By Haydn Brown.
On the 10th February 1788 Henry Keable/Cable/Kable (the surname has varied over time) and Susannah Holmes married in Australia; theirs was the first wedding ceremony in the new colony. In 2018, their descendants in Austalia celebrated not only the 230th Anniversay of the First Fleet’s arrival, but also the couple’s Wedding, and Susannah Holmes birth around late February in the year of 1764 – now some 255 years ago. Here is their story:
Maybe, with enough imagination, one could visualise a low March sun quietly painting tones of chilled colour on Surlingham Church’s ancient round tower. Everything would be quiet, except maybe, the sound of rooks gossiping as they left their late winter’s roost nearby. That almost perfect silence would remain as long as the visitor stayed still, but any movement forward towards the grounds of the church to enquire further would bring a possible soft crunch of frosted grass, or a squelch waterlogged soil as footsteps left a silent trail of prints.
Just over 255 years ago, on the 6th March 1764, a baby girl was baptised in St Mary’s Church, Surlingham, a village that still sits near the River Yare and Norwich in Norfolk. Present must have been her parents, Joshua Holmes and Eunice, (nee’ Brooks) and probably siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, all tidily dressed and adourned as befitted such a special moment. To everyone outside the family that child may not have been particularly special; but, after she had grown into a woman, married and brought up her own children years later in a far off British Colony – she would be! This baby would leave her own footprints in history and from the other side of the world. Norfolk would forget her and she would remain so until her story, and that of her husband Henry Keable was written, passed on to future generations and eventually finding its way back to the County of her birth. The events surrounding this couple’s story could possibly be described as stranger than fiction.
Thirty-three miles due south of Surlingham, Norfolk lay Laxfield in the county of Suffolk the birthplace of a Henry Keable. The first record we have is that Henry was baptised at Laxfirld’s All Saints Church on the 26th August 1764. Present were his parents, Henry Keable Senior and Dinah, (nee’ Fuller), and just like at Susannah Holme’s baptism in March of the same year, Henry junior was also probably blessed by having siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins present. We can reasonably assumed that both the Holmes and Keable families were poor and that both children helped their respective families to scratch a living and live on the margins of the law until both children fell foul of it.
Whilst Susannah’s story started in Surlingham, her early life remained in the shadows of village events until the ancient pages of the Norfolk Chronicle and the Norwich Mercury newspapers recorded that in November 1783, Susannah Holmes had been committed to Norwich Castle Gaol, accused of stealing clothing, silver teaspoons and linen, to the value of £2.00, from the home of her employer Jabez Taylor of Thurlton, which was nine miles away. Then, 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’. For reasons unknown, this death sentence was commuted to fourteen years transportation, first to the plantations of America before being switched to that of the British colony of Australia. But first, Susannah Holmes was committed to Norwich Castle gaol to await deportation and would never see her Surlingham village and its round-towered church again.
In the claustrophobic squalor of Norwich Castle cells Susannah Holmes met Henry Keable, now a convict himself. also sentenced to death at Thetford Assizes and later reprieved. His story was darker still. The Norfolk Chronicle reported that Henry [now 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, all three awaited their fates – that was until young Henry was reprieved on the orders of the Home Secretary Lord North, probably because of his age, and sentenced instead 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 in pursuant to their crimes.”
Having been sentenced to death for separate robberies, Susannah and Henry were both fortunate to be reprieved but incarcerated in Norwich Castle for three years whilst the authorities decided what to do with them. Circumstances of the time were that 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. The couple had to wait until the authorities came to a decision; until then Susannah and Henry had to survive in prison conditions that were unsanitary, over-crowded and disease-ridden – stifling in summer, ice-cold in winter and in cells that often were 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 allowed to mix, providing the opportunity for Henry and Susannah to meet, fall in love and produce a baby son who was named Henry, after both his father and grandfather.
In 1786 Susannah gave birth in her Norwich Castle cell to Henry. 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 almost 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 on the other side of the world. 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 for both Susannah and Henry. There was no coming back, despite having deportation sentences that were far short of being for life……….On a different note, it is worth noting here that the spelling of Henry’s name changed more than once over the years. Parish records show that he was the son of Henry and Dinah Keable. Later, 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.
