Chapter Fifteen


THE DEPARTURE OF THE FIRST FLEET from Britain had been designed to create space in Newgate, in the hulks and the county gaols, once and for all. There had been no indication from any government document of 1786–87 that it was meant to be followed by further fleets and transports. But Phillip would have felt more secure about being resupplied from England if he knew about the speed with which all the vacated space created by his fleet had been filled. At the time Phillip was appointed, Botany Bay was perceived as a once-and-for-all alleviation of pressure on Britain's penal system. Now it might need to become a habitual one.

By August 1787, three months after Phillip's fleet had sailed, the Sheriff of London and Middlesex, Mr. Bloxham, had written to Lord Sydney about the problem of overcrowding in Newgate gaol. Most of the 700 Newgate prisoners were living in crowded wards designed for two dozen people but crammed with twice as many. The Sheriff worried about the coming winter, and the prospect of death from congestive disease and gaol fever (typhus). Throughout Britain, gaolers wrote to complain that they had been promised that they would be able to move some of their prisoners down to the hulks once the convict fleet left in May 1787, and this promise had not been kept.

In October 1788, William Richards, the reputable London merchant contracted for the First Fleet, sent to the Treasury Department a detailed proposal for the transportation of further convicts. It was referred to the Home Office and the Navy Board. When Lord Sydney was asked about future plans, he told the Treasury he wanted to send at least 200 women from Newgate and the county gaols to New South Wales, but only when favourable reports of the new colony's progress arrived. Just in case the women could be transported, Richards was given a contract to “take up” a suitable ship, and in November 1788 officials looked over a 401-ton ship named Lady Juliana at the Royal Navy's Deptford dockyard and found her to be fit to transport convicts, provided her hull was newly caulked and sheathed with copper. Richards was to be paid 9 shillings 6 pence per ton for the hire of the ship for the outward voyage. While the Lady Juliana was in port he would be allocated 9 pence per day for each adult convict on board, to provide them with fresh provisions, and while the ship was at sea, he was budgeted 6 pence per day to supply the women with sea provisions. The charter party, or contract, also required the ship to make calls for fresh provisions at Teneriffe, Rio de Janeiro, and the Cape of Good Hope, just as the First Fleet had been instructed to do.

Mr. Richards appointed George Aitken her master. Aitken was conscientious in fitting the ship out. He was willing also to cooperate with the naval agent put aboard her, Lieutenant Thomas Edgar, who had been Captain James Cook's navigator on HMS Discovery on Cook's last voyage in 1776–79. A naval colleague would leave us the information that his nickname was Little Bassey because he was unable to pronounce “Blast ye!” in any other way. He was middle-aged and determined to look after the women prisoners' physical and nutritional well-being.

By the end of 1788 a new outbreak of gaol distemper, a form of typhus, had been reported from Newgate. At the Old Bailey sessions just finished, all windows and doors had been kept open despite the bitter weather, to prevent the spread of the disease. But berths, or cradles, for the convict women aboard the Lady Juliana were not yet ready, and no loading would begin for some months. The government, in any case, still hoped to hear from Botany Bay before they moved the convict women out of contagious Newgate and brought them aboard the ship. If the colony were judged to be in trouble, Captain Aitken might have to transport those aboard Lady Juliana to Nova Scotia, despite the hostility of the people of that province to the idea.

The new year came and went, and it was not until March of 1789 that Prince of Wales arrived back in England with the first news of the colony. The Home Office must have been anxious to get Lady Juliana loaded up, since Phillip's dispatches, though hopeful, and telling of a struggling yet healthily located place, were counterbalanced by the utterly negative voices of Ross and Campbell. Undersecretary Nepean put more reliance on Phillip than he did on Ross. There was enough basis to order that Lady Juliana could now conscientiously be filled up for her journey.

The Lady Juliana had been moved from Deptford to Galleon's Reach just off Greenwich, ten miles downriver from Newgate. One hundred and sixteen women from the prison were embarked during March and April 1789. There was a woman in the death cells of Newgate who would have loved to be with them. Catherine Heyland, in her mid-thirties, had been sentenced to death on 2 April 1787, before Phillip's fleet left, for counterfeiting, and while male counterfeiting drew only the hanging sentence, female counterfeiting was subject to the same traditional punishment as witchcraft—burning at the stake. Police had raided a front garret in Lincoln's Inn Fields and seized scissors, files, crucibles, bellows, charcoal, a casting frame, scales, scouring paper, arsenic, aqua fortis (nitric acid) and blacking, and various other tools of counterfeiters. They arrested a male, William James, alias Levi, who tried to swallow some of his handiwork, and when arrested vomited black foam on the officer's sleeve.

