In about AD 47, the Romans settled the town Londinium and surrounded it with a defensive wall. Built on one of the six original gates of this wall in 1188, Newgate Prison protected Londoners from a different type of invader. In the nineteenth century, nearly half of the 162,000 men, women, and children transported to Van Diemen’s Land and mainland Australia passed through the prison.
On Saturday, May 7, 1836, the names Agnes McMillan and Janet Houston were added to the Newgate roster. They’d danced with the devil before. This time, however, they were about to enter Satan’s private ballroom. They’d endured the mills, been in and out of gaol, but Newgate was the end of the line in Great Britain. Women did not return from Van Diemen’s Land.
Scotland’s weary transports toppled from the stagecoach, and two pairs of small feet searched for steadiness on solid ground. Their legs buckled beneath them and refused to work after the long, jostling ride. Leaning against each other, they caught their balance as their chains clanked against the cobblestones. This familiar rattling of irons announced the duo’s arrival to a gathering crowd of onlookers. London’s everyday seekers of the macabre were thrilled to see the latest unfortunates delivered to Newgate. Tonight’s bill of fare included two bonnie birds from the courthouse in Ayr. As they made their way from the coach, the gaggle of misery mongers closed in on the two young waifs in dirty shifts and muddy boots. Leers, jeers, and whistles announced the newest spectacle in nighttime street entertainment.
There was nothing to sing about. Discouraged footsteps followed the sheriff into Newgate as Agnes and Janet filed through the first of many bolted doorways. The gaoler slammed it shut and locked it behind them with a clang. Agnes’s boots fell ploddingly on the stone stairs as she made her way through the dimly lit maze. Two flights up, a winding passage led to the matron’s quarters, secured behind another heavy door. After a quick rap on the wood, the turnkey thrust first one key, and then another, into the oversized locks. Hammer in hand, another gaoler stood ready to remove manacles and fetters that the comely lasses were more than happy to shed.
A matron wearing a gathered white nightcap looked over the two newcomers and jotted down a few notes about eye and hair color. Names didn’t always ensure accurate records, as evidenced by the number of “Smiths” listed in the prison roster, so wardens recorded facial characteristics and bodily marks, such as moles or scars. Agnes and Janet were unusual in that neither had pockmarks on her face.
The matron was in a foul mood. It was well past her bedtime and she was anxious to hurry back to her room, situated next to the female quadrangle. These girls had no personal property to surrender, so her only duty was to search them for contraband. Instinctively, Agnes pulled away from the unwelcome touch of rough hands patting her down, but it wouldn’t pay to be sassy at this hour. There was little the warden could do to make her stay worse. However, there were many favors she could extend to make it slightly less miserable. Some fresh straw for the floor, a taste of beer, or extra time in the courtyard sometimes rewarded an inmate’s good behavior. At least it wasn’t a man examining her. Elizabeth Fry had successfully lobbied Parliament to replace male wardens with female matrons, whose salary her volunteer association paid. In the past, guards had treated the women’s ward like a private brothel, a sin Elizabeth would not tolerate.
The sleepy matron issued her new charges a tin, a wooden spoon, and two pieces of sturdy brown sackcloth, one to lie on and one to use as a cover. The “rugs,” as they were called, reflected improvements in the women’s ward since Mrs. Fry’s first visit in 1813, when she found women sleeping on straw atop the squalid stone floor. Candlestick in hand, the matron motioned Agnes and Janet back into the hall. Her lecture about rules and regulations would wait until morning. A flickering candle cleared a hazy path to a giant oak door reinforced with 117 iron rivets. The disinterested turnkey released two deadbolts and inserted the key into the first lock, then the other. As the heavy portal groaned open, it unleashed waves of stirring across the large, communal group locked inside. The girls blinked their eyes, adjusting to the smoky darkness, and squinted to make out the shadowy figures lodged in the low-ceilinged cell.
The instant the door swung open, Agnes and her redheaded friend could feel eyes from all corners of the room peering at them. Faces shone in the candlelight, looking like startled creatures in the forest—some ready to pounce, others merely frightened. Shoved into darkness thick with sighs and swearing, the two tried to hold their breath against a stench far worse than the River Clyde on a steamy summer day. Although they benefited from Mrs. Fry’s work at Newgate, the sounds and smells that assaulted the girls had changed little since the Quaker’s first visit twenty-three years earlier.
Bodily functions were still taken care of in the cell, although chamber pots replaced the bare floor as the primary receptacle. The dreadful marinade had been there for so long that it seeped into the stones and became part of Newgate’s surroundings—a mix of human waste and decay that never washed away no matter how many times it was disinfected. Without delay, the matron ordered the girls to drop their rugs by the door and settle in for the night. The Glasgow pair had arrived too late to be fed, but neither felt much like eating.
The gaoler secured the double locks and slid the bolts across the door. Agnes held fast to Janet as they listened to the sounds of their new mates in the darkness: snoring, muffled weeping, the cry of a baby struggling in her mother’s arms, the tapping of wooden spoons from those descended into madness. The two friends barely closed their eyes that first night in Newgate. Both the gaoler and the gaoled preyed on newcomers. On guard until the first sign of daylight, Janet and Agnes each felt grateful they had arrived as a pair. A county gaol was small and predictable, with some drunks and many pickpockets, but a city prison housed highway robbers, murderers, and other violent felons. This was unfamiliar and dangerous territory.
Shaken into full consciousness at the sound of the matron’s bell at seven A.M., the girls watched as a huge pot of gruel was shoved into the cell. With no hesitation whatsoever, they joined the mad dash for a scoop in their tin cups. Toughened from the wynds of Glasgow near the Green, Agnes and Janet were fully attuned to the unwritten rules for how things worked. They used the closest chamber pot and, without being asked, helped empty it into Newgate’s sewer. First impressions counted.
The ward’s only source of light filtered through one small barred window. Even on sunny days, its milky darkness never brightened beyond twilight. By nine o’clock, cheerful members of Fry’s Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners arrived armed with Bibles and a supply of soft green cotton dresses. The new inmates were not yet wearing the women’s uniform. With their customary gentle greeting, Fry’s volunteers introduced themselves and unwrapped two dresses. The Glasgow girls turned their backs, pulled their mud-encrusted clothes over their heads, and straightened the neatly pressed uniform in place. The Quaker-inspired design wasn’t exactly their style, but it felt good to put on clothes that smelled fresh.
Following Mrs. Fry’s recommendations, the prisoners were divided into groups of twelve, with a monitor elected from each group. This was part of her plan for order amid chaos. At the morning Bible reading, prisoners dutifully agreed to renounce swearing, drinking, gambling, and card playing, although these half hearted promises were generally broken as soon as the Quakers left. The mission for the association was clear and practical: “To provide for the clothing, instruction and employment of the women; to introduce them to knowledge of the Holy Scriptures; and to form in them, as much as possible, those habits of order, sobriety and industry, which may render them docile and peaceable while in prison, and respectable when they leave it.”1 Volunteers never spoke to the women about their crimes, choosing instead to help them prepare for a future. Agnes and Janet didn’t know what to make of the pious do-gooders, but at least they weren’t picking oakum in a workhouse or pulling wool in the mill.
