Friday, January 18, 2013

Susan Mason, a wild colonial girl

When I first read about Susan Mason's marriage in 1869 to David Whybrow at St Luke's Anglican Church in Adelaide I had a rather romantic image of the event. She would be elegant in a long white dress, he would be proud and smart in his red-coat uniform and the church would be set in the leafy streets of Adelaide, "city of churches".

Currie St, Adelaide ca 1864
The Mason family lived in this street
State Library of South Australia B1871
What I've discovered since then suggests a very different picture. At the time, twenty year old Susan was pregnant with their second child, David had recently been arrested for deserting his regiment before they left the colony, and Adelaide had many more pubs than churches and few trees.

Susan didn't have a genteel upbringing. As mentioned in a previous post her father, John Mason, died in 1857 when Susan was only 8 years old, leaving her mother Catherine destitute. Susan probably got very little education. The evidence suggests that she was illiterate.

It seems she also ran wild, and was familiar with the inside of hotels well before her 18th birthday. A lot of what I've discovered about Susan comes from newspaper reports of her appearances in the police courts, both in Adelaide and Colchester. While it would be unfair to judge her character solely from newspaper reports, they do give the impression of a woman who was street-wise, sometimes belligerent, but who stuck up for her rights and was faithful to David despite a difficult and rather stormy marriage.

Her first reported appearance in the Adelaide Police Court was in August 1865, at the age of 16. An itinerant Italian musician, Pasquale Nicro, was charged with using "insulting language and gestures tending to provoke a breach of the peace towards Susan Mason, a young female". The events took place at the Ship Inn in Currie Street**. Nicro had called her "a little whore", amongst other things. Susan denied any provocation on her part. After a rather comical discussion about whether the defendant knew enough English to understand the meaning of what he'd allegedly said, he was ordered to pay costs but was not fined.

Susan's next reported appearance in court was in December 1867 when she was charged with "using obscene language". She was find 10 shillings, quite a large sum in those days. In June 1868 Susan accused a woman named Mary Barron of stealing a cotton jacket from her, but then withdrew the charge.

The most interesting case involving Susan (and from a family history point of view the most informative) was first reported in  April 1868. The case eventually went to the South Australian Supreme Court. Here's how The South Australian Register reported the initial court case:
David Whybrow and Richard Hughes, of the 50th Regiment, and Bridget Jules, single woman, were conjointly charged with stealing from the person of Frank Jones an order for payment of £9 1s. 11d., a silver watch, and other articles. The prisoners pleaded not guilty, and were undefended.  
Frank Jones, residing at the Terminus Hotel, Adelaide, deposed to the effect following:— On Friday night I left the Shamrock at 11 o'clock. Near the Albion I met two girls, to whom I gave a few shillings, and then went up Hindley street. On reaching the steps of the Baths 1 sat down and went to sleep there.  
I was awakened by two soldiers and two girls. One of the latter asked me to shout. I said 'No,' and putting my hand into my waistcoat-pocket I found that an order for £9 1s.11d. was gone, as also a silver watch, worth £6, and other articles and papers, which were safe when I sat down, as I could see by the light of the lamp.The prisoners are the soldiers I saw. They were then in red coats. Susan Mason was one of  the girls.  
Susan Mason, single woman, deposed - On the night mentioned I was coming from North Adelaide along the Bridge-road. At the City baths I saw a man (Jones) lying down and asleep. The prisoner Hughes shook him, put his own hand into his (Jones's) pocket and took out some papers.The order for £9  1s. 11d. now produced was among them. There were other papers which he gave to Whybrow, who gave them to me. Whybrow put his hand into Jones's pocket, and took out his watch, which was without chain or guard. I am quite clear that Hughes took the order, with which I went to Messrs. Giles & Smith's the next day. 
The prosecutor and witnesses were severally examined by Mr. Dempsey, of the Detective Office,who called in succession Detectives Keegan, Gibbison, and Doyle, who supplied the links of evidence, and were questioned by the prisoners.It appeared that the watch was not yet forth'coming, and Mr. Dempsey asked for a remand. Remanded until the following Thursday.
The following Thursday, April 16, David Whybrow had his turn to tell the story:

State Library of South Australia  B3904
King William Road looking north, and City Baths c 1890
State Library of South Australia  B3904  
 On the morning of the 11th of April, between the hours of 3 and 5 o'clock, I and Susan Mason, with Richard Hughes and Bridget Jules were in company together, and coming from North Adelaide. When we got to the City Baths, we saw a man lying drunk on the steps. Susan Mason said to Jules, 'I will bilk this man,' meaning, I suppose, that she would rob him. She then commenced to search his pockets, After she was satisfied with doing so, the four of us went up the road together.
Afterwards Mason and Jules went across the road together away from us. After they had done talking together Mason came back to me and handed me a small account-book. I opened it, and as I did so saw there were only two leaves. Mason said, 'Do not tear that book.' I said,'You have already done that yourself;' saying which I threw the book down, and said I would not have anything to do with the man that was robbed. 
She then put her hand into her pocket, saying she thought she had some notes. She showed some papers to me to tell her what they were. It was dark, and I could not tell her what they were with the exception of an order. I could see the figures on that to be £9 1s. 11d. As soon as I told her the amount she laughed and snatched the order out of my hand, and said in presence of Jules and me that she would get the order cashed in the morning, buy a new dress for herself, and a ring for Jules if she would come to her house for it between 10 and 11. She put the order and some other papers into her pocket, and said, 'I felt some more notes in that man's trouser pocket. I will go back and try again.'She did so, and we three went back with her. When we had got back I saw her put her hand into the man's right-hand trousers pocket and pull out a lot of pieces of paper, some tobacco, and a knife. 
In doing this, a watch fell from the man's pocket on to the step on which he was sitting. I picked the watch up and looked at it. I laid it down again in the same place with the face upwards. The four of us then proceeded towards Elizabeth-street, and when we got 50 or 60 yards from the spot where the man was robbed Susan Mason said to me, 'Give me that little watch, old duck, and I will give you for it one I have at home,  which is too big for a woman to carry.' I said to her, ' Do you think I was fool enough to take that man's watch?'  She said, 'Did you not take it!' I replied. 'No; I laid it down again in the place I took it from.' Then, to satisfy her and Jules that I had not got the watch, opened my coat, took my cap off and held it in my hand, and let Mason search me in presence of Jules. They then said they were both satisfied that I had not  got the watch: Mason then said, 'You must be a d..d  fool not to take the watch.' I replied, 'I'd be a bigger fool if I did do so.' 
By this time we had reached Elizabeth-street. There Mason said to Jules, 'As soon as those two men go home we will go back again and take the watch and. more money if the man has got it.'' I separated from Susan Mason and went home to the Barracks. I did not see Mason again until between 11 and 12 o'clock the same morning, when she told me that before she could go out of her own house to get the order cashed a detective came in and asked her if she had got anything that did not belong to her. To the detective she had given up some papers and the order, saying that she picked them up in King William street, opposite the Gresham Hotel.  She told me to tell the detective the same if he came down to the Barracks to me. 
The prisoner then requested the Clerk of the Court to append what follows - I am in my twelfth year in the service, and never was charged with either theft or drunkenness since I have been in the service. I have been six years in India, and between three and four years in the campaign in New Zealand, doing hard duty, and fighting for my Queen and country whenever required. I now think it very hard if a girl of such a character is to try and swear her deeds upon my back. That is all I have to say at present.
Susan and David obviously had rather different memories of the event!  Even though she was almost certainly involved in the theft, Susan seems to have turned 'crown witness' against David Whybrow, Hughes and her friend Bridget Jules, while David seemed keen to implicate Susan as the main culprit. 

