Artist-in-Residence, Dawn Hurton – Threads

Dufton Pike

The tall Georgian houses of Wigton, its iconic fountain and handsome church, date back to a time when there was a thriving linen industry in the town. The dye works, factories and mills produced calico, coarse linen and striped checks and the drapers and dressmakers sold cloth and fine clothing. One market day in 1839, when trading was brisk, a dairymaid stole 150 yards of cloth, 25 handkerchiefs and 6 shawls from local merchants. After she pawned the fabrics, she was tried at the Cumberland Quarter Sessions and found guilty of shop lifting. Described by the Justices as an ‘arrant thief’, Mary Chambers was sentenced to transportation. She had no previous convictions.

Surgeon Superintendent of the Surry – Edward Leah

Removed from the green hills of Cumbria and her two Josephs, husband (a draper) and child, Mary and 212 other British women were transported to Australia aboard the Surry. At the prow of the ship was a carved Minerva, Goddess of Weavers, leading the last shipment of female convicts from England to New South Wales – and appropriately so because thread runs through the warp and weft of Mary’s life.

Mary Chambers
Mary Chambers

Mary was sent to the notorious Parramatta Female Factory, where women were put to work carding and weaving coarse cloth for convict’s uniforms. Conditions were harsh, many died of hunger and transgressions were severely punished. Mary lived alongside nearly fifteen hundred others, in a space built for a sixth of that number.

The Governor feared the worst should the men of the colony be allowed uncontrolled female contact so the women were forbidden to leave, unless it was into service or marriage: neat-sounding arrangements that hid a multitude of cruelties.  Men came and went as they pleased and the Factory supplied wives for settlers and emancipated convicts. With a written permit from the reverend and a written note to the matron, a bachelor could take his pick of a willing “factory lass.” In 1841, Walter Meyer was refused permission to marry Mary Chambers; she was already married with a child.

Instead, she was sent to work on a sheep farm for Corporal Henry Fox. She absconded almost immediately, but was soon apprehended and sent back. When Mary escaped again, she was recaptured within a week and this time returned to the Factory. Five months later she gave birth to her second son, William Chambers, who was brought up in the Factory’s orphanage, his father’s name not recorded. When eight years later Mary was granted a Certificate of Freedom and left Parramatta, she had to leave William behind.

Mary’s family, descended from Parramatta-born William, recently made contact with the Cumbria Archive Service while tracing their family roots. My former colleague, Helen Cunningham was instrumental in connecting the Australians with their English family and the descendants of Mary’s two sons subsequently met up in Carlisle.

I love to find character details in the archives so I can begin to understand the spirit of a person, but this isn’t always possible. We have only cold facts and contextual information about Mary but nevertheless these do enable us to try to walk in her shoes. Although the records don’t allow us to glimpse into her soul and understand what really mattered to her in life, we can still find a point of human connection. On paper, Mary had so little control over the events that influenced her life and I wonder how and if she found a path that brought her joy in spite of all the hardship. I imagine it wasn’t a question of whether to get out of bed in the morning – she lived to survive. However, Mary’s story is also one of hope and resilience and families on both sides of the world owe their existence to her.

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