Caroline Vantileur (1804?–?)
by Alison Alexander
Caroline Vantileur (her maiden name is unknown) was born in Bordeaux in about 1804. She came to England as a girl, aged about 10. When still in her teens she married Charles Vantileur, and travelled about the Bristol district with him, selling earthenware. However, she left him, and in March 1824 was arrested in Windsor with another young woman. They were charged with stealing a gold watch worth £5 from a dwelling house, and sentenced to 7 years’ transportation.
When Caroline arrived in Hobart on the Henry in early 1825 she was about 20, a scar on her forehead suggesting trouble at some time in the past. She told the authorities she was a housemaid, and was duly assigned as a servant. She was soon in and out of trouble, charged with offences on average twice a year—usually being absent without leave. Nothing stopped her, not even having her hair cut off, a dreaded punishment. Once after absconding she was found coming out of a public house in male attire, which a friend had provided so she could escape recapture—to no avail. Finally in 1831, after being punished for thirteen offences, Caroline became free by servitude.
Over the next few years she was often fined for being drunk, but that soon stopped, probably when she began to live with Robert Meredith. Originally transported for stealing shoes, in Van Diemen’s Land Robert was given a further 7 years for stealing a large amount of sugar, but became free in 1832. The next year Caroline possibly bore him a son, Robert junior, and the family were among the first people to move to the Huon, where a small settlement had grown up at Port Cygnet centred around piners, men who collected Huon pine and sent it to Hobart where it was prized, particularly for ship-building.
The 1841 census shows Caroline with a son, Edwin Noydes Bandalore (sic – a misspelling of Vantileur) aged between 7 and 14. He is a mystery, but Caroline did give birth to her second child, a daughter Ann Matilda, in the Huon in 1834. Life must have been uncomfortable, living in a bark hut with an earth floor, cooking over an open fire, caring for two infants with no amenities—but travelling round Bristol selling earthenware would hardly have been luxurious, and perhaps Caroline enjoyed the challenge of pioneering. She seemed to cope well. In 1838 Lady Franklin, who had bought land across the river from Port Cygnet, visited the area. One day she crossed the river to Port Cygnet. ‘Went to see all the huts in the place’, her step-daughter Eleanor wrote in her diary. ‘Both today and yesterday Mama was talking in French that she might not be understood when she afterwards discovered that those about her were French’—only one person, it turned out, Madame Meredith.
‘We were very glad to see the great neatness of all the huts & of the women & children’, continued Eleanor. ‘The huts all consisted of bark.’ What an achievement, keeping the hut, the young children and herself very neat in these circumstances. Perhaps Caroline was one of those practical Frenchwomen who could cope with any problem.
The 1842 census noted the family living at Petchey’s Bay in a second bark hut, with Robert in the category of mechanic and artificer. He was also described as a sawyer, timber-cutter and labourer, none of which sound particularly lucrative. In 1843 the family returned to Hobart and Caroline and Robert married—Caroline signed her name with a cross—but again they went back to the Huon, where in 1851 they were living in the township of Franklin. That October, Caroline and Robert junior sailed to Victoria: the family story is that Caroline left her husband. He died in the New Town Charitable Institution in 1883, aged 78, and was buried in the paupers’ section of the Cornelian Bay Cemetery. What happened to Caroline and Robert junior is unknown. However, through her daughter Ann Matilda, Caroline has over 800 descendants today.
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.