TO CONVICTS, PHILLIP WOULD LATER convey the very breath of civil magisterium, even though his early childhood might not have been much more socially elevated than some of theirs. Not only had he known British seamen, who came from the same class as the convicts, but he had been a child of marginal London as well, the London where the lives of worthy strugglers like his mother were not immune from predatory crime. Arthur's mother, Elizabeth Breech, had been married to a sailor named Herbert. Some claim Herbert rose to captain's rank in the Royal Navy; others that he was a foredeck hand. Seaman or Captain Herbert died while still in his twenties of a fever caught during his duty on the Jamaica station. Indeed, it did not seem he had lived long enough to become a captain. Phillip's mother then married Jacob Phillip, a “native of Frankfurt” and a teacher of “the languages.” If Jacob were, as his name implies, Jewish, this would have laid down another fascinating dimension to his child Arthur Phillip's brand of Britishness. Arthur was born in October 1738, and grew up in Bread Street in the City of London. It was not necessarily an address of privilege, but many good houses and some fine churches characterised the area.
Arthur was admitted to the charity orphan school at the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich in 1751. The school was for the sons of poor seamen, “training them up to a seafaring life.” Young Arthur's presence indicated that either Jacob Phillip gave up his language teaching to become a seaman and died as a British tar, or—far more likely—that Arthur was presented to the school as the child of the Englishman Herbert. Going to Greenwich was therefore a deception which might have added further secretiveness to the boy's manner. To his duty of transporting criminals, Phillip would bring his habits as a thorough-going British captain, but also a nature so complex and hidden behind official formality, for which he had an appetite, that it is hard to find the quivering human within.
His transportees are in many ways far more legible. At least half of them would be London convicts from areas north of the Thames River: Stepney, Poplar, Clerkenwell, St. Giles's and Seven Dials, Soho. (Only a minority came from the South London dockside regions.) In the tenements around St. Giles's parish in Soho—the famed Rookery of St. Giles—and in Spitalfields to the east, in squalor unimaginable, lived all classes of criminals, speaking a special criminal argot and bonded together by devotion and oaths taken to the criminal deity, the Tawny Prince. The Tawny Prince was honoured by theft, chicanery, and a brave death on the gallows. And, of course, by speaking his language, flash or cant, which was incomprehensible to the respectable persons of the court. In flash talk, a pal was a pickpocket's assistant who received the swag as soon as the pickpocket had lifted it. A kiddy was the fast-running child to whom the pal passed the swag. A beak was a magistrate, a pig a Bow Street runner. Tickling the peter was opening a safe, and a fence was a receiver of stolen loot. All these terms mean something to us now through their entry into mainstream English, but at that time they were incomprehensible to respectable persons and officers of the courts.
“A leading distinction, which marked the convicts from the outset in the colony,” wrote a military officer named Watkin Tench much later, when a convict colony was at last established in New South Wales, “was the use of what is called the flash or kiddy language. In some of our early courts of justice, an interpreter was frequently necessary to translate the deposition of the witness, and the defence of the prisoner. This language has many dialects. The sly dexterity of the pickpocket; the brutal ferocity of the footpad; the more elevated career of the highwayman; and the deadly purpose of the midnight ruffian, is each strictly appropriate in the terms that distinguish and characterise it. I have ever been of the opinion that an abolition of this unnatural jargon would open the path to reformation.”
Cant was spoken in the many public houses in the City and Spital-fields that were centres for prostitution, the fencing of stolen goods, and the division of plunder. “Hell houses” was a common name for such places. They were found in a number of notorious locations: Chick Lane, Field Lane, Black Boy Alley. Over their half-doors fleeing criminals were free to toss whatever they had plundered.
There were special conditions which had driven many rural poor to the cities and towards crime. The English countryside was undergoing a revolutionary process known as enclosure. Villages had previously been organised according to a system of scattered strips of open land variously owned by peasants and landlord, and shared common ground. This had been the way since feudal times. Under a series of Enclosure Acts passed by the Parliament at Westminster, villages were reorganised by enclosure commissioners according to new agricultural efficiencies, so that the ground of the chief landlord, of prosperous farmers, and of various small-holders was consolidated and fenced. In reality, enclosure drove small farmers and agricultural workers off land their families had worked for centuries. Many smallholders not only found the expense of fencing with barriers of hawthorn and blackthorn beyond them, but discovered that the “common land” traditionally shared by the community, on which they and more marginal peasants had depended to run their livestock, was now fenced off too. The ancient right of the peasant to hunt and scavenge for game and produce from the landlord's ground also vanished as the crime of poaching came into being. And this process was occurring at a time when the cloth produced in cottages was required less and less, as great loom factories were established. Traditional village, church, and family controls on the way men and women behaved broke down as families became itinerant and set off for cities.
