In  December 1841 a shabby, careworn woman entered a London  shoe shop, brazenly picked up several items and walked out.  It was a  theft that made no sense at all;  she had  taken a  random couple of boots and a single clog!  The owner  followed,  asking  her to give them back. He was a decent fellow and had no desire to get her into trouble. To his amazement she refused, saying she would only surrender them to a policeman.  As soon as a  Bobby  was called she handed over the property, but said she wanted to be charged with robbery.

The motive behind this strange behaviour was heartbreaking.

The woman  was  47 year old  Catherine Bryan,  a widow  from the slums of  Stepney, in London’s East End.

Slums in London's  Stepney where Eliza Bryan and her mother lived.
Slum housing in Stepney.

Catherine was originally from Ireland. It was not the first time she had been in trouble. In August that same year she and her  17 year old  daughter Eliza  had stolen some  pewter drinking pots from local pubs.  They were arrested after a policeman saw them loitering near the King’s Head  and ordered them to move along.

The King's Head, where Eliza  and her mother Catherine  stole the drinking pots.
The King’s Head

As the women walked off, two pots fell from Eliza’s clothing. Two more were found on Catherine, who freely admitted their crime. She said she did it only to prevent them from starving. The prospect of gaol  did not seem to worry her in the slightest, at least she and Eliza  would be housed and fed.

Mother and daughter appeared in court  at  the London  Mansion House, accused of stealing pots, including one  from publican Thomas Thornton of The King’s Head. Catherine was asked by the Lord Mayor why she hadn’t applied to the parish for poor relief instead of resorting to theft;

Oh your Lordship, if only you knew what it was to apply to  a parish for help. God help us, we did apply. I went with this poor child to ask for even a little bread and the ‘relieving’ overseer as they call him….the devil relive in him!…..shut the door in our faces.’ 

Legal session at The Mansion House, where Elia Bryan and her mother Catherine appeared for stealing/
Legal session at The Mansion House, circa 1840. (Wikipedia)

She then stated  that several years  prior to this occasion her  younger daughter  had been flogged to death by the overseer, and that she had been forced to carry the  coffin to the grave herself.  It appears  she was speaking the truth. Records show that in 1836, Mary Bryan, aged two and a half, had died and been buried in Stepney’s  Globe Field burial ground.

Catherine’s  final comment was so eloquent;  a true  reflection  of society’s treatment of the poor in 19th century England;

‘A mother of  children without anything to give them is the best judge of distress.’

The Lord Mayor was unmoved. He told the prisoner that she was especially culpable because she had led her daughter into crime. He committed them both for trial. Young Eliza burst into tears, but her mother appeared quite satisfied. She had achieved her goal of getting them off the street.


Old Bailey, where Eliza Bryan and her mother stood trial.

The pair appeared for trial later that month, where it was revealed that Eliza had a previous conviction. When she was 16 and employed as a farm servant, she had stolen a shawl from her employer. She had been sentenced to six months imprisonment. This made her situation far more serious, and completely wrecked her mother’s plans.  As a second offender, Eliza was sentenced to seven years transportation. Catherine was  sentenced to only three months gaol, but for a loving mother the prospect of separation must have felt like a death sentence.  It occurs to me that Catherine may not have been aware of her daughter’s past trouble, especially if Eliza had been employed somewhere in the countryside. If she did know, then it showed an unfortunate ignorance of the judicial system.

Catherine behaved impeccably  as she served her time. All she could think about was being released as soon as possible. Transportation took time to organize and she hoped to at least see Eliza before her ship sailed

Eliza had been placed on board the convict hulk Emma Eugenia, moored   down the Thames at Woolwich.  Her mother left prison at the end of November and hurried down  to the docks.  I wonder what she was thinking?  Perhaps she had wild ideas of  stowing away, or  of somehow spiriting her daughter off the ship. Or did she just hope for one  last glimpse of her child?

Convict ship Emma Eugenia that broke the heart of a mother.
Convict ship Emma Eugenia

Tragically, It was all too late. The ship had  sailed for Van Dieman’s Land on November 24. On April 9 the following  year it arrived in Hobart. Eliza was  now 11,000 miles from  her grieving mother.


Back in London, Catherine refused to give up. If two offences meant transportation then she would simply  commit another theft. It was at this point that she entered the  shoe shop and calmly walked out with the boots.

When she appeared before the magistrate she was asked if she had appeared before.

Catherine – Oh indeed, I have so, and I won’t easily forget it. My daughter, the only relation and  friend I have in the world, has been transported for what brought her and me here, for taking pots, and I am left alone.

The Lord Mayor, Sir C. Marshall,  told Catherine  she was deliberately trying to make the court system pay  for her  journey out to join her daughter,  and that it would never  be allowed  to happen;

Lord Mayor  – ‘You led your poor girl into the offence of pot stealing…… and now you are sorry when it is too late.’

Catherine – ‘It was sheer famine that drove us to anything to get victuals  Hunger was the cause, and what chance can I have remaining?  I shall, if you don’t commit me, go away and commit a more serious robbery.’

Lord Mayor – ‘I shall certainly send you  for trial. I place too much credit in your word to let you go at liberty.’

Catherine – ‘I shall not deny a word of this in court., my Lord, you may depend upon it. The Lord in Heaven forgive me my sins.’   She then burst into tears and was led from the court.

Several days later  her  trial took place.  She was asked if she had a character witness, to which she replied, ‘Almighty God’.   After pleading guilty  she was  sentenced to two years with  hard labour. In the  circumstances of her case, this was an act of utter bastardry.  What harm would it have done to transport the poor woman, and reunite a desperate mother with her daughter?    However, by this time Catherine had done with  tears and was back to her feisty self. The trial report reads;

‘The prisoner, who was unprepared for this decision, seemed startled, but quickly recovering herself she replied, folding her arms in a determined manner, ‘Oh very well, do as you like; as soon as ever I get out I’ll go a thieving again, you’ll see if I don’t!’

But she never did go ‘a thieving’ again. I suspect she understood that her papers had been marked, ‘NEVER TO BE TRANSPORTED’.

Catherine spent the rest of her life in  and out of  workhouse houses,  at Wapping and  at Raine Street, Stepney.  She died in her  mid sixties. What a tragic figure, and yet how  courageous she was.

In Tasmania, Eliza  eventually gained her Ticket-of-Leave. In 1845  she married another convict, William Singleton, my 3 times great  grandfather. Theirs was no rags to riches story, but  there were   certainly  more opportunities in their country of exile than  in the one they left behind. Neither had been model prisoners, particularly William, who endured  the most  awful punishments for his  transgressions.  But eventually they  pair settled down and created  a decent life  together at Sassafras, in north-west Tasmania, where William became a farmer…… and chief tea maker at his local church!

It is unlikely that Eliza kept in touch with her mother, as she was virtually illiterate. However, I was touched to find that she called her first child Catherine. Her second  daughter was named Mary,  no doubt  in memory of her little sister.  William and Eliza  produced six other children, including my great-grandfather, John.

In 1890, Eliza died from heart failure, aged 69. It has recently been discovered that she lies with William in the Methodist churchyard at Sassafras.  Plans are in place to erect a memorial stone.

The country church where Eliza was buried.

I have been thinking back to the trial where Catherine named Almighty God as her character witness. It seems to me that he would have given a pretty good account of her. Her only crime was  in attempting  to provide for and protect her  child, and she certainly did her best.  Her life was a sad indictment against the society she and so many like her were born into,  chronicled so movingly by authors such as  Charles Dickens. In January 1861 Dickens  visited the women’s section of workhouse at Wapping, where Catherine spent a good deal of time in later life  In his essay published in The Non-Commercial Traveller he described  what he found;

I’m very proud to acknowledge Catherine as my ancestor. I have no idea what she looked like and nor do I have a photograph of Eliza.  But  Eliza’s son John Singleton was a very decent, hardworking man.

Eliza’s son John Singleton (seated far left) with his family, circa 1900.  My grandmother Alice  is second from left, back row.

Here is a brief story of Eliza’s husband WILLIAM SINGLETON  He was quite a character!


  1. “The Good Old Days”. 😢 Beautifully written and what a heartbreaking story, Pauline.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Fiz. I only found out about this recently. So dreadfully sad. Nice to find I have a drop of Irish blood though.

  2. What a wonderful tribute to an amazing woman! Thanks so much for sharing her story.

    • Pauline

      Thanks for taking the trouble to leave a message, Katrina. Yes, she was a special woman.

  3. Thanks for sharing this lovely story. I have just studied Convict Australia at UNE so your story added to the theory.

  4. Once more, your research is immaculate. That is such a fine story about the love of a mother in the worst possible conditions experiencing all of the unimaginable scarcity of commodities we take for granted. But, it’s such a wonderful story of the heritage you have been left, the resilience of your ancestors. I loved the photograph and that’s something you have to look back on into the past. You can superimpose workworn and thin faces in shabby clothes of Catherine Bryan and her 17 year old daughter, Eliza onto two of the female faces in the photo. Eliza’s son has done very well to reach the level of prosperity that is would have taken to dress the family like that and to have them looking so well.

    • Pauline

      Thanks, Heather. You comments are always so insightful and generous.

  5. Heartbreaking! Beautifully written

  6. What tough beginnings you originate from Pauline. I was really moved by your tale, and you have every reason to be proud of your feisty ancestors. Poor Catherine, how desperate she must have been, and what heartache, first losing baby Mary from such unbearable cruelty, then later, her daughter Eliza.

    • Pauline

      Yes Marcia, all my ancestors, both free settlers and convicts, had incredibly tough lives. I think that’s why I treasure the small joys of life so much. I also realize what a privileged life I lead, even though ‘brands’ and all that nonsense mean nothing to me at all.

  7. Thank you for this delightfully put together story of hardship and distress. I found the story moving and could picture the poor women involved.

  8. Thank you for another of your interesting and well-written stories, Pauline. What a lovely photo of a respectable Sassafras family! Who would guess where they ‘came from’?
    Aspects of Catherine’s and Eliza’s stories must be so typical of those times. Our transported convict ancestors surely came to a ‘lucky country’ where they could make a new life for themselves if they made the most of their opportunities and got the right ‘breaks’!
    Poor Catherine, if only she hadn’t been so honest, she may have made a new life here as well!

    [I hope this message gets through as I keep getting this message when I post]

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    • Pauline

      Thanks for your message, Lorraine. Yes, if only Catherine hadn’t mentioned Eliza’s transportation she might have been on the next ship and able to join her. All so sad and inhumane.

  9. I loved this story. All through it I could not imagine how indifferent people were towards those who were unfortunate. It seemed callous and cold hearted. I’m sorry things turned out so hard for Catherine. That was a hard life for her and her daughter but I was happy to hear Eliza ended up with a family and was able to move forward.

    Thanks for writing this.

  10. Family history can be so fascinating! What a sad tale this one was.

  11. Wow How sad that is! Some sad tales in our family history. The Singletons connect into my tree further down the line. Thank you for sharing this story.

  12. What an interesting and heartbreaking history. Life was hard for the poor at that time. No reform, no public aid, and the class differences made working towards a better situation nearly impossible. Sad, all around. Thank you for sharing.

  13. Hi Pauline, a very moving story, showing the strength and determination of these ladies, its difficult for us to know and feel the poverty and desperation that was endured back then, you have written the story well showing such insight and glimpse of our past, very sad for Catherine and her daughter, but Eliza was strong and courageous to move forward after such an endurance, and have a lovely family to tell the tale, god bless them and their strength for life

    • Pauline

      Yes Heather, those old court records really bring it home, don’t they? It was a privilege to share their story. And so many sons of these families fought and died for the ‘old country’ in WWI.

  14. I am now trying to write my Family History. Pauline, I thoroughly enjoyed your story, not only the content, but the way it was written. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Pauline

      Thanks for taking the trouble to leave a comment, Chris. It’s a wonderful thing to write your family history. Good luck with it!

