The Floating Brothel: The Extraordinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and Its Cargo of Female Convicts

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Overview

Now in paperback, the incredible true story of a shipload of "disorderly girls" and the men who transported them, fell for them, and sold them.

This riveting work of rediscovered history tells for the first time the plight of the female convicts aboard the Lady Julian, which set sail from England in 1789 and arrived in Australia's Sydney Cove a year later. The women, most of them petty criminals, were destined for New South Wales to provide its hordes of lonely men with both sexual favors and progeny. But the story of their voyage is even more incredible, and here it is expertly told by a historian with roots in the boat-building business and a true love of the sea.

Siân Rees delved into court documents and firsthand accounts to extract the stories of these women's experiences on board a ship that both held them prisoner and offered them refuge from their oppressive existence in London. At the heart of the story is the passionate relationship between Sarah Whitelam, a convict, and the ship's steward, John Nicol, whose personal journals provided much of the material for this book. Along the way, Rees brings the vibrant, bawdy world of London--and the sights, smells, and sounds of an eighteenth-century ship--vividly to life. In the tradition of Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, this is a winning combination of dramatic high seas adventure and untold history.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
History comes alive in this narrative about women convicted of petty crimes in 18th-century England, then transported to New South Wales, Australia, as companions to the lonely men serving time in the "land beyond the seas." This recovered history, based on the recently discovered journals of one of the officers aboard the transport ship Lady Julian, gives us a remarkable portrait of British colonialism from a most relevant perspective -- that of the women who made the harrowing, yearlong journey: their petty crimes, their hopes, their dreams, and the lives they went on to make for themselves in this other New World.

The book has a highly cinematic quality to it: Sian Rees, no stranger to the world of ships, draws on her expertise and has filled the book with sights, smells, sounds, and images that convey what the voyage out was actually like. The Floating Brothel is a history, and a wonderful series of recaptured stories -- of love, adventure, danger, illness, death, and triumph -- that sheds light on the founding families of English Australia.

At the book's core is a love story: between ship's steward, John Nicol, and one of the convicts, Sarah Whitelaw. Along the way we are given vivid accounts of the 18th-century English penal system, the problems of a society in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, and detailed accounts of life aboard ship for this very special human cargo. Wonderfully written, interesting, and always lively, The Floating Brothel has all the ingredients for a great read and (hint, hint) a compelling film. (Elena Simon)

Elena Simon lives in New York City.

