Maria Lord nee Risely

Convict, entrepreneur, wife, mother

In 1805 a young convict woman arrived in the colony of Van Diemen's Land with her illegitimate baby daughter as a servant of military officer, Edward Lord. 

Over the next 20 years, she became a leading person of business in the new colony, and the wife of the acting governor for a short time. By 1820, she and her now husband, Edward Lord, controlled over a third of the wealth in the colony. While Edward travelled extensively and negotiated (at times dodgy) government deals, she largely ran their businesses.

She lost it all after an affair with another man, but still ran successful businesses on her own afterwards. While her husband became reviled in the colony, even with his social connections and wealth, Maria became respected and well-accepted.  Of the 75,000 convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, she is one of the most significant.

Plucked out of a line of convict women at the newly built Parramatta Women’s Prison near Sydney, she must have had no idea what awaited her and her then unborn child. Her name was Maria Risely.


Cape Pillar, near the entrance of the River Derwent, Van Diemen's Land, 1824 by Joseph Lycett, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

There are no pictures of Maria and, while there are business transaction notes in her hand, very few letters survive. She must have been intelligent, energetic and resilient, a person with great business acumen and client skills. She was not noted as beautiful but she must have been personable. This is what we know of her story.

Born in Huntingdonshire in 1778 to a working class rural family, Hannah Maria Risely was convicted of theft of clothing. She was transported to New South Wales in 1804. There Maria would have become an indentured servant.  Like all female convicts, would have been expected to perform duties for her master beyond cooking and cleaning. All convict women were considered prostitutes by default, even though prostitution was not a crime for which women were transported. They would have had no choice but, if they became pregnant, they were sent back to the women's prison. There are no surviving records, but that is her most likely story.

Settled by the British in 1803, Hobart in Van Diemen's Land was Australia's second penal colony. When Maria arrived there in 1805, there were a few hundred European people, at least half of them convicts and very few women. Tasmanian Aboriginal people lived around the area. The settlement was mainly a collection of well-worn tents and shanties. Maria went to live with Edward and one or two other officers in what is recorded as Hobart's first house, a rickety 4 room cottage on what is now Macquarie Street, Hobart. She also set up a shop, selling goods she and Edward had brought from Sydney. As a military officer, Edward was not allowed to profit from trade.

Maria proved to be a very good shopkeeper and trader. While early Hobart did not suffer the same threats of starvation as early Sydney due to the richness of the surrounding areas, the early settlers still suffered major shortages. Convicts were sent out of the settlement to find food for themselves, the Reverend Knopwood terming them "bushrangers".

Maria was a tough negotiator and took advantage of the situation. She supplied the Reverend Knopwood with much of his liquor, the major currency in the colony as in New South Wales. Using land granted by the government to Edward, she supplied meat and other products to the government stores that fed the convicts and most free people too.

By 1808 Maria had borne two more daughters. Her seven year convict sentence was due to expire. While in Sydney, Edward managed to get her a pardon from Col. Forveaux, acting governor after Blight was deposed. He married Maria in October.

Many early colonial officers and gentlemen had convict mistresses, but very few married them.

Marriage Certificate, Tasmanian Names Index, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

By 1808, Edward Lord was second in command to Governor David Collins and acted as governor when the Collins was away. As far as Edward and Maria must have been concerned, Maria's convict past was to be forgotten, but it almost briefly caused a mutiny in the small colony.

In early December 1808, Maria and Edward lived in Sandy Bay, just south of Hobarton.  One of their convict servants, Mary Grange, was accused of stealing one of their drinking tumblers. Without trial, Edward order Mary in the stocks as punishment. 

Martha Hudson was another female convict transported to Australia on the same ship as Maria.  She came to their house and angrily reminded Maria of her convict past while complaining loudly about the unjustness of Mary's punishment.

Hearing of this, Edward ordered Martha to be arrested and flogged. There was no trial.  Although the colony's fledgling justice system was shaky, this was a clear misuse of authority. Stripped to the waist and set atop a wagon, the whole township was expected to watch Martha receive four dozen lashes, a severe punishment in any circumstance.

George Harris, a magistrate, free settler and Quaker, questioned the legality of the punishment.  Edward ordered him under house arrest. George complained and Edward interpreted this as a mutiny.

When Collins returned to the town several days later, Harris complained to Governor Collins.  While Collins may have chastised Lord in private, as the leader of a military run colony, he backed Lord.  He expected Harris to recognise the authority of the governor or his delegate.

Harris wanted the matter investigated in Sydney but was constantly prevented from going there. He remained under house arrest until August 1809.


Mount Nelson near Hobart Town from near Mulgrave Battery, Van Diemen's Land by Joseph Lycett, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

In the United Kingdom, Edward's older brother, Sir John Owen, inherited a huge estate from their cousin and became the Earl of Pembroke.  Edward was extremely well connected, and these things counted. Edward named the Lord's two major landgrants after places on the Pembroke estate - Orielton near Sorell, east of Hobart, and Lawrenny, near Bothwell in the central highlands.

Governor Collins died suddenly in April 1810 and Edward Lord was acting governor for ten weeks.  Maria was the acting governor's wife but there are no records of her public activities, perhaps because she had just given birth to a son.

Edward organised an extravagant funeral for Collins. He hoped to be appointed Governor, but it seems Governor Macquarie had seen enough of Lord's activities. Edward Lord resigned from the marines.

The next few governors had issues of their own. They were either incompetent, corrupt, an alcoholic or a combination of the three.

Between 1811 and 1814 the Lords and their four young children lived in Parramatta, New South Wales, though kept business interests in Van Diemen's Land. It was not too far from where Edward and Maria first met.   Edward travelled to England and acquired more land grants. He was now a major landholder.  It helped that his brother was a peer and a new member of parliament. Edward's brother also lent him money, and Edward acquired more land to manage on his brother's behalf.


New Town Ile Van Diemen de Sainson pinx by Frederic Sorrieu, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

The Lords returned to Hobart by 1814.  They prospered, despite the governors' incompetence or corruption, or perhaps because of it. Britain did not encourage settlers and sent few new convicts but the European settlement grew.  Settlers and convicts from the abandoned Norfolk Island settlement arrived from 1807, doubling the population to about a thousand people. It would have been a rough frontier place, with far more men than women. The Reverend Knopwood counted only 77 "gentry", that is non-convict, non-military men, women and children. This included 25 children, and also Maria and one other ex-convict. Free settlers and officers had no choice but to interact with convicts and ex-convicts. Everybody would have known everybody else, and a lot of their business as well.

During this time, bushrangers threatened and stole from settlers farms, but never from the Lords' properties. Edward perhaps protected them, though there is no firm evidence. Some suggest Maria had relations with the most notorious of the bushrangers, Michael Howe, but this is unlikely.

The Lord's lived in the town's most salubrious house, Ingle Hall, still on Macquarie Street. Their wealth and influence peaked between 1817 and 1823, the time of Governor Sorell. The 1819 muster (census) records the Lords owned almost 7,000 acres, 3,400 cattle, 4,500 sheep and 41 horses. They employed 50 convicts and 25 free workers. By 1823 Edward Lord owned or leased over 30,000 acres. They provided about half the meat supply and most wheat to the government stores. The Lords had many business interests – agriculture, commerce, whaling, exporting. Not all their investments were successful, but overall they were during this time.

Edward's activities were not always legal. He contributed to the "corruption and skulduggery" that author Alison Alexander notes were rife in the early colony. Like the rum corps in New South Wales that led to the mutiny against Governor Bligh, many officers and settlers in Van Diemen's Land used whatever means they could to add to their wealth. Ironically ex-convict Maria does not seem to have been directly involved. She must have been aware, but seems to have kept out of it.

While Edward negotiated high-level agreements, Maria facilitated the detailed transactions. She also ran their Hobart shop, then the biggest in the town. Edward often acquired the goods for her to sell. Maria covered for Edward's lack of detailed business acumen and forgetfulness. He may have also been a gambler. Edward was away for at least three years during these six years and Maria acted as his agent.

