The late 18th century was a problem period for the British Government insofar as industrialisation was fanning the growth of city-slums and there was much unemployment of soldiers and sailors following the American War of Independence. The crime rate was high, the prisons were overcrowded and there was no attempt to segregate the prisoners by their offence, age or sex.
In response the government began to issue harsh punishments such as public hangings or exile. It was a time when many prisoners were transported to Australia to carry out their sentence, a relatively small percentage of whom were women; certainly between 1788 and 1852, male convicts outnumbered the female convicts by six to one. But also included in Government policy was a wish to see that women convicts being sent to Australia were of “marriageable” age; a policy aimed at promoting family development for emancipated convicts, free settlers and to develop the penal outpost of New South Wales into a viable colony.
A myth that prevailed at the time was that convict women were all prostitutes; no they were not! The fact was that the majority of women sent to Australia were convicted for what would now be considered minor offences – such as petty theft and most did not receive sentences of more than seven years. Of course, many women were driven to prostitution following their arrival in Australia as means of survival because they were required to house themselves or buy clothing and bedding of their own. These women indeed faced extreme difficulty in achieving freedom, solvency and respectability. They would go on to be employed in ‘factories’ (equivalent of the English workhouse) but often had to find their own accommodation, and would be under great pressure to pay for it with sexual services. This was why women convicts tended to be regarded as prostitutes. But it is a popular misconception that they had originally been convicted of prostitution, for this was not a transportable offence.
Amongst the women convicts who would be subjected to many of the problems associated with transportation into exile was a Mary Ann Adams, aged 23, a dairymaid from Norfolk who in later Australian records described as being 5ft 1in in height, of pale freckled complexion, brown hair, grey eyes and with a scar over her left eyebrow. Mary had been committed to the 1834 Spring Norwich Assizes to face a charge of stealing a purse containing four sovereigns. She was found guilty of that charge on the 22 March of that year and, at first, was sentenced to death; but this was later commuted to life in the colonies – an alternative particularly favoured by the Norwich courts at that time. Was this also a reflection of the Government wish to increase the number of ‘marriageable’ women needed for the Australian colony? – Mary, for one, would never have known.
Following her sentence, Mary Adams spent approximately 3 months in Nowich Gaol, which, at that time, was located at the end of St Giles’ Street by the Earlham Road & Unthank Road junctions on a site now accupied by St John the Baptist Cathedral and built 1882-1910. While in Norwich Goal, Mary made a keepsake token from a worn-down two-pence coin. On it she inscribed:
“When you see this, remember me when I am far away”
This keepsake still remains on display at the Norwich Castle Museum to serve as a reminder as intended. Mary was transported to Woolwich, along with a Sarah Sharrods, servant, who had received a similar life sentence and a Ann Burke who had been sentenced to 14 years of exile at the previous December Assizes in Norwich. How and in what conditions these three travelled is unknown but, generally, prisoners destined to be transported for exile would have been secured in heavy chains and riding in open coaches, irrespective of weather conditions. It is unknown whether, on the way, the coach that carried them also picked up a further five prisoners in Suffolk – all of whom had been sentenced to 7 years each to exile. It may have been of some comfort that they travelled during the summer, at the same time when 136 other female convicts were travelling from cities and counties throughout England, Scotland and Wales to board the 1804 built George Hibbert at Woolwich.– all were chained for that journey. The ship, controlled by the Master, Captain George N. Livesay and ship’s Surgeon Superintendent, John Tarn, was scheduled to sail on 27 July 1834.
