It was a year to the day since her father “put a period to his existence…with a loaded pistol.” And now Hannah Steele stood at the Sydney Quarter Sessions answering to a charge of larceny in a dwelling house. Yet, contrary to all that was suggested by the sight of her mistress Maria Windeyer’s “deranged drawers” and the irrefutable evidence that she had, indeed, “paid a larcenous visit,” Hannah was not like all the other convict girls who streamed in to the Court to be convicted of secondary offences on top of the primary offences that had seen them transported to the colony in the first place. Realising this was the case, a reporter covering the Quarter Sessions for the Sydney Monitor determined that he would devote a considerable portion of his impending column to Hannah’s case to make sure his readers were fully apprised of her exceptionalism.
Hannah Steele, the journalist later noted, indicted for stealing two pairs of stockings valued at six shillings, the property of Richard Windeyer, Esq, was “an interesting looking girl apparently not more than 14 and 15 years of age.” Describing Hannah as “interesting looking” was a master stroke, for within the first few words the journalist had already subtly persuaded his audience to visualise the errant servant girl as not merely young but markedly attractive — no doubt in a bid to immediately stimulate greater sympathy for Hannah’s plight. The age he provided, too, was a falsehood and no accident; Hannah was, in fact, already around twenty-two years old, but her supposed “youth” was crucial to justifying the certain degree of preferential treatment this particular light-fingered one had received at her trial. Even so, younger females than she supposedly was—and equally “interesting looking” ones at that—had been tried, convicted, and harshly punished long before and long after Miss Steele found herself in this quandary.
What, then, made this particular thieving servant so much worthier of the court’s mercy as well as that of the press?
This question is even more necessary following the revelation that Hannah had already proven herself ungrateful of her master’s leniency and need not have been on trial for her felonious actions at all. Upon discovering the evidence of her rummaging and pilfering and telling her to quit their service, the reporter divulged, Mr Windeyer, who was himself “a barrister of superior abilities,” had apparently “cautioned her against taking anything with her which was not her own, and t[old] her, that if she did not attempt to do so, no notice would be taken of her having previously visited her mistress’[s] drawers. Notwithstanding this caution, and the promise to attend to it,” however, “one pair of [Mrs Windeyer’s] stockings was found upon her person, and another pair in her bundle.”
Nevertheless, Hannah was not like all the other wayward convict girls who came before the Court for stealing from their employers whilst working as domestic servants. Because Hannah had not arrived in the colony as a convict — she “came free.” Hannah, her parents, and her four siblings were Irish immigrants who arrived per the Eliza (1833). And, though Hannah’s reduced circumstances in early 1840 may lead us to assume they arrived as poor Irish migrants, the facts say otherwise. Her father, George Steele (I), was an “unassisted” migrant, meaning he had not needed to be supported by any of the immigration schemes to fund his entire family’s passage to the colony. He was also a skilled migrant as his trade was recorded as “farmer” and, prior to emigrating, he had worked as a “sub-sheriff” in Dublin. On 10 April 1835, therefore, just a year after the Steele family arrived in New South Wales, George had been entrusted with a role of enormous responsibility: he was appointed the superintendent of Windsor Gaol.
So, if the Steele family were better off than most upon arrival in the colony, how did it all go so wrong for them in a few short years?
In May 1838, Hannah’s mother had been charged with “stealing a quantity of sovereigns” (seventeen to be precise). She was found not guilty and, just as it would be for her felonious daughter later on, the media were decidedly sympathetic, stating that the charges against the gaoler’s wife were “so improbable and uncorroborated” that the Court was induced to stop the examination and acquit and discharge Mrs. Steele. The loyalty of the press aside, it seems there may have been something to the accusation after all because, in a matter of months, Mrs Steele had deserted her large family and George the gaoler, “during a temporary aberration of mind, occasioned by intemperance, and the embarrassed state of his pecuniary affairs,” placed a pistol in his mouth and “destroyed himself.”
Hannah was around twenty-two years old at the time of her mother’s desertion and father’s suicide and, before that traumatic year of 1839 was over, she would enter the service of Mr and Mrs Windeyer and be gaoled for larceny. Though she was allowed out on bail on 15 November 1839 her trial was scheduled for the first anniversary of her father’s death: Thursday 9 January 1840.
As it turns out, the memory of her late father did significantly shape the outcome of her trial because it was George’s role as gaoler that weighed most heavily on the Court when they were deliberating over a fitting punishment for Hannah’s crime. That she should pay for her crime by being deprived of her freedom was a given, but where to gaol the gaoler’s daughter? As intimated to the Court, plenty of the Parramatta Female Factory’s convict inmates were Windsonians who had very likely been gaoled by Hannah’s father over the years. Consequently, “the Chairman observed, in passing sentence, that [Hannah] would not on that account, be sent to the Factory, where the depraved women there generally entertained an ill-feeling towards any members of a family, one of whom had been placed in authority over them.” Accordingly, Hannah was instead sentenced “to be confined in the gaol of Sydney for three months, and every third week of that period to be placed in solitary confinement.”
Despite the lengths the Court went to in order to keep Hannah Steele far from the ‘buked and scorned women of the Parramatta Female Factory, it seems she ended up there anyway. During her imprisonment in Sydney Gaol or, at least, soon after her release on the 9 April 1840, it appears the “interesting looking girl” fell pregnant. For, on 2 December 1840, eight months after leaving Sydney Gaol, a Female Factory inmate whose name was recorded as “Hannah Still” gave birth to a baby girl named Elizabeth, presumably in the Factory’s lying-in hospital, as mother and child were recorded as being attached to the Factory when the baby girl was baptised at St. John’s Church, Parramatta on 20 December 1840. It is certainly not uncommon for a name, especially one belonging to a prisoner, to be misspelt in the St. John’s parish registers due to spellings not being standardised and heavily dependent on how the registrar heard names pronounced in a variety of accents in the ethnically diverse town of Parramatta. However, in light of the courtroom discussion earlier in the year, it is possible that in Hannah’s case her surname was ever-so-slightly altered from “Steele” to “Still” intentionally to hide her familial connexion to the Windsor gaoler and protect her from any vengeful inmates. Whatever the reason, given the timing of events there is little question that Hannah Steele was the young woman who gave birth to baby Elizabeth in the Factory in December 1840.
Hannah Steele, then, was one of many individuals who found themselves in the Factory, despite having either come to New South Wales willingly as free people or even having been born in the colony. As such, Hannah’s story recomplicates our understanding of a period that frequently provides us with “rags-to-riches” stories of convicts who made good and rose above their convict status thanks to the opportunities the fledgling colony provided. For some, like Hannah, the colony was a place where the opposite was true; a place where she and her family were degraded.
We know things did not improve for Hannah’s mother, as she remarried in 1840 only to desert husband number two shortly thereafter. Her desertion prompted said husband, Edward Tree, to put a notice in the paper cautioning the public against giving the former Mrs. Hannah Steele and late Mrs. Hannah Tree any credit on his account as he was not responsible for a woman who had up and left him.
We also know that one of Hannah’s siblings, George Steele (II), later died at the Parramatta Lunatic and Invalid Asylum (formerly the Parramatta Female Factory), having suffered from mania and cardiac dropsy.
What ultimately became of Hannah and baby Elizabeth, though, is unknown since the baptism record is the last trace of either of them. But, tempting as it may be in the absence of evidence to imagine Hannah getting back on the straight and narrow and leaving the Factory with her babe in arms vowing never to lay a thieving finger on another woman’s stockings again, the grim statistics of the Female Factory inmates and their children stir far bleaker imaginings.
Michaela Ann Cameron, “Hannah Steele: The Gaoler’s Daughter,” Female Factory Online, (2018), https://femalefactoryonline.org/bio/hannah-steele/, accessed online [insert current date]
“CORONER’S INQUESTS, WINDSOR,” Commercial Journal and Advertiser (Sydney, NSW : 1835 – 1840), Saturday 12 January 1839, p. 2
Female Factory Online (www.femalefactoryonline.org, 2018), 15 January 1840, Law Report of HANNAH STEELE, (p18400115).
John Dunmore Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, from the Founding of the Colony in 1788 to the Present Day, Vol. I, (Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle, 1875), p. 321 accessed online via Internet Archive 22 October 2018.
“WINDSOR QUARTER SESSIONS,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), Tuesday 22 May 1838, p. 2.
“Court of Quarter Sessions. THURSDAY,” The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser (NSW : 1838 – 1841), Wednesday 15 January 1840, p. 2.
“NEWS OF THE DAY: SUICIDE,” The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser (NSW : 1838 – 1841), Monday 14 January 1839, p. 1.
“Advertising,” The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser (NSW : 1838 – 1841), Tuesday 28 July 1840, p. 3.
Windeyer, J. B., “Windeyer, Richard (1806–1847),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/windeyer-richard-1060/text4017, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 October 2018.
 New South Wales Government, Entrance books [Sydney Gaol], Series: 2515, Reel: 1864, (State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia); New South Wales Government, Quarter Sessions: Sydney: Registers of Cases, 1839, 1845, Series: NRS 847, Reel: 2431, (State Records Authority of New South Wales; Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia); New South Wales Government, Clerk of the Peace, Index to Quarter Sessions, Criminal Cases, 1839-1888, Series: NRS 846, Reel: 2728, (State Records Authority of New South Wales; Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia).
 John Dunmore Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, from the Founding of the Colony in 1788 to the Present Day, Vol. I., (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle, 1875), p. 321 accessed online via Internet Archive 22 October 2018.
 New South Wales Government, Inward passenger lists, Series: 13278, Reels 399-560, 2001-2122, 2751, (State Records Authority of New South Wales. Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia). Regarding his employment as sub-sheriff in Dublin, see “CORONER’S INQUESTS, WINDSOR,” Commercial Journal and Advertiser (Sydney, NSW : 1835 – 1840), Saturday 12 January 1839, p. 2; “NEWS OF THE DAY: SUICIDE,” The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser (NSW : 1838 – 1841), Monday 14 January 1839, p. 1.
 George Steele replaced George Walpole as the gaoler of Windsor Gaol. New South Wales Government, Returns of the Colony (‘BlueBooks’), 1822-1857, Series: 1286, Publication Year: 1835, (State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia).
 “WINDSOR QUARTER SESSIONS,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), Tuesday 22 May 1838, p. 2; “Quarter Sessions, “Windsor. Friday, May 18.,” Commercial Journal and Advertiser (Sydney, NSW : 1835 – 1840), Wednesday 23 May 1838, p. 2.
 New South Wales Government, Entrance books [Sydney Gaol], NRS 2515, Reel 1864. (State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia); New South Wales Government, Entrance books [Sydney Gaol], NRS 2514, Reels 850-853, (State Records Authority of New South Wales. Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia).
 George Steele Jnr Death Certificate, 3 March 1877, Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, New South Wales, Australia.
© Copyright 2018 Michaela Ann Cameron