Defying contemporary beliefs, Mrs. Fry perceived shades of grey in trying to understand the plight of the convict women. The popular view cast by the upper class considered girls like Agnes either “good” or “bad.” For the bad, there was no turning back from a destiny of damnation. Yet a male criminal, they believed, held the capacity for reform and redemption. Typical of the Victorian era, one code of morality applied to men and another to women. Members of a Committee Inquiring into Female Convict Discipline explained the duality this way: “Society . . . fixed the standard of the average moral excellence required of women much higher than that which it had erected for men, and that crime was regarded with less allowance when committed by a woman . . . because the offender was deemed to have receded further from the average proprieties of her sex.”2
Just one year before Agnes and Janet entered Newgate, the stately Quaker had testified before the House of Lords on the condition of British prisons and admitted: “We are doing the best we can with a very bad system.”3 A prison inspector for the government also testified and criticized her mission as meddling and naïve. Undaunted, she continued to blatantly defy the City Corporation, which had concluded it was “useless to attempt to reform such untamed and turbulent spirits except by punishment.”4
Mrs. Fry held high hopes that girls like Agnes and Janet could become enterprising women if guided by example and training. Her volunteers assigned them to groups gathered around tables, where they were taught to sew clothing, knit socks, and make patchwork quilts. Elizabeth persuaded local merchants to donate materials and negotiated agreements to market the finished products in both England and Australia. Prisoners produced more than one hundred thousand articles over a five-year period,5 shared the profits, and purchased “small extra indulgences,” like fresh food, soap, and beer.6
The girls put down their needles and thread at three o’clock to consume their main meal of bread and soup. Boiled beef from the lower part of the quarters, known as “mouse buttock,” was served several times a week unless the gaolers stole it. With good intentions, Fry advocated serving the Newgate girls white bread rather than the cheaper brown loaves, which were actually more nutritious. Believing their diet too meager, Fry’s association hired a woman to run a prison shop that sold tea, coffee, butter, and sugar, although the prison inspector looked askance at what he considered the sale of luxuries.7
At six o’clock, the Quaker ladies bid farewell with another scripture reading in the prison chapel. The number of names carved into the pews recorded a high degree of boredom among prisoners. Still skeptical about the do-gooders, the two friends rolled their eyes as the well-dressed women exited. At the very least, the Quakers provided diversion from their caged routine. Once Mrs. Fry and her volunteers were out of sight, it was business as usual. Drinking resumed, hidden card decks magically appeared, and fights ensued until the Quakers returned the next day.
While their cell mates sized up the petite lasses with thick Scottish brogues, Agnes and Janet were busy figuring out whom they might trust. Their search for allies commenced without delay. The sooner they discovered who was dangerous, the better their chances of leaving Newgate unharmed. Having had some experience in gangs and in gaol, the girls had an easier time adapting than most. They quickly found out who played the roles of “fixer” and “scrounger.” At the top of the convict hierarchy, these were the inmates who knew how to get special treatment and what it might cost. Under Fry’s system, the prisoners elected monitors who essentially managed the ward, distributing food rations and reporting unruly inmates. They, too, extorted favors and payoffs from the women in their charge.
Entering this motley pack as a team afforded influence, particularly in a fluctuating prison society like Newgate. A duo could cover two places at once. Agnes ran for the food while Janet guarded the spot staked out for bedding. Two sets of eyes were more attentive to scams, schemes, and allegiances, which often incited unpleasant initiations. Bullies and troublemakers targeted the weak. Appearances mattered. In such close confinement, emotions escalated and mutated when the intoxicated or the deranged lashed out with pent-up fury and frustration, pulling hair or indiscriminately attacking with teeth and dirty fingernails. Insanity and the unpredictability of madness proved intimidating to even the most street-hardened. One careless move might provoke a deadly attack from someone possessed with what seemed like superhuman strength.
Elizabeth Fry spent thirty-five years devoted to prison reform, but even divine prayer and activism couldn’t purify this den of disease and corruption. Newgate seemed beyond God’s reach. Outbreaks of typhus, or “gaol fever,” spread by fleas and lice, killed countless women and children awaiting transport in the filthy, overcrowded cells. Seemingly contrary to common sense, prisoners were allowed to drink as much liquor as they could afford. Two taprooms conveniently adjoined the prison. Gaol keepers earned a hefty bonus keeping their charges drunk, docile, and “quite free from rioting.”8 The guards were often drunk themselves. Like hungry wolves in charge of sheep, some gaolers also turned a profit by smuggling prostitutes into the male ward.
Mrs. Fry and her association were disgusted to learn that even Newgate’s governor made a habit of selecting female prisoners as domestic servants whom he moved into his home. The high-principled Quakers were particularly taken aback when he handpicked one “young rosy-cheeked girl” to work in his kitchen and then overturned her transport sentence without bothering to consult the judge.9
A bustling economy, regulated by favors and bribery, thrived where justice lay inert. “Extortion was practised right and left.”10 Word traveled quickly about which guards could be bribed. Shillings or spirits paid for visits with loved ones and for contraband from the outside. Money bought better food and a cleaner cell. Gaolers sold hungry prisoners bread far above cost, collecting two pence halfpenny for a loaf.11 Entrepreneurial prisoners charged cell mates who awaited trial a few shillings to prepare their slipshod version of a legal brief. As a ruse to visit the women’s ward on Sundays and Wednesdays, male inmates claimed to be relatives and fraternized inappropriately.
Rather fluid contact with the outside world fueled an illicit, albeit tolerated, black market. Sellers of tobacco, playing cards, newspapers, and scandalous books wandered freely about the prison and hawked their wares. There was profit to be made in every part of Newgate, even the chapel. Gaolers charged the public a fee to attend the final sermon delivered to those awaiting execution. Some of the chaplains sold sad tales, confessed by the condemned, to broadsheet publishers, who marketed them to the crowds gathered on execution day.
Amid the madness and mayhem of Newgate, renegades quickly gained admiration. Prisoners took great joy in taunting their captors, and in defiance, mateship blossomed. Any girl who thumbed her nose at the authorities became a welcome addition to this pack of rabble-rousers and malcontents. Being a ballad singer, Agnes McMillan made the perfect rebel and certainly expanded her repertoire with new tunes from the bawdy company she now kept. To pass the long nights, the women often entertained one another and turned captivity into theater featuring inspired and risqué performances.
The talented Scottish lass sang fearlessly at the top of her lungs. Well-worn melodies were often parodied with original words belted out in heartfelt disdain toward the guards and the turnkeys. Denied light and air, the rebellious escaped in song and solidarity. Dancing, gambling, palm readings, and dressing in men’s clothing rounded out spirited entertainment that erupted nightly inside the fortress. Like Agnes, Janet, and their cell mates, English poet Richard Lovelace celebrated moments of freedom even inside gaol. In 1642, he wrote from a London prison: “Stone walls do not a prison make / Nor iron bars a cage.”
Between public executions outside Newgate and pandemonium within, “the day” finally arrived in the full heat of summer. After nearly two months in prison, it was Agnes’s turn to depart. The cost for the British government to transport her to Van Diemen’s Land was less than that to keep her in gaol, but the ships typically ran only twice a year.12
It was early morning on July 3, 1836. Two restless cell mates lay close together in the pitch-black cell. Agnes opened her eyes to the screeching sound of the metal locks in the door. Through the darkness she watched three gaolers enter with lanterns. As she tried to focus, a light flew in her face and blinded her for an instant. With that, a rough hand grabbed her arm, snapped her upright, and walked the sleepy girl on tiptoe toward the cell door. Janet was close behind. The guards shoved them down the narrow hallway to the matron’s desk, and she promptly crossed off two names from the Newgate roster. Reluctantly, they inched toward a smith who stood ready to rivet them into manacles and leg irons for the trip to the Woolwich docks. They all knew this day was coming, but it arrived without warning.
