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

The Moreton Bay district was opened to free settlement on 9 February 1842. At that time, the non-Indigenous population was probably only 200 men, women and children as a year prior, in March 1841, the New South Wales census recorded 133 convicts and 67 free persons, including children, at Moreton Bay (not including squatters on the Darling Downs who were included in the New England census).[1] By 1851, the census of the ‘Northern Districts’ of — encompassing Brisbane, Ipswich and the wider Moreton Bay region — recorded about 4,500 adult males and 1,200 adult females aged 21 and over. Of these, 2,224 were convicts and ex-convicts who had remained at Moreton Bay in 1839 or travelled north from New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land.

The 1851 census was the last to categorise residents as either ‘free’ or ‘bond’. Those who were ‘free’ were further categorised as ‘arrived free’, ‘born in the colony’ or ‘other free persons’. Those who were ‘bond’ were divided into ‘ticket-of-leave holders’, ‘in government service’ and ‘in private service’. Of those categorised as ‘bond’, there were 643 male ticket-of-leave holders and five male convicts still in government service. One female convict was a ticket-of-leave holder and another was still assigned to private service. In total, there were 650 convicts present in the Moreton Bay region in 1851 who were still serving their original sentence and were yet to receive a certificate of freedom or conditional pardon. In addition, of the categories of free residents, ‘other free persons’ were emancipated convicts who acquired their freedom after arriving in Australia. Adding the 650 convicts in the ‘bond’ category and 1,574 emancipists in the ‘other free persons’ category, there were 2,224 convicts and ex-convicts in Queensland, comprising a staggering 40 per cent of all adults. However, there was a huge gender imbalance with 2,117 male and only 107 female convicts and emancipists.[2]

Of the convict and emancipist women I have identified, many were accompanied to Queensland by their ex-convict husbands and children. Some women reoffended and were sent to gaol, some fell into poverty and were admitted to a benevolent institution as a pauper, while others appeared indistinguishable from their free settler counterparts, becoming part of Queensland’s ‘pioneer’ narrative. While their numbers are small, I contend that the contribution of these women to the transformation of Moreton Bay from a penal settlement in to a free colony has long been neglected. Indeed, the contribution of all convicts and ex-convicts to the establishment of Queensland has been overlooked, with the exception of a small number of male convicts who are famous for their escapes from the penal settlement or who became ‘successes’ during Moreton Bay’s free settlement era.

The Scottish convict James Davis, born in 1808, also known as ‘Durramboi’, was transported to Sydney on the ship Norfolk in 1825 and then to Moreton Bay in 1829. A celebrated runaway, he lived for 13 years in the bush with his Aboriginal family, finally surrendering himself to the authorities in 1842. He chose to stay in the district, where he worked as an Aboriginal interpreter, maintained contact with the son he had with his Aboriginal wife, and later married Bridget Hayes, who was charged with his manslaughter in 1889.[3] Another well-known convict identity is Thomas Dowse, born in 1809, who was transported to New South Wales on the Florentia in 1828. Having served his convict sentence, he arrived in Brisbane as an emancipated convict in July 1842, just five months after the district was opened to free settlement. Dowse put his hand to many different roles over the years, including ferry owner, auctioneer, correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and Moreton Bay Courier, and Brisbane town clerk. Other well-known male convicts include the politicians William Henry Groom and Patrick O’Sullivan, landholder Edward Mott, and Irish political prisoner and medical doctor, Kevin Izod O’Doherty. They are mentioned in multiple articles and books, we have many of their portraits and photographs, and we know where they are buried.[4]

James Davis per Norfolk (1825), The Queenslander, 19 March 1892, p. 555.


Thomas Dowse per Florentia (1828), 1862, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Negative No. 63310.


Memorial to Irish convict exile Dr Kevin Izod O’Doherty at the Toowong Cemetery. Photographed by Jan Richardson, 2015.


Three of the ten convicts featured on the ‘Convict Queenslanders’ page on the State Library of Queensland website. See [4] below.


[1] New South Wales Government Gazette (NSWGG), No. 71, 31 Aug 1841, Supplement, p. 1172f; Mamie O’Keeffe, Convicts at Moreton Bay, 1824-1859, Brisbane, Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 2001, pp. 25-26.

[2] NSWGG, No. 128, 7 Nov 1851, Supplement, p. 1803; O’Keeffe, Convicts at Moreton Bay, pp. 28-31.

[3] ‘Charge of manslaughter’, Brisbane Courier, 7 Jun 1889, p. 2; and, ‘Charge of manslaughter. Death of “Durramboi”’, Brisbane Courier, 22 Jun 1889, p. 3.

[4] ‘Convict Queenslanders’, State Library of Queensland (SLQ), n.d.,, accessed 1 Sep 2021.