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Image credit: Cockatoo Island 1842 by J.S. Prout, National Library of Australia.

Hannah Taylor: Tragedy Befalls Gaoler’s Family

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5 min read
Hannah Taylor was one of six children fathered by Charles Ormsby, the superintendent of Cockatoo Island’s penal establishment from 1841 to 1859. In this article, Harbour Trust volunteer researcher Ross shares the tragic tale of how Hannah became the first European woman to die on Cockatoo Island.

As anyone reading this will know, the convict era of Cockatoo Island (1839-1869) was a rather bleak and brutal period. However, as if often the case in historical narratives, some stories tend to get lost in the enormity of the more well known and documented events. Hannah Taylor’s untimely demise is one such event.

Hannah’s early life

Hannah Taylor, nee Ormsby, was born in Ireland in 1829. Hannah was one of the six children, the daughter of Charles Ormsby and his wife Alicia.

Before Charles Ormsby was appointed as the first superintendent of Cockatoo Island in 1841, he held several administration positions at Norfolk Island’s prison following his departure from Ireland in 1839. As such, Hannah and her five siblings would have been quite accustomed to convict island life when she arrived on Cockatoo Island aged 12.

In 1844, at the age of 15, Hannah married her father’s senior clerk, John Taylor, and they had their first child – Charles (no doubt named after her father) – in 1845. It is believed they lived in a cottage just near the family residence on the top of Cockatoo Island.

The only thing we know of the Taylor family after this time is that their second child, a girl called Alice, was born in 1848.

Two tragic deaths

In 1850, Hannah again fell pregnant, but her labour this time was difficult. She was moved from her cottage into the family home with more room for her mother and two sisters to take care of her.

Sadly though, Hannah and her baby did not survive, both dying on Tuesday 13 May 1851. At the time of her passing, Hannah’s son Charles was just 6 years old, and her daughter Alice was three.

On Thursday 15 May 1851, The Sydney Morning Herald reported: “DIED on Tuesday, the 13th instance, at the residence of her father, Charles Ormsby, esq, Cockatoo Island, near Sydney, Hannah Irwin, aged 22 years, the wife of John Taylor, esq."

Final resting place

It is said that the whole island came to a standstill when Hannah and her baby were moved down to the bottom of the island to commence the journey to their final resting place.

Unfortunately, death certificates as we know them today, with all the information they contain, did not come into existence until 1855. This means there is only the basic information from parish records that we have for Hannah.

The parish record tells us Hannah died on Cockatoo Island in child birth on Tuesday 13 May 1851, and that she was buried three days later on Friday 16 May 1851. Hannah’s service was held in the Parish of Willoughby, County of Cumberland, and was performed by W B Clarke, Church of England.

During my research into the final resting place of Hannah’s father Charles, I found that Hannah as well a her mother and brother Arthur were all buried in the graveyard of St Stephens Church, Camperdown at Newtown.

Article was originally published on 11 January 2022.


Some stories tend to get lost in the enormity of the more well known and documented events. Hannah Taylor’s untimely demise is one such event.


– Ross

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