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

Early gaol records have also proved to be a fruitful avenue of research. The first admissions register of the Brisbane Gaol covers the period from January 1850 to February 1864.[1] The fourteen years covered by the register encompasses the ten years that the gaol was located in the old Female Factory on Queen Street (now the site of the Brisbane GPO), as well as the first four years of the operation of the new Petrie Terrace gaol. The admissions register recorded each inmate’s ‘Ship’, ‘Year’, ‘Native Place’, ‘Religion’ and ‘Trade or Calling’. In addition, the ‘Condition’ of convicts and ex-convicts was described using terms including ‘Bond’, for those who arrived in the colony as convicts, ‘T. of L’ for ticket-of-leave holders, and ‘F. by S.’ for those who were free by servitude. In contrast, people counted as ‘Free’ were categorised as free arrivals in Australian, those born free in the colonies (including children of convicts) and those recorded under the deceptively-named ‘Other Free’ column who were, in fact, emancipated convicts who had completed their terms of servitude.

Female convict factory on the site of the present GPO, c. 1850, State Library Queensland.


Of the 4,500 gaol admissions between 1850 and 1864, only 446, or about ten per cent, were female. Of these, 375 female admissions were for free women. In the main, they had arrived on emigrant ships sailing to Sydney or directly to Moreton Bay in the 1840s, 1850s and early 1860s, but there were also a small number of women born free in Australia. The remaining 71 admissions relate to women described in the gaol register as bond, ticket of leave, or free by servitude. Alternatively, their entries provided enough details for me to be able to confirm that they were transported as a convict. Although there are 71 entries connected to women transported to Australia, they do not belong to 71 different women. Only 22 women were responsible for the 71 admissions. Seven women were repeat offenders, while 15 women served one sentence each. Two women, in particular, were repeat offenders. Mary Allen, who said she was transported on the Roslin Castle (1835), served 27 terms of imprisonment, and Agnes Ferguson, transported on the Whitby (1839), served 11 sentences. These two women accounted for 40 per cent of the 71 admissions of convict and ex-convict women between 1850 and 1864.

Sarah Adams, an English convict, was born about 1820 in the county of Somersetshire. At the age of 19 she was convicted of a felony and transported for ten years, arriving in Sydney on the Mary Anne (1839). In 1847 Sarah was granted a ticket of leave for Raymond Terrace, New South Wales. By November 1854 she was in Queensland where she married Thomas Taafe (or Taife), a well-known horse jockey in Queensland and New South Wales. A few months later Sarah was charged with stabbing Thomas at their house in Ipswich. It seems that a violent argument ensued after Thomas came home to find dinner not prepared. Sarah was imprisoned in the Brisbane Gaol until her trial and then, having been found guilty, was sent south to serve three years’ hard labour in the Parramatta Gaol. Sarah returned to Ipswich in 1858, but the following year a newspaper report suggested that her husband Thomas had met another woman and was living with her in Brisbane.[2] Unfortunately, the stories of both Thomas and Sarah come to an abrupt halt with their lives cut short at a young age. Thomas died in Ipswich in February 1861 aged about 28 of throat cancer, while Sarah died of ‘phthisis’ (most likely tuberculosis) five months later in July 1861. Sarah’s death certificate stated she was 25 years old but, based on her age at transportation, she was closer to 41. The death certificates of Thomas and Sarah both record that the couple had one living male child and one deceased male child but, sadly, neither son can be traced.

[1] Queensland State Archives (QSA),  Item ID ITM2917, Register of male and female prisoners admitted – HM Gaol, Brisbane, 3 Jan 1850 to 3 Feb 1864.

[2] ‘Monday, August 8th’, North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser, 9 Aug 1859, p. 3.