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David Jones wandered lazily down Chick Lane on his way to the Smithfield Markets, flush with somebody else’s cash. The lad was off shopping for his master but the temptations of the flesh, in the form of little Lizzie Rose, diverted him. Before he knew it, his dick had led him up Sharps Alley, lurched to the left down Thatch Lane then swung to the right, deep into a fetid maze of houses and shops to Hannah Doyle’s place where a bed could be found for an hour. He waited in Black-boy Alley while Lizzie went inside to tee things up, then, after a while, a window slid open on the second floor and her smudged face peeped out.

He stumbled up two flights of stairs in the gloom, propelled more by the lurch in his loins than care for his safety until he found the lass silhouetted in the doorway, a broad smile on her face. The courtship was rudimentary; David was a man on a mission and soon the girl was flat on her back, petticoats bunched, legs akimbo. He scarcely paused to unbutton his fly. As he unceremoniously fell upon her she moaned once for effect, stifled a yawn then, when his rhythm was established, reached delicately into his trouser pocket and began to take everything she found.

A man in David’s position is generally too pre-occupied to notice anything short of an atomic explosion but, between thrusts, he became aware of furtive movement. He jammed his dick in her, as if to hold the lass in place, then grabbed that wandering hand and held tight. She screeched loudly, surprising him and he quickly withdrew, jumped off the bed and pulled her up with him.

‘You little bitch,’ was all he had a chance to say before he was mown down by Fat Betty.

Betty Barber was a big girl in every possible way; large in body mass and personality, a towering wall of flesh. She and Tom Doyle burst in with a crash; Lizzie Rose broke David’s grip and ran out the open door as the sheer force and momentum of Betty in full flight sent him sprawling on the bed. Betty, unable to stop herself, landed on top of the lad squashing him under an avalanche of fat. With one arm she choked him, with the other wrenched his hand away from his waistcoat and jammed it hard up against his back. He went limp.

Reaching into his pocket she took out his cash; four and a half gold guineas and five shillings and sixpence in silver and passed it to Doyle who vanished downstairs. Then she began to laugh. Spread-eagled over the defeated body of David Jones, Fat Betty felt triumphant. She bounced up and down on him a few times, just to show who was boss, then, with a final lurch, rolled off and stood up.

‘Pull your pants up, you silly dick,’ she said, laughed loudly and ran out of the room.

He heard her chuckling as she thumped down the stairs. A door slammed in the distance and David Jones was alone.

Elizabeth Barber was indicted on Oct. 9th 1778. By the 21st of that month she was in the dock at the Old Bailey. Betty was found guilty of stealing, but ‘not in the dwelling house’, a lesser charge that only put her away for 3 years. A rank corner in a common cell in Newgate became home and Betty Barber began her tertiary education, just 18 years old and ripe for a crash course in venality, a diploma of crime.

Betty was plump and plain but sharp as a tack, funny too, with a command of the language and a malicious tongue. In full flight she was magnificent. She was educated enough to read and write her name. Newgate sharpened her wits, increased her vocabulary and opened her eyes; there she learnt from experts the not–so subtle art of survival and began to find her feet. Nobody tangled with Betty; the thought of being squashed by that bulk was too terrifying; she sailed through prison and emerged unexpectedly in June 1780 older, wiser and much more dangerous.


The night of the 13th July 1782 was very wet. Betty was inside Woodley’s pub at the bottom of Chick-lane, ostensibly sheltering from the rain, looking particularly bedraggled and plain. She was drunk and dangerous, downing the latest of several beers when Mr. Price lurched into her sights. Betty waited till he settled and ordered his pint, watched him fumble for his change, saw the lurch, the uncertain stare and knew she had her mark.

‘What’s your name, darlin’?’

He told her and they made small talk for a time. She let his heavy eyes roam then leant heavily towards him and whispered.

‘Upstairs. A friend of mine has a room. Follow me.’

Like the lovesick puppy he was at that moment, he did precisely as he was told. They stumbled out of the bar, navigated the drunks on the stair and on the first landing found a small room filled with a bed, neatly made and turned down.

‘Blimey, I wouldn’t have thought there’d be such a good bed in a hell-hole like this,’ he said and sat down heavily, ‘Come over here Betty,’ he slurred while he wrestled one boot off, ‘now my little sweet, what’ll I give you to lay with you all night?’

‘It’d be an insult to offer anybody less than a crown.’

He looked her up and down. Even through the dense fog of drink the reality of her bulk was apparent. The boot thudded to the floor.

‘I think half-a-crown is enough,’ he said.

The deed was doubtless done in an efficient enough fashion; John dressed hurriedly and, in a post coital flush, headed back down the stairs.


There the transaction might have concluded had he not lurched against a shelf behind the front door on his unsteady exit. On that shelf were 18 Queensware plates, two large china dishes and a bowl. He saw them all flying through the air in dreadful slow motion then, with an almighty crash, the lot smashed on the floor.

Fat Betty leapt to her feet in the room above and stumbled downstairs. Elizabeth Rose and Elizabeth Brady ran in from an adjoining room to see what all the drama was then Tom Denton made a grand entrance, his four year old daughter peeping round his legs. He shooed the child back inside and shut the door. With common purpose, the four of them advanced on the hapless intruder, standing there confused in a sea of broken crockery. This was not a good situation.

‘They said I had done damage and must pay for it,’ Price said later in court, ‘I asked what damage, they said a great deal and I must pay. I could get no answer how much so I turned to go to the window to open it to call the neighbours in. They pulled me back by the skirts of my coat and the man stood with his back against the door and prevented my going out.

I asked them civilly to let me go and to let me know the damage – if any, then Barber and Rose threw me down and fell upon me, and took my watch and half a guinea, and 6/6d. in silver out of my fob.’

Another good man squashed by Betty Barber.

Two months later, on September 11th 1782, the jury returned after thirty minutes of deliberation and found Betty, Elizabeth Rose, Elizabeth Brady and Tom Denton guilty of theft with violence, robbery and theft as charged and condemned to the lot of them to death.

‘I am in the hands of very wicked people,’ said Betty Barber and resigned herself to her fate.







On the same day, just an hour later, little Ann Robinson stood in the witness stand and bravely said her piece. She was 13 years old. Justice Baron Hotham leant over the dock.

‘Do you know what it is, to take an oath?

‘To tell nothing but the truth,’ she whispered. The child’s head was barely visible over the railing.

‘And if you do not speak the truth, what is the consequence?’

She blinked. Maybe they would put her in prison too.

‘It is a very bad thing,’ she mumbled. The judge was satisfied and the lass sworn.

‘I live with Mr. Griffin,’ she began, ‘I was left to take care of the shop on the 8th of July in the afternoon. As soon as Mrs. Griffin was gone out, that lady and another woman came in and asked for half an ounce of worsted but she didn’t like the colour.’

Little Annie was pointing at Charlotte Ware.

On the day in question Charlotte was apparently looking rather the worse for it – she was sporting two black eyes.

‘There was a mirror by the window,’ Anne continued, ‘and a chair with two cloaks on it. She went up to the other woman and whispered something then she asked me to let her look at her eyes in the mirror. I said I would fetch it, and they both followed me into the parlour. She stood at the window holding the mirror talking to me, and asked me if she might not lose her eyes. I am sure she could see what the other one did.

I heard something rustle like silk so I looked around and saw the lady with the cloak in her hand, I saw her throw it down [hide it], I looked her full in the face, and she said, child what do you look at me for? We haven’t taken a thing, and I said, I thought there were two cloaks on the chair, and they went away; a gentleman came in, and I ran to my mistress.’

‘Do you know the prisoner?’ asked the judge.

‘Yes, your majesty,’ Annie piped up, ’she is very remarkable; I’ve seen her several times in mobs in the streets.’


She was indeed, remarkable; tall, strong and ferocious, a fully fledged Amazon of the underworld. Justice Baron Hotham had seen her before, too. She first appeared before him five years earlier, on December 3rd 1777, and, before she left the court that day, was branded with the sign of the thief, a ‘T’ on her thumb, the punishment carried out in front of the court at the end of the sessions.

Indicted for stealing a silver cup worth three pounds and a broken silver lamp of the same value belonging to a Mr. Fred Kandler, she was dumped in Newgate with a six month sentence and a sore thumb.

Charlotte was released on the 3rd July the following year and within nine days had stolen two of John Hinde’s shirts. He ran into her in the street a week later, challenged her and, in the ensuing chase, ‘one of these pieces dropped from her,’ he said, ‘this was on the 11th of July; I searched her, and found these three pieces of ribband upon her; one piece was under her right arm, another under her left between her shift and her skin, another piece she put down while I was searching her.’

