In The Nutmeg of Consolation and The Truelove/Clarissa Oakes, the practice of transportation as punishment for crimes committed in Britain forms the background for the action of the novels. Transportation was, in essence, a life sentence of exile, as the transports had very little chance of ever seeing home again. In some cases the convicts used their punishment to build a new life, a better life than they’d had in Britain.
The Truelove/Clarissa Oakes also touches on the plight of women in such penal colonies, and their struggles for survival. The following article is a companion to a show on PBS called Secrets of the Dead: The Voyage of the Courtesans and gives much more detail on the practice of transportation as well as telling the stories of three women who took a sentence of exile and turned it into their salvation.
At the turn of the 18th century, London, England was both a bustling metropolis and a dark and desperate place. With a population of 800,000 people, London was the largest city in Europe and home to the wealthiest subjects of the British Empire, but it also contained a large population of poor and indigent citizens who sought to eke out a living on the city’s mean streets. In the 1780s, many poor Londoners were confined to the city’s overflowing jails under Georgian England’s “Bloody Code,” which created some 250 capital statutes that were punishable by death or “transportation to lands beyond the seas.” When, under “Mad” King George III, the English crown lost America to the revolutionaries, it lost more than political power and the New World’s valuable resources — it also lost an important dumping ground for English convicts. As its prisons continued to fill beyond capacity, Britain was forced to seek a solution to the problem of its overflowing jails.
In 1788, British Home Secretary Lord Sydney launched the “First Fleet” under the command of Governor Phillip, shipping some 759 convicts and 13 children of convicts along with marines, seamen, merchants and officials as well as sheep, cows, and seed to Australia to create Botany Bay penal colony in present-day Sydney. Upon arrival, Governor Phillip found that Botany Bay lacked both green fields and a water supply. It was also too exposed for ships. So he sailed up the coast into Sydney Harbor and settled at Sydney Cove. The cove had a much bigger natural harbor and its own water supply.
The new colony struggled from the start. Diseases like scurvy and dysentery had taken a toll on the settlers even before they had arrived, and food rations quickly began to run low. To make matters worse, the settlers were inexperienced farmers and lacked sufficient labor, so their crops were meager and they lost much of their livestock. Distraught, the colonists turned their anger toward the local aboriginal peoples and, in the summer of 1789, a Botany Bay marine was accused of raping an eight-year-old girl. Reports of such atrocities as well as the colonist’s difficulties soon reached Lord Sydney’s right-hand man, British Home Under-Secretary Evan Nepean.
Nepean decided that, in order for the new colony to prosper, it would need more than just increased provisions and supplies — it would need the stability created by more women, children, and families. To this end, Nepean ordered a shipment of female convicts to immediately be sent to Sydney Cove and “upon landing, promote a matrimonial connection to improve morals and secure settlement.”
In response to Nepean’s command, 225 female thieves, prostitutes, con artists, and some five infants were rounded up from prisons in London and the English countryside to be shipped off to the failing Sydney Cove colony aboard the Lady Juliana. For the English government, the female convicts were to serve two purposes: to prevent the starving and isolated male colonists from engaging in “gross irregularities” and to act as a breeding stock for the troubled settlement.
The Lady Juliana left the shores of England the first week in July 1789. Its ten-month journey would take it through the Canary Islands and to Cape Verde, then on to Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town before arriving at Sydney Cove. The women slept in the orlop deck, just above the ship’s bilge, which contained the ship’s holding water, human waste, and remnants of food. Despite such hardships, the ship’s conditions may have seemed preferable to many of the women compared with those they had left behind in London’s prisons. For some of these women, the journey to Sydney Cove itself offered an opportunity for them to better their positions.
Women who became “wives” of crewmembers aboard the ship could get access to better provisions and sleeping arrangements. Some women, like Elizabeth Barnsley — a wealthy and successful shoplifter convicted of theft — used their money and influence to procure better lodging and even to create business opportunities on the ship. Prostitution was not unusual in Georgian England or within the shipping industry, and the Lady Juliana soon became something of a “floating brothel.” Crewmembers and, possibly, some of the ship’s female cargo profited from the sex trade in various ports of call, and money earned from prostitution could in turn be used to gain influence on the ship or upon arrival at Sydney Cove.
