The Elusive Elizabeth Robinson

This article was originally published in Western Ancestor, the quarterly magazine of the Western Australian Genealogical Society, September 2020 issue (Vol.14, No.11)

My father, a fourth generation Tasmanian, began researching his family history around sixty years ago but, unfortunately, was not particularly interested in the female lines. When I inherited Dad’s papers, I decided to fill in the missing names and dates. How difficult could that be—a simple matter of ordering a few certificates? I sent off for the registration of birth of his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Woods, and the marriage of her parents Henry Woods and Sarah Ellen Thompson (known to family and friends as Ellen). To my dismay there was no marriage registered, nor was there a birth for an Elizabeth Woods, born 2 August 1881; there was, however, a birth registered for that date of an Elizabeth Thompson, daughter of Sarah Ellen Thompson with no father recorded. There followed two years of intense obsession as I tried to unravel the story, and moments when I wondered if Henry Woods was a fiction created to give respectability to an illegitimate birth. In the end, I discovered not only that Henry Woods existed but that there were two of them, father and son, and that this story had its beginnings in Western Australia.1

Elizabeth Woods and her husband Edward Charles Reader c1914.
Elizabeth was thirty-three at the time of this photo.
Family collection.

Elizabeth Woods’s grandfather was Henry Woods, known as ‘the Old Man of the Mountain’. He had lived with his second wife, Jane McCurrie, from the late 1850s at the Springs on Mount Wellington until their deaths in 1882. Henry kept the waterways clear at the Springs and offered his services as a mountain guide as well as providing accommodation to those wishing to stay overnight on the mountain. Jane also provided refreshments to the hikers. They had married in 1853, Henry describing himself as a widower. Both were former convicts.2 Henry was born in 1803 at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire and had been transported to New South Wales for larceny in 1822 on the Shipley(4). At the end of 1829, his sentence served, he boarded the barque Leda arriving at Swan River on 15 January 1830.3 He married seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Robinson the following October and over the next eleven years they had four children at Fremantle – Sarah Emma (1832), Henry Watkins (1834), Jane Elizabeth (1837) and Mary (1842). During this period, Henry worked at a variety of occupations: shoemaker (his original occupation), labourer, baker, boatman, duck hunter, and shingle splitter. He also made sure that the authorities were well aware of his presence. He was tried in October 1832 for larceny of timber, found guilty, and received fourteen days imprisonment and three dozen lashes. In January 1834 he was charged with obstruction of prison officers when they were attempting to detain a prisoner at Fremantle, fined 30 shillings, in default one calendar month with hard labour. The following April he was tried as an accessory before the fact in a break-in at the house of P H Dodd and the theft of ‘sundry bottles of spirits’. He was found not guilty this time, then in the July of the same year he was again before the courts for aiding and assisting others in planning robberies.4 Finally in April 1845 Henry Woods was convicted of burglary and transported, this time to Van Diemen’s Land. Once his sentence was completed, he stayed on in the Hobart area.

Henry Woods and Jane McCurrie c1870
Photo courtesy of Libraries Tasmania Online Collection

In 1878 his son, Harry,5 arrived in Hobart leaving his wife Eliza Hines6 behind in Perth. Harry took over his aging father’s work on Mount Wellington. Forgetting that he had a wife in Perth, Harry set up house with 19-year-old Ellen Thompson.7 They had a daughter Jane in 1879 but in early 1881 Eliza turned up and Ellen, now pregnant with their second child,8 was ejected from her home at the Springs. Ellen had no intention of allowing Harry to shirk his responsibilities and successfully pursued him through the courts for maintenance of his illegitimate children to the point that when he failed to pay, he was imprisoned for a short time at the Campbell Street Gaol. After the death of Henry the elder and Jane in the winter of 1882, Eliza and Harry stayed on at the Springs for around eight months before returning to Perth.

I was quite pleased with my unravelling of the tale but was in danger of falling into the same trap as my father had, ignoring Henry Woods’ wife, Elizabeth Robinson. There is no record of Elizabeth Robinson’s arrival at Swan River.9 Her first clear appearance in the records was her marriage on 9 October 1830 to Henry Woods conducted by the Colonial Chaplain, JB Wittenoom and witnessed by Joseph and Jane Broughton.10

Joseph Broughton was a 33-year-old labourer from Manchester. He had arrived at Swan River on 13 February 1830 on board the Hooghly with his wife Jane (37, from Staffordshire) and their five children. The passenger list for the Hooghly describes the children as three boys aged 6, 9 and 14 and two girls aged 13 and 17.11 On arrival, the elder daughter was not enrolled with the other Broughton children at the Clarence school, no doubt because, at 17, she was too old. Neither is she listed with the family in the 1832 census.12 As she would have been 19 by 1832, it is quite possible that she had married but there are no Broughton marriages (or burials for that matter) listed up to this time.

