Janet Robertson

Janet Robertson arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on board the convict transport, Rajah, in 1841.  What little we know about her early life is largely derived from the convict records that were made in her new homeland. They tell us that Janet was from Leith,  a port in the north of Edinburgh, that she was born about 1822, and that she had been employed as a ‘servant of all work’.

Aged only 18 when she embarked, Janet’s record reveals she was a petite 5 feet two and a quarter inches tall, with a fresh complexion, brown hair and dark blue eyes.  Her features were small and she was marked by a scar under her chin as well as scars on her right leg, left shoulder and left hand.

The Rajah

On 2 November 1840, Janet had been sentenced to seven years transportation for ‘theft by habit and previous conviction’. [Since I wrote this page I’ve received some extra information about her earlier convictions which you can read here.]

She was one of 180 convict women to sail to Van Diemen’s Land aboard the Rajah.  The Rajah left Woolwich on 5 April 1841, with the women having come on board from the 19th of March.  Most had been held in London’s General Penitentiary at Millbank before embarkation.  About 36 women and a couple of children came from Newgate.  Interestingly, the Surgeon Superintendent’s report comments on a number of women who came on board but who were removed before departure ‘… in consequence of Insanity.’  He goes on to say that ‘It may be right to mention that all those cases of derangement were exhibited in Females received on board from the General Penitentiary where I understand they are subject to the silent system’.

Perhaps Janet was among the twenty or so women who worked together on the patchwork quilt that is today one of the most significant artifacts relating to the convict history of women in Australia.  Elizabeth Fry’s ‘Ladies’ Committee’ often provided convict women with personal items as well as needles, thread and scraps of fabric to keep them employed throughout their voyage.

The Rajah Quilt

The Surgeon Superintendent’s report records that the weather was ‘very fine’ during the first part of the voyage, with ‘little inconvenience from Sea Sickness’.  He concludes that ‘With very few exceptions the Health of all was upon their arrival in Hobarton much improved and considerably better than when they embarked at Woolwich’. There was only one fatality, on the day the ship anchored at Van Diemen’s Land.

A report of the Rajah’s arrival in the local newspaper claimed that ‘… the female prisoners brought out in this ship appear to be of a much better character than usual; their behaviour during the voyage was very good, doubtless in great degree the result of the indefatiguable care which appears to have been exercised both with reference to their morality and physical comfort.’

Assignment merry-go-round

Janet’s conduct record doesn’t quite fit the ‘better character’ assessment.  While the newspaper report of the Rajah’s arrival on 19 July 1841 suggests that most of the women were assigned as servants and collected directly from the ship, it seems that Janet was sent to Launceston for assignment.  However, the first record I have of Janet indicates that by 11 November she was residing in the Female House of Correction or the ‘Female Factory’ in Launceston.  On that day, Janet was sentenced to seven days solitary confinement for ‘disorderly conduct in fighting’.

Home Office records show that Janet was in service to a Mr Impay of Launceston at the end of the year.  However, by February 1842, Janet was in service elsewhere when, on the 15th she was returned to the Factory charged with insolence and being absent without leave. As a result she was sentenced to six days solitary confinement.

Reassigned to two more masters, Janet was on each occasion returned to the factory charged with insolence and disobeying orders and sentenced to further solitary confinement.

The merry-go-round of assignments continued.  She was lucky to escape with a severe reprimand when she was found to be absent without leave from the home of her fourth master, Mr Govett.

Somewhere along the way, perhaps while on assignment, Janet met James Herkes, a convict who had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1837 aboard the Frances Charlotte.  Like Janet, James was from Edinburgh.  He had been transported for housebreaking but his record noted (a little like Janet’s ‘theft by habit’) that he was a ‘Thief from Infacy’.  However, by 1842 he held a ticket of leave and applied to marry Janet Robertson.  The application was refused on the basis that Janet’s ‘conduct must be amended’.

Unfortunately, just over a month later, Janet was again in trouble and sentenced to 24 hours solitary confinement for disobeying orders.  Her next assignment was to a Mr M H Glover.  However, she didn’t remain long and was returned to the Factory at her master’s request on 11 January 1843.

Notwithstanding the lack of improvement in her conduct, James and Janet again applied for permission to marry on 22 February 1843.  Once again, the application was refused.  James may well have given up at this point as he does not appear in connection with Janet again.

Janet was soon assigned again – to a Mr Fall at Evandale – and quickly returned to the factory (on 14 March) at her master’s request.

Incarceration

If Janet’s behaviour was motivated by a desire to return to the female companionship of incarceration, she could now consider herself successful.  The merry-go-round of unsatisfactory assignments came to an end.  Along with nearly 1150 women and children across the island, Janet was again confined within the walls of one of the colony’s ‘factories’.

