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’.


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 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.


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.


The convict settlement in Sydney, c.1800.


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.


* 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!


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.

Five Cockney Poets

(clockwise from top left): Milton, Pope, Hood, Keats, Gray

Was it something in the water? Wandering around the City of London’s Square Mile I have been surprised to learn that five of England’s greatest poets were born here, within a few hundred yards of each other, in a concentration of poetic genius I would hazard is not surpassed anywhere else in the world.

The lives of the five: John Milton, Alexander Pope, Thomas Gray, John Keats and Thomas Hood, occupied a key period of about 250 years of London’s history from 1600 to 1850. Their poetic styles were very different, and none of them, except perhaps Hood, is remembered particularly as a London writer, but I thought it would be interesting to find out what they had to say about their home city. 

John Milton 

John Milton (source: Wikipedia)

In 1608, John Milton was born an unquestioned Cockney, in Bread Street just three houses south of Cheapside and the bells of St Mary-le-Bow. 


 He lived there for three decades and, with a few brief exceptions, spent nearly all of his life in or very near London.  His fame in his own lifetime was such that he became a tourist magnet: 

Foreigners came much to see him, and much admired him, and offer’d to him great perfermets to come over to them; and the only inducement of severall foreingers that came over into England, was chiefly to see Oliver Protector, and Mr. John Milton; and would see the hous and chamber wher he was borne. 

Because Milton’s popular reputation is so heavily geared to Paradise Lost and other biblical poems he is not usually thought of as a London writer. But it is possible to find references here and there. In an early letter to a friend, Milton extols the beauty of London women:  

Surrender, you maidens of Greece and of Troy and of Rome…The first prize goes to the British girls. Be content, foreign woman, to take second place! And you, London, a city built by Trojan settlers, a city whose towery head can be seen for miles, you are more than fortunate for you enclose within your walls whatever beauty is to be found in all this pendant world. 

…and, later in the same work:

Sometimes the city promenades provided me with entertainment, sometimes the countryside near the outlying houses. A crowd of girls, with faces just like goddesses, go to and fro along the walks, resplendently beautiful… Heedless, I let my eyes meet theirs: I was unable to keep my eyes in check. Then, by chance, I caught sight of one girl who was far more beautiful than all the rest: that radiance was the beginning of my downfall.  

Later in his career, in Areopagitica, Milton presents London, which then had the most active publishing industry in the world, as the city of ideas: 

Behold now this vast City; a City of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompast and surrounded with his protection; the shop of war hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed Justice in defense of beleaguer’d Truth, then there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and idea’s, wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching Reformation: others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement. 

Alexander Pope 

Alexander Pope (source: Wikipedia)

14 years after Milton’s death, in 1688 Alexander Pope was born in a house in Plough Court, off Lombard Street.



Pope’s birthplace in Plough Court


Pope was less polite about London’s women than Milton had been: 

A Farewell to London in the year 1715

DEAR, damn’d, distracting town, farewell!

Thy fools no more I’ll tease:  

This year in peace, ye Critics, dwell, 

Ye Harlots, sleep at ease! 

Thomas Gray


Thomas Gray (source : Wikipedia)


In 1716, when Pope had recently completed The Rape of the Lock, Thomas Gray was born, just yards away from Pope’s birthplace in a house on Cornhill. 


Gray, who settled as an academic in Cambridge after leaving Eton, wrote little about London. But his works, published in 1807, connect him closely with the next poet on my list. Gray’s publisher was the firm of Vernor, Hood & Sharpe of 31, Poultry whose managing partner, Thomas Hood, was the father of the poet, born there in 1799. 

1807 edition of Gray’s works, published by Hood’s father



Thomas Hood 

Thomas Hood (source: Wikipedia)

 Thomas Hood was a prolific London writer, whose works touch on many subjects topical to Londoners of his day. He wrote of bodysnatchers, the ‘resurrection men’ who would disinter corpses to sell to trainee surgeons:

Don’t go to weep upon my grave 

And think that there I be. 

They haven’t left an atom there 

Of my anatomie. 

Hood also wrote famously of London’s dismal Autumn weather:

No sun – no moon! 

No morn – no noon – 

No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day. 

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease, 

No comfortable feel in any member – 

No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees, 

No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds  


He wrote of working Londoners’ poverty in the slums: 

With fingers weary and worn, 

With eyelids heavy and red,

A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,

Plying her needle and thread– 

Stitch! stitch! stitch! 

In poverty, hunger, and dirt, 

And still with a voice of dolorous pitch 

She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”

“Work! work! work!

While the cock is crowing aloof!

And work—work—work,

Till the stars shine through the roof!

It’s Oh! to be a slave

Along with the barbarous Turk,

Where woman has never a soul to save,

If this is Christian work!”

