Australia's Birth: The Founding Mothers
We often get an influx of our antipodean cousins in the early summer here at the history centre. Many of our internet and postal research requests hail from Australia and New Zealand. Do you ever wonder if your ancestors ever left Blighty for sunnier climes or were forced to leave these shores as punishment?
The transportation of prisoners to Australia rose to a climax during the late 18th century after a statute was passed during the reign of King George III. The standard sentence for transportation was for seven years but in more serious cases for life. Many escaped the gallows and suffered the inhumane conditions on board the prison ships. Not unlike those poor slaves that also had to endure months at sea in cramped and unsanitary ship hulks.
The first wave of the colonisation of Australia aptly named the ‘First Fleet’, took place in 1788. The 11 ships containing around 1500 men, women and children left Portsmouth in 1787 also laden with food supplies, clothing and livestock. The people on board were to be the founding fathers and mothers of the new colony, albeit a penal one.
The colony was established at a location now known as Port Jackson, further inland in Sydney Harbour than originally planned. Transported convicts were shipped in, in their thousands. The transportation of prisoners was abolished in 1868; by then a staggering 162,000 men and women had arrived on 806 ships.
Whilst exploring the archives at the History Centre on the subject of transportation, I discovered that we held some ‘Bonds and Contracts for the transportation of felons to the American colonies and plantations and elsewhere 1728-1789.’ Within these documents there are names of the Ships’ captains and felons; very useful information for those researching their convict ancestors.
I picked up the trail of a convicted thief, Sarah Varriner, in 1788. She was originally from Painswick, Gloucestershire but arrested, tried and sentenced in Wiltshire for the theft of gold and silver coins. The calendar of prisoners (shown below), lists her offence and committal in 1788.
Sarah Varriner was sentenced to 7 years transportation to the ‘Eastern Coast of New South Wales or some one or other of the islands adjacent’. She was bound for the ship ‘The Lady Juliana’ which was to be the first all female convict ship to leave for the new colony in Australia.
‘The Lady Juliana’ departed Plymouth on the 29th July 1789 after amassing its convict passengers from all corners of Great Britain, 108 women were taken from the overcrowded Newgate prison, to alleviate conditions there. The Master of ‘The Lady Juliana’ was Thomas Edgar and other documented crew were Richard Alley (the surgeon) and Edward Scott (a sailor who wrote a narrative of life on board the ship.)
The National Archives hold a list of all those on board and also the Convict records from 1788-1868 are kept at New South Wales State Record Office (accessed through Ancestry. com).
The passage of ‘The Lady Juliana’ was a lengthy one. It sailed via Tenerife, Cape Verde, Rio Janeiro (where it docked for 7 weeks) and the Cape of Good Hope (where it stayed for a month). A total of 309 days were spent on the voyage. At every port, the women convicts were allowed some liberty, some women freely ‘entertained’ the seamen in the ports and subsequently a few infants expanded the population of ‘The Lady Juliana’. The phrase ‘Floating Brothel’ was coined many years later, however, only 7 babies were actually born on board and these were thought to have been conceived through established relationships. The all male crew of the ship were expected and encouraged to take wives during the duration of the journey, these wives were allowed many exclusive privileges.
By the time ‘The Lady Juliana’ had reached Port Jackson on the 3rd June 1790, the established penal colony was on the brink of starvation. Hence, the reception of the new cargo of extra mouths to feed was somewhat hostile. Thankfully, relief came two weeks later in the form of a store ship, Justinian.
Although further arrivals of convicts continued, the introduction of women to the new colony did eventually change the dynamics for the better. Many of the women married either other prisoners or into the military; the latter negated the status of convict.
Australia was a very hard and hostile place initially, for all of those people who had seemingly been abandoned there. Many challenges were faced, from disease and malnutrition to climate extremes.
And as for Sarah Varriner, she may have married and had a family but the only record of her that I could find stated that she died in 1803- she was only 36 years old.
Anna Ervine, Community History Assistant
- Tags: archive, Australia, calendar of prisoners, King George III, New South Wales, New South Wales State Record Office, New Zealand, Newgate prison, Painswick, Plymouth, Port Jackson, Portsmouth, prison ship, Sarah Varriner, slave, Sydney Harbour, The Lady Juliana, The National Archives, Thomas Edgar, transportation, William Bradley, Wiltshire, Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre