Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.

Lucas, Olivia

Cite this

Lucas, Olivia

Olivia Gascoigne's origins are not conclusively provable. She is thought to have been born in 1760 in Droitwiche, Worcestershire, and her name appears with a variety of spellings in different records, including Olive or Holiffe, and her surname sometimes appears as Gaskins. [1] Olivia's parents are likely to have been John Gascoigne and Sarah Partridge, who are thought to have been cousins. No siblings are known.

Her arrest and trial

Olivia was arrested in August 1784 and tried at the Worcester Lent Assizes on 5 March 1785 for armed robbery. [2] The circumstances surrounding the offence are slightly confusing – there are references to two crimes, but they may, in fact, be one and the same. Olivia is recorded as stealing from her employer while working as a servant in his household, but there is no further reference to a trial or conviction. It is therefore entirely possible that this crime is the same as the one for which she was tried. On 10 August 1784, Olivia allegedly forced her way into the home of Edward Griffith and robbed him at gunpoint of gold guineas to the value of £13 and 13 shillings, and a foreign silver dollar valued at 4 shillings and sixpence. Despite a busy day at the Assizes, in which the jury was required to decide on 22 separate cases, the court found time to pass a judgment of guilty. The mandatory sentence for armed robbery was death; however the growing calls for penal reform saw the majority of capital crimes commuted – a situation which contributed to the significant overcrowding in English goals and prison hulks. [3]

Transportation to Sydney

With her sentence for armed robbery commuted to 14 years transportation, Olivia spent the first two years of her sentence at the Gloucester Newgate gaol. [4] Around March or April of 1787, she was transferred to the Lady Penrhyn, and travelled with the First Fleet to Sydney Cove. The ship arrived in Botany Bay on 20 January 1788, but Olivia could still only gaze on dry land from a distance, as none of the female convicts were allowed ashore there. The arrival of the fleet in Sydney Cove later that month represented the first hope for the female convicts of solid ground beneath their feet in 10 months.

Due partly to her good behaviour on the voyage out, Olivia was one of 15 convicts selected to accompany Lieutenant-Governor King to Norfolk Island, to establish a sub-colony there. Olivia spent only three weeks in the Port Jackson camp, departing on the Supply on 14 February 1788, and arriving on the island on 6 March. [5] As difficult as the establishment phase on Norfolk Island undoubtedly was, Olivia was lucky to escape the even stricter privations and dangers that were experienced by the main Sydney colony in those very early years. [6]

Norfolk Island

Soon after arriving on Norfolk Island, Olivia married a fellow convict, Nathaniel Lucas, although their union did not receive the sanction of the church until the Reverend Richard Johnson visited the island in November 1791. [7] It has been suggested that they may have known each other in England, or at least have had some family connection, as they made the decision to marry quite quickly. However, given the privileges extended to married couples, even when both were convicts, and the difficult conditions for those who remained single, it is entirely possible that Olivia and Nathaniel simply liked each other well enough to make the best of it – a situation that many couples found themselves in. [8]

It certainly seems to have been a successful partnership. Olivia quickly fell pregnant, and gave birth to their first child, Ann, in March 1789. [9] Nathaniel acquired responsibility on the island through his skills as a carpenter, and built their house. Soon, Olivia was pregnant again and this time gave birth to twins – Sarah and Mary. Tragedy struck in August 1792 when a tree-felling exercise went wrong. The tree fell on to the house, killing the toddler twins and seriously injuring Olivia, who had the infant William in her arms. [10] Olivia's injuries were serious enough that Nathaniel thought he might lose her. Thanks to her protection of William, the baby escaped from the wreckage of the house unharmed. Although she recovered, Olivia is thought to have sustained some disability from her injuries for the rest of her life.

Another seven children followed while the family lived on Norfolk Island – Nathaniel Jnr in August 1793, Olivia in April 1795, John in December 1796, James in October 1798, George in May 1800, Charles in December 1801 and Sarah in December 1803. Olivia appears to have coped with each successive pregnancy without too much difficulty, suggesting that her ongoing pain was not incapacitating, and Nathaniel Jnr's birth only a year after the twins' death indicates that her recovery was fairly swift. All of Olivia's children survived the dangerous diseases of childhood and, apart from the twins, all of them survived to adulthood.

Life in Sydney

The family's return to Sydney Cove in March 1805 on the Investigator was a significant move for Olivia, who then had five children still under the age of 10. [11] Another two children were born after the family settled in The Rocks – Mary Ann in December 1805 and Thomas in November 1807. With Nathaniel's land grants and government postings, Olivia could understandably feel positive about their future. A break-in at their home on Church Hill on the night of Tuesday 16 April 1805 certainly suggests that they had possessions worth trying to steal. [12] However, Nathaniel's temper, and differences of opinion with convict architect Francis Greenway, would have made life anything but settled.

In 1810, Olivia and Nathaniel moved to a farm at Liverpool, on land granted to the family after the government reclaimed their land in the Domain. [13] Over time, a number of the Lucas children made either temporary or permanent moves to the Launceston area in Van Diemens Land. Over the next seven years, the family established a number of inter-related businesses run by Olivia and Nathaniel's children as they grew old enough to take on the responsibility, culminating in a regular trade between Van Diemens Land and Sydney Cove.

In April 1816, a Mrs Lucas is listed as a subscriber for the 'Relief of the Sufferers by the Battle of Waterloo', giving £4, only £2 less than that given by Mrs McArthur for herself and her daughters. [14] It is unclear whether this is Olivia, but if it is, it showed that she had money of her own to dispose of independently.

Life in Tasmania

There is evidence to suggest that, in 1817, Olivia's marriage to Nathaniel broke up, and she took the youngest children with her to Van Diemens Land. When Nathaniel died in 1818, Olivia returned to Sydney to tidy up his affairs. Unfortunately, Nathaniel left only debts. [15] It was a sorry end to the great dreams of family wealth that they must have held during their promising return to Sydney 13 years before. Despite having to find some money to cover Nathaniel's debts, Olivia is still recorded as owning the farm at Liverpool for another ten years.

On her return to Tasmania, Olivia raised her remaining children and enjoyed the company of her family for another 12 years. In 1824 she was granted land of her own adjoining the grant given to her daughter and son-in-law. [16] Her sons built a ship, which they named the Olivia, to transport the produce from the farms to her other children in Sydney for sale. Unfortunately the Olivia was wrecked in Two Fold Bay in November 1827, a very short life for a ship that held so much of the family's hopes. [17]

She did make further trips to Sydney to visit her children and grandchildren who remained there, and is registered in the 1828 census as staying with her son John and daughter-in-law Mary at Liverpool. She died on 10 June 1830, and was buried at St John's Church of England in Launceston, where no headstone remains.

Olivia's legacy

Olivia's life is perhaps no more extraordinary than those of many of the other women who were transported on the First Fleet. She faced the same difficulties in raising a large family in primitive conditions that many women of the time did, and the challenge of building a respectable life for herself in a penal colony that she could never leave. Olivia, like many other women of her time and circumstances, deserves respect for her resilience in the face of transportation to the other side of the world, without whitewashing of her crime or attempts to romanticise her story. That Olivia also gave birth to one of Australia's largest families gives her another claim to history – her descendents numbered 25,584 in 2001, representing 0.16 per cent of Australia's population in that year. [18]


Peter McKay, A Nation Within a Nation, the author, Geelong, Victoria, 2001

Reg Wright, The Forgotten Generation of Norfolk Island and Van Diemens Land, Library of Australian History, North Sydney, 1986


[1] Peter McKay, A Nation Within a Nation, the author, Geelong Victoria, 2001, p 38; Reg Wright, The Forgotten Generation of Norfolk Island and Van Diemens Land, Library of Australian History, North Sydney, 1986, p 62

[2] Peter McKay, A Nation Within a Nation, the author, Geelong Victoria, 2001, pp 38–39

[3] Michael Ignatieff, 'Cords of Love, Fetters of Iron: The Ideological Origins of the Penitentiary', in M Ignatieff, A just measure of pain: the penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850, Columbia University Press, New York, 1980, p 45; Nikolaus Pevsner 'Prisons', in N Pevsner, A history of building types, Thames and Hudson, London, 1987, p 160; John Braithwaite, 'Crime in a Convict Republic', The Modern Law Review, vol 64, no 1, January 2001, p 32

[4] Peter McKay, A Nation Within a Nation, the author, Geelong Victoria, 2001, p 39

[5] Peter McKay, A Nation Within a Nation, the author, Geelong Victoria, 2001, p 39

[6] Watkin Tench gives many examples of the reduced rations in his account of the early days of the colony; Watkin Tench, 'The Settlement at Port Jackson, Watkin Tench's 1788, edited by Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009, p 122. Grace Karskens believes these privations to be less severe than Tench and popular history depicts, although she does recognise that rations of food that the First Fleeters used were continually diminished in the early years. Grace Karskens, The Colony, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2009, pp 273–4

[7] Valda Rigg, 'Convict Life: A 'Tolerable Degree of Comfort'?', Raymond Nobbs (ed), Norfolk Island and its First Settlement, 1788–1814, Library of Australian History, North Sydney, 1988, p 98

[8] Babette Smith, A Cargo of Women, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, 2008, p 166

[9] Peter McKay, A Nation Within a Nation, the author, Geelong Victoria, 2001, p 41

[10] Nathaniel Lucas to John Lucas, letter, 1796, Governor PG King's Papers, Mitchell Library

[11] Governor King to Lieutenant-Governor Foveaux, letter, 1 October 1804, p 221, Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol V – July 1804 to August 1806, The Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament, 1915

[12] 'Sydney', The Sydney Gazette, 21 April 1805, p 2

[13] Peter McKay, A Nation Within a Nation, the author, Geelong Victoria, 2001, p 41

[14] 'Public Notice', The Sydney Gazette, 13 April 1816, p 1

[15] Peter McKay, A Nation Within a Nation, the author, Geelong Victoria, 2001, p 41

[16] Peter McKay, A Nation Within a Nation, the author, Geelong Victoria, 2001, p 42

[17] 'Wreck', The Australian, 14 December 1827, p 3

[18] Peter McKay, A Nation Within a Nation, the author, Geelong Victoria, 2001, p 11