From a woman of despair to one of grace – the story of Poll Cott
By VICKI OSBORN and CHRIS BARRETT, of the Maitland & Beyond Family History Inc
Earlier this year, Maitland & Beyond Family History Inc. hosted its first ‘Female Convict Seminar: The Female Convicts of Maitland and the Hunter Valley’. The venue was Maitland Gaol in the NSW Hunter region, a fitting site as many of the female convicts whose stories were being told were inmates of the gaol at some time. At the seminar, three members gave presentations about three local female convicts. One of those stories was of Mary Fitzgerald, aka Poll Cott, which was researched and presented by Chris Barrett.
Mary Fitzgerald was baptised in Cork City, Ireland, in 1819. At 17, Mary, a country servant who could read and write, was convicted of stealing cheese. She was sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia for her crime and arrived on board the ‘Sir Charles Forbes’ in August 1837.
Mary Fitzgerald married James Cott, also a convict, in 1839 at Newcastle. Mary’s life was complete; she was happily married and a few years later had a child whom she adored. This happiness lasted until 1847 when, despite the best efforts of a doctor who was called, baby James died. Little James Cott was buried at Hiland Crescent Cemetery, East Maitland. Mary, “… worn out with debauch, faint with hunger and unsteady under the influence of incessant potations, would lay for hours, sometimes whole nights, across the grave of her baby boy, seeking somehow to contact him by tapping a long thin steel rod down on the coffin ...” [Local Newspaper Article]
After her son died, Mary’s behaviour spiralled out of control, and she became intimately acquainted with a gaol cell. When Mary’s husband left her, she was truly alone. She became known as Poll (Polly meaning ‘great sorrow’).
Driven by grief, anger, desolation and probably despair, Poll had hundreds of incarcerations in Maitland, Newcastle and Parramatta gaols for drunkenness, obscene language, vagrancy, assault, stealing and property damage, but the most heart-wrenching was admission to Maitland Gaol for the offence of lunacy. She was transferred to Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum in 1874.
For the next 38 years, her incarcerations continued to the point where she had her own quarters at Maitland Gaol. Numerous newspaper articles of the day mention the hesitancy of the constabulary to approach her and publicans complying with Poll’s requests for liquor to avoid retribution. Her weapon of choice was a lemonade bottle inside a stocking, which she would wield with menace. This humble bottle is on display at The Salvation Army Museum in Sydney.
In 1885, a chance meeting with a Salvation Army officer, Captain Rundle, changed Poll’s life when he said to her: “God bless you, Mother”. Captain Rundle offered Poll a bed and food for the night, which Poll accepted. Poll woke in the early hours to find Captain Rundle and his wife praying for her soul. This simple act of kindness and the power of prayer changed Mary’s life. She became a Salvationist on 18 May 1885 and devoted the remainder of her life to The Salvation Army.
In 1895, a pamphlet published by The Salvation Army entitled “Poll Cott-A-Tale of a Termagant” was circulated, and her story was told at meetings and gatherings for many years. The pamphlet states it was “published by The Salvation Army to illustrate the successful work amongst the utterly godless”.
Mary died on 13 July 1905 at The Salvation Army Rescue Home, Albert St, Islington (Newcastle). She was buried on 15 July 1905 in the Sandgate Cemetery.
Researcher Chris Barrett says Poll’s story is one of survival, resilience and courage and shows us that strong women aren’t born; they are forged in the fires they have had to walk through. “She is a beacon of hope to all women, especially those who have been marginalised, reviled or abused. She is an inspirational woman and heroine of Maitland and the Hunter!”
One of the highlights was a display of 1000 Maitland Female Convict Bonnet Collection. The Maitland Female Convict Bonnet Project is part of the ‘Roses from the Heart’ Bonnet Project, an initiative of Dr Christina Henri in Tasmania. For the past five years, the Maitland history group has been researching the female convicts connected to Maitland and making bonnet tributes for each.