History

The Floating Brothel, Sian Rees

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Fear not, dear reader, this blog is not descending into a pit of depravity.  I can assure you that despite the salacious title of this book it is a bonafide history, and one that tells a fascinating story of women and colonialism in the 18th century.

1789, the first settlers at Sydney Cove are desperate for three things: food, skilled men and available women.  The food they took to survive the first year is gone, their attempts to grow food and raise livestock have failed as the ‘gangs of male city-dwellers’ from the original convict ship don’t have the skills they need, and concerns are growing among the ruling class that “without a sufficient proportion from that sex (women), it is well-known that it would be impossible to preserve the settlement from gross irrelgularities”. It would also be hard to breed the next generation.  Of the 1079 people on the initial trip out, only 228 were women.

They write desperate messages to England. It is an England struggling to cope with social change, whose penal system hasn’t kept up with the crimes of modern society, and where judges, in an attempt to avoid sentencing people to death, are increasing penalising people by sending them to complete their sentences in ‘parts beyond the seas’.  In December 1788, there are 151 female convicts in Newgate gaol in a space built for 70.  Some of them have been there for years awaiting transportation. It is filthy, diseased and disgusting. Every day more women are convicted and added to the morass.  The Government is desperate for somewhere to send these women, but the number of colonies in ‘parts beyond the seas’ that are willing to take them is dwindling.

So it is that about 240 unfortunate women find themselves aboard the sturdy Lady Julian sailing for Australia.  This book tells their stories, from the petty crimes they committed that led to their initial incarceration, all the way through to the lives they built in Australia.

The book has a fascinating cast of characters from the imperious Elizabeth Barnsley, who came from a family of highwaymen and seemed to be something of an aristocrat amongst thieves, to Thomas Edgar, the ambiguous Master who ensured that everyone was fed and looked after on voyage but who was happy to operate a floating brothel in harbour.  Perhaps most interesting is drippy Sarah Whitelam who thoroughly captured they heart of the Steward, John Nicol, the moment she stepped aboard “I first fixed my fancy on her the moment I knocked the rivet from her irons upon my anvil”, was pregnant by him before the ship set sail but who, ultimately, may have had the last laugh.

I found the book had a bit of a slow start.  It was 100 pages before the ship leaves London, which was a bit long for me. I think that’s probably why I put it down unfinished last time I started it.   On the other hand, the research that went into all of the stories of the convicts aboard is extremely impressive, and if you haven’t read much about 18th century crime and punishment it gives a good overview.  I studied this period at university and Rees gives a good account of it, and some of the stories are fascinating.

The book also gives a good sense of life aboard the ship, with fun anecdotes such as Nance Ferrell’s gang making every effort to be sent below decks as punishment because they had secretly broken into a barrel of port.  There are descriptions of shore leave, a lot of which is quite speculative or based on accounts of other ships, but in which we see enterprising women making money in port, in one case by all dressing up as penitents with robes, and asking for alms.

However, as the title suggests, many made money in port by selling themselves, and were so successful that when they left Tenerife, two slave ships left with them and decided to sail some distance with them “for the sake of the ladies”.  There is an interesting theme through the book of how sexual relations were very much a bartering chip for all of the women aboard the ship. All of the sailors were entitled to have a woman as a ‘mate’ for the voyage and we can only speculate as to how this was arranged.  And it is fascinating to hear of the decisions the women made on arrival in Sydney about who they wanted to marry or set up with there and the impact this had on their later lives.

In all, this is an interesting story and clearly a lot of research has gone into it.  If you are new to the 18th century you will certainly learn a lot from it – it is a fascinating period! If you are more familiar with the history, it is still a fascinating story, but you may want to skip through some chapters.

The Floating Brothel, Sian Rees, Headline, 2001

6 thoughts on “The Floating Brothel, Sian Rees

  1. Amazing how often ‘gross irregularities’ in the behavior of male convicts featured in official correspondence between Sydney and London right through to the mid nineteenth century, when transportation finally came to an end. There would be a PhD to be written on the impact of the spectre of ‘gross irregularities’ on the formulation of penal policy and the whole conduct of the transportation system.

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    • Absolutely! The book has a good discussion of all of the different schemes they thought of to acquire more women for the colony, which is quite interesting too. There is also a fascinating account of how once the colony was established a bit, they decided it would be good for the convicts’ morals if they each had a pig to raise (the mind boggles). But there weren’t enough pigs for one each, or even one between two, so they had to set up these three person households for the purposes of pig raising!

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    • It is a really interesting story. She sets up with Mr Nicol on the ship, has his child, and then, when they get to Australia the captain refuses to let him stay as he is needed for the next leg of the journey. So the last chapter or so of the book is his story of desperately trying to get back to Australia, and her story of what she did once he was gone.

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  2. Must say it sounds intriguing. Though I know about transportaton in general terms, I know nothing about the specifics. In fact, it had never really occurred to me to think about the imbalance of men to women…

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    • It is a really interesting story. The book also has a lot of information about other colonies that they tried to set up which didn’t survive the first year. It is quite clear that, if the Lady Julian, and the supply ships which followed her, hadn’t reached Sydney Cove when they did, there is a strong possibility that the Australian colony would have failed too.

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