It is apparent from various records that there was a close connection with between Henry Woods’ family and the Broughtons. As well as the Broughtons witnessing Henry’s marriage, he was a witness to the marriage of their younger daughter, Ann Elizabeth, to George Field in 1833. At the 1834 trial of Henry Woods for breaking and larceny (acquitted), Joseph Broughton is mentioned as being present in Woods’ house.13 The 1837 census lists Ann Elizabeth Field immediately after Henry and Elizabeth Woods, suggesting that the two families lived close to each other.14 In the census of 1832 Elizabeth Woods’ age is given as 19 and her place of origin as Manchester15 – the same age as Joseph and Jane’s unnamed daughter and from the same place as Joseph Broughton.

When Henry Woods was convicted of larceny in 1845 and sentenced to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, Elizabeth and their two youngest daughters, Jane Elizabeth aged eight and Mary aged four accompanied him. Henry and Elizabeth may have assumed that Henry would be able to be assigned to Elizabeth and that they could continue a regular family life. Henry may have been aware of this sort of thing happening during his time in NSW. On arrival in Hobart, once it was realized that Henry was a repeat offender, his sentence of seven years was increased to ten and his probation period extended to thirty months at Port Arthur.

Hobart Town from the Wharf
by JS Prewett 1844
Photo courtesy of Libraries Tasmania Online Collection

Elizabeth fell ill soon after arriving in the cold Hobart winter and was admitted to the Colonial Hospital. Without family or close friends to support her, she was not able to find work and adequately provide for her family. It quickly reached such a point that in October 1845 she petitioned the Lieutenant Governor for permission for her daughters to be admitted to the Queen’s Orphan School. She is described as ‘an entire stranger in this Colony with two helpless children’.16 Information in support of Elizabeth’s petition was provided by John Symons, Senior District Constable, Hobart Town, in which he states that she ‘has her parents and two more children at Swan River.’ The petition was refused but Elizabeth was granted an allotment of 6 shillings per week for two months.17 Elizabeth again applied for her daughters to be admitted to the Orphan School in March 1846. Further information about her situation was supplied by Joseph Morgan, Chief Constable of Hobart Town, who described her as being ‘at present without the means of subsistence but for the charity of Mr [John] Morgan of Brisbane Street who knew her family at Swan River’.18 On 30 March 1846, the Lieutenant Governor approved admission of the two children to the Orphan School; however, I have been unable to find any evidence that Jane Elizabeth and Mary Woods were ever admitted to the School—they are not listed in either the admission or discharge registers. At some point between March 1846 and mid-1849 Elizabeth and her two daughters went to Sydney where on 4 June 1849 Elizabeth married a John Nelson at the Church of St Lawrence, Sydney.19 There are few useful details on the marriage record. Both parties lived at Parramatta Street and no ages are given or even an occupation for John Nelson.

On 27 Dec 1853, Elizabeth and Henry Woods’ daughter Jane Elizabeth married William Holmes at the Church of St Lawrence, Sydney. Elizabeth and John Nelson of Parramatta Street were witnesses.20 Jane Elizabeth and William’s daughter, Mary Jane (b.1854) appears to have believed her mother’s maiden name was Nelson as that is the name she gave for her mother at her marriages in 1898 and 190321; it is also listed as Nelson on Mary Jane’s death registration.22 The other children, however, did report their mother’s maiden name as Wood.

After 1853 we lose sight of both John Nelson and Elizabeth Robinson. There are three admissions to Darlinghurst Gaol between 1857 and 1859 of a woman who could be Elizabeth – Eliza Nelson, born around 1814 in Manchester, arrived on the Hooghly around 1828 or 1829. Though, equally, this may be one of the fifteen women or twenty-two children who accompanied the NSW Royal Veteran Corps on the convict transport Hooghly to New South Wales in 1828. I have not found a death for either Elizabeth or John Nelson nor second marriage that I even suspect could be a possibility.

