This is the second chapter in the story of Thomas Eather, convict, farmer, husband and father – and my 4 x great-grandfather. You can read chapter one here.
November, 1789: Gravesend, on the Thames
It would soon be called the ‘death ship’ or the ‘hell ship.’ Of course, Thomas Eather didn’t know this and nor did his shackled companions as they stood on the Gravesend dock, waiting to be rowed out to board the transport ship. From a distance, it appeared to be an improvement on Maidstone gaol, where he was first incarcerated, and the rotting Thames hulk where he’d been imprisoned for six months. Breathing the salty air was a relief after the fug of the hulk. Grey and white birds wheeled and squawked above his head, as if boasting of their freedom. Then he was on the rowboat and the Neptune drew closer with every pull of the sailors’ oars. It was impossible to tell what lay in store.
For fourteen months, he had languished in Maidstone Gaol, before being moved to a hulk on the Thames River. On the Justitia, he experienced a sort of living death. Derelict, unseaworthy ships, the hulks were tied up and converted into prisons where convicts slept and ate. Every day he was rowed out with the others to undertake back breaking work in the dockyards, or dredging gravel from the stinking river mud. At sunset he returned to the hulk, where he ate, then dropped into an exhausted sleep. At daybreak, he did it all over again.
Now, in mid-November 1789, he had his first sight of the Neptune. It was a large ship, square rigged, with three masts. When he’d clambered up the ladder, he could see the river from a new vantage point. Hard to imagine being at sea on such a vessel, but what would he know? He’d never left his native Kent. That moment between climbing onto the ship and being directed below decks, was the last chance for the prisoners to breathe fresh air and see the skies, until they reached their destination—if they survived, that is.
Then he and the others were sent down to the convict prison deck. He stumbled below into the belly of the ship, and heavy leg irons were again clamped around his ankles. It was hard to move. No room to stretch out, anyway, with pairs of convicts chained together in the cramped cells with one thin blanket each. Already, bitter wintry draughts probed into aching bodies. All around him it was dark, airless, and stank of stale bodies, piss, and dread.
No, the Neptune was no better than the gaol and hulk. What lay ahead for him and his fellow prisoners?
Shackled with short bolts at the ankles and chained together, he shared a cell with three to five others. While the business of loading supplies went on, all he knew of it were the noises that penetrated down to the prison: the thud of water barrels across the deck, shouts of the crew, banging and clattering of equipment being hoisted up the ship’s sides.
When the Neptune began to move out of the mouth of the Thames to shelter at the Downs, just off the coast, he could see nothing of the outside world. The ship made its slow way south to Plymouth, then to Portsmouth, where it joined two other transports that sailed in the Second Fleet.
In Portsmouth, the unfortunate prisoners stayed for nearly a month, buffeted by cold westerly winds. Lying on the damp grimy floor, the government-issue clothing did little to protect from the chill. Shirts and waistcoats were of coarse linen or canvas ‘duck’ cloth, less snug than wool. Rations of thin gruel and bread did little to warm the stomach. In any case, stomachs began to heave as the ship finally left the shelter of port in January 1790, heading down the English Channel and out into the rough seas of the Atlantic.
There were no portholes in their deck and the convicts were rarely allowed above, so Thomas could not watch the coastline of his homeland fade into the distance. But there were changes in the ship’s movements. The waters below the hull were deeper and more turbulent; the creaking and clanking of ropes and rigging above and around them somehow wilder, less rhythmic.
If his experience so far had been difficult, it was here that the real nightmare began. The bitter cold was replaced by stifling heat and humidity as the Neptune crossed the Equator. Sweat ran down backs under the coarse clothing, and beaded filthy foreheads. The air was thick, dense with moisture, harder to breathe in the close confines of the prisoners’ deck. A stop in port at Cape Town gave relief from the swells of the high seas, and a renewed supply of fresh water, but not increased rations.
The Neptune 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.
For this Second Fleet, 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 well-being 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.
