Part of our collection of articles on Australian history’s missing women, in collaboration with the Australian Dictionary of Biography
In August 1846 four women from northern England, who had each been sentenced to ten years’ transportation, arrived in Van Diemen’s Land aboard the Sea Queen. The crime they had been found guilty of, “stealing from the person,” and their circumstances before their arrests seem to have been far from unusual. As working women in the slums of Huddersfield they took opportunities where they could, and a naive young fellow from the country would have seemed fair game for an easy swindle. The magistrate noted at the committal hearing that this practice of “swindling” was becoming alarming, and “it was high time to check it by some means.”
The case presented at the trial went something like this. On Saturday 9 August 1845 George Boothroyd went to town to cash a cheque for £23 18s 6d for his father, a wealthy manufacturer. On leaving the bank with two £5 notes, ten gold sovereigns and some silver, he decided to see a little of life in Hudders-field. He made his way to the Castlegate, a busy market area laced with back alleys and slum tenement housing. The local population had grown rapidly since the industrialisation of the wool industry and the area now hosted an abundance of ale-houses and inns as well as houses of ill repute.
Over the course of the evening Boothroyd visited several public houses, ending up at Bow Window Beershop. He claimed that he paid for a pint of beer with a sovereign but was given change for a shilling. When he began counting the money in his possession, Elizabeth Quarmby snapped two sovereigns out of his hand and took off. Intoxicated and unable to retrieve his money, he ultimately slept the night at the Green Dragon Inn.
When he went back the following day he was told the Bow Window didn’t open until 1pm. So he went instead to the Unicorn, where he met Lydia Clay and began drinking with her. At 10am Boothroyd and Clay left the Unicorn with two shillings’ worth of gin and ale and went to Ruth Richardson’s house to wait for the Bow Window to open.
At Richardson’s house, which was actually an established brothel, Boothroyd drank the alcohol with Clay, Richardson and Mary Ann Wentworth. Boothroyd later alleged that when it came time to leave, the women held him down and turned out his pockets. When the two £5 notes and the sovereigns fell to the floor, Elizabeth Quarmby suddenly appeared and made off with his money.
Being too intoxicated to pursue an arrest, Boothroyd went back to the Green Dragon Inn for several hours’ sleep. Later in the evening, accompanied by a constable, he tracked down the four women who had swindled him: Lydia Clay (thirty-six), Ruth Richardson (twenty-eight), Elizabeth Quarmby (twenty-three) and Mary Ann Wentworth (nineteen). Thereafter, they were known as the Huddersfield Four.
At their trial, the women’s defence lawyer argued that Boothroyd had squandered the money and then, finding that the time had arrived when he must account to his father, had invented a tale about being robbed. That argument failed, and the prisoners were found guilty.
On conviction, all four women listed their occupation as “domestic servant,” gave their religion as Protestant, and said they could read and write (except for Lydia, who was listed as being able to read only). There is no formal record of any of them having had children. All four served out their sentences in Van Diemen’s Land; none of them returned to their homeland.
The four women’s stories show how hard times were for Britain’s poor, and for single working women in particular. Wages were so low that it was not uncommon for women to supplement their income with casual prostitution.
Lydia Clay was born in 1811, one of six daughters. Her first appearance in the court records came in 1835 when she appeared, aged twenty-four, as the victim of a man by the name of Benjamin Haigh, who was sentenced to one month’s jail for breaking into her home and “ill-using” her. Could this be the same Haigh who is recorded as having been present at the Boothroyd robbery and appearing as a witness at the women’s trial? Was he a regular customer, or perhaps a pimp?
Clay’s next encounter with the law came when she was imprisoned for twelve months for larceny of the person in 1839. Two years later, she was listed as a servant with the Whiteheads, a family of brewers. Described as five feet tall with a dark complexion and black eyes, she was thirty-six years old on arrival in Van Diemen’s Land in 1846.
Clay’s first three years in the colony were turbulent. Transportation usually meant serving as unpaid domestic labour to free settlers, and during this time she was constantly in trouble for misconduct, insubordination, insolence, refusing to work and being absent without leave. These may have been deliberate moves on her part: female convicts who didn’t like their “employers” would often commit a crime in order to be sent back to the Cascades Female Factory, a workhouse for female convicts. During her last absence she was found in bed with James Schofield, a drayman, her third such offence, and was sentenced to six months’ hard labour at the Factory.
