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Two years, three months and fifteen days after he was sentenced, James Triffitt left Portsmouth on his way to Port Jackson. Frankly, I have no idea what happened in the interim, other than a lengthy stay on a prison hulk. I don’t even know the name of the hulk. I’ll bet he was well-behaved. He was transported in the ‘Matilda’ mastered by Matthew Weatherhead, on the 27th of March 1791 in the company of 230 other male prisoners. They all broke the new world record making the journey in one hundred and twenty-seven days, sixteen sooner than had been previously achieved – and seven months faster than the ‘Lady Juliana’s’  leisurely trip.  Not quick enough for some, however – twenty-five died on the voyage out and another twenty were hospitalized on arrival. They arrived in Sydney Cove on Monday August 1st 1791, disembarked the following day, spent five nights on dry land then boarded another ship, the Mary Ann, and sailed straight back out through the Heads again on Monday August 8th. On board were 131 male convicts, one convict female and her child, a non-commissioned officer and eleven privates, three wives and nine children of the New South Wales Corps – heading for Norfolk Island.


When James arrived in August 1791 he couldn’t believe his eyes. This was the strangest landscape he had ever seen. The weather was balmy and humid, yet they said it was winter, the land green and fertile with plants and animals he had never encountered. He was a country boy from Yorkshire and thought he knew the land – but he had never seen anything like this.

Like Mary, he’d had a few days to peruse the coastline, had sat bobbing at anchor for days just waiting for his turn in the terrifying stretch of water between ship and shore. That bloody sea, that bloody boat, he was sick of them. He was sick of swaying, he was sick of men, he was sick of sailing, he was sick of the moving horizon. He was a man of the soil and that was what he needed under his feet. Solid earth.

When his time came to go he clambered down the side and slid away with not a single backward glance. He dismissed that ship and all the experiences she stood for in a single instant and never once in his life felt the need to remind himself of them again. James could be asleep and awake simultaneously, could cast whole chunks of his life into the sleep bin and exist quite happily without them in his mind at all. When retrieved from oblivion, most of the grief, James had discovered, was gone. He forgot and he forgave in equal measure. It was his way of getting around.

James stood on dry land and breathed a soggy sigh of relief. Whatever this place was, wherever he was in the world, he was on dry land and that worth more than anything at this moment. His feet were on the soil.


When James stumbled out of the surf she spotted him immediately. He was young and not beaten, that look stood out a mile. She knew that look. Strong, sensible – his unlined face radiated a kind of energy Mary hadn’t seen for a while. She was used to looking into the faces of losers, dead eyes battered by too much change. This young man still shone.

Mary’s back healed but her spirits had taken a beating. She had entered the annals of those Whipped Women and the notoriety, even fame, her status gave her allowed her an indulgence or two. She whispered to her sisters, ‘That one’s mine,’ and they listened, kept an eye on the boy, elbowed potential rivals to the side. If ever a woman need a bit of loving right now, it was Mary, so her sisters cleared the way. Her spirits lifted; she began, slowly, to take a care, look after herself and rejoined the land of the living. Mary Higgins took on the conquest of young James.


Through all the hardships of the hulks, during the voyage to Port Jackson, even on the last leg to the Island, James had managed to survive, even thrive. His evenness of temper, his strength and quiet determination, coupled with a country lad’s innate sense of decency had drawn the attention of the powers that be. The chaplain and the captain of the hulk had seen the effect his presence had on the men, eased his irons, given him minor privilege – the surgeon on the ‘Matilda’ had noted his strength and calm as well. James was used as a conduit, a responsible man. He arrived on the island with a reputation for fairness and a recommendation that his sentence be reduced. James had made good use of his time.

The clue to his character came from his upbringing in Yorkshire. Nothing special about that, but in the context of a boatload of pickpockets, city boys, harlots and the plain damn unlucky from some slum in London he certainly stood out. He hadn’t been corrupted. Yet. Nor was he some suckhole toad as well. James earned the respect of both prisoners and officers, stood up for right when it was appropriate, for wrong when he get away with it. Surrounded by the grey faces of the streets, the wasted lives and petty thieves he shone with a golden light, such was the surrounding canvas – but he was just a country boy a long way from home, big boned and big hearted, unable to be drawn into the scabrous underbelly of his companions. James just didn’t have it in him.

