Imagine – You are Convict in 1800

Imagine, if you can, being employed as a servant, by a middle class family, in country England over two hundred years ago. Life is hard. You are both house maid and under cook.  The master is a brewer; comfortably well off, providing he toils over twelve hours each day.  The mistress is still weak following the birth of her sixth child. You work from sun up to long after sun down. Your family is poor and becoming poorer. Whilst some scrape a living as tenant farmers, most are forced into service and some into the workhouse.  One day you are at the village markets and you see a shawl. It is not a flash shawl that would be immediately noticed, but a simple warm shawl. Winter is coming and you have a chesty cough that has persisted throughout summer. You need that shawl.  Nobody is looking. It is so easy.

But of course somebody was looking. You are arrested and taken before the magistrate.  There is barely time to lament you foolishness before the dreaded sentence is passed. Seven year penal servitude! You will be placed in a prison ship and sent far across the seas, far from home.

Can you imagine the fear? You have never been more than thirty miles from the place of your birth. You will never see your family again.  You can’t write, neither can they. You will never hear from your family again.

One hundred and twenty women are crowded into a small ship that bobs up and down on the water like a cork.  It is dark below deck. You are confined to a narrow bunk with a thin mattress. You cuddle into your blanket willing your stomach to settle and you heart to return to its regular beat. It is to no avail. You soon succumb to seasickness. This will accompany you for most of your trip to Sydney Cove. You will be at sea for seven months. Sometimes it will be stifling hot. There will be storms when you imagine the ship being cast to the bottom of the ocean. Water will flood below the decks and everything will be wet.  As you cross the Indian Ocean, way south towards Antarctica, it will be freezing cold and the wind will constantly howl. Many times you will fear for your life. On other occasions you will have days of calm and boredom. There will be time to scrub your cramped quarters and to dry your bedclothes and belongings. There will be time to mourn the loss of your country, your home, your family and friends.

Finally you arrive at your destination. How very different to England. You sail into a protected waterway punctuated by deep bays with sheltered beaches of white sand and surrounded by steep cliffs and forested hills.  There is almost no sign of civilisation and it is only when you reach Sydney Cove that you see a few mean single storey building hugging the shore. A small stream flowed into the cove and on the eastern rise, the only substantial building in the colony, Government House, has a commanding view of the meagre dwellings of the convicts and those who guarded them. On a ridge to the north east of Government House is a timber windmill with an associated bakehouse and dwelling. Further to the east around the adjoining bay and cut from the grey bush, strips of land are being cultivated.

It is the first year of the nineteenth century. The colony is a very male dominated society. In fact men outnumber women by over five to one. You will be expected to find a partner and marry him. You have a family in England, that’s sad. They are lost to you. You will be encouraged to start a new life in NSW. After seven years you can remarry even if your spouse is still alive in the old country. In the meantime you will be assigned as a servant. Whatever the case, you will be encouraged to quickly become the responsibility of someone else and not to require support from the Commissary.  As the boat docks at Sydney Cove you will be greeted by free settlers and government officials, each one looking for a cook, house maid or a concubine.

As you survey you new home it is obvious that England has a toe hold in this far land. Are you excited at the opportunity presented, or overcome with fear and homesickness?  Perhaps it depends on your age. For the young it is possibly an adventure. But, what if you are 34?  What if you have just escaped two death penalties? What if you are Margaret Catchpole?

In the annuals of convict history there are some names that standout, that everybody has heard of. Margaret Catchpole is one of these. But really what do we know of her? She stole a horse and rode to London -such a small incident in a valuable life.  Laurie Cater Forth’s biography is a fascinating insight into the life of a convict woman who bucked the system. She stood alone and, without a male partner to support her, carved a niche for herself within colonial society.  She was a keen observer who left a valuable account of life in NSW during the first decade of the nineteenth century.

Why not read her story and view life as a convict woman through her eyes.    Margaret Catchpole Her Life & Her Letters. Available from this website.

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