The COUGHLAN Sisters
Father Thomas COUGHLAN b.c. 1811 m. 18483 d. 18934
Mother Sarah DRISCOLL b.c. 18245 m. 1848 d. 18996
Brother John COUGHLAN b. 18497 m. d. 19198
Sister Alice Mary Agnes COUGHLIN9 b. 185210 m. 188311 James DOWNEY d. 193712
Brother James COUGHLAN b. 185413 m. none Minnie LAWLER14 d. aft. 1899
Inmate Mary COUGHLAN b.c. 1855 m. 1885 (see below) d. 190415
Brother Thomas COUGHLIN b. 185816 m. 189317 Evelyn CUMMINGS d. 189918
Inmate Catherine aka Kate COUGHLAN b.c. 1865 m. 1886 (see below) d. 192319
Brother Phillip COUGHLIN b.c. 186720 m. d. 194921
Brother Daniel COUGHLIN b.c. 186622 m. d. 193223
Sister unknown COUGHLAN b.c 1870 m. bef. 1899 Thomas TOPHAM d. aft. 1899
Sister Ann COUGHLAN b.c. 1871 m. none - d. 187124
Relationship Name Age Height Hair Eyes Complexion Build Distinguishing features
Father Thomas25 22 5’ 10” brown hazel ruddy and freckled small dark mole left cheek; large scar back of right wrist; large scar betwixt forefinger and thumb of left hand
Brother John26 49 5’ 7” brown to grey grey [?] lives; Faith, Hope and Charity; E. R. P. left forearm; 2 angels over Australian Coat-of-Arms, right forearm
Brother Thomas27 21 5’ 7½” dark curley[?] grey fair medium T C. Heart P C. right forearm; [?] back rt hand (five spots); anchor left forearm
Inmate Mary28 15 5’ 3” light brown fair medium
Inmate Mary29 17 5’ 3½” auburn brown fair stout medium nose, mouth and chin
Inmate Mary30 22 5’ 5½” auburn hazel fair stout
Brother Phillip31 26 5’ 6” brown brown
Sister Kate32 15 5' 5" dark brown grey florid medium nose short and cocked at tip; mouth and chin medium; body free from marks and scars
Brother James33 30 5’ 8" or 9" curley [sic] clean shaved except for small dark moustache

Mary and Kate COUGHLAN were both admitted to the Industrial Schools in NSW – Mary to Newcastle in 1870 and Kate to Biloela five years later. The sisters were arrested separately and while Mary did transfer from Newcastle to Biloela, they were never at Biloela at the same time. Mary had been discharged by 1873 while Kate was admitted in 1875. The first family member arrested under the Industrial Schools' Act was their brother, Thomas, who, at the age of eleven, appeared before the Yass Court and was admitted to the Vernon on 24 July 1869,34 the year before Mary was arrested. Another brother, Daniel, was also tried and sentenced to be admitted to the Vernon in January 1881 but a writ of prohibition was directed from the Supreme Court35 to restrain the prosecution was issued and he never arrived.


Mary and Kate were the daughters of Thomas (X) COUGHLAN and Sarah DRISCOLL who were married in St Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church, Goulburn, by Rev. R. WALSH on 18 May 1848. Thomas was from Goulburn and Sarah was from Menaroo. The witnesses were Peter (X) COUGHLAN and Johanna (X) DOLAN but it is unknown whether Peter was related in any way to Thomas.36 Thomas and Sarah lived in Goulburn where they had at least nine children but registrations or baptisms for only half of these children have been identified on the NSW BDM Index. At the time of Thomas' admission to the Vernon it was recorded that he had '3 sisters and 4 brothers. One brother breaks in horses. One sister37 teaches.'38 When the younger Thomas died in 1899, three of these siblings, James, Catherine PEARSON and Mary SWEETMAN, placed Funeral Notices for him.39 The identity of a fourth sibling identified in the notice, Mrs THOMAS TOPHAM, is very uncertain and she has not been successfully identified. No possible marriage can be found for a COUGHLAN – or variations – to a TOPHAM. While the notice read 'Thomas', it is interesting to note that a George TOPHAM per the Moffatt was imprisoned in Goulburn in 1868. No TOPHAM women were admitted to Goulburn gaol. This woman was not mentioned in any Funeral Notice yet found for Mary40 or Catherine.41

