In colonial New South Wales, a convict girl defies a panel of magistrates and refuses to accuse her master of sexually abusing her. Were the magistrates concerned for her welfare, or was there something else going on?
The penal colony of New South Wales, 1822. Ann Rumsby, a beautiful convict girl, was brought before the Parramatta Bench. The magistrates had evidence, they claimed, that her master had sexually molested her. Despite being browbeaten for five hours, Ann refused to testify against her master, sturdily maintaining that no such act had taken place. Although charged with perjury and imprisoned, she was immediately released by order of the Governor. Two years later, Ann’s case was reviewed, the charges were quashed and she received a free pardon.
So, who was speaking the truth? Was it the magistrates, pillars of New South Wales society, all rich landowners and one a missionary? Or the convict girl transported to Australia for theft?
By 1822, New South Wales was still predominantly a penal colony, but its governors, at this time Sir Thomas Brisbane, and his predecessor, Lachlan Macquarie, were striving to make it into a successful and prosperous outpost of the British nation. To do so they took advantage of any useful skills offered by its inhabitants, be they convict or free settler. To this end they gave tickets-of-leave to convicts with skills and enterprise. Although still technically felons and unable to return to Britain, they were given leave to live and work freely in the colony. Many of these ‘emancipists’, such as architect Francis Greenway and surgeon William Redfern, made important contributions to the life of the colony and were even welcome at the Governor’s table.
But although at the opposite end of the world, New South Wales was still beset by the class and religious prejudices of its mother country. The elite of the colony, landowning gentlemen, who had come as free settlers and administrators, saw themselves as intrinsically superior to the predominantly working class convicts. They were offended by the favour shown to the emancipists. They saw no need to allow such leniency to habitual criminals for whom the ‘lash and chains’ were their natural lot. And as landowners they needed the convicts as docile forced labour without dangerous aspirations to better themselves.
At the same time, Evangelicalism was taking hold in Britain, a brand of Christianity that could display, on the one hand, selfless compassion, and on the other, severe intolerance. While it inspired men such as William Wilberforce to establish missionary societies and campaign to end the slave-trade, it also sanctioned the adoption of restrictive moral values that allowed the upper-classes to denounce the under-classes as irredeemably criminal and licentious. The harsh realities of life for the working-class in teeming cities such as London, or in poverty-stricken villages, allowed little leisure for such moral niceties.
One of the magistrates who heard Ann Rumsby’s case embodied both extremes. The son of a blacksmith, Samuel Marsden showed early promise as a lay preacher and came to the attention of Wilberforce. It was through his patron’s recommendation that Marsden accepted the position of assistant to the chaplain of New South Wales in 1793. A committed missionary, Marsden’s initial enthusiasm to convert the convicts fell victim to the grim pragmatism of working-class attitudes. But his attempts at ministering to the convicts soon came into conflict with the necessities of his growing landholdings and his role as a magistrate. He became known as the ‘flogging parson.’ By 1822 he had become a stalwart of the landowning class and was convinced that the convicts were intractable sinners.
In 1821 Dr Henry Douglass arrived in New South Wales with his family, armed with letters of introduction from Earl Bathurst, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, to the Governor, Lachlan Macquarie. Governor Macquarie quickly put the brilliant young physician to work making him a magistrate, the head of the general hospital and superintendent of the Female Factory, the establishment which housed newly-arrived women convicts and also acted as a penitentiary for female re-offenders.
Douglass soon became an enthusiastic member of colonial intellectual life and a friend of the new Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane. But this friendship, his connections in high places, and his compassionate attitude towards the convicts in his care also put him at odds with the landowning elite and Samuel Marsden in particular.
