Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Floating Brothel, by Sian Rees

This is a splendid book, exploring the seamy underside of life in Britain at the end of the 18th century.

There were at the time around a hundred offences which carried the death penalty, mostly involving theft. We would think that those accused stood little chance, since people who could not afford the services of a lawyer had to conduct their own defence: not a good prospect for the great majority, who were poorly educated or totally illiterate, with many being no more than teenagers. In fact, however, judges and juries were often reluctant to condemn first-time offenders to be hanged for petty larceny. But what to do instead? There were insufficient prisons, and these were generally grossly overcrowded, filthy holes, swept by epidemics of typhus from the omnipresent lice. (Prisoners who wanted better conditions would have to pay the gaoler). Furthermore, holding convicts in prison was an expensive business. Happily, from Elizabethan times, a solution was found: a convict might instead be sentenced to “Transportation to parts beyond the seas”, there to work as a slave labourer, perhaps for seven years, perhaps for life.
     Until the late 18th century, the obvious place for transportation was the American colonies, and over the years around 60,000 convicts were shipped there. But then this possibility vanished, for in 1783 Britain was forced to recognise the independence of the American colonies. What now? Various alternative destinations were tried: Canada, the West Indies, even west Africa; but none proved satisfactory. Then, just in time, a new solution suggested itself. Captain Cook had made his first voyage to New Zealand and Australia, where the great scientist Sir Joseph Banks was so impressed with the new and unknown plants he found there that he named the place “Botany Bay”. In 1786 the government decided that Botany Bay was a suitable site for a convict colony. This new option came none too soon. The end of the America war had brought economic dislocation and unemployment, as munitions industries were scaled back and thousands of soldiers demobilised; and this inevitably led to increased levels of crime.

The first convict fleet from England landed in Australia in January 1788. Botany Bay was found to be an unsuitable site for starting a colony, and instead a settlement was built further down the coast, and named after the Secretary of State who had authorised the expedition: Lord Sydney. Over a thousand people landed; convicts, soldiers and officials, almost all men, under a Governor: Arthur Phillip. They struggled to survive: on the long voyage out, many of the animals had died and the seed had spoilt, the soil proved to be infertile, and few of the convicts had any farming experience. Governor Phillip appealed to London for aid; especially for more women, whom he thought would help to settle things down.  In fact, when the government made the decision to send out further shipments, it was not even known whether anyone of Phillip’s expedition was still alive: nothing had been heard from them since they docked at Cape Town in November 1787!      

In July 1789 (coinciding neatly with the outbreak of the French Revolution) the “Lady Julian” set sail for Australia. On board were over 200 women convicts; the youngest being 11, the oldest 68. Five brought infants with them. Sian Rees has been able to give personal details of many of them. A few were clearly hardened professional criminals, but most were pathetic cases of poverty. London had a huge floating population of young women, living in squalid lodgings or sleeping rough, hoping for temporary employment as shop assistants or maids. Times were hard, and their prospects were not helped by William Pitt’s 1785 tax on maidservants. Many of these unfortunates had turned to petty crime or prostitution in a desperate effort to survive, but their amateurish efforts had quickly led to arrest and conviction. Some of the stories Rees tells are truly tragic. Mary Rose, a Lincolnshire girl, aged just 16, had run away from home to live with a young army officer. He was unfortunately soon posted overseas. He left her some money, but her landlady, who was the real villain of the piece, swore that Mary had stolen the money from her! Mary was found guilty and confined in an appalling underground cell in Lincoln gaol. As it happened, Sir Joseph Banks, who was himself a Lincolnshire man, got to hear of her sufferings, and advised her to accept the alternative of transportation to Australia. After eighteen months in her squalid dungeon, Mary would have thought it a risk well worth taking. (It is possible that Banks then took a more active role in her case, as will be seen later)

