Rachel Aarons (1790?-1866)

by Lucy Frost


Rachel Aarons was born in Hamburg, Germany, about 1790 to a family named Schlasinger or Schleissmyer. By the time of her trial at the Old Bailey on 12 September 1821, she had moved to London and was married to Joseph Aarons, born in Holland. Whether the couple met in the Jewish community of London, or had married somewhere on the Continent, there were three daughters under the age of 5 on the day the parents were arrested for theft.

Late in the afternoon of 4 September 1821, eight days before they stood in the dock, Rachel and Joseph paid a visit to a wholesale draper’s shop. They ‘asked to see some blue cloth’, said the clerk at their trial:

I shewed them two pieces; the man enquired the price, and said he should buy for money, he spoke English, and understood me; I think the woman understood very little English—he bought nothing that night, but went away, saying, he should call next morning. . . .

Two days later, when the clerk ‘got to the warehouse’ a little past 9am, he found the Aarons looking at black cloth. Joseph quickly explained that rheumatism had prevented his keeping their original appointment, and apparently the shoppers seemed plausible to the clerk, who resumed serving them.

When Joseph asked to the blue cloth he had considered on Wednesday, the clerk went into the back warehouse, leaving the couple—and the fabrics they had just been shown. On his return, Rachel was gone. Joseph agreed to buy the blue cloth and said he would come back in fifteen or twenty minutes to finalise the purchase. Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported what happened next:

An honest woman, named Aarons, contrived to waddle out of a wholesale draper’s shop in Basinghall-street, on Friday, with a piece of woollen cloth twenty-six yards long, concealed under her petticoats, her husband being employed within in the mean time looking over other goods—both in custody [italics in the original].

A very pregnant Rachel was using her extended body shape to hide the stolen goods, but that was a lot of fabric, and an employee outside the showroom had stopped her and brought her back inside, where the cloth ‘dropped upon the warehouse floor’. At this, Joseph slapped her bonnet and said, ‘What did you do that for?’

At their trial, Joseph gave his defence through an interpreter, saying he was a merchant, and ‘What my wife did, I know nothing about. . . . I gave her two slaps on the bonnet for doing it.’ Rachel played the role of obedient, if wayward, wife. ‘What I did’, she told the court, ‘was unknown to my husband’. The jury did not believe this story, and found Joseph Aarons, aged 34, and Rachael Aarons, aged 30, both guilty of ‘stealing under the value of £15’. Both were sentenced to transportation for life, sentences published in the Old Bailey Sessions Papers and  in London’s Morning Chronicle.

And then a strange turn of events: Joseph began serving his life sentence, probably on a hulk in the Thames, while his thieving wife walked free. How did this happen? Did she pay a smart lawyer to discover some legal technicality in the hasty paperwork created when a woman was tried less than a week after her arrest? Or was Rachel a beautiful and charismatic woman whose European seductiveness could be deployed to bend the legal system? Might this explain why she was up to her old tricks in Manchester a year later when she was arrested for stealing five dresses and sixty silk handkerchiefs? Was the price of her release from the Old Bailey sentence of September 1821 made visible in June 1823 when she sailed on the female convict ship Mary with a baby in her arms?

The baby, Elizabeth, had been conceived at the beginning of 1822, within five months of Rachel’s Old Bailey conviction, and not long after she gave birth to Aaron Joseph, the child she was carrying when she stole the cloth from the wholesale draper’s shop. Aaron Joseph was quite possibly born in Newgate Prison, and his half-sister Elizabeth in the Manchester gaol where Rachel probably spent seven months waiting to be sent down to London. When she did board the Mary for its departure on 10 June 1823, she took all her children with her: baby Elizabeth, toddler Aaron Joseph, and the three small girls, Rachel (7), Rosina (5), and Hannah (4). Five of the 28 children permitted to sail with their convict mothers belonged to Rachel Aarons.

On the voyage of the Mary, wrote the Surgeon Superintendent in the journal he submitted to the Admiralty, ‘if we except the Children, there was no fatallity [sic], nor indeed much Sickness’. However, six of the 28 children did die, ‘Sacrafices [sic] to the iniquity of their Mothers’. Elizabeth Aarons was one of the six. The moralising Superintendent shifted responsibility onto Rachel when he began the case notes for Elizabeth, aged 8 months when she entered the sick list on 12 July 1823. The infant ‘has been delicate from its birth’, he wrote,

and in a very bad state when it came on board. . . .She got but three months suck and has been very badly taken care of. She is sinking fast without any apparent disease unless what is occasioned by her Bowels.

A week later, Elizabeth was dead.

The other four children survived the long journey, reaching Hobart Town on 5 October 1823 where 67 of the 126 convicts were disembarked before the other 59 travelled on to Sydney, arriving on 18 October. Joseph Aarons was there already, assigned to a Jewish emancipist named Joseph Raphael, who had a shop in Pitt Street. According to normal procedures, Rachel too should have been assigned upon her arrival. After all, she was in the colony to serve a sentence of 7 years’ transportation for the theft of goods in Manchester.

There is no evidence, however, that Rachel was ever assigned to anyone, and indeed a mere six months after her arrival, she was petitioning the government to have her husband transferred from Joseph Raphael to her, on the grounds of ‘having Four small children and daily expecting to be confined’. The response to this audacious request, made through the official channels, was negative. The Colonial Secretary responded that ‘that in case you cannot remain with your Husband in the service of one master, both of you will be sent to Emu Plains’. This suggestion of being sent up country did not suit Rachel and Joseph, and the family remained in Sydney. In January 1824, according to the entry for Joseph in These are the Names, John S. Levi’s biographical dictionary of Jewish lives in colonial Australia, Joseph complained to the authorities that his wife (who had given her trade as ‘shopkeeper’ when she arrived on the Mary) ‘was obliged to become a common washerwoman’. Recently, said Joseph, money had arrived from friends in England and if he could be released from his assignment to Raphael, he could look after his family. Joseph, according to Levi, ‘was told that if he was to complain again, his wife would be sent to the Female Factory’. Nevertheless, ‘he was given permission to work for himself’.

At last the ambitious couple were off and running in a new world full of opportunity. ‘Joseph Aarons prospered’, writes Levi, ‘and by 1828 was the owner of the Emu Inn at the corner of Bathurst and George streets in Sydney’. As early as 1826 Joseph and Rachel opened their own shop in George Street, and in an ironic turnaround began to appear in the newspaper court reports as the prosecutors of people stealing from them or proffering forged notes. They also advertised ‘furnished Lodgings to let for Single Gentleman’.

Although Rachel would not become free by servitude until October 1829, she appears in the Sydney Gazette of 23 April 1827 as ‘the owner of a small vessel, employed in the colonial trade’. A long-standing dispute between Rachel and the master of the ship erupted one day when she marched down to Market Wharf, climbed on board, and told a crew member to wake the master from his sleep. He was furious, and became abusive. According to the later newspaper account, Rachel then ‘directed him to leave the vessel, and take whatever he had on board belonging to him away, as she was determined on giving it in charge to some other person’. Rachel remained on deck to see that he actually left, and she was right behind him when he stepped on shore, turned, ‘struck her a violent blow on the head, with his clenched fist, and kicked her in the most brutish manner on the breast, in consequence of which she fainted away, and was conveyed home on a board, in a state of complete insensibility’. This dastardly behavior sent the master to prison for a year.

Rachel and Joseph appear often in the newspapers during this period, their shop stocking a wide range of imported food, pickled mushrooms, Anchovy Catchup, Beef Steak Sauce, ‘cheese of the best description’, ‘Derwent potatoes’. They sold silk shawls and scarfs, beaver hats, chintz and Bombasine, ‘Slops of excellent quality’. The colonial muster of 1828 brackets eight members of the Aarons family together as Jews, Dealers of George Street. In addition to the four children who sailed on the Mary, another two girls had been born in the colony, five sisters for the one prison-born boy, Aaron Joseph, now aged 7. In 1827 these children and two other adults who had come to join convict relatives were the only free Jews in the colony, according to John S. Levi and G. F. J. Bergman in Australian Genesis. In 1829 a second son was born to Rachel, and in October when he was 8 days old, a Jewish circumcision ceremony was performed, one of the first in New South Wales. The family continued to prosper as it grew in numbers and status. In 1838 Joseph Aarons was granted an absolute pardon.  This allowed him to take Rachel and two of their children to England that same year. After their ignominious departure from London, what a triumphal return!

