Jane Wilson (1820?–1871)
by Trudy Mae Cowley
According to her convict records, Jane Wilson’s proper name was Jane Mercamp, she was born in Paris, France, and she was brought up as a cook by her father. She could read and write imperfectly, was 4 feet 11½ inches (151.13 cm) tall, stout made, of fair complexion, but deeply pockpitted, and had brown hair, a retreating forehead, hazel eyes and thin, light brown eyebrows.
On 23 November 1840, aged 21, Jane was tried at the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey), London with stealing a purse containing three pence, a half crown and eight shillings from musician John Piggott of Lamb’s Conduit Street, London. She was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years’ transportation. Her gaol report noted she had been six weeks in the house of correction before, though her conduct record noted she had once been in prison for fourteen days. There was similar confusion about her marital status. Her gaol record stated she was a widow with three children, her conduct record stated she was married, and her embarkation list stated she was single. No record has been found of her husband and children.
Jane sailed from Woolwich, England on board the Rajah on 5 April 1841 and arrived at Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land just over three months later on 19 July 1841. She was not listed as being sick during the voyage, but she was listed as being a good assistant in the hospital on board.
Upon arrival, Jane was detained on board for assignment and, having useful skills, she was assigned to Government House. Lady Jane Franklin mentions her in her diary entry of 15 September 1841, stating she sent her to Cascades Female Factory for punishment. Two days later she was brought before a magistrate and charged with misconduct in her service and sentenced to three days in solitary confinement before being returned to Government House to resume her duties. Lady Franklin mentioned her return to Government House in her diary entry of 27 September 1841. By the end of the year Jane had been dismissed from service at Government and she was assigned to Samuel Robinson Dawson Esquire of Clarence Plains.
Within six months, Jane was in the service of Dr Bright of Macquarie Street, Hobart. On 10 July 1843, Jane was charged by Dr Bright with an unknown offence; she was discharged and returned to her service. One month later, Dr Bright charged her with being drunk and insolent; this time she was reprimanded. By February 1844 she was in the service of Mr Carter of New Town, who charged her with being drunk and disorderly. She was sentenced to six days in solitary confinement at Cascades Female Factory. Later this month she was classified as a 2nd class probation passholder. A week later, Mr Carter charged her again, this time with being drunk and insolent on Sunday 3 March and using bad language in the taming of the children. She was sentenced to three months’ hard labour at Cascades Female Factory. After she completed her sentence, Jane was assigned to work for Mr Henry Ashton of Liverpool Street, Hobart. On 29 July 1844, he charged her with misconduct in using obscene language and abusing the constable on his way to the watch house and being drunk. She received another three months’ hard labour at the Factory. The constable stated in his testimony, ‘This woman was not sober when I apprehended her, she called us “Bloody Traps” and used other disgusting language on her way to the watchhouse’.
During her incarceration at Cascades Female Factory, Jane gave birth to an illegitimate son, William Wilson, on 23 September 1844. He was baptised six days later. After her sentence was served, William remained in the Factory Nursery while Jane was hired into private service, under the newly-introduced probation system, for three months from 3 December 1844 to JW Davis of ‘Waverley Park’. She did not remain very long in his service as, on 7 January 1845, she was hired for three months to John Shadwick of Collins Street, Hobart. Two months later, on 5 March 1845, she was hired for twelve months to Eliza Hackett of Murray Street, Hobart. However, she was only there four months before being hired for three months to Rosetta Rheuben of New Town Road, Hobart. Four months later, on 1 November 1845, Jane was granted a ticket of leave. At this time, Jane could have gained custody of her son, William. There is no evidence that she did so and no more is known of him; it is likely he died in the Factory Nursery.
A year and a half later, William Whitehead, free, applied for permission to marry Jane. Approval was given and they married a month later, on 10 May 1847, at Bethesda Anglican Church, Hobart. Jane was aged 26 and her marital status was given as spinster; William was a labourer aged 35. The following month, Jane was recommended for a conditional pardon, which was approved on 22 August 1848. Technically, she was now free.
Six years later, on 22 June 1854, 32-year-old Jane was admitted to the Colonial Hospital at Hobart. Two months later, on 30 August 1854, she was admitted to the Asylum for the Insane at New Norfolk, suffering from mania. Monthly descriptions of her condition, recorded by the doctor at the Asylum, exist for much of the time she was incarcerated there, until her death in 1871. On 1 December 1854, he noted ‘she is always knocked about by some imaginary person or other’. One month later, he noted, ‘In good bodily health, useful, quiet, tractable, same delusions ...’. In November 1855, the doctor recorded that Jane was ‘Improved, talks sometimes rationally for a few minutes and then lapses into incoherence’. In April 1856, he recorded that Jane ‘Is on the whole a good deal better but occasionally lapses into incoherence and fancies she has been engaged here as Matron or some other responsible position’. However, in October of the same year, the doctor observed, ‘The day before yesterday this woman threw her tea and sugar into the fire in my presence and was ordered into seclusion when she ran to a window and broke nine panes of glass. In the cells in seclusion’. From this time until June 1857, Jane’s conduct became more violent, with outbursts of temper. In July, the doctor observed that Jane was ‘No longer violent but sullen & refuses to do any thing’.
On 4 February 1859, the doctor noted that Jane “has a bad sore throat with an ulcer through the soft palate, looks very much like ‘Syphilis Consecutiva”’. It is possible that syphilis was the cause of Jane’s ‘mania’. On 28 September 1871, Jane complained ‘of severe pain in the chest & oppression of breathing’ and her pulse was very weak. By 28 October the doctor noted that Jane ‘Appears to be getting gradually worse, the pulse scarcely perceptible, breathing laboured, takes plenty of stimulants but eats scarcely any thing’. A month later the doctor noted she was ‘Lingering on, some days scarcely any circulation, extremities cold & oedematous, takes nourishment & stimulants’. Four days later, on 3 December 1871, Jane, aged 49, died of dropsy of the chest. Because she died at the Asylum for the Insane, an autopsy was conducted on her body.
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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