London’s Women Convicts – a Single to Sydney

Today’s ‘London tales’ post tells how an old trade card found on Ebay led to the story of two women convicts transported to Australia, and contrasts the severity of their punishment with the leniency of that meted out to the subject of my book, ‘The Boss of Bethnal Green’.

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An old trade card on Ebay

This story begins with an old trade card I bought on Ebay. Undated, it was issued by ‘John Garton, Hosier, of 97 Cheapside, the Corner of Lawrence Lane’. When the card arrived in the post, I was immediately attracted to its clean typography and the feel of the indented letters, revealing the force with which they were punched into the stiff card, more than 200 years ago. The description, too, is rather lovely, with its proclamation of ‘real Welch Flannels of a curiously fine Texture’. What gobbets of London’s past will it reveal?

Cheapside

Cheapside is one of London’s most ancient highways, occupying the important east-west route from the Bank of England to St Paul’s Cathedral and dominated by Wren’s glorious St Mary-le-Bow. ‘Cheapside’ means ‘by the side of the market place’, and even into Victorian times it was described as ‘the busiest thoroughfare in the world’. For centuries it was known for the clothing trade, with its silk mercers, drapers, haberdashers and hosiers. It is still dominated by clothing retailers, and the Worshipful Company of Mercers has its livery hall on Ironmonger Lane just a few yards away.

St Mary-le-Bow in the 18th century.

St Mary-le-Bow today, as seen from 97 Cheapside

John Lydgate’s 15th century London Lykpenny describes a visit to Cheapside:

Then to the Chepe I began me drawne,

Where mutch people I saw for to stande,

One ofred me velvet, sylke, and lawne,

An other, he taketh me by the hande,

‘Here is Parys threde, the fynest in the lande’;

I never was used to such thyngs indede,

And wantyng mony, I myght not spede.

Cheapside’s dependence on the cloth trades continued. In 1731 Jonathan Swift was calling his friend John Gay, author of The Beggars Opera, ‘as arrant a cockney as any hosier in Cheapside’. By 1794, of approximately 120 shops on the street, some 65 were engaged in drapery or related trades. Among them was John Garton’s, which lay on the north side of the street on the corner of Lawrence Lane, almost directly across the road from St Mary-le-Bow. We have a clear picture of the situation and style of Garton’s shop, as it features in both William Horwood’s map of London (1792-6) and in Tallis’s Street View of 1847.

97 Cheapside, from William Horwood’s map of London 1792-6.

97 Cheapside, from Tallis’s Street View 1847

Stealing Stockings

Thanks to the Old Bailey Online, we can bring John Garton and his little shop to life. On 2nd August 1798, around four-thirty in the afternoon, Garton was upstairs in his storeroom. His shopman was minding the store, and his assistant, Robert White, was at work making stockings on a knitting frame when two teenage girls entered and engaged the shopman in conversation about the price of stockings and gloves. The elder girl, Sarah Lawrence, then asked to examine some flannel and drew the shopman into the light of the window to see it better. Looking up from his frame, White saw the other girl, Mary Smith, grab a handful of silk stockings from the counter and stuff them under her bonnet.

The dutiful White leapt up from his frame and accosted Smith, removing her hat and revealing the stolen goods. The local constable was called and both Lawrence and Smith were arrested. Realising the consequences for the girls, John Garton took pity on them, suggesting to the constable that they be let off with a caution, but the officer insisted on pressing charges and taking the girls away. It transpired that Lawrence was 18 and Smith just 16. The girls were taken to the Poultry Compter, a small nearby prison known for its appalling conditions, and were tried at the Old Bailey six weeks later. Garton and White reported the facts as they had occurred. Despite producing character witnesses, and Lawrence protesting she was Smith’s innocent dupe, both girls were found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years.

A Single Ticket to Sydney

Transportation to America had ceased following the U.S Declaration of Independence in 1776. British prisons had subsequently become dangerously overcrowded and as a result the government began to transport prisoners to the new colonies in Australia from 1788. Over the next decade, as the colony in Sydney, New South Wales, developed, the imbalance of male to female convicts began to strain the sustainability of the settlement and the decision was made to send occasional all-female shipments.

While waiting for transportation, Lawrence and Smith were almost certainly kept in Newgate Prison. According to William Eden Hooper’s 1935 History of Newgate and the Old Bailey, conditions for the female prisoners were dreadful:

The tried and untried, young girls and abandoned women, were herded together…their babies and children with them… Nearly all the women were heavily ironed…In the two wards and one yard, built to hold about sixty women, there were, in 1817, about three hundred women and children crowded – the former the very scum of the earth; filthy in their habits and disgusting in their persons. 

Eventually after a year a shipment of female convicts to Sydney was arranged on the Speedy, a 300-ton whaler. Sarah Lawrence, now 19, was one of 53 women selected for the journey. (It seems Mary Smith’s sentence was commuted and she avoided transportation*). The women were herded into carts and driven to Portsmouth at the threat of a whipping if they didn’t comply. According to Hooper:

Previous to embarkation for transport, these poor creatures, mad with their griefs and drink, used to riot and smash everything on which they could lay their hands, so that these were lashed behind their backs, and in that condition they were dragged or driven in open vehicles to the waterside amidst the jeers of the populace. 