Nor was he some gormless country bumpkin. Two years on the hulks must have toughened him up, if indeed he needed it. Raised as youngest in a family of feral brothers, I’d imagine he gave back as good as he got. He was still stronger than most of the men. He’d been a meat and potatoes man all his life and that upbringing had held him in good stead. While around him the city boys, raised on rubbish, dropped like flies, James managed to hang on. He was never punished, never beaten, never needed to be. James cruised through it largely unbloodied and certainly unbowed. James was no fool either. He had his eyes open. He was probably intent on ingratiating himself as rapidly as possible with those in command. Everywhere he looked he could see the evidence of just what was likely to happen if he resisted the system – he played the game. James was a model prisoner, whether by nature or design is impossible to say.


With twenty or so others he was marched away from Kingston within an hour of first setting foot on land. They walked three or four miles inland through a spiky, overgrown tangle of vegetation the like of which James had never seen. Just to walk was a novelty. This was the first time in over two years James had walked any distance without irons on his legs, the first time he’d walked unencumbered and free for more than half a mile. He could feel the muscles in his legs screaming after the first hour. Unused to any exercise for months he gasped at the top of a hill as he looked across to the far side of the island. They rested and all of them looked around for the first time. They were in the centre of the island. Mount Pitt stood at their backs like a volcanic pustule, the sun beat down on them wickedly and James heard the murmurs of despair.

He didn’t mind it at all. He’d already deleted the voyage, the hulk, the waste of time and was placed firmly in the moment, looking around at his future with a glint of excitement in his eye.

They reached their destination by late afternoon, saw rough huts and tents flapping by a cleared area, already planted with corn. There was an air of desolation about the place, despite James’ enthusiasm. The camp was run down already, the fields mottled, badly thought through clumps of turned earth. James could tell nobody knew how to manage it. He was one of the few on the island with any appreciation of the land at all. The rest were city types, full of brick and stone. They couldn’t grow a carrot in a thousand years. James felt strangely at home.


For the next week they marched backwards and forwards into Kingston, unloading supplies, erecting tents, getting the housekeeping done, but once the flurry was over it didn’t take long for James to see the wages of sin at first hand.

August 1791 

Tuesday 23rd Punishd on the 20 Instn. Isac Williams with 100 Lashes and Wm. Gunter with 59 Lashes Gunter was also order to Receive 100 but could not Bear more than the 59 – they both were punishd for Neglect of Duty Punished also to day Jeffery Bolton an old Gray headed man with 50 Lashes and Stoppage of three pounds of Flour per week out of his weekly Ration for three Months for Stealing Bean out of the Barn Joseph Gandous was also Punished with 60 Lashes to day for being absent from his work he was order to Receive 100.

Wednesday 24th Punished John Wood with 24 lashes for Robbing a Gardian and a Stoppage of three pounds of Flour per week out of his weekly Ration for the Space of Six months he was order to Receive 100 Lashes but could only bear 24 this is the fifth of the new hands that have been punished Since there Arrival.

Sunday 28th Punished to day John Laurell and William Robinson although Sunday for Gambling with cards on this day the[y] were each orderd to Receive a hundred Lashes Laurell could only Bear 61 and Robinson 81.

Munday 29th Punished Frainces Flaxmore and John Lock for neglecting the Public work the[y] were order to Receive a hundred each but Lock could only [bear] 50 also Punished Mary Marshall with 50 Lashes for leaving Phillimors farm without leave and being very impertent to Majr. Ross Jno. Etton also Receive a hunderd lashes for Stealing Potatoes

James watched and he waited and played a straight bat. He’d only been on the Island a fortnight – things were looking grim. He was set to work clearing fields, lugging rocks and stripping back the ‘devils guts’ that tangled and ran through everything, the sharp thorns ripping at his fingers as he pulled the tangles apart. He was a good worker, found the time in the open air a great solace after so much wasted spent below decks. The others didn’t share his pleasure; they griped and moaned constantly, unable to ever rest for a moment and just stop and look around. Their minds were small and ill-nourished, looked inward proudly and never once stepped outside. This transplanted world was neither brave nor new – they all carried the weight of a class system, of blood and guts religion and the brutish infallibility of the British establishment on their shoulders. Some didn’t cope.

