Offenders, paupers and pioneers
Convict women and their families in pre-Separation Queensland

The female convict that Queenslanders are most likely to have heard of is Hannah Rigby — one of only three women to have been transported to Moreton Bay twice, as well as the only woman to remain in the district when her sentence expired. Hannah was born in Liverpool, England in about 1794 and arrived in Sydney on the Lord Sidmouth in 1823. Through Dr Jennifer Harrison’s research on the 144 female convicts who served colonial sentences at the Moreton Bay penal settlement we know that Hannah had a child with colonial clerk Robert Crawford, whom she named Robert Frederick Rigby.[1] Six months later, in January 1824, she married the convict George Page in Parramatta. He was transported to Moreton Bay in 1826 for stealing fabric from a docked ship, leaving Hannah by herself with a young son. However, the 1828 New South Wales census showed that Hannah was living at Newcastle and had given birth to another son, Samuel Rigby. In 1830 she was transported to Moreton Bay, where her husband George Page was still serving his sentence, for stealing thirty yards of ribbon. A third son, James Rigby, was born at the penal settlement in September 1832 but, as demonstrated by Harrison’s meticulous research, his father was not George Page but the boat pilot at Stradbroke Island, James Hexton, a free arrival in the Australian colonies.

Hannah was returned to Sydney at the expiration of her sentence in February 1837, leaving her five-year-old son James Rigby behind. She then stole two hats and was transported back to Moreton Bay in October 1837 to serve a second colonial sentence. When the penal settlement closed in May 1839, Hannah was one of five female convicts chosen to remain as assigned servants during what has become known as the ‘wind-down’ period between 1839 and 1842. She was employed in the service of Dr Ballow, the Colonial Assistant Surgeon, who recommended her for a certificate of freedom in July 1840. Ten years later, in 1850, Dr Ballow died from typhus contracted from passengers on board the Emigrant, one of the first ships to bring free settlers directly to Moreton Bay. Further tragedy struck when the father of Hannah’s youngest son, the boat pilot James Hexton, drowned after his vessel capsized in rough seas on his way back from Cape Horn in April 1851. It is also possible, though not confirmed, that her middle son, Samuel Rigby, died in the Brisbane Hospital in February 1853 aged in his twenties.

Hannah died in Brisbane in October 1853, leaving her youngest son, 21-year-old Jimmy Hexton, orphaned. According to the Moreton Bay Courier, she died in her home, described as a ‘hut’ near Queen Street, after attending a neighbour’s wedding, and was buried at St John’s graveyard.[2] However, the original St John’s Church was not on the site of the current St John’s Cathedral on Ann Street, nor its predecessor on William Street. Rather, Hannah was buried at the site of the original St John’s Church on the western side of Queen Street, near the corner of George Street. During the penal era, this was the site of a lumber yard and convict workshop. In 1842, the Church of England converted the workshop into Brisbane’s first, and very humble, St John’s Church. From 1854 the building was used as a school and lecture hall before being demolished in 1902. The Treasury Hotel and Casino is now located on the site. As for most convict women transported to Australia, there are no photographs or portraits of Hannah Rigby. However, a photograph of James ‘Jimmy’ Hexton, her youngest son, was published by the Brisbane Courier in 1914 on the occasion of his death at the age of 81, under the title  ‘The oldest white native’.[3]

[1] Jennifer Harrison, Shackled: Female Convicts at Moreton Bay 1826-1839, Melbourne, Anchor Books, 2016; Jennifer Harrison, ‘Rigby, Hannah (1794-1853)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 2005, (unpaginated),

[2] ‘Sudden death’, Moreton Bay Courier, 15 Oct 1853, p. 2.

[3] ‘The oldest white native’, Brisbane Courier, 18 Feb 1914, p. 22.

Note: Archival, other primary source references, and online databases used throughout this paper appear in the References list at the end.