So it was with great zeal that Marsden acted on the report he received on the evening of July 31, 1822 from naval surgeon, Dr James Hall. Hall had recently arrived in New South Wales on the Mary Ann, a female convict ship on which he had served as surgeon. He told Marsden that he had called on Dr Douglass in Parramatta that morning. Finding him away from home, he had been about to leave when his servant, Ann Rumsby, who had been a convict on Hall’s ship, ran after him and asked to speak to him. A few weeks earlier she had been taken from the Female Factory to work as a domestic servant for Dr Douglass and his family. Hall alleged that Ann told him that Dr Douglass ‘would be the ruin of her,’ that he had several times come into her room and had ‘taken indecent liberties with her.’ He urged Marsden to have her quietly removed from Douglass’s house.
Dr Hall agreed to send a letter to Ann Rumsby in which he commended her strength in resisting Douglass’s attempts to seduce her and urged her to write to Marsden and tell him all. As Ann was unable to read or write, it was read aloud to her by a footman. Ann was shocked to receive the letter and afraid she would be sent back to the Female Factory as a consequence. When Marsden and Dr Hall persisted in sending messengers to request a reply, she finally took the matter to Dr Douglass who immediately took her to his wife. Ann was adamant she had made no such accusations and that Dr Hall has misconstrued what she had said. If she had said Dr Douglass ‘would be the ruin of her’ it was only because she felt that he was trying to force her to marry another of Dr Douglass’s convict servants, William Bragge, against her will.
Dr Douglass now understood why Marsden had on more than one occasion advised him to send Ann back to the Female Factory but without giving him a reason. When he confronted Marsden and asked to see Dr Hall’s accusations, Marsden refused and would later use Douglass’s understandably angry response to persuade the other Parramatta magistrates to refuse to sit with him. Meanwhile Douglass asked another of his fellow magistrates to examine Ann and even in Dr Douglass’s absence she made no charges against him. When Douglass invited both Hall and Marsden to come to his home and interrogate Ann, both avoided seeing him. Convinced he would not get a fair hearing from his peers, Douglass took Ann to Governor Brisbane in Sydney where, again, she denied Dr Hall’s accusations, declaring that, on the contrary, Dr and Mrs Douglass had always treated her with ‘the greatest kindness’.
Douglass sent Ann back to Parramatta ahead of him, but on her return she was taken by the magistrates to be examined. By this time Dr Hall had sworn an affidavit to the effect that Ann Rumsby had told him that Dr Douglass had come into her room while she was dressing, forced her onto the bed and tried to lift her skirts. In order not to exert any undue influence on Ann, Douglass absented himself from the hearing in which the magistrates questioned her on Hall’s accusations for five hours, but again and again she denied making any such statements.
All she would concede was that she had told Dr Hall that she expected to go to Judge Field’s as a servant in the following days and that, if she said she ‘would be ruined unless she went to Judge Field’s’, she had only been referring to her proposed marriage. However, she did admit that she had been vexed that morning and may have said ‘many things that would be unbecoming.’
Although the magistrates had promised her total indemnity if she told the truth, when Ann refused to corroborate Hall’s claims, they accepted Hall’s affidavit as sufficient evidence to prove the charges against Dr Douglass, charged Ann with perjury and condemned her to banishment to Port Macquarie for the remainder of her sentence of seven years.
Convinced that his friend was innocent and Ann’s testimony was self-evidently true, Governor Brisbane was furious with the magistrates. Dr Douglass, he maintained, had carried out his duties ‘much to his own credit, with great satisfaction to my feelings and considerable advantage to the community’ and his services to his administration were worth more than ‘the united efforts of any five Magistrates in the Territory.’ When the panel of magistrates refused to withdraw their resolution against Douglass he dismissed them all, exonerated Douglass and released Ann. Douglass would later sue Dr Hall for libel but was awarded only 40 shillings damages and costs.