After ten months at sea, the Lady Juliana arrived at the desperate, starving Sydney Cove colony. They did not receive a warm reception. The colonists had expected food and supplies — not a cargo of over 200 women and as many as seven newborn infants — and they made their disappointment clear to the women of the Lady Juliana. However, the colonists’ ire eased after the supply ships Justinian, Surprize, Neptune, and Scarborough arrived in Sydney Cove just three weeks after the Lady Juliana. For their part, many of the women convicts experienced a newfound sense of freedom at Sydney Cove. Freed from the strictures of traditional society and class, these women saw their new home as a chance to create a new life for themselves — a life filled with unprecedented opportunities.
Over 200 years later, three contemporary Australian women set out to unravel the stories of how their ancestors came to be aboard the Lady Juliana: Helen Phillips, a senior Anglican minister for the diocese of Tasmania,is a descendant of a prostitute named Rachel Hoddy; Delia Dray, a sheep farmer and senior government horticulturist, traces her lineage back to Ann Marsh, who was convicted of stealing a bushel of wheat; and Meagen Benson, a successful bank communications manager, is a distant relative of Mary Wade, a destitute 11-year-old street urchin who was sentenced to death for stealing another child’s clothes. Using old court records, newspaper archives, shipping logs, and excerpts from an account of the Lady Juliana’s voyage set down by ship steward John Nicol, the three women find out just how their ancestors came to be imprisoned and transported to Australia, and what became of them once they reached the failing colony.
Ms. Phillips, Ms. Dray, and Ms. Benson ultimately discover that, despite being branded “criminals” and being exiled from their native country, their ancestors and many of the 225 women aboard the Lady Juliana were also the founding mothers of Australia. After becoming the colony’s midwife and serving out the remainder of her sentence, Elizabeth Barnsley is thought to have earned enough money to purchase her passage back to England. In 1823, Rachel Hoddy applied for a license to sell liquor, beer, and wine and became the only woman in Hobart Town to operate a pub, “The Horse and Groom.” Ann Marsh became Australia’s first great female entrepreneur founding the Parramatta River Boat Service, which still runs today. And by the time she died at 87, Mary Wade had become Australia’s greatest matriarch, heading a five generation family with more than 300 members.
Clues and Evidence
When Meagen Benson began researching her genealogy, all she knew was that she was a descendent of a female convict named Mary Wade, who had been transported from Great Britain to Australia. She knew nothing of her ancestor’s age, the crime she had been convicted of, or her legacy. The circumstances were identical for Helen Phillips — a distant relative of Rachel Hoddy — and Delia Dray — whose ancestor was Ann Marsh. To their surprise, Benson, Phillips, and Dray all found that with just a name and a date, it was possible for them to trace the astounding details of the lives of their forebears.
The Old Bailey and Newgate Prison
On January 14, 1789, eleven-year-old Mary Wade appeared before London’s Old Bailey court and was convicted of assaulting eight-year-old Mary Phillips and stealing her clothes. Sentencing her to death, the judge in Mary’s case stated that she and her accomplice’s crime was, “equivalent to holding a pistol to the breast of a grown person; therefore, I cannot state it to be any thing less than robbery; the consequence of that is, that they must answer it with their lives.”
Mary Wade was sent to Newgate Prison, one of London’s most notorious jails and a holding place for criminals awaiting “transportation” from Great Britain or facing death. Mary would have entered the prison through an underground tunnel that blocked out all natural light. Once inside, she would have been housed in one of a series of dark, wet, vermin-infested cells that were breeding grounds for diseases such as typhus. With over 750 men, women, and children contained within its walls — over twice its capacity — Newgate Prison was also severely overcrowded. Mary would have had the option of paying for a blanket or the privilege of sleeping on a wooden ramp at one end of the cell where she would have been slightly removed from the rats. But given that she was still a child, Mary likely slept on the floor huddled with the other poor female prisoners.
One of Mary’s fellow prisoners was prostitute Rachel Hoddy. Hoddy had stood trial at the Old Bailey on June 25, 1788 and had been sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing the clothes of her inebriated client, Nimrod Blampin. She, like Mary Wade and hundreds of other convicted criminals, had been sent to Newgate Prison in order either to wait for a ship to remove them from England or to take their final trip to the gallows. But neither woman could have guessed what fate had in store for her, or that her own journey would be retraced by her distant relatives over 200 years later.
Historical Records and Newspaper Archives
What became of Mary Wade and how did she, along with Rachel Hoddy and Ann Marsh, end up on the Lady Juliana? For Meagen Benson and Helen Phillips, the descendents of Mary Wade and Rachel Hoddy, the first steps to unlocking the mysteries of their ancestors were to be found in the archives of the Old Bailey’s court proceedings — found online and at The Guildhall Library and The British Library. From over 100,000 records compiled from 1674 to 1834, the two women were able to locate trial summaries, court transcripts, and images of the original court records from Wade and Hoddy’s trials at the Old Bailey.
Once Benson and Phillips had uncovered how their ancestors became convicted criminals, their search led them on to other sources. In the archives of the LONDON TIMES — one of the world’s most important historical records — Meagen Benson discovered why Mary Wade, who was originally sentenced to death, had instead been sent to the Sydney Cove colony. On March 11, 1789, “Mad” King George III was proclaimed cured of an unnamed madness — today, it is assumed that he suffered from porphyria, a degenerative mental disease. Five days later, in the spirit of celebration, all women on death row, including Mary Wade, had their sentences commuted to transportation. Wade was subsequently put aboard the Lady Juliana, the first convict ship to hold a cargo made up entirely of women and children.
Little was known about Ann Marsh and her crime other than that she was from Exeter and had been convicted of stealing a bushel of wheat. But Delia Dray was able to find the first important clue to Marsh’s story in a copy of the Lady Juliana’s manifest. The ship’s original manifest — kept at the State Library in Sydney, Australia — lists the names of all the female convicts aboard the ship, their ages, and their towns of origin. Dray found an entry for her ancestor in the manifest as “Marsh, Ann / Age: 21 / Town of Origin: Exeter.”
John Nicol’s Memoir
The Lady Juliana’s female convicts’ stories were never recorded, but ship steward John Nicol’s memoir contained one chapter dedicated to his time aboard the Lady Juliana. His book, THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF JOHN NICOL, MARINER, recently reprinted in Australia, provides a respectful description of the ship’s journey and significant insights into its female passengers’ crimes and characters. Nicol described life onboard the ship and the ways in which the women were pressured to use sex to improve their situation and status. He details the difficult conditions the women were forced to endure during the long journey and the extreme seasickness that overtook the female passengers as they left England’s shores. But Nicol also notes that some luxuries were afforded to the women, even if they were primarily little more than efforts to safeguard the ship’s human cargo. The women were provided clothes, the services of a doctor, and guaranteed food and drink. Nicol also writes of how many sailors and officers took a “wife” on the journey and records the birth of seven babies aboard the Lady Juliana, including one to he and his own “wife,” Sarah Whitelam.
Using court records, the Lady Juliana’s manifest, and newspaper archives, the 21st-century women — Meagen Benson, Helen Phillips, and Delia Dray — were able to piece together the fates of their banished ancestors. Viewing a September 29, 1823 copy of the HOBART TOWN GAZETTE, Phillips learned that a license had been granted to Rachel Williams (formerly Hoddy) to sell liquor, wine, and beer in Hobart Town. To her surprise, Dray discovered that her ancestor Ann Marsh had founded the Parramatta River Boat Service, a line that still runs today. In the Sydney archives, Dray also found a copy of an unusual letter Marsh had written to the Governor of the Sydney Cove colony in 1811 requesting the services of a manservant to help operate her successful business. Benson was able to find out little more about Mary Wade until she uncovered her ancestor’s 1859 obituary in a local newspaper. The death notice stated that Wade had died at 87 years of age at her son’s residence. She is credited with being the matriarch of one of the largest families in the world, which grew to include five generations and over 300 descendents in her lifetime. She died highly esteemed and widely known throughout the colony.
Courtesy of PBS.
Image: Men of War, Bound for the Port of Pleasure (1791), artist unknown. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading: