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The family background of MARY ANNE MORTIMER nee GORDON (1837-1910) reveals a sad history only too common for many who were born in Australia in the early part of the nineteenth century. Her father GEORGE GORDON was transported to New South Wales for Life in 1819. Her mother NORAH, born in 1815, was the second daughter of TIMOTHY SULLIVAN and CATHERINE AHERN both transported from Kerry in Ireland in 1814 for ‘crimes’ as yet unknown.

Records of all those transported to the colony between 1788 and 1866 are meticulously preserved, although records of convictions and even length of sentences of Irish convicts, were sometimes never received. All convicts arriving in Australia were thereafter referred by the name of the ship in which they had arrived rather than their birthplace; almost as though the ship was the womb from which they had emerged having survived a gestation period of, on average, around 135 days on the voyage from England or Ireland.

Fig 1

In the thirty or so years before the arrival of TIMOTHY SULLIVAN and CATHERINE AHERN in Sydney in 1814 conditions for the unfortunate convicts being transported had gradually improved, mainly to ensure their survival in good health. Ships contracted were well found and closely inspected before receiving their human cargoes. Of the 496 ships employed in transportation over the eighty-year period until the practice ceased in 1866 only two foundered with large loss of life, although there were many tragic examples of deaths due to disease.

The health of the majority of convicts usually improved during their voyage, from the very sorry state in which most were received on board after long marches for the men, and sometimes long journeys in carts for the women, usually wearing inadequate clothing. Irish convicts tended to be far more able to withstand physical hardship. Most ships carried a Surgeon, as doctors were then termed, and usually the extensive regulations regarding the health and well-being of the convicts were followed.

It was inevitable however that, in such a large undertaking over the years (168,000 in total were transported) there were many instances of gross incompetence on the part of Surgeons and occasionally brutal treatment from the more ignorant captains and crews. The journals of several Surgeons and ship’s masters employed in the transportation of convicts survive.


The ‘Three Bees’, a first class ship of 459 tons built at Bridgewater in 1813, embarked her first convicts at Dublin on August 26th 1813 and completed her complement at Cork where she anchored on September 22nd. The weather had been sultry and at night the closely packed prison had been suffocating. Embarkation of prisoners was not completed until October 2nd and it was the 27th October before she sailed for Falmouth to pick up a convoy. The weather at Falmouth, where she was detained five weeks, was very cold and the prisoners had suffered severely.

Such was the hardiness of the Irish convicts that despite the extreme changes of temperature, and the fact that some of them had already been confined on board for three months, there were few sick when the ‘Three Bees’ eventually sailed on December 8th.

TIMOTHY SULLIVAN, age 21, a labourer, had been sentenced to transportation for Life at County Kerry Assizes in August 1812 so had been in custody for over a year before joining the ship. In all probability he had also walked in chains to Cork.

There is no record of a Surgeon accompanying the ship but Captain Jn. WALLIS ensured that the prison, a specially constructed and barred area below decks, was cleaned and fumigated regularly and that prisoners were admitted freely to the deck when conditions allowed. At Rio, where the ship called to replenish water and supplies, the weather was extremely hot and the temperature of the prison fell six or eight degrees when the prisoners had left for the fresh air on deck. One man died of fever but there was no hint that the voyage was to be unhealthy, and when she sailed on February 17th 1814 the number of sick was among the 219 male prisoners was small.

Fig 2

From Rio the ‘Three Bees’ headed for the southern Cape of Africa to pick up the prevailing westerly winds which circle the globe in the high Southern latitudes. They would carry her eastward before steering northeast for her destination Sydney. On February 27th, in the South Atlantic, a strange sail was sighted. Believing her to be an enemy - England was still at war with Napoleonic France and America, orders were issued for the convicts bedding to be brought on deck rolled, and made into a barricade. It remained on deck throughout the night and was drenched by heavy rain.

Efforts to dry the bedding failed and it was returned to the prison, the convicts being warned not to use it. However, they disregarded the orders and as a consequence, it was believed, scurvy broke out, causing seven of the nine deaths recorded.

On arrival in Sydney on 6th May 1814 after a voyage of 149 days many of the convicts required hospital treatment and were very badly affected by scurvy.

Fourteen days later the ‘Three Bees’ caught fire at her anchorage near Government wharf in Sydney Cove. The fire rapidly got out of control and a degree of panic ensued among the residents of Sydney when rumour magnified the thirty casks of gunpowder aboard to 130. It was feared that an explosion would cause untold damage to the town and its occupants, especially as all her guns were loaded. The crew had no chance of fighting the flames so cast her adrift in the hope that she would drift on the wind out of the harbour. The first of her guns went off at about 5.30, followed quickly by the remaining fourteen as the ship slowly gyrated scattering cannon fire in all directions. Luckily nobody was injured but one ball smashed in a window of the resident Naval Officer’s residence and damaged his writing desk. By 7.30 the ‘Three Bees’ had drifted onto rocks where her magazine exploded. She burnt throughout the night and by morning nothing remained above the waterline. Fortunately the convicts had been disembarked before the fire took hold.

