It is thought Mary Wade was born in the Westminster area of London on 17th December 1775, the eldest of four known children of Lawrence Wade and Mary Smith although earlier suggestions claim she was born in 1778 to George Wade and Mary English. Mary had a short life of abject poverty until committing her first crime of robbery at around the age of 8 where she stood accused of stripping the outer clothes from a younger girl, possibly aged around five years old, who she then dumped unceremoniously in a ditch (this ditch could mean anything associated with an outside toilet of the time, which were quite likely to be what was known as an “earth closet” or “midden” which generally described a boxed in effect with a hole cut for a seat, which ran either to an open sewer or a pit, which was manually cleared from time to time. These closets were shared by a number of families living in a street or close). Because of her young age at the time of the offence, Mary was not charged by virtue of not being criminally responsible, however the role of criminal was cast. At around the same time, Mary’s only brother Henry, was born.
Mary spent most of her days working close to the Treasury, as a “road sweeper”. This occupation was as close to a legitimate form of begging that the poorest children could get, earning a halfpence or two sweeping an area of the roadway between two opposing points on the pavements either side, for the wealthier members of London’s pedestrian traffic, commonly ladies who had no desire to step in the inevitable dung left behind by the many horses who trotted up and down the streets daily. It was whilst engaged in this dubious occupation as time passed, that Mary had cause to often see and come to recognise a younger girl, Mary Philips. Mary Wade Sr would later claim that her child had no need to indulge in this pastime, and it was more at the behest of older children who were criminally pre-disposed. By this time young Mary was approaching eleven years of age. Her main companion, one Jane Whiting, a fourteen-year-old fellow sweeper.
Mary Philips was later to swear in court that she knew Mary Wade by sight but did not know Jane. And although testimony conflicts between the three and the additional witnesses including the children’s mothers and the pawn-broker to whom the dress was sold, it appears that on her daily visit to the Treasury “privy area” to collect water in a bottle, eight-year-old Mary Philips was accosted by the two older girls, and possibly a nameless boy, and relieved of her outer frock, petticoats, apron (tippet) and cap. It was also claimed that Mary Wade had commented that she should have put the young child “in the necessary” – namely into the toilet, reflecting her earlier crime. The frock was then sold to the pawn-broker’s assistant in a nearby street for 18 pence. He would state that it was Whiting that sold the gown, but using Wade’s name. Philips also stated that it was Whiting that removed her frock.
The facts of the crime were backed up by the victim’s mother, Jane Forward when she arrived home to find her daughter missing, later to be brought home in darkness by a kind gentle-woman with a light. Details are a little sketchy as to why Mary was out collecting water at the time, something she apparently did at the behest of her mother via “the boy” or “a boy” as she herself testified, yet claiming this boy was her own son, and the brother of Mary. Yet both children had a different name to their parents. (A little mystery!) It seems rather odd that Jane Forward would refer to her own son as “a boy” under oath, yet not know where her daughter was despite having sent instruction for her to collect water.
Nonetheless young Mary Philips agreed that she was neither hurt nor alarmed at the incident and initially felt that the older girls only took her outer frock as a bit of fun. It was only when Jane Whiting “the bigger girl” ran off with the unnamed boy and her outfit, and Mary Wade then relieved her of her petticoats and sundries that she realized she had been robbed. It appears that Mary Wade then fastened the young girl into the privy by means of a piece of string on the outer lock. After raising the alarm, one presumes by way of knocking on the door and shouting, that she was released and taken home. Witnesses testified to the subsequent actions of the girls, including Wade’s thoughts of dumping Philips into the toilet, the discovery of the cap and tippet in Wade’s room and the statement made by the pawn-broker. Another witness stated that Wade had confessed readily to the crime to her and she was able to retrieve the dress and inform the authorities.
At no point did Mary Wade or Jane Whiting appear unduly distressed by their arrest. They were taken to the Bridewell and locked up before appearing in court at the Old Bailey to answer the charge. Despite the seemingly harmless nature of the incident and the possibility that this was a crime born out of necessity – need rather than greed – the Prosecutor charged both girls as adults with the crime of felonious highway robbery, and stated in his summation that to a small child although unharmed, it was “as serious an incident as holding a gun to the breast of an adult”. Both girls were found guilty and sentenced to Death by hanging. Removed to Newgate prison in the common criminals (womens) area, neither were expected a bed, which were reserved for those with money who were incarcerated in a better area of the prison, nor bedding. They remained awaiting their execution in a filthy, rat-infested overcrowded cell with an open sewer for a toilet and nothing more than rough bread, thin broth and water for sustenance.
After two months, rather than being taken outside to meet their fate at the end of a rope witnessed by a large crowd of baying, bloodthirsty members of the population, Mary Wade and Jane Whiting received an unlikely and unexpected reprieve from their sentence in the form of “mad” King George’s recovery from insanity as a result of his suspected porphyria. In March of 1789, Whiting and Wade’s names were put forward in a list of 26 women to receive reductions of sentence or pardons from the King in celebration of his recovery. Their sentences were commuted to transportation to the new convict settlements of Australia. The whole standard by which 18th century sentences was in dire need of overhaul; death was generally only proclaimed for capital offences, including rape, murder or theft of property over 39 shillings in value. Repeat offence or criminal proclivity was also a factor in this eventuality. Mary Wade and Jane Whiting arguably had neither. Despite having their sentence commuted, and many other women having a reduction in term to seven or fourteen years to serve upon arrival, Wade particularly received banishment for life. She would never be allowed to return to Britain.
