Travels with my Ancestors #7: From where the fleets sailed
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.
They were Thomas Eather, William Roberts, Elizabeth Lee, William Eaton and Isaac Cornwell. You can read a little about those underlined by clicking the links on their names.
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.
Travels with my Ancestors #6: Kick-ass Jane-The Longhurst and Roberts families
Tiny Ewhurst, a village in a narrow parish in the south of Surrey, was almost left off the Travels with Ancestors itinerary. I had somehow forgotten to include this, the birthplace of Jane Longhurst, my 4 x great-grandmother, who I can only describe as my most ‘kick-ass’ ancestor. Fortunately my ever-patient husband and our travelling companion are willing to do a small detour on our way east, towards Kent.
We reach the village after navigating roads that steadily decrease in width, the closer we come to it. It takes a steady nerve to drive along England’s tiny rural lanes and byways, but Andy does a good job as tour driver.
Unlike many of my ancestors, as far as I can tell, Jane was not born into poverty. The Longhursts were an established family in the district; probably not wealthy, but her father may have owned some land, as he appeared on a voter registration list for Ewhurst. In the 1700’s only people who owned property were eligible to vote.
For whatever reason, Jane was tried and convicted of a crime that earned her the sentence of seven years’ transportation. Rather surprisingly, though there are records of her trial and sentence, details of her actual crime have not yet surfaced – but I live in hope of uncovering this one day.
She was born about 1783 in Ewhurst, and baptised at the church of St Peter and St Paul in the village. That is my first port of call, because it’s the one definite pinpoint in England that I have for her.
Before leaving Australia, I had made contact with many of the parish churches I hoped to visit, to check on opening hours and so on. I was put in touch with a local woman, Janet, an active member of the local historical society. She is kind enough to meet me at the church and show me around, giving so much rich detail about the village’s history in the process. Janet wrote the History Society’s Guide and History of St Peter & St Paul, so she is a perfect companion for this visit.
The oldest part of the church dates from Norman times, and Janet points out the distinctive Norman use of rough stone rubble and pieces of red Roman-era tile, that were frequently reused in later buildings. Other parts of the church were added, built or rebuilt over subsequent years, much of it after Jane’s time there. But I am able to photograph the church and its baptismal font, certain that baby Jane’s tiny head was wet with water from here at her baptism in March, 1783.
Out in the lush churchyard, Janet points out the ancient, spreading yew tree, sheltering a number of old headstones that are too weathered to read. A lower churchyard has at least 83 species of wildflowers, and grass cutting is carefully timed to allow different species the chance to set seeds and flower. A monument with stone wings seems to stand as guardian angel over the place.
Jane’s father and grandfather were likely buried in this churchyard, though possibly in different sections. Her grandfather, James, would have been laid to rest in the ‘respectable’ part of the churchyard, whereas her father John may have taken his own life. Records are a little confusing here, but if his death in around 1793 was a suicide, he would most likely have been buried away from the general burial ground , as suicide was regarded as a dreadful sin in the eighteenth century. Gazing over the beautiful grounds, I can only hope that he lies in peace, wherever that may be.
As we drive away from little Ewhurst, I am very grateful to Janet for all her information and help.
What happened to Jane after her trial and sentence?
She arrived in Sydney on the transport ship Glatton in 1803, and was assigned to labour for a master or mistress there. Seven years later, she’d completed her sentence and she married William Roberts, also an emancipated convict. They’d been living together before that date and had four sons together; then later two daughters and three more sons were born.
WIlliam had done rather well for himself. Through hard work, diligence and commitment, he had caught the eye of Governor Macquarie, becoming a sought-after road and bridge building supervisor. He was paid handsomely for this work, in land grants on Dharug country in the Hawkesbury Valley of NSW, plus cash and liquor – this was the era of the ‘Rum Corps’ and rum and other spirits had a stranglehold over the economy of the colony.