In 1819 Edward took Maria's daughter, Caroline, to England. They returned in a ship he had bought and renamed after her. He eventually took all his children to be educated in his homeland, some when they were very young. 

Van Diemen's Land changed in the 1820s. The British government started sending large numbers of convicts and encouraged free settlers. Many settlers aimed to become wealthy through land grants, with convicts assigned to them. Anyone with a convict past was tainted. Van Diemen’s Land society became rigidly stratified. Free settlers had little to do socially with convicts except as servants. They now had enough of their own kind and so did not have to fraternise with convicts or even ex-convicts.

In 1822 Edward left for England again, taking their two children, Corbetta and William, and a cargo full of goods. Their ship was wrecked off South Africa. No lives were lost but the cargo was.

It was a difficult year for business. The Lords lost another ship and had several failed ventures. Money was tight. Maria called in debts and sold assets.

Reverend Knopwood noted in his diary that Maria was often in the company of Mr Charles Howcroft, a young free settler friendly with both the Lords. She put two year old Emma in a boarding school and went with him to Port Darymple in the north of the island, and to Orielton. If she was not having an affair, it looked like it.

Edward probably heard of Maria's affair in early 1823. He made his friend, Dr Samuel Hood, his agent and sent him back to Van Diemen’s Land. Hood arrived in July 1823. Although Hood had legal authority, he had no experience in running the businesses. He and Maria worked well together for a while, however Hood was forced by others to push her out.

Edward returned in October 1814 primarily to sue Charles Howcroft with "having criminal conversation" with his wife. Maria was not involved. The court case ran for two weeks, an uncommonly long time. Unusually, the newspapers reported no details and no records survive. Lord won the case and the court awarded him 100 pounds in damages. Howcroft’s property was transferred to Lord, presumably as payment. Edward then left the colony, leaving Hood as his agent. Despite being pushed to by his family and others, Edward did not divorce Maria. He returned to England and a relationship with their children’s nurse.

Edward Lord, by Thomas Wainright 1846, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

Edward left Maria with virtually nothing. Of all her children, only Caroline remained in the colony. However, Maria still had her skills and knowledge, and she used them. She opened another general store, trading on her own. She became a leading merchant in Hobart, the only woman among men. She travelled to places in the Tasmanian wilderness that are still hard to reach. 

Edward's business ventures were not so successful and by 1825 his fortune had gone. Another two ships were wrecked, including the Caroline. With no ships nor shops, he relied on income from his lands. He was probably concerned with exploiting rather than developing them. His brother too had lost vast amounts on an extravagant lifestyle. He forced Edward to pay back the huge debts owed him. The size of those debts suggest that Edward also gambled.

While Maria became respected and respectable over the following years, Edward was criticised as an uncaring absentee landlord. He returned for a brief visit in 1828, mainly to follow up money owed to him. He pressed debts even from old friends such as the now-ill Reverend Knopwood. He stayed briefly with Maria, but had an affair with another convict woman. Unlike in earlier times, though such relationships were actively discouraged.


Hobarton from Bluf Point, by Joseph Lycett, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

Governor Arthur's arrival in 1824 changed society in Van Diemen’s Land. Arthur was morally upright, strict and competent. Britain now sent large numbers of convicts to Van Diemen’s Land, where a strict penal system managed them. People often saw chain gangs of men working on roads and other infrastructure. Convict chain gangs built the infamous Port Arthur and other penal settlements around this time. It was the time of the Black Wars, where the Tasmanian aboriginal people were systematically forced off their land. They were interned in inadequate and sometime brutal conditions to make way for the new landowners and their wishes for wealth.

Maria seems to have led a moderately successful although quiet life. Charles Rowcroft had left the colony. Caroline had married solicitor Frederic Dawes in 1823 and bore two sons. However, her marriage disintegrated under the weight of his depression and alcoholism and she left him. Dawes died in 1832 and Caroline married Thomas Giblin, a rising manager of the Bank of Van Diemen’s Land and philanthropist in 1833. She bore four more children. They named one Maria Lord Giblin, and she had a daughter named Caroline Maria.

