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

Like the convict and emancipist women who were incarcerated in the Brisbane Gaol between 1850 and 1864, those who ended their days as paupers at the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum on Stradbroke Island are relatively easy to trace. In a small number of cases they were described in the asylum register as ‘bond’ but, in most cases, their former convict status was revealed through the recording of their ship and year of arrival which matched that of a ship known to have transported female convicts to Australia. In contrast to the gaol registers — which only recorded an inmate’s place of birth, along with their ship and year of arrival — the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum records provide a veritable treasure trove of additional information about female ex-convicts, including the names of their mother and father (thereby revealing maiden names) and their father’s occupation, along with details of each woman’s marriages, husbands, children, employment, travels around the colonies, and their health and financial situation.[1]

View of the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum from the ocean, 1918, State Library of Queensland.


Unfortunately, the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum was not a place that people would go to unless they were desperate, especially during the early years of its operation in the 1800s. Historian Raymond Evans described the asylum as the end of the road, a place of ‘last resort’.[2] Similarly, Joseph Goodall wrote that: ‘The asylum’s function was not to help the weak and crippled but to hide them.’[3] The food was completely inadequate and often rotten, there was no heating, and the wards were closed during the day, even during winter, so that inmates were forced outside where some were reported to have died from the cold. A doctor visited from the mainland but many ‘medicines’ available at the time were ineffective and, in any event, inmates were often dead by the time he got there. My research reveals that 19 female ex-convicts, and many more male ex-convicts, were residents of the asylum in mid- to late-1800s and early 1900s. Nearly all of these 19 women lie buried in unmarked graves, some with their ex-convict husbands, in unmarked paupers’ graves at the  Dunwich Cemetery.

Women’s quarters, Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, c. 1914, State Library of Queensland.


Susan Hill was transported to New South Wales for seven years on the Caroline (1833). Born in County Armagh, she was tried in Antrim for stealing clothes. The indent stated that Susan’s brother James Hill was transported four years earlier. In late 1833, Susan married Charles Hunt, a free arrival aged 36, in Hexham, Newcastle. The Hunts had one daughter, Adelaide Hunt, born in 1834. Susan’s second spouse was William Aldridge Reynolds, who arrived in Australia on the Waterloo (1824). Her daughter Adelaide Hunt was married in Ipswich in 1852 to Thomas Young using the name Adelaide Reynolds. However, it seems that William and Susan were still in New South Wales as their son Thomas Reynolds was born in 1858 in Chippendale, Sydney. The Reynolds family then moved to Queensland and lived at Canal Creek, near Leyburn on the Darling Downs. In 1859 Susan and William were both detained in the Brisbane Gaol. William was on trial for horse stealing, a charge of which he was acquitted, while Susan was convicted of threatening to burn down the Rose and Crown Inn. Then in 1861 Susan accused her husband of assault but the case was dismissed as neither appeared in court. Over the next few years she was also charged with minor offences including drunkenness and the use of threatening language. In December 1883, by which time they were both in failing health, William and Susan were sent to the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum on Stradbroke Island. William had ‘senile debility’ and Susan was recorded as suffering from paralysis (possibly the result of a stroke). William died at the benevolent asylum in 1884 and Susan, described as a ‘native of Country Antrim, Ireland’, died there in 1889. Both are buried in unmarked graves at the Dunwich Cemetery.

Margaret Hartigan, a 32-year-old Irish dairymaid, was tried at the Limerick Spring Assizes and transported for seven years for stealing blankets. She arrived in Sydney on the Minerva 6 in 1839. In 1845, Margaret was granted a ticket of leave for Liverpool, New South Wales. Ten years later, in 1855, she married Richard England, a convict per the Adrian (1829), in Ipswich, Queensland. England may have deliberately hidden his convict background as the indent of the Adrian records that he was married with three children. In July 1856, not long after marrying Margaret Hartigan, England was sent to gaol for six months after he attempted suicide, reportedly as the result of ‘[d]istress of the mind, caused by intemperance’, and failed to pay ‘sureties to be of good behaviour’.[4] The following week it was reported that Margaret had ‘no fixed place of residence’ and she was sent to gaol for two months for vagrancy.[5] It would appear that England had a mental condition which impacted negatively on his life, as well as causing difficulties for Margaret. However, it is not clear whether her subsequent alcoholism predated or was caused by her husband’s mental struggles. In 1866 when England was admitted to the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, he told staff that he had ‘kept a general store in Ipswich but was ruined by my wife’s drinking’ and that Margaret had ‘burnt to death’. Indeed, Margaret’s death certificate confirms that she died in Warwick in September 1865 after suffering tetanus for six weeks caused by a ‘severe burn’. Richard England was discharged from the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum in 1868 and possibly died several years later in New South Wales.


[1] QSA, Item ID ITM9520, Register of personal details relating to females admitted to Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, c. 1 October 1859 to 28 June 1906.

[2] Raymond Evans, ‘Charitable institutions of the Queensland government to 1919’, published M.A. thesis, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Qld, 1970,, accessed 26 Mar 2020, p. 169.

[3] Joseph B. Goodall, ‘Whom nobody owns: The Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, an institutional biography 1866-1946’, published Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Qld, 1992,, accessed 3 Apr 2020, Abstract (unpaginated).

[4] ‘Ipswich – Attempted suicide’, Empire [Sydney], 1 Jul 1856, p. 3; ‘Local and domestic’, North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser, 8 Jul 1856, p. 3.

[5] ‘Local and domestic: Vagrancy’, North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser, 15 Jul 1856, p. 3.