"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 9, 2019

Queen of the Hunter River: The Odyssey of Molly Morgan

"Sydney Morning Herald," July 6, 1965, via Newspapers.com

Laura Thatcher Ulrich famously wrote that "well-behaved women seldom make history." I've always thought of that quote as one of those clever-sounding quips that, on reflection, just ain't so. And then I come across Molly Morgan, a woman who brought herself to fame and fortune simply because throughout her long life, she was anything but well-behaved.

The exact birthdate of Mary "Molly" Jones is unrecorded, but it was presumably just before her baptism in the English village of Diddlebury on January 31, 1762. About all we know for certain about her family life is that her father, David Jones, was a ratcatcher. When Molly was in her early teens, she left school to become a dressmaker. In 1783, she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, also named Mary. The father is unknown, but he was rumored to be a wealthy farmer who refused to marry her. On June 25, 1785, she wed a wheelwright and carpenter named William Morgan. The couple soon had a son, James.

Molly's life was a quiet and ordinary one until 1789, when she and her husband were caught with linen which had been stolen from a bleaching factory. William was able to escape custody before facing trial, and promptly disappeared. In August 1789, Molly was tried at the Shrewsbury Assizes, convicted, and sentenced to fourteen years transportation to Australia. (It is not recorded who took charge of Molly's children, who were now essentially orphaned.)

Molly's run of bad luck continued when she was assigned to the ship "Neptune" for the journey. The Neptune was one of the most notorious of the convict "hell-ships." Captains of these ships were paid per prisoner--the number of convicts who actually survived the voyage was a matter of supreme indifference to authorities. The expense of feeding their unwilling passengers came out of the captains' own pockets. Therefore, it was seen as sensible business practice among the more heartless commanders to cram as many captives on their ships as possible, and let starvation and disease eliminate extra mouths to feed. Molly and the five hundred other prisoners on the Neptune stood a small chance of reaching their destination alive.

Molly, however, had some advantages most of her fellow convicts lacked. She was very attractive, very resourceful, and very, very determined to survive. Legend has it that by the simple expedient of providing sexual favors to certain of the ship's officers, she was provided with extra rations and better overall treatment than the other prisoners. By the time the Neptune arrived in Sydney Harbor, more than half of the convicts were dead or nearly so. Molly, on the other hand, was in perfect health and raring to start her new life.

She really must have been something.

In Sydney, Molly was reunited with her husband, who had been recaptured and also packed off to Australia. After a period of factory work, the couple was granted parole, and they opened a shop.

Sadly, the Morgan domestic life was not proceeding as smoothly as their professional affairs. Molly had grown bored with William, and had taken to consorting with other men. Her husband eventually grew tired of wearing cuckold's horns, and abandoned her. (William Morgan eventually started a new, and hopefully happier, family with another woman. He evidently managed to stay out of further trouble until his death in 1828.)

Molly seems to have scarcely noticed he had gone. She had become the mistress of the captain of a store-ship, John Locke. She saw that her new lover's profession could come in very useful to her. On November 9, 1794, Molly, along with three other convicts, managed to stow away on Locke's ship before it sailed to England.

When they were back in England, Locke offered to marry Molly, but she declined. His value to her now over, Molly left her captain and traveled to Plymouth. She recovered her children and found work as a dressmaker. A rich brassfounder named Thomas Mears fell under her clearly still-abundant charms, and married her. Of course, Molly was still legally wed to William Morgan, but she saw that as one of those irrelevant details not worth mentioning.

End of the story? Hardly. With women like Molly Morgan, the good times never cease to roll. In 1803, the Mears home was destroyed by a mysterious fire, and Thomas, for reasons that are now uncertain, accused his wife of setting the blaze. We can take that to mean the romance was definitely over. In October of that year, Molly stood trial for neglecting to honor a promissory note. She was found guilty and sentenced, again, to transportation. (Molly's son was sent to live with relatives, after which he ran away to join the royal marines. The fate of Molly's daughter is unknown.)

Upon her return to Sydney in June 1804, Molly prospered well enough, thanks to a number of well-to-do "protectors," and she was granted a small piece of land and a few cattle. This just led her to fresh trouble. The local authorities couldn't help but notice that Molly's livestock was growing in size far too rapidly to be the product of mother nature. It was soon found that Molly, a true believer that the Lord helps those who help themselves, had been rounding up government cattle and branding them as her own.

Government officials do not react well to having their pockets picked. In 1816, Molly was sentenced to seven years in Newcastle Penal Colony, a place where Australia's worst offenders were kept in the harshest conditions. She dealt with this latest setback in characteristic fashion: it is said she became the mistress of one of the prison's overseers, who, in 1819, managed to have her granted parole.

She really must have been something.

Molly was sent to the settlement of Wallis Plains, where she was again given a plot of land. She did very well as a farmer, and used her profits to open a highly successful wine shanty. (She soon also started an equally popular inn.) In 1822, she married an Army Officer named Thomas Hunt, who was thirty years her junior. In 1823, she was doing so well financially that the Governor allowed her to lease another 159 acres, along with a gang of convicts to farm the land. By 1828, she was listed as being one of the largest landowners in the area, and was known as "The Queen of the Hunter River." Several land features were named after her, and her inn and wine shanty were the nucleus for what eventually became the city of Maitland.

Molly used her wealth to be a force for good. She was well-known for her philanthropic acts and generosity to the poor. She helped build schools and hospitals, and often spoke in defense of convicts. Unfortunately, there were many who took advantage of her open-handedness, and the one-time thief was frequently robbed, with the result that her final years found her in relatively straitened circumstances. After her death on June 27, 1835, an anonymous newspaper obituary writer mourned that "her latter days were not those of enjoyment of the comforts of this life to which she was entitled from the numerous acts of kindness she had evinced to all around her."

She was undoubtedly still rich in memories, however.

1 comment:

  1. It seems that, after a life that was largely criminal and dishonest - but in many cases necessarily so - Molly settled down - though, considering her luck at the end, 'settling down' was relative...


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