Travels with my ancestors 3: Elizabeth Lee – Lancashire Lass
This is the third post in the Travels With My Ancestors series. If you’ve not read the first post to give context to the series, you can find it here.
On a July morning in 1791, a signal went up on the south head of Sydney harbour, indicating that a sail had been sighted. People ran down to watch as the Mary Ann berthed in Sydney Cove. The signal created great excitement because the new arrival promised more supplies to hold off food shortages in the faltering penal colony of New South Wales, Australia. Mary Ann was the first to arrive of the eleven ships of the Third Fleet that set sail from England for the colony. Along with provisions such as barrels of flour, beef, and pork, she carried convicts: 141 women and 6 children.
Elizabeth Lee was among those on board. Born and raised in Lancashire, she’d worked for a woman named Elizabeth Buckley in Manchester, either as a domestic servant or shop assistant.
In 1789 things went badly wrong for her when she stole a grey cloak valued at sixpence from her mistress. If she’d hoped to sell it for coin, luck was not with her. She was caught, and in January the following year, she pleaded guilty at the Manchester Epiphany Quarter sessions, at the Royal Cotton Exchange building at St Ann’s Square.
Her sentence was transportation for seven years to ‘some parts beyond the seas.’ What did that mean? Where would she be taken? At just seventeen, she was friendless, facing an uncertain and frightening future.
Elizabeth was my 4 x great-grandmother.
In April 2023 I set off on a family history tour of England, accompanied by my husband Andy and our friend Anita. Manchester was the first place to explore: where Elizabeth had lived, work, and where she committed her crime.
I found the location where once stood the first iteration of the Royal Cotton Exchange, a grand building where the serious business of buying and selling cotton was done in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It also housed the court rooms where the equally serious business of dispensing British justice was conducted. Two years after Elizabeth’s trial, the original Cotton Exchange was demolished to make way for a new building. Today the building is the home of the Royal Exchange Theatre.
Gazing up at the imposing structure, it occurred to me that there was a relationship between the two purposes of the original Cotton Exchange. One was for wealthy merchants and traders to generate profit from the resources produced by the labour of enslaved people in the West Indies and America. The other was to punish those outside the system of capitalism that flourished alongside colonialism, the slave trade and the Industrial Revolution.
Poor people, young women such as Elizabeth, had no place in that system. They were despised, mistrusted by their social and economic ‘betters’, regarded as the criminal class by those in authority. Having stolen from her employer, she was in the court to have her position in the world firmly marked out for all to see.
I don’t know much about her family or her early life. If she had parents and siblings still alive, they would have been unable to see her again, because from Manchester she was taken north to Lancaster, where she spend a long year imprisoned in the Castle on the hill, overlooking the River Lune.
Approaching the forbidding dark walls of the Castle’s gate, she would have been gripped by a deep foreboding and a fear that she may never re-emerge from it.
The Castle operated as a prison until 2011. It is a melange of stone building styles from the eleventh and twelfth centuries to the Victorian era, during which parts were built, demolished, added or altered.
In Elizabeth’s time, the Castle prison was crowded, with poor hygiene and rations. Punishments for disobedience were harsh; sometimes involving pointless, soul-destroying labour such as the treadmill. The year she spent there dragged slowly, months feeling like decades.
At last, with February frosts nipping at fingers and toes, she was taken with other women from the Castle on a long journey south to London, to Gravesend on the Thames. Here she was rowed out to a sailing ship, the Mary Ann, where she had the first sight of the below-deck quarters where she would sleep, wash and eat, for however long it took to sail to that far-away place that would be her next prison.
When the Mary Ann shipped anchor, she thought this would be it: her last moments within sight of England. But no: they sailed out of the Thames, then south and west to Portsmouth, where the ships of the Third Fleet gathered in readiness.
The Mary Ann sailed from Portsmouth on 23 February 1791. Just two days out, Elizabeth and her companions experienced their first storm at sea. Women were washed out of their beds by the force of water that poured in between decks. Fully expecting to perish in the violence of the towering waves, frightened prisoners prayed amid the shrieks and wails of their companions. The howl of the gale outside echoed their despair. A full day and night later, the wind and rain eased and the voyage continued. [i]
Captained by Mark Munro, the ship battled through the difficulties of weather, long periods without supplies of fresh food, and all the other challenges of a lengthy voyage. She made good time, and when she berthed at Sydney Cove, only four of the convicts on board had died.
Several residents of Sydney Town, including Captain Watkin Tench of the marines, had rowed out excitedly to meet the ship before it entered the harbour. From their quarters, the convicts heard the shouts of the visitors climbing aboard the ship. Eager questioning turned to disappointment when they learned that not only had the vessel brought less food than hoped for and more mouths to feed, but that no one on board had thought to bring any mail, or newspapers, or a single magazine. [ii]
Most of the women waiting to see what this place would be like had little interest in newspapers. But they thought of the homes they had left, and the people and places they would never see again, and wept.
[i] Description of the storm from a letter written by convict Mary Talbot, published in The London Times on 15 Feb 1791.
[ii] Watkin Tench, ‘A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson’ in 1788, Text Publishing, p205
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