Finally, Hood’s Sonnet to Vauxhall is a lovely comedy upon the impact of a Victorian fireworks display:

The cold transparent ham is on my fork – 

It hardly rains – and hark the bell! – ding-dingle –  

Away! Three thousand feet at gravel work, 

Mocking a Vauxhall shower! – Married and Single 

Crush – rush; – Soak’d Silks with wet white Satin mingle. 

Hengler! Madame! round whom all bright sparks lurk 

Calls audibly on Mr. and Mrs. Pringle 

To study the Sublime, &c.- (vide Burke)

All Noses are upturn’d!  Whish-ish! On high 

The rocket rushes – trails – just steals in sight 

Then droops and melts in bubbles of blue light 

And Darkness reigns – Then balls flare up and die 

Wheels whiz – smack crackers – serpents twist – and then 

Back to the cold transparent ham again!


John Keats  

John Keats (source: Wikipedia)



By coincidence John Keats, born in Moorgate in 1795, also wrote a Sonnet about Vauxhall but encountered fireworks of an altogether more sensual kind: 

Sonnet. To A Lady Seen For A Few Moments At Vauxhall 

Time’s sea hath been five years at its slow ebb, 

Long hours have to and fro let creep the sand, 

Since I was tangled in thy beauty’s web, 

And snared by the ungloving of thine hand. 

And yet I never look on midnight sky, 

But I behold thine eyes’ well memory’d light; 

I cannot look upon the rose’s dye, 

But to thy cheek my soul doth take its flight. 

I cannot look on any budding flower, 

But my fond ear, in fancy at thy lips 

And hearkening for a love-sound, doth devour 

Its sweets in the wrong sense: — Thou dost eclipse 

Every delight with sweet remembering,

And grief unto my darling joys dost bring.

Of course, there are a great many poets who have written about London, but I haven’t been able to find any others who were definitively born in the City of London itself. If you know of any, or of other unusual concentrations of poetic birthplaces, please do let me know!

City of London Churches: digital sketches

I’ve been taking a lot of photos lately to support my ongoing City of London Steeplechase post series. I’ve been exploring ways of playing with the images to bring out some of the finer architectural details, and thought I’d share some of the results as a separate post.

The images below cover pretty much the entire historical range of the City churches, from the Norman round nave of Temple Church and the Medieval towers of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate and St Olave Hart Street, through a number of some of Wren’s finest works, their embellishment by Hawksmoor and on to the post-Blitz redesigned steeple of All Hallows Barking.

I’ll start with one of my favourites: Wren’s beautiful steeple at St Mary-le-Bow, with its magnificent dragon weathervane neatly silhouetted against the skyline. You can find out more about the dragon, and its relationship with the nearby grasshopper vane on the Royal Exchange, by clicking here.

St Mary-le-Bow



The next image brings to life the remarkable detail of Hawksmoor’s pinnacles on Wren’s St Michael Cornhill:

St Michael Cornhill



Another of my favourites: the dome and tower of Wren’s gorgeous St Stephen Walbrook; a joy to see both inside and out.

St Stephen Walbrook



The round nave at Temple Church; one of the City’s few remaining Norman buildings:

Temple Church



The tower of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate. Note the four weathervanes which always seem to point in different directions, giving rise to an old saying about unreasonable people: ‘as hard to reconcile as the vanes on St Sepulchre’s tower’:

St Sepulchre-without-Newgate



Next, another Wren masterpiece: St Mary Abchurch. Quaint on the outside, the interior with its floodlit dome is stunning, but I’ll save that for another Steeplechase.

St Mary Abchurch



St Vedast-alias-Foster: one of the strangest among many strangely named City churches, and in my view quite a physically strange building too, with its bulky steeple that seems to me a bit disproportionate to the tower beneath:

St Vedast-alias-Foster



Now to St Olave, Hart Street, resting place of Samuel Pepys and the church that Dickens christened St Ghastly Grim because of the gruesome skulls decorating its churchyard wall. You can read more about this lovely old church and its remarkable history by clicking here.

St Olave Hart Street



Near to St Olave’s is the City’s oldest church, All Hallows Barking, or All Hallows-by-the-Tower as it is also known. While the elegant steeple looks old, it is in fact a post-war creation after the previous, much smaller, one was destroyed in the Blitz. For more detail, including pictures of the fascinating museum in the crypt, click here.

All Hallows Barking



I’ll finish with another of Wren’s glories, that of St Mary Aldermary, which could perhaps be described as ‘Christopher Wren goes Gothic’ with its fan-vaulted ceiling.

St Mary Aldermary



I hope you liked these. Do let me know what you think (see comment form below), and I’ll see if I can cook up some more in due course…