Catherine Prendergast – One of the first female Land owners in Australia.

In researching Catherine Prendergast and the role she played in the establishment of the Prendergast family in Australia, I needed to “time travel” back to an era in our history where married women, by law were considered part of the goods and chattels that were OWNED by their husbands. This doctrine was a rule of law associated with the common law doctrine of coverture outlined in this paper written by Andrew Cowie, School of Law, Murdoch University.  

Cowie goes on to explain that Coverture is “the state of being under the protection of one’s husband. The term can also mean marriage. Marriage can then be categorized as a contract between a wife and husband where the wife gives up certain legal powers to the husband in return for being under his protections. Until the late 19th century, the marriage contract was the last contract a woman would ever enter”. Women lost their legal identity when they married.

This law, which I found quite shocking, was further explained to me by a volunteer at the Society of Australian Genealogists (SAG) during my visit to their Library in Sydney, Australia on 16 December, 2017. This law changed in 1918 allowing women to own land in their own right.

When we opened the ‘’Mutch’s” Muster book of 1800-1802 and viewed the entry recording the details of John Prendergast and James Clark leasing property at Mulgrave place in 1800 whilst still convicts, “that can’t be right!”, exclaimed Alan. “A convict with a 7 year term could not lease land until he had been granted his freedom”. “Could his wife Catherine, the unnamed female on the land have leased the land”, I asked? “Yes and no”, replied Alan. He then went on to explain that if a wife had a guarantor, she could lease land but usually that guarantor was her husband. In this case her husband was still a prisoner so no, she could not own land.

So, how did John Prendergast and James Clark lease land at Mulgrave place in 1800?

I decided to delve deeper and googled the  the New South Wales Government State records and Archives site. Here I made a discovery.

New South Wales Land Grants Guide, 1788-1856

On page 2/36 it states that “Women were entitled to receive a grant of land – the first possibly being Ellenor Frazer on 20 February, 1794”. Fantastic! Now we know that Catherine Prendergast could own land. But why were we not finding anything with her first name, Catherine, on it?

Remembering that Catherine Prendergast was referred to as “Wife of John Prendergast, Windsor” and also “Wife of Jno Pender, Windsor” on the two documents referring to Catherine having Jane Williams assigned to her, I decided to take a look at the Land Registry Services NSW, Land and Property Information. The document “How to Search the Old System Grant Index 1792-1862” has been superseded now but is still available on line and has a wealth of information.

Keeping an open mind and thinking laterally as impressed upon me during my University College Cork genealogy course in 2015, I decided to trawl through the pages of beautifully hand written historical documents at the NSW Land Registry. My husband Barry became as interested as I am and continued the search when I took a break. Over the last five days we have viewed thousands of documents.

I have to admit that the Land Registry Services NSW site is not the most user friendly site that I have used. It is quite complicated to use and to find information the user needs to have a prior understanding of the what he is looking for.  For instance, the volume and Folio numbers or the serial and page numbers of a particular document. The surname initial is usually not enough. When I phoned the NSW Lands department for help I was advised that I might be better off to employ a conveyancer or a solicitor.

Not to be deterred I soldiered on and low and behold – Drum roll please – I have made two invaluable discoveries.

  1. As shown below, this property was listed under Jno Prendergast but the contents of the Deed clearly states “…..links to Prendergast’s 60 acres farm”
  2. The next Deed refers to “Prendergast’s 60 acre farm” and yet when there is a male owner, the first and surname is mentioned on every document that I have viewed.InkedJohn Prendergast index_LI
  3. John Prendergast land register
    The next Deed states “…links to land of Mrs. Pendergast”. and yet when there is a male owner, the first and surname is mentioned on every document that I have viewed.

    catherine prendergast land
    So, it was with great delight, on my 2019 visit to the New South Wales State Archives  and Records, that with the help of Jenny, John and Emily I discovered the document below that indicates the three parcels of land purchased by Mrs (Catherine) Prendergast from the original grantees of the land.

It appears to me that although Australia in the colonial days was liberal in allowing women to own land, where a woman was legally married to her husband, she, as was common law doctrine, lost her identity. Her Christian name was no longer used, she was addressed as Mrs. Prendergast in this instance and all her possessions were amalgamated with and under her husband’s ownership and control.

This might explain why her son, baby John when he grew up wrote his Will with strict instructions that his daughters were to inherit land in their own right and that their husbands were to have no control over it. But, that is another story, one I will post at a later date on my blog.

6 thoughts on “Catherine Prendergast – One of the first female Land owners in Australia.

  1. Hi Norma,
    Thank you for your kind comment. It is a delight to be able to help family historians in their quest to find Prendergast ancestors. I would love to know what your interest in the Prendergast family is. If you would like to share with others that is wonderful and I can post that information for others to see. But, if you would prefer, I will reply privately to you.
    Warmest Whitsunday Wishes, Jennifer


  2. Re the documents posted for John Pendergasts land grants. They are at Kurrajong, NW of Richmond. The document referring to Mrs Prendergast is at Pitt Town near Windsor.

    I tried to copy and paste a map of Kurrajong land in here but it didn’t work.


  3. Dear Norma,
    Thank you so much for your kind comment. It is wonderful to meet another distant Prendergast relative. Would you like to tell me where you live as I would like to know about your family history? I am delighted to be able to help you with your research and hopefully in the next few months I shall knock down some more brick walls for us all. Please keep viewing my blog as I am about to announce a very exciting event coming up in Ireland in June.
    Warmest Whitsunday Wishes,


  4. I am so overwhelmed and excited to have “accidently” come across this information that you have so carefully researched. For many years I have been interested in my ancestors origins and always intrigued and interested in the Pendergast family from which I have descended. My Father was Henry Pendergast Gray his mother was Beatrice Kathleen Pendergast and her father Patrick Augustine Pendergast and his father John Pendergast son of John and (Catherine) Pendergast. The family were always proud of their origins , if a little vague on details (Maybe as for many years you never admitted a convict decent?! or maybe details were just lost or obscured by daily living demands.)
    Lately I started to delve a bit into my past ancestors and was particularly interested in Catherine. I noted there was a Catherine Fitzgerald on the Minerva with a lack of detail and wondered if this was her. I also noted that Johns age when he was sent out was a bit old to be starting a first family! and wondered if he had a wife and children still in Ireland. I also wondered abut the early land grants and how he came to aquire them so easily when he was listed as a convict “labourer”.and why he had not participated in the Vinegar Hill uprisings in Australia. Being such a good Catholic I also wondered why he never married Jane Williams.
    You have clarified so many of my thoughts and conjectures for me and I am deeply grateful for your hard persistent work.
    As you may gather I would be interested in accessing/acquiring any further information you may “dig up/unearth.” Especially as I wish to compile a /some family tree information for my grandchildren (so they can understand and appreciate the valuable part their ancestors played in building our beautiful country (now full of Pendergast ancestors (Maybe the English would regret sending John here as he was so prolific in producing so many more Pendergasts/decendents!!)
    Thank you Thank you again
    Norma Blinkhorn


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