  15. What a story. And what amazing research that allowed it to be written. Thanks for sharing.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Chris, it was such an emotional journey for me writing the story. I feel very proud of Catherine. What a wonderful mother
      she was, in such terrible circumstances.

      • My favorite ancestor so far is also Catherine. She came to Ayrshire from the Isle of Mull, probably due to the Highland clearances. She came to work or look after children on a farm. She became pregnant by the farmer and married him.

        • Pauline

          Oh dear me. Was she happy do you think? I’ve spent quite a bit of time on Mull and in Ayrshire researching Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his family. The clearances were terrible.

          • Hi Pauline
            I like to think she was happy. They stayed together till John died. He was much older than her. Their son went on to become a Draper in Greenock and made a lot of money so her last years were spent in relative comfort.I have written her story.
            Where are your ancestors from in Ayrshire?

          • Pauline

            Well the Macquaries were not my ancestors, I was just researching from a general Australian history point of view. However, my paternal great grandmother came from Greenock, which seems to my only drop of Scottish blood.

  16. Hi Pauline ,
    another great story I am having so much fun researching our courageous ancestors. my family is growing in leaps and bounds and its all through your kind assistance and willing to share my novel that has percolated in my mind for many years now has a chance to flow free lol

  17. Hi Pauline ,
    another great story I am having so much fun researching our courageous ancestors. my family is growing in leaps and bounds and its all through your kind assistance and willing to share . My novel, that has percolated in my mind for many years now has a chance to flow free lol

    • Pauline

      Hi Marilyn, I’m glad you are interested in our ancestors. I will be waiting anxiously for your novel!

  18. Thank you for such an interesting story. It has often been said that people committed crimes in order to be transported rather than spend time in English prisons but I was never sure if this was accurate. Your wonderful story confirms it.

    • Pauline

      I must admit I was amazed, and very moved when I read what Catherine had done, Clancy. Just so heartbreaking that it didn’t work out as she wished.

  19. I came to your site searching for information about the “Emma Eugenia” as my ancestor, James Allen, had come to Port Jackson aboard her as an immigrant in 1849. I think you have done a very fine job of conveying the story of your ancestors. The tale was quite moving. One of my convict ancestors, Mary Martin, who was evidently a first offender, and only sixteen, was convicted of shoplifting in 1789 and transported for seven years. It seems likely that the jury reduced the value of the shawls whe was said to have taken so as to save her from the noose. Regrettably, she was transported with the notorious “privatised” Second Fleet. I was interested to see that the law had slightly softened by the time your unfortunate ancestor was sentenced, in that a first offender would not be transported, though it did, of course, help her.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Jim. Poor young Mary, I hope things went well for her in Australia. Interestingly, my father’s family were Allens, from Syderstone in Norfolk.

  20. As a descendant of William and Eliza I am very glad I found this story thank you so much

    • Pauline

      You’re welcome Christine. Thanks for taking the trouble to leave a message. 😊

  21. Thank you for a sad, while amazing story! Those times were so hard for so many people!
    My own family history includes the Sweetingham family. A mother (Lydia Hart), her daughter (Elizabeth Sweetingham) and little grandson (Alexander Sweetingham) who all came out together on the convict ship Eliza III, arriving in Hobart, Tasmania in 1830. The 2 women were put into the Female Factory and the little boy into the Orphan School in New Town. The daughter was convicted for steeling some fabric and I believe her mother claimed to be the recipient of the stolen material just so she could stay with her family. It worked for her and both women married again in Tasmania!

    • Pauline

      Thanks for bothering to leave a comment Berenice. Wow, your family came very early. Their story is so similar to ours. I’m glad things worked out for them….well I hope it did.

  22. Thank you so much for this.

    Eliza’s son William and daughter Maria both married in to my line – to the children of Margaret McDonald and Robert Wright.

    I am descended from Margaret’s sister Janet who married William Chilcott.

    There are stories there too – you’ve inspired me to have a try at telling them.

    • Pauline

      How interesting Sue. Yes, do record the stories. They deserve to be remembered.

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