Wednesday 7th Jno. Ascott who came out as Captain Shea’s Servant…is gone Quite Mad and are obliged to confine him. I am Sorry for him – he dose not like anybody but me it is all about a D…. Convict Whore who has used him ill.

Thursday 8th… Ascott much worse than yesterday confined him in a house made to day for to put him near the Guard and have put a Strait Waiscoats on him

Saterday 10th… was obliged to Chain Ascott to a Gun in his house – he is Quite gone, he Sent to Speak to me and when I came he Said ‘my name was Mr. Clark and I was all in the dark…’

They wandered free when they were not working. There was no real penitentiary on Norfolk Island during the First Settlement – after all, the whole island was one big penitentiary, in the true sense of the word. The closest thing to a prison was a hut called the jail where Mary had spent the night before her whipping. She could have kicked down the wall with one blow – but what was the point of that. Surrounded by reefs and a thousand miles of ocean there was nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.

One thousand people, three main settlements, all trapped on a tiny island.

In the midst of it all, Lieutenant Ralph Clarke trying to keep control. It was a losing battle. Clarke was sitting on forces he could barely control. He embarked on a frenzy of flogging. It wasn’t just the convicts – the Marines on Norfolk Island were in a constant state of mutiny as well. The corps were in poor condition by 1791; Ross wrote that “not one of them had a shoe to their feet nor scarce a shirt to their backs – not a pot to even twelve men – not a bed or blanket amongst them.’  No wonder they were pissed off. This was a prison for everybody involved.




RALPH CLARK JOURNAL: July – November 1791


This was the daily background to their separate lives. The extraordinary became commonplace. They were living in a time where the extremities of life were all around them, rammed in their face – a weekly ballet of births, deaths and marriages, arguments, fights and more – all the suburban detritus of any isolated group of people fighting to survive. A pecking order emerged, those who found a way through the onslaught or those who merely survived. They both had a choice to involve themselves or simply stay away. Both, in an accident of wisdom, chose the path of caution and lived to fight another day.


He arrives August 1791. He is 22. She is 34. But she didn’t fall pregnant until early October 1793 . That’s two years. Doesn’t make sense to me. Would either of them wait? Latest affair begins is August 1793 but I think, like everybody else, they paired off pretty soon after arrival. Despite the cute cherries above, love didn’t have much to do with it – this was a liason of purest practicality. Intuition suggests there may have been a pregnancy in these missing two years but, just as likely, both of them were so run down that fertility was at a low ebb.



It was six months before circumstance placed James and Mary on a collision course. He was working on the beach at Cascade Bay, clearing the rocks to provide another landing place on that side of the island. Mary was living in a hut in Philipsburg, Clarke’s newly proclaimed metropolis.

Their courtship, how they met, the speed of the affair is lost, but amidst the drear of labour and the occasional abandon of the nights, one thing was sure; Mary needed a man and James most definitely needed a woman. It’s hard to know what happens behind a Staffordshire haystack to a wayward lad – not much, probably. He hadn’t had much time or opportunity to practice; a few weeks of freedom on the road to Hull, the odd boy’s weekend in York – then, blam! He was in prison, in an all male environment, hulk, Matilda and Mary Ann until he hit the beach on Norfolk Island.

Even Mary Higgins, twelve years older, twice ‘married’,  twice whipped, twice jailed, mother of four, looking, as Ralph sneered, ‘like an old woman’ looked good to James.

I suspect she had a secret weapon.

Sex was Mary’s only currency and she plied her trade with all the expertise a decade or more on the streets of London had taught her. James was a dozen years younger with a long dry stretch behind him, so with the natural energy of a randy country boy he was content to be instructed in the marital arts as regularly as she wanted – which was often.