There had been two women in the room, and down the bodice of one of them, Catherine Heyland, the officials found two bags of counterfeit sixpences. Throughout his own trial, Levi intervened frequently to say that Heyland had been innocent and he had merely used her as a hiding post. In court, a young Irish girl named Margaret Sullivan was found guilty of a separate act of counterfeiting, and she and Heyland were both condemned to death. Levi was to hang in two days' time, but Heyland and Sullivan were to be publicly immolated by fire. To enable her to complete an appeal for mercy, Heyland's execution was stayed. The Times the next day asked whether mankind must not laugh at long speeches against African slavery when “we roast a fellow creature alive, for putting a penny-worth of quicksilver into a halfpenny-worth of brass.”

What can we make, in our own brutal-by-proxy world, of such public savagery? A Westerner who in this age saw eight friends and acquaintances twitch to death at a rope's end, as did the marine garrison of Sydney, or saw a young woman burned alive, as did any gentleman, woman, or child who wanted to be a spectator in Newgate Street, would perforce be offered counselling. Not only did Boswell in the spring of 1785 watch nineteen criminals hanged outside Newgate without its spoiling his appetite, but later the same year he persuaded Sir Joshua Reynolds to attend the execution of five convicts at the same place. Perhaps it was the unquestioning certainty that such events were ordained for solemn instruction, for education and grievous sport, and the certainty that God acquiesced with British statute law, that made them less shocking to the mind of the eighteenth-century felon, soldier, or citizen.

Margaret Sullivan faced her unspeakable death in the spring of 1788 with great courage. She spent her last evening praying with a priest and rejected the offer of a treat of strawberries from Sheriff Bloxham's wife. On a Wednesday morning a crowd gathered in St. Paul's churchyard and around the Old Bailey for the executions. As was normal at such times, neighbouring inns profited from the crush. Levi came through the covered walkway from the Debtors' Gate to the roar of “Hats off ” from mannerly gentlemen in the crowd. The chaplain of Newgate preached for three quarters of an hour. From her place in the condemned cells, Catherine Heyland heard the crowd, segments of the sermon, and the drop of the trapdoor as Levi, to whom her relationship remains a mystery, plummeted into air. Fifteen minutes later Margaret Sullivan, dressed in a penitential white shroud, emerged with the priest. And it was all done as ordered. The morning Chronicle of 17 March 1788 records that Sullivan was “burnt, being first strangled by the stool being taken from under her.” City worthies sat on a viewing platform nearby, the horrified Sheriff of the city of London, Mr. Bloxham, amongst them.

Friends and strangers sent the doomed Catherine Heyland gifts, letters, and messages of support as her month's grace passed and the stake was put in place again. Sheriff Bloxham had a distaste for burning women, and believed Catherine Heyland did not deserve to burn anyhow. He had already been involved in the burning of a female in June the year before, and even though she was mercifully hanged or garrotted while tied to the stake and before the flames devoured her, it had been a catastrophic and barbarous affair for everyone involved. Sheriff Bloxham went searching for the Secretary of State, Parliament having closed for the summer. Bloxham found Lord Sydney, was taken to his bedroom, and galloped back to London with a four-day stay of execution, arriving at Newgate two hours before the pyre to be lit. The four days were designed to permit time for the King in Council to order a stay of execution during His Majesty's pleasure. That pleasure was, as well as indefinite, unpredictable.

So Heyland saw the first lot of women leave Newgate for the Lady Juliana, and must have thought their destiny sweeter than hers. Another female counterfeiter, nineteen-year-old Christian Murphy, was mean-while found guilty and publicly burned at the stake. We are not given any details of the anguish and resistance of victims, nor of the stench of the whole exercise, but if Catherine Heyland, who could hear the crowd and the procedure from the condemned cells, was not by now half-crazed, it must say something for her endurance and spirit.

But out of nowhere, mercy descended on her. George III having recovered from his madness, bells were tolled, cannon were fired, and a restorative deity was praised by choirs in St. Paul's. The normally five-day sessions at the Old Bailey in April finished in four days, and a spirit of for-giveness prevailed. The twenty-three female convicts then under death sentence were brought from their condemned cell the following day to the Old Bailey. These women, all young, in various states of dress, were told by the recorder that His Majesty had granted pardon to them on condition that they undergo transportation for the terms of their natural lives.