The family lived at Windsor and then in Sydney, at The King’s Arms, the public house they ran at Castlereagh and Hunter Streets.
When the Governor became disturbed at the rapidly increasing number of liquor establishments operating in the town, and the unruly behaviour of patrons, he issued a decree closing a great many of them. The Roberts’ hotel was one of those approved by Macquarie and allowed to keep trading.
Sadly for Jane, William died in 1819. For a widowed or single woman at that time, life was not easy. Even having money (which Jane now certainly did) was no guarantee of continued success. The male – and military – dominated colony held strict expectations of a woman’s place. It did not include the world of business or trade.
There were very few exceptions to this, and Jane became one of them. She wrote to the Governor, successfully requesting payment owed to her husband for work he had carried out before his death. She continued the hotel businesses that she and William had established. Later, another request to the Governor resulted in an allocation of land for grazing cattle. She became one a very small number of women who were early subscribers to the newly established colonial bank. Her name appears on the bank records alongside the likes of better-known colonial women such as fellow emancipist Mary Reiby, and the Governor’s wife, Elizabeth Macquarie.
She did this all while raising nine children into adulthood, many of whom went on to become successful business people and farmers themselves.
Jane remarried in 1825 and had eleven years with another William, also an emancipist: William Hutchinson. His story is also an interesting one. But this post is all about Jane – the girl from a tiny Surrey village whose 3 x great granddaughter was my mother, Doreen. She would have recognised something in Doreen, had they been able to meet – a quality of determination, a refusal to give up.
I can understand why Mum was always fascinated by Jane and her story. I’m delighted and grateful to have made the pilgrimage to Ewhurst, the birthplace of our kick-ass ancestor.
Travels with my Ancestors # 5: Kentish men and women – The Heather / Eather family
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.’
Travels with My Ancestors #4: People of the West Country – the Newtons
This is the fourth in the ‘Travels with My Ancestors’ series. You may like to read the first in the series to provide context – you can find it here.
My little travel party drive out of Bath, Somerset’s – and arguably England’s – most beautiful city. The gracious buildings of smooth Bath stone carry echoes of Georgian prosperity and indulgence, while the Roman baths and statues and the soaring Abbey remind us that people have worshipped and socialised here for more than a millennia.
Now we venture into the unknown – rural Somerset. My father’s forebears hailed from a cluster of small villages that circle the Quantock Hills in the northwest of the county. As we leave the busyness of Bath behind us, the landscape changes almost immediately, from crowded streets and town houses to lush, green farmland blanketing gentle slopes. Black faced sheep and spring lambs are dotted across the fields, their woolly bodies a contrast beside the vivid yellow of canola crops.
The Somerset Newtons were not people of means. Most worked as labourers on the many farms of the district, though there were occasional tradesmen such as butcher or carpenter, skilled trades in demand everywhere. Farms and farming have changed and grown since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the soil the Newton men and women tilled and the animals they tended, are much the same today.
The villages connected with the Newtons and the families they married into have almost unbearably quaint names: Crowcombe, Combe Florey, Nether Stowey, Bradford on Tone, Dunster. From Australia I have been searching out these names on Google Maps, drilling down to Street view on Google Earth to glimpse the places the Newtons called home. I was delighted when thatched cottages, green fields and timbered woodlands appeared on my screen: many of these places were still small rural settlements; the years had not transformed them or carved multi-lane highways through their hearts.
Now, I am here in person, for real, to see and smell and hear these places I’d been learning and writing and dreaming about for the past three years.
I am excited, of course. Mixed in with that is a hard to define emotion. A sense of arriving at a place that some part of me recognised. Despite all my research, Googling and map reading, I had not really known what to expect. A backwater, left forlorn as other parts of the county progressed into the modern age? Tattered villages populated by elderly folk suspicious of ‘outsiders’?
