Short Story – Elizabeth Miller.
By - Ross Mabey.
“No, no" Elizabeth sobbed in anguish, as the stern faced judge in a grey characterless wig, read out the sentence. "Elizabeth Miller, on this, the 20th day of September 1826, you are sentenced by His Majesty's Scottish High Court, sitting in Perthshire, to seven years imprisonment for stealing. You will be taken from this court and be transported to the Colony of New South Wales, where you will serve your sentence, at His Majesty's pleasure.”
“Consider yourself fortunate, that you are not going to the gallows, it is only your young age of 15 years, that saves you from that fate. If you were a little older, I would consider that there was no hope of you repenting your crime, or salvation for your soul."
With these words etched in her memory forever. Elizabeth was led stumbling, in a state of shock from the court. In her wildest nightmares she had never, believed that this dire fate would ever be meted out to her, for the few measly shillings, that she had taken from her mistress. She regretted the day that she had moved from Aberdeen to Perth, to take up the Housemaid position, which had looked so promising.
Being sent to New South Wales, was worse than a death sentence. Images of prisoners in chain gangs, being brutalised by drunken soldiers. A hostile land, that was full of strange animals, biting insects and poisonous snakes, filled her mind. A god forsaken place, that was on the other side of the world. The chances of returning to green hills of her beloved Scotland were very remote.
The days that followed, were a blur in her memory. She remembered her mother visiting her at the prison at Edinburgh, a few days before she was taken to Holloway Prison in London. They had both cried most of the time, knowing that they would probably never meet again. “Pray for the protection of The Lord” she said. “Eliza, I'll be thinking of you and praying for you everyday.” Then she was gone, there was just an empty numbness left in her mind.
Often she would find herself thinking of happier times growing up near Aberdeen. On summer days, standing on the cliffs edge, the smell of the sea, the wind blowing through her hair and the seagulls in the air. Those happy days going fishing with her father, or in the kitchen with her mother, or playing with her younger sisters. Then slowly reality would set in and with it the tears. “Dear God, what is to become
of me she thought” to herself.
She remembered the family trips into Aberdeen. They would often go and look at all the ships tied up at the docks. She remembered the rigging and sails. Sailors of different nationalities, speaking in languages she didn't understand. The smell of fish and spices filled the air.
Then she would remember her father's saying, “Lass, be proud of who your are. We Scots are a proud independent people, with strong traditions. Always be brave and have faith in yourself, one day we will throw off the yoke of tyranny that the English have put on us. Then we can breath, the sweet air of freedom again.”
Holloway Women's Prison was filled with young women, many like Elizabeth convicted of theft, others of assault and prostitution, “at least there were no murderers here she thought.” There were a few other Scottish girls, some from the Glasgow slums, but Elizabeth didn't like them as they were rough and crude. “A girl's got to make a living,” they would snigger, “if you know what I mean.” Elizabeth didn't bother to ask for an explanation.
Prison days were filled with endless washing, cleaning, ironing of prison uniforms and other laundry. There were three meagre meals served each day. At night they were too exhausted to think of anything but sleep. After being there for a few days she met Helen Murray, another girl from Aberdeen. She instantly liked her and without her knowing, this would develop into a friendship that would last for many years.
The cold days of winter closed in, then Christmas day 1826 came, which was a muted affair, everyone had to attend prayers in the prison chapel. Then early in February 1827, news came that she had been dreading. She was called to the warden’s office and in cold, matter of fact manner, he announced “Elizabeth Miller, in about 6 to 8 weeks you will be assigned to the Prison Ship, Princess Charlotte for transportation to New South Wales.”
Immediately tears came to her eyes, then in a kindly voice he said, “Things there might not be as bad as you imagine. Sydney Town is growing at a rapid rate. Many of those who have served their sentences have been given land grants and have done well. There are opportunities there, that you'll never find in this old country. May God go with you.”
Several weeks later on the 26th March 1827, she boarded the Princess Charlotte at the Woolwich Docks, on the River Thames, London. She was one of 90 women prisoners being transported to New South Wales. Another, was her friend Helen Murray. “At least there is one friendly face on board” she thought to herself, which gave her a little comfort. The next day, the 27th March 1827, on the turning of the tide, the Princess Charlotte weighed anchor and headed down the River Thames to the open sea.
Aboard the Princess Charlotte conditions were cramped. On the convict deck, each prisoner was assigned to a hammock, in which they slept. They were guarded by a small contingent of soldiers. Some of the officers had brought their families with them, with the intention of settling in the new colony. Also, there was a surgeon, who tended to the health of those on board.
Two days after leaving London, the prisoners were brought on deck in small groups to get fresh air and to wash. The captain addressed each group in turn, in a quiet, no nonsense, authoritative manner. “I am the master and the only law on this vessel. For the next four months, until you arrive in Sydney, your fate is in my hands. If you do as I request, you will be treated fairly. I do not tolerate any insurrection or unruly behaviour. My mission is to deliver you safely, in good health and as quickly as possible. I expect everyone to cooperate, otherwise you will be treated harshly.”
“Weather permitting, you will be brought on deck every few days, to get fresh air, to wash and exercise. I will have canvas screens erected to protect your modesty. You will not fraternise with the crew. You will keep yourselves and the deck you occupy, clean. It is important that you follow the surgeons advice if you are ill. To avoid scurvy, you will need to eat the fresh food and fruit that will be provided. We arrive in Gibraltar in a few days, where we will take on fresh water and supplies. Put all thoughts of escape from your mind, cooperate and life will be a lot easier for you.”
Elizabeth occupied the hammock next to Helen Murray. They would often talk for hours about their families, life in Aberdeen and the fate that awaited them. Their fears slowly dissipated as life on the ship, developed into a routine. True to his word, the captain had the convicts brought on deck every few days for fresh air, exercise and to wash. They would change into clean clothes, wash the ones they had previously worn and hang them out to dry.
They sailed south, with the coast of Africa faintly visible, far off in the distance on the port side. As they approached the equator, the days became warmer. The conditions on the convict deck became stiflingly hot. With all the port holes, wide open there was just enough breeze to make it bearable. They were taken on deck nearly every day, to cool off and to get fresh air. On warm tropical nights, some of the women were taken on deck at night to sleep, but always under the watchful eyes of the soldiers who guarded them.
On some of these nights, Elizabeth was one of the fortunate ones who slept on deck. She would lie, looking in awe, at the myriad of stars that filled the clear, warm, night sky. She watched as the ship's navigator gazed at the stars, through a special instrument, to determine exactly where they were, on the ship's charts and plotted a course to their next port of call. She thought to herself, “I wish I had an education. Then perhaps, I would have taken a different direction through life and not have ended up in these circumstances”.
Then on the day that they crossed the equator, one of the sailors dressed as King Neptune, performed a blessing of the ship ceremony. This brought some amusement and light relief to everyone. As the sailors, who were a very superstitious lot, would not forgo the ceremony. They were sure it would bring good luck and a safe journey.
As it was now late Autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, the weather became noticeably cooler, so they spent less time on deck. A few days later the captain announced “we are nearing the Cape of Good Hope. In about two days or so, we will be entering the port of Cape Town, where we will stay for a week, to take on new supplies and for the crew to rest, before we cross the great expanse of the Indian Ocean.”
After leaving Cape Town and sailing eastwards, there was no sight of land for nearly 6 weeks. At times there were wild storms and driving rain, which lasted for days. At other times, there were cool sunny days and a chance to get on deck. Eventually, one morning they sighted land on the port side. “We have reached New Holland,” announced the captain. “In about 3 weeks, we will reach our final destination, /
Fear, relief and excitement were the emotions that prisoners felt. Just the thought of standing on dry land again boosted their morale'. Then early one morning, about three weeks later they passed between two high cliffs, which were the headlands of the entrance to a magnificent harbour. They dropped anchor in bay near the northern headland and waited as the port authorities boarded the ship to check that their papers. Also, to make sure that there were no diseases on board, that would affect the fledgling colony. Then the pilot, guided the ship up the harbour, which was a hive of activity, with ships of all sizes coming and going. They finally berthed at Sydney Cove on the 6th August 1827. It was more than four months, since they had left London on the 27th March 1827.
Sydney Town had been first established in 1788, only 39 years before Elizabeth's arrival. The population of New South Wales (which included the present NSW, Queensland and Victoria) was approx. 36,000 in 1827. With approx. 20,500 free persons and 15,500 convicts, 75% of the population were male and approx. 24% of the population were children. The colony was growing at a rapid rate, with free /settlers and convicts arriving almost daily.
Many former convicts had been given land grants. Both they and the free settlers were looking for domestic servants. Newly arrived women convicts, were quickly assigned to both these groups. They in turn, would then pay the Colonial Government for the services of these convicts. The London Female Guardian Society, also trained young woman as domestic servants. These women, were also sent to the colony as free persons. Many of these married former convicts.
Elizabeth, having been previously been employed as a housemaid in Scotland and with 6 years of her sentence left to serve, was quickly assigned as a domestic servant to a family with four young child and another on the way. The husband was a surveyor and the wife had her hands full looking after the children. They were very appreciative of any help to run the household. They treated Elizabeth well but made it clear that they would not tolerate any misbehaviour. If she behaved she may have time taken off her sentence. The first thing you have to do is write to your mother, they insisted. We will pay for the postage. Elizabeth broke down in tears, this was the first act of kindness that anyone had shown in months.
Elizabeth served the remainder of her sentence with Broadbent family and at age 22 married ex Irish convict Michael O'shannassy. There’s was a happy marriage, they were blessed with four healthy children and 11 grandchildren.
That’s another story.
Copyright © 2018. Ross Mabey.
Written. August 2010, finished December 2018.
1827 - Arrival of convict ship Marquis of Hastings (31/7/1827).
1827 - Arrival of convict ship Princess Charlotte (6/8/1827).
1827 - Arrival of convict ship Manilus (11/8/1827).
The 1911 Australian Census, records the population as approx. 2,250,000. Approx. 77% having been born in Australia, 10% born in the UK and 5% in Ireland.
Word count 2217.