Readers of the Bristol Mirror of 7 June 1817 were advised that:
On Friday se’nnight, the ten undermentioned female convicts were removed from Newgate in this city, to the transport ship Friendship, lying at Deptford, viz. Elizabeth Perkins, Sarah North, Eliza Patrick, Harriot Neat, Hester Wright, Sarah Ann Cox, Ann Kennicott, Lucy Meares, Sophia Richards, and Sarah Hopkins.
Who were they? What crimes had they committed? What sentences had been meted out to them? What happened to them on arrival at the other end of the world?
These women had come before the Bristol courts, had been tried and sentenced, and incarcerated in Newgate Prison, Bristol, to await the day when they would start on their journey to New South Wales, the first stage of which commenced on 31 May 1817 when they were bundled onto a coach, chained together, for the trip to London. Any feelings of trepidation they may have had on that uncomfortable coach journey would have at least been tempered by relief at seeing the back of Newgate Prison. The prison was a notoriously dismal place – dank, filthy, disease ridden and hopelessly overcrowded, and visitors said that the place stank abominably. Scant provisions were supplied to the prisoners – some water and a few penny worth of bread. Those with friends or relatives, who could help out with food and clothing, were lucky. Were any of the “Bristol Girls” so fortunate? If they had committed their crimes a few years later they would have ‘enjoyed’ the facilities of the purpose-built Bristol New Prison that opened in 1820, shortly after which Newgate was demolished.
On arrival at London the ten women may have spent a short time at the London Newgate Prison before being taken on board the Friendship, lying at anchor at Deptford. With a long history as a deep water port and victualling yard for ships preparing for long sea journeys, it was at Deptford that James Cook’s ships were refitted prior to his voyages of discovery.
According to a notice in the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser of 18 February 1817, the Friendship had undergone a substantial upgrade in 1813 – ‘new topsides and a thorough repair … when the shipwright’s and blacksmith’s bills amounted to £2,900’. The vessel now boasted ‘a flush upper deck, and two other decks laid fore-and-aft; sails fast, and carries a large cargo’. Such enhancements were probably of little interest to the cargo it was about to take on board.
As they were rowed out to the Friendship the “Bristol Girls” may have been struck by the similarity between the port of Bristol and the noises, smells and general maritime hustle and bustle of Deptford. But now was not the time to dwell on such thoughts. They needed to steel themselves to face their uncertain future.
Receiving and accounting for the 101 women convicts who were taken on board the Friendship was a protracted and tedious process. When their turn came, each of our women would firstly be interrogated by the Surgeon Superintendent Peter Cosgreave who recorded their name, age, and physical characteristics. They were then issued with their bedding, cooking and eating utensils, and the regulation clothing (though they were also allowed to keep their own clothes). Next, the female convicts were divided into groups, referred to as messes, and the members of the messes would generally sleep and eat together for the whole journey. While the convicts may have had some discretion to choose their own messmates, allocation was generally determined by the order in which they arrived on board. It is therefore very likely that our “Bristol Girls” were messed together.
With all the arrangements finalised, the Friendship, under the command of Captain Andrew Armet, set sail on 3 July 1817 for what was to be a very long and, as was subsequently revealed, troubled passage. The vessel arrived at Port Jackson on 14 January 1818 after a voyage of 195 days.
But before any of the Friendship’s convict women could be disembarked they had to be mustered, a procedure undertaken by the Governor’s secretary and the superintendent of convicts – who in January 1818 were John Campbell and William Hutchinson respectively. As when records were written up on embarkation, this muster was time-consuming. Each women was asked her name, time and place of trial, sentence, native place, age, trade and occupation and the answers then compared (and if necessary corrected) with the information given on embarkation and any additional records from the holding prisons. Then the woman’s height was measured and details of the colour of her hair, eyes, and complexion, her build, and any particular identifying marks (e.g. moles, tattoos, squint) were noted down. Unfortunately, not all of these personnel records have survived. The thorough and meticulous recording was critical to convict management, as noted by Commissioner John Thomas Bigge in his report on convict administration in the colony –
The correctness and particularity of this muster is of great importance ; for when signed by the secretary, it forms a check upon any error that may have crept into the indents and assignments of the convicts that are transmitted from the Secretary of State’s office to the governor of New South Wales, and connects the date of trial and description of their offences with a complete identification, of their persons, highly useful for purposes of police, as well as for the regulations respecting tickets of leave and certificates of exemptions from penal servitude.
Indeed, just as a soldier is referred to and identified by Name, Rank and Number, so a convict was identified by Name, Ship and Sentence in all official records. Thus we find Sarah North, Friendship 1818, 7 years; Lucy Meares, Friendship, 14 years, etc.
Finally, each of the convict women was questioned regarding the treatment she had received during the passage. Had she has received her full ration of provisions; did she have any complaint to make against the captain, his officers and crew; and lastly, did she have any bodily ailment or infirmity? Interestingly not one of the convict women lodged a complaint. To all intents and purposes Captain Armet and Surgeon Cosgreave had performed their duties to the full satisfaction of all parties concerned.
