The Case of Eliza Davis

19th Century cloth bonnet produced as a memorial to all women transported as convicts to Australia 1788-1853


A Tragic Case

Eliza Davis’ case is one of tragedy from her beginning in a Foundling Home in Dublin to a conclusion that has yet to come to light. She was indicted for the murder on the 24th February 1845 of her male child at Cronelea, Mullinacuff, at the Wicklow assizes on 8th July 1845. The verdict of the jury was guilty. The sentence passed by the Chief Justice John Doherty was that she was to be executed. Doherty “appointed a distant day (16th August) for the execution in order to afford his excellency (Lord Heytsbury, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland) ample time for the consideration of this case”.(1)  As we shall see there was much to consider in this particular case. The following details are extracted from the convict reference file on Eliza Davis held in the National Archives unless otherwise stated.


The Trial Evidence

On the 12th July Chief Justice Doherty replied to a letter from the Chief Secretary’s Office requesting information on Eliza Davis, then under sentence of death in Wicklow Gaol. He regretted to state that he could “not discern any mitigating circumstances which would in my opinion warrant me in recommending the prisoner as a proper object of mercy”. Doherty enclosed the notes of the evidence given at the trial for the Lord Lieutenants “perusal”. If grounds were discovered for extending mercy to “this unfortunate woman, it would afford me sincere satisfaction”, he concluded.

 The trial notes contain the sworn evidence of five local women; Mary Deegan, Catherine Foley, Eliza Gahan, Bess Carr, and Margaret Hopkins. Police Constable Francis Culhane and Henry William Morton, surgeon, also gave sworn evidence.


The Eye Witness Accounts

All five women knew the prisoner before the crime was committed. Mary Deegan stated that Eliza had lodged with her before Christmas, and “was confined there sometime in February and delivered of a male child”. Eliza had informed Mary Deegan that she was not a married woman. After the birth she remained in the house for a fortnight. The witness told how she has given clothes to the prisoner for the baby and that she had identified these same clothes, a frock and two caps, when she saw the baby at the inquest on 4th March in Killabeg Barracks. Under cross examination she stated she had never heard Eliza call the baby by any name.

 Catherine Foley saw the prisoner with a baby about a fortnight old in her arms. She had come into a house where the witness was and had sat by the fire where they talked for about an hour and a half. The child appeared to be in good health.

 Eliza Gahan had been asked by the prisoner for a night’s lodging, which she granted, on a Monday night. This was the day before the inquest. Eliza stayed until about 12 o’clock the next day. She had no child with her.

 The next witness Bess Carr was an important witness, as we shall see later, in terms of the background to Eliza Davis. Unfortunately, her important evidence does not appear to have been brought out at the trial. Bess stated she met Eliza coming out of Eliza Gahan’s house and they walked together for a while. The prisoner had told her she had had a child about a fortnight old and that she had left him with a Mrs. Deegan of Baltinglass and was at that time making her way back for him. Bess asked her to go to her father’s house to clean up. It seemed at first Eliza was inclined to do so, but then said she was afraid of Mrs. Deegan if she did not go to collect the child.

 The evidence of Margaret Hopkins is undoubtedly very questionable, a fact which a later petitioner on Eliza’s behalf, Rev. Soloman Donovan brought to the attention of the Lord Lieutenant. She claimed that on the evening of Monday 24th February at about six o’clock she saw a woman sitting at the edge of Mrs. Ashe’s pond, wrapping a cloth around a child. The woman put the child down into the water and it cried at first. She then pushed it down two or three times more. The witness claimed she was seven or eight perches from the woman, she was standing on the road while the woman was at the far side of the pond. The woman in question came out and passed the witness, saying nothing. The witness saw this woman at the inquest and identified her as the prisoner Eliza Davis. Under cross examination she stated she was the mother of several children. At the time of the incident she had a burden on her back which she claimed prevented her from running down to the pond. Neither did she call out to the woman. With hindsight she admitted that this would have been a wise thing to do. The scene as described by Margaret Hopkins would appear to be implausible. Could she have conceivably seen Eliza putting a cloth around the baby’s head and then pushing the baby down into the pond at six o’clock on a winter’s evening in February? Evidence from other quarters would later cast considerable doubt on her testimony.

 The Cause For Doubt?