Mary was no fool, she was older, streetwise, for her sweet baby James must have seemed like a piece of very good luck – she made sure this bed was no battleground. This bed was survival. It was also the site of some of the most sustained pleasure either of them had had for some considerable time.


By 1793 Norfolk Island was self-sufficient, the harvest successful so by May the population of 1,028 souls was well fed and probably settling into their new existence. James and Mary were living together in their own hut by now, shagging away like the abandoned rabbits they were.

In early October 1793 she fell pregnant. Again – if my theory is correct. James was very pleased.

Mary grew by the hour. She seemed enormous. James puzzled on this for some time then slowly a long-forgotten fact resurfaced. He remembered his brothers and sisters, he remembered two sets of twin boys. James was carrying the family genetics on one generation further. She was pregnant with twins.

One record suggests she gave birth to a daughter Jane and the first son, James, on the 6th of June that year, howling her discomfort into a warm Norfolk Island night. Of Jane nothing more is known. It’s safe to assume she died at birth, or soon after, and lies somewhere on the island. James survived all the usual tribulations that might carry an infant away and made it through the minefield. His father just kept looking at him, beaming with pride.

By November 1794 the Norfolk Island population had fallen to 954 and remained at about this level, a dysfunctional society that settled into an uncomfortable torpor enlivened with regular crisis. A community fed on itself.

But James and Mary’s world was growing in front of their very eyes. They had the daily jolt of parenthood to keep them focused, all energy went to keep their family well and alive.  With the birth of James, let’s hope Mary’s life took on some kind of meaning. Five years had passed since Annie died and Mary was surprised to find herself just as besotted with James. She thought all that ability to love had been whipped out of her, dried up, left in a common grave in Port Jackson, but it flooded back, if anything, twice as strong. She had no intention of letting this one slip through her fingers.

Alas, Mary and James are about to slip through ours. Just as their life changes dramatically, all the research dries up. There is little or no indication of their life and times in the surviving records; all indications are that they did it just as hard as everyone else. Sadly, our favourite diarist, Ralph Clark left the island in 1791, leaving us in the hands of Phillip Gidley King.

King’s report for 18th October 1795 showed that out of a total of 887 people there were 120 military with wives & children, 767 settlers, people whose sentences had expired and prisoners. There were two schools, an orphanage & 619 hectares cleared of timber for  maize, wheat, potatoes, sugarcane, bananas, lemons, apples and coffee. There were 12 cattle, six horses, 12 asses, 374 sheep, 772 goats, 14,642 swine, 2 windmills and one watermill.

Both had well and truly completed their sentences by 1796, even assuming there was no time off for good behavior. James was maturing very nicely; obviously of a finer nature than some of his fellow expatriates, he was co-operative, level-headed and dependable – possibly even kindly– for, once a free man, he was employed by the colonial administration as a Constable, one of only twenty, and been granted thiry-eight acres of land, Lot 107 at the ‘Falls’, which he proceeded to clear and farm. James Junior was three when his mother fell pregnant again and delivered him up a baby brother, Thomas; the 875th person on the island, on an unknown date in 1797.





Here’s some background if you develop a sudden interest in Norfolk Island –  first a piece about Phillip Gidley King, Governor of N.I. till 1796 and then King’s report on The State of the Island 1796

Go here to see King’s diary:

Here’s where to find the Victualing books 1791-6:

More King:


It’s annoying, but for the next chapter in the saga you’ll have to jump ten years and move your mind to New Norfolk 1808, to a rural village named for the  displaced settlers from Norfolk Island, now mysteriously transplanted to Tasmania. There’s a reason for the memory lapse; from 1796 till about 1804 all records of Norfolk Island have been lost; the daily dramas, births, deaths, marriages – all gone – that’s why we don’t know Thomas’ birthdate. It’s useless to come to conclusions from the scerricks of data still left. All we have to draw conclusions from the 1802 MUSTER and 1805 MUSTER – go look, just to get an idea. Not much to go on.

Don’t worry, things pick up. 


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