Charlotte was fresh from a little visit to Mary Iggledon’s millinery shop at No. 8 Gerrard Street. They hadn’t even noticed the theft but, like everyone, they remembered Charlotte. She was back in Newgate on remand before some of the guards even twigged she had left. Justice Baron Hotham must have been in a good mood on September 13th; Charlotte was found guilty, but of a lesser charge, sentenced to be whipped and taken directly from the court to Newgate, punished and pushed out on the streets, supposedly wiser for the experience.

On February 27th the following year she was at it again.

‘I am a milliner,’ said Elizabeth Starzaker, ‘my shop is at the end of the New Church in the Strand. ‘The prisoner and another woman came in… under pretence of buying ribbons: while she was looking at the ribbon, some other people came in; I served them, and turned again to the prisoner; they both stayed in the shop about ten minutes.

When they were got about two doors, I missed the ribbons; I called my husband down, and ran after the prisoner; I overtook her in a passage facing the Five Bells Tavern: I got up with the other woman but she struck me on the breast and got away: I got assistance, and brought the prisoner back; I saw her searched, and the two pieces of ribbon taken from her.’

Once more she was whipped and returned to Newgate; three months in the slammer was just enough to renew old acquaintances and pick up a few new tricks. On 25th July 1781 she walked back out of those gates. Just under a year later she was caught again. Sweet little Annie Robinson saw to that.


John Jackson came up from the country on the coach.

‘I was very much benumbed with cold,’  he said, ‘I drank several glasses of rum on the road to keep warm then I got down at the White Horse-cellar in Piccadilly, went and had a pint of beer and read the newspaper, then I had another.’  He finally stirred himself and set off again and, about 10 pm, met Margaret Hall on the corner of Dyot St, St. Giles.

‘There were two girls when I first saw her; we went to the public house to drink and after we had drank, she took me to her lodgings, as I understood it to be, just opposite the public house. We went upstairs and had a pot or two more of some liquor, purl, or gin-hot, or something of that sort.’

‘Were you not very much in liquor?’ asked the lawyer.

‘I was rather too much in liquor,’ John said ruefully, ‘or else I would’ve had more sense.  I shouldn’t have done so, especially had I thought of my property, I never once thought of my property.’ John looked much the worse for wear. This had all happened less than 24 hours ago, he’d been up all night and feeling like the fool he was.

‘They teased me for money,’ he continued, ‘I had no more silver so I pulled one of them boxes out of my pocket.’

Margaret Hall hit the jackpot. Jackson was carrying two small ‘penny screw boxes with light gold, which I brought up to town to sell’. In one was five guineas, in the other ‘gold rings, and some silver coins, about twelve or fourteen light guineas, a moidore, and a remarkable gold coin of Charles the First, to the best of my knowledge’. In his pocket book were two twenty pound notes.

‘I gave them one half guinea and they brought me the change. I put the change in my pocket and soon after went to bed. There was a girl sitting on the bed; I really believe in my conscience, and upon my oath, that I was asleep in five minutes. I slept till day-break; when I awoke, I found nobody with me, I missed the two boxes and the silver, all but one half crown.’ 

Nobody listening was in the least surprised at the turn of events. John Jackson’s little saga was repeated day after day in the courts and night after night in the streets; drunk, horny men too stupid to scratch themselves preyed on by an army of much smarter women – ‘twas ever thus.

So Margaret Hall joined Fat Betty and her accomplices in the condemned cells.

All of them were destined to die – so sayeth the court; they sat, sobbed, shrieked and laughed alternately; did what young women condemned to death do.  Then, a year later, quite unexpectedly, the girls were dragged back to the Old Bailey.


The 10th September 1783 was a big day; the courts were flooded with escaped convicts, recaptured while at large after the celebrated mutiny on board the Swift. Fifty eight convicts were condemned to death that day. Events weren’t, however, entirely bleak.

At the conclusion of the proceedings Betty Barber and Maggie Hall, amongst a great many others, were called to the bar and received ‘His Majesty’s gracious pardon’. There was, of course, a catch; ‘on condition of transportation to America for seven years from the time of their respective respites.’

