Monday, 27 May 2013

Jacobitism in Staffordshire

James II, who came to the throne in 1685, was the last Catholic King of England. By 1688 he had managed to alienate almost all the ruling elite. In November of that year a Dutch force led by William of Orange, James’s nephew and also his son-in-law, landed near Torquay and advanced towards London. James panicked and ran away to France, taking with him his baby son, another James; and William occupied the capital bloodlessly. This episode was known as the “Glorious Revolution”. William was proclaimed King, and an Act of Parliament, which is still in force today,  decreed that henceforth the monarch and the heir to the throne must not be Catholics, or even marry Catholics.
Jacobites believed that the “Glorious Revolution” and everything that followed was totally illegal. The true king was still the deposed James II, and after his death his son James Stuart (“the Pretender” to his opponents); and the Act of Settlement of 1701, which named George of Hanover, a German who did not speak English, but a descendant of James I through his mother and, crucially, a good Protestant, as the heir to the throne, was without any validity. (The word “Jacobite” derives from the French for James: Jacques, or Latin: Jacobus).  Politics of the time was dominated by two rival parties, the Whigs and the Tories, and the question of the legitimacy of the monarchy was a fundamental disagreement between them: the Whigs were all staunch Hanoverians, but some of the Tories were Jacobites.
These controversies featured strongly in politics at street level, particularly in Staffordshire. In the Black Country in the south of the county there was a strong Catholic community who were always likely to be Jacobite. The local landowning gentry, such as the Chetwynds, the Bagots of Blithfield and the Gowers of Trentham, were mostly Tory; though as we shall see the Gowers changed their allegiance, and the Ansons of Shugborough, who were increasingly important from mid-century, were strongly Whig. Jacobite demonstrations often took a symbolic form: the wearing of white roses or oak-apples, and celebratory clothes James Stuart’s birthday on June 10th, but wearing mourning on May 28th, the birthday of King George I. There might be ritual demonstrations, like burning or hanging an effigy of the king. But sometimes Jacobite protests took a violent form, with attacks on the chapels and meeting-houses of Dissenters (Presbyterians, Baptists or Quakers), since Dissenters were believed to be strong supporters of the Hanoverian monarchy and the Whigs.

August 1714 saw the death of Queen Anne, James II’s daughter and the last Stuart monarch,  and George of Hanover was officially proclaimed King. The Jacobite leadership was in disarray and unable to do anything, and it was not hard for the Whig leaders to convince the King, who spoke no English and knew little about British politics, that all Tories were Jacobite traitors and not to be trusted. For the next 40 years, no Tory was allowed into government, the judiciary, or even the higher reaches of the church.

But there was widespread popular protest. A Dissenting chapel in Congleton was attacked by a mob, the Walsall meeting-house was destroyed, and arson reported in Newcastle, Burton, Coseley and Uttoxeter. There was further violence to mark the coronation of George I in October. An anti-Hanoverian mob gathered in Shrewsbury, crying “The Church for ever!”. They were mostly town artisans; a draper, a butcher, two tailors and so forth, but a Justice of the Peace was also involved.

In May 1715, “King James III” was proclaimed in Manchester. That summer there were riots in London, Oxford, Shropshire, Worcestershire and particularly Staffordshire, where there was more trouble than in any other county. Quaker and Baptist meeting-houses were burnt or wrecked. Of 500 rioters prosecuted nation-wide, for a variety of offences from murder to arson, half came from Staffordshire.   The most alarming aspect for the government was the suspicion that landowners and urban elites were colluding with the rioters. The latter, as in Shrewsbury, consisted of craftsmen, shopkeepers and town labourers: people from the countryside were not involved.

There was trouble throughout Staffordshire towns in this year. In Newcastle-under-Lyme a mob described as “French and Popish” was headed by a local butcher, with one rioter climbing onto a chapel roof and shouting “God damn King George!” The rioters were said to have been encouraged in their activities by the former MP Ralph Sneyd of Keele, and by Mr Swann the Lord Mayor of the town. The local J.P.s made no attempt to stop the disturbances. A Staffordshire Grand Jury committed for Sneyd for trial, along with 40 locals and 200 others. Swann and two of the J.P.s were imprisoned to answer for their conduct. Meeting-houses were also attacked and gutted in Stafford, Lichfield, Leek, Uttoxeter, Stone, Dudley and Wolverhampton. In West Bromwich the Dissenters fought back, and several people were killed or wounded. In Coleshill the vicar, Dr Kettlewell, was deprived of his living for his Jacobitism, and Dr Thomas Jacomb was removed from his headmastership of the free school. These various disturbances led to the passing of the Riot Act, which proclaimed rioting to be a capital offence, and authorised magistrates to order troops to open fire on crowds that refused to disperse.

