This is the third chapter in the story of Thomas Eather, convict, farmer, husband and father – and my 4 x great-grandfather. You can read chapter one here and chapter two here.
In this chapter, Thomas meets Elizabeth Lee, a young woman from Lancashire in the west midlands of England, who was also transported to NSW as a convict. You can find the first part of Elizabeth’s story here. She is my 4 x great-grandmother.
When we left Thomas, he had arrived at Sydney Cove aboard the death ship Neptune, and wondering what lay ahead, now that he had survived that hellish voyage.
In 1791, Elizabeth arrived on the Third Fleet’s Mary Ann, wondering the same thing.
By the time the Third Fleet arrived, most new convicts were being sent to the little settlement of Rose Hill, later called Parramatta. It was here that Thomas and Elizabeth’s paths first crossed.
Thomas had been first assigned to work in Sydney Town, on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.
The area around the Cove, known as Warrane to the original inhabitants, had already been changed beyond recognition: the First Fleet arrivals had cut native trees and cleared vegetation, planted gardens and sown crops, erected shelters and trampled the sides of the waterway they dubbed the ‘Tank Stream’ to a muddy mess.
What Thomas and his companions from the Second Fleet saw was a muddle of uneven tracks between tents, a jealously guarded government storehouse, military huts, and rough shelters housing groups of convicts. A larger brick residence, set on a hill overlooking the harbour, was where the Governor lived. There was a burial ground and, of course, gallows—they were not allowed to forget that further crimes could be fatal. Having escaped the noose once, Thomas was not eager to test the limits of His Majesty’s mercy a second time.
It was a largely unplanned, chaotic space in which convicts were expected to labour to construct the site of their own imprisonment, shelter, and sustenance.
The Gadigal, and other Eora tribes around the new settlement, continued to fish in the harbour and its many coves and inlets; their slender bark canoes, or nowies, dotting the waters. They could often be seen walking around the township. Governor Phillip had issued orders that they were not to be harmed, and for the convicts and their guards, the dark skinned, often naked men and women had become a common sight.
With his experience of rural labouring work, Thomas was a good candidate for assignment to the government farms. Early attempts at farming around the settlement were only partly successful, and the Governor was keen to find land that could produce the quantities of grain crops needed for the colony’s survival.
There was talk in the camp about Rose Hill, later called Parramatta (from Burramattagal, the name of the first inhabitants.) Some said the new settlement promised better soils and more land to spread out. June 1790 saw Thomas working there on the government farm. He lived with other convicts in a large tent hut, one of several spread out like a barracks. Life was messy: convicts fought amongst themselves, some tried to evade the labour demanded of them. They had to prepare their own food from the paltry rations they were given. There were plenty who, unlike Thomas, had never worked on a farm or milked a cow.
During each long day they cleared the land, dug the soil, planted wheat and maize. It was exhausting work, all done by hand without aid of horses or bullocks. He was used to hard physical labour, although getting over the weakness and illness caused by six months on the Neptune slowed many of its survivors. Each man was expected to hoe or cultivate a set amount of land per day. There was a military guard to protect the farm from theft by convicts, or attack by the Burramattagal people, who were being squeezed out from their traditional country, sacred places, and livelihoods.
Once the Government farm began producing, they were allowed to labour for themselves for part of each day, after they’d completed their assigned workload. Gradually, Parramatta became the planned, secondary settlement which the Governor hoped would become more manageable, more civilised than Sydney.
The convicts did not care about civilised. There was always the threat that rations would be restricted again if the farms did not produce enough. The ‘slops’ clothing issued on the transports was now threadbare. They cared more about the quantity of meat, flour, tea and sugar they were allowed, and where they were to sleep at night. Any dreams for the future were secondary to the business of survival.
It was to this fledgling community that Elizabeth was sent. Given her previous work in Manchester, she would be assigned work as a servant to one of the officials or government employees. She’d spend her days working at cleaning, cooking, laundry work; whatever tasks she was directed to do by her master or mistress.
She met Thomas very soon after her arrival and they began living together. There were plenty of couples joined in ‘Botany Bay marriages’: either common law ones or bigamous ones (after all, the other spouse left behind in Britain could hardly protest.) Neither had been married before, and their union was genuine, even if they didn’t have a formal marriage record. And there were real advantages for both in becoming a couple.
For one thing, they were allowed to move to a small hut, rather than share the larger communal quarters reserved for single men and women. Being one of a couple gave each an ally, a support during continuing hard times. For Elizabeth, it also helped her move away from the label of ‘whore’ or ‘prostitute’ given to all the female convicts by many of the men in the convict huts—and by some officials, to whom they were either ‘married’ or ‘concubines.’
