On 23 November 1789, Ann Davis became the first woman hanged in New South Wales.
Davis was, as we would say today, ‘known to police’.
In England, Davis (also known as Judith Jones) had been indicted in April 1786 for feloniously stealing eight pairs of silk stockings valued at 8 shillings. Found guilty at the Old Bailey, she was sentenced to seven years transportation and arrived in Sydney Cove on the First Fleet. Being dispatched to the other side of the world did not deter Davis from her thieving ways.
On 3 January 1789, she was accused of stealing a white shirt from Mary Marshall, another female convict. Davis argued in court that she had been given the shirt by Marshall as payment for past favours (Marshall having received the shirt herself from a soldier as payment for sexual favours). Davis was acquitted, but she was back in court again the very next month where she faced a charge of creating a disturbance. Marshall was also in court that day, charged with ‘using infamous expressions’. Both women were sentenced to twenty-five lashes each. Flogging, an awful punishment, was used to punish all sorts of offences from absconding to drunkenness to general disobedience, through to pretending to be sick. We usually think of men being flogged, but the lash was used on women as well.
On 14 November 1789, Davis was found drunk and in possession of a large number of shirts, waistcoats and handkerchiefs, all items that were missing from Robert Sidaway’s house. Now Sidaway, who lived with Marshall, occasionally had Davis as a guest to smoke a pipe with them. On the day of the crime, John Ryan, another convict, had been minding the Sidaway and Marshall house, but he had left when he was ordered to go to the hospital to see a man being punished. Ryan testified that he had locked the door, but that he had left a window open. On his return to the house, both the door and window were open, and a tub of water had been knocked over. It was also obvious that numerous items had been taken.
Davis was found with the stolen goods in her possession. She testified another woman had given her the items, a claim quickly dismissed. When she was found guilty and sentenced to death on 21 November, she tried another ploy and claimed she was pregnant in order to escape the gallows. A jury of twelve matrons was empanelled. The forewoman, ‘a grave personage between sixty and seventy years old’, advised the Court: ‘Gentlemen, She is as much with child as I am’. David Collins wrote that when she was hanged – in an intoxicated state on 23 November 1789 (indeed, she was so drunk two women were required to help her stand up on the gallows) – she ‘died generally reviled and unpitied by the people of her own description’.
This was a sad end for Ann Davis, but this story is also a fascinating piece of legal history. In a colony where military panels served to deliver verdicts of ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’, the jury of matrons were the first civilians to participate as jurors in a criminal trial in New South Wales.
The right to trial by jury was hard won. Civilians, as oppposed to members of the armed forces, were eventually allowed to serve as jurors (well, the men were), but military panels were not abandoned until 1839.
Legislation allowing women to serve on juries in New South Wales was not approved until over a century later when an Act approved in 1947 allowed women who were enrolled as electors to apply to the chief constable of their police district to be included on the jury roll. Yet there was another delay because there were no ‘facilities’ to accommodate women jurors in courthouses. Nobody was in a rush to build ladies’ rooms either; the Government did ‘not regard the innovation as urgent’. Legislation in 1977 made the system more equitable by automatically including all enrolled electors – regardless of sex – on the jury roll.
Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator of Scholarship at the State Library of NSW and a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle. She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research on crime fiction, true crime, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Rachel!
For more Dictionary of Sydney, listen to the podcast with Rachel & Alex here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Alex James on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more stories from the Dictionary of Sydney.
Cobley, John, Sydney Cove: 1789–1790, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1963/1980, pp.3, 11,113–15.
Collins, David, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales: With Remarks on the Dispositions, Customs, Manners, & c. of the Native Inhabitants of that Country, vol. I, Libraries Board of South Australia, Adelaide, 1798/1971, p.103.
Johns, Rowena, Trial by Jury: Recent Developments, New South Wales Parliamentary Library Research Service, Sydney, 2005, pp.5–6.
Jury (Amendment) Act 1947 (NSW) Jury Act 1977 (NSW)
‘No Women on Juries for About a Year’, The Newcastle Sun, 17 July 1947, p.4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article157899437, accessed 29 September 2020.
Woods, G.D., A History of Criminal Law in New South Wales: The Colonial Period, 1788–1900, vol. I, Federation Press, Sydney, 2002, pp.xv, 24, 70.