Shortly after completing her sentence, Clay married Schofield, with Ruth Richardson as her witness. Marriage conferred certain privileges and would probably have meant she could live with her husband and be free from providing domestic service to others. No further convictions appear in the colony’s records. The couple were childless, and a few years later Lydia was widowed. In 1855 she married John Rees, a sailor; they also had no children. She gained her certificate of freedom on 6 December 1855, ten years after her conviction, but died from an abscess on the brain less than three years later, at New Norfolk, aged forty-eight.
Ruth Richardson, born in 1817, was one of seven children. Her father was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for fourteen years for larceny in 1837. Described as five feet one inch tall, with a fresh complexion, large brown eyes, brown hair, large chin, large mouth and a large, sharp nose, she was twenty-nine when she arrived in Hobart.
No offences were recorded against Richardson during her sentence. She married Thomas Sutton, a farmer, in 1853. She was thirty-six at the time but gave her age as twenty-one on her marriage certificate, the same age as her husband. While there is no official record of children, a newspaper article in 1856 — the year she received her certificate of freedom — refers to her “husband and children.” She died of tuberculosis a few weeks before Lydia Clay, on 25 September 1858, at the Colonial Hospital in Hobart, aged forty-one.
Elizabeth Quarmby (sometimes listed as Quamby) was born in 1822. She was described as five feet two inches tall, with a fair complexion, light brown hair, grey eyes, very large mouth and a double chin. Twenty-three years of age on arrival in Van Diemen’s Land, she married former convict Thomas Parkinson, a tailor, in 1853, when both were aged around thirty. The pair had three children, but their marriage foundered and Elizabeth appears to have turned to alcohol. In 1855, shortly before receiving her certificate of freedom, she was sentenced to seven days’ solitary confinement at the Cascades Female Factory for breaking her husband’s window. They appear to have separated soon after.
In 1864 Thomas placed a notice in the newspaper declining responsibility for debts entered into by his wife. The following year, aged forty-two, Elizabeth petitioned for maintenance, claiming that she had long been able to look after herself financially but could no longer do so, that Parkinson would not let her see her children, and that he was living with another woman. He claimed that she had spent all the money she earned from the shop he had set her up in, rather than banking it as she had promised. He produced witnesses who testified that she was frequently drunk behind the counter and often threw items at her husband, smashing them. Her case was dismissed.
After Thomas married again in 1876, Elizabeth complained to the police and he was prosecuted for bigamy. He pleaded guilty but, having claimed extenuating circumstances, was jailed for only three months. Elizabeth would live to seventy-two, dying in penury, of “senile decay,” at the New Town Charitable Institution on 1 February 1893. She was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Mary Ann Wentworth, who was born in 1824, had lived with her sisters in a workhouse for the poor from the age of thirteen, or possibly younger. No father was listed at her trial, only her mother, brother and two sisters. Described as five feet tall with a fair complexion, grey eyes and pockmarked face, her life in Van Diemen’s Land passed without incident.
She married Joseph Besemore, the owner of the substantial store in Hobart where she was bookkeeper, in 1848. The pair appear to have had no children of their own but adopted two. Joseph died in 1864, and thirteen years later Wentworth (now fifty) married widower John Dunbabin (seventy-one), a landowner and former politician. After he died in 1897, Mary Ann lived a comfortable life until her death on 3 January 1911 at her residence at New Town, Hobart, aged eighty-six. She left a substantial estate.
These women, the Huddersfield Four, managed to carve out independent lives for themselves in the Tasmanian colony. Each married, none appears to have engaged in prostitution, and none was convicted of stealing or swindling. For this reason it could be argued that their lives and prospects were better in Tasmania than in Huddersfield, notwithstanding the separation from friends and family. Of the four, perhaps only Elizabeth Quarmby failed to find a measure of peace in her life or comfort in her old age. •
“The Huddersfield Four,” by T.C. Creaney, Female Convicts Research Centre