Of the twenty-three women, only sixteen accepted the offer, a grateful Heyland amongst them. To the amazement of the court, seven refused transportation. Three of them were young accomplices in the same crime of assault and highway robbery. The victim, Solomon, was a glass-blower, who had been walking near Petticoat Lane when he was set upon by the three women who inveigled him away, and using “very bad expressions,” threw him on a bed, with one of them lying on top of him while another held his mouth. During his ordeal they stole 14 guineas and a further 10 shillings from his pockets. The oldest of these three girls, Sarah Cowden, now told the recorder, “I will die by the laws of my own country before ever I will go abroad for my life. I am innocent and so is Sarah Storer.” Her two accomplices, Storer and Martha Cutler, made similar speeches, raising the issue that it had been on the glass-blower's word alone that the sum stolen had been fixed at 14 guineas and 10 shillings. The astounded recorder warned that if they did not accept the King's reprieve now, it would be too late thereafter.

Nellie Kerwin, twenty-nine years old, whom one of her shipmates would call “a female of daring habits,” had made a politer refusal of transportation in these words: “I have two small children; I have no objection to confinement for life; I cannot live long.” She had kept a rakish boarding house for sailors at Gosport near Portsmouth, and was also a bum-boater—that is, she extended credit to seamen between their periods of remuneration as well as providing accommodation for them in port, and arranged berths for them for a commission. She had been found guilty of forging sailors' wills and representing herself as their relative. When first sentenced to death, Nellie had to face a jury of matrons, immediately empanelled, who inspected her and reported to the judge that she was “with quick child,” and so would not face the scaffold until after her child was born and established in good health. But now she refused the King's mercy.

The recorder accused the women who refused the royal generosity of trying to delay things until after ships such as the Lady Juliana sailed. They were given twelve hours to think about it. If they refused this beneficence again, they would be sent down from the bar and, “You will depend upon it that you will suffer death with the first culprits, at the next execution.” When that did not change their minds, he ordered them placed in solitary confinement and on a punishment diet until the June assizes.

After a month of solitary confinement, the female recusants of New-gate were brought back to the dock of the Old Bailey. Two women immediately accepted the renewed offer of mercy, including Kerwin, as long as the court could give her some time to work out her affairs, “but not to send me away in a day or two.” But Sarah Cowden was still arguing her innocence and that of her friend Sarah Storer. She would accept transportation if Storer's sentence was mitigated, she said. All the other women, including Storer herself, eventually accepted transportation and were marched from the court. Thus Cowden was left alone, and at last the recorder readmitted her to the ranks of the living. But we do not know if she came to New South Wales as intended, for her record fades out with her embarkation on the Lady Juliana in June 1789. Did she escape? And by what means? For there was no further mention of her in the relevant documents, nor can she be found in the records in New South Wales.

IN JOURNEYING TO NEW SOUTH WALES on the Lady Juliana and devoting a chapter of his journal to it, the ship's steward, John Nicol, a young Scot, gives us a rare view of the transactions between convict women and seamen. Nicol was a veteran sailor, thirty-five years old, who had a positive nature, believing that aboard one found not “a great many very bad characters” amongst the women. Most had committed petty crimes, he said. He came to earthy conclusions about why these women were being sent—there were a great proportion who had “merely been disorderly, that is, streetwalkers, the colony at the time being in great want of women.”

Whilst the ship was in the Thames, he had seen a young Scottish girl die of a broken heart. “She was young and beautiful, even in the convict dress, but pale as death, and her eyes red with weeping.” She sat alone in the same corner of the deck from morning to night, and did not make any friends. “Even the time of meals roused her not.” When he offered her consolation as a fellow Caledonian, he found that it was useless: “If I spoke of Scotland she would wring her hands and sob until I thought her heart would burst. I lent her a Bible and she kissed it and laid it on her lap and wept over it.”

It was Nicol's job to go ashore and buy supplies for the ship, but he also shopped for convict women who had money with them, particularly for a Mrs. Elizabeth Barnsley, “a noted sharper and shoplifter.” Barnsley was a high-class, superbly dressed thief, who had brought a splendid chest of clothes aboard with her and had asked Captain Aitken if she could wear them in lieu of convict dress. The captain refused, and told her she had to wear the convict uniform until the journey began. Nicol was awed by this potent woman. “She herself told me her family for one hundred years back had been swindlers and highwaymen. She had a brother, a highwayman, who often came to see her as well dressed and genteel in his appearance as any gentleman.” Mrs. Elizabeth Barnsley became Lady Juliana's centre of authority and dispenser of favours amongst the women, who were all pleased to serve her and were rewarded with the groceries Steward Nicol bought for her ashore. In the meantime, to add to her other gifts of personality, she became the ship midwife, one whom Surgeon Alley trusted and thus took advice from. He supported, for example, the women's requests for tea and sugar in lieu of part of their meat ration and also suggested that they be supplied with soap. He would eventually ask for “a supply of child bed linen to be sent on board, for some of the women were pregnant….”

