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A 12-year-old with a life sentence ahead of her, Mary Wade (1777–1859) came to Sydney in the hold of a convict transport in June 1790. Mary might have thought herself lucky, however: she had initially been sentenced to hang.
Wade’s victim, a seven-year-old girl named Mary Phillips, had gone by herself to London’s Treasury Yard one autumn evening to get water. Wade and a fellow street-sweeper, 13-year-old Jane Whiting, forced the child into an outhouse and stripped her of her dress, cap and shawl. Later, they pawned the dress for 18 shillings – the equivalent of the average daily wage at the time.
In view of the terror the pair had inflicted on the seven-year-old, Wade and Whiting were found guilty of robbery and sentenced to death. However, both sentences were commuted a few months later. The girls were transported to Sydney aboard the Lady Juliana, a Second Fleet ship that became notorious for illicit affairs between officers and convicts. Wade was the youngest of the inmates aboard.
From Sydney, Wade was transferred to the settlement at Norfolk Island, more than 1,500 kilometres distant. It was there that she took up with a fellow convict and – at the age of 14 – gave birth to her first child, Sarah. The settlement on Norfolk did not prosper, and from 1803 its inhabitants were progressively relocated back to the mainland.
In 1812 Mary Wade was formally emancipated, having served 23 years of her life sentence.
Wade married another emancipist, a carpenter named Jonathan Booker, and they took up a grant of land at Airds, near Campbelltown. Life on the then frontier was harsh, and in 1822 the family’s home, crops and tools were destroyed in a bushfire. Following an appeal to the Governor, the family was granted land at Corrimal in the Illawarra, where greatly-prized red cedar was abundant.
Mary Wade continued to live in the Illawarra after Booker’s death in 1833. When she died at Fairy Meadow a quarter-century later, she was lauded as the founding mother of the largest family in Australia. Over the course of her life she had given birth to 21 children, only seven of whom survived her. At the time of her death, Mary’s living descendants numbered some 300, spanning five generations. Today there are more than 7,000, including former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
In his remarks at the opening of the Mary Wade Correctional Centre in 2017, Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin paid tribute to her example: “it underscores what Corrective Services NSW is striving to achieve at every one of our centres – to rehabilitate inmates so they can return to the community and lead productive lives on release.”