CATHERINE AHERN had also been convicted at County Kerry Assizes to seven years transportation just two weeks before TIMOTHY. She was described as a ‘Country Worker’ age 20, but her crime(s) are at present unknown. She was twenty years of age and it was over a year before she embarked on a transport ship, bearing by coincidence her own name ‘Catherine’.

In the year preceding the ship’s departure from Falmouth, in company with the ‘Three Bees’ on 8th December 1813, there is little doubt that Catherine suffered the extreme hardship of confinement in a county or other gaol and a voyage from Ireland to Falmouth to join the ‘Catherine’. The transportation of female convicts was unpopular with ship’s masters who generally found their charges foul of language and temper. Illicit liaisons with members of the guards and crew were almost impossible to control.

Captain Win. SIMMONDS and Surgeon PALMER appear to have fulfilled their duties properly. Female convicts were thoroughly bathed and de-loused before embarking and issued with new clothing for the voyage which, although not particularly suitable for the extremes of temperature to be experienced were a considerable improvement on the ragged state of many.

As with male convicts particular attention was paid to the cleanliness of their prison quarters and, weather permitting, baths were taken daily on deck. It was fairly common practice on female convict ships that women were supplied with material and sewing needles so that they might fill the long days making clothing for themselves and for sale on arrival.

Whilst it would seem that CATHERINE was on the bottom or near bottom of the social ladder some female prisoners were of more genteel background having fallen on hard times and become subject to the severe and unforgiving laws of the times. Unfortunately we have no knowledge of the details of CATHERINE'S voyage into exile in regard to her fellow sufferers, although it is known that one of the 97 female prisoners aboard died during the 147-day voyage.

Ship ‘Catherine’ arrived in Sydney two days before the ‘Three Bees’, on 4th May 1814. One wonders whether CATHERINE was able to greet TIMOTHY when he was landed, as it seems most likely that they knew each other in Kerry. In any event their liaison was soon established as CATHERINE gave birth to their first daughter MARY early in 1815.

Their second daughter NORAH SULLIVAN was also born in 1815, followed by MARGARET in 1819 and, later, JANE. Clearly CATHERINE had an extremely hard life. Records show that she and TIMOTHY were living in Newcastle NSW in May 1818, when she applied for permission to travel to Sydney to collect money owing to her husband and were still living there when the remission of TIMOTHY'S sentence was considered.

Disaster struck on 14th October 1820 when TIMOTHY robbed a farm at Hen and Chickens Bay on the Paramatta River 5 miles west of Sydney. Refusing to surrender when detected and attempting to escape, he was fired at by the overseer WILLIAM CHALONER. TIMOTHY, his side full of musket shot, was taken to Sydney General Hospital where he survived a few days before dying of his wounds. CHALONER was subsequently indicted for murder but acquitted on the grounds that his action was justifiable.

Three months later CATHERINE was allowed to place her two eldest daughters, MARY 7 and NORAH 6, into the Female Orphan School and subsequently, in March 1823, by then ‘free’, she requested and was granted permission to marry EMMANUEL ELLIOT, ship ‘Neptune’, of Parramatta. The Official Minister who conducted the marriage duly witnessed was the Rev. THOMAS HASSALL (C of E.) - a name that will re-occur.

Trouble, it would seem, dogged CATHERINE. Four years later her Legitimate husband EMM. ELLOIT was serving a sentence in a chain gang at the notorious and isolated Port MacQuarie convict settlement, whilst she was also serving a three-month sentence in a female Factory. By this time MARY SULLIVAN, now 15, had been assigned from the Orphanage to Rev. HASSALL. The younger two daughters, NORAH 13 and JANE 11, were accepted into the Female Orphanage School and two years later NORAH was apprenticed, presumably as a servant, to a JOSEPH UNDERWOOD.

Fig 3

It is now that GEORGE GORDON enters the story. GEORGE was born in 1804, probably in London, and by the age of 15 was working as an Ostler (or groom). On 17 February 1819 he was tried before the First Middlesex Jury for ‘Highway Robbery’ and sentenced to transportation for Life. He was just 16. His crime is revealed in the Court Proceedings as being a case of pick-pocketting a watch worth £3 from a Mr. MEYER who was walking with a friend, at night, in Whitechapel.

Caught in the act GEORGE was immediately ‘secured’, and presumably given into custody of a ‘Bow Street Runner’, as the fledgling police were then known. There seems to have been no evidence or plea offered in his defence.

The extreme severity of his sentence, passed down by Sir JOHN SILVESTER, Bart. Recorder of the City of London, is perhaps beyond comprehension in our world nearly two hundred years later. However it should be viewed from the circumstances and attitudes of the time. Crime, especially street-crime was at an extremely high level and a large number of the ‘lower classes survived solely by criminality. The recent end of the Napoleonic wars, and the rapid growth of the industrial revolution had created mass unemployment and poverty. There was concern over the ever growing overcrowding of the prisons and insanitary hulks of redundant warships, which were used to house hundreds of prisoners. In consequence, transportation to a new colony was viewed by some in authority as an opportunity to reform malefactors. It also conveniently got them out of the way.

Moving GEORGE away from his environment may have been a blessing in disguise and it is interesting to note that the case heard immediately before his resulted in Life Transportation for the theft of a handkerchief!

In some respects GEORGE was lucky in that he was only held in prison, or a convict hulk, for five months before joining the ship ‘Malabar’ to begin his exile. Conditions were so bad that many convicts used every possible ruse to get aboard a transport ship as soon as they could, even covering up serious illness in the attempt if necessary.

‘Malabar’ was a well-found albeit somewhat elderly ship of 525 Tons built at Shields in 1804. She was captained by WILLIAM ASCOUGH and included Surgeon EVAN EVANS in her complement. 173 convicts including GEORGE were shipped aboard before she sailed from Spithead on 17th June 1819 but 3 were relanded, probably due to their poor state of health rendering them unlikely to withstand the voyage.

Captain ASCOUGH was an able man, as was his Surgeon, for the voyage via Rio to Sydney was completed in 135 days without loss of any of his charges. ‘Malabar’ arrived in Sydney on 30th October 1819.

At the time settlers, and ex-convicts, who had either purchased or been granted tracts of land in the colony were allocated convict labour to work their holdings, and were responsible for feeding and clothing their charges. George Gordon was sent to Rev. T. Hassell at Bathurst, and subsequently to a Mr. Hawkins.

Bathurst, 157 miles west of Sydney, had been established as a town in 1813 as a focal point for the development of the rich grazing lands, which had been discovered there following the penetration of the Great Dividing Range or Blue Mountains; which had sealed off Sydney and the coastal area from the interior.

It appears that GEORGE GORDON did well in working for Mr. HAWKINS, as he became his Overseer in due course. On 27th December 1830 was granted ‘Ticket of Leave’ whereby he gained more freedom, but would not have been able to leave the colony.

One wonders whether the Rev. HASSALL was instrumental in bringing GEORGE and NORAH SULLIVAN together for, in 1832, GEORGE applied to the Governor of New South Wales, Major-General Sir RICHARD BOURNE KCB, to be married to NORAH. Permission was granted on the 29th November 1832 and on Christmas Eve of that year they were married in Bathurst ‘With the Consent of Government’, the witness being NORAH'S brother-in law JOHN HEARN. NORAH was just 17 and GEORGE 28.

The union of GEORGE and NORAH (CHART 2) proved fruitful in that three children were born in their first four years of marriage, all in the area surrounding Bathurst. Their son GEORGE (Jnr.), born in 1835, going on to marry ELLEN ELDRIDGE and produce eleven offspring; and subsequently acquiring at least nineteen grandchildren by the end of the 19th century.

Their third child, after MARTHA and GEORGE (Jnr.), was MARY ANNE born on 23 June 1837 at Luie, near Mudgee, Bathurst.

Shortly after MARY ANNE'S birth GEORGE put forward a Petition to the Governor ‘most humbly praying for a Conditional Pardon. Despite by then having served eighteen years of his sentence, with no further convictions, and with his petition supported by two local officials, his plea was denied on the grounds that it was ‘not sufficiently recommended by persons who have known the Petitioner’!

We have no knowledge of MARY ANNE'S childhood although it is evident that she had little schooling, being unable to write her name at the time of her marriage at the age of seventeen. Undoubtedly it was rugged, a preparation for rigours to come.

In the early 1850’s Bathurst and its surrounds were the site of the discovery of gold, in considerable quantities. The ensuing ‘rush’ of hopeful adventurers denuded the towns and farms of working men and attracted all manner of men to seek a quick fortune. It was at this time that WILLIAM MORTIMER arrived on the scene.

Fig 4


1. Copies of original documents supplied by St. Mary’s Cathedral Archives, Sydney NSW.
2. ‘The Convict Ships’ 1787-1868. Charles Bateson. Brown, Son & Ferguson Glasgow 1959,1985 ISBN 0 85174 195 9
3. ‘A Short History of Australia’ Manning Clark Macmillan Company of Australia 1981 ISBN 0 333 33735 2.

W.E.M. November 2000

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