What really happened between Ann Rumsby and Dr Douglass and what did she say to Dr Hall? Did Ann lie to James Hall, or did she sacrifice herself to protect her abuser? Was it Dr Hall who was lying, or did he genuinely believe he was saving a powerless young woman from sexual exploitation? Had Ann retracted her accusations, as Hall maintained, to protect Mrs Douglass or because Dr Douglass had promised to give her money? Or was Ann refusing to accuse Dr Douglass because she knew that if there was any sexual activity, it would be she, as a woman, who would be held to blame and she would be sent back to the Female Factory as punishment?
Although we live in times more attuned to the pervasiveness of sexual abuse of the powerless and how well it has been covered up by the powerful, in this case there is absolutely no evidence besides Dr Hall’s affidavit that anything untoward happened. None of the other servants had seen any evidence of it, including the fellow female servant with whom Ann shared not only a room but a bed. She also testified that Ann had never made any such complaint to her. Further, it is hardly likely that Ann would have taken the matter to Dr Douglass if there was any truth in Dr Hall’s accusations, or that he would have taken it immediately to his wife.
In fact, on examining Dr Hall’s claims and comparing them to the depositions given by members of the household, it becomes evident that not only was Dr Hall lying in his affidavit but he omitted important points. An intriguing omission is that James Hall gave no reason for his calling on Dr Douglass in Parramatta, which was over 20 miles from Sydney, and in the company of a Sir John Jamison, a free settler.
According to Dr Hall, Ann Rumsby approached him unbidden to make her accusations against Dr Douglass as he was leaving. However, the other servants testified that when he came to the door, on seeing Ann standing in the hall, he beckoned to her, saying, ‘I want you, Ann.’ Ann went out and spoke to him for a few minutes then returned indoors. Another convict testified that at some distance from the house, Dr Hall, now unaccompanied, summoned him and sent him to the house with a message for Ann to come out and see him. He saw them approach each other and withdraw behind some wattles beside the road where they remained for twenty minutes. When Ann was questioned on her return to the house, she said Dr Hall had made her some promises and given her a ten shilling note, not an inconsiderable sum at the time and a detail Dr Hall failed to mention. Furthermore, Ann’s roommate testified that Ann had adjusted her clothes before going out to see him.
Although we can give little credence to the majority of what Hall says transpired between him and Ann, some of his evidence does ring true. In a letter to Samuel Marsden, Hall described Ann pleading with him ‘with her eyes suffused by tears’ and saying ‘she had no friend in the colony but me, and she was sure I would see justice done to her.’ She had ‘reiterated her anxious desire to return to her friends at the expiration of her sentence, and declared she had no wish to marry in the colony.’ He again enquired, as he had done several times already, why Marsden had not yet removed Ann from Douglass’s house to prevent a marriage he found both hasty and suspicious. Far from attempting to prevent the marriage, Marsden had announced the first of the banns on August 4.
When, a few days later, Hall sent a messenger to Ann for her reply to his letter, she told the messenger ‘to tell Dr Hall whatever secrets was (sic) between them Dr Hall was to keep it a perfect secret, for Doctor and Mrs Douglass meant to do something handsome for her.’
Another telling point is that the transcript of Ann’s interrogation by the magistrates begins not with questions about Dr Douglass’s behaviour, but about Dr James Hall’s. Apparently Dr Hall had been seen kissing one of the convict girls in his care and had given several of them money, allegedly for their good behaviour. Ann denied that Dr Hall had acted inappropriately towards her.
Do these details help us in any way to discern what was really happening between Ann Rumsby and James Hall? Let us speculate.
Dr Hall had been the surgeon on a female convict ship which, despite his often repeated high moral standing, would have made him vulnerable to suspicions regarding his behaviour towards them. Hall may have been aware that charges were being formulated against him and was going to see Ann to ask her not to testify against him. Perhaps on his way he ran into Sir John Jamison who invited himself to calling on Dr Douglass with him. Dr Hall called Ann out to speak to her, but would have found he could not speak freely with Sir John nearby so sent her back inside, perhaps with a hint that he would speak to her again soon. As soon as he had parted ways with Sir John, Hall found a messenger to summon Ann and returned to the house.