For days, weeks, months, the prisoners lay in their own mess. Time compressed, then drew out into eternity. How long had they been at sea? Who could tell? Most prisoners had few opportunities to move, to feel sunlight or fresh air on skin, or to wash. The stink was overwhelming. Along with the odour of filthy human bodies and matted hair, came the smell of rotting teeth and gums, as scurvy set in, due to the poor diet. Lice tormented skin with itches and bites that could not be soothed.
As fresh water supplies dwindled on the long run from the Cape of Good Hope to New South Wales, thirst was a daily anguish.
If Thomas had had enough coins, he might have been able to purchase fresh water, extra rations, or clothing, from the crew’s black market. As it was, he had to hope that they would reach their destination before illness or starvation took him.
When storms lashed the ship, the turbulence upended toilet buckets while sea water sloshed through the deck, soaking prisoners, clothing, and bedding. The contaminated water lingered, infecting open sores and weakened bodies. Cold southern temperatures added to the misery. Then ship’s fever swept through both crew and convicts.
When a prisoner died, his partner in chains stayed quiet about it, so that he could grab the deceased’s rations and if he were quick, their blanket. Eventually, the death was discovered by the crew and the corpse tipped unceremoniously into the deep. Had Thomas counted, he’d have tallied forty-six such deaths before Cape Town—but there were far more after.
By the time the Neptune made its way through the heads at Port Jackson in June 1790, 147 male and 11 female convicts had died—one in every three convicts on board.
A crowd of people gathered to watch as the ships unloaded their human cargo at Sydney cove. These were among the first newcomers to arrive since the First Fleet had made landfall eighteen months earlier: hopes were high for new supplies to ward off starvation. Nothing could have prepared the onlookers for what they saw that day.
Thomas and other survivors stumbled, crawled, or were carried onto dry land. Eyes that had not seen daylight for half a year squinted painfully in the bright Sydney sun. Their skeletal forms, snarled hair and inflamed skin gave the wretched men and women an almost inhuman appearance. Some died on the boats that brought them to shore and were ruthlessly tossed onto the rocks. Those not yet dead but suffering from fever, scurvy, weeping wounds and other complaints, were carried to the hospital. The air rang with the clanging of hammer on metal as tents were hastily erected beside the hospital building on the western arm of the cove, to accommodate the extra sick bodies.
Amongst those watching as the prisoners were brought to land—the convicts hardened by their own sufferings, military men, and government officials—were those who wept at the pitiful sight.
Thomas had survived his ordeal. What was next?
To be continued.
AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia, AIATSIS Canberra, 1996
Flynn, Michael; The Second Fleet 1790: Britain’s Grim Armada, Library of Australian History, 1993
Karskens, Grace; The Colony, Allen & Unwin, 2010
Keneally, Thomas, Australians: A Short History, Allen & Unwin 2016
Historical Records of Australia series 1 vol 1 1788-1796, p189. Via Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/historicalrecord00v1aust/page/188/mode/2up?q=189. Accessed July 2023
St Pierre, John; The Eather Family: 200 Years in Australia 1790-1990, vol 1, The Eather Family History Committee, 1990
I am in Kent, in the southeast of England. There are two villages and one town I’m here to see. All three places are related to the story of my Heather/ Eather ancestors, my paternal grandmother’s forebears, who lived in this little corner of England from the 1600’s.
Robert Heather and his wife Mary moved to the village of Chislehurst in about 1640. Together they had a daughter and five sons; each successive generation naming their eldest son Robert. For over twelve decades the Heathers were baptised, married and buried at St Nicholas’ church in the village.
Today that church stands sturdily, overlooking the expansive Chislehurst Common, a swathe of green within the suburban landscape of southeast London that has overlaid the village of yesteryear. The Common is threaded with quiet walking paths through stands of spreading oaks. Squirrels scamper up trees as I pass, a spring chorus of birds follows me through this timeless place.
A strange circular depression in the grass is a puzzle – a former pond? A bomb crater from the war? – until I see a small plaque labelling it as ‘Chislehurst Cockpit’. I have an awful feeling that I know what this was.
