Brawl at the Female Factory, Parramatta
I find one of the most intriguing things about family history is when you discover records containing words spoken by people living at the time. In the research I have been doing on my great-great-grandfather and grandmother, Thomas and Sarah Bell, who were keeper and matron at the Female Factory at Parramatta during the 1830s and 1840s, I have not only found letters written by them and about them but also, in rare cases, the words of convict women who were in the Factory at the time.
A particular event at the Female Factory on 8 August 1843 provides not only an insight into the operations of the Factory but also an opportunity to read the words of convict women. This episode was an altercation between Sarah Bell and Mary Corcoran, the Sub-Matron at the Factory, and its subsequent investigation by a Board of Inquiry made up of Captain John McLean, Principal Superintendent of Convicts, William Miller, the Deputy Commissary General, and Patrick Harnett, Colonial Surgeon. A number of the convict women and some men who worked at the Factory were summonsed to give evidence which may have been quite overwhelming for many of them and may have influenced the evidence they provided. The final report provides a record of their names and documents their evidence.
Mary Corcoran, the Sub-Matron, had been a housemaid in Waterford, Ireland and was convicted of stealing coal for which she received a sentence of seven years arriving in Sydney in September 1831 (per ship Hooghley). She was assigned to about 12 different settlers over the next five years but was sent back to the Factory convicted of a number of misdemeanours including drunkenness, abusiveness, absence without leave, absconding, robbery, insolence. Finally in 1836 she was no longer assigned and remained permanently in the Female Factory.
About eight months after her final return, Sarah Bell wrote that in relation to the laundry at the Female Factory ‘…I have found very great inconvenience in not having a secure place for the Clothes which leave them liable to be stolen by the women’. It seems that Mary Corcoran had been guarding the clothes sent to the Factory for washing and Sarah Bell wanted her to receive a gratuity for ‘…good conduct and general attention of her in keeping them safe…’; this was approved. On 17 December 1838, she received her certificate of freedom but stayed in the Factory and in 1839 she was made a turnkey at £50 per annum and in 1840 she was appointed to the new position of Sub-Matron.
It is not clear why but over the next three years there must have been increasing conflict between Mary Corcoran and the Bells. Perhaps they grew apart because of the influence of Anne Edgeley who became a great friend of Mary Corcoran. Anne Edgeley arrived on the Margaret in 1837 and became a turnkey and overseer of the laundry at the Factory; when she died in April 1844, Mary Corcoran erected an expensive tombstone with the inscription ‘Erected by Mary Corcoran in memory of her friend Ann Edgley who departed this life April the 3rd 1844 aged 29 years May she rest in peace. Amen.’ Mary Corcoran may have also relied less on her friendship with Sarah Bell when the Sisters of Charity commenced their work at the Female Factory at the beginning of 1838.
Whatever it was, on 9 August 1843 Sarah Bell wrote to Gilbert Eliott, the Visiting Police Magistrate to the Factory, accusing Mrs Corcoran of disorderly conduct and insubordination and stating that she could not ignore any longer the ‘outrageous and extraordinary conduct of Mrs Corcoran, the Sub-Matron of this Establishment’. She claimed that the previous evening she and ‘Female Servants in my employ [who] have conducted themselves very creditably I felt justified in allowing them to walk a short distance with myself last evening for a slight change of air’. They met Mary Corcoran and Anne Edgeley returning from town in an ‘intoxicated state’ and Corcoran was very insolent and counted the women accompanying Sarah.
On their return from their excursion (which appears to have been to pick up Sarah Bell’s daughter and son), Mrs Corcoran met them at the gate of the Factory and suddenly struck one of the servants, Ellen Chambers, on the eye and tore her coat from her. When Sarah Bell asked Mrs Corcoran to return the coat and challenged her she ‘defied my authority and behaved so violently that I was compelled to seek refuge in my own apartments, fearing every moment that she would make a forcible attack upon myself.’ Mrs Corcoran then walked up and down the yard for about an hour ‘uttering the most scandalous assertions and threats’ and waking the women in the Factory. She then sent the gate keeper at 10.30pm to seek assistance from the visiting magistrate to ‘quell a disturbance which she alone had incited and which was solely acted by herself’. Sarah Bell ended by saying that it ‘…would be impossible for me to remain any longer upon this establishment, unless the overweening power which she possesses be controlled by the timely interposition of your authority.’
Governor Gipps appointed a Board to investigate the matter and consider Sarah Bell’s charge. He also asked Gilbert Eliott to ask Mrs Corcoran for a written statement of complaints against the Bells which was provided on 21 August and for the Board to consider these complaints as well.