Thomas COUGHLAN's obituary partly reproduced below very strongly suggests that he was the convict who had been transported aboard the Earl Grey in 1836. He had been born in Kilkenny, Ireland,42 and this birth location agreed with a place of birth identified by his descendants who it is thought retrieved this detail from a NSW BDM registration.43 He was a single Catholic who had been tried at the Kilkenny Spring Assizes on 3 March 1936 and transported for seven years for 'compelling to quit'. On arrival he was assigned to John CONNOR at Parramatta.44 Thomas senior died on 2 April 1893. His death registration on the NSW BDM Index, identified that his parents were John and Alice.45 The informant was probably his wife, Sarah, but the death registration has not been viewed. His obituary in the Goulburn Evening Penny Post on 18 April 1893 read in part:

Mr. Thomas Coughlan … was one of the oldest residents of the district. The deceased had been ailing for the past 7 months, the cause of death being natural decay. … Mr. Coughlan was born in the parish of Castlecoma, county Kilkenny, Ireland, on the 25th of December 1811. He arrived in this colony in 1837, and after travelling a good deal, eventually settled in Goulburn in 1840, he then being 29 years of age. Mr. Coughlan had thus lived in Goulburn 53 years. He was of a kindly disposition, and was well liked and respected by all who knew him. He leaves a widow and eight children, 5 boys and 3 girls.46

It is possible but unconfirmed that Sarah DRISCOLL had arrived as an assisted immigrant with her parents, Timothy and Margaret, and her brother, Timothy, aboard the Moffatt in 1841. She was recorded on the indent as a 13-year-old. The family were Catholic from Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland.47 Descendants identify that Sarah was from Cork. After Thomas's death Sarah moved to Sydney and she died at Randwick on 22 March 189948 but was buried in Goulburn49 after a service at St Peter and Paul's Catholic Church.50 This must have been an expensive task to move her body to Goulburn for burial. Sarah's death registration on the NSW BDM Index identified that both her parents were unknown and a short obituary contributed nothing further to knowledge of her ancestry.51 The year after her death an In Memoriam notice was placed by her daughter, Mary.52 Sarah's death registration or her will may divulge the identity of her surviving children.53

The COUGHLAN family were often caught up with the law but there is a suggestion in the reports that they were quite well-off. Both parents left wills and the fight in the Supreme Court to stop the admission to the Vernon of their son, Daniel, must have been expensive. The admission details at the time of Thomas' arrival on the Vernon provide much background to the family. Patrick BRENNAN, the sub-inspector of Police at Yass stated:

on Monday last, the 5th Instant, I arrested the lad before the court, Thomas Coughlan, at the aboriginal's camp, North Yass, I found from enquiry that he had been with them five or six months, that his Mother resided in the town of Goulburn, and that his father was up at Mr Ryan's station, Breakfast Creek, I asked the boy how he came to be with the blacks,54 and he said his mother hunted him, and he had been with them ever since. The boy is about eleven years of age he was in a very filthy state. The Aboriginals with whom he was living have no lawful visible means of support. I confined him in the lock-up. I arrested him under the provisions of the Industrial Schools' Act. He was living just the same as the aboriginals.55

Catherine COUGHLAN

Husband William PEARSON b. 186356 m. 188657 d. 193858
Ward Sarah COUGHLAN alias Minnie LAWLER b. 187559 m. d. aft. 1893
Daughter Pauline PEARSON b. 189160 m. 191261 Claud S. PRENTICE62 d. aft. 1938

Catherine was almost always referred to in newspaper reports as Kate and was as much of a handful63 as her older sister, Mary. She had previously appeared in the Goulburn courts charged with larceny and had run away from home so her mother, who was named in court, had applied for a warrant to have her admitted to Biloela.64 Her admission records, like those of her sister Mary, appear in the missing section of the Entrance Book so no confirmation of education, religion, family, admission or discharge can be made from this source. All that is known is that at some date after her court appearance in Goulburn court on 22 December 1875, Kate was admitted to Biloela. Her discharge from Biloela occurred before the commencement of the Biloela Discharge Book so the only evidence of her being at the school appears in the newspaper report of her trial although her presence on the island is verified in the letters of the Colonial Secretary. Sometime after her discharge from Biloela Kate returned to Goulburn where by 1879, she was admitted to Goulburn Gaol where she assaulted a warder.65 Kate appeared often in the Goulburn courts until her marriage in 1886.

