The American Center for Artists

Artist and Gallery Listings       Arts Organizations and Grants   Articles Stories and Poems  Staff



by John Sledge

They were “disorderly girls” -- prostitutes, pickpockets, shoplifters and the like -– who inhabited the lower rungs of 18th-century British society. Authorities routinely rounded them up and threw them into wretched prisons where they languished until death, release or transport “to parts beyond the seas.” A fascinating new book brings to vivid life a group of these unfortunates shipped out to Australia in 1789: The Floating Brothel: The Extraordinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and its Cargo of Female Convicts (Theia, paper, $13.95) by Sîan Rees.

According to historian Rees, the American Revolution had a profound effect on petty criminality and homelessness in England and on the subsequent settlement of Australia. Prior to the Revolution, the American colonies provided a handy safety valve for Mother England. Thousands of criminals and ne’er-do-wells were shunted across the Atlantic to further the Crown’s interests by breeding new colonists and pushing against hostile, pro-French Indians on the frontier. But after the Revolution, criminals were no longer welcomed.

Also at this time, thousands of British soldiers returning from America were mustered out of service and they flooded into cities like London and Portsmouth. Desperate to make a living, these men took menial jobs as clerks, tailors, haberdashers and such, positions which had been dominated by women. Many formerly employed girls and women then found themselves on the streets without a safety net, and resorted to any means they could to survive. The result was an alarming upsurge in female arrests.

Using letters and court documents, Rees traces the shady careers of some of these women. One street-smart London prostitute named Matilda Johnson pressed a wealthy merchant against a wall and flirted while lifting his watch. Uninterested in her charms, he had her arrested, a “prisoner for law.” Just a few days later, Charlotte Marsh and her mother, Ann Clapton, went on a shoplifting expedition to a linen shop. Rees explains the four steps to a successful heist. “Step one was to ‘tumble the muslins’ on the counter. Step two was to divert the shopman by sending him off for scissors or change. Step three was to stuff a piece of cloth up your skirt and step four, to leave the premises unhurriedly and without ungainly lumps.” Practiced as they were, Marsh and Clapton were nevertheless apprehended and thrown into the gaol. Marsh, Clapton and Johnson were typical of countless other women who had been squeezed out of respectable jobs.

America was no longer available to authorities as a criminal dumping ground but Australia was. Some 13,000 miles away, it had enjoyed only limited supply and settlement. Struggling towns like Sydney Cove were inhabited by handfuls of convicts, disgruntled soldiers and overwhelmed civil officials. Dispatches to England begged for more provisions, labor and, women to increase the population and, as one official tremblingly pleaded, “preserve the settlement from gross irregularities.”

So it was that over 200 female convicts, including the trio described above, were loaded onto “a fine-built river vessel” named the Lady Julian bound for New South Wales. For weeks the vessel rode at anchor in the Thames River while boatloads of women, “dirty, wet and weak from cold and hunger,” were rowed out to her. Rees’ descriptions of the ship, her crew and what life was like for the women between her decks are masterful.

Among the crew was John Nichol, a cooper, who would eventually pen a memoir of the voyage, the only first-person account available. Nichol was smitten with one of the prisoners, a 17-year-old named Sarah Whitelam: “I first fixed my fancy on her the moment I knocked the rivet from her irons upon my anvil.” Within days, Whitelam was sharing Nichol’s hammock as his “wife,” a common practice sanctioned by the ship’s officers. Those women not lucky enough to catch the fancy of a sailor slept on broad wooden shelves below decks.

Rees avoids judging 18th-century morality according to 21st-century standards, the mark of a good historian. “Brutal though the Lady Julian’s rough and ready cohabitation sounds,” she explains, “it was not an unreasonable way to guard against the consequences of sexual frustration among young single men and women living in close proximity.” It was, in short, conducive to good order, and considering the hardships already suffered and yet to come for these women, it was, if anything, a humane interlude. As far as the authorities were concerned, the resulting pregnancies would only bolster the colony.

Eventually the Lady Julian weighed anchor. After clearing the river’s mouth, she began breasting the big rollers of the open sea. Seasickness was prevalent among officers, crew and women. Those who couldn’t make it to deck vomited where they lay, adding to the stench of unwashed bodies, waste and the refuse in the bilge.

Rees details the routines of daily life at sea – scrubbing decks and mending sails – and speculates as to how the women governed themselves below decks. Undoubtably there were bullies among them, and pecking orders were soon established. Happiest were those with tanned sailors to protect them.

In the Doldrums, the ship was becalmed, and “a pool of effluent from the heads and galley spread around her.” This stagnant mass attracted seaweed, which served to trap more waste. Gagging for breath, sailors in small boats attempted to tow the ship free or cut the fetid mass away. Torrential downpours drenched everyone and during storms water poured over the decks and showered onto the miserable, shivering women below.

The difficulties of the voyage were relieved by exotic ports of call at Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, which Rees beautifully describes. The women’s first experience of Australia was anything but promising, however. They arrived in June, winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and their port of call, Port Jackson, was “a mass of low dripping green” against somber skies. The inhabitants who came down to meet them were thin, haggard and dressed in tattered clothes.

The shipboard liaisons were now broken. Because of the shortage of able-bodied seamen, the officers would not countenance marriages, fearing that the men would want to remain with their new brides. So John Nichol said goodbye forever to his beloved Sarah Whitelam and their infant son. We know from Nichol’s memoir that he mourned this rupture for the rest of his life.

And what about Whitelam? She soon remarried, had other children and moved to Bombay. Rees speculates that for many of the women, the shipboard “marriages” were for convenience, and they quickly moved on to improve their lot ashore. She writes, “From maidens in distress, teenage mothers or hardened street criminals, some would evolve into the mistresses of wealthy households and founders of dynasties, others would sink without a trace and the majority would settle somewhere in between.”

In “The Floating Brothel,” Sîan Rees has provided a thoroughly researched, beautifully written and deeply human saga. This is narrative history at its entertaining best, rich in the sights, sounds and smells of another age.