Oliver Goldsmith's famed lament for the uprooting of rustic populations, the poem The Deserted Village, was written in 1770 when great numbers of people were seeking parish poor relief because of enclosure, and the dispossessed pooled in big towns. In these times, says a historian, “Everyone below the plateau of skilled craftsmen was undernourished.” And the rural poor became poorer still. Some became the scarecrow people of the countryside, but many more were forced towards the cities, creating a dangerous under-class, who saw crime as a better option than working an eighty-hour week as a servant, or toiling for the unregulated and dangerous gods of machine-based capital.
The precise extent to which the great Georgian dislocation produced Phillip's bunch of convicts is still a matter of debate, but Goldsmith himself, until his death in 1774, had no doubt that enclosure had become the great despoiler of rural virtue in the British. Addressing his rhetorical address to a fictional deserted British village, he declared:
… a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroy'd can never be supplied.
A time there was, ere England's griefs began,
When every rood of ground maintained its man;
For him light labour spread her wholesome store,
Just gave what life requir'd, but gave no more:
His best companions innocence and health;
And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.
Times had changed for the worse, thought Goldsmith. Now, he said:
… The man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park's extended bounds.
Space for his horses, equipage and hounds;
The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth
Has robb'd the neighb'ring fields of half their growth.
As a case in point for Goldsmith's thesis one might look at an adolescent convict like Sarah Bellamy, who came from an impoverished rural family frequently on parish relief in Belbroughton in Worcestershire. They were the sort of people who might once have been cottagers but, since enclosure, lived in housing “occupied by paupers of the said parish.” At the age of nine, Sarah began work for one of the parish overseers, and from the age of fifteen she was employed by Benjamin Haden, a weaver. At that age she was charged with stealing from Mr. Haden one linen purse, value tuppence, as well as 15 pounds 15 shillings in coin and promissory notes. Whether she would have committed the crime if she had still been a cottager's daughter enjoying “ignorance of wealth” can be debated, though people of like mind to Goldsmith would have said her days would have been blithe, habitual, crimeless village days.
Sarah ended up in Worcester prison in the spring of 1785 and heard from within her public ward the beginning of the Worcester quarter sessions, the arrival of the touring judges being a festive event attended by the local gentry, farmers, and other spectators. The judges, said a French commentator, “enter a town with bells ringing and trumpets playing, preceded by the sheriff 's men, to the number of twenty, in full dress, armed with javelins.” All this ritual of legal majesty must have greatly awed a country girl about to be tried.
There was something strange about Sarah's case. Her master, Benjamin Haden, was embarrassed about appearing as part of the prosecution, and it could be that the promissory notes she was accused of stealing were forgeries by him, for he soon appeared before the summer assizes on a bankruptcy charge. When sentenced to be transported beyond the seas for the term of seven years, Sarah “guiltily prayed to be publicly whipped at afternoon at the next two market days,” instead of being shipped away. But this pleading was not accepted.
The relative emphasis put upon property is shown by the fact that at the same assizes one of the listings reads: “Richard Crump for killing Richard Bourn, found guilty of manslaughter, fined one shilling.” January 1788 would find Sarah Bellamy chilblained and pregnant aboard the LadyPenrhyn in the flotilla on its way to Botany Bay.
Humane spirits would have also read as one of “England's griefs” the presence of John Hudson in the first compilation of felons for New South Wales. Hudson had been a child of nine years in October 1783 when with an accomplice he was said to have broken a narrow skylight above a window in a house in East Smithfield, the home of William Holdsworth, a chemist. The glass of the skylight was “taken perfectly out.” Inside, Hudson and his accomplice collected one linen shirt, five silk stockings, one pistol, and two aprons.
Though the English were proud not to have a police force, since police were associated with the French and thus with tyranny, the Bow Street Runners, London's deliberately token police force founded in 1749, arrested Hudson and told one witness it was “the third time they had had him within ten days.” They claimed he confessed to them.
Brought to court, John Hudson found that Justice Wills and the jury wore nosegays of fresh herbs to counter the emanations of gaol fever—typhus—from the ragged prisoners of Newgate.