A little over a fortnight after her return to the factory, on 27 March, Janet was found guilty of insubordination and assigned to twelve months imprisonment and hard labour, three months of which was to be served in solitary confinement!  On top of that she was also transferred from the Female House of Correction to the Launceston Gaol.  Fellow Rajah convict, Ann Headspeth, was similarly charged and, like Janet, transferred to the Gaol.

Janet only lasted four months in Gaol before she was in serious trouble again.  A second charge of insubordination resulted in a two year extension of her existing sentence of transportation and a transfer to Longford Gaol to serve out the remainder of her sentence of hard labour.  Ann Headspeath was also involved in this incident, along with Elizabeth Barrett, also of the Rajah.

Janet Robertson's convict record

Convict conduct record for Janet Robertson

It is difficult to believe that Janet’s behaviour was entirely calculated but perhaps there was an element of collaboration amongst those she had travelled with.  Perhaps, too, she suffered the consequences of solitary confinement, as the Rajah’s Surgeon Superintendent had pointed to three years earlier.  Its effects, compounded by the hopelessness she must have felt having been denied marriage and facing the prospect of many more months of hard labour and institutional life, must have had some impact on her mental state.

Indeed, a sad story in the Launceston Examiner a couple of months earlier, tells of the pain suffered by Phoebe Roberts, one of the convicts Janet probably knew at the Female House of Correction.  The newspaper reports that on the night of 23 May 1843, immediately after the gaoler and guard had completed their rounds there was a loud knocking on the door of the women’s ward, accompanied by screams of terror and fright.  Phoebe had made a second attempt at ‘self-destruction, and this time more determinedly than the first.  She had tied her left arm above the elbow so tightly that a penknife blade could scarcely be inserted to cut the ligature, and dashed a sharpened piece of stout wire into the vein, and so tried to bleed herself to death.  After losing an immense quantity of blood, it had voluntarily ceased to flow; yet being resolved to complete the deed, and suspecting no further interruption after the inspection for the night, she took a handkerchief and tied it so tightly round her throat that, in all probability, morning would not have seen her alive: but one of the other girls awakening, heard her fearful struggles, and gave the alarm.‘  Like Janet, Phoebe was two months into a sentence of twelve months imprisonment, three of which were to be ‘solitary’.

Certainly Janet’s experience since arriving in the colony appears to have done little to   achieve the sort of reform and rehabilitation that commentators were increasingly seeking from the colonial system.  As another new system of punishment was introduced, Janet seemed condemned to the vicious cycle of the repeat offender or, as they were labelled in the 1840s the ‘bad character’ or ‘refractory women’.

True to form, on 19 December 1843, Janet is again charged with misconduct.  On this occasion she managed to escape with an admonishment.  But in January she was ordered to serve further probation before being classified under the new system.

Marriage

What happened next is unclear because the next record we have, as soon as 2 February 1844, states that Janet is in assigned service at Longford.  That record is a request for permission to marry Samuel Winch.  Amazingly, on 20 March, the application is approved.  While Janet was in trouble again just three days later (probably before she even knew of the approval), on 1 April 1844 Janet Robertson married Samuel Winch at the Longford Anglican Church.  Samuel Winch, free by then, had arrived in the colony in 1830 aboard the Southworth. Transported for life for break and enter and theft, his record in the colony was also quite chequered.  He had felt the pain of the lash, had toiled in road parties, absconded from a chain gang and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour.

From this point on, Janet’s life takes an incredible turn.  Unfortunately there was to be too much sorrow ahead to claim a life of domestic bliss, but certainly the days of insubordination and misconduct were past.

Children and tragedy

Just over a fortnight past their first wedding anniversary, Samuel and Janet’s first child was born.  Elizabeth’s birth registration indicated that Samuel was working as a carter and the family was living at Longford.  Samuel registered the births of nearly all of the couple’s elven children, in each case signing the register with his mark.  Until 1851, his occupation was described variously as carter, carrier and labourer.

In January 1846, Samuel registered the birth of the couple’s second daughter, Mary.  Born on 10 December, sadly she died when just three months old, suffering from convulsions.  Twelve months later a son, Daniel, was born, but he survived less than two months.

In February 1849, another daughter, Martha was born.  She was to marry William Soden, the brother of my Great Great Great Grandmother, Eliza Gillam (nee Soden).

In July 1851, Alice was born.  Her birth registration indicates that Samuel was working as a shopkeeper in Longford.  Then, in June 1853, another son, Samuel was born.  But again, the family was to suffer the loss of an infant when Samuel succumbed to the rather graphically described ‘overflow of the bile’ at just two months old.

There was little time for Janet to recover.  No doubt eight year old Elizabeth was helping with Martha and toddler Alice as Janet was soon pregnant again, and baby Agnes was born twelve months after Samuel Jnr’s death.  In August 1856 another daughter, named for her mother, was born; followed in July 1858 by Christina Elizabeth, who was to marry my Great Great Grandfather, Thomas Gillam.

The next tragedy was the loss of young Agnes.  Just four years and nine months old, she died in May 1859 from ‘water on the brain’.  But still more tragedy was to follow.  In July 1860 another son, Samuel Thomas, was born only to die from dysentery before his second birthday.  Janet was already pregnant again and their last child, George, was born in October 1862.  Happily, he was to live seventy years.

Christina and Janet also lived into their seventies.  Sadly the other remaining children had much shorter lives.  In March 1864, just short of her nineteenth birthday, Elizabeth died from ‘slow fever’.  Martha died at 38 and Alice died at 26.

How tragic to lose so many children.  It is difficult not to think that there must have been some genetic predisposition that at least reduced the resilience of Janet and Samuel’s children during their infant years.  Perhaps the difficult years that Janet and Samuel had served in Van Diemen’s Land’s convict system had also taken their toll.

There is more to do to better understand Janet and Samuel’s life together and their living conditions.  Working for many years as a carter and a labourer, Samuel’s income was probably fairly low and his work arduous.  From 1851 he seems to have worked as a shopkeeper at Longford.  The 1858 Valuation Roll shows that Samuel was occupying a house and shop on a property of less than an acre, valued at £100, and owned by prominent citizen and parliamentarian, William Dodery.

In their later years Janet and Samuel no doubt took some joy from seeing their surviving children marry and have children of their own.  The first to marry was Martha. When she was seventeen years old, in April 1865, she married William Soden, a labourer and plasterer who was eleven years her senior.  Four months later their first child was born.  Sadly, she survived for only a day but the couple went on to have another six children, at least four of whom married.

Alice Winch married next.  In 1870 she married John Edward Reilly.  The couple moved to Victoria where they had six children, losing three in childhood before Alice’s untimely death.

In 1874, Christina married my Great Great Grandfather at Exton.  They had a large family – a dozen children – and Christina lived until she was 71 years old.

Two years after Christina’s wedding, Samuel and Janet were paying for daughter Janet’s wedding which, like the other girls’ took place in the family home.  Janet married James Garrett, a local labourer.  They had seven children, losing at least the first in infancy.

With all their children, bar George, married, Janet and Samuel’s next major challenge was the loss of two of their adult daughters. As already mentioned, in 1878, at just twenty six years of age, Alice died in Melbourne, leaving her husband to care for an infant and two young children.  Nine years later, Janet and Samuel lost their oldest surviving daughter, Martha.  At just under 37 years old, and also with young children to care for, Martha died on 11 November 1887 of scirrhus cancer of the brain.

Janet’s husband died on 18 December 1895.  He was 86 years old.  The death notice in the Launceston Examiner said that he died at his residence at Exton.  He was buried at Deloraine following a service at the town’s Presbyterian Church on Sunday 22 December.

Perhaps having wondered whether her youngest would ever marry (and perhaps hoping that he would not!), on 12 October 1898 Janet Winch, then aged 76, saw 36 year old George marry Charlotte Purton.  Charlotte lived locally, she was thirty one years old, an only daughter, and had not previously married. Marrying so late in life, the opportunity for a big family was curtailed.  They had two daughters, Janet Sophia and Ellen (known as Nell).

Just over a year after George’s wedding, on 3 December 1899, Janet Winch, former Rajah convict, died before she could see in the new century.  She was 77 and had died of senility, chronic gastritis and heart failure.  Her funeral, on Wednesday the 6th, left from her son’s home in Mill Street, Deloraine and she was buried, with Samuel, in the Presbyterian burial ground.

Please comment below or email me if you have any comments, corrections or additions to offer.

[Updated 6 May 2012]

Online resources

Janet Robertson on my Ancestry tree

Janet Robertson on Founders and Survivors

Janet Robertson’s convict conduct record CON40-1-8, 209

Janet Robertson’s convict description record CON19-1-142, 127

National Gallery of Australia’s page on the Rajah Quilt

Special thanks to Dr Trudy Crowley of the Female Factory Research Group for filling in some of the gaps in Janet’s convict history.

Note

The header image at the top of this page is a view Leith Harbour, c 1840

Since I wrote the above, I have received some additional information about Janet’s early life.  You can read about her early crimes here.

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