Harbourside Gothic: The convict origins of Vaucluse House

Vaucluse House is one of the oldest surviving examples of 19th-century Gothic Revival architecture in Australia, set in the grounds of a harbourside estate on Gadigal and Birrabirragal land. But its architectural style is not all that is gothic about Vaucluse House. The dark history of the house’s first owner, Henry Browne Hayes, reveals some of the dangers faced by women in the 18th and 19th centuries.

A ring was attempted to be forced on my finger, which I threw away

Mary Pike, in her testimony at Henry Browne Hayes’s 1801 trial1

Built in 1803, Vaucluse House was isolated, centred in a valley surrounded by a dense, shadowy woodland and accessible only by boat. Arrivals to the harbour bay had a clear view of what was then a small, single-storey stone cottage with a smoking chimney. Those who made their way across the sand and up the gently sloping hill would have encountered in this cottage a formidable man named Henry Browne Hayes.2 Hayes was a convict, but he was also an Irish knight. Described as grotesque to look at, with a trailing, untrimmed moustache, he was known for being insolent, egotistical and occasionally violent.

Hayes named the property where his cottage stood Vaucluse, meaning ‘closed valley’. The name was inspired by the 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch, who entered a self-imposed exile in the village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse in south-east France. Hayes’s naming of the property was a romanticising act of self-mythologisation in which he cast himself as an exile worthy of sympathy. He positioned himself as the broken-hearted victim of his crime, in place of his actual victim. This was banking heiress Mary Pike, aged 21 when Hayes abducted her in 1797 and attempted to force her into marriage against her will. Hayes was not interested in Pike as a wife and lover, but as a source of income.

‘By force, and against her consent’3

Most of the information about Pike in the historical record relates to the crime that was committed against her. At the time of her abduction, she was staying with family friends in Cork. Pike had a strained relationship with her mother and could no longer live with her. Her father, a wealthy Quaker banker, had recently died, leaving Pike a substantial estate. At 21, Pike was now of age and able to access her inheritance.

Hayes – a widower with four children – saw opportunity in this rather sad circumstance. In the weeks before the abduction he acquainted himself with the family with whom Pike was staying. Then, in the early hours of 22 July 1797, he sent to their address a forged letter impersonating the doctor who was treating Pike’s seriously ill mother. The forgery read:

‘Dear Sir, – Our friend Mrs. Pike is taken suddenly ill; she wishes to see Miss Pike. We would recommend despatch, as we think she has not many hours to live. – Yours, Robert Gibbings.’

Fearing that her mother was about to die, Pike rushed through heavy rain to her carriage. She was unaware that Hayes and a band of accomplices were waiting concealed in the darkness nearby. When Pike and her female chaperones began their journey, the men surrounded the carriage, brandishing pistols and some with their faces concealed by handkerchiefs, and dragged the women from it.4

Pike testified in court that Hayes then forced her into his own waiting carriage and took her to his manor house. A published account of the 1801 trial describes Pike as appearing distressed when she first entered the court but states that she was able to compose herself and give clear testimony. She recounted her ordeal in some detail, telling the court what happened once she arrived at Hayes’s manor:

‘… before I was taken upstairs there was a kind of ceremony of marriage, and a man appeared, dressed in the habit of a clergyman … A ring was attempted to be forced on my finger which I threw away.’

Her counsel asked if ‘anything particular’ had happened upstairs after the marriage ceremony was performed.

‘I was locked into a room’, Pike said. ‘… there was a bed … I recollect perfectly [Hayes] coming in and out, and behaving in the rudest manner …’

‘Was or was not any part of that transaction between you and Sir Henry Hayes with your consent or against it?’ Pike’s counsel asked.

