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Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899

R. v. Wapshaw [1840] NSWSupC 81

murder, women defendants in crime

Supreme Court of New South Wales

Dowling C.J., Willis and Stephen JJ, 1 August 1840

Source: Australian, 4 August 1840

            Catherine Wapshaw was indicted for the wilful murder of Catherine Phillips, at Singleton, by thrusting her into a fire, on the fifth day of April last, whereby she was burned in various parts of her body: from the effects of which she lingered until the 18th of the same month, and then died. The prisoner pleaded not guilty.

Dowling C.J., Willis and Stephen JJ, 15 August 1840

Source: Australian, 18 August 1840

            Catherine Wapshaw, charged with putting another woman on the fire with the intent to burn her to death, was discharged on bail of one surety in £100.

Dowling C.J., 3 November 1840

Source: Sydney Herald, 4 November 1840[1]

Catharine Wapshaw, late of Patrick's Plains, was indicted for having, on the 5th of April last, at Patrick's Plains, been guilty of killing and slaying one Catharine Phillips.

            From the evidence given in this case, it appeared that the deceased was a convict per Ann and Amelia, assigned to her husband; that on Sunday the 5th of April, the deceased, the prisoner, and the prisoner's husband, had been drinking, when the prisoner struck one of the deceased's children which was crying, on which the deceased ran into the room and struck the prisoner, who immediately seized the deceased Catharine Phillips by the clothes and pushed her on to the fire, by which the clothes of the deceased caught fire, and when she endeavoured to get up, the prisoner, who was in liquor, again thrust her back into the fire.  She afterwards got out of the fire-place and rushed, with her clothes on fire, to a water cask and plunged into it; in her agony she rushed out to go to a neighbouring house to obtain help; she was that evening conveyed to her husband's residence, where she lingered for twelve days and died from the effects of the burning.

            From the testimony of Mr. Glennie, the surgeon who attended the deceased while alive, it appeared that she was a woman of intemperate habits, and the mother of three children.  The whole of her body, from the pit of the stomach downwards, was one burned mass, the cuticle being actually charred; there were also superficial burnings on the arms, face, chest, back, and shoulders; and Mr. Glennie was of opinion that so extensive was the burning that no human being could have survived it, and said it was matter of surprise to him that she had lingered so long.  Two days after the burning the deceased was waited on by the police magistrate of the district and made a deposition of the facts of the case, which was given in evidence.  From the testimony of the husband of the deceased, it appeared that on the evening of the day charged in the indictment, the prisoner's husband come to this witness and told him that the deceased had got herself burned, when he immediately went in search of her and found her sitting under a bush about twenty or thirty rod from the prisoner's residence in a state of nudity; when she told him that the prisoner had pushed her into the fire, and that she had then turned her out of doors; he also stated that she had left her home on the preceding day.

            Mr. Purefoy for the defence, lamented the prevalence[?] of drunkenness, and argued that there was no evidence of intent, nor was it proved that the defendant had done more than pushed the deceased towards the fire, and contended that the deceased met her death by accidentally falling into the fire.

            His Honor, in putting the case to the Jury, laid down the law respecting manslaughter, and stated that even if in consequence of the pushing the deceased had fallen into the fire and been burned so as to cause death, still the crime amounted to manslaughter.

            The Jury retired for about ten minutes, and returned a verdict of guilty.  Remanded.


Dowling C.J., 7 November 1840

Source: Sydney Herald, 9 November 1840[2]


At the opening of the Court the prisoners convicted before the Chief Justice, and re-remanded during the week, were brought up for judgment, when his Honor addressed them as follows:-

            Catherine Wapshot, you have been found guilty of feloniously destroying the life of one Catherine Philips, by casting her into a fire.

            The bare mention of such a death when arising merely from accident, fills the mind with anguish; but, when it is the result of criminal design, the heart sickens with horror.  It may be that you possess the form and feature of woman - but no more!  The soul that dictated such an act, could never have been intended for so chosen a vessel.  Nothing but the Tempter of Hell could prompt your mind to such enormity.  Again and again, has this Evil One appeared in the palpable shape of Rum to vanguish and overcome the humanity of his followers.  Is this country never to purged from the stain of drunkenness?  Session after session, the calendar teems with tales of blood from this cause only.  In vain does the rigour of the law put forth its denunciations - in vain does public scorn mark the sinner for contempt - in vain are efforts made by society to rouse the drunkard to consciousness of the awful peril which awaits his direful prospensity.  I fear that this generation must pass away before any hope can be entertained that the degrading and brutalizing habit will be eradicated from the land.  In the auspicious dawn which now opens upon the country, we may indulge the persuasion that whilst the country is emancipated from its penal character, the latent dispositions to good in the human heart, and the diffusion of religious feeling, will effect a moral regeneration, and New South Wales shall no longer be held up to the world in odious colours.  Degraded woman! there is this aggravation in your offence - that it was committed on the Sabbath: a day, when even the heart of the vicious is, if not amenable to its religious impulses, at least open to repose from the rugged cares and excitements of this life.  Finding no mitigating circumstances in your case, the Court is constrained to award the severest punishment which the law now ordains in the case of female criminals: which is, that you, Catherine Wapshot, be imprisoned and kept to hard labour in the female factory[3] at Parramatta, for three years.


[1]              See also Australian, 5 November 1840.

[2]              See also Australian, 10 November 1840.

[3]              The reference is to the Female Factory, which was simultaneously a prison, a barracks for female convicts, a factory, and a marriage bureau.  See A. Salt,These Outcast Women: the Parramatta Female Factory 1821-1848, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1984. On the management of the factory, see Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Vol. 12, pp 524-528.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University