BEYOND THE TREE | A convict woman's downhill slide

This exhibition at Liverpool Regional Museum includes a growing community tree and you can add your own family story. Bring in photos of your family moments to be scanned, printed and mounted. In conjunction with Liverpool Genealogy Society. Volunteers help with research and family enquiries Tuesdays to Saturdays. The Champion is running a series of family stories tying in with it. Patricia's great-great-great-grandmother-in-law Margaret was a convict woman whose life was one long struggle.

MARGARET woke up feeling very stiff and sore. Where on earth was she . . . ?

Slowly she raised herself onto one elbow and looked around, her head pounding with every single movement.

"Oh, no!" She was back in a freezing cell in Darlinghurst Gaol again!

This gaol was closed in 1914 and is now a heritage-listed building. In 1921 the Department of Education adapted it for use as the East Sydney Technical College. The following year the National Art School was established on the site and it's now the sole occupant.

Back in gaol, Margaret pulled up the thin blanket tightly over her shivering body as the tepid rays from the winter's sun poked through a small barred window.

Born into impoverished circumstances in Dumfries, Scotland, in 1829 Margaret Nixon had been arrested in London in 1851 for stealing eight silver spoons.

However, her history wasn't good as she'd previously been apprehended for "Demolishing glasses and a window in a Gin Palace" and had also been arrested for "House Rob\ery" (sic) and, now, for stealing spoons from what was possibly her employer.

The petite, 4'11" dark-haired lass was tried at Manchester Assizes on October 9, 1850, and sentenced to transportation to Van Diemen's Land for a term of seven years.

But how unfair that her accomplice Isaac Walker -- whose surname she'd now assumed -- was only given 10 months' imprisonment. He got off light!

Once in Tasmania, her subsequent marriage to convict George Strong led her on many misadventures, as they dragged their two young daughters around the country with them wherever they went.

It's unknown what happened to George, whether he died or deserted them, but Margaret and the girls finally arrived in Sydney in 1870 -- where her downhill slide continued in earnest.

It was now 1884 and Margaret was feeling worse than she could ever remember feeling in her long hard life.

Although she was only 55, her frail body led the gaol authorities to believe she was 72 when she was admitted the previous evening.

The police had arrested her for her own protection on quite a number of occasions in past winters, putting her in gaol for a little warmth on cold, wet nights.

But unknown to them this was to be the last time they would have to rescue her in a drunken state from the cold streets of Sydneytown.

Margaret Nixon Walker Strong died a few hours later, alone and lonely in her cold, damp cell.

We may never learn exactly what led her to such a terribly sad, sad life and death, yet I'll always feel so sorry for my great-great-great-grandmother-in-law.

  • Do you have a story about a convict in your family? Share it at the Beyond the Tree exhibition at Liverpool Regional Museum, 462 Hume Highway (corner Congressional Avenue), 8711 7126. Free. Tuesdays to Saturdays, from 10am to 4pm.

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