Eliza Downe Williams (1800?-?)

by Steve Rhodes


Despite claiming to be 36 years old at the time of her conviction, Eliza Downe Williams (nee Griffiths) was closer to 46. She was born in about 1800 in Long Hill, St Elizabeth, Jamaica, the daughter of John Griffiths, and had a brother Henry, a captain in the 77th Regiment (East Middlesex – Duke of Cambridge’s Own), and a sister Catherine Ann.

In July 1821, also at Long Hill, Eliza married Reverend Thomas Pierce Williams, his first wife, Eliza Kemp, having died the previous year. A daughter, Eliza Warren, was born 6 August 1823, followed by Pierce Griffith on 22 February 1826, William Owen on 25 January 1828, Henry Frederick on 20 July 1829, and another Pierce Griffith on 2 November 1830. Of the five children only two are recorded as living in Eliza’s convict records.

Jamaica at this time had become one of the world’s leading sugar producers through the use of slave labour, Thomas Williams personally owning plantations as well as having an interest as a commissioner of the Munro and Dickenson’s Charity, which also owned plantations. Although the slave trade had been abolished in 1807, it took a further 26 years before the practice ceased and in 1827 Thomas was ‘in possession of a pen of 200 acres, 73 slaves with a further 20 hired out. Also in possession of 5 enslaved persons by right of his late wife, and 7 enslaved persons on account of his children by her.’ Emancipation of the slaves involved the payment of £20 million in compensation to the slave owners by the British taxpayers, and of this Thomas and the other five commissioners received £7057.11.2 for their interest in 356 slaves in 1835/6. Before this however, it would appear that Eliza had moved to England due to ill health and therefore never saw any of the compensation money.

Eliza’s sister, Catherine Ann, had married John Erskine Douglas, who was a much older man. He had had a successful naval career, taking part in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars as a captain, becoming the commander in chief at Jamaica, and rising to the rank of admiral in 1838. He became a very wealthy man and when he died in July 1847 aged 89, he left £40,000 to his daughters.

Whatever means of support Eliza had when she arrived in London, by May 1847 she was struggling to make ends meet and had approached her sister for assistance. Catherine claimed to have not heard from Eliza since 1830 and denied her any help. Because of this, Eliza decided to try and pass a forged bill of exchange, value £5, to be paid to her and purported to be authorised by her sister Catherine. The bill was discovered as a forgery, Eliza was apprehended, found guilty and sentenced to be transported for 7 years at the Old Bailey on 10 May 1847. Her two children, who were living with her, were sent to the Marylebone Workhouse.

On 9 September 1847 the Cadet departed with Eliza, 164 other female convicts, and 29 children on board, arriving in Hobart on 2 January 1848. Eliza was described as being 4 feet 11½ (15.13 cm) tall with a fresh complexion, having light brown hair and blue eyes, and was a governess, housekeeper and dressmaker.

For falsely representing herself as a needle woman, Eliza was sentenced to one months’ hard labour on 25 September 1848. On 28 July the following year she married Nicholas Valliant at St Peter’s Church, Fingal, he being described as a 38-year-old bachelor boot-maker and Eliza as a widowed dressmaker, also 38. The marriage was short lived though, as Nicholas officially complained to the authorities on 8 August 1850 that the pair continually fought and could not agree, and so Eliza was returned to the government at the mutual request of both parties.

Eliza received her ticket of leave in November 1850 and had a conditional pardon approved two years later. After serving out her sentence she received her certificate of freedom on 7 August 1855 at Launceston, but beyond this time it is difficult to determine what became of Eliza due to her common name.

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