The case went to the Supreme Court in May 1868, and the newspaper reports of the trial suggest that the reason Susan acted as a witness was that the detectives involved had promised that she wouldn't be prosecuted if she did. Susan herself denied that they'd ever said this to her.

South Australian Supreme Court 1878
State Library of South Australia B 39362/3  
Further details of the events of April 11 came out. It seems that the four friends had been on something of a pub crawl before they came across Jones asleep, although they disagreed as to who was drunk at the time. Susan mentioned that she had known David for 6 months. Mr. Boucaut, the lawyer who appeared for David Whybrow claimed that the statements from Whybrow and Hughes had been unfairly obrtained and "referred to the unsatisfactory evidence of Mason, who, if any felony had been committed, was probably the culprit." David Whybrow and Richard Hughes called on three of their superior officers to act as witnesses to their good characters.

Finally the case was concluded -
His Honor, in summing up, charged the Jury not to give credence to the evidence of Mason unless they considered it had been confirmed as regarded all the prisoners. That had not been done except as to the prisoners being present at the robbery, while there were many discrepancies between the two and the statements of the prisoners to the detectives, to which he referred; and also to the good character given to the soldiers, while they had nothing against that of the female prisoner.The Jury retired, and in a short time returned a verdict of not guilty, and the prisoners were accordingly discharged.
What is strange is that Susan must surely have been pregnant with Harriet during this time, since Harriet was born in September 1868. Did David and Susan collude in some complicated plan to confuse the jury by giving contradictory evidence, or was David as innocent as he claimed? Perhaps it was a case of there being no honour among thieves. 

Susan's name doesn't appear in the Adelaide newspapers again after this trial, but in later years it starts to crop up in the reports of the Colchester Police Court and Petty Sessions (as Susan Whybrew - David's surname generally seems to have been reported as Whybrow only in Australia). In April 1895, Susan charged a woman with assaulting her near the army camp gates. Then in 1900 she claimed that one of her neighbours had assaulted her after accusing her of saying things about the woman to the woman's boss. The case was dismissed. In 1905 she accused a man named McBirnie, an agent of an art company, of assaulting her after an argument over a framed picture. He counter-summonsed John Whybrew, Susan's son, claiming that he had been assaulted by him. The Whybrew's won the case and McBirnie was ordered to pay costs.

Sadly, a couple of Susan's appearances in court involved quarrels with members of her own family. In August 1888 David Whybrew was charged with assaulting Susan Whybrew during a domestic dispute. The newspaper (The Essex Standard, West Suffolk Gazette and Eastern Counties' Advertiser) reported that David called on his daughters Harriet and Eliza as witnesses to Susan's "intemperate conduct". They reportedly said that they "led wretched lives" and the newspaper headed the report "An Unhappy Family". David was bound over to keep the peace for 6 months.

Then in October 1888 Susan appeared in court charged with assaulting her daughter Harriet by threatening to throw a plate at her, after a trivial argument over some washing. Harriet called her father as witness, but as the husband of the defendant, his testimony could not be accepted. Eliza stated that she had separated her mother and sister from each other while they were fighting. Susan complained that she was "treated most shamefully" by her daughter and her husband and didn't know whether she or her daughter (ie Harriet) was the "missus of the house". This time the newspaper report was headed "A miserable famly" and it was Susan who was bound over to keep the peace.*

Despite all this, Susan and David remained married until his death in 1917. According to the 1911 census, Susan and David had 14 children, of whom 7 were still alive. (I've only found names for 9, so perhaps there were several miscarriages.) She described her occupation in the census as 'nurse', an unexpectedly soft touch at the end of a hard life. She died in Colchester at the end of 1921 aged 73.

*The newspaper reports are to be found on the 19th Century British Library Newspapers site provided by Gale News Vault, a pay-to-view site, which is why I haven't provided links. I'm happy to provide them on request.

** I've since found other newspaper accounts which say that while Nicro met Susan at the Ship Inn, the "insulting behaviour" took place in Hindley St. See