During Agnes’s time, Mrs. Fry and her volunteers visited the girls and women awaiting transport. Before this, the gaol had been notorious for riots and violence, which erupted when fear of the unknown loomed largest. As women learned of their impending departure, they broke windows and smashed chamber pots in fits of anger, often fueled by drunken rage. These days, although rumors always ran rampant, the actual date of departure was kept secret.
The compassionate Quaker approached redemption in a manner totally opposite that of most of her contemporaries. Convinced that humiliation and undue punishment snuffed out inherent worth, Fry wrote: “The good principle in the hearts of many abandoned persons may be compared to the few remaining sparks of a nearly extinguished fire. By means of the utmost care and attention united with the most gentle treatment, these may yet be fanned into a flame, but under the operation of a rough or violent hand, they will presently disappear and be lost forever.”13
Fry sought to soothe the soul and the spirit as she held the girls’ hands, touched their faces, and read the Bible. In meeting nearly half the transported women, she helped many find peace in accepting what they could not control. Elizabeth was not about to give up on girls like Agnes and Janet.
Properly secured in irons, the two friends stumbled down two flights of stone stairs and out of the gaol. Dawn began to break into full light, and London’s Old Bailey Street came alive with traffic, including a black carriage with boarded windows that stopped at Newgate’s entrance. A guard abruptly hoisted the prisoners into the waiting wagon, slammed the door shut, and left them in a black vacuum. Janet sat silently, chained beside Agnes, deprived of sight. In the darkness, both sets of ears became acutely aware, straining to listen for clues about what would happen next: the grating of hinges as the guard bolted the carriage closed, the horse snorting and clomping its hooves in readiness, the sound of the springs as the driver mounted the carriage and the guard jumped aboard.
This same scene occurred in gaols across the British Isles as the roundup of “notorious strumpets” continued for the next six weeks. Their transport ship, the Westmoreland, awaited their arrival with stoic patience along the Woolwich docks. Had Agnes been banished a few years earlier, she’d have made the trip through London in an open wagon. Elizabeth Fry had lobbied Parliament to end the practice of transferring the women in exposed carts, where onlookers stoned and heckled them. Still, everyone knew what the covered hearses carried. To make certain spectators didn’t attack the transport wagons, Mrs. Fry often followed them in her private buggy.
Agnes’s eyes rolled back in her head as she fought the pitch and toss of the carriage. She struggled against the manacles, trying to ignore her matted hair and fingernails layered in grime. Composing herself long enough to let out a sigh, she thought about Goosedubbs Street. It seemed so long ago, but barely four years had passed since her twelfth birthday, when she last saw her mother, Mary. The grey-eyed girl knew little about geography but was perceptive enough to know that her life was about to change in ways she’d never imagined. At fifteen, she may have grown wise enough to deny herself the luxury of self-pity. Regrets and what-ifs would only distract her from figuring out how to stay safe and alive. Agnes had decided not to give up.
In the midsummer heat and humidity, most of the journey was spent in dumbfounded silence, baking inside the black carriage. It was a rolling, jostling, hypnotic mix of sound, heat, and darkness. More than one girl lost consciousness as she fell against the prisoner chained beside her. As the horse-drawn cart approached Woolwich, a confusing cacophony exploded in a mix of swearing, catcalls, and stone throwing, which stopped only when Mrs. Fry stepped out of her carriage.
Nearing the dock, Agnes smelled the river and heard the unmistakable screech of seabirds. Tense with anticipation as the cart shuddered to a halt, Agnes felt weighted down by the heavy irons on her hands and feet. The wagon strained and leaned to the left when the driver stepped off. His whips rattled against the seat. Muttering, grunts, and heavy breathing alerted the girls that a group of men had surrounded the carriage, poised to inspect the latest female freight. The bolted latch creaked open and interrupted the lascivious chatter all around them. A sudden, blinding light illuminated the carriage. In a flash, the bulky guard yanked first Janet and then her chum from their temporary womb. Struggling to regain her focus and balance, Agnes tripped over her leg irons and followed Janet’s clumsy steps toward the small boat waiting to take them to the Westmoreland.
The boarded carriage had drawn a crowd of hecklers, gossipmongers, and curious passersby. Some looked on the girls with pity, some with scorn, and others with a smirk that sent chills down Agnes’s spine. Once the carriage was emptied, the guard pushed the girls in chains toward a skiff at the edge of the dock. In hobbled steps, they shuffled down the gangway and crawled into the launch. The boat gave way under the weight and rocked in the river as the other women in irons were ushered aboard. Agnes could hardly breathe. The coxswain pushed off from the dock, and it hit her hard. There would be no coming back. Her feet had touched English soil for the last time.
Puffs of morning fog clung to the river as the oars slipped in and out of the water and propelled the small boat forward. The Westmoreland loomed like a specter in the Thames, mastheads eerily luminous in the early sun. Its overhanging gangplank seemed to poke a warning through the morning mist. Agnes wished she might awaken from this bad dream, but the rhythmic splash of the oars only reinforced the finality of her journey into heaven knew what.
As the ship strained and shifted in its mooring, a breeze blew the fog away, and morning sunlight transformed the scene from shades of soupy grey into brilliant color. In the clear light of day, Agnes looked up and realized she had an audience. Lining the starboard side, the crew leaned against the rail and ogled the new cargo about to board. She was on display like a prize cow at a farmers’ market, and she didn’t like it one bit. The waiting sailors whistled, licked their lips, and made the rudest of gestures with their tongues. Many of these “Lord Mayor’s men” were themselves conscripted during sweeps in pubs and prisons. Because the Navy charged enlistees for clothing, these men made their own roughly stitched tunics and tied them in place with a rope. The scraggly apprentices dressed in a motley assortment of wide trousers, which could be rolled above the knees for swabbing the deck. In contrast, the British naval officers, charged with navigation and discipline, wore tailored dark-blue uniforms sporting white collars and gold braiding. They were expected to remain above the fray but did little to restrain the crew from “a bit of fun.”
The oars were raised and the small launch bumped gently against the Westmoreland. The coxswain steadied the boat as his cargo of exiles made their way up the gangplank onto the ship’s main deck. The Officer of the Guard adjusted his brimmed wool hat and directed Agnes and the others on board. Still in manacles, making her way forward to the poop deck, Agnes was plunked down on a short three-legged stool. A shirtless sailor greeted her with a large hammer, puffing up his barrel chest to show off a tattoo. The deckhands, many mere lads themselves, watched in amusement as the sweaty smith leaned against Agnes’s belly, smiling his gap-toothed grin. Harassment of the young girls aboard ship was legendary and, for the most part, ignored by the authorities. So long as the prisoners arrived in one piece, anything the crew did was more or less forgivable. If they arrived pregnant, it was all the better. The Crown’s plan to populate Van Diemen’s Land moved forward ahead of schedule.
Agnes was young and pretty, and her good looks often made life more difficult. Undoubtedly a target of taunting by crew members, she held her shift tight against her legs as the smith put on a performance for each manacle he unfastened. Given her street scrappiness, the tiny girl faced off against a crowd of staring sailors, grasping the stool with a death grip, determined to shed not a single tear. A loud clang reverberated as her irons fell to the deck, and the raucous winking sailors let out a cheer. With a vulgar chuckle, the smith freed Agnes to go aft for inspection by the ship’s surgeon. Eyes full though not yet overflowing, she stood up straight as a bolt and willed herself not to trip over the heavy rigging, coiled like snakes all over the deck.
A Boatful of Bonnets
Surgeon Superintendent James Ellis, the man responsible for delivering Agnes to Van Diemen’s Land, leaned against the wood railing, black logbook in hand. As the first boatful of girls came alongside the Westmoreland , he shot an admonishing glance toward the leering crew. Straightening the brim on his cocked hat and squaring his shoulders under gleaming gold epaulets, the surgeon made his way toward the gangplank. He was dressed in a double-breasted blue uniform with brass buttons and a short silk necktie pinned neatly under his shirt collar.
Prior to 1814, there was no government supervision monitoring how women were treated during the average four months at sea. Transport companies received twenty to thirty pounds sterling per head and packed women and men in such close confinement that disease killed up to one-third of the human cargo. Payment was collected for the convicts whether or not they arrived alive. That practice changed in 1815 when the Royal Navy appointed a surgeon superintendent to every ship. He allocated food servings, delivered infants, and treated illnesses such as alcohol withdrawal, typhus, and syphilis.
Surgeon Superintendent Ellis opened his leather-bound ledger to begin the tedious task of recording the names, ages, and physical characteristics of the newly arrived prisoners: Agnes McMillan, age sixteen, fresh complexion, grey eyes, light brown hair, oval visage, no pockmarks or scars.14Although still only fifteen, she must have wanted to appear more adult, and without birth records on hand, the surgeon took her word for it. Names and dates were sometimes approximated in the records. Misspellings and inconsistencies were all too common.
While being measured—five feet, one and one-quarter inches—Agnes tried not to look at Mr. Ellis. Like all prisoners, she didn’t trust the authorities. While she was the one being measured, the grey-eyed girl was most certainly sizing up the opposition, not liking in the least what she saw. The surgeon superintendent was wearing his full Navy regalia, and Agnes had never had good experiences with men in uniform. His white collar was so full of starch that the skin on his neck hung over it like turkey wattle. It screamed of rules and regulations.
Janet Houston was next in line: age seventeen, fresh complexion, hazel eyes, red hair, oval visage, and no facial marks. She took off her shoes and was measured at five feet, three-quarters inches tall. Stern yet unexpectedly polite, Surgeon Superintendent Ellis handed the girls a sponge and a hunk of soap. The fully clothed sponge bath took place right on deck next to a cask of water. Among the first to embark on the Westmoreland, Janet and Agnes treasured the luxury of relatively clean water and fresh soap made from lard and lye. For the first time in months, Agnes scrubbed her hair and fingernails and used the sponge to clean her ankles and feet. She was happy to remove Newgate’s grime, but her elation ceased when Mr. Ellis picked up her fashionable brown leather boots. He looked them over and handed them back to a relieved Agnes.
In earlier transports, the ship’s supply list included “clothing for use during the voyage.” But by 1836, this no longer appeared, and the allowance was enforced sporadically.15 Many prisoners arrived with only the clothes on their backs, and with no means of repairing items that would be worn threadbare on slippery decks, in driving rain, and through frigid temperatures. Agnes’s sturdy boots would come in handy in Van Die-men’s Land, but she learned quickly that bare feet served her better on the ship.
Drawing a simple X, the fifteen-year-old signed the convict record list that bound her as official property of the Crown for the next seven years. Agnes’s 113-day journey had just begun. Her new world measured 28 feet between the scuppers and 133 feet stem to stern. The Westmoreland , built four years earlier, was a three-masted barque, registered at 404 tons, under the command of Captain Brigstock. The ship had spent the last month at Deptford, where it was fitted with guns and munitions for protection against pirates and mutineers. After the convict hulk had passed inspection by the Government Agent for Transports, a steamer towed it to Woolwich for mooring at a spot known as “the Bony off the Butt.”16 Here she lay ready to accept her human cargo. The vessel would eventually carry 185 female prisoners, their children, and a crew of 28 boys and men.
Surgeon Superintendent Ellis handed Agnes and Janet a wooden bowl and spoon, a blanket, and a bed tick of heavy cotton filled with straw. Primitive mattresses in hand, the Glasgow girls followed a waiting officer through a bulkhead, down a cramped ladder, then through another hatchway to the orlop deck. This was the ship’s lowest deck. Two tiers of berths filled the tight space designed to pack in as many bodies as would fit head to toe, like tins of sardines tucked into His Majesty’s larder. Once in the ship’s bowels, Agnes was assigned a berth. Her bed and refuge aboard the Westmoreland was eighteen inches wide and four feet long, an elevated plank a foot and a half above Janet’s berth. Across the aisle, another two prisoners would be squeezed into the stuffy passage.
While Agnes leaned over to lay out her bedding, she took in a deep breath and began choking on fumes emanating from beneath her feet. The Westmoreland was only a few years old but had already developed a distinct odor. Prisoners slept on the lowest deck right above the bilge, distinguished by a rotting stench from accumulating human waste and dead rats. Accustomed to the open air in the wynds, Agnes couldn’t escape soon enough. The officer ushered her back to the main hatch and pointed to two tiny water closets in the center of the ship. Feeling a bit woozy in this floating cesspool, she stumbled toward the hatch ladder. Janet remembered to duck under the beams and pushed Agnes’s head down to help her avoid a nasty gash.
Back on deck, the two friends watched a line of women, some pregnant and others holding children in their arms, waiting to sign the surgeon’s ledger. Once topside, Agnes and Janet were immediately put to work scrubbing the deck. They soon learned that cleaning the ship was a never-ending task rotated among the prisoners. At midafternoon, they were assigned to a mess of six women and fed salted beef, cabbage soup, and a biscuit. This meal needed to last them until breakfast the next morning. Under the auspices of the Royal Navy, the girls were allotted two-thirds the naval ration.17 This might have been adequate were it not for widespread corruption among the crew. “Rascally masters and their stewards did not hesitate to employ false weights and measures, and more than one ships’ captain was accused of having set up store on arrival and retailed, at an exorbitant profit, the rations withheld from the convicts.”18
The night watch came on deck as the ship’s bell rang eight times. After the final prisoner inspection at eight o’clock, the girls were locked inside their berth and secured under two decks of hatches bolted shut. Gossiping about their new companions, the duo spoke in hushed tones through velvety black claustrophobia until the lapping of the waves against the hull lulled them to sleep.
The ship’s bell sounded again: six bells, morning watch. Agnes looked up. She was only half awake. Perhaps she was dreaming. The fifteen-year-old tumbled out of her berth. Her neck hurt. She was only five feet tall, but her narrow bed, only slightly wider than her petite frame, didn’t allow her to turn over without a delicate balancing act. As she untangled her arms, coarse wool scratched against her skin. At least she had a blanket. Her eyes lingered on the drops of water that slipped between the ship’s seams and reappeared as a stain on the lower planks. Anchor chains strained against the river’s current, and creaking beams oozed a rush of bitter smells from the Westmoreland’s bowels. It was six o’clock in the morning, and she was already feeling queasy.
As the Officer of the Guard whistled through his pipe, Agnes scampered toward the newly opened hatch. She tossed her blanket over her shoulder, grabbed her bowl and spoon, and scurried up the narrow hatch opening, around the corner to a steep ladder for the final climb to the upper deck. Being young and fast moved Agnes to the front of the line for breakfast, but first she would have to pass daily inspection by Surgeon Superintendent Ellis.
Up on deck, a big barrel of water greeted a sleepy Agnes just as she rounded the main mast. Bending over the open cask under the watchful eyes of an officer, one of the swabbies scooped a sloppy cupful of the greyish liquid and shoved it into Agnes’s hands. The water was drinkable by the standards of the day, light grey and murky, and the surgeon told the girls it would lessen seasickness. Accustomed to drinking beer rather than dirty water, Agnes took a few sips and splashed the rest on her face and tangled hair, just enough to jolt into full consciousness. Mr. Ellis took a glance inside her mouth, checked for fever, and administered the daily allotment of lime juice.
A wisp of fog clung to the river, but the sky was cloudless and ideal for Agnes to air her blanket on deck. Agnes wanted to keep the wool fresh for as long as possible. No one seemed to know how long the upcoming sea voyage would take, but she had heard rumblings from the crew about a previous trip taking four months. For now, she was stuck on a floating prison, tantalizingly close to but irrevocably separated from the land that had exiled her.
The longest time Agnes had spent on a boat was the fifteen minutes it took to ferry across the River Clyde in Scotland with Janet and Helen. Perhaps a bowl of the slimy gruel served for breakfast would help settle the young Scot’s stomach. Worse yet, she had to contend with those bloody bells, clanging every half hour, bringing a perpetual headache.
Within four weeks of being stuck on the river in summer’s heat, Agnes hated the Westmoreland, the ship that never lay still in its mooring. When the ship swayed one way, she leaned the other, but nothing she tried could prevent her seasickness. Janet held on to her mate as she leaned over the railing and spit up the gruel. On August 1, Surgeon Superintendent Ellis admitted Agnes to his hospital for “obstinate costiveness,” constipation typically caused by dehydration from seasickness and the animal fat in a new diet.19 For her treatment, the petite lass was forced to endure generous doses of calomel, a mercury compound used for intestinal purging. Instead of helping patients, this nineteenth-century remedy caused bleeding gums, mouth sores, and more dehydration. After three days in the infirmary, Mr. Ellis released Agnes. She wondered if she would ever get used to the constant rocking.
It was a very humid August, and Agnes felt a bit better back on deck in the river’s breeze. The morning sun had burned off the fog from the river. Agnes closed her eyes for a moment, leaned on the rail, and felt the warm light on her face. For a second she felt free. The fantasy soon passed, and with a gentle sigh she opened her eyes to a most curious sight. As the young prisoner glanced over the bulkhead, she spotted a boatful of bonnets headed toward the ship.
Elizabeth Fry sat prim and proper in an approaching skiff, filled with members of the Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. She founded this group in 1821 to address conditions on the convict ships and to include groups that had been founded across Europe and modeled after her Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate.
Captain Brigstock spied the visitors, buttoned his waistcoat, and barked orders at his crew. In an instant, sailors appeared out of nowhere, jumping around like wild monkeys. Barefoot to reduce slipping, the young mariners laid out the gangplank while the officers and mates prepared a proper reception for the arriving dignitaries.
Surgeon Superintendent Ellis straightened his silk tie and brushed his epaulets into place as sailors marched all the convict girls and women onto the main deck. The Westmoreland had taken on prisoners for the last five weeks and was nearly filled to capacity. Among the youngest on board, Agnes pushed forward with her trademark curiosity. She couldn’t see over the rail, but she could hear rich people exchanging pleasantries, talking in the unmistakable accent of the upper class. Amid the shouts and confusion, one sound stood out from the rest. Agnes stood mesmerized by the approaching rustle of skirts—big full skirts with lots of crisp, white petticoats. Her thief ’s awareness suddenly tuned to high. Oh, to possess such finery, someday, someday.
The bonnet appeared first, capping the rest of the simply coiffed, impeccably dressed Elizabeth Gurney Fry. Serene and radiant with purpose, the Quaker reformer projected a powerful presence. Bound by a whalebone corset, pale, powdered, and stately, she stepped on board ready to battle for the reformation of “the poor creatures.” Over the course of twenty years, Mrs. Fry visited 106 ships that carried nearly half the women transported, at times even risking her life to make the trip in terrible storms.
Today, Mrs. Fry had enlisted some of London’s more prominent women to help “save” Agnes and the others awaiting transport. As the well-to-do ladies boarded the Westmoreland, Agnes could think of nothing but their dresses, how dear they were, each one a masterwork of delicate stitching across layers of soft silk, just like the ones she had coveted on the Cross at Kilmarnock. She snapped out of her daydream as Mrs. Fry began to speak, greeting Captain Brigstock and Surgeon Superintendent Ellis first.
After reading a short prayer, the earnest Quaker lectured her captive female audience about “abandoning their evil ways, and becoming Useful Members of Society.”20 Opening her Bible to the twentieth chapter of Matthew, she read the parable of the lord of the vineyard and explained its passages.21 Although Agnes and Janet stood in polite deference to the woman who had been so kind inside Newgate’s hell, the angel of gaols rambled on, as she spoke with “thys,” “thees,” and “thous.” The friends who didn’t need to speak to know what the other was thinking suppressed simultaneous yawns. Finishing the sermon at last, Mrs. Fry moved closer to her audience and asked if anyone wanted a message delivered to a parent or loved one. This was Agnes’s last chance to communicate with her mother, Mary.
Mr. Ellis called for quiet and motioned the prisoners forward one at a time. Soon, the Scottish lassie stood face-to-face with the celebrated reformer. Drawing a deep breath of Mrs. Fry’s starched lace and perfume, Agnes curtsied and bowed her head. First, Mrs. Fry handed her a Bible, paving the way for redemption of her soul. Next, she pressed into Agnes’s hands a small burlap bag filled with precisely measured patchwork pieces, a thimble, colored thread, and needles. From the depths of her soul, Elizabeth believed that industry paved the path toward reform and an ultimately productive return to society. In the meantime, sewing hundreds and hundreds of tiny stitches gave the confined women something to do, keeping their minds off rebellion and other wicked enterprises. A finished quilt sometimes served as a political statement. When presented to a member of high society in Van Diemen’s Land, it offered tangible evidence of Elizabeth’s successful association.
Finally, the tall Quaker looked serenely upon the simply dressed grey-eyed girl and hung a small tin ticket, stamped with #253, around her neck. It became a symbol of her punishment for stealing a warm pair of stockings. It was also her voucher for travel to the Cascades Female Factory on the other side of the world. For the remainder of her exile, Agnes would be referred to as #253. Janet would soon be rechristened #284, as the two were initiated into an ever-growing sisterhood of sorrow.22
Fry’s system of numbering and ordering seemed contradictory to her compassionate understanding of why Agnes had become a thief. A complicated woman, Mrs. Fry fervently believed that discipline hastened the road to redemption. With some reluctance, the British government adopted most of the recommendations outlined in her 1827 Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence, and Government of Female Prisoners, including her system of numbering:
“Every individual . . . may wear a ticket inscribed with a number by which she shall be distinguished. . . . Especially in convict-ships, the plan of numbering the prisoners will never fail to be advantageous. . . . This number must not only be found in the class-list connected with a register of her conduct, but must be inscribed on all the principal articles which belong to her—especially her seat at table, her clothing, her bed and bedding, and her books. Such a system is found by experience to be very effectual in preventing disputes among the prisoners, and in promoting that strictness of discipline which is essential to the order and regularity of the whole machine.”23
Numbers documented every movement in the transportation system: first a convict number, then a probationary Ticket of Leave, and finally the welcome stamp on a numbered Certificate of Freedom. Aboard ship, the captain and the surgeon superintendent found it easier to keep track of numbers than names, particularly with so many Marys, Anns, and Sarahs in their charge. Counting the cargo lined up by the numbers minimized confusion and saved time. Surgeon Superintendent Roberts, who served on the ship Royal Admiral, took note of Fry’s impact on the prisoners: “Those women who had for any time been under prison discipline, and had received the attention and care of Ladies Societies, more definitely those of Newgate and Edinburgh, were decidedly the best behaved and orderly . . . and their grateful recollections of such kindness and care was deeply implanted and cherished by them.”24
Agnes stared at the red cord and tin marker that had been placed around her neck. The gentle Quaker gave the little lass in her well-worn green dress a reassuring smile and reached forward with a small bundle. These final parting gifts to the newly christened #253 included a practical black cotton cap, a burlap apron to protect her one dress, and a sack in which to store beloved trinkets. Agnes fingered the small tin ticket that hung between her breasts, lingering to grasp its significance until the first mate jerked her back into line for the closing prayer. The Quaker minister and her friends adjusted their full skirts. They knelt on the nearly spotless deck that the female prisoners had dry-holystoned earlier to scrub off the dangerously slick grime constantly deposited by wind and rain.