Later, I google it and my suspicion is confirmed – it is a leftover from the days when village pastimes were bloodier and more violent than today’s football or cricket matches. Cockfighting, single stick fighting and other such entertainments were pursued there until banned by more squeamish authorities in Victorian times.
Now to the church. St Nicholas has stood since the 15th century, though the site has seen worship for over a thousand years. The Norman font is still in use today: all those Heather babies baptised with water from its stone basin. When I look closer, I notice a very sweet modern addition: a garland of knitted babies’ booties and tiny socks around its base.
I stand at the altar, where I imagine successive Robert Heathers and their brides reciting their wedding vows. Were their eyes fixed on the embroidered tapestry or intricate carving behind the Reverend? Unable to read, they may have enjoyed the storytelling in these artworks.
The Heathers were not wealthy, too poor to have afforded a stone monument to mark the life and death of one of their number. Many Heather bones lie beneath the soil in the churchyard; if they once had a simple wooden cross to mark their places, they have long since rotted away. But the earth here has been enriched by the blood and bone of generations of the Heathers.
In Maidstone, I want to find the place where one of the Heather sons, Thomas, was tried, sentenced and imprisoned in 1788. I have researched the town’s history and learnt that the Court House and Gaol were once in what today is the Town Hall.
When I get there, I am disappointed to find the doors firmly closed and locked. This I had not anticipated. Then I notice a small old-fashioned doorbell with a sign above it that reads ‘Please ring.’ Should I? I decide that yes, I should: I am here for this one day; my only chance to see where these events played out. So I press the button. Nothing happens.
I swallow my disappointment and am about to turn away, when I notice a more modern-looking button. I press it. Long moments pass, before a young man pops his head around the door.
Quickly I say, ‘I’m from Australia, and an ancestor of mine was tried and imprisoned here. I was hoping to see the place where this happened.’
He hesitates, then smiles. ‘I was just about to do the fire drill, but I’ve got a few minutes. Come on in.’
Scarcely believing my luck, I follow him inside and up a flight of stairs to a large room where, he tells me, the local council meetings now take place. High on the wall at one end of the room is a plaque with the insignia of British justice, and the young man, whose name is Russell, tells me that it was here that judges meted out punishment to those who, like Thomas, had broken the law.
I can imagine it: Thomas in the dock, the bewigged judge stern-faced on a high bench above him. Thomas’ crime had not been a trivial one: he was accused of ‘Highway Robbery’, having stolen goods from a man on a road while brandishing a weapon – a hoe? A pick? Or even a musket or pistol? The place where this happened was very possibly a road near the same Chislehurst Common I recently walked across.
Whether he knew it or not, this was one of the many offences that attracted the Death penalty. Thomas would hang.
He was taken to a cell, which is where Russell and I now go. Up a flight of narrow stairs, through a heavy door with a small square peephole cut into its thickness. What was once a gaol cell is now an empty room. In places, letters and dates have been carved into the the bare walls and floor – this is Georgian-era graffiti by educated prisoners who could write.
I ask Russell how many prisoners would be accommodated in this room.
‘Up to sixty, at times,’ he tells me. ‘Men, women and children.’
Fortunately for Thomas (and his descendants) he did not hang. His death sentence was commuted to a term of transportation: fourteen years across the seas in the new penal colony of New South Wales. He spent a total of two years in that cell in Maidstone, before being transferred to one of the prison hulks on the Thames in London.
Then in 1789 he was on board the prison ship Neptune, bound for Sydney. He survived that voyage on the worst ship of the worst convict fleet to leave Britain – but that is a whole other story.
For now, I am grateful that he made it to Australia, and that I pressed that bell at the Maidstone Town Hall in order to see where these life changing events took place.
PS. If you are wondering how Thomas Heather became Thomas Eather, imagine this: You have just been disembarked at Sydney after a hellish voyage, and a pasty-faced clerk demands your name, quill poised over a ledger book. In your Kentish accent, you reply ‘Thomas Heather’, dropping the ‘h’ as you always do. What the clerk hears and records is ‘Thomas Eather.’ And so the Australian Eather family has his origins in a dropped ‘aitch.’