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  • Writer's pictureJacqueline Heron Wray

Janet Gallacher. Sentenced to 7 years in New South Wales. Crime, theft of clothes.

Updated: May 31, 2022

Convict Records Australia

I decided to climb back into my family tree to investigate my paternal grandmother’s branch. I have found so many interesting leaves and the odd twig of information and of course, the odd bough which has snapped off altogether. Lots of the usual, who got married to who, where they lived, how many children they had, census returns and valuation rolls... Then, I came across an Australian convict’s record. I immediately sat up and took notice, a bit of excitement and scandal among the mundane minutiae.

I discovered that Janet Gallacher, my fourth great-grandmother, was one of 146 people transported to Australia on the Mary Anne.

The Glasgow Court of Justiciary sentenced Janet to 7 years in New South Wales. Her crime? Theft. She stole some clothes.

Between 1788 and 1868, many crimes that we would consider to be minor today were punishable by hanging. There were 225 known capital offenses at that time, and transportation was introduced as an alternative to hanging.

The American Revolution in 1776 ended the practice of sending British and Irish convicts to North America. Prisons quickly became overcrowded and new penal colonies were sourced. On 13th May 1787, the first group of prisoners set sail for Australia. The most common sentence was 14 years. Usually, 7 years for less serious crimes, others were given life sentences.

Conditions on board the ships were cramped, unhygienic, harsh, and unforgiving. However, it has been reported that the crew did try to keep the ships clean and that the prisoner environment and conditions improved over the years.

As you might imagine there were many cases of seasickness and diarrhoea. Some people were sick and diseased before boarding and consequently died during the voyage. Cholera and typhoid fever was rife as were the rats, lice, and cockroaches. The ships’ surgeons were kept busy shall we say!

Many who survived the voyage, the violent storms, and extreme temperatures, arrived in the colony suffering from dysentery and scurvy. Water was strictly rationed on board to about one and a half liters per person per day. A pleasure cruise it most definitely was not.

When they arrived in the colony the men and women were condemned to work from sunrise to sunset six days a week. Rules were severe and stringently upheld. Breaking them could result in a spell of solitary confinement, wearing leg irons, or a whipping. The lash was used often and harshly. Convicts who committed serious crimes were sent to hard labour camps.

‘National Records of Scotland

Trial papers relating to Janet Gallacher for the crime of theft, habit and repute, and previous conviction. Tried at High Court, Glasgow

Precognition against Janet Gallacher for the crime of theft, habit and repute, and previous conviction Dates 11 Jan 1839 Accused Janet Gallacher, Verdict: Guilty, Sentence: Transportation - 7 years Previous convictions: theft.’

The documents I found then go on to describe Janet’s appearance…

Occupation: Kitchenmaid.

‘Janet was illiterate, RC, single, 5’2½” tall, ruddy freckled and pock pitted complexion, brown hair, chestnut eyes, nose cocked, lost a part of a front upper tooth, perpendicular scar on right side of the upper lip, scar on the back of the right hand.

Here is a (shortened) list of crimes committed by convicts transported to Australia.

Abuse, accessory to murder, arson, assault, assault and attempted robbery, bigamy, breaking, entering, and stealing, charged with an offense against the crown (smuggling), child stealing, coining, cow stealing, cutting, and wounding a policeman., Deception, desertion from the army, firing a haystack. forgery, fraud, and handling stolen goods. Housebreaking, house robbery, indecent behaviour, insubordination, Irish rebel, killing a deer, killing a horse, mutiny, murder, pickpocket, pig stealing, poaching, political prisoner, possession of a forged banknote, receiving stolen property, rioting/unlawful oaths, riotous conduct, rape, sacrilege, stealing 2 pistols, stealing 6 fowls, stealing a cap, stealing a hairbrush, stealing a handkerchief, stealing a memo book and two candlesticks, stealing feathers, cheese, beans, clothes, potatoes, rabbits, oranges, unnatural offense, vagrancy, theft of amongst other things, bacon, clothing from a master or mistress, and wounding with intent.

As I mentioned, this is a condensed version of the list I found. The good old days, eh? I also discovered that prisoners from Scotland tended to be convicted of less serious crimes than those from England and Wales.

When I reached the section of the document which mentioned Janet’s age, alarm bells began to ring. It stated that Janet was eighteen when she was convicted. This did not match my records. My Janet Gallacher was born in 1788 making her 51 in 1839. Also, my Janet had the maiden name of Good, the Janet who went to Australia was single.

I felt a mixture of relief and shame. I felt ashamed because Janet’s misfortune had brought a sense of excitement and interest to my family tree which has grown ever larger during the lockdown. How could I take pleasure in finding out about the plight of this poor girl? She may not be my Janet Gallacher, but she was someone’s, Janet Gallacher. Janet Gallacher of no fixed abode had been convicted of theft for the second time. Janet Gallacher battled day in and day out just to stay alive, to find food and a place to sleep at night.

The industrial revolution led to an increase of women and children being employed, it also meant lower wages. Factories and mines were extremely dangerous places to work. One of my ancestors was killed in 1866 after a roof caved in and he was buried alive under a mountain of coal in Number 3 pit, Springside colliery, Dreghorn, Ayrshire. He was thirty-six.

“No power of language could describe the varieties, and I may say the cruelties, in these degradations of the human form. They stood or squatted before me in all the shapes of the letters of the alphabet.”

MP after inspecting 80 children working in a textile factory.

In 1834, the Poor Law was introduced to deter poor people from seeking assistance. People in need were sent to The Workhouse and punished for being poor. Whole families were split up. Husbands from wives, mothers from children. All personal belongings such as clothes were taken, and rough scratchy uniforms were issued. They earned their keep, such as it was, by a harsh disciplinary regime of hard labour. Entry to the workhouse was voluntary but never an easy decision to make. Up until 1918 entering the workhouse meant that you could no longer vote. It was thought by some that paupers deliberately broke the law in the hope of being sent to prison where the food and accommodation were better.

Now, in 2021, the idea of transporting a person to the other side of the world because they stole a hairbrush, or set fire to a haystack, is almost unimaginable. (Please note, I am not condoning theft) I wonder if the consequences of committing a crime i.e., being transported were preferable to the daily struggle and drudge? Living by rules, all be it harsh ones, was preferable to the lawlessness of the streets? Regular food, however meager, is preferable to starving? I will never know how Janet felt.

Am I relieved that she was not my fourth great Grandmother? Yes, I am.

Will I ever forget her story? No, I will not.

Transportation was abolished in 1868. Many convicts chose to remain in Australia after they served their sentences, going on to lead happy and successful lives in the colony they had helped to build so far away from home.

Jacqueline Heron Wray, April 2021.

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