Abstract: From 1790, a small but significant number of free wives accompanied or followed their convict husbands to the penal colony of New South Wales. Through the case study of Sarah Wills Howe, a free wife of a convict, the unique power and capabilities exercised by these women is explored, particularly in relation to their legal and economic agency. According to the common law doctrine of coverture a married woman had no independent legal existence and no economic or legal rights, these having ceded to her husband upon marriage with whom she was “one person in law.” The unique legal position of free wives of convicts stands as a rare exception to the legal incapacity of coverture and yet this group of married women and their significance has been largely overlooked by historians. The story of Sarah Wills Howe points to the more nuanced capacity and experience of married women in the earliest years of settlement.

Keywords: Australian colonial women, marriage, coverture, free wives of convicts

Copyright © Jenny Hocking and Laura Donati 2016. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged.