On the 10th February 1788 Henry Cabell (the surname has varied over time) and Susannah Holmes married in Australia; the first wedding ceremony in the new colony. In 2018, their descendants in Austalia celebrated both the 230th Anniversay of the First Fleet’s arrival and the couple’s Wedding; also Susannah Holmes birth some 250 years ago. Here is their story as a tribute:
Maybe, with enough imagination, one could visualise a low February sun here, quietly painting tones of cold colour on Surlingham Church’s ancient round tower. Everything would be quiet, except maybe, the sound of rooks gossiping as they left their winter roost nearby. That almost perfect silence would remain so long as the visitor stayed still, but any movement forward towards the church door to enquire further, there would be heared the soft crunch of the frosted grass as footsteps left a silent trail of prints.
Almost 250 years ago and amongst a score of baptisms, a special baby girl was annointed from the church’s font. She would leave her own footprints, not in the frost or snow of Norfolk, but in the margins of history on the other side of the world. Yet regretably, she would remain strangely anonymous in the County, but maybe not so now in the village of her birth. That child’s name was Susannah Holmes. Her story, and that of her lover and later husband Henry Cabell (now Kable – it has varied over time) still has a strength of line that not only defies true description but, on the face of it, is stranger than fiction.
Susannah’s story started in Surlingham and remained in the shadows of village events until the ancient pages of the Norfolk Chronicle and the Norwich Mercury newspapers recorded, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, that in November 1783, she had been committed to Norwich Castle Gao,l accused of stealing clothing, silver teaspoons and linen, valued £2.00, from the home of her employer Jabez Taylor at Thurlton which was nine miles away. On the 19th March 1784, at Thetford Assizes, Mr. Justice Nares donned his black cap and sentenced Susannah to be ‘hanged by the neck until she was dead’. But her life was later spared and she was sentenced instead to fourteen years transportation to the plantations of America. Susannah Holmes would never see her Surlingham village and its round-towered church again.
In the claustrophobic squalor of Norwich Castle cells Susannah Holmes met another young convict also sentenced to death at Thetford Assizes and later reprieved. His story was darker still. The Norfolk Chronicle reported that Henry Cabell from Laxfield in Suffolk had joined his father and uncle Abraham Carman in robbing a house at nearby Alburgh. According to the Chronicle,
“they stripped it of everything moveable, took the hangings from the bedsteads and even the meat out of the pickle jars.They also regaled themselves with wine having left several empty bottles behind them.”
The Norwich Mercury also reported how the local Constable Mr Triggs and three assistants went to Carman’s house and discovered the gang trying to burn the evidence. When they broke down the door they were attacked by the three men.
“A severe combat took place in which Mr. Triggs received a terrible cut to the head and was otherwise much hurt.”
Sentenced to death, young Henry was reprieved on the orders of the Home Secretary Lord North, probably because of his age, and sentenced to seven years transportation. These were the days of ‘the Bloody Code’ when more than 150 offences carried the death penalty. What became of Henry’s father and uncle is recorded by the Chronicle in one chilling seventeen word sentence:
“On Saturday last Carman and Cabell were executed on the Norwich Castle Hill pursuant to their crimes.”
Having been sentenced to death for separate robberies, Susannah and Henry were both reprieved but incarcerated in Norwich Castle for three years whilst the authorities decided what to do with them. The American War of Independence had halted transportation to the New World and plans were being made at Government level to send convicts to Australia instead, to a place on its eastern coast that the explorer James Cook had only set Western eyes upon in 1770. Whilst the couple also waited, they did so in prison conditions that were unsanitary, over-crowded and disease-ridden, stifling in summer, ice-cold in winter with cells often under water. But according to the prison reformer John Howard who visited the prison at this time, the gaoler George Glynne was a humane man. Although prisoners were shackled they were also allowed to mix. So it was that Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes first met and fell in love, simple unfettered villagers awaiting shipment to they knew not where.
In 1786 Susannah gave birth in her Castle cell to a baby boy. They called him Henry Jnr. That same year mother and baby were sent on the long journey to the stinking prison hulk ‘Dunkirk’ at Plymouth to await transportation. They went alone. Agonisingly, the order from London forbade father Henry from going with them. He must have thought that he would never see his family again – but this story was about to get worse, much worse, before it got better. Mother and baby were also cruelly separated. Captain Bradley who was in charge of the ‘Dunkirk’ had orders only to receive Susannah and turned her baby away. The Norfolk Chronicle made reference to the plight of the girl from Surlingham:
“The frantic mother was led to her cell execrating (cursing) the cruelty of the man and vowing to put an end to her own life.”
What happened next became a ray of hope when John Simpson, the Norwich prison turnkey (warder) who had escorted mother and child to Plymouth, gathered up baby Henry and made haste to London where, in an age governed by unbridgeable class conventions, the humble turnkey did something truly astonishing. He went to the palatial offices of the new Home Secretary Lord Sydney who was finalising plans for the first convict fleet to sail for Australia. Refused entry, Simpson slipped in a side door only to be told that he would have to wait several days to see the man whose name would soon be bestowed on a new city at the world’s end. The Norfolk Chronicle again tells the story much better:
“Not long after, he saw Lord Sydney descend the stairs and he instantly ran to him. His Lordship shewed an unwillingness to attend to an application made in such a strange and abrupt manner. But Mr. Simpson described the exquisite misery he had been witness to and expressed his fears that the unhappy woman in the wildness of her despair should deprive herself of existence.”
It worked. Lord Sydney not only ordered that mother and child be reunited but gave instructions that the father should be allowed to join them as well. So Simpson set off wearily for Norwich to collect Henry Cabell. Together with the baby, they made the final journey to Plymouth and a remarkable reunion.
The Norwich gaoler, widely feted for a short time as ‘the humane turnkey’, would slip back into the shadow of anonymity, maybe to be rediscovered by descendants of his own children? – if indeed, there are descendants of this Norwich hero living today? It is not even known the fate of the two other female felons Elisabeth Pulley and Anne Turner who were sent from Norwich with Susannah to await transportation. What we do know is that transportation was a one-way ticket. There was no coming back.
It is worth noting here that the spelling of Henry’s name, like his life-story, was unpredictable. The parish records show he was the son of Henry and Dinah Keable. The newspapers called him Cabell, perhaps a mispelling. When he arrived in Australia it became Kable (probably a phonetic spelling) which it remains with his descendants. From here on – Kable it is.
On 11th May 1787 a fleet of 11 ships slipped anchor and edged out of Portsmouth into a stiff westerly breeze. Amongst them was HMS ‘Friendship’ with sails trimmed to meet the stiff breeze. The ship sat deep in the water with a course set to take its crew and passengers to the other end of the world. On board was this Susannah Holmes, a young Norfolk girl, her lover from Suffolk and their recently born son. They were just three amongst a total of some 800 convicts being carried by the First Fleet – to be hailed ever after by their Australian descendants as ‘the reluctant pioneers.’ Ahead lay one of the greatest sea voyages in history and an adventure for the young Norfolk family which is well beyond the wildest imagination of any story-teller.
Friendship – 278 Tons (a) 274 (k) 75 ft. (22.9m.) long, 23 ft. (7.0m.) beam, carried 73 people + 76 male and 21 female convicts. (170) Lt. P. G King’s Journal states 25 Seamen, 40 Marines, 76 and 21 Female Convicts (162). Skippered by: Master Francis Walton. Little is known about where and when the Scarborough was built c. 1784 During her return voyage to England her crew came down with scurvy and with insufficient crew to man her she was scuttled and sunk in the Straits of Macassar 28 Oct 1788.
That ‘First Fleet’ of eleven sailing ships set out on a voyage of epic proportions and into the unknown and into the history books. Altogether, the fleet was carrying almost 800 male and female convicts and a similar number of crew and marines. The ships were overcrowded. The ‘Friendship’ carried 72 unwilling prisoners, many of them originally sentenced to death and now sentenced to ever-lasting exile in the British Empire’s newest colony. All must have cursed their vessel’s ironic name.
But perhaps Susannah, from Surlingham, and her Suffolk-born Henry may have felt differently. At least they and Henry Jr were together and, remarkably, they did not travel with empty-handed thoughts. The separation of mother and baby prior to departure had caused such an outcry that the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, had been compelled to reunite them. Their plight had captured the public imagination and an appeal raised money to buy them clothing and a few possessions; but even here there is yet another twist in the story – but more of that later.
How extraordinary that this simple and uncomplicated couple, together with their companions were to have more than a future for themselves; One day, sometime after being shuffled away from our shores, they would be feted as the founders of modern Australia. Extraordinary, too, that whilst it appears that so much is known about Henry and Susannah, the available contemporary documents reveal scant personal details. It is known that Henry Kable was the first of nine children and that Susannah Holmes had a brother and sister, but there are no images of what either looked like. There is only one description of Henry as being a “fine, healthy young fellow” and a suggestion that he might have been red-haired. That’s it! Much more is known about the ships; two naval vessels, six convict transports and three supply ships. The itineraries survive and include lists of handcuffs, leg irons, livestock, coal, tools, food and water of course, as well as 5,000 bricks and a ‘piano’ belonging to the naval surgeon.
At Cape Town, Susannah and the other women on board the Friendship were transferred to the Charlotte to make way for 30 sheep. One of the marines wrote in his diary: “I think we will find them more agreeable than the women.”
Charlotte: – 346 Tons (a) 335 (k), 105-ft. (32m.) long and 28-ft. (8.5m.) beam. When surveyed at Deptford Yard on 3 November 1786 measured 6’6′ afore, amid and aft and weighed 345 tons. Carried: Crew ± 30 + 45 others + 88 male and 20 female convicts. (183) Lt. P. G King’s Journal states 30 Seamen, 42 Marines, 86 Male and 20 Female Convicts. (178) Skippered by: Master Thomas Gilbert (qv). Built in 1784, A three masted fully square rigged with neither galleries or figurehead. After her return to England she was sold to a Quebec merchant in 1818 and was lost off the coast of Newfoundlands in Nov. 1818.
The 13,000 mile voyage through often uncharted and turbulent seas took 252 days and almost unbelievably not a single ship was lost. Sadly the same cannot be said of the convicts. Forty three either died en route or, as the manifest puts it, ‘left our vessels.’ Twenty two babies were born to prisoners or marines’ wives. Remarkably, only two died. Henry Kable Jr. also survived.
Enter another hero in this strange story. If the first was John Simpson, the Norwich prison turnkey whose efforts had reunited Susannah and Henry, the second was the Commander of the First Fleet Expedition, a Captain Arthur Phillip. Clearly a competant sailor, his navigational skills were to take the Fleet safely through the iceberg-strewn Southern Ocean to arrived in Botany Bay on the 18th January 1788. A week later the Fleet sailed into what they called Port Jackson at the time. A strong belief endures to this day in Australia that the ‘fine, healthy young fellow’ Henry Kable carried the Captain, later to become Govenor Phillip, through the surf and on to the beach where he dedicated the new settlement to the Home Secretary Lord Sydney who had ordered the establishment of this far-off penal colony.
Alexander: Barque-built – Convict Transport – 453 Tons ,114 ft. (34.75m.) long and 31 ft.(9.5m) at the beam. Deptford survey in October 1786 recorded her measurements of 7’3″ between decks afore, 6’11” midships and abaft. Carried: Crew ± 30 + 20 others + 195 male convicts. (245) Lt. P. G King’s Journal states there was 30 Seamen, 35 Marines and 194 Convicts (259) 14? Skippered by: Master Duncan Sinclair – Owner: William Walton & Co. Built as a 3 master-square rig, 1 quarter deck ± 114 x 31ft and 2 decks without galleries or figurehead, and was registered at Hull in 1783. The largest ship of the fleet, and little is known after her return to England and disappeared from records in 1808.
Two weeks later the lovers, together with three other couples were married by the Fleet’s chaplain – theirs were the first marriages in this new land. Then, our couple discovered that their possessions, which had been purchased after that earlier public appeal in England, had disappeared from the above ship, ‘Alexander’.
So, in an effort to secure justice, they sued the ship’s Captain Duncan Sinclair. They not only won their case but two and half centuries later that court ruling remains an historic legal precedent. Governor Phillip had obtained Royal assent to establish a court of civil jurisdiction with a judge advocate; the writ issued by the Kables was the new Court’s inaugaural hearing. This would have been impossible in England where convicts were regarded as ‘dead’ in law with no rights whatsoever. Blackstones’ criminal law bible had put it rather more bluntly:
“A felon is no longer fit to live upon the earth…to be exterminated as monster and a bane to society…he is already dead in law.”
Well, on the other side of the world the young Norfolk felon and her Suffolk born husband, once condemned to death, were well and truly alive – both in person and in the young Australia’s law. The Court that day, ordered the Captain to pay Susannah and Henry £15 in compensation. It was a wise decision of course for for how else would this group of convicts ever reform and develop in a civilised way without any legal rights, especially as 80,000 more convicts would arrive in the years ahead.
So it was that in the years that followed, the Kables thrived. At first, conditions were harsh, trying to survive in the primitive hovels that sprung up round the Bay. Famine was ever-present but it became clear that the Colony remained undaunted. Henry was made an overseer of a convict gang, then a constable and finally Governor Phillip appointed him as the first Chief Constable of New South Wales. Susannah laboured in a different way by way of not only feeding her growing family, giving birth to ten more children of which all but one survived. The family grew rich and even powerful. For a while Henry ran a public house called the Ramping Horse, named it is believed after Rampant Horse Street in Norwich. Its drunken revellers conveniently carted off to the nearby gaol which was also run by Chief Constable Kable.
At the last we are still not quite done with the firsts.The first ship of any size in the new colony was named after the Kable’s eldest daughter Diana. It was built by her father as part of a fleet that traded across the Pacific. And the same daughter of convict parents married brilliantly to a senior civil servant who had come to help establish the colony. It was Australia’s first ‘society’ wedding. By now her father had served his sentence and grown ever more wealthy with several estates and trading partnerships as well as just one more first on this vast continent, a stage coach service.
Henry Kable died in 1846 at the age of 82. He was buried alongside his beloved wife who he had outlived by 21 years. Susannah was 61 when she died in 1825. Ten generations later the dynasty they founded is thriving and meets appropriately enough at Kable’s restaurant in Sydney to remember their celebrated forebears who famously became known as the First Fleeters.
This year of 2018 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Susannah Kable, (nee Holmes), the Surlingham lass who is rightly regarded as one of Australia’s founding daughters. A few years ago she was voted one of that country’s most influential historic figures.
On 10th February 2018 a Kable Family reunion was organised for the descendants of Henry and Susannah, to celebrate the couple’s 230th Wedding Anniversary. The main venue for the activities was held in the Hawkesbury Race Club, Windsor. It included Registration and Welcome followed by a Church service and Dinner. Then on the following day, 11th February 2018 a Windsor heritage walk and bus tour took place, followed by a Light lunch. See Activities here for the full details.
Strange, how very undeserving, that in the country and county of her birth, she is seldom remembered and maybe only by parish historians.
Back in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church at Surlingham, Norfolk the February sun had risen higher and taken the crispness from the early frost, but everywhere remained white. and the bare trees were leafed with snow. Beneath them the graves continued to say nothing. If it had not been for the theft of linen and silver teaspoons, Susannah Kable (Holmes) may, as likely as not, been laid to rest here beneath a Broadland sky instead of elsewhere far away. Who knows?
- Eastern Daily Press: Article by Dick Meadows dated 26 January 2013