Margaret Dawson

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Margaret Dawson
Born1770 (1770)
Liverpool, England
Died16 February 1816 (1816-02-17)
Spouse(s)William Balmain, (2 February 1762 – 17 November 1803)

Margaret Dawson (c.1770 – 16 February 1816) was a convict on the First Fleet sent from Great Britain to New South Wales in 1787. She had a long-term relationship with the surgeon, William Balmain and is considered as one of Australia's 'founding mothers', whose descendants still live in Australia, others in Britain.

Unusually for a transported convict, she returned from New South Wales and died in England.

Early life[edit]

She came from Liverpool and in 1786 was employed in London as a servant in the house of Joseph and Frances Shetley. On the afternoon of Sunday, 12 February 1786, while her employers were out of the house, Dawson collected a large quantity of clothing, jewellery, and money, and left the house. Mrs Shetley returned home and found the house in disorder and the young servant girl missing. She sent for Mr Shetley, who set out to follow Dawson that evening. Knowing she came from the Liverpool area, he asked after her at the Golden Cross at Charing Cross and was told that a girl of her description had boarded the coach for Chester in the north at 7.00 p.m. Mr Shetley took a postchaise with a Mr Lowe, and overtook the coach at St Albans. Dawson was found on the roof of the coach, apprehended, and taken into a local Inn where she handed over the stolen goods from her pockets and two boxes. The goods were recognised by Mr Shetley, the only item missing being a guinea coin which she had used to pay for the coach. When asked if she had acted with an accomplice or was travelling with anyone, she said she wasn't. Dawson was then taken back to London and Mrs Shetley identified the items of clothing.


Margaret Dawson's trial record, like those of most of her fellow convicts, remains silent as to her motive for theft. Historians can only speculate as to whether her actions resulted from her treatment by her employer, a family crisis pulling her back home, a threat from an unknown person, or a simple failure to resist the temptation of an empty house.

At her trial at the Old Bailey on 22 February 1786 for "feloniously stealing" goods to the value of £12 4s 1d, Mr Lowe stated that she was so changed in appearance that he would not have recognised her. In her defence, Dawson said "I have nothing to say, I have no witnesses." She was found guilty and sentenced to the mandatory sentence of death. The prosecutor and jury recommended mercy on account of her youth, being only fifteen, and it being her first offence.

After ten months in Newgate Prison, in conditions where malnutrition, filth, and violence were common, Dawson was returned to court. Here, on 4 January 1787, her death sentence was commuted "on condition of being transported for [a term of seven years], to the Eastern coast of New South Wales, or some one or other of the islands adjacent".

On 26 January, she was delivered from Newgate to the Lady Penrhyn, then moored in the River Thames. Conditions here were no better than in prison, with the women on board described as "almost naked and so very filthy" and "where there are very many venereal complaints". She sailed with the Fleet for New South Wales from Portsmouth on 13 May 1787, arriving after a cramped and insanitary voyage of seven months at Sydney Cove in Port Jackson on 26 January 1788.

After the time needed for land to be cleared and huts built, Dawson and 189 other female convicts went ashore on 6 February. Here, it was reported by one onlooker "the convicts got to them very soon after they landed, and it is beyond my abilities to give a just description of the scenes of debauchery and riot that ensued during the night."

In August 1789 the convict John Hayes received fifty lashes in a flogging ordered for his "infamous Behaviour" towards Dawson. Perhaps it was this event that brought her to the attention of the assistant surgeon, William Balmain. It is not known whether she assisted Balmain in tending to the large number of sick convicts who arrived in mid-1790 in the Second Fleet.

In November 1791, Dawson and Balmain travelled together, with Philip Gidley King, to Norfolk Island on Atlantic, where Balmain was going to take up the post of Lieutenant Governor. Dawson's penal sentence expired in January 1793, and soon after she signed a receipt for payment for some grain sold to the government stores, indicating she was literate, free, and farming some land. Her first child, a daughter, was born on Norfolk Island in May 1794.

Dawson and Balmain returned to Sydney in August 1795. There, Dawson had two more children, a girl and a boy, with Balmain. Their older daughter died on 4 September 1797.

The family left Sydney in August 1801, and arrived in London in March 1802, an absence for Dawson of just under fifteen years. In May 1803 Dawson, now pregnant again with their fourth child, and the children, were sent to Ormskirk, near Liverpool.

On 17 November 1803 William Balmain died. In his will, dated four days before his death, he left a yearly sum of £50 to "my dear friend Margaret Dawson, otherwise Henderson ... whose tenderness to me, while in ill health, claims my warmest gratitude and by whom I have had two natural children … and who is now ensient".

No doubt due to her convict status, in contrast to Balmain's professional position, he felt unable to marry her. She and her children had taken the surname 'Henderson", which was Balmain's mother's maiden name.

Dawson left Ormskirk and gave birth to the fourth child in London. Little is known of this baby, except that it was a girl, and still living with the family at Clement's Inn in January 1807.

With a settled income of £50 a year, and rent from properties in New South Wales, it is unlikely that Dawson would have had to earn a living after Balmain's death. With the help of his friends she continued to encourage her son John William Henderson's education, and he eventually returned to New South Wales in January 1829 as a surgeon, like his father.

On 16 February 1816, while living at St James's, Westminster, Dawson died, and was buried in the churchyard of St-Giles-in-the-Fields, where Balmain had also been buried. Following her death, Balmain's executors paid £12 10s for her "last sickness and funeral expenses".

Further reading[edit]

  • Reynolds, Peter, William Balmain and John Gilchrist: family and property, Balmain Historical Monograph No. 5, Sydney, Leichhardt Historical Journal Inc., 2003.
  • Gillen, Mollie, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, Sydney, Library of Australian History, 1989, ISBN 0-908120-69-9