Newcastle’s Convict Women Exhibition

The plights of convict women who overcame great hardships will be explored in an upcoming Newcastle Library exhibition.

They Sent Me North: Female Convicts in the Hunter features redemptive stories on the women’s struggles and achievements, a display of bonnets in the style they sported and a bonnet-making workshop in their honour. 

Pictured ~ Mary Eckford (nee Horrell) was sentenced aged 14 in Devon for stealing an apron and a handkerchief in 1798 . She married Newcastle Harbour Master William Eckford in 1802 and they had eight children, who went to Newcastle East Public School.

Both the historical snapshot and a book of the same title were developed by Newcastle Family History Society to celebrate the lives of the 1,600 women sent to the Hunter between 1804 and 1822.

If you want to find out if you have a connection to those resilient women, this is a must-see exhibition,” Councillor Nelmes said. 

The book is a fascinating database of the female convicts sent to Newcastle and the Hunter, and includes 70 short biographies penned by their descendants.

One remarkable character was retailer Ann “Hannah” Langham. Her Hunter Street shop was fondly remembered by Novocastrians well into the 20th Century, and we’d love to hear from one of her descendants ahead of the exhibition.”

‘Mrs Langham’s store’ amounted to Newcastle’s “commercial world” in 1859, the Newcastle Morning Herald wrote in 1897.

Transported for stealing a watch at age 19, Langham (nee Williams) was assigned to a reverend’s Aboriginal mission at Lake Macquarie after arriving at Port Jackson in 1829.  

The former London laundress married Samuel Langham as a free woman in 1832 and, following his two-year jailing for indebtedness and the death of a daughter, they opened their store opposite the old courthouse in the mid to late 1840s. It became “the only business of any consequence on the main street” and a “fancy warehouse”, recalled the Newcastle Sun on 31 October 1938.

Mrs Langham closed her store in 1879 – 25 years after Samuel died – and was thought to have moved to Sydney. She had returned by 1890 and died seven years later at the Benevolent Asylum in Waratah at 87. Despite the cause of death being listed as “senile decay”, the Herald dutifully reported “she retained all her faculties to the last”.  

The exhibition is part of Roses from the Heart, an Australia-wide initiative created by Dr Christina Henri, which pays tribute to all convict women sentenced to transportation in Australia.

Mel Woodford, Newcastle Family History Society President, said the bonnet displays and workshop idea emerged from the book.

Jan Richards, fellow member of the Newcastle Family History Society, and I have been working on this publication for four or five years now, and it just seemed fitting to honour the convict women by displaying the bonnets created by their families,” Ms Woodford said.

The exhibition is a collaboration between Maitland & Beyond Family History Inc., Newcastle Family History Society Inc. and Raymond Terrace & District Historical Society Inc.

The exhibition runs from 31 July – 24 August during the library’s regular opening hours.

Launch date

When: Tuesday 30 July, 5.30pm

Who: Dr Christina Henri, 2014 Senior Australian of the Year (Tasmania) and Lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes.

Where: Lovett Gallery, Newcastle Library, Lovett Gallery.

Two shortened bios from the Exhibition

Margaret McGreavy (nee Tynan):

A few months after Margaret’s husband was transported from Ireland in March 1817, she too was convicted of stealing. In a planned penance, she found herself in Port Jackson aged 21 the following year.

The couple were living together in Sydney in 1820 when both were caught receiving stolen goods and sent north to Newcastle. An alleged rape of their daughter somehow led them to Port Macquarie, but both Margaret and her husband James returned to run Newcastle pubs from 1833.

Margaret died in 1865 and was remembered as a pioneer of the Newcastle East End. Her grandson, James Nixon Brunker, after whom Brunker Road was likely named, became a Member of Parliament in 1880, Minister for Lands in 1888, Colonial Secretary in 1884, and was considered one of the Founding Fathers of the Australian Constitution,

Maria Courtney

Maria was transported with six members of her family for counterfeiting sixpences in the Borough of Berwick-upon-Tweed in northern England. Initially sentenced to hang, she gave birth to a son two weeks before her date with the gallows on 5 August 1816.

Their sentence was commuted to life and transportation to Australia. Aged 27, Maria arrived in Port Jackson aboard the Friendship in January 1818. She married Dennis Hammil in September that year and had two daughters before the family took on a 10-acre farm at Windsor on the Hawkesbury.

Two sons followed their move to Richmond before they moved to East Maitland (then Wallis Plains), where Maria died aged 38 in 1828, leaving Dennis to raise four young children.