Sons John Owen and Edward Robert returned to Van Diemens Land in 1829. John Owen was to run Edward's properties but the 19 year old was drowned in the Shannon River on the Lawrenny property. Edward Robert stayed in the colony, eventually running his own farm. Both he and Caroline have descendants in Tasmania today. I am one of those descendants, from Caroline and her daughter Maria Lord Giblin. While the names Caroline and Maria were repeated down the generations until recently, our convict beginnings in Tasmania were forgotten, or not told. Eliza married a bishop’s nephew and surgeon in England, and Corbetta married a member of the Scottish Wallace clan. Presumably their mother’s convict past was not mentioned either. While a significant part of our history, families’ connections the Van Diemen’s Land convict settlement were often not spoken of for many years.

By the 1840s, convicts were generally no longer assigned to free settlers, but the men were forced to work in chain gangs and live in the notorious prisons of Port Arthur, Maria Island, Sarah Island and others. With no longer any benefit to be gained from the convict system, free settlers pushed for the end of convict transportation. The Black Wars were over and the few remaining full-blood Tasmanian Aboriginal people were confined in isolated settlements. They, chain gangs, and convicts mistresses had no place in late 19th century Tasmania. Convict transportation ceased in 1853 and the name of the colony was changed to Tasmania to distance the colony from its unruly past.

Maria gave up her shop about 1828. It’s not clear where she lived or what she did over the next years but she did remain in business. She probably ran a boarding house and helped Caroline and her two sons after Caroline left Dawes then her growing family with Thomas Giblin.  Caroline died in 1840, and Thomas Giblin remarried in 1846.

By 1849 Maria had moved to Bothwell, possibly to be nearer her son Edward Robert. She bought the Priory and impressive stone building with 50 acres. She farmed it and leased part of the house to others. She also ran a shop in Bothwell.

Maria died in 1859, her death certificate stating from "decay of nature". Edward died in England two months later and left her a respectable allowance in his will. Despite not living together for almost 40 years, Maria’s tombstone in New Norfolk describes her as the "Wife of E. Lord Esq. of Lawrenny."

Bothwell Priory, by Sir Ralph Whishaw, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

Maria and her life are significant for a number of reasons. First, her life in Van Diemen's Land encompasses almost the full convict period. The European settlement of Van Diemen’s Land, like that of New South Wales some twenty years earlier, was almost unique as penal settlements. Over 74,000 convicts came to Van Diemen’s Land. Once their sentences expired, many of them left for the Victorian goldfields or anywhere they could escape their convict past. Their descendants are scattered around the world. Tasmania's convict records are on the United Nations World Heritage Register along with those from New South Wales and Western Australia.

Maria was capable, intelligent, and resilient. Edward Lord has been called the "Macarthur of Tasmania", referring to John MacArthur, a prominent New South Wales military man and leading settler. Maria is often likened to Mary Reibey, an ex-convict in New South Wales and also a successful business women whose image is on Australia’s $20 banknotes. Unlike Macarthur and Reibey, though, Edward and Maria’s stories are morally complex. Both Maria and Edward have been portrayed positively and negatively. Edward and Maria’s stories are closely intertwined together and with the corrupt and frontier nature of the early Van Diemen’s Land colony. Maria’s story reads like a fictional account, yet no fiction could do justice to her life. Her success as a business woman was because of Edward Lord, but was also sometimes despite it. Historian Dr Henry Reynolds stated Maria is perhaps Van Diemen’s Land most significant convict.

Sources and further information

Tasmanian Archive and Heritage images and records, LINC Tasmania

Alexander, Alison Corruption and Skulduggery: Edward Lord, Maria Risely and Hobart’s tempestuous beginnings (2015, Pillinger Press, Hobart)

Alexander, Alison, Tasmania’s Convicts: How felons built a free society (2010 Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest NSW)

Boyce, James Van Diemen’s Land (2008, Blank Inc, Collingwood)

Daniels, Kay, Convict women (1998, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards)

Maria Lord – Australian Dictionary of Biography 

Maria Lord, Index of Significant Tasmanian Women, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Tasmania 


Hobart Town Vue prise d'un ravin au nord Van Diemens Land by Hostein Sith, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office