In the English city of Chester one day in September 1825 ‘an elderly-looking woman’ was brought before a local magistrate and the town clerk to answer a few questions. She had arrived back in London from Australia two years earlier, where she had ‘promptly been robbed of 170 pounds’.
In those days there were no social security welfare payments and those without other means of support had to apply to the parish for relief.
The interview began with the woman being asked her name:
‘Well my name, your Honour’s, a very ugly name – it’s Kitty Gravy, (dropping a curtsey) I come from the Vale of Clwyd.’
Next, they wanted to know if the woman was married;
‘Married! O yes; I are be married very often; I have had four husbands, and the last he is in Liverpool Infirmary with a broken leg, and his name’s John Joachim Gravy; a very ugly name, isn’t it your Worship?’
What His Worship replied, if anything, was not recorded but Mrs Gravy went on to tell the panel that she had been married at Botany Bay. They thought she meant a place in Chester near the canal, opposite Queen Street.
‘Pooh, no: I mean Botany Bay – the real Botany Bay, 30 000 miles off, your Honour.’
‘And what took you there?’
‘ ‘Pon my word, they transported me for seven years for doing nothing – nothing at all; God knows what for, I can’t tell. I never stole anything in my life.’
Kitty then put her hand into her ‘sinister pocket’ and drew out some papers. They turned out to include what purported to be a certificate from the Governor General of New South Wales dated twenty years earlier. On the back was a description of the ‘fair complexion’ of a much younger Kitty. When the clerk read it out ‘Mrs Kitty, looking very knowing, and with a shrug of her shoulders, exclaimed, “Aye, but it’s withered now”.’
Kitty went on to explain that Mr Gravy, a German, had been a free settler in New South Wales, living at Woolloomooloo. It was there that she had, presumably, met and married him.
All this time, Kitty ‘appeared to be in high glee’. So much so that she was rebuked for her levity by one of the Aldermen. She replied:
‘Thank your Honour, (curtseying), I’m much obliged: I paid 100 pounds for my passage home, and everyone loves poor Kitty. I’m all fair yea and nay, your Honours.’
It was then suggested by one of the interviewers that Kitty was in fact living with a Frenchman in Brighton ‘but she repelled the charge indignantly’ and went on to catalogue the history of her various husbands.
‘My first husband was James Miller, and he was a Scotchman; Thomas Wilson was my next, and he was a Hollander in the Navy; my third husband John Grace, an Irishman, from the County of Wicklow; and my fourth was John Gravy, a German. So you see (said Mrs Kitty with all the naivety of an accomplished punster) that for my last two husbands I had Grease and Gravy!’ Of the four, Kitty reckoned the first had been ‘worth them all.’
When asked when she had first married, Kitty replied:
‘Eh! The Lord knows, it’s a long while ago.’ She told the panel that she had a daughter aged 46 with six children and it was eventually decided that Kitty Gravy must have been seventy-six years of age.
Although she was asking for financial help, her fingers were decked with rings, some silver, and the papers in her ‘sinister pocket’ included a number of receipts for relief she had already received from other parishes. Whether the interviewers decided that Kitty was a deserving case for the Poor Books we do not know. But her practiced arts of flattering and cajoling the system to satisfy her needs, real or contrived, were certainly on display that day in Chester and they would also have served her well in the penal system of New South Wales.[i]
[i] A broadside from The Australian of 1826, reproduced in Geoffrey Ingleton, True Patriots All, p. 104. A version of this story appeared in my Great Convict Stories.