‘Against it, entirely’, Pike replied.5

‘Taking away with intent to marry, or defile’6: Bride abduction and forced marriage

The abduction and forced marriage of women in Ireland was not uncommon in the 18th century.7 The British law of coverture dictated that a woman’s wealth became the property of her husband when she married. This made wealthy women targets for unscrupulous men who wished to increase their own fortunes. The women abducted in such circumstances were almost always indecently assaulted. But women’s subordinate status under the law meant that such assaults were often, first and foremost, treated as property crimes. If a man was tried at all it was often for offences such as bride abduction and breach of promise of marriage.8 

Historian Katie Barclay estimates that between 1700 and 1836, some 400 abductions came to public attention through court cases and newspaper coverage in Ireland; however, she suggests this number represents only a fraction of the bride abductions that actually took place.9 Disturbingly, most cases of bride abduction were resolved not via the law but through the subsequent private acceptance of the marriage by the woman’s family.

The social stigma of this type of attack greatly reduced women’s marriageable value, which meant that the decision to prosecute had serious implications. In many cases, the choice to legally pursue an attacker also meant accepting that a woman would most likely remain single for life. Faced with this prospect, many families, and even the women themselves, reluctantly accepted the forced unions, and marriages to abductors were upheld.

In Pike’s case, however, her furious uncle published dozens of weekly notices in local newspapers offering a large financial reward to anyone willing to apprehend Hayes and his accomplices.

Why Pike’s family took the less common path of resisting the marriage can’t be known for certain. The Pikes were an influential and wealthy family of high social standing in Cork, and therefore perhaps more motivated than most to publicly protect their reputation. They were also Quakers, a faith that had more progressive views about women’s equality than much of 18th-century society. And lastly, bride abductions that made their way before the courts commonly included the use of more extreme force and violence against victims.

Sometimes a woman’s or her family’s rejection of a union wasn’t enough to convince a court to convict. Any inkling of consent could result in a marriage being upheld. A woman’s signature on a marriage certificate, for instance, could be taken as evidence of her consent, regardless of whether she was being held hostage or subjected to violence at the time of signing.10 This is perhaps why Pike was so insistent in her testimony that she threw away the ring forced on her finger during the ‘marriage ceremony’ at Hayes’s manor house, mentioning this twice in her evidence. When Pike showed signs of resistance and rejected the ring, Hayes pulled out a pistol.11

We do know that immediately after being rescued from Hayes’s manor by her uncle, Pike fled Cork for Bath, England, and within three months she had prepared a will. The timing of her trip to England and her hastiness in organising her affairs suggest that she feared she was pregnant.12

It took almost four years for Hayes to be tried for his crime. He too had many influential friends and supporters in Cork, and it was Pike who remained in exile in England. Hayes even wrote to Pike warning her of his social influence should the matter go to trial.13 Ironically, it was Hayes’s own actions that led to his undoing. He arranged for his former servant to inform the authorities of his whereabouts in order to claim the reward being offered by Pike’s uncle for his capture.14 This rather foolish plan backfired, and Hayes was finally apprehended.

At the trial, the jury deliberated for only an hour before finding Hayes guilty of Pike’s abduction, but recommended mercy, which likely saved Hayes’s life. The crime of bride abduction carried the death penalty in Ireland until 1842. Hayes’s sentence was commuted to transportation for life, and he was banished to NSW.

‘Gentleman convicts’

Despite his conviction, Hayes’s status as a knight meant that he was allowed a degree of independence in the colony that was not usually afforded to convicts. Though the freedoms granted to Hayes may seem strange today, it was common for ‘gentleman convicts’ and political prisoners to be afforded better treatment than the ‘common classes’ while they served their sentences. This was how Hayes was able to purchase land and lay the foundations of the Vaucluse estate.

Even though Hayes benefited from his privileged position as a wealthy knight, his first biographer, Charles Bertie, writes that he did not keep his head down once he arrived in Sydney. He reappeared at ‘intervals in the historical records, but always to the accompaniment of trouble’.15 Even before arriving in the colony, he was involved in a violent brawl aboard the convict ship he was transported on, and once ashore acted as if ‘he were again a perfectly free agent, and the dictionary contained no such word as convict’.16 In fact, he refused to refer to himself as a convict at all, preferring to describe himself as ‘suffering under the law’. Hayes didn’t display the gallant behaviour one expects of a knight – but then again, he had only been bestowed the honour of a knighthood for hosting the royal representative, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, during the latter’s visit to Cork.17

Hayes’s troubling reputation didn’t stop him from receiving an early pardon. He was freed in 1812 after serving only ten years of his life sentence, and immediately fled the colony to return to his native Cork. His stone cottage in its valley was eventually purchased by William Charles and Sarah Wentworth and the house and estate substantially expanded from 1827.