Both women could have refused – fat chance of that – America it was then. Who cared – they were alive.

Moved out of the condemned cells that day and shoved into the Common Side, to a complex of cells, a yard and a common room for transportees, they were joined by four new members for the gang; Elizabeth Dudgeon, Susanna Gough, Hannah Green and Frances Hart, all tried and sentenced on the same day. Miss Dudgeon proved quite a handful.

There was just one woman missing; Charlotte Ware. On that same day she was released from Newgate, pushed out onto the streets with enthusiasm and headed straight back into trouble. They all just missed each other – but not for long.






Another drunk brought Liz Dudgeon and Suzy Gough down, another hick from out of town.  Bill Waterhouse was a sailor. Monday, August 18th 1783 was his first full day on leave. He came from Plymouth the day before, ‘landed’ in Piccadilly with his luggage and made his way up St. Giles’s. At the end of Banbury Street he heard a shriek;

‘Billy, how are you?’

Bill stopped and squinted.

‘You’re Bill Waterhouse, ain’t you?

‘Yes,’ he said uncertainly. It was dark.

‘I know you, darls, last time you were up in town.’ One of the women stepped into the light. Bill recognized her at once.

‘Come and have a drink, my darling,’ he roared and so they all did.

‘They took me into the Two Brewers in Banbury Street, and I called for a pot of ale – and after that another, and another, and another,’ he said in court.

Liz Dudgeon was more specific: ‘I dare say he had ten pots of ale and then six pennyworth of gin and water.’

Bill was not a smart man but he was very large, as if to compensate.  A barrel chest and broad shoulders led up to a surprisingly small head covered all over in ginger hair. Any wisdom he might once have had was drowned in the flood of beer. Luckily, before he was too drunk he had the good sense to send one of the girls, Suzy Garth, to look for Ed Whiteham, his mate. Ed arrived late to their party and didn’t much like what he saw.

Bill was wildly drunk, surrounded by four shrieking women, all intent of drinking themselves stupid with his friend’s money. The linen bag with his clothes and things in it lay unattended on the floor, just waiting to be stolen. They drank ‘about four or five pots of ale,’ then, sensing the inevitable, Ed tried to get him to leave.

‘I don’t like the company here, Billy, let’s go, eh?’

‘No, no, stay here man, stay here,’ Bill slurred, ‘I want to have some fun.’

Reason was no use; Bill had, after all, been at sea for a long time. Ed picked up the bag under his arm and, with a combination of brute force and bullshit, got his drunken mate out of there and down the road to his own house, hoping he might sober up. Bill was too merry to settle however, so about an hour later Ed relented and carried his pal a hundred yards further up the street to the Cart and Horses and the two of them tumbled into a booth.

Bill called for a pot of beer, by all accounts his sixteenth, and settled back. There was a tap on the window next to him. There, faces distorted by the thick tinted glass, were the girls. One of them beckoned him outside.

‘No, leave ‘em, Billy,’ said Ed, ‘that’s enough for tonight,’ but like the drunken fool he was, Bill heaved himself up and met them at the door. They told him in a chorus that he had not paid for a pot of beer at the last pub.

‘My dear girls,’ he said grandly, ‘I didn’t mean to leave you a pot of beer to pay, we must make amends,’ and, with a wave to his old mate Ed, staggered off into the night.

Ed sighed, rolled his eyes and left. Nothing he could do now.

Bill and the girls stumbled down the road back to the Two Brewers. With the whole pub watching, Bill reached deep into his trouser pockets and dumped a handful of coins on the counter; nine and a half gold guineas and some loose silver. Eyes glinted all round the room. He paid his bill, gathered up the rest of his cash then, with a bellow, sat down.

‘Bugger it,’ he shouted, ‘while I’m here we might as well have another one!’ The girls joined him with a squeal. The drinking went on until they could drink no more. Lizzie Dudgeon and Bill were getting on like a house on fire. She leant over and whispered in his ear.

‘Darlin’, Billy, come on upstairs, love, come up and lie down, darlin’. I’ll make you feel better.’

‘They took me out of that same Two Brewers,’ he said in court, ‘right over there was a house and I went up two pair of stairs, laid myself down and she tumbled along-side of me. The other girl [Suzy Garth] sat in a chair at the foot of the bed… before I went to sleep, Dudgeon asked me for a shilling; I laid with her…


I can’t judge how long I slept because I was so very much in liquor, it might be an hour or an hour and an half; [it was, in fact ‘between three and four in the afternoon,’ the next day.] I was woken by two men belonging to the house who came and told me I must not be there. The women were gone. When the man came and woke me, I put my hand in my fob and found I had no money, then I put my hand in my breeches pocket and found I had only two bad halfpence and one good one.’  

He pointed dramatically at Elizabeth.

‘Sir, that is the woman there, the little one.

‘Did I drag you out of the place, or did you follow me?’ Elizabeth Dudgeon squawked from the dock.

‘Hold your tongue, you fool, can’t you?’ he replied, forgetting where he was. ‘I don’t want to hurt you, I only want my money.’

Elizabeth was found hiding under a bed, another girl lying on top of her, in the back room of a little house nearby. There was no cash.  A constable was called and easily located Susannah Garth.

She had swallowed the evidence.

‘She swallowed eight guineas that night,’ the constable said, ‘and took physick and brought them from her.’

From which orifice the ‘six guineas and a half in gold, four shillings and two sixpences’ emerged is anybody’s guess but, somehow, the money was retrieved. It lay, mute testimony to a wild night and an unexpected journey, on the Sheriff’s desk during the trial.

When it was all over and the women had been sent downstairs, guilty as charged, Mr. Sheriff Taylor leant over to Bill and smiled.

‘Take your money back, my friend.’

Bill needed no further prompting. The judge peered down from his chair.

‘And take care how you get into such company again,’ he said gruffly. ‘You’re a lucky man.’

The overly avuncular Bill Waterhouse could only agree.






Just six weeks after she left Newgate Charlotte Ware was back inside on remand. Justice Baron Hotham must have been pleased to see her again.

Georgie Holland was just 16 and living with Mr. and Mrs. William Saunders above Saunders’ haberdashery shop in London. On the 29th of November 1783, about five o’clock in the evening, Charlotte Ware and Elizabeth Fagan came into the shop and asked to see some stockings. He went to the storeroom at the back to fetch some and as he came back, noticed Charlotte trying to conceal a bundle under her cloak. He looked over at his master and mistress who had also seen the theft.

Blithely he showed her some black women’s stockings and they chatted. Charlotte had no idea she had been rumbled, even putting her leg up on the counter to demonstrate how poor her existing pair of stockings were while dexterously stuffing another two pairs in her petticoats. Then, pulling her shoe back on, she announced loudly that the stockings would not do for her and, with Mary Fagan in her wake, headed for the exit. Georgie jumped out from behind the counter and stood with his back to the door.

‘Not so fast, ladies,’ he said, his young voice cracking, ‘I think you have taken something that isn’t yours.’

‘And what might that be, child?’ said Charlotte.

‘Two pairs of stockings. I saw you take them.’

‘I did not.’

‘You have them in your petticoats.’

Charlotte stood back and pulled off her apron.

‘See? Nothing there.’

‘In your petticoats.’ The boy wasn’t budging. He could see his master looking on from the rear ready to leap in, he thought, should things get rough. ‘Shake your petticoats.’

She did so, reluctantly, and two pairs of black stockings fell to the floor.

‘Ha!’ the boy said and slid the bolt on the door. He turned and locked it with a flourish and placed the key in his pocket. ‘There. Now we’ll wait for the constable.’

Mr. and Mrs. Saunders disappeared, bundling the maid out the back and over a fence to fetch the law. Young Georgie was left on his own standing by the door.

‘Well, at least let me go out, boy,’ said Elizabeth Fagin.

‘No, I won’t, you bitch,’ shot back the boy, ‘you’re as bad as your friend.’

Elizabeth thumped him. Lizzie was mean spirited at the best of times and packed a solid punch. The lad stumbled and fell over against the stairs. Charlotte Ware took her opportunity and laid into the boy as well, striking him several times until he broke free and ran up the stairs.

‘Tom! Tom!’ he yelled as he bounded up to the landing.

Tom Elliot and George Pedley, journeymen, were at work upstairs.

‘Help, Tom!’ the boy shouted, then turned and ran back again.

‘Run Tom, he seems frightened,’ George said and put down his tools. Tom charged out the door and down the stairs. George, thinking there was a fire, followed on his heels.

‘She’s stealing, Tom. She’s stole five pair of stockings, at least…’ the boy blurted out.

‘You little scoundrel,’ Charlotte shouted, ‘how dare you say such lies? I’ll knock you down.’

Always a woman of her word, Charlotte Ware promptly thumped the poor lad again. She laid a blazing left hook on the surprised jaw of young Georgie Holland and sat him on his arse on the floor. She reached into her pocket.

‘I’ll rip you up, you little shit. I’ll rip you with this knife.’

George and Tom leapt to his defence. The boy scrambled to his feet as they pinioned her arms and ran to the rear of the shop where he knew there were pistols loaded and grabbed one. He turned and aimed at Charlotte Wade. She threw the arms of the two rough men off her and advanced on the boy.

‘I’m not scared of you, you little pup.’

‘If you come near me I’ll blow your brains out!’

‘No!’ Mr. and Mrs. Saunders shrieked in unison.

‘No, Georgie!’ his Master shouted, ‘don’t shoot!’

The lad had the gun held out in front of him, trained on the face of Charlotte Ware. For a moment nobody moved.

‘Drop it Georgie!’

‘Throw it away, boy,’ said his Master. ‘Down the stairs, out of harm’s way, eh?’

The lad did as he was told and chucked the gun down the steps into the cellar. It hadn’t even hit the floor before Catharine flew at the boy in a rage. She charged at him, knocked him down and pulled his hair. He was shouting, she was cursing, the others shrieked a warning as she set about the boy. Catharine had him by the throat in a deathly vice between finger and thumb, cutting off the air to his lungs – with her other hand she had him by the ear. The poor child was gasping for air, struggling and shouting under the weight of this mad woman as George and Tom leapt in to the fray, grabbing Charlotte’s wrist trying to force her hand away from the lad’s throat. It took all of Tom’s strength to open her fingers but eventually they managed to pull her off him and poor Georgie ran for his life upstairs.

Tom’s grip faltered for a second and Charlotte lashed out at the nearest thing handy. It was George Pedley, not expecting the whack he got in the forehead. He reeled back just as a second fist slammed into his eye. He was bleeding, cut in three places, stunned.

Mr. Saunders fled to the back of the shop, hotly pursued by Charlotte. She grabbed a bottle from a hamper of wine on a bench out the back, grabbed the proprietor by the collar, held him at arm’s length and brandished the bottle. Saunders had no idea whether it was full or empty but, at that moment, he didn’t much care.

‘Damn your eyes, you old blood of a bitch!’ she hissed, ‘If you don’t open the door and let me out, I swear I’ll knock your bloody brains out!

Saunders was, as he reported, ‘frightened very much indeed.’

It was Tom Elliot’s turn for heroics.

‘You leave my master alone!’ he shouted and leapt on Charlotte, pulling her away from Saunders and dragged her towards the front of the shop. Just then the constable came to the door – he took one look at the bleeding George Pedley and one at Charlotte Webb; panting, wild eyed and dangerous.

‘You,’ he said, pointing at Charlotte, ‘you come with me to the station’. 

That was as far as he got. She broke free of Tom Elliot and drove her fist straight into the constable’s face. He fell back holding his nose as she slipped through the open doorway and into the street. Lizzie Fagin leapt into action. The constable lay between her and the door. She charged at him, hitting him, kicking, thrashing about until she too was outside and running down the street.

The police were too scared to follow her.

‘She has a great many friends in the streets,’ one of them said but, eventually, after many near misses, two captures and two more escapes Charlotte was finally tracked down in a pub, then Elizabeth Fagin was rapidly recaptured. The group headed to the Old Bailey and Charlotte, although she didn’t know it at the time, headed for the horizon.


In March 1784 all seven of the girls were given notice that their time was up and probably marched in chains to the Dunkirk, thence to the Mercury, lying at anchor at Woolwich. They were heading for that horizon – but they didn’t make it very far. The MUTINY  on the Mercury, their not-very-successful escape, recapture and return to the Dunkirk has lain hidden in details spread across a hundred court records in country courts and, mercifully, the Old Bailey. Three years have gone by as Governments dithered, Americans fought for Independence, hulks filled to bursting.  By the time Elizabeth Thackeray arrived, these women were a pack; hardened, tough – alpha harlots, mega-trouble.




George Holt was there:

‘I was Steward of the ship Mercury. The prisoners came on board that ship in the Gallions, which is within the River Thames, below Woolwich – the Gallions is a piece of water that terminates from point to point, a little below Woolwich Reach.  If they came from Newgate they came on the 30th. I gave a receipt for them. We had one hundred and seventy-nine convicts in the hold; one hundred and fifty-seven of them were men and twenty two women. They were taken out of the irons that they came on board in and was put into the irons belonging to the owners of the ship, which was the ship’s irons.’

Trial of Charles Peat on July 7th.  1784.

The Mercury sailed for America in the first days of April 1784. Some of the prisoners, convinced they would be put off in Honduras or Virginia instead of Nova Scotia, began to talk mutiny and, probably emboldened by the successful mutiny on board the Swift the year before, took advantage of their numbers.

‘The 8th of April was the day they arose upon us,’ George Holt said two months later, ‘it was eight o’clock, Thursday morning – we were sailing in the Western Ocean, steering west-north-west about twenty-five leagues to westward of St. Mary’s, on the West India Rocks.’

George’s report of the mutiny, delivered in evidence at the trial of Charles Peat on July 7th.  1784, is almost the only remaining evidence about the events of that day. One brief mention elsewhere tells us that the doctor of the Mercury shot one Robt. Sidaway  through the arm when the convicts rose and took the ship, but of the actual mutiny little survives.

They held the possession of the ship as commanders for six days before they went on shore,’ George added, ‘I saw them go from the ship’s side in one of the ship’s boats, and row towards the shore. They never returned, therefore I had no doubt but they went on shore in Devonshire.’

Our pack of remarkable women stayed on board – they didn’t have much option; the ringleaders of the mutiny had commandeered all the available getaway boats. The rest of the mutineers somehow managed to sail the ship into Torbay, Devon where many ran for the hills. The mass escape must have created considerable excitement. Word went out that, for every convict caught, a reward of 20/- would be granted – the rush of eager vigilantes, chiefly members of the crew from one of the ships in port, the Helena, ensured the capture of 90 of them, 66 of whom were taken in boats by the crew as they tried to reach dry land. Efficient, but ultimately futile. In court Mr. Justice Heath, specially commissioned to deal with this sudden influx of escapees, refused to try the 66 ‘because they were taken on the water, and therefore could not be said to be at large within the kingdom.’ This ruling effectively denied the crew their reward.

The splendidly titled Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury, faced with the biggest story in its history.  reported at length on Monday 31st May 1784, noting that ‘only 24 were tried, all of whom were identified and received sentence of death. Their column concluded; ‘there is reason to fear that the ringleaders will escape justice, while those who were unfortunate enough to get ashore, though perhaps their original crimes bore no comparison, are sentenced to an ignominious death.

Luckily, in the rush for a boat ashore that fateful day, the women were at the back of the queue and must have been amongst the prisoners captured while still ‘on the water’. There is no record of a subsequent trial for any of them; it seems that they were simply returned to the Dunkirk and left there to wait for the next ship out. In the meantime the American War of Independence broke out. It was to be three years.




One of the Thetford girls proved to be quite a handful – Elizabeth Pulley was a very naughty girl indeed. She first appeared in the Norfolk County records in July 1779 at the age of 16 committed for trial on a charge of stealing clothes. Acquitted on July 17th, she returned home to Heathersett having learnt absolutely nothing at all from her near miss.

A year later the Sessions for the County of Norfolk of 15th July 1780 found her guilty of stealing a Mr. Coutsey’s clothes and sentenced her to be committed for 3 weeks to the House of Correction in Wymondham. She was also to be publicly whipped in the market place there, a little performance put on for the benefit of the common folk that was meant to show them the inevitable results of sin but turned out to be fine entertainment for all involved – except, of course, Liz Pulley who had three weeks in the nick to heal before she headed back home.

Sam Piglething owned little but his wonderful name but that didn’t stop Miss Pulley from grabbing whatever she could from his few possessions. On 11th August 1781 the Norwich Chronicle reported her trial; ‘Elizabeth Pulley for stealing out of the house of Samuel Piglething of Hethersett, weaver, an old cloth coat, one silk handkerchief, a coloured apron and three pence halfpenny with various other articles to the value of three shillings was sentenced to be kept in hard labour for 12 months in the House of Correction at Aylsham.’

