The life and legacy of Hunter pioneer Molly Morgan

FORMIDABLE: Molly Morgan went from a penniless convict to one of the largest landowners on the Hunter River.
FORMIDABLE: Molly Morgan went from a penniless convict to one of the largest landowners on the Hunter River.

THERE should be a big statue erected in Maitland CBD to district pioneer Molly Morgan, according to Hunter Valley historian Harry Boyle.

“Molly is the real founder of Maitland, I believe. It was her land, after all,” the late, great Maitland historian told Weekender more than a decade ago.

And if you are looking for a woman of profound influence in our early colonial days, look no further than Molly Morgan (1762-1835).

Born Mary Jones, she was the daughter of an English rat catcher. She became a convict, was transported to Australia twice, married three times, was a bigamist and was later given the unofficial title of ‘Queen of the Valley’.

In January 1828, a newspaper even named her as one of the largest landholders on the Hunter River.

Not a bad achievement for a former convict, once penniless with little apparent prospect for success who’d somehow survived her first voyage to Australia on the “hell ship” Neptune. Almost one third (or 158 felons) of its convict cargo died en route in 1790.

Molly was obviously a woman with grit, who then saw opportunity in adversity and who overcame great disappointments to finally become a wealthy, well-respected Lower Hunter landowner and hotel owner, despite her criminal past.

Today, the name Molly Morgan lives on in district landmarks. Her name is immortalised in Molly Morgan Drive in Maitland, a winery, a homestead, a highway motel and a Molly Morgan Ridge at North Rothbury.

On top of that, because of her landholdings, the early name for the site of Maitland (Wallis Plains) was often better known as Molly Morgan Plains.

And late in life, when she moved her cattle business to Anvil Creek (Greta), the road to Singleton became known as “Molly Morgan’s line of road”.

SLEUTH: The late Harry Boyle

SLEUTH: The late Harry Boyle

Earlier, as the fledgling settlement of Wallis Plains grew, she subdivided her land and sold small blocks for either money, or it’s said, for hogsheads of rum, which was a prime currency of the day.

A Molly Morgan’s biographer, Elizabeth Guilford, once said that despite being an ex-convict with a long record of petty crime, Molly was also a woman of generosity and compassion for those in “unfortunate circumstances”.

In her entry for Molly in the Australian Dictionary of Biography in 1967, the former convict turned businesswoman is described this way: “At a time when the majority of women remained in the background of colonial society, Molly Morgan stands out as a colourful and rather remarkable personality, a pioneer of the Maitland district and one who successfully established her farm, built up trading interests and impressed Governor Macquarie and Brisbane with her resourcefulness and ability.”

TARNISHED REPUTATION

But there’s more, much more, to the legendary Molly Morgan as history sleuth Harry Boyle once confided.

“She was railroaded in my opinion,” Boyle said in an interview.

“I’ve been back to the primary sources; to get the truth, to discover what her contemporaries said of her.

“Here was a woman who later gave 100 pounds, a fortune back then, to set up a school on Stockade Hill (East Maitland) to get the children educated.

“She wasn’t even a publican (of her Angel Inn),” Boyle said, demolishing her hard drinking reputation.

After tracking down the origins of her legend over 20 years, he felt Molly had been terribly maligned.

Boyle was referring to a common belief of her story reading like pulp fiction, of a wild, wanton woman with a string of grog shops and known for her sexual exploits.   

“She allowed people to build on her land,” Boyle said. 

“Then, after her death, a government official embezzled her by giving notice to more than 200 people living on her land.” 

Boyle died in 2005, aged 86, but was one of three Hunter Valley historians who found something strange in the accepted tale of Molly being a she-devil of loose morals, befuddled by the demon drink.

Part of the confusion surrounding Mary/Molly Morgan’s life were her three married names – first she was Mrs Morgan, then Mrs Meares, then Mrs ‘Joe’ Hunt, he said.

Boyle said Molly’s reputation was only tarnished after her death when people who may have never met her told lies, or mixed her up with a younger woman, also called Mary Hunt, who had an unsavoury reputation and was an associate of teamsters in the 1850s.

Boyle’s death not only prevented him from rebutting lurid and sensational tales, but also fulfilling a promise made earlier to the late Allan Wood, the famous Hunter author of Dawn in the Valley.

Boyle said Allan Wood made him promise “to clear her name if it was the last thing I did”. He said Wood knew many stories were “fantasy”.

Wood spent 11 years researching and writing his 1972 book, which is now a classic. He was preparing a second book on early Hunter Valley characters, including Molly Morgan, when he died in 1988.   

Later, before Boyle died, noted Hunter Valley historian Cynthia Hunter, who examined Molly’s first trial documents in England, told the Herald she agreed Molly’s real story had not been told.

In broad outline, Molly’s life story of being transported to Australia twice and marrying three times is correct, but as they say, the devil’s in the detail.

Boyle said Molly, who was described as bright and beautiful, was originally the mistress of a widower back in England and believed she had come up against class distinction.

She had a child, but Boyle believed the widower then refused to marry beneath his social standing.

Molly left and married a William Morgan. She was then charged with stealing some hempen yarn and in despair, tried to commit suicide. She was then sentenced to 14 years transportation to Australia.

“For seven years previous to her trial and seven years following, there had been no greater sentence than seven years,” Boyle would later discover.

ESCAPE

With her two children in England with no parent to protect them, Molly decided to escape NSW by ship, an almost impossible task, but she succeeded.

Back home, she recovered her children and then in Plymouth in 1797 bigamously married a Thomas Meares. In 1803, his home mysteriously burned down and she was soon transported back to Australia again for seven years, not for arson, but for a debt.

Back in Sydney, nothing was done about her former escape. It’s now assumed that a possible former ‘protector’ made sure no further charges were laid.

In 1814, Molly was then sentenced for seven years to Newcastle’s harsh penal settlement for having a stolen cow in her possession.

LEGEND: Morgan was streets ahead.

LEGEND: Morgan was streets ahead.

By 1819, though, she was trusted enough to be the furthest settler out from Sydney (at Wallis Plains/Maitland). In 1822, again a free woman, she married a man 30 years her junior to become Mrs Mary Hunt.

But as Harry Boyle once told me, “something’s odd here about that government cow theft”.

The male who actually stole the cow got three years jail, but Molly, who milked the cow, got seven years jail.

Boyle said that after she died, aged 73, it was discovered she was a wealthy woman who never bothered to collect her debts.

The historian believed Molly had been given a raw deal from day one. He said when Molly Morgan escaped back to England it was to see her children.

“And not one of her marriages was (really) illegal. The ministers involved in the ceremonies knew that”. Boyle said if a convict was condemned to seven years overseas, people saw that person as being legally dead.

“That was so the English government would not have to pay to support their families left behind,” Boyle said.

“And after Molly died, her obituary is the largest ever published up to that time and it praises her. It’s about three inches of type (7cms) when other people were lucky to get one line.”

Boyle said that in the 1828 census, Molly Morgan was even looking after a blind man and an orphan child.