Margaret Dawson (c.1770–1816) was a convict on the First Fleet sent from Britain to New South Wales in 1787. She had a long-term relationship with the surgeon, William Balmain, and was one of Australia's 'founding mothers' whose descendants still live in Australia and Britain.
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, Margaret 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 Margaret 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. Margaret 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 no. Margaret was then taken back to London and Mrs Shetley identified the items of clothing.
Her trial record, like that of most of her fellow convicts, remains completely silent as to motive. We can only speculate as to whether her rash action resulted from cruel or indecent treatment at the hands of 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 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, Margaret 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, Margaret 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 allowing time for land to be cleared and huts erected, Margaret, along with the 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 50 lashes in a flogging ordered for his "infamous Behaviour" towards Margaret. Perhaps it was this event that brought her to the attention of the assistant surgeon, William Balmain. And perhaps she assisted Balmain in tending to the large number of sick convicts who arrived in mid-1790 in the Second Fleet.
In November 1791, Margaret and Balmain travelled together to Norfolk Island on Atlantic, along with Philip Gidley King, travelling to take up the post of Lieutenant Governor. Her 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. Their first child, a daughter, was born here in May 1794. The family returned to Sydney in August 1795.
Back in Sydney, Margaret bore two more children, a girl and a boy, with Balmain. The older daughter died on 4 September 1797.
The family left Sydney in August 1801, and arrived in London in March 1802, an absence of just under 15 years. In May 1803 Margaret, now pregnant 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, 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". On Margaret's death his executors were to provide £12 10s for her "last sickness and funeral expenses".
No doubt due to her convict status, in contrast to Balmain's professional position, she was unable to marry him, and she and the children had taken the surname 'Henderson", which was Balmain's mother's maiden name.
Margaret 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 Clements Inn in January 1807.
Although she was receiving some rent from properties in New South Wales, it is likely that Margaret would have had to earn a living, perhaps as housekeeper. With the help of Balmain's friends she continued to encourage her son John William Henderson's education, and he was to return to New South Wales in January 1829 as a surgeon (like his father).
On 16 February 1816, while living at St James's, Westminster, Margaret died, and was buried in the churchyard of St-Giles-in-the-Fields, where Balmain was.
- 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