Both were young, unlikely to ever return home once they’d served their time. They had to establish a new future here. And the Governor and Reverend Johnson were forever encouraging folks to marry and live respectably.
They’d watched St John’s Church being built across from the military barracks, and it was here that their first child, Ann, was baptised in April 1793. Elizabeth had given birth in their tiny hut, panting through the pain of labour, with no more than another convict woman to offer words of encouragement and her hand to squeeze. And, like all female convicts, she had to manage pregnancies and childcare around her work duties.
The little girl was followed by a son, in April 1795. He was named Robert after his Heather grandfather back in Kent. (Robert is my 3 x great-grandfather.) Thomas had grown up with the family tradition of naming first-born sons Robert: it had been that way since the first Robert Heather made his home in Kent, long ago in the early seventeenth century.
They ignored the tales of escapees: convicts who stowed away on departing ships; made a run for the bush; or the Bryant couple who (with others, including a fellow Thomas knew from the Neptune) had escaped on a stolen government boat. Most escapees were recaptured, forced back to the settlement by thirst or starvation, or perished in the alien bushland. The Eathers were having none of it, preferring to keep out of trouble.
They’d remember 1797 for three reasons: Elizabeth completed her sentence and became a free woman; daughter Charlotte was born; and in recognition of good behaviour, Thomas was granted land in the Hawkesbury by Governor Hunter, who had replaced Arthur Phillip.[i] The couple could scarcely believe their good fortune. After their traumatic start in this strange, wild place, they could dare to begin to think about a future here.
To be continued
[i] The first of many land grants given to Newton ancestors. It’s important to remember: this was land that was not the Governor’s to give. It was the land of the original peoples of Australia, and was never ceded.
This is the seventh in the Travels with my Ancestors series. You may wish to read the first post for context. You can find it here.
I’m at Portsmouth, in Hampshire on England’s south coast, at the mouth of the Solent River.
It was from here that the first three fleets of convict transportation ships left England in 1787, 1790 and 1791 respectively. The fleets were made up of ships carrying convicts, male and female; plus officers, marines to guard the prisoners, and ships’ crew; along with one or two supply ships. Surprisingly, there were ‘private’ passengers aboard as well: people chancing it in the unknown of the colony, hoping to make money, to find adventure or sometimes, seeking anonymity after scandal or disgrace at home.
After those initial three fleets, transport ships set sail independently, at different times and from a variety of ports. It was all systems go for the British authorities, who could not wait to rid their country of their undesirables, the so-called ‘criminal class.’
Five of my ancestors were on ships of the Second and Third Fleets.
Life at sea in the eighteenth century was not for the faint-hearted. There was the ever-present risk of shipwrecks, generally resulting in terrible loss of life because most people could not swim.
Shipboard diseases and illnesses such as ‘ship fever’ (typhus), measles, influenza, scurvy, constipation or infection could bring death or disability.
It meant living for months in cramped spaces, sleeping in a hammock or uncomfortable narrow bunk, sharing those spaces with many others – with limited washing or laundering facilities and primitive toilets. Rations were monotonous at best, unless you were ship’s master or among the officers or upper-class passengers. Ship’s biscuit, salted beef or pork, rancid butter, hard cheese, and gruel or porridge, with a ration of ale, or spirits if you behaved yourself – and that was the lot of the crew and soldiers, who usually fared better than the prisoners.
For those travelling at His Majesty’s Pleasure below decks in the prisoners’ quarters, conditions were usually much worse.
Especially on the Second Fleet, the convicts’ lot was unspeakably bad. The British government made the mistake of paying the ships’ owners for every prisoner taken on board their ship – not the prisoners taken off at the other end. It’s obvious to see the problem here. Having pocketed the money for each convict shoved into the prisoner hold, the owners and captains had no financial incentive to ensure the wellbeing and safety of these men and women. In fact, there was a strong incentive NOT to do so. By skimping on rations, clothing, blankets, the captains could on-sell saved foods and other items when in port, at inflated prices.
One ship of the Second Fleet, the Neptune, was the worst of the fleet and later labelled the ‘death ship.’ The ship had been previously used as a slave ship, transporting enslaved people from West Africa to the Caribbean or the Americas. The ship’s master, Donald Traill, had captained the Neptune on those shameful voyages and proceeded to treat the new human cargo in the same way.
The end result was a shocking death toll, with many bodies jettisoned over the edge into the deep waters below. Those who did survive crawled, or had to be carried off, at Sydney Cove: emaciated, dressed in tattered rags, filthy, and covered in weeping sores.
