When John met Sarah – convict courtship

How did my 3x great grandparents, John and Sarah Simpson, meet? They were quick workers, we know that. John Simpson disembarked at Sydney Cove on January 16, 1818 and Sarah Marshall a week or so after. About a month later, Sarah was pregnant with their first child, Lucy Simpson.

Lucy (later Delaney), born on November 18, 1818, is my great-great grandmother.

I’ve already written about what might have happened to Sarah when she first arrived – assignment to the old Female Factory above the Gaol – but before talking about convict courtship in the early days of the colony, here’s a bit of background about her and John Simpson.

The Lady Penrhyn convict transport ship.

The Lady Penrhyn (via Wikipedia)

They were both thieves from the North of England. John, a tailor, had been convicted at Derby Assizes on March 20, 1817, of ‘stealing two bales of muslins and shawls, at Hope’, a village in the Derbyshire Peak District. He was sentenced to seven years’ transportation and was one of 180 male convicts on the Ocean II. Sarah, also sentenced to seven years, was from the Manchester area. Her crime was stealing clothes and a sheet with the total value of fivepence. Her ship, the Friendship, was notorious for the ‘very indecent and licentious intercourse’ between some of the 101 women convicts and the male crew.

The situation didn’t change greatly when Sarah Marshall came ashore. In Sydney in 1818, prostitution – or sex without marriage, thought of as very similar – was just as much an issue for a young convict woman.

“The disgrace of their sex” – convict women

The problem for the administrators of the early colony was the unequal distribution of the sexes. With women making up about one in five of the population, most men – especially the poor and the convicts – would have little chance of finding a long-term partner. What was to be done about their sexual urges? More female convicts had to be transported.

Added to that, the convict women were seen to be morally depraved, for the most part. Governor John Hunter had described them as the “disgrace of their sex, are far worse than the men, and are generally found at the bottom of every infamous transaction committed in the colony”. The Reverend Samuel Marsden, the ox-faced Parramatta magistrate, thought them “destructive of all religion, morality and good order”.*

A painting of Sydney Cove in the early 19th century

Watercolour of Sydney Cove, 1806

And of course, even if they behaved, they still couldn’t win. The 1837 Molesworth Committee on Transportation found “that society had fixed the standard of the average moral excellence required of women much higher than that which it had erected for men…a higher degree of reformation is required in the case of a female, before society will concede to her that she has reformed at all”. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any comments made by these reviled women about how they were viewed.

What, then, to do with these impossible women? Marriage, of course, was the answer. Marriage would bring chaste behaviour, respectable and stable family units, and a new generation of legitimately-born girls and boys to populate New South Wales alongside the free settlers and convicts.

And so the colony courtship evolved.

Human cargo

When a ship bringing women convicts arrived and disembarked its human cargo, it was as if the circus had come to town – on the last shopping day before Christmas. Most came to stare, but many came to get themselves a servant or a wife.

Amid the shouts and catcalls of the crowd – which was sometimes barely held back by troopers – the hopeful masters stepped forward to eye up the talent. The doctor James O’Connell compared the scene to a slave market, but also found it diverting.

Those women who were to be servants might go to a family, or to a single man, in which case they might be expected to provide service in his bed as well as in the rest of his domestic life.

Drawing of Australian convict woman and man

Convict woman and man

As for the ‘Botany Bay courtship’, one voyeur, the landowner and convict-hater James Mudie, wrote that the hopeful groom “goes up and looks at the women, and if he sees a lady that takes his fancy, he makes a motion to her, and she steps to one side; some of them will not, but stand still, and have no wish to be married, but this is very rare.”†

O’Connell wrote that some “were all sheepish smiles and blushes”, while “others would avert their faces in a sort  of indifference; as though a refusal is seldom met by an applicant, still these seekers for help mates are not all of such an appearance as to tempt a woman half way. A third set would most prudishly frown upon a proceeding which pays so little respect to prescriptive rights of the ladies…” And who could blame them, we might think now.

Still, he thought, they were all “agog for a husband” and noted others who “would make attempts, not always successful, or with the best grace, to appear as amiable and pretty as possible.”

O’Connell’s tone darkens when he speculates on why women might be so keen. He describes them as “ready to take anything for a husband, rather than remain in the factory” (though he is talking about the later Female Factory here). And he adds that such a marriage may be “only the exchange of a mild government for a despotic”.‡

No choice

As for the left-over women, those thought too unfit, unattractive or old, or who had small children, it was back to the Female Factory for them. And many of these, with nowhere there for them to sleep, would have to take lodgings in town, where they might take a ‘protector’ for the sake of a roof over their heads.

It was a hard choice; indeed, almost no choice at all.

Of course, this wasn’t a convict woman’s last chance to marry. Men would apply to the Female Factory for a line-up of suitable girls, and, according to the Bigge report, “female convicts often married only to alter their civil status” and gain a measure of freedom.

We don’t know if this is how John met Sarah. Would a convict just off his own ship be given permission to pick a partner? I haven’t seen any evidence that says yes or no. I’d love to hear from you if you have.

Maybe something else threw them  together – being chosen by the same master, or working for neighbours. Whatever happened, they lost no time in becoming lovers, if not husband and wife.

How did your ancestors meet? Did any of them get jobs or spouses from the Female Factory?

There is some controversy surrounding the issues of women, marriage and (perceived?) prostitution in early colonial Australia. If you’re interested, here is some further reading online:

Anley, Charlotte, The Prisoners of Australia (1841), free downloadable ebook (PDF) from KK Genealogy here
Bass, Randall, Convict Women and Sexual Subjugation in Nineteenth-Century Australia, (1991)
Croome, Rodney, ‘True and Good Citizens’: The history of freedom to marry in Australia on overland.org.au†
Damousi, Joy, Depraved and Disorderly: Female Convicts, Sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia(Cambridge, 1997)
Fahey, Warren (curator), Australian Folklore Unit Has a description of the voyage of the Friendship
Forell, Caroline Anne, Convicts, Thieves, Domestics, and Wives in Colonial Australia: The Rebellious Lives of Ellen Murphy and Jane New on Social Science Research Network
Frances, Raelene, The History of Female Prostitution in Australia in Perkins, R., Presage, G., Sharp, R. & Lovejoy, F. (eds.) Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia (Sydney, 1994)
* Hendriksen, Gay, Women transported: Myth and reality, (2009) on naa.gov.au
Jones, Cecily, University of Warwick paper
‡ O’Connell, James, A residence of eleven years in New Holland and the Caroline Islands (e-book)
Australia – Women Convicts on Jane’s Oceania, which also has a slightly different view in Australia – The Women of Botany Bay

I’m grateful to Sylvia Taylor and her book The John Simpson and Sarah Saga for information about John and Sarah’s life, and to Wayne Morris for letting me read his copy.

 © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014

About rebelhand

A Rebel Hand is: about Nicholas Delaney, Irish rebel of 1798, transported as a convict to New South Wales, roadbuilder, innkeeper and farmer. My great-great-great grandfather. Other ancestors transported to Australia, like Sarah Marshall, John Simpson and James Thomas Richards, pop up as well. This blog's also about the historical background to their lives, in England, Ireland, and Australia. My respectable Welsh ancestors sometimes get a look in.
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23 Responses to When John met Sarah – convict courtship

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  9. Lisa says:

    Very intresting! I also belive that we might be (distantly) related as my mother’s maiden name was Delaney – and have an Irish ancestor who was transported for killing an English Officer 🙂


    • rebelhand says:

      Hi Lisa, thanks for posting! Our Delaney stories do look similar. Do you know when your Irish ancestor was transported, by any chance? It would be great if we were related. I love meeting my (distant) cousins.


  10. great blog post Rebel Hand! Do you know that quite a few convict women married convict policemen. Presumably they met when he picked her up for drinking or on suspicion of absconding, or when he escorted her to trial by magistrates. Start of a life sentence for some women, no doubt!


    • rebelhand says:

      No, I didn’t, how interesting. Thanks, Helen! ‘Start of a life sentence’… *grins*

      I’ve been enjoying reading about Sarah Martin at your blog. What a wonderful resource.


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  19. Fiona says:

    I’ve been researching a possible female convict who arrived in Tasmania. She had a child in 1842 who would have been conceived just after she was refused permission to marry, because of her behaviour. It’s a fascinating topic, isn’t it? Thanks for all the links…I’ll do some more reading.


    • rebelhand says:

      Thanks, Fiona! I certainly found it fascinating. And interestingly being pregnant by a particular man was not necessarily seen as good enough grounds to marry him. So many double standards, so many bizarre contradictions!

      Good luck with your research – I hope you’ll blog about it. I really enjoy your blog (but can’t post comments) so I’m glad of the chance to say that.


  20. Pingback: The Factory above the Gaol – women convicts in 1818 | A Rebel Hand

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