Police Constable Francis Culhane, stationed at Killabeg Barracks, testified that he found the body of a child in Mrs. Ashe’s pond, in Coolkenna on the 3rd March with the inquest being held the next day. He found the body by draining the pond.

 The surgeon who examined the body, Henry William Morton, stated that the child had several injuries on the head but the immediate cause of death was suffocation. It appeared to him that the child had been previously taken good care of. It was a healthy male child. 

What had prompted the Chief Secretary’s Office to request information regarding Eliza Davis from Chief Justice Doherty was that a petition, or memorial, on the prisoner’s behalf had been written by the jury. Though compelled by the evidence placed before them to find Eliza Davis guilty, they entreated the Lord Lieutenant to commute the sentence to transportation for life. It appeared to them that the child was properly taken care of and that she acted from a sudden impulse. They were also informed by the Sub-Inspector of the district that she was prone to fits. This is the first indication given that there may have been extenuating circumstances involved in this case from the details in Eliza’s Convict Reference File.

 Petitions For Mercy

Rev. Donovan, former incumbent of the parish of Mullinacuff, made a sworn affidavit before W. R. Farmer, magistrate for County Wexford to the effect that Eliza Davis was “subject to fits”. These were of a peculiar kind which “frequently seized her at her work in which she has lain as in a sleep for upwards of twenty-four hours. That she frequently had a bewildering look and remained on these occasions silent when spoken to”. There was no doubt, according to Rev. Donovan, but “that her intellect was impaired”. He claimed that Bess Carr was in the best position to comment on Eliza’s condition as she, being a fellow servant with Eliza, had shared a room and a bed in the servant’s quarters, until the discovery of Eliza’s pregnancy. Bess had sworn to the fact that Eliza was not “alright in the head”.

 Rev. Donovan had known Eliza himself for four years. While incumbent of Mullinacuff he had lodged in the house of Mr. James Twamley, Cronelea. Eliza had been apprenticed from The Foundling Hospital in Dublin to Mr. Twamley as a servant. He also, then, was in a good position to observe Eliza’s affliction and to comment on it.

 The Minister also cast extreme doubt on the evidence of Margaret Hopkins and asserted her allegation that she saw Eliza Davis drown her child was “totally undeserving of the least credit, that if she Margaret Hopkins was cognisant of the fact she could not in my opinion have kept it a secret for so long”. He told of Margaret’s background which was of poverty, her husband and herself having a large family. Sometime previously she had been summoned to Carlow to give evidence in a similar case. She had received a sum of money to cover her expenses. “A hope of obtaining a similar or greater sum was in my opinion the motive that induced Margaret Hopkins to volunteer evidence against Eliza Davis” wrote Rev. Donovan. He also reported that Margaret Hopkins had made several statements to the effect that he, Rev. Donovan, had advised her to go forward with this evidence and that he had given her money to cover the expenses of the journey. Rev. Donovan attested that these were “totally false and without foundation”.

 The next memorial sent to Lord Heytsbury was from the Chairman and Commissioners of the Borough of Wicklow. They made enquiries into the case believed that the crime had been committed as a “result of a weakness of the mind and deficiency of the intellect”. It is through this memorial that more details of Eiiza’s life are revealed. It was while a servant in Mr. Twamley’s that she was seduced by a person in the house. Eliza brought the child back to her place of employment fourteen days after its birth. She offered to support the child if the father would allow her £2 a year. No offer of support was given. This according to the commissioners “drove her into such a state of desperation as to commit the melancholy deed being seized with one of the fits alluded to by the Rev. Mr. Donovan”.

 They also asserted that affidavits collaborating Rev. Donovan’s statement were lodged with the Deputy Clerk of the Crown; one made by a policeman showing Margaret Hopkins’ evidence could not have been true. The other was made by Eliza (Bess) Carr, Eliza’s fellow servant. The reason why these facts were not put forward in Eliza’s defence they stated, was because her counsel had not been appointed in time to make a case. The jury had made a strong recommendation for mercy “but by some fatality it was not given until sentence was passed”. Chief Justice Doherty told the court that the matter was now out of his hands and that the matter should go to the Lord Lieutenant.

 The Commissioners concluded their memorial asking for Eliza’s sentence of death to be reprieved. They reminded the Lord Lieutenant that “no execution of a female has occurred in this county for the last ninety eight years”. The Chairman of the Commissioners was Andrew Nolan who was a doctor and as such acted as the Local Inspector of Wicklow Gaol.

