Quietly, almost by stealth, Elsbeth Hardie’s family memoir The Girl Who Stole Stockings made its way to the best-seller charts this year and may well be one of the best books of New Zealand non-fiction published in 2015.
It’s a brilliantly researched history of the life – and minor crime, which had far-reaching consequences – of Susannah Noon, her great-great-great grandfather’s fifth wife. In 1810, Colchester-born Susannah attempted to steal stockings by fraud. She was sentenced to transportation for seven years, and shipped to Australia. She later married a bigamist, and the couple moved with their children to a new life at a whaling station in Port Underwood in the Marlborough Sounds.
In this extract, Elsbeth takes up the story of Susannah’s incarceration at Moulsham Gaol. She became one of 101 women from all over the UK delivered to the docks at Woolwich in London. The ship she was transported on, Friends, was a three-masted square sailing ship; the destination was New South Wales, then operating as the world’s first open prison…
By the time Susannah finally left Moulsham Gaol she had already spent the worst of the winter within its walls. Ahead of her was the unknown. One day in February 1811 she was taken from her cell and put into a coach bound for London and the docks at Woolwich on the Thames. She would not have known that the manner and timing of her conveyance from Chelmsford was part of a well-orchestrated removal of women from gaols throughout England and from as far away as Scotland and Wales throughout that month.
Some of the women that were to set sail with Susannah had been imprisoned for nearly three years waiting for a ship; others just a few short months. Susannah was one of over 40 women from the far-flung corners of the isles who were delivered to the docks at Woolwich. Five women made the arduous journey down from Scotland. Another five originally hailed from Ireland. But more than half of the women who were to accompany Susannah in exile had been domiciled just a short distance from the docks in London’s Newgate Gaol.
The capital’s famous gaol was at crisis point with overcrowding. When the Quaker prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry, visited Newgate a few years later she found 300 women and their children crammed together in two wards and two cells in the women’s quarters. Their beds were the floor where they slept without nightclothes or bedding.
She wrote, ‘The swearing, gaming, fighting, singing and dancing were too bad to be described.’ In a letter to her own children in 1813 she told them, ‘I have lately been twice to Newgate to see after the poor prisoners who had poor infants without clothing, or with very little and I think if you saw how small a piece of bread they are each allowed a day you would be very sorry.’
In January 1811 London’s Morning Chronicle reported there were between 700 and 800 men and women in Newgate, ‘many of whom are compelled by poverty’ to subsist on the daily allowance of twopennyworth of bread that equated to about a quarter of a pound. Each session at the court added another 40-50 prisoners to its cells.
This state of emergency in Newgate was further exacerbated due to the poor health of George III who had lapsed in and out of periods of mental illness for several decades. His latest decline had lasted some months and it meant that the passage of legislation in Parliament and matters of government administration had ground to a halt while he remained incapable of giving his royal assent.
The situation was resolved on February 5 when Parliament passed the Regency Act, giving the Prince of Wales – also named George – the full powers of his father. The transportation of the prisoners was given royal approval and the round-up of the women who were to accompany Susannah was quickly put into effect. They were all to board the ship Friends that sat anchored in the Thames.
Amelia Bellars was one of the women to come from Newgate. She’d been in prison for a year since her conviction at the Old Bailey for ‘coining’ – passing forged notes – in February 1810. She was sentenced to transportation for 14 years and had to endure the dire conditions of Newgate while waiting on a ship. There, as in Moulsham Gaol and other prisons around the country, the gaoler added to his official income by selling extra food rations, straw for bedding, coal and candles to the prisoners. Bellars was forced to pawn her clothes to help feed not only herself but the eight-year-old daughter she kept with her.
It was on Wednesday February 13 ‘at an early hour’ that about 50 female convicts were taken from Newgate to board ship. Coverage of their departure in London’s Morning Post amounted to two sentences under the wry headline ‘Recruits for Botany Bay’. The newspaper reported, ‘In this collection of reluctant émigrés there was a curious mixture of hardened harridans, some were decent women of middle age and several beautiful young girls.’
There were just a few cursory mentions in the press of women being taken from local gaols across England and Scotland to board the Friends at Woolwich. Margaret McDonald and Janet Duff were taken from Glasgow’s gaol and transferred ‘under a proper escort’ to Edinburgh. There was no mention of their prison pallor that was the result of three years’ incarceration. They were shipped from Edinburgh to London. By the time the Scots women arrived a few days later, the Newgate women had been waiting on board the Friends for a little over two weeks.
Many of the women waited in terror. The spectre of transportation was entirely foreign to them. It cut them off completely from the society that they knew. It may as well have been Mars.
James Ives was the keeper of the county gaol at Southwark, the area of south London that flanked the River Thames, and he knew all too well the common convict refrain in his cells: to a man and woman they would rather face any other term of imprisonment than be sent to Botany Bay or be returned there. Some of the men in his cells were convicts who had managed to get a passage back to England before their sentences had expired and they found themselves back in gaol for their trouble. ‘They are cut off from all their habits and connexions in this country, which they do not like. I have heard them say (when they have returned) they are hard worked, have hard living, and are hardly dealt with.’
Ives had Louisa Clark in his gaol in the second half of January 1811. Clark, a young woman of 24, had only just been convicted of theft. She had grown up immersed in a culture of crime on the outskirts of London. Her mother and 14-year-old sister had been transported to New South Wales for theft in 1800 when Louisa was about 13. Louisa had followed in their footsteps and was a member of a criminal band known to the police as ‘Mrs Barrington’s gang’.
When Clark came before the court in January she already had a number of acquittals for theft behind her. This time she was not so lucky; she was to be sent to New South Wales on board the Friends.
Louisa was terrified by the prospect of transportation. She had received frequent letters from her sister and mother in the colony and the information they relayed no doubt fuelled her state of mind.
‘She had such a dislike to go,’ said Ives, ‘that the night before she shammed mad and tore all her clothes to pieces. I got her fresh clothing, and put them on; she served me so again and I had the greatest difficulty to get her on board the ship.’
By feigning madness, Louisa had hoped to earn herself a reprieve from transportation, preferring even the lunatic asylum. She did not just have the horror of banishment to contend with. Her mother, having served out her sentence, had managed to return from Sydney to London just a few months before on the arm of a retired judge. Louisa had been apart from her mother for 11 years before her mother’s return; now she would never see her again.
Before they were boarded, Louisa, Susannah and the others were given a good sluicing to rid them of the months of gaol grime and vermin. They were issued with clean ‘slops’: a jacket, shift, petticoat, stockings and shoes – clothes that would not be adequate for the colder months of the passage that lay ahead. Some women also took their own clothing on board, but the surgeon had to first assess that it was clean and free of contagion. Keeping such belongings to themselves during the voyage was a challenge. A later surgeon would complain that the women on board ‘were constantly in the habit of stealing from each other the whole of the passage and there was no possibility of detecting them’.
Limited clothing was supplied for the children of the women. The older ones had to make do with the clothes they came with on board and when they perished they were replaced – with the benevolence of the surgeon – with makeshift garments fashioned from the linen supplied for the hospital berth. In expectation of women giving birth on board, or nursing infants, there was a special supply of linen that included caps, white cotton gowns, shirts, skirts, swathes, blankets and napkins.
For bedding, the women had the comforts of a thin pillow, a mattress and a single blanket; and certainly the warmth of each other’s bodies in the cramped and suffocating space.
The Girl Who Stole Stockings (Australian Teachers of Media, $40) is available at Unity Books.