Nicol had been working aboard Lady Juliana for three months when the great love of his life came aboard. Seventeen women from Lincoln Castle, riveted irons around their wrists, had come down to Greenwich, travelling thirty-six hours roped to the outside seats of a coach. Their condition after such a journey in English winter weather was pitiable: they were tattered, pale, muddied, and chilblained. Nicol, as ship's steward and trained blacksmith, had the not entirely thankless task of striking the riveted county prison irons off the women's wrists on his anvil. In fact he could present a bill of 2 shillings 6 pence to the keeper of the county gaol for each set of shackles he struck open. In a smithy shack on the windswept deck women bent low to have the task completed, and Nicol fell in love with one of them, despite her bedragglement, in the space of performing his task. “I had fixed my fancy upon her from the moment I knocked the rivet out of her irons upon my anvil, and as firmly resolved to bring her back to England when her time was out, my lawful wife, as ever I did intend anything in my life.”

Sarah Whitelam, the object of this fervour, was a Lincolnshire country girl, thick-accented to Nicol's ear, and perhaps another victim of enclosure. Nicol had a broad streak of generosity in his demeanour, which this Lincolnshire girl latched on to. Not that she struck him as a gross opportunist like some of the London women. She was “a girl of modest reserved tone, as kind and true a creature as ever lived. I courted her for a week and upwards, and would have married her on the spot had there been a clergyman on board.”

During their courtship Sarah told Nicol that she had borrowed a cloak from an acquaintance, and her friend had maliciously prosecuted her for stealing it, and she was transported for seven years for unjust cause. The sentence was the truth, and the fact that she had served nearly a year of it. Sarah's true crime, to whose record the love-stricken Nicol had no access, was that at Tealby in Lincolnshire, she had stolen an amount of material which included 6 yards of black chintz cotton, a Coventry tammy gown, a Norwich crepe gown, 7 yards of “black calamomaco,” a pink quilted petticoat, a red Duffin cloak, and a quantity more of clothing. On the spur of whatever criminality or need, it seemed that she had cleaned out an entire small shop-load.

To allow the sort of courtship which Nicol describes, the Lady Juliana must have been a relatively relaxed ship, where for their own good the women were allowed on deck for exercise a considerable amount, and some were permitted access to the sailors' quarters to an extent not openly countenanced on most of the First Fleet. Not that Lieutenant Edgar and Captain Aitken were incompetent in managing the ship or maintaining discipline in its other forms. But they were Georgian pragmatists, not evangelical Christians. In a wooden ship of 400 or so tons, there was not a lot of room for private courting, but the poor of the time were used to cramped quarters, to cohabiting in one-room hutches, to copulating by stealth and with minimal privacy. So space for love was not the issue as Nicol chattered away to Sarah Whitelam. Sarah would be pregnant with Nicol's child by the time the ship left England.

In early June, Lady Juliana left the Thames to sail to Spithead off Portsmouth, where it was joined by ninety women from county gaols and five late arrivals from London who had been rushed down chained to the outside of wagons. The last load of women was brought on in Plymouth, and it was July 1789 when the Lady Juliana sailed with a crowded prison deck.

Indeed, John Nicol says there were 245 women aboard Lady Juliana as she left Plymouth. The official records indicate about twenty fewer, but with pardons and vanishings they were not accurate either. “When we were fairly out to sea,” Nicol tells us, “every man on board took a wife from among the convicts, they nothing loath.” The same had happened surreptitiously on the First Fleet, but on Lady Juliana the practice seemed to be virtually official policy, and relieved the crowding on the convict deck.

As the Lady Juliana with Nicol and his pregnant Sarah Whitelam made its solitary way out of English waters, past Ushant and into the Bay of Biscay, it was in a sense a precursor, the first ship of an as yet not fully planned Second Fleet to get away. It carried on board a letter Home Office Under Secretary Evan Nepean had written to his friend Arthur Phillip in Sydney Cove informing him that “in the course of the autumn I expect that about 1000 more convicts of both sexes will be embarked from the several gaols and dispatched to Port Jackson.”

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