Thomas Eather and WIlliam Roberts were among the survivors. One hundred and sixty years later, their descendants met and married: my father and mother. I am always in awe when I consider the odds against the possibility of such an outcome. Whatever their crimes that put them on that ship, those men were tough to have outlasted the months on the Neptune and then go on to prosper in the penal colony that was their new home.
The outcry about the conditions on the Second Fleet resulted in an improvement for subsequent transport ships, which meant that Elizabeth Lee and Isaac Cornwell had a somewhat better experience on the Third Fleet.
Having recently travelled back to Australia on an Airbus A380, I remember the feeling of being cramped in the small seats and worn out by the long flight. Then I remind myself to think of my convict ancestors. On the plane I was given a seat, was regularly fed, had clean toilets to use, fresh water to drink and cabin staff to bring me anything I needed. Apart from a few midair bumps and jolts, I did not suffer weeks of debilitating sickness due to the unaccustomed motion of the sea. I had no chores to do on the journey, nor did I have to worry about my fellow passengers’ emotional or violent outbursts or theft of my few, precious belongings from home.
So yes, I had it easy. Those people on the convict ships did not.
As I stand at the edge of the historic part of Portsmouth harbour, I look out at the blue-grey sea and sky, and down to the shingle on the beach below. There is a line of old buildings on one side of the harbour; small vessels dot the waters around the fully rigged ship on display. A fresh wind brings the tang of the sea as it blows across my face. How much of this did the convicts see or feel, once they had boarded their ship?
For those unfortunates on the Second Fleet vessels, the answer is not very much. Prisoners were kept below decks, chained together in twos or threes for most of the voyage, and I imagine that began as soon as they boarded, clanking along the deck in iron fetters.
For later voyages, prisoners were given regular time above deck, although with the risk of escape always foremost in the minds of authorities, that was often curtailed whilst in port.
As each ship drew anchor and slowly made its way out of the harbour, some would weep as the expanse of sea widened between them and their loved ones. Others remained dry-eyed as they had nothing to leave behind.
But for each and every convict, the thought that remained was this: What lay ahead at the end of this voyage?
I’m happy to know that for three of the four of my convict ancestors, what lay in store for them was a much better, healthier and more prosperous life in the colony.
Isaac Cornwell’s story did not have such a happy ending. On New Year’s Eve in 1810, he went to a celebration at the home of Patrick Hand at Richmond Hill (now called Agnes Banks.) Another local joined in the drinking until about 9 pm, when a violent argument broke out between the three men. Isaac was known for his hot temper, especially when drunk. One of the others armed himself with a musket. The night ended with Isaac lying dead with a musket ball in his head.
Which I think only goes to prove that alcohol and weapons are always a dangerous combination, no matter the era or the circumstances.
I am grateful that the other three survived and lived happier lives than they would have experienced had they remained in England. And very glad to have stood at the spot where those ships departed Portsmouth harbour, two hundred and thirty years ago.
One last thought: this monument, marking the sailing of the convict fleets from Portsmouth, makes me smile but also feel a wee bit astounded. It’s an ugly sculpture (in my humble opinion) but it is the wording on the plaque that stops me in my tracks.
This Monument commemorates the Sailing
from Spithead on the 13 May 1787
of the First Fleet Conveying Settlers to Australia
A Great Nation was Born
Where to begin with this one? Perhaps with the last line ‘A great nation was born.’ This ignores the fact that before English colonisation Australia was already home to several hundred First Nations. It reinforces the destructive legal fallacy of Australia being ‘terra nullius’ – empty land.
And ‘Settlers’? Yes, as mentioned above, there were some ‘free settlers’, voyaging to the colony of their own choosing. But the vast majority of those on board that First Fleet and all the transport ships that followed, were definitely not there from choice. Most of them did go on to settle in Australia once they had served their sentences, and they may well have been tempted to thumb their noses at the ‘mother country’ because their lives were a great deal better there than in England. Still. The choice of that single word – ‘settler’ – neatly obscures the suffering and trauma the convicts experienced. This is the power of language.
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All photos by the author.
I am a lover of history in all it’s forms, though I have sometimes wondered how my interest in Australian history survived my school years in the 1960’s and 70’s, with the dry recitations that passed for history back then. I learnt about early European explorers and their ‘discoveries’, the names of people – usually men – of note, something about the Depression and the World Wars. But not enough – not nearly enough – of the humans who populated these past eras – their strivings, motivations and follies. Where, oh where, were the dramas, the absurdities, the outrageous injustices and outright comedies, the incredible feats of resilience and courage that peppered our past?