This would be John Tarn’s second voyage as surgeon superintendent on a convict ship. As was his normal practice, he would keep a Medical Journal – this time between 7 June and 18 December 1834. It was for the 3rd to 17th of July 1834, that he would place on record the following general remarks, throwing light on the general health situation on board the George Hibbert, both prior to sailing and for the voyage:
“……. There were 144 female convicts, 11 free women and 64 children who were received on board at Woolwich, having been forwarded in parties from the different counties of Great Britain’. Most of the women were below middle age and in sufficient good health to make the journey without much risk of disease. The vessel was very crowded but the usual precautions to reduce risk of disease made for a healthy voyage. The convicts and children were on deck whenever possible and stoves were used to reduce dampness. Most complaints were affections of the bowels, catarrhal and dyspeptic attacks and diseases of the uterine system and were generally not severe. Bowel complaints appeared during the close, sultry weather and were mostly connected with hepatic secretions. Calomel and purgatives removed the symptoms. The voyage was longer than usual, taking 130 days, and there were numerous slight symptoms of scurvy for some weeks before arriving in Sydney. Lemon juice had been regularly issued and when it ran out it was replaced with [concrete] citric acid and a solution of nitre in vinegar. These remedies produced good effects particularly in the dysenteric cases. Among the children, only 11 were subjects for vaccination, 10 successfully and the other unsuccessful although the virus was taken from the arm of a healthy subject. –
Signed, John Tarn
It was during both the period when the ship was preparing to sail and also during the voyage that Mary Ann Adams was placed on a sick list on two occasions; the first being on the 14 July 1834 when her condition was recorded as “Convict; disease or hurt, amenorrhoea. Discharged, 25 July 1834. Had suffered suppression of the menses for several months and had dyspeptic symptoms, debility and languor.” As things turned out, many women were treated for illnesses whilst the George Hibbert was in port, and no less than 60 were treated for illnesses during the voyage; again, Mary Ann Adams was amongst these.
The George Hibbert was the first convict ship to have a Matron on board and credit here must be given to Norfolk’s Elizabeth Fry. Amongst many other things associated with Mrs Fry, she was the one who actively campaigned for the rights and welfare of prisoners who were being transported. She visited prison ships and persuaded captains to implement systems to ensure each woman and child would at least get a share of food and water on the long journeys. She also was to arrange for each woman to be given scraps of material and sewing tools so that they could use the long journey to make quilts and have something to sell when they reached their destination. Being religious, she gave bibles and useful items, such as string, knives and forks. During her time when she pushed for reforms, Elizabeth Fry visited over 106 transport ships and saw some 12,000 convicts. Her work helped to start a movement for the abolition of transportation which was to come about in 1837; however, Elizabeth Fry was still visiting transportation ships up to 1843. Throughout, she saw the need to communicate with Lord Melbourne on matters connected with the Ladies’ British Society; these chiefly covered that of transportation, female convicts on board ship and their treatment when they arrive in the colony. It also covered the need for matrons for convict ships……
The first Matron who undertook the office, sanctioned by both the Government and the Ladies’ British Society, was Mrs. Saunders, the wife of a missionary named John Saunders. Both were on board the George Hibbert; their passages paid for by the Government on condition that Mr Saunders administered his religious responsibilities amongst the ship’s convicts and passengers. In this he was almost alone since his wife was to suffer so much sickness which impeded her support for her husband during the voyage. Nevertheless, the authorities seemed well pleased with their efforts. Of the position of Mrs Saunders as Matron, Elizabeth Fry said “This is the only one we have sent out as a Matron. The British Society aided in the Expense and so did the Government; they allowed them the food of the ship”.
Another consequence of Elizabeth Fry’s and The British Society’s deliberations was the creation of a ‘Convict Ship Committee’, which was to visit the George Hibbert on no less than four occasions, prior to its sailing, to investigate conditions. Its conclusion was that:
”The ship was found to be much crowded, and serious inconveniences were felt, and were to be apprehended, during the voyage, from this circumstance. It is however to be noticed, with thankfulness, that both the captain and surgeon superintendent appeared to be peculiarly well qualified for the offices to which they were appointed.”
The Reverend John Saunders was to compile his own notes about both the voyage to New South Wales and his religious efforts during that voyage – understandably since that was a condition of a free passage for both him and his wife and he, no doubt, felt obliged to present a positive picture of his efforts. His Notes were dated 10 December 1834 :
“Divine Providence opened the way for service that evening; and I went down into the prisons, and had a pleasant season to my soul; and so of the succeeding days, till Sunday, when I envied the tranquillity of the Isle of Thanet: however, we had services between decks, and I trust they were not without their influence upon my own and the prisoners’ souls.
On Sunday or Monday night we had a smart breeze, and I felt myself a coward. It was then I discovered how the busy time of the last few months had eaten away faith and fortitude; it led me to prayer— which I trust was progressively answered during the voyage……We skirted the Bay of Biscay very pleasantly; and when we had got within the latitude of Africa, I felt myself away from Europe and my old world;—yet neither the expanse of ocean, nor the fact of absence, at all proved desolate. I was happy in my duties, and had a sufficiency of business in attending to a sick wife……
“Disappointed in not being able to touch at Madeira, we made for the Canaries, a beautiful group of islands. They are of volcanic origin; and seemed to be so many sweet spots to remind man of the presence of God in the midst of the deep; and as if placed there to refresh his eye, wearied with the unvarying sight of the blue wave. Here we were favoured with a glimpse of the highest cone of Tenerife: the next day we anchored off Palma, so named, I believe, from its palms……..
