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One hundred and eight women and two infants were rowed down the Thames. Fog crept over London on their ten mile journey east to Galleon’s Reach, an anchor point on the Thames opposite the Royal Arsenal. There was the Lady Juliana, recently ordered from Debtford to Gallion’s Reach.

Steward John Nicol had been waiting for his prisoners for a fortnight. When they arrived in their separate groups between 12th and 14th March he processed them, removed their irons and shackles and allocated their sleeping quarters. The boat was not even half full – not yet – eventually ‘all the jails in England were emptied to complete the cargo of the Lady Julian.’

The ship was commanded by Captain Aitken; ‘an excellent humane man [who] did all in his power to make the convicts as comfortable as their circumstances would allow,’ Nicol noted. John seems like an amiable enough fellow himself.

The deck of the Lady Juliana was fine theatre. Lives were put on open display as husbands, lawyers, parents, children paraded their woes in a series of last, then final goodbyes. Appeals submitted, denied, rejected, all in a very public cavalcade of emotions. ‘I witnessed many very moving scenes’said John, ‘and many of the most hardened indifference’.

Of Mary Higgins’ tailor and her five year old son there is no sign.

Friends and relatives were allowed on board, bringing fresh food and provisions, clothing, money and the last glimpse of normality these women were to have for a very long time. Perhaps on April 1st James Harrold and their son arrived to wish Mum a happy 33rd birthday.  It’s hard to know which is worse; the prospect of him visiting, with young James in tow, desperate to catch of glimpse of his new-born daughter before she was taken away for ever or the opposite; a great yawning silence where family ought to be.

Another fifteen women from Newgate boarded on April 15th and then, on the 29th, the Lady Juliana was ordered from Gallions Reach to Long Reach near Gravesend. Goodbye London.


On May 27th twenty seven girls, fresh from the condemned cells at Newgate, arrived in a bunch bearing extraordinary tales of seven of their number who had chosen death over transportation. The boat, and most of London, it appeared, was agog. A week later, on 4th June 1788; the day of a solar eclipse, the ship upped anchor and sailed into the English Channel, bound for Spithead near Portsmouth. There, on the 12th the famous five women sensationally reprieved from their death sentences were embarked.  

Ninety more women from assorted country jails were loaded on board while they waited in Spithead. ‘Those from the country came all on board in irons,’ said Nicol, ‘and I was paid half-a-crown a head by the country jailors, in many cases, for striking them off upon my anvil as they were not locked but riveted.’ One of them was Mary Lammerman. 

July 29th was the date set for departure. The night before they left four women went over the side. The ship left without them. There were 246 women on board.


‘We soon found that we had a troublesome cargo, yet not dangerous or very mischievous, as I may say more noise than danger. There were not a great many very bad characters; the greater number were for petty crimes, and a great proportion for only being disorderly, that is, street-walkers; the colony at the time being in great want of women.’

John Nicol’s observations are fascinating. This is the only extant record that treats the women prisoners with anything less than distant scorn and reveals some unexpected attitudes.  

‘Numbers of them would not take their liberty as a boon; they were thankful for their present situation, so low had vice reduced them. Many of these, from the country jails, had been allowed to leave it to assist in getting in the harvest, and voluntarily returned. When I inquired their reason, they answered;

‘How much more preferable is our present situation to what it has been since we commenced our vicious habits? We have good victuals and a warm bed. We aren’t ill treated or at the mercy of every drunken ruffian as we were before. When we rose in the morning, we knew not where we would lay our heads in the evening, or if we would break our fast in the course of the day. Banishment is a blessing to us. Haven’t we been banished for a long time – in our native land, the most dreadful of all situations? We dared not go to our relations, whom we had disgraced. Other people would shut their doors in our faces. We were as if a plague were upon us, hated and shunned.’

‘Some of our convicts I have heard even to boast of the crimes and murders committed by them and their accomplices; others did all in their power to make their escape. These were such as had left their associates in rapine on shore, and were hardened to every feeling but the abandoned enjoyments of their companions – but the far greater number were harmless unfortunate creatures, the victims of the basest seduction.’


Fifty-one of them were just girls, between the age of ten and nineteen, there were one hundred and sixteen between twenty and twenty-nine and, along with Mary, forty between thirty and thirty-nine. Just fifteen were in their forties and the remaining eight were over fifty.

Mary Whiston/Higgins/Harrold slotted right in the middle.

Her greatest strength – and greatest burden – was the tiny figure of baby Ann. The constancy of the child kept her mind off the dreadful fate in store yet she was saddled with responsibility. One easily outweighed the other. She attached herself to her daughter with such ferocity, focused so completely on the tiny thing that she was spared the extremity of solitude, the swing and pitch of emotion that so wounded some of her shipmates.

A baby on a boat with two hundred and fifty women is an irresistible attraction. Mary Higgins met every woman on board through Ann; the bub was a positive asset. No troubles with baby sitters on the Lady Juliana, there were times when Mary had to hunt the ship for her baby as Annie was passed from arm to arm, cooed over and loved by her two hundred eager aunts. No shortage of people to walk the child to sleep if she were crying, no lack of concern and care; little Annie was a tiny beacon of hope, a darling reminder of all those children left behind, of normality, family and, even, of love.

Jane Tyler, Elizabeth Hopper and Mary Lammerman were also on board. The four women were about to make a great journey together, a twenty year odyssey – all propelled by fate to the same distant place, a destination as yet not even imagined on an island at the bottom of the earth.