 From Infant to Servant

A memorial signed by Henry Pakenham on behalf of the Governors of the Foundling Hospital, Dublin was received at Dublin Castle on 18th July. In this it is stated that Eliza Davis had been placed as a foundling under their care and had been reared from infancy in the institution. On 6th November 1840 she was apprenticed as a servant to a farmer in County Wicklow for four years.

 It was the norm for inspectors from the Hospital to visit apprentices annually and to report on their state and condition. According to Eliza’s reports “her character and conduct were irreproachable until seduced by a fellow servant who well knew her destitute circumstances and who depended upon not being obliged to marry her, he being of the Roman Catholic persuasion and she a Protestant”. The appointment of both counsel and attorney, only the night before the trial in fact, was again brought to the attention of Lord Heytsbury. The Governors felt that this situation had hampered the preparations for her case and the procurement of witnesses for her defence.


Afflicted By  Epilepsy

Eliza Carr’s relevant evidence was omitted. Since the trial she had made a sworn statement that Eliza Davis had suffered from epilepsy; “she would be during the interval before and after, not right in the head”. Eliza Carr had gone to court determined to state this fact, but as she had never been a witness before “she was so very nervous and frightened that she did not know when to come forward, not having been called for.” The Governors believed, therefore that there was every reason to suppose that the crime was not one of premeditation but was committed whilst the unfortunate girl was labouring under the effects of one of these fits.

 A further memorial was written by the concerned gentlemen from Wicklow and its environs. Among them were a number of clergymen of both persuasions from the locality as well as justices of the peace. The Church of Ireland chaplain of the Gaol, Rev. Robert Porter signed, as did Dr. William Hamilton, medical superintendent of the Gaol. Francis Synge of Glenmore Castle was also a signatory.

 This memorial again alludes to the statements made by Rev. Donovan and Eliza Carr which pointed to the prisoner having “exhibited strange inclinations to imbecility or aberration of the mind.” They also referred to a report which had been made to the judge that, within one year, nine cases of infanticide had occurred in the neighbourhood where Eliza Davis lived. It was also claimed that the prisoner had been charged with a similar offence previously. The falsity of this report had been proved without any doubt as the police returns had shown only three infanticide cases had occurred in the preceding two years. Of these three cases, those charged with the offences in two of the incidents had been acquitted while the third was Eliza Davis. These gentlemen were convinced that the act was committed due to “a sudden and momentary phrensy” as the evidence given by Mr. Morton, surgeon, that the baby had been well taken care of proved that “maternal feelings were strong in the heart of the said convict”.

 The Society of Friends, or Quakers, petitioned on Eliza’s behalf, probably as a matter of course. “Their belief that man is not under any circumstances authorised to deprive his fellow man of life” more than likely prompted the Quaker families resident in Wicklow to beseech the Lord Lieutenant to change “her sentence to whatever may appear to thee best from that of death”; such names as Joseph Pym, senior and junior, Samuel and Henry Greer, Josiah Fay le and Joseph Morton. Could this last name have any connection with Henry William Morton, surgeon, who testified at the trial? At the time “she committed the melancholy act she was without a friend, refused at the poor house, without a home, without food and afflicted with epilepsy”. This state of affairs they believed, warranted a favourable review of her case.


Transportation for Life

So what did happen to Eliza Davis? This question cannot fully be resolved as yet. However, her sentence was commuted by the Lord Lieutenant from death to transportation for life. Eliza was removed from Wicklow Gaol on 12th August 1845 and committed to the Female Convict Depot at Grangegorman awaiting a ship for the penal colonies of Australia.(2)

 It is from the Prison register at this depot that additional information regarding Eliza comes to light. The Gaol Register for Wicklow Gaol pre 1846 is no longer extant. The only entry for Eliza in Wicklow Gaol is in the Transportation Register which gives the minimum amount of information; name, age, crime, sentence, and occasionally the transporting ship, though not in Eliza’s case.(3) Therefore it is the Grangegorman register which provides a physical description of Eliza Davis; 5 feet three inches in height, with dark blue eyes, dark hair and a fair complexion, with no marks on the body. She is listed as being a single, Protestant, servant girl who could read, though not write.


What Happened Next?

This writer first came across Eliza Davis over three years ago. During most of that time a search for further information on Eliza Davis has proved futile. On checking the list of convict ships setting sail during 1845 and 1846 one ship seemed to stand out; the Tasmania bound for Van Diemen’s Land, leaving Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) on 2nd September 1845.(4) There was no proof or evidence to confirm this ship as being Eliza’s transportation vessel and yet intuition, call it what you will, seemed to intimate that this could be the ship. It was not until the summer of 1993 that the Tasmania was confirmed as Eliza’s ship. Using the Transportation Database compiled by the National Archives (sent to Australia as the Irish contribution to the Bicentenary celebrations of the founding of that country), it was possible to conduct a search on the convicts who sailed on the Tasmania. Eliza appeared on the ship’s indent.(5)  It was now possible knowing the ship and its date of arrival, to begin the search in Tasmania. The ship had arrived in Hobart on 4th December 1845.

 There were 140 female prisoners on board, and only one fatality was recorded amongst them during the long voyage.(6)  The Archives Office in Tasmania had no record of an Elizabeth or Eliza Davis disembarking from the ship Tasmania. The likelihood that Eliza was the one fatality on the journey was now a distinct possibility. However contact with the Public Record Office in London ruled this out. The journal of the medical officer on board, Mr. Jason Lardner, is held there. This document confirmed that one prisoner, named Ellen Sullivan, had died at sea. There was no mention of an Eliza Davis having been treated by Mr. Lardner. (7) What then became of Eliza Davis? She is recorded as having left Wicklow Gaol for removal to the Female Convict Depot. The name is listed on the Tasmania’s indent as being bound for Hobart. Yet it appears that Eliza did not arrive there or perish on route. A number of possibilities suggest themselves. Did she die in Ireland before the ship sailed? Did Eliza’s epilepsy prevent her from embarking on the voyage to Tasmania and make it necessary for her to be held back; either to serve time at home or until she was considered fit enough to travel on a later ship?

 There are no answers to these questions at the moment; perhaps there never will be. It is possible that this is where the story of Eliza Davis ends (8). A young woman whose life began in a foundling home in Dublin and concluded as it had begun, in relative obscurity, as a single figure amongst the multitudes who were exiled from Ireland by the Nineteenth century Judicial system.

 End of The Story?

History is full of people whose lives held similar fates and who lived under the same circumstances. Eliza Davis’ story provides a brief insight into the lives of such people. Eliza Davis and her child were born into a harsh era. Yet Eliza’s story highlights the concern and compassion of the many people who petitioned on her behalf.

 And what of the child? A search of the baptismal and burial records of the Church of Ireland parishes in the district has failed to locate any trace of a baby born in February 1845 being baptised.(9) Eliza may not have had the baby christened as Mary Deegan testified she never heard the child called by name. Neither is there a burial record of a Davis baby after 4th March, the day of the child’s inquest. It is most likely that the baby had a private burial with no record made of the fact.

 Mystery surrounds the whereabouts of both mother and child; the location of the child’s final resting place will probably never be known. The fate of Eliza Davis, on the other hand, may yet some day be known ….. .

 This article by Joan Kavanagh was first published in in County Wicklow Historical Society Journal Vol.1, No. 7 1994



I. Convict Reference File (CRF) 1845 018. National Archives of Ireland, Dublin. (NAI)

2. Register of Female Convicts in Grangegorman. Ref. Prisons 1/9/40. NAI

3. Transportation Register 6. Ref. P361. NAI.

4. Bateson, Charles. The Convict Ships 1787-1868. PP. 368-369.

5. CRF 1845 M29. NAI Mr. Lardner had examined all the women prior to sailing and

certified them as being fit for embarkation with the exception of six women whom

he names. Eliza Davis is not amongst them.

6. Bateson, Charles. As note 4. P.393.

7. Public Record Office, London. Ref. Adm 101 71/2.

8. Eliza’s age is given as being 22 in both the Wicklow Gaol Transportation Register and the Grangegorman Female Convict Depot. This figure is also given in the memorial written by the concerned gentlemen of Wicklow town and its locality. The Governors of The Foundling Hospital. however, refer to her as being nineteen years of age.

9. The Church of Ireland Parishes checked: Carnew, Crosspatrick, Kilcommon, Kilpipe, Mullinacuff, Rathdrumm, Shillelagh and Aghowle.

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