Death notices

Pike and Hayes died within weeks of each other in 1832.

Shortly after her abduction, Pike was described as having developed ‘a pathological fear of the male sex’, and she never married.18 A notice advertising her property for lease in 1827 referred to her as a ‘lunatic’, and she spent the remainder of her life in a Quaker mental institution in Dublin, dying at age 56. Her death notice was short. It read only that the ‘daughter of Samuel Pike, formerly of the city of Cork’, had died at the Society of Friends’ asylum.19 

In the letter Hayes wrote to Pike before he was apprehended, he threatened that ‘her conduct upon this occasion, would mark her fate through life’.20 In this, it seems, Hayes was right.

Having returned to a ‘gentlemanly life and society’ in Cork, Hayes died at age 70.21 His death notice commemorated him as ‘a kind and indulgent parent, and a truly adherent friend. The suavity and gentlemanly manners he possessed made him to be endeared to every person who had the happiness of his acquaintance’.22 Except, certainly, for Mary Pike.


  1. James Haly, The trial of Sir Henry Browne Hayes, Knt. for forcibly and feloniously taking away Miss Mary Pike on the twenty-second day of July, 1797, before Mr. Justice Day and a most respectable jury: on the thirteenth day of April, 1801, taken down by an eminent short-hand writer, James Haly, King’s Arms Exchange, Cork, 1801, p28.
  2. Hayes’s name has been spelt alternatively as Browne Hayes and Brown Hayes since the 18th century.
  3. The prosecutor at Hayes’s trial describing the nature of Pike’s abduction: Haly, p51.
  4. Charles H Bertie, ‘The story of Vaucluse House and Sir Henry Brown Hayes’, Australian Historical Society: Journal and Proceedings, vol 3, no 11, 1917, pp507–30, p510.
  5. J Roderick O’Flanagan, ‘History of the Munster Circuit’, Dublin University Magazine, 1833–1877, vol 87, no 522, 1876, pp690–711.
  6. The prosecutor at Hayes’s trial citing the criminal statute under which he was tried: Haly, p8.
  7. Kiera Lindsey, ‘“The Absolute Distress of Females”: Irish abduction and the British newspapers, 1800 to 1850’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, vol 42, no 4, pp625–44.
  8. Katie Barclay, ‘From rape to marriage: questions of content in eighteenth-century Britain’, in Anne Greenfield (ed), Interpreting sexual violence, 1660–1800, 2013, pp35–44, p38.
  9. Barclay, p38.
  10. Barclay, p38.
  11. Bertie, p510.
  12. T J McKenna, ‘Sir Henry Brown Hayes’, Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, vol 24, no 1, 1977, pp34–42.
  13. Haly, pp16–17.
  14. McKenna, p36.
  15. Bertie, p514.
  16. Bertie, p509.
  17. Bertie, p508.
  18. Turlough O’Riordan, ‘Pike, Mary,’ Dictionary of Irish Biography, https://doi.org/10.3318/dib.007339.v1
  19. ‘Deaths’, Carlow Sentinel, 28 April 1832.
  20. Haly, pp16–17.
  21. McKenna, p40.
  22. ‘Deaths’, Cork Constitution, 19 April 1832.

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Dr Paige Gleeson

Dr Paige Gleeson

Dr Paige Gleeson is an Australian colonial historian with a love of cultural, social and women’s history. Paige has a PhD in History and has worked on a number of publications and projects about the history of museums and their collections, including thylacine specimens, Australian Indigenous and Pacific cultural material, women convicts, anthropology and textiles.

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