I have been unable to trace Henry and Elizabeth’s youngest child Mary. There is a Catholic baptism on 27 Feb 1850 of a Mary Nelson, daughter of Elizabeth Robinson and John Nelson of Parramatta Road; the child is 6 years old.23 I have wondered if this is Mary Wood and this was, perhaps, John Nelson’s way of formally taking on the role of father. Beyond this I can find no trace of Mary Woods/Nelson.

Of the two children left behind at Swan River, Sarah Emma Wood, the elder of the two, married Thomas Poland, a boatman, on 21 May 1846 by Licence at the Wesleyan Chapel, Perth.24 Sarah spent her life in Perth and died on 25 May 1910.25

Woods hut at the Springs c1880.
To the left of the door are Henry Woods, Jane McCurrie and Ellen Thompson holding Jane Woods, the daughter of Harry Woods.
Photo courtesy of Libraries Tasmania Online Collection

Little is known about Henry and Elizabeth Woods’ son, Harry, until 1865 when he married Eliza Hines at the Congregational Chapel, Perth.26 They had no children together. In the mid-1870s Harry is believed to have been working on the construction of the Eucla leg of the Overland Telegraph line between Perth and Adelaide and is claimed to be the man who placed the tombstone on the grave of Tommy Windich, a well-respected Aboriginal tracker of the Kokar people.

After Eliza’s arrival in Hobart in early 1881, and Ellen’s ejection from the Springs, Harry and Eliza took over from Henry and Jane, offering services as a mountain guide as well as accommodation and refreshments. After the deaths of Henry and Jane in 1882, they only remained at the Springs for around eight months before returning to Western Australia. Eliza is quite possibly the Eliza Woods, wife of Henry Woods, who managed the newly established Burnett Coffee Palace, corner of Barrack and Hay Street, in 1883/4. From 1884 until Henry’s death in 1908, they lived at the corner of Murray and Milligan Streets, Perth where they ran a fruiterer and confectionery business.

On Harry’s death certificate, his mother’s name is given as Elizabeth Broarden, a phonetic rendering of Broughton.27 It would appear that Eliza thought that the Broughtons were Henry’s grandparents. It may be that it was on Joseph Broughton’s farm at Rockingham that Harry spent the years after his parents left Western Australia, possibly up until the farm was sold in 1875.

While this all sounds plausible when told quickly, there are far too many probablies. Yet it is highly suggestive of a strong connection between the Woods and the Broughtons. It does not help that I have not managed to locate the baptisms of any of the Broughton children nor Joseph and Jane’s marriage in English parish records. Intriguingly, I and my two sisters have distant DNA matches to a couple of descendants of Joseph and Jane Broughton – too small to determine whether it is a firm connection or just coincidence.

At this point, I believe that it is likely that Elizabeth Robinson was the 17-year-old ‘daughter’ who arrived with the Broughtons on the Hooghly in 1830 and that she was possibly either a child of Jane’s from a previous marriage or else a niece of Joseph’s. But then, with the puzzle that the past often is, I may be wrong.

So the search continues…

©Catherine Anne Merrick.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Catherine Anne Merrick and with appropriate and specific direction and links to the original content.


1 – Details of the research path taken can be found in my article in Tasmanian Ancestry June 2013, vol.34 no.1 pp.9-12. ‘Who is this Henry Woods? The search for Henry Woods, father (1803–1882) and son (1834–1908)’ and on this blog – Can’t see the Woods for the … Woods – The search for one Henry Woods

2 – Jane McCurrie (1820-1882), a convict from Glasgow per Sea Queen in 1846.

3 – Henry is not listed on the passenger list so I would assume that he worked his way across.

4 – WAGS Transcriptions of Western Australia (Swan River Colony) Criminal Court Record Book 1830-1840 – Cons 3422-1 (1830-1840) by Graham Bown pp.4, 7

WAGS Transcriptions of Western Australia (Swan River Colony) Quarter Sessions Indictment Files – Cons 3472 (1830-1836) by Graham Bown pp.71-2, 144-9, 182-3

5 – I am using Harry, a name he was sometimes know by, to differentiate him from his father. Henry Woods the elder was transported to NSW under the surname Wood but by the time he arrived at Swan River, he was usually known as Woods. His daughters appear to have used the surname Wood while his son used Woods.

6 – Daughter of William Hines and Mary Hides. Arrived at Fremantle on 24 March 1854, with her family, on the Victory.

