On 6 May 1799, the Gloucester Journal reported that ‘two genteely-dressed women’ had been committed to the city gaol, after stealing a quantity of lace from a milliner’s shop in Gloucester. The pair had been pursued and apprehended in Cheltenham, where some of the stolen lace was found among their possessions. The newspaper commented that it was supposed that the women were members of a large gang of shoplifters, who had been operating for some time in the country.
The two women, Mary Steward and Jane Bowers, were held in the city gaol in Southgate Street until July, when the Assizes were held. When the time came for their trials, it was revealed that Bowers had ‘turned evidence’ against her colleague, and was acquitted as a result. Mary Steward was found guilty of stealing lace from the shop of Mrs Bright, milliner. She was sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years. She was taken back to the city gaol, to wait there until she was transferred to the next available convict ship.
On 5 August 1799, it was announced in the Gloucester Journal that Mary Steward had escaped from the gaol. The city prison had only opened in 1782, but Steward had been able to make a hole under her cell window, big enough to climb through, then she had lowered herself down into the street, using sheets which she had torn into strips and sewn together to make a rope.
In the same paper, an advertisement appeared, submitted by William Dunn, Gaoler, offering a reward of five pounds to anyone who detained Steward or gave information leading to her recapture. The notice stated that Mary Steward was twenty-eight years old, and from ‘Harwin’, in Ayrshire, Scotland. She had dark brown hair, hazel eyes, was round-featured with a fresh complexion, had a scar between her eyebrows, a mark from a sore on her left arm, near the wrist, and was five feet one and a quarter inches in height. She had previously lived in Nottingham, Sheffield and Birmingham. At the time of her escape, she was wearing ‘a pair of black Stockings, a flannel under Pettycoat and a black Skirt over it, a Night Cap and a black Bonnet, but no Gown, Stays, nor Shoes’.
A week later, the Gloucester Journal reported that Mary Steward was ‘still yet at large’, but it was hoped that she would soon be retaken. The advertisement for her recapture was repeated on the same page, with the reward being offered now increased to ten guineas.
Unfortunately, no record has been found of where or when Mary Steward was recaptured, but she certainly was, because she was listed as one of the convicts who were transported to Australia on board the Earl Cornwallis, which set sail on 18 November 1800, arriving in New South Wales on 12 June 1801. Her initial sentence of seven years had been increased to transportation for life.
Gloucester Journal, 6 May, 15 July, 5 Aug, 12 Aug 1799
Transportees from Gloucestershire to Australia, 1783-1842, Irene Wyatt, ed. (Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Gloucestershire Record Series, Vol. 1, 1988)
Australian Convict Transportation Registers, Other Fleets & Ships, 1791-1868, via ancestry.co.uk
*The full sketch is ‘Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess escape from Clerkenwell Prison’, by George Cruickshank, in Volume II of Jack Sheppard. A Romance, by WH Ainsworth (accessed via archive.org). I removed Jack Sheppard from the sketch on this occasion, because this sister was doing it for herself!
© Jill Evans 2017