The autumn of 1715 saw Jacobite armed risings in Scotland and the north of England, but both were miserable failures. No military action got anywhere near Staffordshire, though it was reported by government spies that two Birmingham iron-merchants had undertaken to raise 6000 men for the Pretender. But despite this fiasco, the county remained a focus for discontent for the next few years, and often influential local people were involved. In 1718 there was an election riot at Lichfield, where William Sneyd’s Jacobite supporters wore white roses. J.P.s at Burton were said to be holding seditious meetings, and there were reports of anti-government military training on Cannock Chase. Serious riots occurred in Newcastle, Stafford, Lichfield, Burton, Walsall and Wolverhampton. By contrast, Francis Eld of Seighford was always a staunch Hanoverian, and so was Oswald Mosley of Rolleston Hall, who was created a baronet by a grateful monarch in 1720.
   In 1724 John Dolphin, M.P. for Stafford, died, and the subsequent by-election Francis Eld, standing in the Whig interest, defeated Walter Chetwynd, a Tory; but next year Eld was expelled from the Commons for corruption and Chetwynd seated in his place. On the face of it, it seems surprising that the Whig government of Sir Robert Walpole did not do more to support Eld; but Eld was regarded as a protégé of the notoriously corrupt Lord Chancellor, Lord Macclesfield, whom Walpole dumped from the government in 1725. (It was Eld’s nephew, another Francis, who years later caused James Boswell to express surprise at meeting a Whig in Stafforshire; to which Doctor Johnson growled, “Sir, there are rogues in every county!”)

Over the period 1715-20 there were many more prosecutions for seditious libel, riot or attacks on troops in Stafford, Stone, Newcastle, Burton, Stoke, Leek and many other places in the county. There was more damage to property in Staffordshire than in any other county, and more people killed by the troops. In the Newcastle election of 1734, local colliers threatened to “Wash their hands in the heart’s blood of the Whig candidate”.
Because of the endemic trouble, Staffordshire was strongly garrisoned, and the presence of troops was always an irritant. Burton, Uttoxeter, Stafford, Newcastle, Walsall and other towns had soldiers billeted on them for the next 40 years, leading to constant tension and occasional violence. It must be remembered that at this time there were no barracks, and the soldiers would mostly be billeted in local inns - hardly an ideal arrangement. (Billeting was to be one of the main complaints of the American rebels a generation later). William Chetwynd warned there would be more trouble, “In a county where the army is not in the best odour, if prudent measures are not speedily taken to moderate the spirit and fury raised hereby in the common people.”

There was a greater level of peace and quiet in the late 1730s, so the events of 1745 came as a shock. As war loomed between England and France in the early 1740s, French spies reported hopefully on the situation in Staffordshire. Many of the richest and most influential families in the county, the Bagots, Chetwynds, Gowers, Wolseleys and others, were said to be  ready to join in a Jacobite rising, if it could be linked to a French invasion of England. But the planned French invasion, with an amphibious force assembled around Boulogne in early 1744, failed, because of a combination of irresolution and violent storms in the Channel. Francis Eld had always feared mob violence more than an invasion, and by autumn 1745 he no longer believed there would be any rising in Staffordshire. He helped sponsor an official address from Staffordshire to the King, stressing the county’s loyalty.

Eld’s optimism proved to be justified in the event, though it was a very close call. The person most disappointed by the invasion fiasco was James the Pretender’s son, Charles Edward Stuart, also known as the “Young Pretender”, or, in Scotland, “Bonnie Prince Charlie”. He was aged just 25 and eager to have a go on his own, in the hope of stimulating the French into more action. At the end of July 1745 he landed in Scotland with just a handful of followers, and persuaded the Jacobite clans of the west, the MacDonalds of Glengarry and Clanranald, the Murrays of Atholl, the Camerons, MacPhersons and MacGregors, to join him. Britain was now at war with France, and most of the army was away fighting in what is now Belgium, and Charles’s little army of highlanders was able to occupy Edinburgh on September 17th. But there was then a fatal delay of almost two months before an advance into England, enabling British forces to be withdrawn home. On November 18th Carlisle fell to the Jacobites, who then advanced unopposed down through Lancashire. On November 30th the Jacobite forces entered Manchester. Manchester was not yet the vast cotton-manufacturing city it would become in the next century, but its fall was still a serious blow to the morale of the government. The advance continued to Macclesfield on December 1st. The intention was probably to continue south through Birmingham and Oxford, where the university was a hotbed of Jacobitism but by this time a government army was in position in Staffordshire: a force of over 12,000 men, of whom more than half were experienced troops and the remainder freshly-raised levies; commanded by the Duke of Cumberland, King George’s second and favourite son, who was incidentally the same age as Charles. So instead the small Jacobite cavalry contingent was sent through Congleton towards the Potteries, to immobilize Cumberland by confusing him about their intentions, while the bulk of the infantry headed eastwards across the moorlands, through Leek and reaching Derby on December 4th. There they halted, and two days later the famous and much-disputed decision was taken to turn around and retreat to Scotland, which surrendered the initiative to the British government.

They  had now effectively sidestepped Cumberland, and in a race for London, they would win. But what was awaiting them further south? None of them knew. And if they were stopped, Cumberland and General Wade (who was slowly moving southwards through the East Midlands) could now prevent any retreat to Scotland, and not a man of them would escape. Charles had promised them support from France: where were the French? the clan leaders wanted to know. Charles could not tell them. Or could Charles produce even one single letter from a prominent Englishman firmly promising to join the rebellion? He could not. It is not known precisely how many men had joined Charles in England (probably a few hundred: government propaganda was obviously keen to minimise the numbers, and imply they were mostly desperate cases from the slums of Manchester), but what is certain is that no Englishman of any prominence had joined: not one single Lord, Member of Parliament or major landowner. Lord George Murray, the best commander in Charles’s highland army, had always been doubtful about the wisdom of invading England. Now, in the absence of any hard evidence of support, and fearing that, even if they reached London intact, their little army of 5,000 infantry and a mere 500 cavalry would simply be swallowed up in the city of ½ million people, the clan chiefs, to Charles’s intense disgust, voted unanimously for a retreat. (We now know that the French were preparing an invasion force, but once again were too slow off the mark: no invasion would be possible before Christmas, and by then it was much too late, for the Jacobite army was by then back in Glasgow)

Not one single Staffordshire man of any importance joined the Prince: not Bagot, not Chetwynd and certainly not Gower! Lord Gower as a young man was said to have been on the point of riding out to join the rising of 1715, but now he committed the ultimate betrayal: he changed sides and joined the government! He raised 800 troops at his own expense, and was soon after rewarded with an Earldom. Gower’s treachery to the cause was long remembered. Years later Dr Johnson, a Lichfield man, a Tory and a Jacobite, discussing his great dictionary, said that when he defined the word “renegade” as “one who deserts to the enemy”: “I added, “Sometimes we say a Gower”, but the printer struck it out!”

After the highlanders had retreated, 14 men and one woman were held in Stafford gaol on a charge of treason. Amongst these was a Welsh lawyer, David Morgan, aged about 50, who was to be hanged in London six months later. The atmosphere in many Stafford towns seems to have been one of sullen discontent, and Francis Eld was still concerned about the attitude of certain of the landowners. One of Cumberland’s guards called Stafford, “A damned Popish town: the people here make no bones of telling us they would rather see the highlanders among them than the king’s troops; the rogues use us very ill, but we will be even with them.”

The events of 1745 were still fresh in local minds at the general election two years later. Staffordshire returned 10 M.P.s to Parliament at this time: two for the county and two each for the boroughs of Lichfield, Newcastle, Stafford and Tamworth. Voting was “open” (a secret ballot did not come in until 1872!): instead voters had to prove their identity and declare their preferences before a polling clerk, who recorded their votes in a book, with the candidates and their agents looking on to prevent any cheating. Each borough had a few hundred voters, and the county perhaps as many as 5,000; but electioneering was an expensive business, and candidates who found they had little chance of winning often dropped out before the poll.
(Every election inevitably brought accusations of bribery, intimidation and impersonation. As an example of the shenanigans that sometimes went on at elections: at Lichfield in the general election of 1761, the Gower interest was represented by Hugo Meynell, a member of a rather disreputable Derbyshire family: Meynell’s father had built up a large fortune by allegedly cheating at cards, and Hugo Meynell himself was distinguished only by being esteemed the best foxhunter in the kingdom. Many people in Lichfield did not like Meynell and resented the dominance of Earl Gower, and a local lawyer called John Levett was put up to oppose him. Meynell defeated Levett by two votes, but then the sheriff disqualified seven of Meynell’s voters and declared Levett elected! Meynell petitioned against this result, and the House of Commons voted to overrule the sheriff, expelled Levett and declared Meynell elected. Meynell withdrew from Lichfield at the 1768 election, but then represented Stafford 1774-80).