In the Summer of 1789, they set sail on board the Lady Juliana for the country where they would remain for the rest of their lives. The journey of around 13,000 miles took a full twelve months. To eleven-year-old (or 14-year-old???) Mary, it may have seemed like an adventure. Fresh air, clean water for the first time ever in her short life, only marred by her permanent separation from her family, to have the threat of execution removed from her young shoulders must have been a huge relief. The women were allowed to wear their own clothes whilst on board, and were assigned jobs to do. They had freedom to move, none of them were shackled, their leg irons having been removed prior to boarding the ship. Whilst on their journey, each one of the ship’s crew took one of the convicts as a wife. They ate well and behaved properly. Only five women and two children – young mothers were given the option of taking their children with them, some were pregnant at incarceration and gave birth either in jail or on board – died on the voyage. The remainder arrived safely and probably healthier than they had ever been in their lives.
On the Journey they made stops at Tenerife, Rio de Janiero and South Africa before finally arriving at new South Wales in the early summer of 1790. They were towed past the point at which the Sydney Harbour bridge and Opera House now stand, to be moored at the bottom of the Governors garden. In 1790, his was the only decent brick building in the Port Jackson area. He was expecting a cargo of tools, provisions and equipment. Instead he was greeted by over 220 women, a small number armed with children. His horror was short-lived as until that point women were not a common sight. Over 20,000 male convicts were to be transported to Australia, many of whom would expect to serve a fixed term before becoming free. Women therefore was something of a requirement. The female transportees were assigned for the most part as servants to those who had already been pardoned or otherwise granted their Certificate of Freedom.
Mary Wade was one of those to be chosen to be sent on to Norfolk Island where another colony was established to ease the burden on Sydney. She transferred two months later, on board HMS Surprise, and after surviving the dangerous navigation of a coral reef that surrounded the lush island, Mary became friendly with a fellow convict, Irishman Teague (Edward) Harrigan who arrived in 1791 aboard the Salamander. In 1793 at aged 18 (records of an incorrect birthdate of 1778 as above would lead archives to state aged 14) Mary gave birth to their first child, Sarah followed by William in 1795 and Edward some time afterwards by which point they were living in a tent. In 1806, Harrigan agreed to join a whaling expedition and never returned. At this point it is thought that Mary may well have been pardoned. Norfolk Island seems to have been “evacuated” around 1806 and transports were provided back to Port Jackson by which point it appears that the women had all gained their certificates of freedom.
One notable exception seems to be Jane Whiting, who followed Mary around her various ports of call and “married” a convict herself, called Thomas Kidner having at least two children, Thomas and Ann, but arriving back at Port Jackson still listed in the muster as Convict. All the other women were pardoned or free due to sentence expiry. Her whereabouts between 1806 and 1811 are sketchy although Thomas landed back in Hobart in 1807 with Thomas Jr, however she is listed in the 1810 muster as having received an absolute pardon finally, and in 1811 in Hobart. In 1813, Kidner is known to have signed up for a whaling vessel sometime previously and died in an accident as result. Nothing further is known for definite about Jane’s subsequent movements, although there is a record of Ann’s later marriage in 1812 in Hobart to a Robert Larsom and a request for land grant from a Jane Whiting in Prospect, New South Wales in later 1811, and she appears on interim musters as free from servitude until 1822.
Following Teague’s disappearance in 1806, three years later Mary is listed as married to a Jonathon Brooker, with whom she had a staggering 18 children. They were both pardoned absolutely by 1812, and made a good home for themselves on a large settlement of land by 1822 in Campbelltown. The following year a large bushfire destroyed everything they owned but by 1828 they had recovered despite a small period of being somewhat destitute, and having to apply for assistance, which they turned into an even larger farm of 60 acres. Jonathon died five years later aged 76. Their marriage was said to be a happy one and their large family producing many grandchildren. Mary at this time was only 55/58 years of age. She passed away herself over 26 years later on 17th December 1859 quite possibly her 84th birthday. Her funeral was the first to be held in the local Church of England Church, on St Paul’s Fairy Meadow on land donated by her son. She was buried in the Old Church cemetery, renamed in 1940, Pioneer Rest Park, Wollongong. Rather surprisingly, the Cemetery has been cleared of headstones now and the land has been remodelled into gardens. A part does remain in what is now the Wesleyan Cemetery which was vandalised in 2009, a number of headstones being smashed. A spokesperson noted that several convicts were buried there. Despite an impressive list of notable people, Lord Mayors and pioneers, Mary Wade’s contribution seems insignificant. She doesn’t even warrant more than a mention in the list of known burials, insignificantly recorded as Mary Ann Brooker, born 1772 (incorrect) died 17 Dec 1859 aged 87; no images can be found of her resting place online.
At the time of her passing, Mary had over 300 living descendants spread over some four or five generations. She is known as the “mother of Australia” and has tens of thousands of living descendants including the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Little did Lord Chief Baron know what a huge favour he was doing for young Mary Wade when he convicted her of stealing a little girl’s dress, and set in motion a chain of events that would have a direct impact on the founding of Australia. By sentencing her to death, he set her free to live one of the most inspiring tales of personal accomplishment the modern world has known.