However, if the convict women kept silent, others were prepared to speak up. On 23 January 1818 Secretary Campbell wrote to the Judge Advocate advising –
Various charges having been preferred against the Captain and Surgeon of the Female Convict Ship Friendship, now in Sydney Cove, by Persons Designating themselves either Passengers, Ship’s Officers or Crew of that vessel, His Excellency the Governor deems it necessary that the same should be minutely investigated … [and] requests that you will summons a full Bench of Magistrates for tomorrow to enter on the necessary inquiry.
To assist the Bench the Secretary provided the following documents – A Letter signed ‘Amelia Wood’, a passenger on behalf of herself and other female passengers; A Letter signed ‘M.C. Kearns’ who describes himself as Captain’s Steward; A Letter signed ‘Robt Culverwell’ designating himself 3rd Mate; and A Memorial signed by 17 Persons styling themselves the ‘Crew of the Friendship’. The Secretary also provided a list of the free passengers whose evidence the Bench might well rely on to ‘satisfactorily ascertain how far the Charges are founded in truth or originating in malice’.
Separately, perhaps in a bid to cover his back, immediately on arriving at Port Jackson, Surgeon Cosgreave had sent a letter to Governor Macquarie reporting that warnings to the crew of the consequences of ‘meddling with the Convicts’, and that attempts by both himself and the captain to repress or curtail the ‘highly reprehensible conduct’ had proved hopeless. Captain Armet had also, in a memorial to Governor Macquarie, detailed his problems he had encountered with his crew which manifested insubordination and contempt ‘to a high degree’, disobeyed orders and, and plundered the ship’s store ‘to a shameful extent’.
With respect to the mutinous crew, the Bench of Magistrates ruled that they did not have jurisdiction to rule on matters occurring on the high seas. Addressing the issue of insufficient rations provided to the free passengers, the Bench noted that this had been resolved. On the third count, however, the Magistrates unreservedly agreed that
It has been most fully proved to us, that a criminal intercourse existed from the very commencement of the voyage, to its close, between some of the officers, the Ship’s company in general, and the Female convicts; in defiance of the orders of his Majesty’s government strictly prohibiting the same, with were repeatedly publicly read, and of every exertion of Captain Armet and Surgeon Superintendent Cosgreave to prevent its existence and continuance; who appear during the whole of the voyage to have acted with all possible attention to the orders of His Majesty’s Government, in every particular.
However, evidence subsequently gathered by Commissioner Bigge into the condition and treatment of convicts during the passage to New South Wales calls into question the exoneration of Captain Armet and Surgeon Cosgreave. In his report, under the heading Prevention of Prostitution, Commissioner Bigge made particular reference to the 1818 voyage of the Friendship.
Although, in the transportation of female convicts to New South Wales, the preservation of their health has been more easily and generally accomplished than that of the males, yet no scheme of superintendence has yet been devised by which their intercourse with the crew can be entirely prevented. From the evidence of Mr. Cordeaux, Mr. Gyles, and Mr. Walker, who were passengers on board the convict ship Friendship, prostitution appears to have prevailed in a great degree, and the captain and surgeon at last connived at excesses that they had not the means to resist, or any hope of suppressing.
The account given by Mr. Gyles, of the proceedings of the voyage, differs very materially from the testimony of Mr. Cordeaux and Mr. Walker; and the accounts of all are still more pointedly contradicted by the evidence of the superintendent Hutchinson, who states that the female convicts from the ship Friendship declared, on their arrival at Port Jackson, that they were perfectly satisfied with the conduct of the captain, a declaration that is further confirmed by the result of Mr. Secretary Campbell’s muster of them, at the conclusion of which it is stated ” that no complaints were made.” The characters likewise given by Mr. Gyles of several of the female convicts, differ as materially from those that were given by the master and surgeon superintendent of the Friendship on their arrival at Port Jackson. Mr. Gyles has asserted that no precautions were adopted by the captain or surgeon to prevent an improper intercourse between the crew and the convicts; and it certainly appears, by the evidence of Mr. Cordeaux, that the very simple and obvious one of depositing the keys of the prison in a place of security during the night, was not resorted to till after a complaint was made at St. Helena, by the surgeon, to Admiral Plampin. In consequence of this neglect, a very general intercourse took place between the crew and the female convicts; and after it had been once permitted, the captain and the surgeon, though not without a sense of the advantages that they expected to derive from a strict performance of their duty, had lost that authority over their subordinate officers, that might have enabled them to have enforced some restraint upon the crew; their attempts to restore it were ineffectual, and, in making them, they were opposed by the vicious inclinations of the women themselves.