  Aboard the “Lady Julian”, each officer, sailor and government agent, of whom there were about 35 in total, could select a mistress from among the women convicts and take her to share his hammock. Several babies had been born by the end of the voyage. Those women not fortunate enough to be so selected slept below on the orlop deck. Even there, they would have found the experience better than remaining in prison: the overcrowding, the rats and fleas and the food would be no worse, and they were given far more freedom than would be permitted to male convicts. As long as the weather was good they were able to wash their clothes up on deck in the fresh air. They would also help the crew with everyday tasks like cleaning the ship, stitching clothes and sails, preparing meals and looking after the animals on board. It was a well-run ship, and the officers made a genuine effort to look after their "passengers". Only five lives were lost in the voyage, none being the result of neglect or ill-treatment. One of the men on board, John Nichol, already an experienced traveller, described the voyage in his memoirs many years later.
   It was impossible to to reach Australia in a single non-stop voyage. The ship docked to take on supplies at Tenerife, then crossed the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, surviving an outbreak of scurvy when they were becalmed in the windless Doldrums on the equator. Then it was across to Cape Town for much-needed repairs before embarking on the final leg to Australia. At all these ports the women were allowed to go ashore, or receive visitors on board, and could earn useful money by begging, prostitution, or any other tricks they knew. John Nichol’s son was born at Rio, the mother being Sarah Whitelam, aged 17, another Lincolnshire girl, falsely accused of stealing a cloak and sentenced to seven years’ transportation.

Various delays meant that on the last stage of the voyage they had to endure the mountainous seas of autumn in the southern ocean. Another ship making for Australia at the same time, the "Guardian", was wrecked in the southern ocean and only a few of her crew lived to tell the tale. The “Lady Julian” survived, but she was half flooded, and everyone on board soaked and exhausted, when she reached Sydney in early June 1790. The welcome they received could hardly have been less encouraging. The colony was in a truly miserable state, living in squalid huts, the soldiers almost as ragged as the convicts, all trembling on the verge of starvation, with disease rife, and the last thing anyone wanted was more mouths to feed. It was only the arrival three weeks later of a store-ship, the “Justinian”, with plentiful supplies of food, which saved the whole enterprise from complete annihilation. From this point on, Sydney was able to prosper. There was now every encouragement for the women to marry and settle down. Convicts who had served out their sentences were granted thirty acres of land to farm: more if they married and had children.

For some, there were happy endings. Mary Rose had refused to get involved in the sexual shenanigans on the voyage, and now Governor Phillip received a letter from no less a personage than Sir Joseph Banks, telling him that Mary’s landlady had been convicted of perjury and Mary herself was pardoned. He requested Phillip to look after her. The Governor replied that she was already taken care of: it had been arranged that she would marry John Trace, a Devonshire man soon to have served out his sentence; 20 years older than Mary, but described as “one of the best men in the colony”. John Nichol’s story, by contrast, was romantic but unhappy. He would have loved to settle down with Sarah Whitelam and their baby, but this was not allowed: she must serve her sentence, whilst he was contracted to continue on board the “Lady Julian” as it sailed for Canton in China to pick up a cargo of tea for England. Nichol was back in London by 1791. For years afterwards he tried to find a ship to take him back to Sydney and to Sarah, but without success. He was never to see Sarah again. Eventually he learned that she had married someone else soon after he had departed; the family had prospered, and when she had served her sentence they had left Australia. He became caught up in the maelstrom of the Napoleonic Wars, and was living in poverty when he dictated his memoirs to an Edinburgh printer in 1822. But, “Old as I am”, he said, “My heart is still unchanged”. He had never forgotten the convict girl he had left in Sydney.

(This is Governor Arthur Phillip, by Francis Wheatley. It appears to show him stepping ashore in Australia; but in fact it was painted in 1786, in anticipation of the event! There is a serious mistake in the painting: can you spot it?)

1. Before I read this book I wasn’t aware that the penalty for a woman convicted of Treason (which included coining money and murdering her husband) was still to be burnt at the stake. This had become quite rare, though one unfortunate woman was burnt alive at Newgate gaol, before a crowd of spectators, in 1788. But public opinion was changing; the “Times” led the way in denouncing the proceedings as disgusting and unworthy of a civilized country; and when soon afterwards another woman was sentenced to be burnt, the Sheriff of London exerted himself in obtaining a reprieve.
2. It was a few years before this, in 1773, that John Howard (1726-90) was appointed sheriff of Bedfordshire. This meant that he was in charge of the county’s prisons, and what he discovered there so appalled him that he spent the rest of his life campaigning for improvements. The Howard League for Penal Reform is named after him. Elizabeth Fry began her work in women's prisons a generation later.

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