The Rake, the Servant girl and the Transportee

Obsidian Cat, Going Postal
Photograph – Portrait of WENTWORTH, Major D’Arcy former commandant at Barracks, Bothwell

Consider three people: D’Arcy Wentworth – rich, handsome, charming, gregarious, rake; Mary Ann (Nancy) Laws – servant, probably pretty, probably poor;  James Macknail – poor, petty thief, transportee.

D’Arcy Wentworth – The Rake

D’Arcy Wentworth was an Irishman, born in 1762, in Portadown, Co. Armagh, the son of D’Arcy Wentworth, an innkeeper in Portadown. The family, though impecunious (good word that!) claimed to be related to the Earl of Rockingham, Lord Fitzwilliam and the earl of Strafford.

Young D’Arcy became an ensign in the First Armagh Company of the Irish Volunteers under Lord Charlemont. Whilst in the Volunteers he received some medical training, and subsequently went to London for more medical training. Once in London, and probably in the society of those more wealthy than he, including his titled relatives, he ran into debt and took to highway robbery. It has been suggested that in fact his gambling was too successful, and highway robbery was his method of collecting his winnings from those who wouldn’t pay, rather than to make up for losses. He was charged 3 times in December 1787, and on all occasions got away with it, and was acquitted. According to the Old Bailey trial transcripts, he was fencing the goods through one Mary Wilkinson, his co-accused. The advocate for Mary Wilkinson tried to claim mitigation on the grounds of coercion by D’Arcy, but the judge was having none of that, as seems that D’Arcy and Mary Wilkinson were cohabiting as man and wife, but were not married. Had they been married, Mary Wilkinson could have claimed protection of the law against coercion. On a fourth occasion, in 1789, he was acquitted possibly only because he had found an appointment as Assistant Surgeon, in a fleet travelling to Botany Bay.

He has been described as a man “of great charm, cheerful, gregarious & liberal in his political views”. He also seems to have been a great one for the “ladies”, since he seems to have been something of a rake, and fathered several illegitimate children.

D’Arcy travelled to Port Jackson in the Neptune, and arrived on 28th June 1790. The Neptune has been described as “the hell ship of the second fleet”. A third of the convicts died on the voyage, but Wentworth survived, along with a young girl transportee called Catherine Crowley, who was pregnant by D’Arcy by the time they arrived at Port Jackson. Shortly thereafter, he & Catherine sailed to Norfolk Island on the Surprize (presumably not under the command of Capt. Jack Aubrey). Catherine probably gave birth to their son William Charles on the voyage. Once in Norfolk Island he was an assistant in the hospital and subsequently, from 10th September 1791, Superintendent of Convicts. Two other children were born to D’Arcy and Catherine on Norfolk Island, where they may, or may not, have married.

In December 1796, D’Arcy relocated to Parramatta as Assistant Surgeon, and in 1809 became principal surgeon of the Civil Medical Department. He was subsequently appointed to various legal & financial posts, including JP in 1810, in charge of the police force, founder & director of the Bank of New South Wales,  and commissioner for the turnpike road to Parramatta (not bad for a former highway robber). Since he became extremely wealthy, probably he was not as honest as he has been portrayed, and some of the money which passed through his hands probably stuck to his fingers. He also had many other money making enterprises, some of which may not have been entirely legal.

Catherine, his common law or actual wife, died on the 18th October, 1800, apparently aged 28 years, and was described as the wife of D’Arcy Wentworth in the burial register. She was buried in the Parramatta Anglican Cemetery, in the Wentworth family grave.

Mary Ann Laws – The Servant Girl

It is not known where and when Mary Ann was born, except that it was in the UK. She arrived in Australia on the Lady Madeline (or Magdeline) Sinclair, the same ship as Captain William Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame), in August 1806 as a servant (and a free woman) to “Mr Gore Provost Marshal of the Colony at that time”. Since she was a servant to William Gore, who came from Ireland, she probably came from the same region, but she may well have been hired from elsewhere.

In early 1808, William Gore was arrested by the New South Wales Corps, who were in rebellion against Governor Bligh and his supporters, of whom Gore was one. He was imprisoned for 2 months, and during this time his wife and children were dependant on the charity of friends. This would no doubt have had an adverse impact on any of his servants, and it may have prompted Mary Ann to marry James – assuming she was even employed at the time (being pregnant). It may be that James was not even the father of her baby, just a convenient protector – who knows.

James Macknail – The Transportee

There are many variations in the spelling of James’ surname. It is variously Macknail, Macknaile, McNeal, McNeall, Macknell, McNell, McNall, McNeall. By the end of the 19th century, the spelling in Australia became largely settled as McNeall.

James Macknail was born in about 1770. He was baptised in St Giles, Reading on 2nd December 1770 and the baptism records show him to be the son of John “Macknaile” & Jane (Littlefield). His parents had married on the 11th  June 1770.

Presumably the family were poor, and James resorted to theft. On the 10th January 1798, James “McNeall” was tried in London and acquitted of burglary & stealing a £5 note from the house of Richard Martin. At the time he was described as “27 5/5 dark complex brown hair dark eyes. Reading Berks” plus another illegible word. He was held at Newgate pending his trial.

In 1798, he was again up for trial in London, along with a George Clark. On 19th June 1798, James “Macknell” or “McNell” was again tried for theft of “sundry articles from the house of Jas.  McLennon(?)”. In the trial proceedings, these articles were described as “six silver teaspoons value 1l. 6s. 6d. a pair of silver sugar tongs, value 8s. 6d. a pair of silver shoe buckles, value 1s. 6d. a pair of shoe-latchets, value 12s. a silk cloak, value 3l. 3s. two gowns, value 1l. 5s. and two pairs of silk stockings, value 3s. the property of John Duff; and two guineas in money, the property of John Young.” The only evidence against them seems to have been an identification by 2 separate witnesses of each of the men outside the house (they hadn’t previously seen them) and the fact that a very common type of crowbar was found, which matched the “marks of violence on the drawers” (in the burgled house). The stolen items weren’t recovered.

James was described as “aged 28 5ft ? high born at Reading in Berks illegible”. On this occasion he was found guilty and sentenced to death. However, on 4th August 1798 he was “pardoned” and his sentence commuted to Transportation for Life.

In July 1799, James arrived in Sydney on the Hillsborough. The ship’s muster rolls show a James Macknell (and his co-accused, George Clark) arriving in 1799 with a Life term of sentence.

In 1798, the contractors of the Hillsborough were to be given a bonus of £4 10s. 6d. for each convict who was still alive on landing. This was in addition to the fee of £18 per prisoner that they were paid on embarkation. However, despite this, the captain, William Hingston, decided it was better to starve the prisoners and keep them heavily chained, with double chains at night. Quite understandably, many prisoners contacted typhoid (and no doubt other illnesses) and a third died on the journey. Approximately 300 convicts arrived in Sydney – so presumably around 150 died on the journey. James was lucky that he survived.

He most likely worked once he arrived in Sydney – convicts were a form of slave labour for the colony and settlers could apply for convicts to be allocated to them for work. He may have been pardoned in 1804 – a list of people given an absolute pardon contains a name, which may be James McNeal or McNall, and which may or may not be “our” James.

A list of convicts & settlers, date unknown, indicates that at the time the list was compiled, James was in Van Diemens Land (Tasmania).

The marriage of James to Mary Ann Laws and following events

On 18th February, 1808, Mary Ann married James in St Philips, Sydney, and by 9th April 1808, their son John James was born.

By 1810, Mary Ann had deserted James, in consequence if which he placed a notice in the Classified ads of the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser on the 28th April 1810 which read:-

“Whereas, my Wife, Mary Ann Mackneal, has absented herself from my House and Habitation without provocation, and left an Infant Son destitute of Maternal Protection. I do hereby publicly forbid all Persons from harbouring her and should any person or persons presume to harbour her after this public Notice, I am determined to prosecute him, her, or them to the utmost rigour of the law; and I also caution all Persons not to credit her on my Account, as I will pay no debt she may contract after this Notice. JAMES MACKEAL (sic).

It appears that Mary Ann had deserted James, and her son, for D’Arcy Wentworth, and that she was living “under the protection of” D’Arcy Wentworth”. How they met is not known, but it’s not inconceivable that it was whilst Mary Ann was employed by Provost Marshall Gore. Since D’Arcy was a JP, he must have had close dealings with Mr. Gore. One supposes that D’Arcy was more attractive than James – he was certainly more wealthy. Mr Gore was, apparently, a thoroughly unpleasant man, and disliked by almost everyone, except for William Bligh.

What attracted D’Arcy to Mary Ann? He could, and did, have many different women. She must have had something special about her for him to take her on. At any rate, she had at least 8 children by him, and she lived in his home, Homebush.

According to James, he was living “happily and in much domestic comfort with his wife, till her affections were alienated from him; and his peace of mind destroyed by being seduced from the paths of virtue by Mr D’Arcy Wentworth at this time a Magistrate of the Colony”. Presumably all this domestic bliss was insufficient to inure Mary Ann to the charms of D’Arcy – and his money.

