Elizabeth Wilson (1822?-?)

by Douglas Wilkie


On Thursday, 1 December 1842, the Edinburgh newspaper, Caledonian Mercury, reported that 20-year-old, ‘Elizabeth Wilson, or Smith, and Rosina or Rosanna Burns, were convicted of theft, aggravated by being habit and repute thieves.’ Smith was sentenced to 7 years' transportation, and Burns to fifteen months imprisonment.

The Scottish ‘habit and repute’ law was severely criticised and in 1845 the Court of Session was told that, ‘much of the present state of crime in Scotland, especially among juvenile offenders, was owing to the fact that they were generally taken before police courts, and inadequately punished with brief periods of imprisonment not exceeding sixty days. This was why Scotland was at this moment overrun by ‘habit and repute thieves,’ who were not severely punished until they had committed a certain number of smaller delinquencies, when their offences were accumulated and they were visited for many under one sentence.

Indeed, although the court itself recorded that Elizabeth Wilson had a previous conviction for theft dating from 13 August 1840, when she arrived at Hobart she revealed that she had previously served twenty days in prison for house breaking; sixty days for theft of a frock; and sixty days for another theft.

When she appeared before the Edinburgh Court on 28 November 1841 the justices certainly thought Elizabeth was now a habitual thief who deserved transportation for more than sixty days. But her accomplice, Rosanna Burns, although she had a conviction from November 1841, was ‘found guilty as libelled, without the aggravation of habit and repute’ and received fifteen months.

Elizabeth told the officials at Hobart she was single, but the Edinburgh court had recorded her as ‘Elizabeth Smith m. n. Wilson’ suggesting that she may well have been married. Nevertheless, the Hobart officials also noted that she was a laundress; her age was 21; she was; 4 feet 10½ inches (148.59 cm) tall; had a brown complexion, round head, brown hair; square face, high forehead, dark brown eyebrows, blue eyes, thin nose, wide mouth, and a freckled face. It was a comprehensive description that would be useful for recognising her should she ever abscond from custody; or from her employment; or from her husband—all of which she would eventually do.

Elizabeth told the Hobart officials that she had been born in Spain, but brought up in Dublin. At first she said her father’s name was William, but apparently changed her mind and that was crossed out on the record. But she did identify her mother as being named Betty and living in Limerick. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to trace Elizabeth’s origins either in Ireland or in Spain.

Elizabeth admitted that the crime that led to her transportation was that she had stolen a flannel petticoat belonging to David Adams in Edinburgh. Just why she thought David Adams owned a petticoat is uncertain, because the Edinburgh court records suggest that the petticoat belonged to Janet Harper, the daughter of John Harper of Grassmarket, Edinburgh.

The convict ship Woodbridge was commissioned from 14 July 1843 with Jason Lardner appointed surgeon. Between 4 and 11 August 204 female convicts, 24 children, four male and fifteen female warders were embarked. Despite several cases of scurvy most of the women, including Elizabeth, completed the voyage without suffering illness. The Surgeon attributed the women’s good health to their being kept employed making shirts during the voyage— a total of 1,100 were completed by the time they reached Hobart.

After the Woodbridge arrived at Hobart on Christmas Day 1843, Elizabeth Wilson was sent to the Female Factory where her probationary status was advanced to 2nd class on 3 July 1844, and to 3rd class on 7 January 1845. She was then employed by Mr Huxtable, or ‘Huxtabloby’ as her record put it, but on 5 May was found guilty of theft and was sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour at the Female Factory in Launceston.

Towards the end of this sentence, in February 1846, Elizabeth was caught fighting with another woman in the Launceston House of Correction and placed in solitary confinement for seven days. Having served her hard labour, and her solitary confinement, she was then employed by Mr Davry [sic], but by the beginning of June she was admonished for being drunk. She was then moved to work for Mr Solomon, where an absence without leave and refusing to work led to another six months hard labour in the Factory starting on 23 June 1846. Within four days she had displayed ‘gross insolence to her mistress’, who had clearly had enough of her, and Elizabeth was ordered to be ‘returned to the depot of her pass’, and ‘reduced to the 1st class’. This was done by mid-July 1846.