The conduct of the captain has been censured by Mr. Gyles for inhumanity, especially in the infliction of punishment; but it does not appear that in any instance it exceeded the compulsory, but injudicious, use of a wooden collar. The want of cleanliness that has been stated by the same person, in his letter to Mr. Marsden, as the effect of negligence on the part of the captain and surgeon, imputed by Mr. Cordeaux to the perverse dispositions of the women, and the reluctance of the captain to have recourse to force, by which alone he thinks their dispositions could have been controlled.
In his letter to Reverend Marsden, the Reverend John Gyles also referred to what he regarded as the very bad conduct of the Surgeon and Master towards their convict charges and also to insufficient rations given to both the passengers and the convicts.
… they seldom spoke to any of the convicts without oaths; the treatment of the convicts and others was truly distressing; … The passengers and convicts suffered much for the want of water, though there was plenty on board; the quantity allowed to a grown person was about three pints for 24 hours, for all purposes of cooking etc and half that quantity for a child. This quantity was not more than half enough in the hot weather and the children suffered very much. The canisters of fresh meat, of veal, mutton and beef, were eaten principally at the captain’s table and the offals sent to the sick prisoners in lieu. The convicts and passengers suffered greatly from the unfeeling conduct of the master and surgeon who are both very profane men possessed of little humanity.
Given that so many of the convict women were implicated in the so-called ‘prostitution’ it is perhaps not surprising that they were reluctant to make any complaints when mustered on arrival. It must be remembered that a double standard existed for any untoward fraternisation. Women could (and frequently were) punished for consorting. But, as pointed out by Commissioner Bigge, no such legal recourse was provided for the men.
The punishment of the crew for holding improper intercourse with them, in the voyages from England to New South Wales, is, according to the present state of the law, not provided for; and … no master of a ship, however well disposed, will incur the risk of a mutiny of his crew for the sole purpose of preventing it, or the great degree of personal responsibility that would accrue from the infliction even of a moderate degree of corporal punishment …
From all accounts the Friendship’s passage to New South Wales was decidedly taxing and the passengers and the female convicts would have been very pleased when they finally arrived at their destination. No doubt Captain Armet and Surgeon Cosgreave were equally relieved to have completed their remit.
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. Only those issued with a pass were allowed on board, and only for the purpose of enquiring about servants. It was during this period that the immediate futures of the Friendship women were decided.
They were divided into three groups, the first being those to be assigned in and around Sydney town. Matching the stated pre-transportation occupations and skills-set from the muster information against the requirements of those who had applied for servants, the authorities drew up an assignment list for twenty-eight women. This list included sixteen whose husbands were already in the colony, and to whom they would be assigned. The second group comprised thirteen women who were found to be suffering from scurvy and who were to be sent to the General Hospital. The remaining fifty-six were to be transshipped to the Duke of Wellington and conveyed to Hobart Town. The Colonial Secretary, in a covering memo of 5 February concerning the Duke of Wellington’s contingent, declared:
The Women … are nearly all by the latest arrival from England and they may consequently be considered less hackneyed in view that those who have been longer here.
As a group, perhaps willingly but definitely by circumstance, the ten “Bristol Girls” had been together for nine months. The records show that on arrival in the colony five of them were married women, one was accompanied by a daughter, and one became pregnant during the voyage. Four were classed as servants, one as a market woman, with the remaining five being semi-skilled craftswomen. Three, who had been found guilty of receiving stolen goods, had been sentenced to fourteen years transportation. The others were sentenced to seven years for stealing. It is interesting to note that the received and stolen merchandise were all items for personal adornment – suggesting that these women were concerned about their appearance. In the opinion of Surgeon Cosgreave all but one of the Bristol group were mutinous and beyond moral redemption. If his word can be relied on they would certainly have made their presence felt during the voyage. Now this close-knit coterie was to be fragmented.
It was not until 30 January 1818 that disembarkation finally commenced. What was going through the minds of the five “Bristol Girls” as they were rowed ashore towards the government wharf, and the other five awaiting transfer to the Duke of Wellington, as the reality of their situation truly struck home? 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?
This account of the “Bristol Girls” is very much a work in progress. At this stage I have relied principally on online and secondary sources. For some of “our girls” quite a bit has been unearthed. For others, for whom the records no longer exist or who did little to attract attention to themselves, there is much less to go on. In some cases something can be gleaned about them vicariously, through the men with whom they chose to associate. I would be delighted hear from anyone who shares my interest with the “Bristol Girls”.
New South Wales, Australia, Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 1788-1856
Deptford – A vision of Britain through Time, http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/place/387
Deptford Victualling Yards, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victualling_Commissioners
Free Settler or Felon? http://www.jenwilletts.com/
Historical Atlas of Sydney, City of Sydney Archives, http://www.photosau.com.au/CoSMaps/scripts/home.asp
Public Domain via Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
Ray’s Miscellany, “Bristol – 1700 onwards”, http://brisray.com/bristol/bhist6.htm
The British Newspaper Archive
Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser