The Female Convict of 1825

Records relating to criminals are a bit few and far between in Dundee City Archives. In terms of court records, the NRS also holds the records of the Court of Session, Sherriff Court and High Court. We do hold the records of the Police Court but these only start in the 1920s. Dundee Prison records don’t really survive and are stored with Perth Prison records at the National Records of Scotland. When it comes to the old jail in the Town House, records are even scarcer. However there is one volume which has survived which gives us some insight to the old jail.

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The Town Clerk’s correspondence of 1825-6.

The Town Clerks correspondence file of 1825 contains all sorts of things relating to the Town Clerk’s work. One of the many responsibilities of the council at this time was maintaining a jail. This was housed in the Adam Town House on the High Street (where the entrance to City Square is now). There are a few months worth of weekly lists of inmates. Although their crimes are not recorded, they are split into three lists – Debtors, Accused and Convicts. On average there are about 7 debtors, 8 accused and 14 convicts. On average about a third of the accused and convicted prisoners are women. However there are more papers in this volume relating to criminals.

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The list of prisoners in Dundee Jail as at 27th June 1825

There are papers relating to transportation. This was the process of sending convicts to the far off colonies, at first this was America from 1717 (a lot of Jacobites were sent there after 1746). But after the Revolution in 1776 and subsequent independence of America, a new colony had to be found. It just so happened that 6 years earlier Captain Cook had claimed New South Wales for Great Britain. So from the 1780s Australia and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) became the destination for criminals. The crimes committed were often petty – theft, burglary, deception or fraud, assault, or even political agitation. You can view a list of some of the crimes on this website.

The paper that drew my attention was the one described as a “Receipt by Thomas Gray, owner of the vessel Perth, for a female convict to be conveyed to Woolwich”. This intrigued me. Taking a look at the document, I found out that her name was Margaret McDonald. Thomas Gray was signing to acknowledge that he would deliver Margaret to the ship Midas at Woolwich, he would then get a receipt from the master of that ship and return to Dundee with it anad pass it over to the jailer. At the end of the letter is a brief physical description of Margaret, she was 4 ft 8 inches tall, with a round visage (face) and was born in Logie Pert, near Montrose.

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Thomas Gray acknowledges receipt on Margaret McDonald, convict, on this ship “Perth”

So what did Margaret do? As explained above, we don’t have much in the way of court records. So its time to head over to the National Records of Scotland’s online catalogue. Rather handily they have listed all of the High Court case records and they are searchable by name. A quick search for Margaret McDonald in 1825 returns a Precognition (AD14/25/75). The catalogue gives a lot of information – its tells us that Margaret was charged with uttering [or passing] forged banknotes in a shop in Scouringburn in the suburbs of Dundee. (For those who don’t know the Scouringburn is the old name for what is now Brook Street in Dundee – very much not the suburbs today!). The victims were Elizabeth Finlay, grocer and Agnes Stewart Moncur, wife of a carter.

From the catalogue entry for the court papers we see that Margaret was sentenced to 7 years transportation at the High Court in Perth. She was found ‘Guilty in terms of her own confession’. However the news report in the Fife Herald of the court proceedings paints a different story. It seems that Margaret was urged by her counsel to plead not guilty. As the paper puts it, she changed her plea “seemingly with much reluctance”. So this does beg the question, was Margaret just trying to get away with it, or was she really not guilty? Did she know the notes were forged? Or did she forge them herself?

18250428 Fife Herald - Margaret McDonald
Margaret’s court case reported in the Fife Herald. Was she forced into a confession?

So what happened to Margaret? She made it down to the Woolwich and was transferred to the Midas. They set sail on 22nd July 1825 and arrived in Tasmania on 23 November. Her transportee record gives some more clues about her. It states that she could read and write and she had one child, born in Dundee to Alexander Goodwin, to whom she was not married. I can find no further record of the child and it is not clear if they went with Margaret or stayed in Dundee. Female convicts were either allocated a position as a servant in the household a free person or were sent to a “factory” – something much like an English workhouse. There is a note on Margaret’s record that on February 11th 1830 she was “insolent to her mistress yesterday”, was confined to a cell on bread and water for 4 days and placed in a second class house of correction.

She she was freed on 23rd April 1832. More good news was just around the corner, on 25th September 1835 she was married to George Kent, from Lincolnshire. On 16th April 1836 she had a son, John Kent. The Kents lived in Launceston after George was freed on 31st December 1835. George’s transportation record from 1830 described him as a “very shifty and cunning fellow”. He is also noted as being 5ft 8 inches, making him a whole foot taller than Margaret.

In January 1837 George and Margaret were charged with stealing horsehair. George was ‘re-transported’ for 7 more years and Margaret was given a month sentence. George Kent died on 1st February 1866 in Launceston at the age of 59. Margaret died on 3rd February 1868 at the age of 80. Meaning that she was 37 when she was transported, 47 when she was married and 48 when her son John was born. Although unlikely, this is possible. However her death age could be a mistake (its quite common for ages at death to be wrong as the age would have been given by a nearest relative and she wouldn’t have had a birth certificate). I’ve tried looking for a baptism or birth in the church records for Logie Pert, on Scotlands People, with no success.

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A view of Launceston in 1873 (Taken from “Australia … Illustrated with drawings by Skinner Prout, N. Chevalier, etc. [With maps.]” by Edwin Carton Booth (https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11100537564)

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