A World War I soldier’s girlfriend?

I have previously written about the service file Douglas James Stewart (1899-1918), downloaded from the National Archives of Australia’s website. The file is 61 pages long, and I was unable to do it justice in a single post.

Most of the documents in the file are fairly self-explanatory. This one has a small mystery. Alongside the correspondence with Douglas’ father James Simpson Stewart, which I will cover in a future post, is this letter:

Letter from Miss J.M. Byrne dated 31 Dec 1918

Miss J. M. Byrne lived in Glebe Point in inner Sydney, and on New Year’s Eve in the year that Douglas was killed she sat down with her patriotic notepaper to ask for more information about his death.

She knew to whom to write, she knew Douglas’ rank, serial number and battalion, and she knew the date that he was killed.

Who was she? Douglas had five sisters, that I can find, and none of them had the initials ‘JM’. The correspondent was a ‘Miss’, in any case, and not a ‘Miss Stewart’. Douglas’ mother’s maiden surname was Lawson, and I know little about her or her extended family. Perhaps Miss Byrne was a cousin on his mother’s side.

I must be a romantic though, because I prefer to think of Miss Byrne as a girlfriend or a potential girlfriend. She must have been so upset, imagining all the dreadful ways he could have been killed, to have written to request more information from the Base Records Office. She clearly wasn’t in a position to obtain news directly from the family, who could have been expected to have the earliest notification.

Before the war Douglas was an 18-year-old telegraph messenger and lived in Holbrook, a country town near Albury. How did Miss Byrne know him? How did they meet? Was she from Holbrook? Why was she in Sydney?

Two weeks later she received the following reply:

She was told that there was no further information regarding ‘his regrettable loss’ than was contained in the ‘brief cable report “Killed in Action, 8/8/18?.’ When further information arrived by mail the next-of-kin would be informed. If she enquired again after this time these particulars would be forwarded to her also.

There is no subsequent correspondence from her.

I’ve searched the NSW Birth Death and Marriage index for the marriage of a J M Byrne, and there were a couple in the 1930s, an inconclusive result. I hope she had a happy life.

This post was originally published in July 2010 in my old blog ‘Genealogy in New South Wales’.

Convict Numbers

ball_and_chain 300x225I’ve been reading a classic book on the transportation of convicts to Australia called Convicts and the Colonies by A.G.L. Shaw (Melbourne University Press, 1977), who was Professor of History at Monash University in Melbourne. I’d like to share some numbers with you.

Numbers of convicts transported

From May 1787 to March 1792 4077 males and 769 females were transported from England, an average total of about 1000 per year. The transportation process was interrupted during the Napoleonic Wars, as convict labour was needed in the dockyards and in the services. Only 5263 males and 1810 females sent between 1793 and 1810, an annual average of only 292 men and 100 women over 18 years.

From 1811 to 1815 tranportation steadily rose but only after the end of the Wars in 1815 did the crime rate increased and the transportation rate likewise was increased. From 1816 to 1825 the annual average was 2600 per year. In 1827 the new Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, reformed the penal laws and as a result the annual average rose to 4160 per year due to more police and changes in punishments for different crimes.


The most popular transportation sentence was for 7 years, applying to over half of all those transported. “A quarter were sentenced for life, but the proportion of lifers alowly declined as time went on. Nearly all the remainder received fourteen years until 1840; after that ten-year sentences became fairly common.” (p. 149)

Before 1818 only a third of those sentenced or respited from a death sentence to transportation were actually put on a transport ship; the rest got no further than the hulks – old, unseaworthy ships acting as prisons. In the 1820s at least two-thirds were actually transported; about three-quarters declining to two-thirds in the 1830s; and back to three-quarters in the early 1840s. “Lifers” were usually sent, as were most prisoners in their twenties. In general the old and the sick were not, although there were exceptions.


So many crimes carried a sentence of death or transportation in those days that once one crime was proven at trial there was no real need to prove any others. So although the convict may have been “known” to local authorities and suspected of a great many crimes, only one, perhaps the easiest to prove, was needed to send him or her away. A bad reputation could result in a harsher punishment. Estimates have been made by Shaw and others that show that approximately two-thirds of convicts had had previous convictions. Before 1840 most first-offenders were sent to New South Wales with the more hardened criminals being sent to Van Diemen’s Land.

Most transported convicts came from the cities – London and Middlesex, and the industrial towns in Lancashire. The most common crime by far was larceny. A disproportionate share of first offenders came from these large cities, as an attempt to discourage this type of crime. Many rural offenders were convicted of poaching – not from threat of starvation, but well-equipped organised poaching for profit. They were often guilty, or suspected, of violence or other types of crimes such as “making free with their neighbours’ property” (p. 158). Only about 300 convicted poachers were transported during the whole period of transportation. A third of transported convicts tried in rural counties were born elsewhere, indicating a high level of wandering.

Fewer than a thousand transported convicts from England were political prisoners, including trade unionists and rioting agricultural labourers.


About one-sixth of transported convicts were women. Predominantly single, from the cities, especially London and in Lancashire, and on average three years older than the men. Two-thirds were found “guilty of larceny or stealing wearing apparel” (p. 164). It is difficult to know how many were actually prostitutes, although it must be remembered that contemporary attitudes branded almost any woman a prostitute who did not conform to the strict moral standards of the day.

The Scots

“Per head of population, the Scottish rate of transportation was less than a quarter that of England between 1810 and 1821, and only about two-fifths after 1830; as a result Scottish criminals were far less common in Australia than English or Irish…” (p. 165). 85 per cent were sentenced for theft of some kind, but were, in general, more serious offenders. The Scots were first sent to the hulks at Portsmouth or Woolwich, and from there were sent together with the English to Australia.

The Irish

The Irish convicts are given a whole chapter in Shaw’s book. I will only give a few details. Nearly 30,000 men and 9000 women were transported directly from Ireland, about a quarter of the total numbers. In general they were two years older than British convicts; more were married; less were juveniles; and far more were from the country rather than the cities. Far more were first offenders except for those from Dublin and Cork. Probably one-fifth were nationalists and social rebels fighting against English domination. In addition about 6000 had settled in England and been convicted of similar crimes to the native English offenders – namely larceny.

That’s enough for today. I highly recommend this book to you if you want to know more about the convict system in NSW.