Elizabeth Dewsnap (1797-1883)
by Linda Moorhouse
One quiet evening in February 1883, the local policeman of Longford, Tasmania called in on Elizabeth McComb. Elizabeth was 86 and very frail. The policeman knew all about Elizabeth’s life in Tasmania. She had certainly lived life to the full. She had had three husbands, was constantly in trouble with the law for prostitution, drunkenness, neglect of duty and receiving stolen sheep.
Now she was near to death and the policeman felt compassion for her.
“What was your life like before you came to Tasmania, Elizabeth?” he asked her.
She took a deep breath and thought for a while then her hazel eyes cleared and she began reminiscing.
“I was born in Sheffield in 1797 – life was hard.” She fingered the scar she had over her right eye and the policeman saw the crippled middle finger of her left hand.
“As soon as I could, I moved to Manchester to work as a servant. It would have been good to get a better job but I couldn’t read or write.
“When I was 21, in 1818, I met a man called William Collins. Will was a labourer in Manchester and on Christmas Day, after having a few drinks, he persuaded me to steal some money. He said that we wouldn’t be caught, it would be easy and we could have a good time. So we stole 5 shillings worth of goods from Thomas Newbrook but we got caught!
“Soon we found ourselves on the way to Lancaster Castle for the Assizes. As we approached Lancaster, we caught our first glimpse of the Castle and our hearts sank. As a prison, Lancaster Castle was one of the strongest and best regulated in the kingdom. We were very afraid.
“We entered the Castle and were taken to our Wards. Mine was surprisingly neat and clean. As we were Remand prisoners we wore blue and red uniforms. The Time prisoners wore blue and yellow. I thought I might see Will on Sunday in the Chapel but the women were brought into the Chapel last and were put into an apartment in the corner so contrived that the men and women couldn’t see one another.
“Our trial was on the 20th January. I was very apprehensive as more people had been sentenced to be hung in the Crown Court of Lancaster Castle than any other court.
“The Court was a gloomy place and was soon crowded with spectators, mainly women. The governor of the Castle was at the bar with the Chaplain at his side. The jurors were called into the box, then the Counsel entered in their flowing gowns. The judge entered wrapped in his scarlet robes and curly wig. He bowed to the standing Counsel and the Jury. He then ordered me and Will to be placed at the bar and the trial began.
“The verdict was that Will was found guilty and he was whipped before being discharged but I was found guilty and sentenced to be transported for seven years! Apparently they needed more women in the colonies and sent all healthy females regardless of their crime.
“I was one of 126 female convicts on the ship ‘Maria’ which arrived in Sydney in September 1818 then I was put on the ‘Elizabeth Henrietta’ and arrived in Van Dieman’s Land on 11th October, 1818.”
Elizabeth closed her eyes and the policeman thought that it wouldn’t be long now before she departed to another life. Probably full of excesses like this one!
He knew that he would be the one to inform the authorities of her death. The law had been her close companion throughout her life.
I was inspired to research this topic because the Castle Park has been part of my life. Every time we had visitors, we would take them to the Castle and show them the hanging corner and tell them about the Lancashire Witches. The Priory has been the venue for many Carol services and school events. When Lancaster organised the Georgian Festivals, Maritime Festivals & Fireworks – we went and enjoyed everything. During the day, it is a quiet place to go – to sit on someone’s grave, read a book or just admire the view.