From the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, convict women would continue to be transported to Australia for another 50 years. The practice of convict women assisting birthing women during the voyage continued on subsequent convict voyages. Mrs Barnsley, who following a conviction of shoplifting was transported to Australia on The Lady Juliana in 1790, acted as midwife on that voyage to assist fellow convicts during their births, and continued practising following her arrival in the colony.

Consequently, the first non-Indigenous midwives in Australia were untrained convict women; they came on the ships bringing the prisoners to Australia and can be described as ‘accidental midwives’; assistance in childbirth came from whomever was available at the time. The expertise of the ‘accidental midwives’ in midwifery is unknown, but there was no other option for women but for friends, relatives and neighbours to help each other during birth, thus they became midwives through need rather than vocation. Historian and midwife Lesley Potter identifies these women as the first three types of midwife found in Colonial Sydney.

Sydney, 1802, with visiting ships anchored in the harbour, houses with chimneys and fences, and a simple system of streets. The long white building is the hospital.

George Evans Sydney from the west side of the cove 1802
SydneyLiving Museums (Hyde Park Barracks)

1800 Three unnamed midwives are noted in the General Muster of 1800: two in Sydney and one in Paramatta.

1806 Three unnamed midwives are again mentioned in the Governor’s despatches of 1806, one convict, and two ex-convict.

1812 Free settler Jane Sims was appointed midwife at the colony’s General Hospital in 1812-1814.

1814 Convict Phoebe Norton was first listed as a midwife in the Paramatta census of 1814.

Ann Reynolds, nee Willis, arrived in Australia onboard the Mary Ann in 1791, and would be one of the 3 unnamed midwives noted in the General Muster of 1800. In March 1814 she attended the birth of Lachlan Macquarie, son to Elizabeth, with Dr Redfern.

Parramatta Female Factory

1833 Colonial Times, Hobart

To the Public. Mrs Wrathall, wife of Mr. Wrathall, butcher, Liverpool St., begs to inform her friends and the public, that she intends waiting upon ladies,, as a monthly nurse, during their confinement, and hopes, by the experience she has had (being the mother of a large family), that she will meet with encouragement.

1839 Arrival of Sisters of Charity from Ireland to Sydney

1847 The Inquirer, 7 July, WA

Mrs Studsor begs to notify to her friends and the public, that she intends to undertake the duties of a monthly Nurse; and having high testimonials of competency from the faculty, she confidently hopes to meet a share of public patronage. N.B. has no objection to the country.

Burrows, p.113


Janet McTavish

by artist Thomas Bock © Diana Dunbar 1991

Janet McTavish {Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land, 1774-1858}

Janet McTavish a native of Scotland immigrated to Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land as a 50 year old widow on the Portland in September 1824. She came to Australia with her daughter (also named Janet), son-in-law, Thomas Young and their two children, Thomas and Elizabeth. The family group came as unassisted immigrants to commence new lives in this distant colony of Van Diemen’s Land.

Janet McTavish was a qualified and practising midwife in Edinburgh, possessing a glowing reference from senior physician at the General Dispensary and Lying-in Institution, Dr John Thatcher. It is likely that Janet had received her midwifery tutelage under Dr Thatcher when he was Clinical Lecturer at the Royal College of Edinburgh.

Not long after she arrived in Hobart, Janet McTavish advertised her midwifery services. She was thus one of a small group of respectable and trained midwives in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1880s.

Mrs. McTavish, Passenger by the Australian Company’s Ship Portland, respectfully acquaints the Inhabitants of Hobart Town and the Country, that she will continue her Practice of a Midwife in this Place.
Mrs. McT. holds a Diploma from Dr. Thatcher, one of the most eminent Lecturers on Midwifery in the City of Edinburgh; and to those who may honour her with their Patronage, ample Testimonials will be shown as to Character, &c. In particular, she begs Leave to refer the Public to the private Testimonial below, which she obtained from Dr. Thatcher upon leaving Edinburgh; and she confidently hopes to merit the same opinion which is therein expressed, from all those who may patronize her.
Mrs. McT. present resides in the house of Mr. Morrison, Watch-maker, Elizabeth street, where she will at all Times be found.
** Mrs. McT. will be happy to wait on any Lady after Delivery, whose Recovery requires her Attendance.
Hobart Town, Sept. 16, 1824
Mrs. McTavish, who was formerly my Pupil, and now going to settle in Australia, being anxious to have a private Testimonial of my Knowledge of her professional and private Character, I feel much pleasure in stating, that I know her to be most unexceptionable in every respect.
She is most thoroughly qualified from experience to continue her Practice, as a Midwife, and from her general good Conduct whilst with me as well as from her mild and unassuming manners, she has my warmest wishes for her success, and will be a great acquisition wherever she may be placed, and to all who may employ her.
(Signed) John Thatcher, M. D.
Member of the Royal College of Physicians, Lecturer on Midwifery, and the diseases of Women and Children. Edinburgh, March 29, 1824.
Hobart Town Gazette and VanDiemen’s Land Advertiser, 17 Sept 1824, p.3

Remarkably in 1839, as a 65 year old woman Janet McTavish established and managed a simple lying-in home, Rosebank in New Town, North Hobart. This lying-in enterprise started as a small venture confining women in allocated rooms in her own residence. Midwifery work enabled her not only to support herself but also to combine the role of householder and businesswoman.

MRS. McTAVISH, who has been so many years established in this town in the practice of Midwifery, takes this opportunity of returning her best thanks to the ladies of Van Diemen’s land, for the very liberal patronage she has universally experienced, and begs leave to intimate that she has removed to her new residence, Rosebank house, New town road.
Many Ladies in the interior, wishing to reside in Hobart town during their accouchment, she has fitted up convenient apartments for their accommodation, where they will receive the utmost possible attention, upon the most moderate terms. The advantages which such accommodation affords need not be described. She has only to add, that her utmost and most zealous attention will be paid to all those who may think proper to employ her.
Hobart Town Courier, 11 Sept 1830, p.1

McTavish Avenue in North Hobart is named after her confirming her place as a prominent citizen of Hobart. There are few streets named after a colonial midwife in Australia today.

At Hobart Town, on the 5th instant, Mrs. McTAVISH, Rosebank, New Town Road, aged 84
The Courier, 6 October 1858, p.2
Hobart Town Daily Mercury, 7 October 1858, p.2
Launceston Examiner, 9 October 1858, p.5


Lesley Potter PhD FACN

Ref: Potter, L. (2018). Janet McTavish: Tasmanian Immigrant, Midwife and Prominent Citizen, Tasmanian Historical Studies, 23, pp.49-65.

Engraving: Dunbar, D. (1991). Thomas Bock, Convict, Engraver, Society Portraitist, Launceston, p.57.

Margaret Catchpole

Margaret Catchpole {Sydney, NSW, 1801-1819}

Margaret Catchpole was born in Suffolk,, England, in 1762 to a farm labourer and Elizabeth Catchpole. She had little formal education, but was a skilled horsewoman who worked as a domestic. She learnt to read and write while working as an under-nurse and under-cook for the Cobbold family. She is said to have loved a sailor turned smuggler devotedly for many years, and stole a horse to make a 113km ‘Dick Turpin’ ride to London for his sake. In 1797 she was convicted for stealing the horse, and sentenced to death, commented to transportation for 7 years. Instead, Margaret used a clothesline to scale a 6.7m high wall and escape from gaol (supposedly to marry her sailor smugger) for which she was again sentenced to death, commuted to transportation for life. She was transported to Sydney in 1801.

Margaret worked for various well known families in Sydney including the Commissary John Palmer. She wrote home to her uncle:

‘i am well Beloved By all that know me and that is a Comfort for i all wais Goo into Better Compeney then my self that is a monkest free peopell whear thay mak as much of me as if i was a Laday—Becaus i am the Commiseres Cook’

Margaret was proud of her honest and industrial life, and in 1811 wrote to the Cobbold’s:

i am Liven all a Loon as Befor in a very onest way of Life hear is not one woman in the Coloney Liv like myself

Margaret was a busy and in demand midwife, and her entrepreneurial practice may have given her a degree of economic independence and freedom to move about the area.

… then I went to nurs mrs Rouse and stoped with har one year and then went to mrs Dightes’ there is wear i went a year then I wast left at mr Rouse farm and from thear I went to mrs Dightes to nurs har and from thear I went to mrs Wood to nurs har and from thear to nurs mrs Rouse a gain now I am a going to nurs mrs Faithfull mrs wood sister thar names wear Pitt wen thay Cam in to the countrey …

Margaret was given a pardon on 31 January 1814. Though she longed to return to England, she spent the rest of her life in Richmond, NSW, and was well known in the district as a midwife, nurse, and goods seller.

Legend says she saved a family from drowning in one of the floods which so regularly covered farms, and her death was caused by influenza she contracted when nursing a neighbour back to health. Catchpole died on 13 May 1819, was a single woman, and is buried at Richmond Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

You can click here to read more about the infamous convict midwife in her fantastic Sydney Living Museums profile, in the Australian Dictionary of BiographyAustralian Women’s Register, and on Wikipedia.

Granny Elizabeth Adams {Fremantle, WA, 1808-1891}

Elizabeth Martin was born around 30 July 1808, in Salehurst, Sussex, England to John Martin & Hannah Watson, and came from a working class background.

Elizabeth’s first child, Caroline, was born illegitimate in February 1828. Elizabeth appeared before the Justice of the Peace to declare William Adams the father of her child and he was ordered to pay the churchwardens’ relief for the child’s care. They married in October 1828 when Caroline was 8 months old, and baby John followed 7 months later in 1829.

Bill and Elizabeth departed London in January 1830, onboard the Rockingham. The ship had been cast adrift and run aground before being re-floated, had her sails blown out in a fierce gale, and needed two weeks of repairs before eventually making the long journey. They arrived at the Swan River settlement in Western Australia on 13 May 1830 to poor weather. The single men of the Rockingham were disembarked into heavy seas, and their boats were swamped in the surf. The pitching seas put such strain on the cables securing the ship that the winch broke, and she was cast adrift and ran aground, laying on her side. Passenger boats were capsized in the wild surf. Passengers climbed down the side of the tipping ship to be carried ashore by the single men that had been sent out earlier, including William, a very pregnant Elizabeth, 2-year-old Caroline and 1-year old John. Miraculously there were no fatalities, but the Rockingham was shipwrecked.

Elizabeth gave birth to her third child Mary Ann shortly after their arrival.
Mary Ann was born at Garden Island prematurely as a result of her Mother, a midwife, going ashore to assist the captains wife who was in labour after the Rockingham was wrecked in May 1830. The Captain and crew went to Garden Island and the rest of the passengers were taken ashore to Clarence.
Family story of Mary Ann’s birth as told by Lorraine Eddy (nee Lawrence) to Neil Bradley
Clarence was a barren site with poor water and no shelter, and the settlement struggled. Brought out as indentured servants by the land speculator Thomas Peel, Bill & Elizabeth were released from their obligations when he could not feed them, leaving them to fend for themselves. While Bill crewed on trading vessels, Elizabeth Adams brought up their children and supported them by working as a domestic for 1 pound a week. They would also welcome Harriet (1832), Jane (1834), Sarah (1835), Hannah (1838), Ellen (1840), Elizabeth (1841), Lucy (1844), Henry (1846) and William (1849) – 9 daughters and 3 sons who all grew to adulthood.

Elizabeth set up as midwife after William’s death in 1867, making her mark as Fremantle’s first midwife.

Like her mother, she became a midwife and delivered babies walking from Fremantle to Claremont in all weather, as well as nursing many folk and members of her family.

Lorraine Eddy (nee Lawrence) to Neil Bradley

She was booked in advance: sometimes at the pregnancy, sometimes the marriage!

Margaret Sadler, great-great-granddaughter

She worked from the cottage where she lived from 1880 in Short Street, Fremantle. Elizabeth was affectionately called ‘Granny Adams’ and after attending hundreds of births she would come to be called ‘the Mother of Fremantle’.

About half way between Short and Leake-streets was the residence of “Granny” Adams, a grand old nurse who was present in a professional capacity when many now grey-headed Fremantle-ites were ushered into this vale of tears. ‘Granny’ was the widow of William Adams, who fought and was wounded at Waterloo, and who emigrated to this State in 1830.

Early days of Fremantle: Mr Hitchcock’s reminiscences continued, early residents and buildings. The Fremantle Times, 23 May 1919, p.7.

She would frequently walk to attend births when there was no suitable transport available, or cross the river by boat to North Fremantle and travel beyond Claremont and even to Perth when requested. It was claimed she ‘never lost a case’, even though she rarely had the assistance of a doctor.
I did not known Bill Adams very well… but I knew his wife, a grand woman, who may be called the “mother of Fremantle”. The years in which Mrs. Adams attended maternity cases, both in Fremantle and Perth, saw more new arrivals by hundreds than any previous period of the same duration. Many times Mrs. Adams walked to Perth from Fremantle when there was no conveyance available. The distance or the time of the day or night meant nothing to Mrs. Adams. If she was required for a maternity case she went to the case, and nothing would prevent her. It has been stated many times that she never lost a case, although she attended hundreds without the assistance of a doctor. The Adams family did its share of pioneering work, and the name will never be forgotten in Fremantle…
Edited from ‘Western Pioneers: The Battle Well Fought’ by J.E. Hammond

Elizabeth died in her sons’ fishing shack on Garden Island on February 17th 1914, aged 84. She was buried with her husband Bill and their youngest son William, in the Skinners Street Cemetery. Their remains and headstone were removed to Carrington Street Cemetery, Anglican Plot 146, around 1916.

THE funeral of Mrs. Adams, who died the other day at Fremantle… took place yesterday. The funeral procession was a very large one: and included nearly all the prominent townspeople of Fremantle. The pall-bearers were the Commissioner of Crown Iands (Hon. W. E. Marmion), Mr. W. S. Pearse, MLA, the Mayor of Fremantle Mr. E. Solomon, and the Hon. W. D. Moore, MLC. The remains were interred in the old burial ground at South Fremantle.

News and Notes. West Australian, 14 October 1891, p.4

Elizabeth’s story is an interesting one to reflect on how tough these colonial women n needed to be, and the hardships they faced and overcame.
I have listened to many accounts of this lady from various members of her family who said she was a terrible old lady with and exceptionally hard nature. She raised my grandmother, whose opinion was the worst I had heard. While researching their lives I have come to respect her a great deal. She arrived into this world in extreme poverty and hardship only to live a life of constant anxiety, married to a well educated deserter of the British Navy, herself totally illiterate, and to raise those children of her own, besides two grandchildren…
Lorraine Eddy (nee Lawrence) to Neil Bradley
Additional Sources
Family sources from g-g-g-grandson Neil Bradley

City of Fremantle, Minutes Ordinary Meeting of Council, 24 June 2015, pp 49-50.

D’Anger, J.  Honours for Granny Adams. Fremantle Herald, May 2, 2014.

Find A Grave

Fremantle Cemetery Heritage Walk Trail One, (34) Elizabeth Adams (1808-1891), midwife, and William Adams (1792-1867), whaler and general seaman

Shardlow, R.H. (1980). The ship Rockingham. Shire of Rockingham.

The Advertiser, 12 Jan 1923, p.3

In Old Fremantle


Memories of the Seventies

A Hero of Waterloo

The Mother of Fremantle

Adams and Eve

An obituary notice appearing in the Press a short time ago, announcing the death at an advanced age of a daughter of the late Wm. Adams, a Waterloo veteran, recalls the days of more than half a century ago, in the dreary old Fremantle of that period.

Bill Adams (one of the many ‘Bills’ of a similar name, who, mythology has it, won the battle of Waterloo) when I first heard of him, lay peacefully at rest in the old Pioneers Cemetery, situated in the then wilds of Alma Street, but though ‘Bill’ had departed, respected by all who knew him, he left a big and thriving family to the guidance of that great and lovable wife of his, known in every household in old Fremantle as ‘Granny’ Adams, who continuing a useful career, to a ripe old age, had the satisfaction of seeing grow up around her sons and daughters by birth and in-law, as well as nieces and nephews, and in time Auntie be came Grandmother and Great-grand mother before laying down her burden and the Adams family increased until it became too numerous to enumerate, and was one of the remarkable topics in the annals of old Fremantle.
‘Granny’ was the ‘Sairey Gamp’ of the Port, to all intents and purposes, the only one, but unlike the famous creation of Dickens, she was one woman in a thousand, and needed no Betsy Prigg or Mrs. ‘Arris to share her duties, nor even a polly bottle left on the mantel, “to wet her lips when so dispoged.” Mr. Reckniff’s memorable visit in search of Mrs. Gamp at her place of abode was rarely exemplified in the case of Granny Adams. She was seldom home. She was booked up all the year round in advance. In fact, newly married couples often made
dates purely anticipatory.

These were the days of large families, seven being a modest average, though old George Curedale was never sure of his count. He knew it was nineteen certain, though probably more, and never could recollect more than half their names. There were no trained nurses in those days, and very few indeed who could afford a doctor in conjunction with a nurse, and though I cannot vouch for it, it was always said Granny never lost a case. She not only carried out her duties in welcoming new arrivals, but did every house keeping item, including cooking, washing, and and mending, for the munificent sum of one pound per week. Peace be to her ashes!

I, and in fact all our family, were children of Granny’s, and she was generally spoken of as the mother of
Fremantle, and in the local vernacular, in a jocular vein, “the Old Rabbit Catcher.” If ever the commendation. ‘Well done thou good and faithful servant’ was well and truly earned, it was so in the case of Granny Adams.

Read the whole article here on Trove