And then, the downfall. A severe economic depression blasted the colony in the early 1840s. People stopped buying the imported food and fabric sold in the Aarons’ shop, and on 30 March 1842 Joseph was declared insolvent, writes John Levi, ‘with debts of £3678 and assets of £319’. Two years later when Joseph was discharged from bankruptcy, the shop was gone. To eke out a living, Rachel began selling goods on commission. And when she could not pay for her wares, she stole. In February 1845 her humiliation became public when she was arrested in the Australian Drapery Warehouse belonging to Isaac Levey, another George Street merchant. According to the account in the Sydney Morning Herald, Levey had become suspicious of Rachel, who he had ‘known a long time’. They belonged to the small congregation who had been raising money to build a synagogue. In the year Rachel and Joseph went to England, says John Levi, Joseph gave £85 to the Sydney Synagogue building appeal; at this time Isaac Levey was a member of the Sydney Synagogue Committee.

Levey had become suspicious of Rachel’s visits to his warehouse, and on the February morning when she came into the show room, he set a trap. According to the later newspaper report, she ‘asked to look at some blond lace, and lace collars, two of which she agreed to take, at 3s’. Levey ‘turned his back to hand down another box of laces’. As he did so, Rachel pocketed four pieces of lace, ‘observed by a shopman, named Harris, (who was concealed in a back apartment, for the purpose of watching the prisoner’s movements through a hole in the partition)’. When she left the warehouse, Harris was waiting outside to bring her back in. A constable was called, ‘but before he arrived she exclaimed, “My God, my God! I am only a woman. If you let me go, I will confess everything, and tell you where the things are.”’ Her offer was ignored, and when the constable searched her, ‘the four pieces of blond were found concealed in an apron which the prisoner had on under her dress, which had the corners drawn up as if for the purpose of containing plunder’. On 13 March 1845 Rachel Aarons was tried at the Sydney Quarter Sessions, where the Jury ‘without a moment’s hesitation, found the prisoner guilty’. She was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for theft, and Joseph to one year for receiving stolen goods.

How distressed their children must have felt. There was the shame of course, and for some of the children at least a deep sense of concern and compassion. Their daughter Hannah, who had spent part of her earliest childhood in English prisons and had sailed on the Mary, wrote from her home in Yass, petitioning the government to show mercy on her parents, now nearly 60. Hannah had married Isaac Moses in 1839, and lived far away from Sydney with young children of her own. In September 1846, after Rachel had served more than a year of her sentence, Hannah wrote again, asking that the remainder of the sentence be remitted, and this time she was successful.

Rachel and Joseph lived another twenty years. Joseph died on 4 December 1865, and Rachel eight months later, on 20 July 1866. Both were approaching 80. They stayed ‘clean’ for their final decades, and it seems likely that their children supported them. Their eldest son Joseph (he had dropped the ‘Aaron’ from his first name) made a fortune from livestock and pastoral properties. In the Wellington Valley of New South Wales he became an important community figure, serving as Wellington’s first mayor. Historical significance won him an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, where his distance from the world of his parents is quite remarkable:

a trustee of St John’s Church of England, he was also an active and generous supporter of other cultural and charitable works. Jovial and sociable he entertained on a lavish scale: during the visit to Sydney in 1881 of a squardron of the British fleet he entertained some eighty officers and ratings at a kangaroo shoot on his property. In return for his hospitality he was invited to visit the fleet where he met the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York (later George V) then serving as midshipmen.

He probably mentioned to neither the royals nor his guests at the kangaroo shoot that he had been born in Newgate Prison and arrived in the colony aboard a female convict ship. His place of birth in the ADB entry is given as Sydney. A turbulent family history is airbrushed into blandness for this ‘son of Joseph Aarons, merchant, and his wife Rachael, née Schlazenger’. Not a word about convict ancestry.

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Further reading:

John S. Levi & G.F.J. Bergman, Australian Genesis: Jewish Convicts & Settlers 1788–1860 2nd edition Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002.
John S. Levi, These are the Names: Jewish lives in Australia 1788-1850. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2006.
D.I. McDonald, ‘Aarons, Joseph 1821–1904’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 3, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1969, pp 1-2.



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