‘The Lady Juliana was nothing more than a floating brothel,’ wrote Charles Bateson in his key reference work ‘The Convict Ships 1787 – 1868’ published in 1959. Those words have become a brand name.

A book, a play, a T.V. documentary, numerous radio programs have all used these words in their title; the phrase has slipped into the contemporary Australian consciousness, pandering as it does to all our current preconceptions about these jolly Georgian whores who screwed their way to the Southern Hemisphere and spawned a nation.

Those two words were, of course, not intended as a compliment. In 1959, when they were written, echoes of the distaste with which post war Australia viewed its convict past were everywhere. A grey cloak of disapproval hung over our recent history, a sense of National embarrassment that these convict thugs and whores might be our genesis. I grew up in a Tasmania where the mere mention of a convict ancestor was cause for shame, in a family where any reference to our colonial past was not so much forbidden as ignored out of existence. Now I know why. It wasn’t until the Seventies that the population began, as a whole, to re-examine our convict heritage and re-interpret the commonly held assumptions. The rise of feminism brought a fresh new approach to history.

All commentators on this voyage – and there are a great many – use as their core [and only] source for their text the reminiscences of a 34 year old Scot, John Nicol, who sailed with the ship as steward. Michael Flynn in his definitive book ‘The Second Fleet’ considers ‘his reminiscences, if somewhat sentimentalized by the passage of thirty years, colourful and reasonably accurate.’


Nicol’s account of his time on the Lady Juliana runs to 3,400 words and is full of anecdotes and stories about a number of the women on board. He tells us of Mrs. Barnsley, Mrs. Davis, Mary Williams, Sarah Dorsett, Nelly Kirwin, Nance Ferrall and Mary Rose – but if we remove the anecdotes there are less than 1,500 words of description and, of the actual voyage, barely 1000. Of these, just 42 relate to the sexual behavior of the passengers.

The most quoted; ‘When we were fairly out at sea, every man on board took a wife from among the convicts, they nothing loath,’ is clear in its implication. Of the 226 women on board about 35 took up with the crew. This was normal in its context – sailors traditionally took a woman while on board for the duration of the voyage – and was unlikely to be coercive in this situation. Those women who caught a sailor were thought fortunate. They had a protector, access to better food and favors. But in any context, at any time in human history, when 50 men are placed in an enclosed situation with 250 women and left there to stew for 15 months relationships will form – this is human nature, not sin.

In Santa Cruz; ‘The captains and seamen, who were in port at the time, paid us many visits.’

The assumption here is that the sailors from port were visiting the women for sexual services. From the quote they might just as likely be popping over for a cup of tea. Lurid conjecture is, however, probably correct, judging from a further entry; ‘We next stood for St Jago, accompanied by two slave ships from Santa Cruz to St Jago, who sailed thus far out of their course for the sake of the ladies. They came on board every day when the weather would permit.’

Clearly, relationships had formed.


In Rio ‘the ladies had a constant run of visitors,’ just as in Santa Cruz. Again, the assumption that all these visitors were there purely for sexual services; most analysts seem convinced that some of the more enterprising of the Juliana girls had set up a knock-shop on board.  Certainly there were prostitutes on deck who would have had no compunction in offering services to a boat load of slavers. Certainly there was commerce, in one form or another. We are led to imagine a small flotilla of longboats scurrying to and fro from shore, each carrying their quota of randy seamen ready to clamber on deck and bed the nearest girl. All this furtive rutting must have taken place in full view of the assembled convicts and crew – there were 280 people on board, the Lady Juliana was not a large ship. Perhaps a cabin or three was set aside for the purpose – perhaps.

To add fuel to this bonfire of promiscuity Nicol mentions the ‘twenty suits’ of baby clothes needed for the new-born bastard babies on the trip, the fruit of all that tropical lust. In this he was incorrect; only seven children were born from the 246 women who spent up to fifteen months on board.

And that’s it; apart from some crew boasting as they crossed the Equator when ‘Neptune made the boys confess their amours to him – and I was really astonished at the number,’ there is no more source information on the events of that voyage pertaining to licentious behavior. Forty two words – not much to base a myth on.

When one looks at the source material, examines those few ambiguous phrases, one can’t help thinking that interpretation is all. Like the noble savage, the ‘jolly whore’ is a myth we like to perpetuate; when the great re-examination of Australian history swept through the Seventies we needed a stock of acceptable stereotypes to populate our past. We wanted ‘colourful’ characters out of Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens and Thackeray to fill out our disgrace. Obviously we still do. A boatload of rambunctious harlots fits the bill admirably.

The Floating Brothel. It’s a great hook. It might well be a raw deal for the 200 or more women on board who can have had no part in anything even remotely licentious; might well be the only example out of all the convict transports recorded to open its decks up to prostitution, to set up a shuttle service for ** sailors, a thriving business on board with all the concomitant payments and backhanders that would have entailed. It might well be the myth that we needed to have.

‘When we were fairly out at sea, every man on board took a wife from among the convicts, they nothing loath…

The captains and seamen… paid us many visits.’

‘two slave ships… sailed… far out of their course for the sake of the ladies. They came on board every day…’

‘the ladies had a constant run of visitors.’

I don’t contest the countless historians and dramatists who have amplified these 42 words into thousands. Their calculations, intuitions and assumptions are all very probably correct – but it’s somehow calming to know that everything stems from these few words and everything else is just speculation. I just don’t intend to add to it.



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