7 – Daughter of William Thompson and Elizabeth Miller/Millar, born 15 Sep 1858 in Hobart. William Thompson is the subject of the book The Career of William Thompson, Convict PAHSMA, 2009

8 – This child was Elizabeth Thompson/Woods, my great-grandmother.

9 – Elizabeth Robinson is not listed on passenger list of the Leda. Some family researchers have suggested that Elizabeth came from New South Wales with Henry.

10 – Records of births, deaths and marriages 1829-1861[microform]State Archives of Western Australia, 1990 These records are transcriptions. I was advised by the WA Archives that the originals have been lost. The second witness is ‘James Broughton’ but I believe this to be a transcription error as I have found no mention of a James Broughton (adult) at Swan River during this period.

11 – State Library of WA Acc 184A – Hooghly Shipping Register

12 – A Return of the Population of Western Australia at 1st July 1832. National Archives UK. Colonial Office 18/10 p.136 (#977-982)

13 – WAGS Transcriptions of Western Australia (Swan River Colony) Quarter Sessisons Indictment Files – Cons 3472 (1830-1836) by Graham Bown p.149

14 – Census, 1837, Western Australia : extracted from volume 58 of inward correspondence of the Colonial Secretary’s Office of Western Australia, by staff of the Battye Library, 1974. p.81

15 – A Return of the Population of Western Australia at 1st July 1832. National Archives UK. Colonial Office 18/10 (#768-770)

16 – Tasmanian Archives. Colonial Secretary’s Office. Correspondence ‘a’ Series. CSO20/1/12, #193, pp.70-71

17 – Tasmanian Archives. CSO20/1/12, #193 p.73 – 30 Nov 1845

18 – John Morgan (c.1792 -1866) arrived at Swan River on the Parmelia in 1830 and served as Government storekeeper as well as a magistrate and justice of the peace. He departed for Van Diemen’s Land in 1833 to serve as Police Magistrate. He had employed Elizabeth as a servant at Swan River. (Tasmanian Archives. CSO20/1/12, #193 p.79)

19 – NSW Marriage Reg # 100/1849 V1849100 34C (Nelson Robertson) Elizabeth appears to have availed herself of the poor man’s divorce of absence and distance. Henry was to do the same four years later.

20 – NSW Marriage Reg # 741/1853 V1853741 39C (Holmes Wood)

21 – NSW Marriage Regs # 1898/1974 (Nelson Quinnell) and # 1903/4654 (Ward Nelson)

22 – NSW Death Reg # 1936/2663 (Mary Jane Ward)

23 – NSW Birth Reg # 317/1850 V1850317 141 (Mary Nelson)

24 – WA Marriage Reg # 1846/176 (Polund Wood)

25 – WA Death Reg # 1910/279 (Sarah E Poland)

26 – WA Marriage Reg # 1685/2309 (Woods Hines)

27 – WA Death Reg # 1908/562 (Henry W Woods)

4 thoughts on “The Elusive Elizabeth Robinson

    • He had a couple of stints in Bristol gaol before he was transported, including a caning. In one of these cases he just seemed to walk in and out of shops down the street in Cheltenham pinching things – a flitch of bacon, a flute, a shoe last. A workmate said to me that he wondered if some of those transported in their late teens, if around today, would be diagnosed with ADHD.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: Can’t see the Woods for the … Woods – The search for one Henry Woods | Catherine Meyrick

  2. Thank you, Annette. I am aware of the baptism of an Elizabeth Robinson, daughter of Jonas Robinson and Jane Pringle at Manchester in 1814. While it looks like a good fit, unfortunately, I have found nothing to link this baptism to our Elizabeth Robinson so far. One record is not enough for proof and falls far short of the genealogical gold standard. Other researchers have Elizabeth’s mother as a Jane Barrows. I have no idea where this name comes from.
    Many people have accepted Jonas Robinson and Jane Pringle as Elizabeth’s parents based on the assumption that Jane Pringle later married Joseph Broughton. But, once again, that is just an assumption. I haven’t managed to discover any records to support this proposition – no burial record that can be identified as Jonas Robinson’s and no marriage record for Joseph Broughton and Jane Pringle/Robinson. There’s no documentary trail to follow.
    If you do have other documentary evidence connecting our Elizabeth to Jonas Robinson and Jane Pringle and also the Broughtons that would be brilliant and I would be grateful if you could point me towards it.
    Hopefully one day records will turn up which will prove what people suspect.


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