In more recent years there have been some wonderful works of fiction and non-fiction that have brought this human part of history into sharper focus. From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories by Mark McKenna springs to mind, as do excellent podcasts such as Forgotten Australia by Michael Adams or The History Listen from ABC’s Radio National. Fled by Meg Keneally is a novel based on the astounding escape from Sydney by convict Mary Bryant; Esther by Jessica North tells the story of the woman who arguably managed and controlled one of NSW’s first large agricultural estates. And there is now, thankfully, plenty of literature to tell us the stories from indigenous Australia – non-fiction such as Archie Roach’s Tell Me Why and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu; and fiction, including this year’s Miles Franklin awarded The Yield by Tara June Winch.
Ten Rogues is subtitled The unlikely story of convict schemers, a stolen brig and an escape from Van Diemen’s Land to Chile. As the title promises, it is both a rollicking good tale, and a well-researched true- life adventure. The convict at the centre of the tale is Jimmy Porter, a man who must surely have possessed the proverbial ‘nine lives’ to have escaped the multiple death sentences he faced over his career as a criminal and teller of tall tales. The author acknowledges that Jimmy’s penchant for exaggeration and blurring the truth made the research more difficult (the book is based, in part, on judicious selection from Jimmy Porter’s own accounts of his actions, as well as other contemporary narratives, convict records and newspapers, and some additional delving in Chile.)
The book weaves all of these together with information on the history of convict transportation to Australia, the grim conditions in penal stations such as Tasmania’s Sarah Island, the historic links between the slave trade and transportation, and eighteenth and nineteenth century debates about crime, punishment and prison reform. It does so in a very readable way, because apart from anything else, the story of Jimmy Porter and his band of escapees is one of luck and misfortune, unwise choices, incredible feats of endurance and courage, and moments of humour and bravado, that might be seen as very unlikely, if they appeared in a work of fiction.
These are the stories from our past – the funny, the ugly, the tragic, the astounding – that for me, make history so irresistible. Read this book for a rollicking good tale and to learn more about Australia’s colonial and convict periods. It delivers both in an entirely absorbing package.
Ten Rogues was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020.
Peter Grose is the author of several other books about episodes in Australian history including A Very Rude Awakening (about the raid on Sydney harbour by Japanese mini-submarines during WWII) and An Awkward Truth (about the bombing of Darwin in 1942). These promise to be just as intriguing as Ten Rogues and are now on my Want To Read list.
What a rip-roaring tale this is! Based on the adventurous and tragic life of Mary Bryant, a convict in the First Fleet, this historical novel tells the story of Jenny Trelawney, a Cornish woman transported for ‘highway robbery’ on the First Fleet ship Charlotte.
Author Meg Keneally says in her author’s note that she chose to fictionalise her protagonist because it felt better to have a fictional character who could fully own her ‘thoughts, emotions and beliefs’. This speaks to how rare it is to find first person accounts by convict women. We have written records (journals, letters and so on) by privileged women, such as Governor Macquarie’s wife Elizabeth amongst others, but very few accounts by the less fortunate women who made the trip from England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland in the hold of a convict ship, rather than as free emigrants. I assume this is, in part, because many convict women could not read or write. Perhaps the expense of paper and ink was another barrier to recording their experiences. And I can also guess that the crowded, often damp convict quarters below decks would not have been kind to paper, had they been able to afford it.
Meg Keneally has done a sterling job of working with the historical records as they stand, and imagining the rest. She has changed some historical events and timelines to better fit her narrative.
We meet Jenny in her home town in Cornwall, coping with the death of her father and then of her baby brother, and her mother’s subsequent descent into depression, poverty and self neglect. Jenny begins thieving to support herself and provide food for her mother. And then she is caught, arrested, tried and sentenced. Off to the new colony of New South Wales, the great social and judicial experiment embarked on by England to rid itself of its ‘criminal class.’
Jenny is a not entirely sympathetic character, but we quickly begin to empathise with her and her situation. She falls pregnant to a man on the hulk she is imprisoned on before her transportation and so bears a daughter on the voyage to Australia, a girl named for the ship on which she is born. Jenny survives the horrors of the voyage and on arrival at Sydney Cove, almost immediately marries a convict. This was a choice made by many convict women – marriage offered some protection in an environment in which there was almost no duty of care shown by guards and officials towards the convicts.
Jenny and her husband Dan have a son, but little Emanuel is born into a colony facing starvation. Watching her children become thinner and weaker by the day, Jenny makes a decision – she and her husband must take the two little ones and escape. As they are both from Cornwall, skilled at fishing and boats, the logical escape route seems to be by the sea itself.