At the hearing, Sarah Bell repeated the charges she had laid out in her letter of 9 August 1843, reiterating that there had been many other occasions where Mrs Corcoran had been abusive to her and incited the prisoners to be insubordinate. Thomas Bell appeared as the first witness saying that Mrs Corcoran had often been drunk and on the day in question, Sarah had gone, with five of her servants, to Mr Allan’s (probably Rev. James Allan the minister of the Presbyterian Church who visited the Female Factory) where her children were, to bring them home; the women accompanied Sarah Bell in order to carry the cloaks. Later he heard a commotion at the gate and Mrs Corcoran was abusing his wife and striking one of her servants. He deduced, based on her conduct, that she was obstructing his wife by exerting control over the women in the Factory and was also trying to discredit him and his wife so she could take on the administration of the Factory. He related a particular incident about four months ago when Sarah had given combs to the women and while she was in the middle of several hundred women, Mrs Corcoran left her alone. She was the only person who could have offered Sarah any assistance and Thomas had to come and help her to prevent any violence.
The next witnesses were the servants who had accompanied Sarah Bell on the evening in question. Ellen Chambers (per ship Princess Charlotte) who was employed by Mrs Bell doing needlework, said that she and four other women accompanied Mrs Bell. On leaving the Factory, they met Mrs Edgeley and Mrs Corcoran who questioned them and counted the number of servants and on returning after about a quarter of an hour, they met Mrs Corcoran at the gateway of the Factory and she was clearly drunk. She abused them and gave Ellen a blow on the face which gave her a black eye. She continued in this manner in the yard for two hours and ‘She roared out that she would have Mr Bell in double irons or send him to Hell’. Eliza Taylor (per ship Isabella) employed as a nurse in the hospital, also said she heard Mrs Corcoran say ‘publickly (sic.) in the Factory that she would have Mr Bell in Irons or in Hell’.
Mary Ann Mitten (per ship John Renwick) employed by Mrs Bell had also accompanied Sarah on that day and she confirmed what Ellen Chambers had said adding that she saw Mrs Corcoran strike Ellen in the face and that she was very tipsy and ‘must have lost her senses to act as she then did.’ Rose Hughes (per ship Planter) employed as a house servant by Mrs Bell, confirmed the evidence of the previous witnesses and that ‘Mrs Corcoran threatened to strip them naked and place them in the Cells and, in consequence they begged of Mr Bell to allow them to remain on his premises all night which they did’.
Other witnesses such as James Copley, Gatekeeper at the Factory, claimed that Mrs Corcoran and Mrs Edgeley returned from the town after nine. Mrs Corcoran had evidently been drinking and ‘she abused Mrs Bell and the women with her and sent him with a message to call the visiting Magistrate’. Alexander Cameron (per ship Woodbridge) a clerk in the Factory, and James Mande (per ship John Barry) a messenger at the Factory both saw Mary Corcoran in the yard making a noise and abusing Mrs Bell.
William Reid, Foreman of Works who had been employed at the Factory for several years and was probably not on the premises that night, stated that although he had never seen Mrs Corcoran drunk, he did notice that during the riot in February 1843 that she could have influenced the women and quelled the riot but she did not. He also noted that Mr Bell seemed afraid to go amongst them and ‘…he has, I think, reason to be so…’.
There were a number of witnesses who confirmed Mrs Corcoran’s use of alcohol. James Mans (per ship John Barry) recalled that he had frequently seen Mrs Corcoran intoxicated and had even had to assist her to get home to the Factory and he and others had frequently brought liquor for her after she provided them with a pass for the purpose. William Robinson, ‘a Taylor (sic.) on the Establishment’ said that once he went with Mr Bell to bring six bottles of Brandy for Mrs Corcoran.
Mrs Corcoran was then questioned and denied that she was ‘in Liquor’ and that her ‘intemperance’ with Mrs Bell and the women who accompanied her was necessary to preserve the ‘regularity’ of the Factory. The first witness to support her defence was Edward New who resided in Parramatta and claimed Mrs Corcoran was at his house that night and she had a glass of brandy but left sober between 8 and 9pm as did Mrs Edgeley who accompanied her. Mrs Fox and Eliza Kelly who lived nearby in Parramatta had met Mrs Corcoran and Mrs Edgeley after they left Mr New’s place and claimed they were both sober. Emily Richardson (per ship Minerva) maintained that she had never seen Mrs Corcoran ‘the worse of Liquor’ nor had she known her to cause insubordination amongst the women; on the contrary she has heard Mrs Corcoran check the women when they spoke disrespectfully to Mrs Bell. Charity Nott, turnkey of the bells, who slept in the hospital at the Factory claimed that Mrs Corcoran had arrived there soon after 9pm and was quite sober.
The Board also considered Mary Corcoran’s statement of 21 August 1843 charging the Bells with ‘…fraud and breach of trust in the performance of their duties’. She claimed that she and Mrs Edgeley had met Mrs Bell ‘with four of five persons some apparently men’ who were prisoners of Crown. She had sent the watchman to Mr Elliott (sic.) and when he come in the morning she ‘…stated the circumstances to him in the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Bell, and also the fact of their having wished to destroy the Soap’.
She went further and accused Thomas Bell with drawing rations for nearly 100 more children than the Factory contained and when she pointed out the error, he replied that he would reduce the number by degrees. She also accused him with having drawn 60 pounds of soap a month for the Factory Hospital which did not use more than 15 pounds and that when the visiting surgeon objected to this large amount, Thomas Bell tried to persuade them to destroy the surplus to save ‘…as he said, himself and family from ruin’’. She had also heard that Thomas Bell had regularly been receiving articles from Messrs. Hamilton and Miller in lieu of some of the articles which appeared by the accounts to have been delivered for the use of the Factory and she could also prove that the women never received the ration meal they were permitted by Government.
In relation to Sarah Bell, Mrs Corcoran claimed she had induced her (Mrs Corcoran) to find six of the best needlework women from the work room to do Sarah Bell’s own needlework ‘putting no doubt the money in her own pocket’. Mrs Corcoran claimed that when she refused to continue this, the books which only she and the Bells had access to, were torn up and the Bells had tried to silence her by approaching Reverend Mr Coffee, the Catholic Priest, to try to persuade her to retract her statements. They had also shut her in a room to induce her to say that she had issued the bread for the extra children when she discovered the error in number and that her refusal would ruin them.
The report was sent to Governor Gipps on 5 September 1843 stating that it ‘…appears extremely probable that Mrs Corcoran on the night alluded to, conducted herself as alleged in the charge -’ and that the Board judged that the degree of animosity between the Bells and Mrs Corcoran would make it impossible for all of them to continue to administer the Female Factory.
Gipps suspended the Bells and Mrs Corcoran in October 1843 ‘with the view of having them (or some of them) indicted for conspiring with the Contractor to defraud the Government’. He placed the report in the hands of the Attorney General who brought Mr and Mrs Bell, Mrs Corcoran and Mr Hamilton (the contractor) before a court for the charge of conspiracy. Sarah Bell was excused as the law presumed she only acted under the control of her husband and Mary Corcoran was discharged so she could be called as a witness to give evidence for the Crown.
Thomas Bell and John Hamilton were committed for trial but finally on 8 April 1846, about two and a half years later, the trial was aborted because an important witness for the Crown had left the colony.
 SRNSW, Colonial Secretary, NRS 905, 4/2610.1, 43/6476, Enclosed 38/179, Mary Corcoran’s police record, 22 June 1838.
SRNSW, Colonial Secretary, NRS 905, 4.2359.1, 37/8144, Sarah Bell to Colonial Secretary, 23 August 1837
 SRNSW, Colonial Secretary, NRS 905, 4/2451.3, 39/67, Sarah Bell to Colonial Secretary, 2 January 1839.
 SRNSW, Colonial Secretary, NRS 905, 4,2574.1, 42/3752 Enclosed 42/3868 Sarah Bell to Colonial Secretary, 20 May 1842.
Various spelling of Anne Edgely or Edgeley,
 SRNSW, Colonial Secretary, NRS 905, 4/2610.1, 43/6476 Enclosed 43/6003, Sarah Bell to Gilbert Eliott, 9 August 1843.
 SRNSW, Colonial Secretary, NRS 905, 4/2610.1, 43/6476, Note from Gipps to Colonial Secretary, 17 August 1843.
 This may have been Rev. James Allan who arrived in the NSW on 5th October 1837 and took pastoral charge of the congregation at Parramatta. There were two Presbyterian Congregations at Parramatta but eventually after problems within the church both Ministers were withdrawn and Mr Allan joined the Anglican Church.
 SRNSW, Colonial Secretary, NRS 905, 4, 2610.1, 43/6476, Report of Board of Enquiry, 5 September 1843.
 Stanley to Gipps, HRA, S1, Vol 23, Sub-enclosure No.2, 12 April, 1844, pp. 537-38.
 SRNSW, Colonial Secretary, NRS 905, 4, 2610.1, 43/6476, Report of Board of Enquiry, 5 September 1843.
Gipps to Stanley, 1 October 1843, HRA, S1, Vol 23, p170
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