The Convicts

Introduction

The arrival of a female convict ship was a matter of considerable interest to the inhabitants of the colony many of whom took to small boats and surrounded the vessel, eager to inspect ‘the goods’ and to assess their suitability as potential wives or assigned servants. The interval between a vessel’s arrival and the disembarkation and ‘disposal’ of the convict women was therefore particularly challenging for the authorities whose role it was to keep all unauthorised people away from the women and to prevent communication between the women and those onshore. It was during this period that the immediate futures of the Friendship women were decided.

It was not until 30 January 1818 that disembarkation finally commenced, as reported in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser of the following day.

Yesterday morning, 28 of the female prisoners arrived in the Friendship were landed; 16 of whom having husbands in the colony were allowed to join them, and the remaining 12 went as servants into various families. Thirteen others who were afflicted with scorbutic diseases, were sent to the General Hospital; and 56 were transshipped from the Friendship to the Duke of Wellington, to be conveyed to Hobart Town together with 28 artificers and mechanics, sent from this settlement to be employed on the Government works there.

In fact, according to the list prepared by the Colonial Secretary’s office and dated 30 January 1818, only 53 women from the Friendship were included in the Duke of Wellington’s embarkation list.

Thomas Bigge, in his report on the State of the Colony of New South Wales, described the procedures for disembarkation of female prisoners as follows.

Application for distribution of the female convicts is regulated by different principles. Great difficulty is found in preventing boats from hovering round the ships; but no person is permitted to go on board without a pass from the superintendent. This privilege is granted only to inquire for servants; and the applications having been previously made to the superintendent, the women are sent to their respective places of destination as soon as the muster is completed. The governor has not been in the habit of inspecting the female convicts on their arrival, but a list of them and the persons to whom they are assigned is constantly sent to him. Each person who receives a female convict signs an indenture in which he obliges himself under a penalty of £20. to retain her in his service for the space of three years, providing sufficient subsistence, clothing, washing, and lodging, and not to part with her either directly or indirectly during the term, without the approbation or authority of a magistrate, or in case of misconduct proved and determined before him.

Married female convicts are assigned without such indenture to their husbands, whether free or convict; and, in many cases, both receive tickets of leave, as affording greater facilities of support. The females likewise who bring property with them, or are recommended by the captains or surgeons superintendent of the ships, receive tickets of leave on their arrival. The consequences of this indulgence are described by the principal superintendent to give encouragement to improper intercourse between the officers of the ships and the women, and to lead to their cohabitation with individuals in Sydney, that not unfrequently terminates in marriage. Those who are accompanied by children, are rarely taken by settlers, and are sent to the Factory at Parramatta. Indeed of late it would appear by the evidence of the superintendent Hutchinson, that a greater number of female convicts of every description have arrived, than were required by the settlers of New South Wales; and consequently those who were not sent to Van Dieman’s Land, were consigned to the factory at Parramatta. In their passage thither from Sydney, which, according to the evidence of Mr. Oakes, lasts from the morning till the evening, if the wind be fair, and during the night if it be adverse, great irregularities take place; and the women frequently arrive at Parramatta in a state of intoxication, after being plundered of such property as they may have brought from the ships with them, during the time they stop at a public house on the shore of the Parramatta river. They are accompanied by a constable in each boat, who, in case of negligence, would be liable to be broke; but this precaution does not prevent the existence of the irregularities that it is meant to check.

In his first despatch of 1818 to Earl Bathurst, dated 3 March, Governor Macquarie expressed his frustration and deep concern over the deleterious effects of a ‘sea voyage’ on the female convicts. Their on-board experiences had so tarnished their characters that Governor Macquarie despaired of them ever being reformed and assimilated as decent members of colonial society.

I am Mortified to be Obliged to Observe that, according to the Existing Regulations for the Transportation of Females to this Country, these unfortunate Creatures (several of Whom are Young and when Embarked it is to be hoped Not altogether abandoned) are but too frequently Exposed to such Scenes of Debauchery during the Passage, as to leave but little Hope of their being Speedily reclaimed after their arrival here.

If some System could be adopted to guard against and prevent the Shameful Prostitution of these unfortunate Creatures, Who Cannot be Considered during Such a Voyage as Free Agents, it is but Charitable and reasonable to hope that, After their Arrival, frequent Reforms Would take place. At present the Instances of Amendment are much less frequent among the Women than the Men Convicts, and I cannot but Attribute this Melancholy Fact to the glaring and gross Practices to Which they are Exposed, I have much Reason to Apprehend, on the Passage hither as is Exemplified by the Depositions respecting the Friendship.

In fact, Macquarie had been well aware that such ‘scandalous’ behaviour and the unrestrained mingling between women convicts and the crew – men and officers – was the norm rather than the unsavoury exception. But he had not bothered their Lordships in England with such matters because they had never before been ‘brought to Public View’. Indeed, up to now, by turning a blind eye ‘a good Understanding was thereby preserved between all Parties, and of Course no Complaints Were Made’.

What was going through the minds of the women as they were taken ashore? They could have no idea of what was before them or how, or even if, they would be able to adjust and fare well in the new surroundings. Were they filled with despair, or were they determined to seize the opportunity to make something of their lives? Hopefully, but not necessarily, the married women would be happily reunited with their husbands to whom they would be assigned. Others were to be employed as an assigned servant in the household of a master or mistress, the success of which arrangement being dependent on the temperaments of the assignee and the employer. Those being admitted to hospital must have wondered what would happen to them once they were discharged. For those awaiting transfer to the Duke of Wellington for transhipment to Van Dieman’s Land, their journey was not yet over. It would be almost three weeks before they would arrive at Hobart Town.

To what extent did the individual Friendship women fulfil Macquarie’s grim prediction? There would be some who, for a variety of reasons, did not become ‘Instances of Amendment’. However, as argued by Portia Robinson, many if not most of them did prosper in varying degrees, and did, along with the convict women who had preceded and were to follow them, took their place and contributed to the wellbeing of, and laid the foundation for their newly, if not at first willingly, adopted country.

They had arrived as one class, the damned whores of the criminal haunts of Britain. They found their own levels in the strata of convict society. They lived and worked within a class structure which barred no woman, took no account of proven criminality, paid no heed to assumptions of infamy, degradation and depravity. Their stepping stone to colonial respectability was economic achievement, self-dependence, enterprise, initiative and colonial honesty.

SELECTED SOURCES
Genealogy Websites
Ancestry
All New South Wales, Australia, Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 1788-1856

Other Websites
Free Settler or Felon? https://www.jenwilletts.com/

Online Newspapers
TROVE
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser

Publications
Historical Records of Australia, The Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament, 1917
Robinson, Portia, The Women of Botany Bay : A reinterpretation of the role of women in the origins of Australia society, Macquarie University, Sydney, 1988


In presenting the stories of ‘our women’ I have divided them into three groups – those who started their colonial lives in the Sydney district, those who, on arrival, were sent off to Hobart Town, and the four who embarked on the Friendship at Deptford on 3 July 1817 but who did not arrive at their destination.

New South Wales Contingent
Van Diemen’s Land Contingent
“Non Arrivals”

Introduction