Convicts & Courtesans (Part 2)

(see Part 1)

When we last left the shores of what was then known as Sydney’s Cove, Australia, an assortment of female felons were departing the ‘Lady Juliana’, a prisoner transport ship just arrived from England. It was July, 1789, and the women had been sent as desperately needed solutions for a sickly, starving penal colony comprised mainly of men.

In today’s post, we’re going to learn a little bit about some of those women, the events that brought them to Australian shores, and some unexpected aftermaths.


In 1789, English law could be harsh. For bullying and stealing the clothing off an eight year old girl, eleven year old Mary Wade was sentenced to death. While awaiting her execution in Newgate Prison, a ” dark, wet, vermin-infested” place of horrors, young Mary met Rachel Hoddy. Rachel was a prostitute who had been tried about six months earlier, and was also sentenced to death, also for stealing clothing – although in Rachel’s case it was from her client. (I cannot resist pointing out that her client’s name was Nimrod. I just cannot resist…). Anyway, as it turned out, in March of that year, in celebration of being cured of what was considered a form of madness, King George III declared that all women on death row should have their sentences commuted to transportation. Five days later, Mary, Rachel and a couple hundred other women and girls set sail for Australia.

Now, if you think about it, (and ya don’t need to think too long before the pieces start to come together!), you’ve got some crafty women on this ship, hungry, desperate and, I think it can be safely assumed, not too highly principled! Mix that with the ship’s crew (we’re talking men here, sailors to be precise…not known for a genteel manner!) and, well…I think you get my point. In fact, authoress Sian Rees has researched and written a book about the almost year-long voyage of the ‘Lady Juliana’, and its title – The Floating Brothel. The ship’s steward, John Nicol, includes a chapter about the voyage in his memoirs (The Life and Adventures of John Nichol, Mariner), in which he tells us something of the women themselves, as well as conditions aboard the boat.
Sexual pressure definitely existed, but perhaps good came of some of it. Seven babies were born aboard the ship, one belongng to Nichol himself and the woman he took as ‘wife’. (As did many of the crewmen and officers.) These women were delivered from a rotting, disease-infested dungeon as well as the sentence of death. They were provided with food and drink, clothing and medical care. And though records indicate some violent seasickness! these ‘ladies’ did have the daily opportunity to breath fresh air, and feel the sunshine. Compared to their previous dire straits, the women were, in a sense, actually truly free.

There were apparently some entrepeneurial woman aboard the ‘Lady Juliana’! “Elizabeth Barnsley — a wealthy and successful shoplifter convicted of theft — used {her} money and influence to procure better lodging and even to create business opportunities on the ship.” At ports-of-call, the former prostitutes plied their trade, much improving their financial condition. Money talks, and it spoke up for better food and sleeping arrangements for some of them. Fortunes began to improve. “By the time they reached Sydney Cove, they were fit and healthy, and some had even amassed enough money to support themselves.” (source)

I don’t know of records existing that would’ve documented the actual conditions surrounding the women once they set foot on land and began to settle in to a new life, and life-style. It’s hard to imagine that there would’ve been no perhaps forced contact. Who knows, maybe some of the ladies ganged up on the men! But, over time, connections were made, relationships developed, children were born and families were formed. This kind of cohesiveness brought stability with it, and gradually a more normal society came to exist in Sydney’s Cove. The phoenix rose out of the ashes.


Our clothes-stealing little bully, Mary Wade, sentenced to die at the tender young age of eleven, instead lived to the ripe old age of 87, and became the matriarch of one of the largest families in the world, with over 300 descendants alive during her lifetime.

Rachel Hoddy, our lady of ill repute, thrived almost beyond belief. During her time at the penal colony, she paired off with one of the convicts and eventually gave birth to six or seven children; leaving him once her sentencing was completed, Rachel received a land grant, obtained a license to sell wine & beer, and opened her own pub,’the Horse and the Groom’. Additionally, Rachel became a homeowner. She acquired not one but two houses! May I say, way to go, Rachel!!! (source)

Yet another one of the women prisoners aboard the “Lady Juliana” was Ann Marsh, convicted of stealing some wheat from an open market in London. Once her sentence was served, “Ann… founded the Parramatta River Boat Service, a line that still runs today.” She “… became one of Sydney’s foremost entrepreneurs, owning a pub, a butchery and general store…” (source)

In more than one reference source, these convict women, as well as unknown others arriving that day in 1789, from across an ocean, almost a year’s journey away, are called the founding mothers of Australia. And so they were.

I can’t help but be reminded, as I read about these scurrilous, crafty, bawdy women who were destined for a place in the genealogy of a world-famous city, of another such woman – Rahab the harlot of Old Testament fame. Though a prostitute, you will find her name in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords. (Matthew 1: 5)

This post was inspired by a PBS television broadcast, Secrets of the Dead: Voyage of the Courtesans.

4 responses to “Convicts & Courtesans (Part 2)

  1. Aye, Matey-trix, ya’ been scurrilously busy, has ya’. Blimey, when yer mentioned ‘principled’ I admit I figgered “another romanticalized damsel story..” but it turned out otherwise… eh? Ya’ made a full come about, tactful, and shivered me timbers when I thought yer were puttin’ us in irons..!I think your style shines in this post, and probably for obvious reasons, see your tag lines… redemption, rehab, entrepreneurs, Mary, a Lady J, and Rachel… stable hard tack subject for debate of the human condition… Aye?pdnf

  2. Hey, pdnf! I know I typed a reply to your comment days ago, I don't know what happened!First, let me just say – we both got to use the word 'scurrilous {ly} in a sentence! (Few have suceeded in that – tho many have tried!)And thanks. Also thanks for, yet again, getting me laughing out loud – repeatedly! Been a rough coupla weeks @ work, & hearing myself burst out laughing like that, through the blur of tension, etc. is not too far from a miracle.

  3. “…typed a reply to your comment days ago,…”Quite possibility the most gut wrenching feeling of bloggerdom! You, my friend, are the miracle… we Palikir’s follow the guiding light of the mighty Bubbalin’ and her quill. Pat. Pend.

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