In the meantime, Ann may well have been formulating a plan to use all her feminine wiles to enlist Dr Hall in her attempts to prevent her marriage to William Bragge. Given the vigour with which he laboured the point, it seems that, in return for not testifying against him, Ann most likely extracted a promise from Dr Hall to help her leave the Douglass household and take up service with the Fields who would not expect her to marry Bragge. Unfortunately her plan misfired somewhat when, as Marsden discovered, the Fields no longer needed her and if she were to be removed it would be to the Female Factory, the one place Ann did not want to go.
No doubt Dr Douglass was indeed pressuring her to marry, but far from its being suspicious, it would have been with the best intentions. At the time, convict women were being encouraged to marry and have children and so take a legitimate place in society. Ann was a beautiful young woman, whom, Dr Douglass stated, all his male servants wanted to marry, though he would not have been naïve enough to think it was their only desire. Marriage to a good man would be Ann’s best protection, both physically and morally. However, Ann was not keen. Perhaps it was only because she did not like Bragge, as she kept repeating, or perhaps it was, as Hall had stated, because she did not want to stay in the colony. Whatever she felt on the day Hall called in, by the time the messenger came, she seems to have changed her mind, perhaps in consideration of a lucrative offer made by the Douglasses, and did not want Dr Hall ruining her chances.
So how were these accusations against Dr Douglass initiated? Samuel Marsden testified that he met Dr Hall in Sydney on the evening of July 31 while he was there attending the Court of Appeals. Marsden described the meeting as accidental, no doubt so as not to give the appearance of collusion, but it is more than likely that Dr Hall sought him out. Hall would have put to him his request to have Ann removed from the Douglass house to prevent her marriage, but this would not have been a very convincing reason for Marsden to act as he would have approved of such a marriage and may already have had the banns in hand which he would announce the following Sunday.
Hall would have been desperate to fulfil his promise for both his own sake and Ann’s. He would have needed to give Marsden a persuasive reason to act as well as protect himself against charges of sexual misconduct. No doubt he had been in the colony long enough to know of the enmity between Marsden and Douglass. What better way, he must have reasoned, to allay the rumours against himself, than by deflecting them onto another, someone whom Marsden would be only too glad to believe guilty? And so Hall must have embellished his story, describing in lurid but unsubstantiated detail, what Ann meant when she said Dr Douglass ‘would be the ruin of her.’ Once he had started on this route, there could be no going back, not if he wanted to keep Marsden’s goodwill and save himself.
This incident was only the first in a series of blow and counter-blow between Douglass and his political enemies which was played out in petty court-cases, mutual accusations and conflicting reports to London. Ann Rumsby and her plight were soon forgotten as all the men involved went on with their careers.
Despite his differences with respective Governors, the Reverend Samuel Marsden continued to hold a variety of public offices in the colony. Doctor Henry Douglass went back to Europe where he distinguished himself in Britain and France. He returned to Australia in 1848 where he established several philanthropic societies and was a founding father of Sydney University. Doctor James Hall took to the seas again but on his next voyage only tarnished his reputation even further, earning the enmity of the captain and crew for trying to stop prostitution among the female convicts
And as for Ann, perhaps reconciled to spending her days in the colonies, or perhaps because she had learnt to like William Bragge, in the following February the two of them were married. They went on to have eight children and live a productive and pious life together, William acting as a district constable. Ann died of a heart attack in 1850 and one of the doctors who attended her in her illness was Dr Douglass. Her descendants prosper to this day.
© Pauline Montagna 2016
Australian Dictionary of Biography (Online edition) National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. (https://adb.anu.edu.au/)
Historical Records of Australia: Series 1, Governors’ Despatches to and from England, Commonwealth of Australia, 1971
Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town, 1820–1850 by Kirsten McKenzie Melbourne University Press, 2004