By early 1847 Elizabeth was allowed to work outside again and was with Williamson in March. But then she absconded. Another six months’ hard labour was the punishment. By October she was working for Birch but her insolence brought first a reprimand, then ten days in solitary confinement. By July 1848 she was working for Harvey and again went absent without leave, another month’s hard labour. Then she was sent to Grosvenor but failed to return to the depot after work and was given three more months’ hard labour. In October it was Hawkes’ turn and she was absent without leave again. Another two months’ labour. By mid-October 1848 Hobart had had enough of Elizabeth Wilson and sent her back to Launceston, but within two weeks she was ‘out of her proper sleeping bed at night’ and suffered another two months’ hard labour.

But then, suddenly, all was quiet. For the next twelve months there were no misdemeanours at all recorded on Eliza’s record, and by 8 December 1849 she had served her time and was granted her certificate of freedom.

The reason for Elizabeth’s sudden disappearance from the record was to be found in the form of Police Constable William Henry Brunt. Perhaps Elizabeth found the 27-year-old constable attractive; or kind; or perhaps it was his tattoos that drew her to him—he was described as a ‘slightly freckled man’ with a flag, anchor and mermaid tattooed on his right arm; a ring on the middle finger of his right hand; and the letters ‘A. B.’ with hearts and darts, along with ‘M. S.’ and a flower pot on his left arm.

Brunt had arrived in Hobart on board the convict ship Tortoise on 19 February 1842 as a consequence of being transported for 10 years, as he said, ‘For robbing my sister’. In fact, the way the Old Bailey put it was that, on 14 June 1841, ‘William Henry Brunt was indicted for feloniously breaking and entering the dwelling-house of John Grace, and stealing therein, 1 blanket, value 6s.; 1 pair of trowsers, value 5s.; 1 frock, value 2s.; 2 handkerchiefs, value 1s.; and 1 knife, value 6d.; the goods of William Henry Stevens; to which he pleaded guilty.’

Brunt was granted a ticket of leave on 9 May 1848 and was appointed as a constable at Evandale, near Launceston, two weeks later. On 24 April 1849 Constable Brunt and Elizabeth Wilson applied to be married. Undoubtedly the matron at the Female Factory saw this as the chance to be rid of habitually troublesome Elizabeth. The application was quickly approved and the marriage took place three weeks later, on 14 May 1849 at the Manse at Evandale. Elizabeth was now 27; Brunt was 28.

Undoubtedly Elizabeth could be charming when she chose to be, and love blinds us to the faults of others. But married life did not turn out the way they had hoped and on 15 March 1854 a notice appeared in the Cornwall Chronicle.

CAUTION.— I hereby caution any person against harbouring my wife, Elizabeth Brunt, alias Wilson, she having left me without cause, I will prosecute any person for so doing. I also give notice, that I will not be answerable for any debts she may contract in my name. William Henry Brunt. Launceston, March 11.

To which Elizabeth replied a few days later.

TO THE PUBLIC— Whereas my husband, William Brunt, has advertised in a public newspaper, that I left him without provocation ; this is to certify, that his ill-usage and brutal conduct towards me obliged me to do so, and which I consider sufficient to make any woman so to act. Elizabeth Brunt, her X mark, March 24.

Of course, if her past record was any indication, Elizabeth would never have done anything that might have provoked Brunt’s alleged ‘ill-usage and brutal conduct’. Brunt’s own conduct record seems to suggest he was relatively mild-mannered and well behaved during the ten years of his sentence, apart from once breaking a skylight window in his ward, and being asleep on duty. Nevertheless, having once again absconded, Elizabeth Wilson is heard of no more.

Or perhaps, just once more. The Gippsland Guardian of 7 December 1855 published a notice.

GEORGE DYABLE, of Sale, hereby intimates that he will not be responsible for any debts contracted by Elizabeth Wilson, his wife, from this date.Sale, 1st Dec., 1855.

There appear to be no records of George Dyable, but he may have been the George Dybell who was transported on the William Metcalf in 1835. But either way, there are no records of a marriage to Elizabeth Wilson. And once again Elizabeth Wilson disappears.

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