The service went on and on, and the sun blazed down over the unprotected audience. It was well past two before the proselytizing ended. Agnes could barely keep her eyes open. By the time the ship’s bell rang for lunch, her Scottish nose glowed with a fine case of sunburn, a sensation quite foreign to a lass accustomed to Glasgow’s overcast skies.
The Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners continued to come aboard every few days for the remainder of the Westmoreland’s stay in Woolwich. By the time the ship lay ready to sail, a few of the older girls had gamely mastered vivid impressions of the upper-class philanthropists. The rowdy thespians performed their one-act play nightly, belowdecks, to rave reviews of muffled laughter. Four months from now, laughter could bring the punishment of shorn hair. Presently, the girls could savor a quiet giggle at the expense of the women in white petticoats.
Lying in her berth, Agnes opened and shut the Bible Mrs. Fry had slipped into her arms. It was of little use for spiritual solace, full of words on pages she could not read, but it was comforting to have something of her own. As she quickly leafed through the volume, she watched her berth mates put the Good Book to more practical purposes. Women accustomed to having nothing let nothing go to waste. Their God was a God of utility. One used the Bible for primping, tearing pages for curling papers in her hair.25 Another folded its sheets into even squares and made a deck of playing cards.
In the logbooks above deck, Agnes’s namelessness reinforced her baptism into anonymity under Britain’s Transportation Act. It belied her true function as breeder and tamer for a motley aggregation of felons, freemen, and adventurers currently wandering the wilds of Van Die-men’s Land. Belowdecks, the name Mary and Michael McMillan had given their daughter in 1820 grew ever more precious. Four years before, Agnes had concocted the fake name “Agnes Reddie,” hoping to hide her identity from the judge and the gavel. Her clumsy lie had only made him more determined to deport her. Now her real name had never seemed more important. She wasn’t going to give it up that easily. As #253 drifted off to restless sleep, she whispered five defiant words into the Westmoreland’s darksome hold: “My name is Agnes McMillan.”
King Neptune’s Visit
The ship’s routine changed abruptly at dawn on August 12, 1836, when the mooring was released and the Westmoreland started its journey down the Thames under the tow of a steamer and pilot. It carried 185 convicts and their 18 children. An Australian folk song titled “Convict Maid” conveys what many must have felt that fateful morning:
To you that hear my mournful tale
I cannot half my grief reveal
No sorrow yet has been portrayed
Like that of the poor Convict Maid
Far from my friends and home so dear
My punishment is most severe
My woe is great and I’m afraid
That I shall die a Convict Maid26
The Westmoreland had to travel nearly thirty miles down the Thames to reach the mouth of the river. As the prisoners bid farewell to their native shore, the good fortune of favorable weather was not with them. As they sailed east, strong headwinds slowed the ship to a crawl. The river gradually widened and disappeared into the frosty North Sea white caps. Belowdecks, the women and children were tossed about while the barque pitched back and forth in the open waters. A strong wind carried the ship beyond Margate, around the North Foreland, and past the white cliffs of Dover. After thirteen days of seasick misery, the Westmoreland finally cleared the channel and headed into the Atlantic Ocean.
Surgeon Superintendent Ellis made this entry in his diary: “On putting to sea, we were so unfortunate as to encounter strong westerly winds, and it was not until the 24th of the month that we had cleared the channel; during this period the prisoners suffered very much from sea sickness more so inclined than I had ever seen on any former occasion, and which as is usually the case, was followed by obstinate costiveness, requiring the most active purgative medicine to subdue it. . . .”27 For the second time, the surgeon admitted #253 to the infirmary, administered calomel for her constipation, and released her two days later on August 26. After two treatments, no matter how sick she felt or how much she vomited, Agnes vowed she would never ask Mr. Ellis for one more spoonful of his bilious medicine.
Allowed back on deck, Agnes squinted in the sunlight and watched young sailors scramble up rope ladders forty feet in the air to the mast platforms, then to the top of the yardarms, where they swayed like tiny dolls suspended by threads. Sails unfurled, the Westmoreland cruised full speed ahead, heading west with the wind at her back.
Agnes stared long and hard at the horizon that day, watching England fall into the sea, knowing in her heart she’d never see it again. Once the ship reached the open Atlantic, it sailed quickly, soon rounding Spain and heading south off the coast of Portugal. Favorable winds carried them past the mouth of the Mediterranean toward Madeira and Cape Verde, traveling more than a thousand miles the first week. Crashing through the waves, they entered the Tropic of Cancer and its sticky weather, rendering sleep on the lowest deck nearly impossible.
Agnes listened through the steamy blackness. Like clockwork, after the surgeon retired to his berth at nine o’clock, the crew reopened the orlop’s hatch. Officers hushed the group of waiting women who had hardened themselves to the harshness of survival. The will to live trumped all matters of the heart. To be taken as a “wife” by a sailor sometimes offered protection from rape by the other men.
The laws of land dissolved at sea. While the Westmoreland stayed within sight of England, the crew maintained some degree of decorum. Once the shore dropped out of sight, new rules took hold. Each transport ship became a society unto itself. A few, particularly those that carried clergymen, functioned with relative harmony and order. They were the exception. Most captains permitted free rein over how the sailors treated their female cargo. None of this was new to Agnes and Janet, who had seen it all in Glasgow’s alleyways.
Days turned to weeks, and the blues of sky and ocean merged into what seemed an infinite horizon. Time seemed to warp and come unhinged in the floating society. On September 11, 1836, Agnes turned sixteen somewhere off the west coast of Africa. It was a world away from Goosedubbs Street; she’d been at sea for nearly a month. Older women often adopted the younger transports, offering motherly protection against ever-eager advances from the crew. The streetwise girls were well accustomed to propositions from stinky old men who offered gin in return for sexual favors. Still, each proposition carried danger and disgust.
In their time aboard ship, Agnes and Janet witnessed things few people see in a lifetime. The Transportation Policy, in its haste to develop Australia, indiscriminately rounded up prisoners who were violent criminals, alcoholics, mentally ill, and mothers with infants. It also accepted outcasts from higher society—children born of scandal—including the rumored illegitimate daughter of a prime minister.
The long trip to Van Diemen’s Land had the curious effect of landing Agnes and Janet in a second season of summer. They cast off in August, at the height of London’s summertime heat, and arrived in December, again at summer’s peak in the Southern Hemisphere. Chasing the ships across the tropics and down to the bottom of the world, the sun unleashed merciless, unrelenting heat, day in and day out. The atmosphere dripped with humidity. As the girls baked in the stifling heat and were suffocated by the ship’s lack of ventilation, the compounded stench of decay and disease hit them like a blunt instrument. Belowdecks, the reek of vomit followed Agnes everywhere. The ship’s privies and bilges coalesced in noxious vapors from which there was no escape. Of course, there was no actual bathing because fresh water was at a premium.
At least when the weather was fair, most everyone found relief on deck, watching the horizon rise and fall into endless shades of green and blue. Topside for a luxurious breath of fresh air, Agnes startled and nearly jumped over the rail as the sound of gunfire thundered through the ship. Sailors fired pistols belowdecks, believing that gunpowder purged infectious vapors from the air. The lower decks were also fumigated by burning brimstone (sulfur) and sprinkling everything that didn’t breathe with chloride of lime. The bleaching powder covered Agnes’s bedding, her clothing, and her light brown hair.
In order to reach Australia, the Westmoreland had to sail a long way west to round Africa’s coast. As the ship crossed the tropics, Captain Brigstock watched the sky for weather that changed in a flash. Schooners fell into the path of many a rising hurricane blowing off the Sahara and Serengeti. Like Agnes, most of the female prisoners had never been on a boat before, even under the best of conditions. During storms, the wet pitching deck turned into a rolling death trap. Everyone on board, except the most experienced crew, became violently seasick as the heaving waves rose in angry chaos. The screaming wind drowned out any sound save the most frantic orders shouted through a megaphone.
The scent of the sea air changed as a storm advanced. Agnes smelled the ozone in the atmosphere as lightning crackled in billowing thunder-heads and the sky thickened with charged electricity. Turbulent clouds off Africa’s west coast erupted like enraged hordes, blotting out the sun and swallowing the ship in their fury. The seas heaved, the crew tensed, and the captain screamed directions to keep the sailors focused and alive.
With little warning, a wall of wind and water approached the ship, poised to knock it over with a deadly strike. Barefooted sailors clung desperately to the rigging, frantically trying to reef the sails as thirty-foot waves submerged the ship’s bow. The beams of the Westmoreland sprang to life, creaking and wailing under the pounding surge. Mary Talbot, an Irish convict, recorded this account of a storm while aboard ship: “During every moment of its continuance we expected to perish, and were washed out of our beds between decks, while the sea-sickness and groans and shrieks of so many unhappy wretches made the situation we were in truly distressing. . . .”28
For the orlop girls, there was nothing to do but cling to one another and wait it out. The roar of howling winds, the explosion of thunder, and the crash of broken rigging assaulted the prisoners who shivered belowdecks. Bodies, Bibles, and everything else not secured flew about the cabin. Surgeon Superintendent Ellis lashed the sick to their beds with the coarse ropes used on deck. The insane cried out in agony while the intensity of the tempest swallowed all but the loudest screams. Two hundred three terrified women and children had no choice but to huddle together in the soaking darkness until the storm subsided or the ship broke asunder.
Force-five gales tore some convict ships to pieces. Passengers who were hit by a falling mast or spar died instantly. Most didn’t know how to swim and expired in panicked drowning amid the raging upheaval in the open sea. At least six convict ships sank in ocean storms, taking the lives of 246 women.29 The year before Agnes’s transport, the Neva departed Cork filled to capacity with transports. After five months at sea, it hit a reef and crashed on the rocks off King’s Island, located at the northwestern tip of Van Diemen’s Land. The wreck claimed the lives of 151 women, 55 children, and 18 crew members.30
Fortunately, the Westmoreland survived. Between episodes of frightening intensity, Agnes’s saga unfolded with monotonous regularity, marked by the maddening toll of the bells every half hour. On some days, #253 gave thanks for having a place to sleep, recalling the nights she’d spent wandering the streets of Glasgow with Janet and Helen. Every morning at sunrise, she heard the heavy hatch creak open as the Officer of the Guard unchained the locks. A burst of light in her face signaled that it was time, once again, to put her bare feet on the slippery floor.
Temperatures rose with a vengeance as the Westmoreland navigated the tropics. A month at sea, not a bed lay empty in the one-room hospital. On September 19, seventeen-year-old Jane Thompson stumbled into the infirmary, coughing up blood. Surgeon Ellis diagnosed her with hemoptysis, a severe lung infection that he treated with bloodletting or purging. The girl who had been transported for stealing a purse spent the rest of the journey wasting away in sick bay.
Within six weeks of leaving Woolwich, the Westmoreland reached the equator. It was September 24, and she was headed southeast into the Gulf of Guinea off Africa’s coast. The winds were steady and the sky beautifully clear that morning, as Janet and Agnes rose to muster with the banging of pots and pans. The ship had crossed the equator during the first morning watch, and now that the sun was up, the crew prepared for a special visit from King Neptune. A rambunctious din exploded on the main deck when the strong door sprung open and two sailors—dressed in grass skirts, painted in blackface, and adorned with strange sigils—enthusiastically motioned the women on deck. The fully intoxicated boys were amusing, particularly because the sun had just risen above the horizon. A much grander spectacle grabbed Agnes’s immediate attention. It was King Neptune, the ruler of all oceans, incarnated by a tattooed sailor wearing the skin of a porpoise and a crown of seaweed in his hair, and holding a trident.
Blindfolded and stripped to the waist, two cabin boys and one young mate, Neptune’s pollywogs, stood ready to be initiated into this ancient mariners’ tradition. This was their first venture across the equator. Once initiated, they were allowed to pierce their ears and call themselves sailors of the Seven Seas. First, one of the “old salts” shaved their heads. Then the boys were ordered to kneel on deck and kiss Neptune’s belly, conveniently covered with a combination of grease and bilge residue. As a final insult, the initiates were forced to drink from Neptune’s cup, a disgusting concoction prepared by the crew and laced with the surgeon’s strongest laxatives. The tribute to the ruler of all oceans unfolded with elaborate and exaggerated pomp and circumstance, much to the prisoners’ shock and delight. As children of the streets, the girls found humor in the most unlikely places. Appreciating such absurdity, Agnes enjoyed it to the fullest. It felt good to giggle, arm in arm with Janet, laughing at the hapless initiates, releasing tension, and feeling for a moment like a carefree young girl.
Some captains banned the King Neptune ritual altogether, fearing a breakdown in discipline among the crew. Fortunately, Captain Brigstock maintained a fairly tight ship. He tolerated drunkenness to a point but had a hand ready to take up the lash if necessary. The captain stood at the helm, observing the festivities with detached amusement, taking advantage of the good weather, and allowing the crew and the women some levity before the final stretch of their transit.
By now, everything and everyone was for sale. When fresh food ran low, cooks sometimes sold precious remnants to the highest bidder, trading a piece of maggot-free beef for sexual favors in the galley. At this point in the journey, Agnes and her shipmates had fallen into biological synchrony and began sharing the same menstrual cycle. Everyone knew when a woman had missed her period. This was the time when pregnancies, begot by the crew, were discovered and seasickness merged into morning sickness. Birth control was primitive at best. Women douched with their daily allowance of dirty water. Some found protection using a cup made of beeswax. Even back in England, only the wealthy could afford “British overcoats,” a condom made from sheep membranes. Crew members made many promises to their shipboard “wives,” but even if they wanted to marry the mother of their child, the captain rarely allowed them to leave his service. Their sons and daughters would be delivered under different skies and different stars in another hemisphere.
The ship continued south, and even the night skies began to change. No longer could Agnes see the North Star that shone above Glasgow. A new constellation, the Southern Cross, began to rise above the horizon as the heat remained oppressive. Seasickness assaulted all but a very few as raging seas pounded the ship. Passage through the tropics continued into early October, while “inflammatory fever,” dysentery, and pleurisy swept through the lowest deck. Elevating the girls’ misery to a new plateau, common symptoms for dysentery were described as follows: “Violent griping and purging, great pain in the abdomen with great thirst, stools consist almost entirely of blood and are very offensive; tongue is coated with a brown fur.”31
Now nearly two months at sea, Surgeon Ellis had treated 160 of the 185 prisoners, many requiring multiple infirmary stays. Two women presented the classic symptoms for scurvy—bleeding gums and bleeding under the skin—and were promptly administered extra doses of lime juice and sugar. Women who were pregnant when they boarded ship began to require medical treatment. On October 6, the day the Westmoreland entered the Tropic of Capricorn, Sarah Slow was admitted to sick bay for disability and pregnancy. The thirty-one-year-old fresh-faced governess had received a life sentence for forgery.
In the ninth week at sea, on strong steady winds, the ship finally headed due east again, recrossing the Greenwich meridian just west of the Cape of Good Hope. The irony of passing the Cape of Good Hope was not lost on the women. The voyage lapsed into an eternity. As they crossed the opposite side of the earth, propelled by the powerful winds along the Roaring Forties, the waters of the Atlantic merged into the Indian Ocean. The brutal sun, nearing its zenith, chased them all the way around the globe. Temperatures belowdecks often exceeded 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Tempers erupted in the stinky, cramped quarters. The nonstop use of two water closets provoked daily fights. There was no singing belowdecks, not even for Agnes.
Somewhere mid-ocean, after weeks of suffering from seasickness and constipation, Agnes lost her humor and good spirits, turning rambunctious and angry. Surgeon Ellis recorded #253’s behavior in a word: “Bad.”32 Janet, on the other hand, he described as “orderly.”33 Agnes was lucky to hang on to her hair as she walked a fine line trying the patience of the surgeon, the man responsible for disciplining the prisoners. Thankfully, Mr. Ellis was progressive for his time and disputed the effectiveness of head shaving. Many women dreaded losing their hair more than any other punishment, but there would be no shearing on his watch. In 1833, Ellis wrote: “when this is once done, in place of bringing about a better conduct it renders them still more incorrigible, fancying as they do, that they have suffered the last and worse degradation. . . .”34
On some transport ships, the surgeon superintendent flogged misbehaving girls with pieces of rope whipped across their arms and the backs of their legs. Others locked offenders inside a narrow box on the upper deck. Although this punishment generally quieted male convicts, “women wailed so loudly, and used their tongues so freely, that it was found necessary to place a cistern of water on top of the box.”35 A fiery diatribe from inside the box was quenched immediately by this soaking punishment.
The Westmoreland was a world unto itself, where lives began and ended between the masts. As the ship made her way through the Indian Ocean, Sarah Robinson gave birth in a water closet to her second child. The twenty-six-year-old had stolen clothing and received a sentence of seven years’ transport. She had attempted to conceal her pregnancy, although her berth mates knew the truth and kept a close eye on her condition. About midnight on October 18, another prisoner heard the cries of an infant. Surgeon Superintendent Ellis recorded what happened next: “The woman who had suspected her state immediately ran to the closet and actually drew out of the pan a female child apparently arrived at the full period. The miserable mother was found in a state from which she was, with difficulty, aroused. On the removal of the placenta which it was found necessary to do by the introduction of the hands, hemorrhage followed and for two days to an alarming extent, but which was eventually controlled.36
Dawn broke and the Westmoreland rocked the newborn and her exhausted mother in its oaken arms. Sarah and her namesake baby were safe and alive for today, but Elizabeth Booth became the first casualty of the journey. The forty-year-old died from apoplexy the day after little Sarah was born.
Burial at sea was one of the few traditions in British society that class did not govern. Captain Brigstock commanded Surgeon Superintendent Ellis, the entire crew, and every able prisoner onto the upper deck for a somber ceremony. In life, the British captors treated their chattel like animals. In death, they extended dignity. The crew carried Elizabeth Booth on a plank, inside a plain sack weighted with ballast and covered by the Union Jack. The captain read from the standard burial service: “We . . . commit her body to the deep, to be surrendered into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body when the sea shall give up her dead.”37 The plank was lifted, and Elizabeth’s body slipped from beneath the flag into the sea, where it quickly vanished from sight. The ship never stopped moving, not even for the dead. Agnes looked over the railing at the retreating wake and felt the closeness of death. Sharks began following the Westmoreland, waiting for more corpses to be dropped overboard.
The strange land was still a long way away, but at least the heat abated when the ship left the tropics. On the twenty-seventh of October, Surgeon Ellis made this entry in his log: “We soon began to experience a more congenial climate, the temperature had much downwards [sic], the weather was moderate and clear, and its beneficial effects were soon observable in the increased activity and improved looks of the prisoners.”38
Tranquility, however, was short-lived. On November 11, twenty-one-year-old Anne Sergeantson went into labor. The redhead from Hull gave birth to a baby girl in the infirmary, delivered about one month prematurely. Six days later, the infant passed away after suffering from diarrhea and convulsions.39 Once again, Captain Brigstock mustered the women and crew on deck. The baby girl, wrapped in white muslin from the surgeon’s supplies, lay on the lee gangway until her mother pressed a final kiss and witnessed her quick descent into a watery grave.
The last two weeks of the voyage were spent in relative calm as the ship neared the shores of Van Diemen’s Land. Agnes and Janet had been at sea for more than three months, and signs of the journey’s end began to manifest. First there were the birds. As the Westmoreland approached the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, curious Pacific gulls flew overhead from rocky islands sculpted into odd formations by the tempestuous sea. Dolphins dove alongside the ship, riding its wake and bidding a welcome to the southern seas.
The crew anticipated landfall when the smell of the ocean changed to the musky odor of the earth and the scent of green intermingling with the brine. Finally, off the vessel’s port side, a sailor spotted the shore. The call went out from high on the mast: “Land! Land! Van Diemen’s Land!” Captain Brigstock focused the quarterdeck telescope and peered to the north at a dot on the horizon.
The sight of land ignited the ship with excitement. Agnes and Janet leaned over the rail, straining to see for themselves a shore that showed no signs of civilization. The ship stayed its course along the southern part of Van Diemen’s Land into the Tasman Sea, turning northeast and sailing past Bruny Island. Rugged dolerite cliffs towered two hundred meters above the sea and sheltered coastal caves marked by gushing sprays of water. Australian fur seals with their massive grey necks fed on squid and octopus and sunned on island ledges. Tiny fairy penguins waddled along the shore rocks. Big black-faced cormorants, sporting white breasts just like the penguins, dove for fish along the coast. Mutton birds glided above at high speeds and floated on rafting logs between feedings. Giant albatross flew over the spindly eucalyptus trees that poked above the cliffs. This was a very bizarre place for two city girls from Glasgow.
Once again sailing through heavy rains, they turned north through Storm Bay and into the mouth of the River Derwent. The ship encountered whalers and store ships as it moved closer to the busy port of Hobart Town, the capital of Van Diemen’s Land. When the barque entered the head of the river, Captain Brigstock alerted the town to the ship’s arrival. The crew hoisted a square flag, half red and half white, which signaled that women prisoners were its cargo.40
On the third of December 1836, the captain anchored the Westmoreland in Sullivans Cove. It was seven months to the day since Agnes and Janet had been convicted of their crimes in Ayr. The two naïvely optimistic lasses had faith that they would brave this strange and mysterious destination together. It was not to be so.