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Woman traces convict ancestry

02:14 Thu Apr 5 2012
AAP

The great-great granddaughter of a woman banished to Tasmania on a prison ship has made an emotional return to her ancestral home.

Eliza Davis was sent to Van Diemen's Land in 1845 after being convicted of murdering her baby boy.

Her descendant, Gail Mulhern, followed her great-great grandmother's story back to Wicklow gaol in Ireland where she had been imprisoned for drowning her son before she was transported.

Despite her exile for infanticide, Eliza's new life saw her marry twice, have nine children and work as a midwife.

"I am very passionate about Eliza," said Ms Mulhern, 61, who travelled from Queensland to officially launch the Eliza Davis story at Wicklow Historic Gaol.

"She had such a tough life and came through the other side and lives a happy life, had lots of children and was loved."

Mrs Mulhern first started working on her family tree 21 years ago, and learned about Eliza 15 years ago when her path crossed with Wicklow historian Joan Kavanagh who was also researching Eliza's tragic story.

"This is the third time I've come to the jail. It is still emotional," said Mulhern - who has traced 15 ancestors who were convicts from Ireland, England and Scotland.

"It makes me really feel for Eliza."

Records show Eliza worked as a maid in Cronelea House, County Wicklow, before she got pregnant out of wedlock and - at 22-years-old - was found guilty of drowning her baby boy.

But historians claim her conviction is murky.

While the surgeon's verdict was suffocation, the child had been well-cared for prior to this and one of the witnesses who accused her of drowning her child had previously been paid to manufacture evidence.

On appeal Eliza was transported for life to Van Diemen's Land on the prison ship, the Tasmania 2. Most of her gruelling seven-month journey was spent chained below deck, where food and hygiene were poor and disease rife.

In Australia, Eliza was interred on the Hulk Anson prison ship for six another months in appalling conditions before she was posted to work in a factory.

She later wed her first husband, a convict from Yorkshire called Joseph Roebuck, and had three children before he was committed to a mental asylum. Eliza had six more children with partner Amos Eastwood, another convict from Yorkshire, and married him a week before she died in 1898 from heart disease.

Mrs Mulhern plans to search the national archives next week to trace the rest of her family tree, including Eliza's birthplace.

She recently found out her other great great grandmother, Catherine Kelly from County Carlow, and her sister Eleanor were also transported to Tasmania, where Eleanor died in prison.

"If someone was born in Ireland they know all their ancestors are from Ireland," she said.

"We are a bit lost in Australia because some of us feel we belong to this country. I feel I belong to Ireland but live in Australia."

Australian ambassador to Ireland, Bruce Davis, and his wife Meg Johnson were among 200 guests at the opening of cell number 20, which was dedicated to Eliza Davis.

The exhibition features an eight metre high mannequin figure of a faceless woman wearing a bonnet made above the historic gaol's door to remember the forgotten women who were transported to Australia over the years.

Martina Robinson, of Wicklow's Historic Gaol, said Eliza's story is a major milestone in telling the true stories of its prisoners.

"Eliza's tale will bring visitors to her cell on the first floor and to the replica transportation ship where they will get a feeling for the desperate journey and grim future which so many transportees faced in the 19th century," she added.