In 1747 there occurred only the second contested election for the Staffordshire county seats in the whole of the 18th century, and the old Tory Sir Walter Bagot triumphantly topped the poll. William Chetwynd and a lawyer, John Robins, were put up as candidates for the two seats for Stafford borough, with no-one caring to undertake the trouble and expense of standing against them. But this did not mean there was peace in the town; quite the contrary. Chetwynd House in Stafford was attacked on July 1st by over 150 rioters armed with sticks and clubs. The house was besieged for over an hour and the windows smashed while the occupants cowered upstairs. A Chetwynd supporter, named Thomas Smallwood, was dragged out and savagely beaten. The leaders of this outrage were named as Alderman Joseph Loxdale and Richard Dyott, described as a “gentleman”. 18 men were arrested in consequence, but rioters threatened to pull down the town gaol if any of their people were locked up!  The rioters were eventually sent for trial at the Old Bailey, but, in the words of one local writer, “Mr Chetwynd forgave them, which was probably wise”. There were disturbances elsewhere in the county. In Lichfield, Gower found the voters “insolent to a degree you cannot conceive”, and appealed to the government to send in troops. In Burton, twelve men beat up a soldier, but were acquitted at their trial. Huge riotous demonstrations by Jacobite supporters marked the Lichfield races that year, with many wearing tartan to show sympathy with the Scots rebels: Gower’s son was beaten up, and his friend the Duke of Bedford was attacked with a horse-whip. Great play was made of having a fox, dressed in a miniature army redcoat, hunted by hounds in tartan.
Trouble continued in Stafford: on a weekend in June 1749, people marked the anniversary of the accession of George II by wearing the Jacobite badge of the white rose. Troops tried to remove these provocative symbols, but a riot developed, the soldiers opened fire on the crowd and attacked them. After an incident when an exciseman was beaten “almost to a jelly”, soldiers entered houses with drawn swords. A local man was later charged with assault, but a Stafford jury acquitted him. Five days after the incident, crowds assembled shouting, “Prince Charles for ever, damn those others; they make soldiers of monkeys!” and demanding that the troops be expelled from their billets.

In 1750 there were more riots, and on Cannock Chase people came from miles around to slaughter 15,000 of Lord Uxbridge’s rabbits, singing Jacobite songs as they did so. The authorities were powerless to do anything. In the same year a Jacobite riot in Walsall, where an effigy of King George II was ceremonially burnt, had to be suppressed by dragoons. A meeting-house in the town was repeatedly attacked in 1751-2, and the rioters, who were led by a certain Thomas James, were taken to London for trial, convicted, and sentenced to stand in the pillory. There were also seditious meetings, which led to an Anglican clergyman, the reverend John Taylor, being sentenced at Stafford assizes to two years’ imprisonment and the very substantial fine of £300.
Jacobitism was not entirely dead even by this time, but slowly the trouble died down. The movement in Staffordshire had really never been more than a nuisance to the government, and the leading men of the county completely failed to help the Pretender when the occasion arose. Modern historians suggest that the rank and file rioters were motivated less by national political questions than by social and economic grievances (enclosure of fields, closed urban corporations, billeting of troops etc), and that the movement was actually paid for and organised by the local Tory gentry in their campaigns against the Whig government. The Staffordshire Tories might grumble, but they never had any serious intention of risking their lives and estates by turning out to fight. Prince Charles summed up the English Jacobites well enough when he said, “I will do for them what they did for me: I will drink their health!”
(Chetwynd House, Stafford; ransacked by a mob in 1747; later the home of the playwright Richard Sheridan when he was M.P. for Stafford; now a restaurant)

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Queens' College, Cambridge

The first point to note is that the name of the college is Queens plural; since several English Queens were associated with its foundation in the latter part of the 15th century. (The Oxford college, by contrast, only has one Queen!)
     The college coat of arms is that of the first royal patron, Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, within a green border. (Green has always been the college colour)
The shield displays (above): Hungary - Naples - Jerusalem, (below): Anjou - Bar - Lorraine. These arms refer back to the conquests of the great warrior Charles of Anjou in the 13th century. The claim to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (gold crosses on silver; unlike any other coat of arms in the world) had already been meaningless for over two centuries. Margaret's father, Rene, Count of Provence, was a popular but poor and slightly absurd figure, known as "Good King Rene".
     In 1448 Queen Margaret issued a charter licensing Andrew Dokett, Rector of St. Botolph's church in Cambridge, to found a college dedicated to St. Margaret and and St. Bernard. But, because of the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses, there was no building work undertaken for the next few years.
     The second Queen who supported the foundation of the college was Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV. Her portrait hangs in the old dining hall
beween those of Erasmus (on the left, below) and Sir Thomas Smith.