New York Times Book Review
[Rees'] robust, clear prose carries the story.
Contents
Brought back to life a vibrant, bawdy high seas adventure.
Philadelphia Inquirer
The great strength of the book is its sure grasp of English jails and English ships.
Guardian
Siân Rees wears her considerable learning lightly, and there is not a dull moment in what is . . . wonderfully earthy read.
Daily Mail
This wonderfully vivid book, beautifully written . . . will stay in my mind for many months.
Publishers Weekly
In July 1789, the Lady Julian set sail from England, bound for the penal colony at Sydney Bay, New South Wales, and bearing some 240 women sentenced, mostly for petty crimes, to "transportation to parts beyond the seas." The intention of this voyage was twofold: to relieve overcrowding in British jails and t0 provide sexual comfort and eventually children to the male prisoners, from whom nothing had been heard in more than a year. One year later, the ship arrived, its cargo augmented by a number of infants born along the route to the "wives" of her officers and crew. But when it finally dropped anchor, the Lady Julian proved something of a disappointment to the half-starved colonists, who had been hoping more for food than for recreation. The colony was eventually resupplied with food, and these women, salvaged from jails and saved from the gallows, survived and occasionally prospered. Rees descends from a Cornish shipbuilding family and, in her first book, marvelously evokes the sounds and sights of a ship under sail. She is just as good ashore, where her meticulous scholarship vividly re-creates the social conditions of late-18th-century England that produced both the criminal activities of her subjects and the terms of their punishment. Despite the title, relatively little space is given to sexual hi-jinks on the high seas. Instead, Rees uses every scrap of information she can muster to produce a lively, vibrant sense of these women as they must have lived their lives. 17 illus. (Mar.) Forecast: This outstanding debut sheds light on a fascinating, dark corner of history and will appeal to readers of women's studies; good reviews should also help it reach a wider audience. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In July 1789, the Lady Julian set sail from England, bound for the penal colony at Sydney Bay, New South Wales, and bearing some 240 women sentenced, mostly for petty crimes, to "transportation to parts beyond the seas." The intention of this voyage was twofold: to relieve overcrowding in British jails and t0 provide sexual comfort and eventually children to the male prisoners, from whom nothing had been heard in more than a year. One year later, the ship arrived, its cargo augmented by a number of infants born along the route to the "wives" of her officers and crew. But when it finally dropped anchor, the Lady Julian proved something of a disappointment to the half-starved colonists, who had been hoping more for food than for recreation. The colony was eventually resupplied with food, and these women, salvaged from jails and saved from the gallows, survived and occasionally prospered. Rees descends from a Cornish shipbuilding family and, in her first book, marvelously evokes the sounds and sights of a ship under sail. She is just as good ashore, where her meticulous scholarship vividly re-creates the social conditions of late-18th-century England that produced both the criminal activities of her subjects and the terms of their punishment. Despite the title, relatively little space is given to sexual hi-jinks on the high seas. Instead, Rees uses every scrap of information she can muster to produce a lively, vibrant sense of these women as they must have lived their lives. 17 illus. (Mar.) Forecast: This outstanding debut sheds light on a fascinating, dark corner of history and will appeal to readers of women's studies; good reviews should also help it reach a wider audience. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A Cornish Oxford graduate from a boat designer/builder family, Rees grants us a witty, learned, fun read. This work of nautical history recounts the 1789-90 voyage from England to Australia of a ship full of female convicts. The book covers the women's crimes, trials, and appalling jails back home, which for many put a more favorable cast on the prison ship and the near-starving colony receiving them in Sydney Cove. Using primary sources (including court, colonial, and ships records; the ship's cooper's memoirs; and other convict transport accounts), Rees weaves her spell. Following custom, officers and sailors took shipboard "wives," leading to enforced separations of lovers and of parents and infants. Given the alternatives, these unions were apparently not coerced. In exchange, the select gained comforts, privileges, and protection from convict gangs. The Lady Julian was the first Second Fleet vessel to reach the despairing, fledgling colony. Rees fills gaps with judicious speculation and corrects modern assumptions by providing historical context. Aimed at a wide audience, this history is highly recommended for public and academic libraries. Nigel Tappin, Huntsville, Ont. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Rees debuts with a cracking tale drawn from an unedifying episode in her native England's history: the "Transportation to Parts Beyond the Seas" of hundreds of British women, shipped on the Lady Julian in 1789 to penal life in Australia. The author expertly paints a portrait of London in the late 1780s, a grim time when thousands of soldiers returning from the war in the American colonies displaced women from employment. Having no place to go, many became "disorderly girls": prostitutes, shoplifters, pickpockets, thieves, muggers, and forgers. Of the many caught and sentenced, a good number were burned at the stake, the rest tossed into jail. But the jails became overcrowded, and authorities decided the solution was "transportation," the new fad of shipping convicts off to Australia. Rees follows the more than 200 women who were sent to Sydney Cove aboard the Lady Julian as closely as records allow, from the street to jail to the Old Bailey to ship to colony. Readers will be transported by the author's prose, a lively and atmospheric brew of great immediacy detailing the circumstances of poor women in London, conditions in jail, typical punishments for typical crimes, the intricate web of associations among prisoners, sponsors, and the criminal justice system. Thanks to the records kept by the captain of the Lady Julian, Rees is able to re-create conditions on board, which were far from pleasant, of course-the women were prostituted to sailors right and left-but nothing compared to those on other convict ships, which regularly landed in Australia with most of their human cargo near death. Once at Sydney Cove, Rees loses sight of all but a few women who either managed to marry well or wereconsigned to the "whore's ghetto" on desolate Norfolk Island. Historical writing of the first rank, graphic and of real presence.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786886746
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 3/12/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 669,517
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Siân Rees was born and brought up in Cornwall, England, in a family of boatbuilders and designers. After receiving her degree in history, she spent several years abroad, and it was while living in Melbourne, Australia, that she first became interested in the Lady Julian. This is her first book.
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Table of Contents

Foreword xv
1. Disorderly Girls 1
2. Fair British Nymphs 19
3. Gaol Fever 35
4. Galleons Reach 45
5. Life in the River 55
6. Capital Convicts Condemned 66
7. Leaving London 80
8. Becoming in Turns Outrageous 93
9. Santa Cruz de Tenerife 105
10. Crossing the Line 124
11. The Birth of John Nicol Junior 141
12. The Wreck of the Guardian 157
13. Cape Town to Sydney Cove 169
14. A Cargo So Unnecessary 184
15. Love Pilgrimages 202
Principal Characters 215
Select Bibliography 219
Index 225
Map: The Voyage of the Lady Julian, July 1789-June 1790 238
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First Chapter

Chapter 1: Disorderly Girls

Winter 1788, London. At the bottom of the Mall, outside the royal stables, a 26-year-old Scots prostitute staked out her space and began the night's work.

Matilda Johnson already knew William McPherson by sight as a fellow Scot. As he passed through the mews on his way from Westminster to Oxford Street, he said she stopped him, "pressed me close against the wall and asked me what I would give her." Wise to the ways of prostitutes, McPherson felt for his watch to move it into his waistcoat pocket but it was already up her sleeve. He remonstrated; Matilda flirted and would not give it back. First, she wanted a gin in Orange Street. Next, she wanted a plate of salmon around the corner. He refused, refused again, told her nicely he was not interested that night and wanted his watch. Matilda was confident or drunk enough to assume he would bargain it back and disappeared into a pawnshop in St. Martin's Lane where she announced her countryman would pawn his watch to buy her a petticoat. McPherson was now late and exasperated and asked Pawnbroker Crouch to search her. Realizing he meant it, Matilda finally produced the watch from beneath her petticoats.

It was the pawnbroker who insisted on calling in the constable, hoping for part of the reward. McPherson said afterward that Matilda, now crying, "begged me to take the watch, and I wished to have taken it." By now defender rather than prosecutor, he even accompanied Matilda and the constable to the watchhouse and there "begged the clerk and the constable to discharge her." They refused. Still pleading with McPherson to rescue her, Matilda was shackled, hoisted onto a cart and within hours was in Newgate Gaol as "prisoner for law," awaiting trial at the Old Bailey.

A few days later, Charlotte Marsh and her mother Ann Clapton were out shoplifting among the linendrapers of Holborn. They entered Edward Bowerbank's drapery on Newgate Street as the afternoon light was fading and went through to the back shop. They asked the assistant to show them some aprons and launched into the four-step sequence of eighteenth-century shoplifting. Step one was to "rumble the muslins" on the counter. Step two was to divert the shopman by sending him off for scissors or change. Step three was to stuff a piece of cloth up your skirt and step four, to leave the premises unhurriedly and without ungainly lumps. Every shoplifter did it and every linendraper was watching out for it. Skillfully packaged, up to 60 yards of material could disappear beneath a woman's petticoats.

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Foreword

Sydney, Australia: the gleam of the Opera House, the line of the Harbour Bridge, the glitter of sun on sea on glass, the blue of the water, the brown of surfers' skin. It is a city built in one of the world's most beautiful locations - sophisticated, wealthy, and confident. But just over two hundred years ago, Sydney was a collection of dirty huts around a ragged waterline where people were dying from hunger and disease. They had been sent from Britain, 13,000 miles away, to establish the first European settlement on the continent which would become known as Australia.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many European states used transportation to overseas colonies as a means of ridding the home country of ciminals and, at the same time, consolidating their hold on foreign land, cultivating it, defending it and settling it. For decades, the British off-loaded undesirables in America but when the American colonies defeated British soldiers and tax collectors, they also stopped accepting british criminals. By 1783, therefore, Britain had to find somewhere else in the world to transport its criminals. After a few unsuccessful attempts in Africa, the British government decided on New South Wales, Australia, and an advance party of just over a thousand people was sent out in 1787. Eight months after leaving Britain, they landed in a small bay on the other side of the world and named it Sydney Cover. The vast majority of the men and women on this First Fleet were British convicts, sentenced to transportation for seven years, fourteen years and, in some cases, the term of their natural lives. Two years later, the colonists were in a dire situation. They had been expecting relief from Britain - ships bringing more people, more food, more tools, and more materials - but none arrived. Crops would not grow. Disease swept the camp. The colonial experiment named Sydney Cove seemed destined to fail and its people to die, forgotten. Then, in June 1790, a Second Fleet of four ships from England arrived and saved the colony. One of them was the Lady Julian, which brought a cargo of fertile female convicts to populate Sydney Cove.

The convicts aboard the Lady Julian were ordinary women who, by a caprice of fate, found themselves in extraordinary circumstances: rounded up on the streets of Britain, shipped across the world and landed at a dirt camp in an alien continent. They had been sent into exile to a New World which some regarded as a terrifying unknown but others saw as an escape from a wretchedness inescapable in their own country. Some of the women who arrived as frightened teenage criminals would become the founding mothers of Australia, settling in respectability and prosperity. Others would be lost along the way, recreating in the New World the misery they had left in the Old.

This is the story of their journey from the Old World to the New: the quirks of fate in Britain which decided their exile, their long voyage across the world aboard the Lady Julian and their reception in the struggling settlement on the other side.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2004

    The story of 'disorderly girls' transported to 'parts beyond the seas'

    The story of the female convicts who were sentenced to 'transportation to parts beyond the seas' and shipped out on the Lady Julian to the penal colonies of Botany Bay and Sydney Cove (Australia) in 1789. 'Transportation to parts beyond the seas,' expected to be a life sentence, was considered more humane and preferable to the alternatives--being burned alive at the stake for women, or hanging for men. With panache, Rees details the crimes of juvenile delinquents and fallen women, the voyage to the unknown continent, and the new lives they found there. History can be entertaining!

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