Almost 200 years ago, a ship called the Eliza III set sail from London, bound for Van Diemen’s Land. On board were 115 women convicted of stealing, cheating, immorality and possibly annoying English toffs. One of the convicts was called Jane.
Jane was a seamstress, a convicted lace thief and quite a looker. She was just over five feet tall, with dark brown hair, hazel eyes — and unusually for a convict, she could read and write. That was definitely not the norm for most convict women.
She was 21 years old when she walked down the gangplank in Launceston, to be assigned as a convict servant to local Superintendent of Convicts, Ronald Gunn. She was set to work as a children’s help, general hand and companion for Gunn’s wife.
Gunn was the top man in the new settlement and oversaw all of the settlement’s operations — including the setting up and running of a new Colonial Hospital. The hospital was the first of its kind in the north of Tasmania, and signalled a move towards a prosperous, regular and more organised urban settlement in what was previously something of a wild frontier.
The new hospital was little more than a couple of rooms and a tent with a dozen or so beds, but was better than what had been there before — nothing. It was handily located near the river Tamar, in the centre of town. Day-to-day management of the spanking new facility was handled by the hospital manager John Ayton, and his assistant surgeon Dr James Spence.
The hospital, with its stout surrounding fence and lockable gates offered recuperative safety and privacy to its patients — both things in scarce supply in edge-of-empire Launceston at the time. Ayton and Spence oversaw a regular trickle of patients being dosed, bled, bathed and cupped in the name of health. Records indicate that Jane became one of those patients for a short time, not long after she arrived in Launceston.
But there were strange goings on at the hospital.
Despite Gunn having never noticed her being particularly ill, Jane was subsequently admitted a couple more times by Dr. Spence, to be treated for epilepsy. Each time she was invalided for a few days under medical care. It also came to light later that, on several occasions, she had escaped from Gunn’s house ‘by some contrivance,’ and had spent the evenings in the company of that same Dr. Spence. At his house, near the hospital.
Things took yet another, more serious turn in early March 1831.
Launceston Town had appointed a constable, Benjamin Rogers, whose job it was to keep bandits and ne’er-do-wells away from honest townfolk, both day and night. Shortly after dawn one Monday that March, Constable Rogers spotted Jane — and here’s a quote: ‘without a bonnet, her cap in hand, and her gown loose behind as if just put on’. She was wandering dishevelled outside the gates of the hospital, where she was supposed to be recuperating from epilepsy. Curiously, the gates were still locked — from the inside.
Constable Rogers widened his investigation. He discovered that Jane was not just getting better in the hospital; she was making friends there too. And even more unusually for a sick patient confined to bed, she was making money.
It transpired that Jane, along with co-conspirators Spence and Ayton, had used their access to handy and comfy hospital beds to establish a lucrative trade in ‘personal services’ for late night town-dwellers. Even more astonishingly, Jane had ambitious plans — she had started franchising her business to other late-night workers from across Launceston.
Jane had expanded from running a one-person comfort operation to offering settlement-wide provision of willing women to anybody who knew where the hospital was. With the connivance of Dr. Spence and Ayton (who were presumably benefitting from a ‘mates-rates’ service), the business-minded Jane had set up a mini-brothel in the hospital to cater for the needs of recuperating patients, casual visitors and passing soldiery alike.
The extent of Jane’s hospital-based operation was impressive. Reports of sneaked-in grog and intoxication, regular patient prostitution, gambling and unauthorised recreational absences by female patients all came to light under Constable Rogers’ searching investigations.
Sick patients reported they had put up with “being frequently disturbed by noisy behaviour of females,” and likened the hospital “to more of a bawdy house than a place of healing.” Rest and Recuperation at the Colonial Hospital took on a whole new meaning for the inhabitants of Launceston.
The settlement governors were shocked and horrified by Constable Rogers’ revelations, and found Dr. Spence and Ayton guilty of “the grossest misconduct, and irregular and improper behaviour discreditable to the service.” They were both kicked out of the hospital, and their soft government jobs too. For her part in the operation, Jane was sent to the Female House of Correction at Georgetown for spell of full-on clink. There she served her time (records are a bit vague, but it was probably six months) and then released back into Gunn’s supervision.
But the spell in the Big House didn’t seem to dissuade Jane. She knew a good business model when she saw one. In 1832 she was sentenced to six months at the Hobart Female Factory for prostitution. Even this apparently didn’t quell her appetite for horizontal transactions; she got sent down with four more similar convictions over the following two years.
However, things eventually took a turn for the less promiscuous.
In 1835 she settled down with a man called Thomas Johnson. She had by now served her time and was a free woman; together they looked after Jane’s child, a bonny daughter called Margaret who they both loved dearly. Life was good. But tragically, their child was burnt to death in a domestic accident when she was only five years old.
The effect on Jane and Johnson was awful. They split up; she left Hobart and took on work as a governess for a new settler. Not long after she left Tasmania behind, probably to escape the trauma, and sailed back to England. On the voyage over, however, Jane cemented an existing friendship with the ship’s captain, William Garner. She already knew him through a common acquaintance, but the initial friendship seems to have become something more.
Within a year, Jane and Garner upped sticks, returned to Tasmania, and got married. They settled on a rural property at Horton, just south of Ross. Jane and hubby William carved out a successful farm around their homestead and had four healthy children over the next few years. She had become respectable.
There is no doubt Jane lived a rich and enterprising life. Although she died relatively young (42) of what was listed as a heart attack, she exemplified the can-do, opportunist approach that marked out early Tasmanian settlers as a cut above those trudging mainland convict masses.
Despite a rocky start, some rather unusual business choices, a significant criminal record, and immense personal tragedy she not only survived — she thrived. She made herself a good life and returned to success and respectability in the empire’s newest colony. Her full name? Jane Torr.