The third Queen was Anne Neville, wife of Richard III, who gave generously to the college; though unfortunately when Henry VII became King in 1485 he took her donations away again. But the link is still remembered: the badge of the college sports clubs is a boar's head; the wild boar being Richard III's emblem.

This is the old gatehouse of Queens, seen from the inside. It was built in the latter part of the 15th century.
The gatehouse leads to Old Court, with its famous 18th century sundial (which is also a "moondial"). I was an undergraduate at Queens' 1965-68, and this view is from the rooms I shared in my third year; just off the picture to the right of the gatehouse on the previous photograph.

Between Old Court and the river is Cloister Court, with its half-timbered Lodge; the residence of the President of the college. The President in my day was Arthur Armitage: a great man.

Perhaps the most famous structure in Queens' is the "Mathematical Bridge" across the river Cam. Legend has it that it was designed by Sir Isaac Newton - which is, alas, quite untrue. The first bridge on this pattern was not erected until 1750, whereas Newton died in 1728. The present bridge is a replacement, dating from 1904.

The most eminent person associated with Queens' was the great Renaissance scholar Erasmus (1466-1536), who was resident at the college 1510-14, teaching and preparing his ground-breaking edition of the Greek New Testament, eliminating errors that had crept into the text over the centuries.

Monday, 13 May 2013

The Berlin Wall

Back in 1973 I was given guided tours of both halves of Berlin. We travelled by overnight train from Ostend to West Berlin, and were then taken by coach through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin.

This was our first sight of the Berlin Wall, from the coach.

This is Checkpoint Charlie, seen from the west. It is now a museum of the Wall, including startling exhibits of the lengths people were prepared to go to in order to escape.

Contrary to popular belief, our guide in East Berlin wasn't some appalling old battleaxe, but a pretty young lady dressed in a leather miniskirt. However, she did retail the official propaganda line, explaining that the Wall was necessary to prevent spies getting through from the west.
The only place we were allowed to leave the coach was to look at the Soviet war memorial (which is still there), but we were able to glimpse aspects of East Berlin through the windows, such as this street of housing

and the Berliner Dom church, still in ruins almost 30 years after the end of the war, but now rebuilt after the Reunification
There were also, naturally, the obligatory statues of Lenin.
For our return to the West, we all had to get out as the coach was thoroughly searched, including the luggage compartment and tool-box. There was even a mirror being slid underneath to check for escapees who might be clinging to the drive-rod.

In the afternoon we saw the wall from the western side. I was amazed at how squalid it was. Part of it was simply old houses with their windows filled in with crudely laid breezeblocks. Wreaths were laid where victims had been shot trying to cross, and we saw someone had sprayed “Murder!” on the wall.

 The famous Brandenburg Gate was right on the front line.

The Potsdamerplatz was like a deserted Piccadilly Circus with a wall right across the middle. Here we could climb up scaffolding and look across the wall, or wave at the East German guards. We could see it wasn’t a single wall, but a whole no-man’s-land with barbed wire, tank traps and presumably minefields. This is a now-rather-embarrassing picture of me posing by a scaffolding tower. I wondered whether the rusty marks were bullet holes!

When I returned to Berlin in 2001, I found the centre all glittering new architecture and the Reichstag rebuilt. And the Wall was gone, apart from a few short stretches which displayed graffiti art - some of it very good.
   The Berlin Wall is often confused with the Berlin Airlift of 1948-9. In fact the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 by the East German Communist government (presumably on the instructions of the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev) in order to stem the flight to the west of East Germans - especially skilled and educated people, whom the regime could ill afford to lose.  The Wall actually reduced tension in Berlin, and made it less likely that war might break out there, since there would be no more face-to-face confrontations between the different armed forces, as had happened in the past; but it was undoubtedly a propaganda disaster for the Communists.
   President Kennedy in June 1963 made his famous speech promising to defend Berlin: "Ich bin ein Berliner". It has frequently been pointed out that, to a German, a "Berliner" is actually a kind of doughnut; so he was saying "I am a doughnut". It was as if he had gone to Frankfurt and proclaimed "I am a frankfurter"; or if he was in Hamburg ..... need we say more? In fact, of course, everyone who heard the speech knew exactly what Kennedy meant.  

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.