Wednesday, 17 October 2012

My favourite convict, Esther (Salamon) Spencer

I have 5 convict ancestors, and following is my account of my favourite, Esther Spencer (nee Salamon), who was a most remarkable woman. I hope someone out there knows more about her story and can fill in some blanks for me!

Esther was born sometime between July and October 1775, presumably in England. Sadly the UK census doesn’t start until 1841, by which time she is in Australia, and it’s impossible to find a missing person gap in a census. I have no details of her baptism because she was Jewish, and the birth of Jewish girls wasn’t usually recorded. Consequently I have had 20+ years of fruitless searching for her parents.

Sometime before she turned 19 she married a Mr Spencer (the marriage record can’t be found, either), and then was convicted of theft on 16 July 1794 at age 19, and tried at The Old Bailey. She was “indicted for stealing, on the 17th of July, two silver salt holders, value 18s. two silver salt spoons, value 2s. two silver pepper castors, value 1l. a silver table spoon, value 14s. the goods of Jacob Ruffy.” The Newgate Prison entry book describes her as being “19, 5’4”, dark hair, dark eyes, dark complexion, London, married woman Jewess”. Originally she was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to transportation to Sydney for life. In her appeal against the death sentence she said she was pregnant (as you would!) but this may have been a fabrication. She spent a couple of years in Newgate before sailing.

Esther arrived in Sydney on the Indispensable in 1796 where she had quickly took up with fellow convict John Fitz, with whom she had her first two children. She had her first child, Susannah, baptised twice, a year apart, and with a different father listed each time! Her second child, Joseph, died as an infant and was buried in the cemetery where Sydney Town Hall now stands. Fitz then disappears from the records and in 1800 Esther takes up with fellow convict and builder, Englishman Thomas Stubbs. They have nine children together, the first being my 4x great-grandmother, Mary Anne (Marian) Grace Spencer Stubbs. Their second son, Thomas, was a well renowned auctioneer, composer and musician.

Governor Hunter gave Esther land in Phillip Street in 1797, not long after her arrival, where she ran a boarding house. She and Thomas were also known as “dealers” which involved selling goods from arriving ships.

Esther and Thomas Sr were never married, presumably because Esther was still considered married to Mr Spencer, even though they were to never see each other again. Esther and Thomas had a colourful life in the centre of Sydney, being involved in a few court cases, one where Thomas allegedly threatened to strike a man with a tree branch who was stealing quinces from their tree.

Thomas died at the young age of 41, and within a year Esther started a relationship with Joseph Bigge, who had been the coachman for Elizabeth Macquarie. He arrived as a free man in 1809 on the Dromedary. They had two children together, and “Joe the Coachman” as he was known also apprenticed one of Esther and the late Thomas’ sons to him at the livery stables. Sadly Joe died at age 65 in 1833 of horrific burns after falling into his bedroom fireplace at their house above the stables in Phillip Street, Sydney, where the old Police Station building is, down near Circular Quay. According to newspaper reports he had been insane for some time prior to this.

Esther sold off the livery business after his death and used the proceeds to establish the first bathing house in Sydney for ladies and children, at the site of the Andrew “Boy” Charlton Pool at Woolloomooloo Bay. She charged “1 pound per quarter for a lady and three children – for a single lady ditto 10s, and a single baths 6d.” The site was a natural rock shelf into the Harbour where Aboriginal people have been bathing for centuries. As well as providing a bathing service there was also a religious need being met by these baths, as it is Jewish custom for the bride to bathe in sea water on the day of her wedding or the day before, as a form of purification before the ceremony. So Esther was helping keep alive her Jewish traditions in a predominately Christian Sydney. All of her children were baptised in the Anglican Church, presumably as there was no other option available to Esther at that time.

Esther was never granted a Pardon, or Ticket of Leave, and died at age 80 in 1855 and was buried in the Jewish section of the Devonshire Street Cemetery. In 1901 the cemetery site was needed for Central Railway Station, and Esther’s remains were re-interred at the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park, known then as Bunnerong. Unfortunately there is no headstone to mark her grave.

She had a very long and colourful life and I’m proud to be descended from such a strong and resilient woman.

Hopefully there are some researchers out there who see a gap in their Salamon family tree and realise now who fits in the spot!


  1. Great read, thanks Janelle. Esther lead a colourful life. I am a descendant of Esther's son - George Stubbs.

    1. Hi Meisxie, great to hear from you. I know of a few other descendants of George. Are you in NZ?