Kate married William PEARSON in Goulburn in 1886. No confirmation of births of any children have been found but Family Notices confirm that the couple had one daughter, Pauline.66 In 1890 Catherine was also caring for Sarah COUGHLAN, the daughter of her brother James, until the girl ran away. Sarah gave the alias of Minnie LAWLER to authorities when she was admitted to the Parramatta Industrial School.67 Sarah was not compliant in Parramatta being involved in at least one riot.68 It is unknown whether Sarah aka Minnie was returned to Catherine after she had been released from Parramatta as the records identify that she was sent to a married sister rather than a married aunt.69 By 22 March 1899, Catherine and William were living in Sydney at Ravenswood, Soudan Street, Randwick, when her mother, Sarah, died.70 Kate died intestate71 in March 1923. A short obituary appeared in the Goulburn newspapers identifying that William was a book-maker.72 All the obituaries found for Kate stress her charitable nature.73 A registration of her death has not been located and searches for women named either Kate or Catherine for that date have been unsuccessful. Kate's Death Notice reads:

PEARSON.—March 11, 1923, at her residence, Glanmire, Allison-road, Randwick, Catherine, beloved wife of William Pearson, and beloved mother of Pauline, aged 60 years. R.I.P.74


Husband Henry SWEETMAN b. 186175 m. 188576 d. 192877
Step-daughter Annie SWEETMAN b.c. 188378 m. 190479 William E. STUTCHBURY80 d. 194581

Note Additional newspaper articles and references in the Police Gazette about Mary are likely to be found. There are numerous articles about her under the various spellings of her surname so not all have been referenced.

Mary was arrested under warrant under the Industrial Schools Act by constable WALKER of Goulburn Police and appeared in Goulburn Police Court as Mary COGHLAN on 14 February 1870.82 Her father Thomas, gave evidence that Mary was fourteen years old 'this month'83 and neither he nor his wife was able to control her.84 It is possible that he deliberately lied in court as Mary’s gaol entries record that she was a little older than this stated age. Thomas stated that although he was a labourer and hadn’t worked for a while 'as his eyes were bad', he was prepared to contribute a shilling a week to her upkeep. Mary was sent to Newcastle. Her admission once appeared in the section of the Entrance Book that has not survived, so no admission or discharge dates, education, family or religious details can be verified from this source. The 1871 transfer lists from Newcastle to Biloela show that Mary was a Catholic and had been admitted to Newcastle on 24 March 1870.85

Mary was not a compliant inmate at Newcastle. In 1870, she was one of four girls86 punished with forty-eight hours solitary confinement and a bread and water diet for 'sleeping together and making use of obscene language.'87 She was one of the four ringleaders88 of the riot89 that occurred on the night of 6 January 1871. CLARKE stated:

… that the eleven girls who conducted themselves so badly, are still in solitary confinement and on bread and water diet they cannot in any way account for their conduct nor give any reason for acting as they have done, it has been estimated that it will take from £8 to £10 to repair the damage they have done.
Under these circumstances I would most respectfully suggest that the four ringleaders … should be handed over to the Police Magistrate and dealt with according to law for using obscene language, for mutinous conduct, and for wilfully destroying Government property. On speaking to Mr Scott90 on the subject I regret to find that the punishment is not near so great for such conduct as I think they deserve.91

On 3 March 1871, Mary, Jemima BURT and Catherine HARDING escaped from the school.92 They were recaptured by constable SMITH of Newcastle Police nearly a fortnight later and were returned to the school. On 13 March, in Newcastle Court, Mary was charged and tried with a group of girls under the Injuries to Property Act with wilfully destroying Government property during a further riot at the school earlier in March.93 The Evening News described her as one of the two most violent girls during the riot.94 The girls were fined five pounds each or were to be sentenced to go to Maitland Gaol with one month's labour.95 Mary went to Maitland Gaol where on her admission she was recorded as a Catholic born in Sydney.96 After her release on 12 April 1871, she was returned to the school.97 Mary was recorded on LUCAS' transfer list as a resident of Maitland Gaol98 but had returned in time to make the transfer to Biloela with the bulk of the girls. On her arrival at Biloela she was listed in LUCAS' letter to the Colonial Secretary on 23 June 1871, as eligible for service.99

Mary's difficult behaviour continued once she reached the island. She was one of the eight girls arrested there on 16 October 1871, by constable DICK.100 They were charged with 'unlawfully, wilfully, and maliciously damaging thirty windows [at Biloela], valued at £1 10s., the property of the Government.' The girls must have been returned to the island to await their trial as on the day of the trial,101 LUCAS reported that Mary:

was confined in No. 3 Dormitory for attempting to fight, and very abusive and insubordinate conduct towards the Matron. 6 days bread and water.102

It is unknown whether this punishment was administered as at her trial, Mary and Ellen JOHNSTON both initially denied the charges but eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay a fine of thirty shillings each or go to goal for two months. In this report Mary was also erroneously referred to as Mary COPELAND who was further charged with breaking three panes of glass valued at four shillings and six pence at the Engine House of the Fitzroy Dock, at Biloela. For this she was fined four shillings and six pence, or was to spend two further months’ in prison.103 The Darlinghurst Description Book in 1871 confirmed that Mary was a Catholic who could read and write and had been born in Goulburn around 1853. Mary, and the Biloela girls, Jane MURPHY and Sarah BOURKE, were released from Darlinghurst in February 1872104 and were returned to Biloela. On 4 March 1872, Mary was again in trouble. LUCAS reported to the Colonial Secretary that:

[She] was very insubordinate at Muster on Sunday morning last and on her refusing to go to her dormitory when requested. I had her placed in a straight Jacket, when she was taken to the hospital, where it was removed.105

LUCAS’s report on 15 April 1872,106 indicated that Mary was apprenticed to J. OAKLEY, Esq., of Stroud on that date.107 Mary had absconded from OAKLEY's service on 18 April and had reached Newcastle where she was arrested108 and remanded to Scone. The Maitland gaol Entrance Book showed that Mary was tried on 29 April at Scone by Thomas NICHOLS. She was admitted on 1 May and discharged back to Biloela on 28 May 1872. This description recorded that she had been born in Sydney.109 No newspaper report has yet been found for this incident. LUCAS's report to the Colonial Secretary on 3 June 1872,110 confirmed that Mary was readmitted to Biloela on 30 May111 At about 3 o'clock on 10 June 1872, Mary was involved with Sarah AUBURN and two Biloela girls, Janet BOYD and Sarah BOURKE, attempted to instigate the rest of the girls to rioting and smashed 30 panes of glass in the schoolroom. The decision of the Colonial Secretary was to bring them to the court of Petty Sessions112 so no further records of their trial are likely to exist and no reports have been found in the newspapers. LUCAS confirmed in his report of 19 June 1872, that the four girls had been confined in number three dormitory for ten days on a bread and water diet as a further punishment.113 In a further report on 12 August 1872, he recorded that Mary, Jane WINDSOR and Mary CASHER, together with four Biloela girls114 were involved in an arson attempt on the building. LUCAS wrote:

after their Captain attempted to set fire to the door of the Dormitory in which they were confined – by procuring a few matches from a girl named Sarah Auburn – thro a small slit in the window taking off their stockings and lighting them they created a great [?]tle – which was at once discovered and their mischievous designed were frustrated.115

By the time of his next report on 19 August 1872, LUCAS was able to report that the girls 'were released from confinement on the 15th.'116 It is as yet unknown what incident occurred to place Mary in solitary again but she, Elizabeth KING and Elizabeth DONOHUE were released from confinement on 19 October 1872.117 On 18 November 1872, LUCAS reported to the Colonial Secretary that Mary had been released to the care of the House of the Good Shepherd.118

It is unknown how long Mary remained in this institution but it is considered very likely that all the women named Mary COGHLAN,119 COGLIN120 or COGLAN121 appearing in court from 1873 and through into the 1880s refer to her. The earliest appearance yet found occurred in June 1873.122 Darlinghurst Gaol records are sketchy but almost without exception they can be linked to the woman born in Goulburn in about 1855. There are further likely references where Mary appeared in court but no corresponding gaol record has yet been located. It is likely that Mary was very well-known among the constables of Sydney and many articles indicated that she was prone to physical responses123 – often against them.124 She was charged with an assault in March 1873 where she<

… unlawfully and maliciously wounded Henry Elliott. Prisoner pleaded not guilty. She was defended by Mr. Carroll. The disturbance took place in Syrett's-lane ; and prisoner was "jawing" with another woman, when she made use of his name. He remonstrated, and she called him an abusive name. More words followed, and prosecutor was assaulted again and again by prisoner, who tore his trousers, struck him on the head with stones, and then dropped part of a bottle at the back of his neck, so as to cut him severely, and cause the blood to flow freely. … Prisoner picked up the jagged neck, and struck prosecutor with it at the back of the head. She then said that she might "as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb."125

Surprisingly, Mary was found not guilty. She is almost certainly the seventeen-year-old woman appearing in court on 16 April 1873, charged with riotous behaviour on Circular Quay.126 Mary was admitted to Darlinghurst in October 1874 at the age of nineteen for two months, probably for an assault on Eliza HARDIMAN, again in Syrett's Lane.127 Mary was reported to have:

caught her by the hair, and dragged her into the house, where she and others beat her with their hands (and then) picked up a stone and threw it.


Syrett's Lane, Sydney 1875
Image Courtesy of State Library of NSW

Mary was identified as a prostitute in May 1875,128 and March 1876.129 There is very little doubt that she was the woman punished in Darlinghurst Gaol with 21 days in the cells in August 1875, for being insubordinate to, spitting at and otherwise being grossly insulting to the Assistant Matron.130 The following month she was again confined to the cells for seven days for making use of abusive and insulting language to the Assistant Matron131 and on 29 October 1875, she spent another three days in the cells for fighting132 with another inmate, Mary WHITE.133 During another admission in June 1876 Mary Ann was again restricted to the cells for three days by the Matron.134 As Mary COGHLAN, she was sentenced to twelve months in Maitland gaol on 31 January 1877,135 for an assault causing grieous bodily harm on Ellen HOCK, with whom she had lived. On 3 April, an official application was made by Maitland Gaol to remove Mary to Sydney Gaol for coercion. There had been six instances of punishment within the gaol for various misdemeanours and the Maitland authorities wrote on her record 'Bad. Quite unmanageable.' The record indicated that, prior to this arrest, Mary had:

Eleven previous convictions for threatening language, Assault, Stealing and Vagrancy. Ranging from 6 [?] [?] to 14 days impt.136

In October 1880 Mary pleaded guilty to keeping a house of ill-fame for which she was imprisoned for three months.137 Her correct age of twenty-eight years was recorded in a court appearance in September 1883.138 It is almost entirely certain that the assault committed upon Mary, of 4 Evan’s Place, Surry Hills,139 in August 1882, by George and Mary Ann CHAPMAN140 was an altercation between the two Newcastle admissions, Mary and Mary Ann BROWN.

Mary married Henry SWEETMAN who was about six years her junior, in Sydney in 1885 and court appearances for Mary COUGHLAN cease and no records for Mary SWEETMAN occur after this date. No registrations of any births have been found to the couple but Henry had at least one child, Annie, who had been born about two years before Mary and Henry married. It is possible that Annie was Mary's daughter as in 1910 she was identified as the cousin of Kathleen NASH, the married daughter of Mary's sister, Alice,141 although this may have been because Mary has adopted her as her own child. In 1900, a year after the death of her mother, Mary placed an In Memoriam notice in the Sydney Morning Herald.142 Three years later, on 9 July 1904, Mary died143 at the Prince Alfred Hospital. While her death registration only recorded her father’s name, the Funeral Notice confirmed the names of two of her sisters. Mary was buried in Waverley Cemetery on 11 July 1904,144 beside Henry's mother, Ellen. Henry remained a part of the COUGHLAN family, especially with those who had taken up residence in Sydney145 and when Henry died on 4 July 1928, at the age of 67, his daughter, Annie, erected a SWEETMAN headstone.146

Updated December 2017

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