Monday, October 31, 2016

John Donovan b 1776

 Not only a horse thief, and a convict, but a bigamist as well!

I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when Elizabeth (Mahoney) Donovan and her daughter arrived in Australia on the 14th May 1826  and found that her Irish husband John, transported as a convict, had married another convict in Sydney!

I think that Elizabeth must have been a feisty Irish woman, and a force to be reckoned with!


The story of John Donovan begins much earlier, around 1786 (but this date is by no means certain) when he was born in Limerick Ireland.  I have not found any confirmation of when and where John was born other than the Gosford NSW, Pioneer Register which is a derived source, so his birth is still a bit of a mystery.  Some of his convict records show him as being born in County Cork, which does seem likely as his wife was born there also.

John, age 21,  appears to have married Elizabeth Mahoney from County Cork in Ireland in 1807, and they had one child, Mary Ann Donovan in 1815.


The next thing I know about John Donovan is when he is transported to Australia for Horse Stealing aboard the vessel Southworth By this time, John was aged 35years, and I have been unable to find the details of his trial.

In the year 1821 the times in Ireland, particularly in the county of Tipperary, were very disturbed, several murders (including landlords) having taken place.  It was the beginning of the  ‘Captain Rock’ campaign of 1821–4 a series of outbreaks of agrarian unrest that began in the 1760s and continued until the eve of the Famine, when starvation finally made concerted action impossible and the landlords closed in to make the evictions and clearances they had long desired.  The Rock years were particularly intense in their misery and violence. The correlation between the anguished state of the peasantry and the violence of their protests is not hard to make, although impossible to chart precisely. The outbreak that began on the Courtenay estate near Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, and continued for over three years is regarded as the most formidable of what are generically known as the Whiteboy movements that for about 70 years were concentrated in the south and west of the country.  The newly crowned King George IV of the United Kingdom lands at Howth to become the first monarch to pay a state visit to Ireland since the 14th century, Catholics in Ireland were being treated badly and it was the beginning of an uprising against that treatment.

The first document about John Donovan is his Convict Indent, which tells us he was convicted in March 1821 of horse stealing and sentenced to 7 years. They also give a description of John: 
Shoemaker, age 39, 
5ft 5inch tall,
Build: well made
hair: grey
Complex: Dark
Speaks rather hastily, has an anchor (tatoos) on both arms.

The anchor tatoos could indicate he spent some time at sea (or not!).  When John arrived in the colony in  March, 1822 there was a muster roll of all the convicts who had survived the journey.  John Donovan is again listed as #81.


In 1824 John Donovan was assigned to work for Patrick Cameron, Castlereagh Street for 3 years. There is a notation on the letter concerning this:
"Assigned convict mechanic whose master was a defaulter in payment for {?} 
The term 'convict mechanic' refers to someone that was a convict who had been trained in a trade, as apposed to many of the convicts who were illiterate labourers.  That same year there is a letter in the Colonial Secretary's papers

List  of persons praying His Authority the Gonvernor's permission to have their names published in church in ordet to being married:
John Donovon Convict per Southworth
Mary McKelver  (?)  Convict per {ileg...mermaid?}
 There are two entries in the NSW Births Deaths and Marriages Indexes for the marriage,

3458/1824 V18243458 3B
District: CJ
 17/1824 V182417 149
District: CJ
So John's second wife Mary could be named Edwards or Kelver (or similar), on the Secretarial papers her name is very difficult to read, and so is the ship she was transported on.  I have not been able to find her on any ship's lists.

The district CJ refers to St James Church, Sydney NSW Australia which still stands today.

Lithograph of St James' Church, Sydney c. 1836  
by Robert Russell.  
The church, designed by Francis Greenway, still stands.

1826 and onwards

Two years later, May 1826 Elizabeth and her daughter Mary Ann Donovan arrived in Sydney.  What a shock that must have been to John Donovan!  Elizabeth and John must have been together however, as Elizabeth made a petition to the Governor asking for him to be assigned to her as she was not seeing enough of him.  On he next page of the letters is a notation that yes, this is John's wife from Ireland, and yes, he had married another convict in Sydney.  He apparently said he thought his first wife had died.  

I have not been able to track down what happened to John's 2nd wife, but apparently she was abandoned by John.  I would guess that Elizabeth certainly had something to say about it.

By the time the census was taken in 1828 John and Elizabeth were living in Castle Hill with three children. (Mary, John and Eliza). They went on to have another 4 children (James, Catherine, Margaret and Ellen).

Certificates of Freedom were issued to John in 1834 and 1839.  (it appears the 1834 one was lost or mutilated).

In 1834 Elizabeth leased land at Mangrove Creek, 640 acres bounded on part of the south by Iron-bark Creek and on the west by Mangrove Creek; and it appears that Elizabeth and John farmed there.  The area had several orchards in the 1800's.

Port Hacking River near Mangrove Creek, 1888

In 1835 John purchased land, noted in the Government Gazette :
Northumberland, 50, Fifty acres, parish
unnamed, on Mangrove Creek; bounded on the
south-east by Iron Bark Creek; and on all other
sides by lines to include the quantity; lying about
80 chains below Webb's grant. Applied for by
John Donovan. Price 5s. per acre.

John and Elizabeth's children seem to have stayed in the area for at least the next generation and gone on to have successful families of their own.  One of their children, Mary Ann Donovan married William Woodbury, also the child of a convict, who became a constable in the area.   The Woodbury eventually married into the Clark family via my Aunt, Evelyn Theckla Woodbury.  I remember Aunt Evelyn was a very good cook but she would not have been happy to find out she was descended from a convict!

The final chapter

John died on 24th July, 1855; he is buried in a lone grave on private property on Wisemans Ferry Road, Greengrove, NSW, AUS.  This may have been the sight of John's property.

John Donovans gravesite
Elizabeth died on 30th January, 1891.  There was an inquest into her death, and it was found that age 100years, she had drowned in the Mangrove Creek at Brisbane Water (now Gosford) and that she had no property.  Looking through the newspapers of the time, there were several drownings in the river that month.   Elizabeth is buried at the Holy Trinity Cemetery, Spencer, NSW.  Elizabeth must have been a formidable lady and I would have liked to know more about her (and what happened to John's second wife Mary), so there is a bit more digging to be done about this family.

Elizabeth's Grave.

Greengrove is a narrow north-to-south locality spread along the east bank of Mangrove Creek and is traversed by Wisemans Ferry Road. Two district pioneers, Elizabeth Donovan (1791-1891) and Richard Woodbury (1811-1897) are honoured with parks bearing their name within the locality. Elizabeth Donovan Park is a park and is located in New South Wales, Australia at:
Latitude: -33°23'12.48"  /  Longitude: 151°9'4.32"

More Information? If you are researching
John Donovan and Elizabeth Mahoney
 and would like the sources for this story, 
please contact me or comment below.  I would be happy to collaborate with you.

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