Soon after leaving Faeroe, we got into the North East Trade winds, and nothing could be more beautiful than our sailing a good regular breeze, with clear weather. We maintained regular services both daily and weekly—the Sabbath services being conducted on the poop. Soon afterwards, we were on the verge of the Line: and here we lost a man named Davis, overboard: he had committed a flagrant breach of propriety, and seemed determined to drown his soul in perdition; accordingly, he got tipsy, vented most horrid blasphemies, and, unseen by others, fell overboard: when missed, most diligent search was made, but the boat returned without any trace of him…….
Our passage between the Trades was most merciful: instead of being scorched by the heat and lying rolling under calms, we had a pleasant wind, although contrary, which kept us cool, and was the messenger of health to our relaxed frames. After we entered the South East Trade winds, we ran on with great celerity; and sometimes, as I preached on the poop, I was obliged to hold on, while the water ever and anon rushed over the lee-gunwale, and the spray came splashing over the weather-bow………
When off Tristan D’Cunha we had a gale which much alarmed me. I was not well: we had again commenced services between decks, which amounted in the whole to six……… but shuddered at the prospective calamities which might arise to the passengers and crew……… before Monday night we had moderate weather; and Tuesday the 7th, my birthday, was most splendid, the air serene, cool, and clear. This was a happy commencement of my new year. I thought Heaven smiled upon me………We now ran pleasantly on, with very variable weather, until 24th November, when we had the happiness of seeing land, after having lost it for ninety-nine days. I felt it now my duty to redouble my exertions; and in addition to the services I have previously mentioned, I gave a lecture every evening, on some point of morality, such as Truth, Charity etc. Our hearts were all exultation: we were, however, kept both humble and patient; so that when we had baffling or fight winds, we took it gratefully, as part of all things.
Sunday 30th November, the last Sabbath at sea…….and I trust the service had a beneficial effect. Monday, we arrived (at Port Jackson), to deplore the sin and vileness everywhere manifest around. I preached on board, to the women who were not yet landed”.
The George Hibbert arrived in Port Jackson on 1 December 1834 with the 144 female prisoners being mustered on board on 5th December for the purpose of compiling indents which would include the name, age, religion, education, marital status, family, native place, trade, offence, when and where tried, sentence, prior convictions and physical description. No information was included in the indents as to where the women were to be assigned. According to the Rev. Saunders, the women disembarked on 15th December 1834. Those with children were probably taken by water directly to the Female Factory at Parramatta. Some may have been assigned to family members. Those with relatives already in the colony or about to arrive included Sarah Sharrod from Norfolk whose brother, Edward Sharwood, had arrived 18 months previously.
On the 16th December 1834, Captain G.N. Livesay of the George Hibbert wrote to the owners of the George Hibbert in London.
“I have been very highly favoured in having an excellent Surgeon, and likewise a most excellent and worthy Man who has come over as a Baptist Missionary, Mr. John Saunders; he has proved a very great Acquisition; his kind attentions to the unfortunate Criminals has been unceasing, and many of them I hope will retain the grateful Remembrance of his Kindness to them; some of them who when they came into the ship could neither read nor write have left her well capable of doing both. His wife, a most amiable young woman was also very attentive and kind to them. The whole of them will have to acknowledge to the End of their Days that the George Hibbert has been a comfortable home to them; there were some few very bad spirits among them, but I am happy to say they made a small part of the whole……”
It was John Saunders who wrote to the Colonist in January 1835:
“His Majesty’s Government was pleased to grant myself and wife a free passage in order that I might exercise the ministration of the gospel on board: but such free passage consisted in an allowance to enter on the vessel – the necessary pecuniary arrangements having to be made with the captain. In common with yourself, I deplore the unfortunate circumstances attendant upon the female emigration vessels, and perceived the salutary influence which the regular performance of Divine worship had upon the prisoners on board the George Hibbert. I cannot but hope that government in future will grant free passages (in the full sense of the phrase) to sincere men of every denomination. It is a wise economy in any nation to expend her wealth on the religious advancement of her children. And here, I desire to acknowledge the zealous and efficient co-operation of the surgeon, superintendent and commander, gentlemen to whom not only I, but the members of the Ladies Prison Association in Britain and all friends to the diminution of crime, the reformation of the profane and the amelioration of human misery stand deeply indebted.”
