Mary Talbot, c. 1766-1791

First Transported Female Letter Writer

Driven to steal by financial hardship, Mary Talbot was forced to leave her family behind when she was transported to Australia on the second attempt.

Early Days in London

Mary Talbot came to London from her native Ireland and married a London stone-mason. He suffered a severe injury at work, was taken to hospital and was unable to take up his trade again for a considerable while.1 By this point, Mary and her husband had at least one child.

In order to support the family, Mary took to theft. In February 1788, then aged about 22, she was apprehended for the theft of seven yards of printed cotton, valued at seventeen shillings, from a linen draper's shop in King Street, Covent Garden. She entered the shop carrying a baby and bought a small piece of Irish linen for two and a half pence, but was seen leaving with a much larger piece of cotton, concealed between her arm and the baby. At her trial for theft at the Old Bailey sessions in February 1788, she attempted to excuse her behaviour by saying that she had been drunk when the theft happened and did not know what she was carrying out of the shop. The witnesses, however, insisted that she was perfectly sober. Convicted of the crime, she was sentenced to seven years transportation to New South Wales.

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Escape from the Convict Ship

In the latter part of 1788 a group of transportees, including Mary Talbot, were taken from Newgate to the convict ship Lady Juliana, which was being made ready for the voyage on the Thames at Gravesend. This ship was to form part of the Second Fleet to sail for New South Wales.2 Mary became part of an escape plot devised by the friends and families of some of the female prisoners on board. On the night before the ship was due to sail, four women, including Mary and her baby William, went over the stern into a small boat, effecting the only successful escape from the ship.3

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Sentenced to Death

Mary made her way home after her escape, but in January 1790 she was arrested in High Street, Bloomsbury, for "being at large ... without lawful cause". She was tried at the Old Bailey in January 1790 for returning from transportation and was sentenced to death. She pleaded her only reason for escaping was that she found it impossible to breast-feed her baby on the ship because of the lack of sustenance for herself. Nonetheless, she was found guilty. When she was examined by the jury of matrons, she was also found to be pregnant. Consequently, her execution was delayed until she gave birth, which she did later that year in Newgate.

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Transportation to New South Wales

At the Old Bailey in October 1790 she received a conditional pardon and her sentence was commuted from death to transportation for life to New South Wales. To her distress, she was ordered to leave without any of her children, even though she claimed she preferred death to living without them.4 She was taken on board the convict ship Mary Ann, unable to either say goodbye to her husband or to receive any money or items from him for her voyage. The ship left Portsmouth on 23 February 1791, arriving in Sydney on 9 June.

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Letter to a "Benevolent Friend"

During her troubled times between 1788 and 1791, Mary was in touch with an unnamed "gentleman" in England who tried unsuccessfully to get the Talbot family transported together to America. On her voyage on the Mary Ann, she wrote to him (or had written for her) a long and moving letter. In it, she described the stormy voyage, the "crossing the line" ceremonies to mark the ship's journey past the equator, and the conditions on board ship. She begged him to continue trying to obtain a pardon for her which would allow her to be with her family once more. She asked him to tell her husband she had written; she hoped he was taking good care of the children. She asked "the gentleman" to respond by sending a letter by any ship's captain sailing for "Botany Bay". Her letter was posted on 29 March 1791 at St Jago, in the Cape Verde Islands, the only port of call for the Mary Ann. It was directed to Dublin, where it was published on the first of November in the Dublin Chronicle. It is claimed that Mary Talbot was the first woman convict letter-writer whose identity is known.5

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A Short Life Ends

Although in her letter to her benefactor, Talbot said that on board ship she was in "much better health" than she had been for a long time, she died only seven weeks after her arrival in Sydney. Her burial took place on 28 August 1791.6

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External Sources

  • The National Archives (TNA), Transportation Register, HO11/1.
  • New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages (accessed 24/11/2009), refs. V1791305 2A/1791; V1791328 4/1791.
  • Dublin Chronicle. 1 November 1791.
  • Nicol, John. Life and Adventures, 1776-1801, ed. Tim Flannery. Melbourne, 1997.
  • Clarke, Patricia and Spender, Dale, eds. Life Lines: Australian Women's Letters and Diaries , 1788 to 1840. St Leonards, New South Wales, 1992, pp. 6-8.
  • Keneally, Thomas. The Commonwealth of Thieves: the Story of the Founding of Australia. 2006, p. 231.

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1 For this stage of Mary's life, see Patricia Clarke and Dale Spender, eds, Life Lines: Australian Women's Letters and Diaries, 1788 to 1840 (St Leonards, New South Wales, 1992), p. 6.

2 The National Archives (TNA), Transportation Register, HO11/1.

3 Thomas Keneally, The Commonwealth of Thieves: the Story of the Founding of Australia (2006), p. 231, based on the record of John Nicol, steward of the Lady Juliana in his Life and Adventures, 1776-1801, ed. Tim Flannery (Melbourne, 1997). Two of the other women who escaped with her, Mary Burgess and Sarah Cowden, were arrested and tried for returning from transportation in September 1792.

4 Clarke and Spender, eds, Life Lines, p.6.

5 Dublin Chronicle, 1 November 1791; it is cited in its entirety in Clarke and Spender, Life Lines, pp. 7-8.

6 New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages (accessed 24/11/2009), refs. V1791305 2A/1791; V1791328 4/1791.

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About this Biography

Created by

Deirdre Palk 

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