Instead, what I find are stunning landscapes and well-preserved towns and hamlets. The pleasure and relief I feel is almost overwhelming, and surprising. I feel connected with this country in a visceral, unexpected way.
This is the West Country, the land of origin of my father’s people, and I am loving what I see.
Of all the villages, the one in which I will leave a little piece of my heart is Crowcombe. Here I visit the wonderfully named Church of the Holy Ghost, where I stand at the baptismal font where generations of Newton babies were welcomed into the community of the then Church of England, back to at least 1630.
Like pretty much all of the village and parish churches I’ve gazed at on this visit, the Norman era tower is very tall and square. Sometimes they look more suited to top a castle than a place of worship. Inside, though, it’s a different story.
This particular church is famous for its mediaeval intricately carved bench ends: the wooden partitions at the end of each pew. They break the mould of church decorative art, depicting among the Christian symbols an array of folk tales and pagan imagery. The most imaginative ones, in my opinion, are those that tell of the battle between two men and a giant and fearsome ‘Gurt worm’, a kind of dragon, which they cleave in two. The divided creature went on to form two local hills. As I snap photos of these vivid carvings, I imagine young Newton children endeavouring to sit still during Sunday service, being transported out of the church into a world of legends from Somerset’s past.
The Crowcombe pub, the Carew Arms, has been the village meeting and drinking place since the 1500’s, when it was known as the Lion, then the Three Lions. Many Newtons would have enjoyed an ale or a local Somerset cider there. Today the pub shows its venerable age: the flagged floor, low heavy beams along the ceiling, and the stables (the stalls now cleverly converted to booths.)
There remains a sense of community and connection in the village. The Carew family have lived in the manor house for centuries, and continue their time-honoured role of support for community projects and events. In the village I spot a lovely mural of tiles, a Covid lockdown initiative, in which residents were invited to decorate a tile. It now hangs proudly on the wall of the pub.
It is Coronation weekend when we visit (the May 2023 Coronation of King Charles III) and Crowcombe, along with most of the villages and towns we pass through, is celebrating with a village BYO picnic in the field of one resident. I’m an avowed Republican but I am moved at the level of community connection this event has inspired.
Coincidence? Or a new family mystery to investigate
In Nether Stowey’s Church of St Mary, my husband spots a plaque on the wall commemorating three members of the Buller family. Husband Robert Beadon Buller and his wife Ann, both of whom died and were buried in the churchyard in 1841. Their son, also Robert Beadon Buller, was also remembered there after his death in 1880.
Martha Buller married a Newton man in that church in 1798. Were the Buller family members on the plaque related to Martha? Looking at the birth and death dates, it seems possible that Martha and the elder Robert were siblings, cousins, or some other close family relationship.
The intriguing thing is that ‘Beadon’, the Buller father and son’s middle name, is a name that appears several times in the Newton family tree. I have always assumed that it was a Newton family tradition – but is it possible it came from the Buller family, brought with Martha to the Newton line when she married? If Robert Beadon turns out to be her relative, that theory might well hold water.
That same day, a Crowcombe local suggests we look at a house in the village Main Street, which has ‘Beadon’ on a name plate on its front fence. Then I turn around and – directly opposite – there is a house with the name Newton Cottage on its gate. A coincidence? The tingle in my fingers and toes suggests not. I learn that Newton Cottage was built in the 1870’s – after my Newtons had emigrated to Australia – but surely the people who built and lived in that cottage were part of the larger Newton clan in and around the village. And surely, Beadon could be connected somehow.
For now, I don’t know, but it’s a theory I will be exploring once I am back home in Australia. The tingling fingers and toes can’t be wrong. Or perhaps I will uncover some other previously unknown connection or branch of the family tree.
As we leave Somerset, I feel an invisible skein unravelling behind me, connecting me to this West Country, the land from where the Australian Newtons came, one hundred and eighty years ago. I take with me that connection, surprising but so very welcome, and I hope I will return one day.
All photos by the author
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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