‘Abandoned women, the Scottish convicts were called by an eminent twentieth century Australian historian—worse than the English, even worse than the Irish.’
In this book, Lucy Frost follows the lives of women convicted of crime in Scotland who were subsequently transported to Van Diemen’s Land on the Atwick in 1838. Of the 151 women transported on this ship, 78 were Scottish. Where did those women come from? What were their crimes? What do we know about them after they reached Van Diemen’s Land?
‘Proud though the Scots were of retaining their own independent legal system after the Acts of Union joined the kingdoms of Scotland and England, the sentences to transportation pronounced by their supreme criminal court, the High Court of Justiciary, were implemented by the English.’
In the 1830s, when this account starts, Scotland was industrializing. Many people from rural areas moved to Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow in search of work. But work was difficult to find, especially for the unskilled. Life in cities is particularly difficult for the poor. Many of the women who appear within the pages of this book were transported for stealing. Single or married, with or without children, the women sought food and shelter by whatever means available to them.
But once they reached Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), the women’s lives varied considerably. While some of the women disappeared completely from public records, the lives of others are well documented. Some of the women died soon after their arrival in Van Diemen’s Land. Some of the women served their time and then became part of the free community. Others resisted authority, or refused to conform to colonial ideas of femininity, and spent years moving between assignment and being sent back to the Female Factory as punishment. Some of the women turned to alcohol, which caused other problems for them.
‘But for many of the Scottish convicts, the fracture caused by transportation offered an opportunity to break with a thieving way of life pointed invariably towards incarceration.’
Elizabeth Williamson was one of the women who made the most of her opportunities. Within three years of arriving in Van Diemen’s Land, she was granted her ticket of leave. This enabled her to work for wages. She married twice, and twenty-three years after arriving in Van Diemen’s Land as a convict, she left the colony and sailed back to London. A wealthy widow. By contrast, Ann Martin from Edinburgh was brought before the authorities ten times within fifteen months of her arrival. Ann Martin’s record would eventually include twenty-two charges.
For me, one of the saddest aspects of this account concerns the children of these women. Some were left behind in Scotland and were unlikely to ever see their mothers again. Other children travelled to Van Diemen’s Land with their mothers. Some of the children were abandoned by their mothers in the colony’s orphan schools.
I found the accounts of these women very interesting, especially the accounts of those such as Margaret Alexander (Boothman) who had made the transition from convict in 1838 to be a respected member of the community when she died in 1912, aged 93. If you are interested in Tasmania’s 19th century colonial history during the transportation era, then I recommend this book.