Article by John Bottoms, published in City Life in May 2010

Poor Ann Davis.

Her appearance in the Court of Criminal Jurisdiction before judge advocate Collins in Sydney on 21 November 1789 was not a great success. The Criminal Courts have changed a great deal since those days and notwithstanding proceedings seem to have been very much quicker and the Court delays almost non-existent, I would suggest that none of us would like to be dealt with under the criminal justice meted out then.

Ann was charged with “break, enter and steal” at Sydney Cove (now Circular Quay) of the premises of one Robert Sidaway. She climbed in through a window and helped herself to 5 shirts, a night gown, a handkerchief and a waistcoat.

The indictment was presented in the name of “our Sovereign Lord George the Third”, which is not much different from the indictments presented today in the name of Queen Elizabeth in the Supreme Court in Cairns. However, in this case the language is about the only similarity. The trial took place on Saturday and there were five witnesses called, at the end of which Ann Davis was found guilty and sentenced to death to be hung on Monday.

A number of colonial observers saw the trial and Watkin Tench, whose book you can buy, recorded the following:

“On her condemnation she pleaded pregnancy and a jury of venerable matrons was empanelled on the spot, to examine and pronounce her state, which the forewoman, a grave personage between 60 and 70 years old, did, by this short address to the court: ‘Gentlemen! She is as much with child as I am.”

The sentence of death was accordingly confirmed.

So there you have it – quick justice – a half day trial, found guilty on Saturday, 21 November 1789 and executed on Monday, 23 November 1789.

The problem for poor Ann Davis was really the way “unrepresented” she ran her case.

If she had pleaded guilty and admitted what she had done and set out in detail the circumstances which led her to do that, the court might well have taken a more sympathetic attitude and more importantly, the venerable jury of matrons might have as well, enabling her to avoid the death penalty. Obviously she lied a lot and was found out and this annoyed the court and the community.

People often ask how lawyers can defend someone if they know they are guilty. The question itself is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the lawyer’s role. Our job is not to judge people but to be an advocate on their behalf, presenting their version of events to the appropriate tribunal.

If poor Ann had a skilled advocate to put forward what could be said on her behalf, she might well not have been the first woman hanged in the colony of New South Wales. If you get into trouble, even if you know that you did what is alleged, make sure you speak to a solicitor so that the court is made aware of the best which can be said on your behalf.