Mary Smith: Harmony ‘Beyond the Seas’

Mary Smith: A Short Biography.

Part 1

From the East End of London to the shores of Botany Bay

The Prospect of Whitby Inn, Wapping

Saturday 10 – Sunday 11 February 1827

Mary Smith expertly navigates a path over the icy cobblestones on Ratcliff Highway, her well-worn boots allowing the frozen snow to numb her toes. This winter is harsh, and the Thames is covered with brittle ice. At the best of times the congestion on the river is dreadful but the ice is hampering the flow of ships and the lightermen are struggling to bring goods to the wharf.  [1]

The church spire looms majestically in the disappearing February light.  -Mary quickens her pace.  It’s been many a long winter since she darkened the doorway of St Paul’s Shadwell. ‘The church of sea captains’ her mother used to call it, every Sunday as they entered through the gates. – Look! she would say, Jane Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s mother was baptised here and Captain Cook’s son!

One Christmas, when she was about three years old, Mary remembers her father’s cap near lifted off his head as he bellowed ‘Hark The Herald Angels’ at the top of his voice. It wasn’t long after that he left to fight in the war against the French. She swallows hard, blesses herself and says a prayer to St. Paul and St. James.

Turning right onto Wapping Wall, the wind from the docks near blows the slight girl over. Pulling her shawl tighter around her shoulders she leans into the gale. Tonight, she is dressed in her finest linens; her corset pulled that little bit tighter than usual. At the end of the dock wall, just past the pump house where the road curves to the right, she can see the glow from The Prospect of Whitby Inn, built during the reign of Henry V111 and still standing. The laughter and rowdiness of the sailors inside Wapping’s finest inn is as welcoming as a hot tin bath.

Known to all as the Devil’s Tavern, the old stone floor does nothing to warm Mary’s frost- bitten toes.  [2]  The same old faces, in various states of inebriation, greet her. The talk is as always of ‘Hanging Judge Jeffreys’ and the ghosts of the gibbetted pirates that hung above low water at Execution Dock until three tides drowned them. Wapping is inhabited with sailors, watermen and lightermen all working together to bring in tobacco, rice, wine, brandy, sugar and rum to the north bank of the Thames. When the tide is out there are often rich pickings washed up on the shore. Overworked and underpaid, there’s never enough work for a poor needlewoman. But to keep a roof over her head the twenty-year-old can earn a pretty penny ‘out on the town’. [3]  Unsavoury as it may be, it’s a necessary evil for many an unfortunate girl.

Chilled to the bone, the warmth brightens Mary’s mood. Circling the room, she catches the eye of Andrew Lesley the blacksmith. He’s had a few too many beers and is friendlier than usual. Whispering in his ear, the girl’s auburn ringlets fall seductively forward. He likes what she’s said and gets off his stool to buy her a drink. While he’s away from the table, Mary admires her needlework hitching her skirt a little higher. It’s as well that the room she shares on Bluegate Fields is empty tonight. [4]

Downstairs room, Bluegate Fields, Shadwell

Sunday 11 February 1827

The blacksmith has been spending money like a drunken sailor. After some cajoling and a promise of a good time, she lures him to her downstairs room.

Fifteen minutes later, after much fumbling around, the young man is full of bravado and insists they go out and drink more beer. At closing time he’s lost his purse and sets about a dreadful kerfuffle. It contains a crownpiece, seven half-crowns and seven shillings, he bellows. Mary looks at him aghast. It must have fallen out of your pocket in the street!

Take me back to your room, he demands. Mary gulps and suggests they search the street, but the blacksmith insists they return to her room to look for the purse. The purse is not there. Then he offers the distraught girl up to the local night watchman.

Newgate Prison, corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey Street, City of London

Monday 12 February – Thursday 15 February

The prison official delivers Mary to a shared cell in Newgate Prison. She sits on the stone floor among all manner of pitiful souls. I have arrived at one of the three gates of hell; she mutters to herself. The women are here for the same reason as Mary, pocket picking and stealing from the master. [5]  It’s the only way to put food in the children’s mouths, they say.

 A few weeks ago, at Newgate, Mary remembers watching arsonist Charles Thomas White dance at the end of his rope. The terrible scene excited the strongest expressions of horror among the crowd for the young man struggled violently. He tore the cap from his contorted face and gripped the noose so strongly that it loosened from around his neck. The spectacle was horrifying, and the hangman had to hang on the arsonist’s legs to end his suffering.  [6]  God forbid this be her fate, thought Mary

Old Bailey London’s Central Criminal Court

Thursday 15 February 1827

At 10 o’clock the stern-faced judge takes his seat upon the bench closely followed by the small prisoner who looks around the court in abject terror. The proceedings are ready to begin. Grandly, the indictment is read out with Mary accused of stealing money from the indignant prosecutor’s person. The counsel for the prosecution opens the case and calls the blacksmith as a witness. I had nothing to do with her whatever, he protests vehemently.

When the watchman takes to the stand to give his testament things are not looking favourable for Mary. I allowed the prisoner to lock the door before escorting her to the watch-house, on returning to the room with the prosecutor, I found the purse behind the stove.

Shortly into the proceedings, the night constable produces a purse deficient of 13 shillings, and the scales of justice tip weightily in the smug blacksmith’s favour.

The young prisoner has not been given an opportunity to speak for herself and has no one to call upon to give her a character witness. On receiving a verdict of guilty to pocket picking, Mary slumps to the floor of the dock. Her punishment is banishment for life to the penal colonies of Australia.  [7]     

The Head of the River Thames Steps, Westminster, London

Saturday 12 May 1827

The female prisoners form a line leading up to the gate that marks the end to life on British soil. The setting sun dazzles from a rainbow sky. It will be September when the ship arrives in Botany Bay. Once there she fears the searing sun will fry her white skin. Slowly they file past the stone buttress and down onto the boat. As they pass under Vauxhall Bridge, Mary is filled with lament. With a mournful sigh a ballad springs to mind. Softly she sings “The Transport’s Farewell,”

Come all you young fellows take warning by me

And never go midnight walking and shun bad company.

And never go midnight walking or else you will rue the day

While you will get transported and sent to Botany Bay. [8]

Mary digs into the pocket of her rough grey skirt and brings out a shining half-penny piece. One of the sailors, who has been her best customer, on hearing the young girl is to be carried over the seas, manufactured a token of his affection. [9] As the convict ship Harmony sets sail, Mary Smith knows she will treasure this copper coin engraved with her name, age and date till the day she dies. [10]

Part 2

Port Jackson and Beyond

Mary Smith Harmony Australia Convict Ships 1786-1849

Serenely the ship approaches shore. In the distance the trees present themselves regally and colourful birds never seen on the banks of the Thames, sing amongst the grottos that lie ahead. Gliding up the harbour and past the outlying peach sandstone rock the cargo of convicts is warned of creatures that waddle and bound through the Australian bush and the native dingo dog that can rip a baby in two. Having only ever seen pigeons, cats and stray dogs, the women fidget uncomfortably and wonder what this godforsaken place is.

Captained by Richard Middleton, the voyage on the Harmony was to last 115 days eventually arriving in Port Jackson on Thursday 27 September. [11]  The journal by the ship’s surgeon, William McDowell, reports cases of venereal disease, chest pains, debility and fever, but none he deemed overly serious. During the voyage, Elizabeth Addison who had been tried and sentenced on the same day as Mary Smith was injured when the boat rolled. Her knee was severely damaged causing her to be discharged to the hospital on arrival in Australia. Presumably Mary got through the voyage unscathed, as there is no mention of her in the surgeons lists of injuries and infections.

Port Jackson, New South Wales,

Monday 8 October 1827

 On 8 October, twelve days after Harmony arrived, the Colonial Secretary Alexander McLeay held the muster. In a painstakingly lengthy process, the following information was collected from each passenger: name, age, education, religion, marital status, family, native place, trade, offence, sentence, when and where tried, prior convictions, physical description and to whom assigned on arrival. Mary Smith’s convict indent is unremarkable: twenty years old, 4 foot 11 inches in height, unmarried and with no children. Her religion was described as Protestant and her education as ‘unable to read’. Just one detail makes her entry stand out from the many similar descriptions of the Harmony women. Her trade was entered as needlewoman – an occupation known for its nimble handiwork, as was picking pockets. And yet, noting down Mary Smith’s distinguishing characteristics, the convict secretary remarked on her ‘dumpy fingers. She had traded on her auburn hair and blue eyes to get by – and fumbling in a drunken man’s pockets. [12]

Before disembarking the ship Mary is assigned to her mistress Sophia Cahuac, who is waiting on the shore. Presumably Mary was happy with her assignment as there are no records concerning any absconding incidents and nor did she get into trouble with the authorities.

St James’ Church, King Street, Sydney

August 1828

Less than a year since arriving on the other side of the world Mary’s master has consented to her marrying twenty-three-year-old Robert Collis. Like his wife to be, he had been found guilty of picking pockets and cast out of Britain to serve 7 years in Botany Bay. At sixteen years of age Robert arrived on the convict transport Grenada on 16 September 1821. The 5-foot 6-inch errand boy from London with sallow pockmarked skin must have been perplexed at his new surroundings. On this crisp August day, the young labourer with neatly combed light brown hair is marrying Mary Smith at St James Church, King Street, Sydney. [13]

In June 1832 Robert receives his Certificate of Freedom meaning he is free to travel anywhere and can even return to his homeland if he could afford to do so.[14] Then some seven years later in October 1839, on account of her being disorderly, his wife’s application for a Ticket of leave is cancelled.  [15]  Now married for eleven years, possibly the Collis’s planned to acquire property or set up a business. But in the absence of any police records along with Mary’s clean conduct record on board ship; perhaps it was just an unfortunate incident that saw their plans thwarted.

Mary Smith 7 October 1839 Ticket of Leave Butts 1827-1875.
Mary Smith 12 November 1842 Ticket of Leave Butts 1827-1875.

Three years later, on 12 November 1842, Mary’s ticket of leave is granted under the proviso: ‘for so long as she remains with her husband.’ The thirty-five-year-old can remain in the district of Sydney where she must report regularly to the local authority and attend divine worship every Sunday. [16] As a ‘lifer’ Mary can apply for a Conditional Pardon, which would give her freedom of the colony and, if her conduct were to be satisfactory, she could apply for an Absolute Pardon whereby she too could return to the UK. Extant records confirm Mary did indeed apply for freedom yet, unlike her husband, there is nothing to suggest she was successful.  [17]

In 1851 and in the prime of his life, gold was discovered right on the Collis’ doorstep. [18] Did the Collis’s find riches on the goldfields of Australia? From humble beginnings to harmony ‘beyond the seas,’ perhaps Mary Smith, needlewoman and prostitute, ended her life in a loving relationship owning property in colonial Australia.


[1] British weather from 1700 to 1849 / History of the Port of London pre 1908/

[2] Prospect of Whitby.

[3] Victorian Prostitution.

[4] Bluegate Fields.

[5] Newgate Prison


[7] The Proceeding of the Old Bailey / Mary Smith digital panopticon

[8] Transportation ballads

[9] Tindal, C., Greiner, A. & Hallam, D., 2015. Harnessing the Powers of Elemental Analysis to Determine the Manufacture and Use of Convict Love Tokens-A Case Study. AICCM Bulletin, 36(1), p 45.

[10] Convict Love Token Collection. NMA

[11] Convict Ships to Australia 1788-1862

[12] Musters And Other Papers Relating To Convict Ships 1790-1849. Mary Smith; Ship name: Harmony; Record Set: Australia Convict Ships 1786-1849. Accessed via

[13] New South Wales Registers of Convicts’ Applications to Marry 1825-1851. Mary Smith and Robert Collis applied to marry in 1828. State: New South Wales; Record Set: New South Wales Registers of Convicts’ Applications To Marry 1825-1851. Accessed via

[14] Butts of Certificates of Freedom 1827-1867. Robert Collis; Ship name: Grenada; Record Set: New South Wales, Butts Of Convicts’ Certificates Of Freedom 1827-1867. Accessed via

[15] Ticket of Leave Butts 1827-1875. Mary Smith; Ship name: Harmony; Record Set: Australia Convict Tickets of Leave 1824-1874. Accessed via

[16] ibid.

[17] Recommendations for Conditional Pardons 1826-1856. Mary Smith; Ship name: Harmony; Record Set: Australia Convict Conditional And Absolute Pardons 1791-1867. Accessed via

[18] Australian gold rushes,a%20site%20he%20called%20Ophir.&text=The%20Australian%20gold%20rushes%20changed,the%20influx%20of%20free%20immigrants.

Published by roguesandmollsprisonvoices

I am a mature student studying English Literature and Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University. Blogging is a skill I have learned while researching Prison Voices Crime, Conviction and Confessions during 1700 - 1900 century. Connecting my work to Twitter and Facebook has been productive and exciting. Criminal literature and the historical context has been fascinating and I intend to keep studying .

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