SHOULD Hollywood ever contemplate a blockbuster about the more-colourful women from our wild colonial past, it would need to look no further than the tale of twice-deported English beauty, Molly Morgan.
For here’s a rollicking yarn with everything the filmmaker craves: sex, arson, murder, cattle rustling, corruption, scandals, lust – and a sly-grog-running heroine who could “out-ride, out-shoot and out-drink any man…”
And yet conversely, one who was compassionate enough to find time to plead for the lives of convicts facing the gallows, to give generously to schools and churches, and to help the sick.
Molly Morgan was born Mary Jones in Shropshire in 1762. In 1788 she and her husband Will Morgan were both sentenced to deportation for petty theft, and while Will escaped from jail and fled, Molly (as she chose to call herself) was sent off on the Second Fleet’s hell-ship Neptune.
Despite nearly half the 502 convicts aboard the over-crowded little vessel dying at sea or soon after arriving in Port Jackson, Molly landed in fine form, having reputedly swapped favours throughout the voyage with some of the horror-ship’s officers.
MAP of Sydney Cove’s now-Rocks area in the early 1790s and which was briefly home to Molly Morgan.
Three years later Will was re-caught and he too deported, the couple coming together again in Sydney Town where she worked in a female factory, and he on labour gangs. But after a row about her flirting, he dumped her and she became mistress to a Captain John Locke so she could escape aboard his ship Resolution to England in 1794.
Locke proposed to Molly, but she declined and on arrival in England went to Plymouth where she soon bigamously married a wealthy businessman.
Following an argument with him she burnt their house down in 1804, getting herself deported once more to Australia.
PARRAMATTA in 1805: Molly Morgan’s de facto gave her a small farming block here in 1805 but she was caught stealing government cattle and sent to Newcastle Penal Colony.
Unable to find Will Morgan in Sydney Town she moved-in with Army officer Thomas Hunt who bought her a small block for farming at Parramatta, but the quick growth of her cattle numbers soon caught the eye of officials: Molly, it transpired, was rustling free-roaming government cattle and branding them her own.
She got seven years in Newcastle Penal Colony for her efforts, but once more her charms won-over her superiors – after just three years, Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane not only gave her a Ticket of Leave, but 64ha of Crown Land in the Hunter Valley (part of which is today the City of Maitland’s CBD) – and a team of convict labourers to work it.
As she prospered Molly opened a legal grog shanty she named the Angel Inn in then-Walls Plains that’s now Maitland, and Kmart now occupying the site in the City’s High Street; she regularly out-drank male competitors in sculling sessions at the Angel Inn, and despite many proposals of marriage, boasted she’d “sample very man in the Hunter Valley” before making such a decision – which she did when she married Thomas “Joe” Hunt 30 years her junior.
NEWCASTLE in 1828, by now Molly Morgan was one of the largest and wealthiest landowners on the Hunter River, her land at Wallis Plains to become the now-city of Maitland.
She also had a hut she occasionally lived in opposite the-now Maitland Town Hall.
Molly gave generously to the less-fortunate, including in 1827 a whopping one-hundred pounds – at a time when land was just 5-shillings an acre – for a church school, and supported other schools and churches as well.
She also turned part of her home into a basic hospital for the poor, rode her horse several times to Sydney to plead to the Governor of the time to spare the lives of prisoners facing hanging in Newcastle, and by 1828 was recorded as being “one of the largest landholders on the Hunter River.”
And also one of the richest, her wealth coming from her farming, cedar-felling, the Angel Inn, and a string of legal- and not-so-legal grog shanties – the latter with the help of bureaucrats who enjoyed free drinks in return for turning a blind eye.
MAITLAND Town Hall, Molly Morgan’s hut and grog shanty opposite here went on to become the nucleus of the now-City of Maitland.
Molly Morgan, still vivacious in her waning years and hailed by society’s underdogs as “the Queen of the Hunter Valley,” died on June 27 1835 at her 82ha Anvil Creek property near Greta aged 73, sadly most of her wealth long gone.
FOOTNOTE: If she was alive today, Molly would doubtless get a kick from knowing that for someone who enjoyed the pleasures of the bar and the bedroom as much as she did, both a winery and a motel in the Hunter Valley are named after her.
Written by david ellis