Burial register ID: 8927
Surname: WHEELER
First name: JESSIE
Middle names:
Gender: Female
Age: 72 Years
Cause of death: Unknown
Burial type:
Date of death: 01-Dec-1901
Date of burial: 03-Dec-1901

Block: 103
Plot: 22

There is no monument or inscription on this gravesite, only a nameplate saying “Wheeler”.

Bio contributor: Lesley Treweek

Jessie Wheeler (n&eacutee Hamilton) 1833-1901

Many of Dunedin’s first settlers were Scottish immigrants and so was Jessie Wheeler but the circumstances leading to her arrival in New Zealand were a little different from most. Certainly not what she might have imagined for herself as a child growing up in the market town of Airdrie, Lanarkshire.

Jessie was born Jessie Hamilton (1901 New Zealand Death Certificate) around 1833 in Airdrie in the Parish of New Monkland. The town, (population in 1831 of 6594) being advantageously situated on the road from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

The principal trade carried on in the town was that of weaving, Airdrie was an important settlement area for Irish Protestant immigrants employed for their weaving skills. Other industry included coal mining, a tan-works, brewery, a cotton factory and an extensive distillery.

Education in 1835 was provided by a parish school. There were four other schools within the parish built by subscription and also eight private schools. The charge for reading was generally 3 shillings per quarter with additional charges for extra subjects. Jessie at the age of sixteen had only reading ability. Her limited education while by no means unusual for the times tends to suggest her family circumstances were humble.

Like a great many other young women of the period Jessie went into domestic service, employed as housemaid. It is possible she was ill-used at her place of employment, or was simply rebellious. In a decision that would have far reaching consequences she left Airdrie, and in company with fellow Scot, William Lyon White she travelled south to Anglesey in Wales. Wales had embarked on an extensive program of public works (Brittania Bridge & Holyhead) and many young people from England & Scotland were drawn there seeking work opportunities.

In the winter of 1849 Welsh police carried out a raid on squatters at Lledwigan lime kilns, where property was recovered and identified as having been stolen. A number of suspects and their associates were apprehended and taken into custody; among those arrested were William Lyon White and young Scotswoman Jessie White.

On the 24th November 1849 Jessie White resident of Bodedern, appeared in the Court at Beaumaris, Anglesey to answer the charge of breaking in to the premises of John Hughes shoemaker of Hen Bandy, near Bodedern and stealing articles of clothing, eight and a half sovereigns and other sundry items. The burglary took place overnight, while the occupants slept and there were no witnesses. Five men, all in their twenties were also charged.

John Hughes gave details of the break-in and identified stolen articles of clothing located at Beaumaris and the village of Llangefni near Bodedern. The North Wales Chronicle described the offenders as a “gang of desperadoes, all of youthful appearance and speaking with an English (as opposed to Welsh) accent.” From the evidence shown in the records it was highly unlikely that all seven of those found guilty of “breaking & entering” and “receiving stolen property” could have been personally involved in breaking into the house of John Hughes while Hughes and his wife slept soundly undisturbed, but all were found guilty & harshly sentenced.
None of the accused were provided with council. Some gave evidence protesting their innocence and denying any involvement. The prosecution alleged that Jessie was found with a stolen petticoat, handkerchief, a piece of linen & a pair of stockings (Carnarvon Times 05.01.1850); Jessie did not speak in her own defence.

A young woman of 19 years of age, a diminutive 4 feet 11 inches tall Jessie had not previously been convicted of any offence. These factors apparently carried no weight with judge and jury who sentenced her to ten years transportation, the same punishment received by her co-offenders. One of the co-accused, James Emmanuel Crabb suffered impaired vision as a result of a steam engine explosion. In consequence he had to be led about at night. In light of his infirmity the idea that he took part in the break-in and burglary of an occupied unlit dwelling at night was definitely stretching the grounds of probability, but he also was found guilty.

While Jessie had adopted the same surname as co-accused William White research has shown the two were not related, but were in all probability living as a de facto couple. William used the surname White as an alias, also using it in conjunction with his birth surname of Lyon. His criminal indenture lists him as William Lyon White. Jessie’s recorded details at the time of transportation state that her father’s name was John. As well as her small stature Jessie is described a having sandy hair, blue eyes, a small nose and wide mouth and bore no distinguishing marks or scars.