Eighteen year old Lizzie Pulley mouldered there for the prescribed period then fell back on the streets in August 1782 not in the least penitent. The good citizens of Heathersett battened down the hatches in anticipation of her next rampage and didn’t have to wait very long. On Christmas Eve that same year she was at it again. She must have been hungry; about midnight she broke into Liz Mimm’s shop in Hethersett and stole ‘ten pounds weight of cheese value 3/-, three pounds weight of bacon value 18d,  twenty four ounces weight of cheese value 12d, three pounds weight of raisins value 12d, seven pounds weight of flour value 12d and two rolls of worsted value 12d.’

By now the Court had tired of her activities. The Norwich Chronicle described her as ‘an old offender’ and added; ‘has been in the Castle 4 times.’ Her trial at the Norfolk Lent Assises came up on Friday 14th March 1783 and at the age of 22, before Sir James Eyre, Fleetwood Pury Esq. and the Jury she was found guilty and sentenced ‘to be hanged by the neck until she be dead.’

At the same sessions a young man called Henry Cabell, just 17, was tried with his father Henry Snr. and a friend, Abraham Carman for ‘burglariously entering the dwelling house of Abigail Hambling of Alburg.’ All three were convicted and sentenced to death. Dad and Abe were strung up three weeks later outside the prison on Saturday, 5 April 1783 but Henry Jr. was reprieved at His Majesty’s pleasure. He walked in to Norwich Castle and ran straight into the great love of his life.  

Susannah Holmes was 19 and had already been sentenced to death before the Norfolk Assize judge, Mr Justice Nares, convicted of breaking into the house of Jabez Taylor in Thetford and stealing a pair of linen sheets, a linen gown, a linen shift, four yards of Irish linen cloth, three linen handkerchiefs, a silk handkerchief, three muslin neck-cloths, two black silk cloaks, two silver tablespoons and two silver teaspoons – all with a combined value of 53/6d.

Her death sentence was commuted; ‘Some favourable circumstances appearing on her behalf… I humbly recommend her to Your Majesty, as a proper object of Your Majesty’s Royal Mercy upon the several conditions following … being transported as soon as conveniently may be to some of Your Majesty’s Colonies or Plantations in America for the term of Fourteen Years’. Elizabeth Pulley was reprieved as well, although the judge must have searched for a good reason. So they waited.

From March 1783 till November 1786 all three of them sat on their arses in Norwich Castle while the American War of Independence raged on. They weren’t going anywhere till that was resolved. The two women became the best of friends and Henry and Susannah became lovers, not an easy thing to achieve in prison.

‘Norwich Castle jail was a makeshift affair, like many other jails in eighteenth-century England. These were not the high security, single-cell prisons of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There was a great deal more coming and going both between the prisoners within the jail and between the jail and the outside world. In the eighteenth-century jails, prisoners often relied on family and friends to supplement their rations. The mediaeval castle at Norwich had been converted into a jail with rough shelters built up against the castle walls for some of the inmates. The jail was crowded too and food was in short supply. The local residents of Norwich took pity on the prisoners that winter and sent in special food for the festive season. But the numbers of people building up in their local jail since the war had ended transportation to America worried the good citizens of Norwich and they petitioned the government to do something about it.’

David Neal, The Rule of Law in A Penal Colony – Law and Power in Early New South Wales 

Susannah gave birth to Henry’s child in the jail sometime in late 1786. Elizabeth, ‘a good looking woman – if she had the chance to live decently,’ acted as midwife.

Finally, on 1st November that year Mr. Gynne, Keeper of the Castle was notified; ‘Elizabeth Pulley, Susannah Holmes and Ann Turner [3 convicts under sentence of transportation] should be conveyed to Plymouth in the course of the first week of November and there be put on board H.M. ‘Dunkirk’ bound for the new settlement of Botany Bay.’  

Mr. Gynne added ‘they were accordingly last Monday taken from the said jail and seemed not in the least dismayed at the length of their voyage or of their future fate.’


In February 1787 Elizabeth Thackeray and Sarah McCormick arrived on board the Dunkirk and stumbled down the hatch into a world of all these women. They had barely a month to settle before, to everybody’s great relief, the hulk was emptied out and the bulk of the convicts, male and female, transferred to another ship, a real ship this time, the ship that would take them ‘across the seas.





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