Aboard the Speedy

The Speedy embarked on 20th November 1799 in convoy with 150 other ships. A journey to the other side of the world was dangerous enough, but with Britain at war with France, this was a perilous journey in the extreme. Luckily for our story, the Speedy had some other passengers, aboard for quite a different reason. As a result, we have some brilliant glimpses of the adventures experienced by Sarah Lawrence and her fellow convicts as they travelled to meet their punishment half a world from London.

The incoming Governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King, was returning to Australia with his wife Anna after recuperating from illness in England. But within two days of setting sail, the sickly King went down with a cold and rheumatism. Anna King, made of sterner stuff and presumably bored stiff, spent the five-month voyage keeping a diary, redolent of a Patrick O’Brian novel, that paints a fascinating picture of shipboard life with 22 rough sailors, 8 other passengers and 50 convict women while her pathetic and gouty husband, intermittently bedridden, complained variously of pains in his head, stomach, knees, elbow, hip, hands and feet.

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Anna Josepha King

A fortnight out of Portsmouth, Mrs King awakes to discover the Speedy has lost its convoy in the night and is alone on its journey. From that point, every sail on the horizon is a potential enemy ship that can sink or capture them. But the redoubtable Anna King soldiers on with her task, recording the minutiae of life despite storms which break her cabin windows, sever the mizzen mast and leave the convicts swilling in water ‘liked drowned rats’. One tempest carries away railings, water casks, a boat crane and, to the Governor’s dismay, ‘Mr King’s tin bath’. On another occasion Anna herself identifies a fire in the hold which luckily is extinguished before it can destroy the ship.

Scotch Fiddle

Anna King is an interested observer of the convict women, noting the illnesses they suffer, notably ‘the Scotch fiddle’ (scabies) and heavy seasickness, and for a time has to stand in for the temporarily insane ship’s doctor. On Christmas day, ‘the ladies’ are reported as ‘all very happy’ and are allowed to dance on deck for a couple of hours. Perhaps predictably, this results in a convict being caught in flagrante with one of the cabin boys. The punishment for this is for both parties to be forcibly held under the water pump – following which the woman throws herself overboard in desperation, but luckily is rescued before she can drown, and is returned to her senses by the application of an emetic consisting of three teaspoons of black pepper in a glass of red wine – ‘a most powerful medicine’, as Mrs King records.

The diary highlights the perils of illness and disease aboard ship and the vagaries of food supplies. Mrs King makes much of the deaths of sheep, pigs and chickens. She suffers a peculiar adventure of her own, when one lunchtime she raises a glass of port to her lips just as a fat and clumsy goose falls straight through the skylight above and onto her head ‘with one foot in my glass – away went porter, glass and all’.  During the voyage two of the convicts, a child and another passenger die from a variety of illnesses or from falling overboard in rough weather. One, a Mrs Butler, becomes insane for several days before dying off Trinidad and the convict women claim to be tormented by her ghost for days afterwards.

After all these adventures, the Speedy arrived in Sydney on 13th April 1800. What happened to the convict women after they arrived in Australia? Later shipments were taken to the infamous ‘Female Factory’, a workhouse-cum-prison in Parramatta on the edge of the colony, but in these early years it seems most women became servants to the officers or other settlers. At this point, Sarah Lawrence disappears from history and I have been unable to learn whether she survived her sentence, or if she ever returned to London at the end of it.

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The convict settlement in Sydney, c.1800.

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A pair of convicts in Australia, c.1800.

As I contemplate the enormity of Sarah’s seven year stretch at the world’s end, just for stealing four pairs of stockings, I can only contrast it with the leniency of the sentence passed 20 years later on the ‘Godfather’ of Regency London, Joseph Merceron, the subject of my book  The Boss of Bethnal GreenConvicted for stealing £1,000 (no small amount in those days) from the poor of Bethnal Green, and for the corrupt licensing as a magistrate of public houses that he owned and ran as gin palaces and brothels, Merceron received just a two-year sentence which he spent in relative comfort in a London prison. Cases against him for a large number of other offences never reached court. It really did not pay to be poor in Georgian London.

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* An earlier version of this post was published on the Spitalfields Life blog on 2nd November 2016. When I wrote it, I had been unable to find any trace of Mary Smith after her trial and wrote that I assumed she had died in Newgate. Within a few hours of posting, the team from the Old Bailey Online contacted me to say they had found the Criminal Register entries for both Sarah Lawrence and Mary Smith!

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Criminal Register entry for Mary Smith (click to see larger version of image)

The registers tell us that Mary was 5 feet 2 inches tall, born in Whitechapel, with dark complexion and that she was transferred out of Newgate in September 1800 – to where, we do not know. Sarah Lawrence was just four feet ten inches tall, born in the City of London and of fair complexion. Many thanks to Sharon Howard of the Old Bailey Online & London Lives projects at the University of Sheffield for supplying this information.

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