Crime does not exist in a social vacuum. Poverty predictably begets theft. Four-fifths of all transportations were for crimes against property, a great number simply for “theft of wearing apparel” or food. Many thefts were spontaneous, desperate and often bungled efforts to relieve want and hunger. British prisons of the period were massively overcrowded and many convicts awaiting transportation were kept on “hulks,” decommissioned naval warships, rotting at anchor, until the government decided where to send them. From 1841 to 1850 around 26,000 convicts were sent to Van Diemen’s Land. The idea that by getting rid of criminals Britain would get rid of crime was doomed to failure because the causes of crime were rooted in social injustice: in poverty, unemployment, inequality, and want, and the draconian laws of the times.

While she awaited transportation, Jessie was held for seven months in London’s “Millbank” prison, a veritable fortress on the bank of the river Thames. Today the site of the prison, which was closed in 1890, is marked by the single buttress pictured below. The inscription reads;”Near this site stood Millbank prison which was opened in 1816 and closed in 1890. This buttress stood at the head of the river steps from which, until 1867, prisoners sentenced to transportation embarked on their journey.

Jessie left England as one of 170 female passengers on board the vessel “Emma Eugenia” which arrived in Hobart 7th March 1851.Growing opposition by Tasmanian settlers brought about the abolition of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land in 1853. The convicts were generally kept on board for the first few days following their arrival in port. The Surgeon –Superintendant, of the vessel then delivered his report to the Colonial Secretary. The report included a list of his charges names and occupations, details of their convictions, and their conduct during the voyage. Settlers were notified prior to the transport ships expected arrival to allow them to apply for convict servants who were assigned according to their trades and behaviour. Those unable to be assigned, any who became pregnant, hardened women criminals, or those undergoing punishment, were sent to the female factories at Hobart, Cascades and Launceston. The majority of convict women spent some time at the Cascades Female Factory as it was the main place for their reception and imprisonment.

Assignment was a lottery. A good or harsh master was largely the luck of the draw. Some female assignees complained they were “treated like dogs and worked like horses.” Most convicts were resigned to their fate and waited out their time. Marriages between convicts were not discouraged but special consent was required. On 16th September 1851 Jessie applied for permission to marry Robert Paul, who had arrived in Hobart in August 1850, transported on the vessel “Maria Somes” It appears permission was denied as the marriage was never registered. Perhaps this was the trigger that prompted Jessie, six weeks later to abscond. When recaptured she received the punishment of four months hard labour in the women’s factory at Hobart.

Looking at the dates it is a reasonable to assume that Robert Paul was the father (see footnote) when on 12th February 1852, at the Cascades Female Factory, Jessie gave birth to an illegitimate child who she named William. Women were not compelled to name the father of their offspring. Mother and baby stayed in a designated yard in the factory until the baby was weaned, at between 3 and 9 months. The mothers were then returned to the other yards of the female factory and the babies were cared for by other weaning mothers. There was a high infant mortality rate due to early weaning and unhygienic conditions in the prison. Those children who survived to age 2 or 3 were sent to the orphan schools in Hobart until they were reclaimed by their mothers or were old enough to support themselves. The birth of William gave a new focus to Jessie’s life for apart from a period of six months hard labour in 1854 for insolence no other misdemeanours are recorded. Life in the factories was described by historians as a vegetative misery and religious leaders and prison reformers claimed convict women responded gratefully to any gestures of compassion or attention.

Jessie was recommended for a conditional pardon on the 29th May 1853 and in 1855 she was granted permission to marry free man William Wheeler, a labourer from Berkshire, England. The ceremony took place in the Anglican Church of St. George, Hobart. William was aged 30 years and Jessie aged 22. Unable to write, both parties signed the register with an X. Jessie’s long awaited pardon was finally approved on 20th May 1856. A son John, (her father’s name) was born to the couple later the same year. Mary, their first daughter born 1858 lived just two years. A second daughter Hannah was born in 1860.

Jessie and William Wheeler were free in the general sense of the word but everywhere were reminders of Jessie’s former life of servitude. They decided to put the past behind them and the family, now numbering five, embarked for Dunedin, New Zealand. William Wheeler was born in Berkshire but Jessie’s Scottish roots probably influenced the Wheelers in choosing the predominantly Scottish settlement of Dunedin for their new home. In addition the discovery of gold in Otago province in 1861 brought an immense influx of hopeful prospectors from all areas of New Zealand and Australian colonies. Thousands poured across the Tasman chasing dreams of great wealth. Jessie and William arrived in Dunedin in December 1862 and the family lived initially in Union Street. In 1865 eldest son William, late of Hobartown, received a sentence of 7 days goal for stealing eggs. (Otago Police Gazette 1st Nov. 1865) This was a harsh sentence for a lad of only eleven. Another 5 daughters and a third son were born in Dunedin.

William worked as a labourer and also as a flesher. (Butcher) The Wheelers moved to Gt. King Street and it was from this house on 31st December 1874 that Jessie’s first son William married Irish immigrant Mary Ann O’Brien. The Wheelers next move was to North East Valley where the Wheeler children attended Mr. A. McLeod’s school which was held in the North Dunedin drill-shed. It was a great source of pride that the Wheeler girls regularly distinguished themselves in their school examinations. Results published in the Otago Witness show Sarah, Grace and Lucy all achieving well. In 1875 Grace received the only prize awarded in the school for her recitation of “Grey’s Elegy.”

Life in New Zealand had brought opportunities for advancement for William and Jessie and a “Return of the freeholders of New Zealand” compiled in 1882 showed Jessie Wheeler held property to the value of ₤200 in the Borough of North East Valley. In October of 1882 William was taken ill and after seven days he succumbed to pneumonia. He died on 20th October 1882 and is buried with Jessie.

Jessie did not let her lack of education hold her back and she opened her own business in Frederick Street as a storekeeper and general merchant. She also owned residential property in Athol Place. Jessie was the backbone of her family especially when things were difficult. No-one knew better than her what it was like to endure hard times. Runaway, wretched convict, family woman, successful hard working colonist. All of these labels might have been applied to Jessie Wheeler at different periods of her life. Jessie triumphed over events that crippled weaker persons.

Jessie Wheeler died of enteritis and lung congestion on 26th November 1901. She was aged 72 years. She is buried with her husband in Dunedin’s Northern Cemetery.

It was the prevailing view at the time of Jessie’s conviction that criminals begat criminals but statistics were to prove this a myth. In Australia, crime records showed that the first generation of native-born children of the transportees were the most morally conservative and law-abiding people in the country. Many convicts were transported for very trivial offences. While there were “incorrigibles” most were not habitual criminals but humble folk lacking advancement opportunity and in circumstances of appalling poverty. However to moralising observers, simply to be a former transportee or “ticket of leaver” as they were often called was regarded as evidence of wickedness. Little wonder that Jessie was at some pains throughout her life to conceal her true identity and leave her past life behind.

Jessie’s Death Certificate records her birthplace as Airdrie, Scotland and her maiden name as Hamilton*, as opposed to the surname White on her transportation record. Her father’s occupation is given as “tanner.”
As we her family, like thousands of Australians come to terms with this dark time in British history we will eventually feel comfortable in acknowledging this strong woman.

*DNA testing of descendants in 2018 confirms the relationship with the family of John Hamilton, tanner, of Airdrie.

Major Sources: National Archives London, Anglesey County Archives, Tasmanian Archives, Scotland’s People Genealogy Records, Papers Past, National Library New Zealand, Hocken Library Dunedin, Caversham Project Otago, Otago Nominal Index, Statistical accounts of Scotland, Wheeler Family Oral History).

Additional Sources: Some additional details, relating to Jessie’s permission to marry Robert Paul, provided by Robyn Parker, from original documents held in Tasmania. Details surrounding Jessie’s arrest are supplied courtesy of Bevan Carter, Perth, Western Australia.

Courthouse at Beaumaris, Anglesey, where Jessie was tried
Source: Lesley Treweek

Church of St George, Hobart, where Jessie married William Wheeler
Source: Lesley Treweek

Beaumaris Courthouse
Source: Lesley Treweek

Cascades Female Factory Hobart
Source: Lesley Treweek

Embarkation List showing the name of Jessie White recorded as a prisoner on board the “Emma Eugenia”
Source: Lesley Treweek

There are 8 Interments in this grave:

Surname First names Age Date of death Date of burial
GILLIES JAMES 23 Years 12-Sep-1888 14-Sep-1888
GILLIES MARY 24 Years 17-Nov-1891 19-Nov-1891
MASON WILLIAM THOMAS 29 Years 14-Nov-1916 16-Nov-1916
TIMMING JOHN HENRY 6 Months 04-Feb-1887 10-Feb-1887
WHEELER DORA GILLIES 10 Weeks 15-Mar-1894 17-Mar-1894
WHEELER JESSIE 72 Years 01-Dec-1901 03-Dec-1901
WHEELER WILLIAM 69 Years 30-Oct-1882 01-Nov-1882
WHELAN EMILY 26 Years 01-May-1916 04-May-1916