Following his wife’s desertion, James took himself off to Van Diemen’s Land, but it seems that whatever venture he undertook there didn’t prosper, as he had to return to Sydney. On his return, he found that Mary Ann was still living with D’Arcy, “persevering in her guilty carrier (sic), and under the protection of her former seducer”.

Accordingly, in 1824, and again in 1827, he petitioned for his wife (to whom he referred as Nancy) to be returned to him. He obviously thought of her as some sort of chattel. How he thought that a relationship with him would be successful if she was removed from the man and children with whom she had been living for the past 14 or so years is a mystery. It would be interesting to know if James ever confronted D’Arcy – or Mary Ann – over the matter.

In any event, D’Arcy died of pneumonia in 1827, so the matter became irrelevant.

Following D’Arcy’s death, the following notice (something of a eulogy) was inserted on the 9th July 1827 in the Deaths column of the Sydney Gazette & New South Wales Advertiser:

On the evening of Friday last, at his seat at Home-bush, on the Parramatta-road, D’ARCY WENTWORTH, Esq. Justice of the Peace, and Premier Magistrate of the Territory of New South Wales. This venerable Colonist had been long declining in health, having studiously devoted the best part of his eventful life in this Country, to the service of the Public. Mr. Wentworth emigrated to these shores some 30 years ago, and the first situation he held under the Crown, was that of Assistant Surgeon on the Medical Establishment at the Settlement of Norfolk Island, where he abided many years. Subsequently he returned to Head-quarters, where he joined his Department, and in Governor MACQUARIE’s time became Principal Surgeon, and also Police Magistrate. During the length of time he was in the Medical Department, whether as Subordinate or Principal, a single complaint was never known to have been preferred against him. As Minister of Police, to the duties of which post he gave his nights as well as days, the whole Colony can bear testimony to the value of his talents, zeal, and usefulness. In the exercise of his Magisterial functions he aimed at impartiality, and no judicial character could well excel in that particular. Though decidedly what the world would term a Ministerial character, nevertheless he was never known meanly to subserve the interests of any party. He was loyal from principle, and indefatigable in his public career, from a desire of being useful to his King and Country; indeed he might be viewed as a patriot, in whom were blended the political virtues of loyalty and independence. The remains of this much respected Colonist-we believe the oldest Colonial Public Servant-will be interred this day in the Church-yard at Parramatta. Mr. Wentworth leaves large possessions for his posterity to enjoy.

Mr. W. C. WENTWORTH, who has been indefatigable in his attention to his sire since his illness, was with him when his spirit was summoned to eternity.

What happened to Mary Ann after D’Arcy’s death? I don’t know. Hopefully she remained at Homebush and was treated as his widow. It seems that she probably died in 1847 – there is a death of “Mary A Laws” recorded in the New South Wales Registry Index – but that is not her for certain, as the index has insufficient information to give certainty. Her children (at least 3 of them, whose names can be found in the New South Wales births Index) bore the Wentworth name

James seems to have died in 1836, aged about 67. Again, there is a death of “James Mc Neall” recorded in the New South Wales Registry Deaths Index, but the information is insufficient for certainty. He seems to have been the loser in this saga, losing his wife, and failing in his venture in Van Diemen’s Land. More happily, his family seem to have fared better, with his grandson (another John James) having a successful coach building business in Maitland, New South Wales.

Post Script

It has recently been suggested that D’Arcy met Jane Austen whilst he was in London running up debts, and becoming a highwayman. They may well have moved in the same circles, and were distantly related, both being descended from Thomas Wentworth, 1st earl of Strafford. Jane may have fallen in love with D’Arcy, and used his names as the surnames of major characters in her books Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion – though since these were family names anyway, their use may have nothing to do with our hero, D’Arcy. Her family did not approve of D’Arcy, and prevented Jane from travelling to Australia with him (apparently, if you believe it). If this is true, and if Jane had gone to Australia, she may well have been one of the many people who died on the voyage, and the world would have lost a great writer. However, since D’Arcy was living “as man and wife” with another woman (Mary Wilkinson) at the time, he can’t have felt a huge amount for Jane, and it certainly didn’t take him long to form a relationship with a convict on board, so I feel she had a narrow escape.

A book covering the supposed relationship between Jane Austen & D’Arcy has been written by Wal Walker, a descendant of D’Arcy.

Jane & D’Arcy by Wal Walker – ISBN 9780646903996


The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes (ISBN: 8601300072142)

© Obsidian Cat 2017