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 were consigned to the “whore’s ghetto” on desolate Norfolk Island.
Historical writing of the first rank, graphic and of real presence.