Court to prisoner: “How old are you?”
“Going on nine.”
“What business were you bred up in?”
“None, sometimes a chimney sweeper.”
“Have you any father or mother?”
“How long ago?”
“I do not know.”
Mr. Holdsworth the chemist then testified to the court that he had found two toe marks on the glass of the skylight, and on a table, sooty feet marks. Holdsworth said, “I took the impressions of foot and toes that were on the table with a piece of paper as minutely as I could.” One wonders how genuinely probative the impressions could have been.
The judge, Justice Wills, replied: “I do not much like the confession of a boy of nine years old. I would rather do without it if I could.” But a woman witness had seen John Hudson at a water tub, sitting upon it to wash himself. “I told him that it was water we made use of for drinking and I did not choose he should wash himself there.” Then, ascending the stairs by a nearby boarding house, she found the loot from Mr. Holdsworth's bundled in a corner. A pawnbroker identified John Hudson as the boy who had pawned a shirt to him.
The judge instructed the jury that the only thing that fixed the boy with the robbery was a pistol found by the water tub. “One would wish to snatch such a boy, if one possibly could, from destruction, for he will only return to the same kind of life which he has led before, and will be an instrument in the hands of very bad people, who make use of boys of that sort to rob houses.”
He was found guilty of the felony, but not of the burglary, and sentenced to transportation for seven years “to some of His Majesty's Colonies and Plantations in America.” There was no separate child's prison for him pending transportation, and so he was thrown in with the adults at fearsome Newgate.
Lost children like Hudson had lately proliferated in the cities. Chimney sweeps, commonly used by professional criminals to gain entry to houses, were a sign of the disordered times. They were orphans and the illegitimate children of paupers, often sold into service for seven years. Such a child “is disposed of for twenty or thirty shillings, being a smaller price than the value of a terrier.” For boys like Hudson, there was no childhood. William Blake mourned their misuse in two separate poems, both entitled The Chimney Sweeper.
When my mother died, I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry, “Weep! Weep! Weep! Weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
Blake's second chimney sweep is also relevant to Hudson's caste of boys:
Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
Reforming evangelical groups were urging legislation to protect children from tyrannous masters, from the claustrophobia of the chimney, the lung damage, the death by suffocation, and the criminal employment to which their trade often condemned them. But the first act alleviating their lives would not be passed until the year Hudson was already part of a great new penal experiment at the earth's end.
Nine-year-old John Hudson had been put upon a ship, Mercury, which left the Thames for North America on 2 April 1784. Georgia was under no obligation to receive him, being no longer a British colony, but the captain intended if rebuffed to try Nova Scotia. On the morning of 8 April, the convicts seized the ship. John Hudson was in one of two small boats that left the Mercury off Torbay, on Devon's southeast coast, on the morning of 14 April. He escaped the statutory death penalty for returning from transportation purely on the technicality that he had been intercepted by the crew of a naval vessel while still on the water. Prisoners who had not left the Mercury but stayed on board were ultimately chained again and their labour sold off by the master of the ship, on the instructions of the ship-owners, in Honduras, along the Mosquito Coast of Central America.
At first kept in Exeter gaol, Hudson was tried for escape and transferred to the Dunkirk, a dismasted former warship moored off Plymouth as a floating prison. The Plymouth hulks were less carefully run than those on the Thames, and the prisoners laboured on fortification works in Plymouth Harbour. It was not until December 1784 that Hudson and the other male prisoners received an issue of clothing, including shoes. Dr. Cowdry, the surgeon who attended the hulks for part of Hudson's time there, said that the men had “almost every disease which vice and immorality could produce. Some of them had very bad venereal complaints,” while others had consumption. Yet Hudson lasted nearly three years there, and was one of over 200 convicts, including forty-one women, sent on 10 March 1787 from the dark Dunkirk to their transports in Phillip's convict fleet. The Philanthropic Society, which would later intervene in the case of transportees Hudson's age, was not founded until 1788.
ANYONE READING THE OLD BAILEY transcripts is struck by the imbalance between minor miscreancies and the ultimate, transglobal punishment of transportation. In modern terms, what happened with the Georgians was the equivalent of sending a shoplifter to some biosphere on another planet. The male prisoners were mostly small-time thieves, and as for the women, there is a repetitiveness and banality to the cases in which they stole from men. Mary Marshall, sixteen years old, was tried for feloniously assaulting a newly arrived Eastern European Jew, Daniel Levi, in the dwelling house of Mary Martin in Cross Lane, putting him in fear and danger of his life and of “taking from his person and against his will 29 shillings … and 24 halfpence, value 12 pence, his property.” Levi, apologising to the court for his lack of English, testified he had heard that Mary Marshall had an overcoat to sell, and when he went to see it, she wanted 24 shillings for it. She declared she doubted whether he had such money, and so he showed her his money, and when he did she pushed him against the wall with great force, took the cash, and locked herself up in a closet with it.
Marshall came out of the closet to face Levi and with another woman took hold of him and beat him, threw a pail of water over him, and stole whatever else he had. “A gentleman took my part,” said Levi, “and fetched an officer.” The Bow Street Runner claimed to have identified Mary Marshall from Levi's description and arrested her. “I am innocent of it,” Mary Marshall told the court, and there was a chance she was. “I have not a witness in the world.” On the jury's verdict, Justice Heath condemned her to death. She would be one of the women transported on the Lady Penrhyn when reprieved on condition of transportation for life.
Similarly Elizabeth Hippesley was brought to the Old Bailey for feloniously stealing a silver watch chain and other goods, the property of a master butcher. The butcher swore that he met the prisoner at the Fleet market and agreed to go home with her. Between one and two, he woke in Hippesley's room in a house in Port Pool Lane and found that he had been robbed, even of his garters. He fetched a constable the next morning who found Elizabeth, the garters on her legs.
In court, the prisoner Hippesley demanded of the butcher: “Did you not tell me you had left all your money at cocking [gambling on a cock fight] and gave me the watch till you brought me some money?” Elizabeth was nonetheless found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years.
Some crimes were more novel. Hannah, or Anna, Mullens, an Irish-woman of St. Giles, presented herself before the magistrates and swore that the last will and testament which she held in her hands was that of a late seaman, who had wages due to him and owed her money. But the poor fellow had been blown to pieces in the East Indiaman the Duke of Arthur. Hannah had taken a false oath that the document was authentic. Later, a probate official declared the document a forgery.
She was asked why she had taken eleven months to present the will.
“I was big with child, and I did not like to go till I was well.”
“How old are you now?”
“I am going on twenty-six.”
The verdict was quickly brought down. She was guilty and sentenced to death, but humbly recommended to mercy by the jury “because they supposed she had been drawn in,” that is, that others had persuaded her to try for the sailor's estate. The judge, Justice Wills, revealed that this was not the first or second case of these fraudulent wills that Hannah had been concerned in. “And if so, you would wish to withdraw your recommendation.” Hannah “pleaded her belly and a jury of matrons being sworn, returned their verdict: she was not with quick child.” Mercy must have operated, however, for Hannah found herself in the end aboard the proposed convict fleet.
A man in his twenties, Charles Peat, stood trial like young John Hudson for returning from transportation, a capital offence. The steward of the ship Mercury, the same ship Hudson had escaped from, recognised the prisoner as having been put on board the convict ship at Galleon's Reach, below Woolwich in the Thames. He had been found guilty of highway robbery and his death sentence had been commuted to transportation for life. He had been keen on his rights, and had argued with the ship's master about whether they were bound for Virginia or Nova Scotia. After the prisoners took over the ship on the morning of 8 April 1784, the steward said, “I had then the pleasure of wearing what the gentleman here call darbies [irons]; until Peat went ashore in Devonshire.”
A forthright young man, Peat told the court that he had served His Majesty in the Royal Navy and had had the honour of bearing a commission, but while serving time on one of Campbell's hulks in the Thames, “I had the mortification of seeing my fellow sufferers die daily, to the amount of 250.” He was found guilty of return and given for the second time in his life a sentence of death, but though that meant he had to spend time in the condemned ward of Newgate, amidst its lamentations, screams, songs, brawls, and riotousness, the sentence was in the end transmuted to transportation for life. Indeed, the better part of one hundred prisoners on what would become known as the First Fleet were guilty of having returned from transportation.
Negroes, emancipated slaves, were to join Phillip's fleet too—ten of them. John Martin had stolen cloth coats, breeches, waistcoats, a petticoat, and a cotton gown from a dwelling house where he may have been a servant. The son of the house saw Martin decamping with the stuff. The jury valued the theft at 39 shillings, below the capital punishment threshold of 40 shillings, perhaps in an attempt to save Martin the gallows. Martin's court appearance took all of ten minutes.
Britain was, through its institutions, telling all such people, and more, to be gone.