged 75 years, without a family to mourn for her. 

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Further reading:
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. 



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