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 HMS 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.”
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.
Two weeks after arrival the the colony, Susannah and Henry (together with three other couples) were married by the Fleet’s chaplain – theirs were the first marriages in the new land. A happy affair no doubt; however, it must have been somewhat tarnished by the fact that the couple’s only possessions, ones which had been purchased from that earlier public appeal in England, had disappeared – presumed stolen from the ‘Alexander’. In an effort to secure justice, they sued the ship’s Captain, Duncan Sinclair.
Before mentioning what followed, it would be worth mentioning a little about Captain, Duncan Sinclair:
It would appear that this Captain had faced a series of problems throughout the First Fleet’s voyage to the new colony. On 12 May 1787, as the fleet got underway, ten sailors on board the Alexander mutinied because they had not been paid. On 18 July 1787, when illness was rife, Sinclair had to be ordered to pump out the bilgewater. Then, in the October he was faced with a more serious mutiny amongst the crew and the convicts; surgeon Bowes surmised that it was caused by Sinclair “not exerting a proper spirit over them”. After Susannah and Henry’s case against Sinclair had been concluded, and Sinclair had set off on a return voyage of the Alexander in September 1788, the crews of both his ship and those on board the Friendship went down with scurvy. They all became so weak that the Friendship had to be scuttled. In addition to this, Sinclair allowed the remaining crews a half-share in the Alexander’s cargo. Sinclair sighted the Isle of Wight on 28 May 1789 – without further mishap!
As for Susannah and Henry Kable, they not only won their case against Captain Sinclair, 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 about convicts:
“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 born Susannah and her Suffolk born husband, Henry who were considered ‘felons’ and once condemned to death, were well and truly alive – both in person and in young Australia’s law book. The Court that day, ordered the Captain to pay Susannah and Henry £15 in compensation. It was a wise decision of course for how else would 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 appears to be thriving and has been known to meet-up at the appropriately named Kable’s restaurant in Sydney; no doubt to remember their celebrated forebears who famously became known as the ‘First Fleeters’.
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, was celebrated in 2018. It took place on 10 February 2018 when a ‘Kable Family’ reunion was organised for the descendants of Henry and Susannah, to also celebrate the couple’s 230th Wedding Anniversary. The main venue for those 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. A few years previously to all this, Susannah was also voted one of that country’s most influential historic figures. Strange, and how very undeserving, that in the country and county of her birth, she is seldom remembered – except maybe 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 and a house robbery, Henry Kable and Susannah Kable may have eventually been laid to rest in Norfolk, beneath a Broadland sky – instead of in another country far away?
Footnote:On 30 January 1813 the “Norfolk Chronicle” reported:
“A small farmer, who a few years since resided in the neighbourhood of Norwich, has written from Botany Bay to his former landlord, stating that Cabel, who about 25 years since was sent from Norwich Castle, is now become a very great merchant and the owner of twenty-five ships.”
The newspaper then went on to present a resume’ of past circumstances surrounding the couple, and which confirms some of the essential substances of this story:
“In the year 1786 Cabel and a female prisoner were in Norwich Castle under sentence of transportation. During the two years that elapsed between the trial and the departure of the first batch of convicts, the woman gave birth to a child. Cabel, the father, was passionately fond of the infant, and appealed to the authorities to allow him to marry the mother. This was refused. The female and her infant were sent with the first contingent of convicts, and after a wearisome journey by coach in the depth of winter arrived at Plymouth in charge of Simpson, the turnkey of the prison. When Simpson handed over his prisoners to the captain of the transport that officer refused to take the child on board, alleging that he had no authority to do so. The mother was distracted by the separation. Simpson acted with great humanity. Taking with him the six weeks old child he proceeded to London by coach, and with much difficulty obtained an interview with the Secretary of State, to whom he related the story. The result was that not only was an order issued for the restoration of the child to its mother, but Cabel was permitted to sail by the same transport to the land of their exile.”
(Taken from the Norfolk Annals, A Chronological Record of Remarkable Events in the Nineteeth Century, Vol. 1 , Charles Mackie 1901)
Eastern Daily Press: Article by Dick Meadows dated 26 January 2013
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