Those who found themselves residing in the Hunter Valley region thereafter were Mary Ann Adams, and Sarah Sharrod……. As early as January 1835 some of the prisoners from the George Hibbert were already in trouble. The Sydney Herald reported:
” The female prisoners who lately arrived on the George Hibbert, seem fully equal to the task of rivalling in bad conduct those renowned damsels who arrived in the Colony a few years ago by the ‘Roslin Castle’ and ‘Lucy Davidson’, and who were so noted at the time for their bad behaviour. Scarce a day passes without a batch from George Hibbert being placed at the bar of the Sydney Police.”
As for our two Norfolk women, it is worth noting their early records for a taste of what they went through:
Mary Ann Adams: A dairymaid from Norfolk age 24. Tried 22 March 1834 and sentenced to transportation for life for man robbery. She was 5ft 1in pale freckled complexion, brown hair, grey eyes. Scar over left eyebrow.
1837, Parramatta Application from Thomas Richardson per Florentia, ticket of leave holder, to marry Mary Ann Adams per George Hibbert
1 June 1842: Richardson (Adams) Mary Ann. Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Maitland. No offence. Returned to government service. Thomas Richardson admitted to the gaol on the same day on suspicion of theft.
7 February 1843: Richardson (Adams), Mary, late of George Hibbert 1834, Admitted to Newcastle gaol. Sentenced to 1 month hard labour for disorderly conduct
25 January 1845: Richardson (Adams) Mary Ann, Wollombi. Obtained Ticket of Leave.
Sarah Sharrod: Maid of All work (Servant). Aged 26 from Norfolk
15 July 1835: Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Patrick Plains. Returned to government service. Re-assigned to Rev. Wilton at Newcastle 12 August.
29 December 1835: Newcastle. Assigned to Rev. Wilton. Accused Harrison, Earl, Johnson, Armstrong and Andrews of robbing her while in Church
October 1836. Newcastle. Register Book of Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle. p. 66. Marriage of Sarah Sharrod aged 31 and Dennis Whythe (White) aged 38. Witnesses Anne and Benjamin Cox of Maitland.
1837.Newcastle. Sharrod) (Whythe) Sarah Age 28. Assigned to the gaol at Newcastle.
27 June 1840 Newcastle Gaol Entrance Book. Sharrod) (Whythe) Sarah Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Maitland. Sentenced to 3rd class female factory. Returned to her husband 24 August 1840.
25 March 1846. Newcastle Gaol Entrance Books. Sharrod (White) Sarah, Laundress from Norfolk. Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Maitland. Sent to Hyde Park Barracks.
27 May 1846. Sharrod (White) Sarah. Ticket of leave cancelled for being a prostitute.
6 November 1850. Sharrod (White) Sarah. Granted conditional pardon.
Thereafter, we lose touch with both the former Mary Ann Adams and Sarah Sharrods, both of whom married and maybe thereafter settled down, having experienced a ‘colourful existence’ during their early years in the colony. One, nowadays, would like to think that both had been victims of the circumstances of the time. A clue to Mary’s true nature may well still lay hidden behind the words she inscribed on that coin which resides in Norwich Castle Museum:
“When you see this, remember me when I am far away”
 Sydney Herald 4 December 1834
 Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Fry: By Thomas Timpson.
 The Pilot, or Sailors’ magazine – Notes of the Labours of Rev. John Saunders on his Voyage to New South Wales
 The Colonist 15 January 1835
 Sydney Gazette 15 January 1835
 Perth Gazette 21 March 1835
 Sydney Herald 29 February 1836
 Journal of John Tarn. Ancestry.com. UK, Royal Navy Medical Journals, 1817-1857 Original data: The National Archives. Kew, Richmond, Surrey.
 Bateson, Charles & Library of Australian History (1983). The Convict Ships, 1787-1868 (Australian ed). Library of Australian History, Sydney : pp.352-53.
 Convict Indents. Ancestry.com. State Archives NSW; Series: NRS 12188; Item: [4/4019]; Microfiche: 693.