A One Way Ticket To Sydney
It is my pleasure to introduce the second of four features this week written by Julian Woodford, celebrating the publication of his biography of East End gangster & corrupt magistrate, Joseph Merceron, The Boss of Bethnal Green.
Click here to reserve one of the last tickets left for The Boss of Bethnal Green launch tomorrow Thursday 3rd November at the Hanbury Hall or email email@example.com to book a free ticket for Julian Woodford’s lecture at Waterstones Piccadilly next Tuesday 8th November.
This story began when I found an old trade card on eBay. Undated, it belonged to ‘John Garton, Hosier, 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 two hundred years ago. The description, too, was rather lovely, with its proclamation of ‘real Welch Flannels of a curiously fine Texture.’ What gobbets of London’s past would it reveal? Come with me and we shall meet Mr Garton in his shop – but we shall not stay long, for he will send us on a very long journey…
Cheapside is one of London’s most important 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. Its name means ‘by the side of the market place,’ and even as recently as the Victorian era 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. The Worshipful Company of Mercers still has its livery hall in Ironmonger Lane, just off Cheapside, today.
John Lydgate’s fifteenth century poem 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.
The clothing trades persisted in Cheapside and, 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, out of approximately one hundred and twenty shops on the street, some sixty-five were engaged in drapery or related trades.
Among them was John Garton, whose shop 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 location and appearance 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.
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 Robert White leapt up from his frame and accosted Mary 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 took the felons away.
It transpired that Lawrence was eighteen years old and Smith just sixteen. The girls were held in Newgate prison and 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 an innocent dupe, both girls were found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years.
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. 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 three-hundred-ton whaler. Sarah Lawrence, now nineteen years old, was one of fifty-three women selected for the journey. There is no further sign of Mary Smith in the records and I can only assume she had died in Newgate. The consignment of women for transportation were herded into carts and driven to Portsmouth, at the threat of a whipping if they did not 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.
The Speedy embarked on 20th November 1799 in convoy with one hundred and fifty 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 venture 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 away 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 Governor went down with a cold and rheumatism. Anna King, made of sterner stuff and presumably bored stiff, spent the five-month voyage writing a diary, reminiscent of a Patrick O’Brian novel, that paints a fascinating picture of shipboard life in the company of twenty-two rough sailors, eight other passengers and fifty convict women – while her pathetic and gouty husband, intermittently bedridden, complained variously of pains in his head, stomach, knees, elbow, hip, hands and feet.
A fortnight out of Portsmouth, Mrs King awakes to discover the Speedy has lost its convoy in the night and is alone on the high sea. In that circumstance, every sail on the horizon is a potential enemy ship that might sink or capture them. But the redoubtable Anna King perseveres 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 storm 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 fortunately is extinguished before it can destroy the entire ship.
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 – she has to stand in for the temporarily insane ship’s doctor. On Christmas day, ‘the ladies’ are reported as being ‘all very happy’ and are allowed to dance on deck for a couple of hours. 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 – after 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 illness or falling overboard in rough weather. One, a Mrs Butler, becomes insane for several days before dying off Trinidad and the other convict women claim to be tormented by her ghost for days afterwards.
After these adventures, the Speedy berthed 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 returned to London at the end of it.
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 levity of the sentence passed twenty years later on Joseph Merceron, the subject of my book The Boss of Bethnal Green.
Convicted 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 certainly did not pay to be poor in Georgian London.
St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside
St Mary-le-Bow in the eighteenth century
Detail of Cheapside, from William Horwood’s map of London (1792-6)
97 Cheapside, from Tallis Street View (1847)
Anna Josepha King, Diarist, Stand-in Ship’s Doctor & Wife of Philip Gidley King, Governor of New South Wales
The convict settlement in Sydney
A pair of convicts in Australia
You may also like to read Julian’s piece introducing his book