And that’s what they do – steal the government cutter and some supplies, and in the dark of night they sail out of Sydney Heads and set their course north. And here their adventures begin…as if they had not already had enough adventures for one lifetime!
I won’t give away any more of the plot, although if you know the original Mary Bryant’s story you can guess at much of the rest, with a few differences. It’s a tale of heroism, determination, tragedy and love, with some stupidity and cruelty thrown in. Another reminder of the dramas of our history – crammed full as it is with ordinary people facing the sorts of dangers and hardships that most of today’s Australians could only try to imagine.
How can someone be raised in a district and know so little about the stories of the people and places in its past?
I was born and raised in the Hawkesbury, arguably one of the most historically rich regions in Australia in terms of European settlement and early contact with our nation’s First Peoples. I learnt the basics in school of course, about Governor Macquarie’s ‘Five Towns’, of which Richmond was one.
Margaret arrived on the Nile in 1801, transported for escaping from gaol, after being imprisoned for stealing a horse (while dressed as a boy). Remarkably, she was one of the relatively rare convicts who could read and write, and exchanged many letters and gifts with her old employer in Sussex – from whom she had stolen the horse! There must have been a warm relationship between these two women, for the ostensibly wronged one to continue to write to an ex-employee who had stolen from her family. Even more remarkably, she kept Margaret’s letters, so historians have had the opportunity to learn about convict life and experiences at this time.
On a recent tour organised by the Hawkesbury Historical Society, I had the opportunity to discover Margaret and walk around the spots where she lived and worked.
You can check out the Historical Society’s website here: https://www.hawkesbury.net.au/
Margaret worked for some of the most prominent English settlers around the Hawkesbury, for whom many roads and other features are named: the Dight, Pitt, Faithful, Skinner and Wood families. She delivered babies, cared for small children, cooked, nursed sick family members, and performed many other tasks for her assigned masters and mistresses. She apparently made several trips into Parramatta or Sydney from the Hawkesbury – on foot. No mean feat considering the distance, the dangers and the isolation at that time.
She also helped save several members of the Dight family, helping them to the roof of their cottage on the Richmond lowlands during the devastating flood of 1806.
She eventually received a pardon in 1814. She was 58 years old by then and sadly only lived another five years as a free woman. She is buried in the first cemetery established in Richmond, across from St Peters church. The mystery surrounding her actual burial site is another aspect of her story, one that continues to intrigue today.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Margaret (or someone very much like her) might become a character in my next fiction project, which will be set in the Hawkesbury district.
The ‘Monsarrat series’ comprises three books (at time of this post):
The Soldier’s Curse, The Unmourned, The Power Game
No surprise that I was drawn to this series – they are, to date, three novels of historical fiction, set in several different locations in convict era Australia. Another draw card was the fact that they were co-written. I’ve always been a little fascinated by how the co-authoring process works, and this is an intriguing father and daughter team: well loved Australian author Tom Keneally and his daughter Meg. If I had the chance, I’d love to sit down with the authors and find out more. Who writes which bits? Which of them comes up with the initial ideas? Do they meet physically to discuss, plan and plot their stories, or is it an online or Skype process?
The stories centre around Hugh Monsarrat, who we first meet at Port Macquarie penal colony in NSW, while he is serving out his sentence for fraud, in the early part of nineteenth century NSW. Hugh is an educated man whose intelligence and aspirations outstripped his means, tempting him to pass himself off as a lawyer in England. His deception is discovered and he is shipped off to NSW on a convict transport.
The books take the form of classic “whodunnits”, as for one reason or another, Hugh is tasked with solving murders that occur where he happens to be: Port Macquarie in book one, the Parramatta Female Factory in book two, and Maria Island (off Tasmania’s coast) in book three. There are plenty of opportunities for guesswork by the reader, with red herrings planted throughout, and various characters having their own reasons to commit a murder.
A truly delightful character who appears in each book is Mrs Mulroony, a forthright Irish woman who has already served her sentence and becomes Hugh’s offsider. Mrs Mulroony is a woman of many talents, including skillful tea making and shortbread baking, to which she adds a fierce intelligence and the ability to accurately read people and situations – usually much more astutely than Hugh himself.
The books have a droll humorous tone, with believable characters and intriguing story lines. What I also enjoyed is their examination of the social, economic and political forces at play in colonial times, and the way in which these impact on the various characters.
If you are looking for well written historical fiction set in early Australia, peopled by characters you can fall in love with, you won’t be disappointed in these stories.I read that the books have been optioned for a TV series and very much hope that will eventuate.