This meticulously researched story of Irish born Catherine McMahon is unusual in that it not only covers her time as a convict in Van Diemen’s Land but also her life before conviction, and perhaps more importantly, after she was declared “free by servitude”
The lives of her two husbands are also covered and this gives a detailed picture of the times. Her first husband, John Copley, was a Yorkshire man convicted of sheep stealing, who survived a term on Norfolk Island before meeting Catherine.
Together, they struggled for permission to marry, established a business, were declared insolvent and moved, illegally, to Victoria. They lived and raised a family on the Victorian goldfields before selecting land at Jallukar, near Stawell.
John died in 1876 and Catherine struggled to keep the land. She fought a bushfire, the Lands Department, land selection laws prejudiced against women, the local Shire Council and squatters. She won. She sold the land in 1888 and three years later married Thomas May. He was also a convict, born in Brighton, England and transported at the age of 14. He served time at the Point Puer boy convict establishment near Port Arthur and eventually moved to Victoria.
Catherine and Thomas purchased and operated a shop in Stawell. When Thomas died twelve years after their marriage, he left what the local paper described as “rather a peculiar will”. The way Catherine was treated in this will, impacted on the 1903 Federal election where the people of Stawell voted to elect the suffragist Vida Goldstein to Parliament.
Undeterred by distance, Catherine moved to Menzies in the Western Australian goldfields in 1904 where she died in December 1906.