The curious crimes of Lothian convicts transported to Australia

The Lady Juliana on which Currie's John Nicol was a steward, seen here in a gale in 1792. Picture: State Library of New South Wales
The Lady Juliana on which Currie's John Nicol was a steward, seen here in a gale in 1792. Picture: State Library of New South Wales
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Edinburgh and the Lothians provided its fair share of the 136,000 men and 25,000 women transported to Australia since 1787, women generally working as servants, men sent farming.

William Balleny, sentenced to life transportation at the High Court of Justiciary in 1825 for housebreaking, received 25 lashes in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) for “pretending to be Catholic to escape going to church”.

Various convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), Australia. Picture: contributed

Various convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), Australia. Picture: contributed

Dunbar cotton weaver/spinner Margaret Gordon also committed amusing offences, Phillip Tardif, writing in Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls, says she was punished after “being found in an indecent situation with a man named Holmes” and for “refusing to give up her pipe.”

A convict’s future was unpredictable. 18-year-old Dalkeith baker Abraham Hood, transported for stealing horses, was made a constable on arrival in the colony. Edinburgh-born Rachael Wright spent 20 years in Tasmania peacefully before marrying James Quinn and spending ten years up on 22 “drunk and disorderly” charges.

Two other Edinburgh women did things their way, Janet Anderson in 1822 was accused of “wetting the yarn spun by her with intent to defraud, by increasing its weight and thus make her work less,” Tardif wrote, while Mary King, 45, was charged in Tasmania for “enticing six females from the hospital.”

Leith-born Ellen Garratt, described in her record as “prostitute and nurse,” was transported in 1825, the ship surgeon writing: “I found her quite agreeable.” 21-year-old Edinburgh prostitute Margaret Bower was called by another in 1826 “a passionate girl.”

Port Arthur Pentitentiary, south-eastern Tasmania

Port Arthur Pentitentiary, south-eastern Tasmania

The most carried away was Currie-born John Nicol, a 34-year-old steward on the Lady Juliana during its mammoth ten-month voyage to Australia in July 1789, by falling for 19-year-old Lincoln convict Sarah Whitlam. “I had fixed my fancy upon her from the moment I knocked the rivet out of her irons,” he’d later write in his autobiography The Life and Adventures of John Nicol.

She had a baby before arriving in Sydney. “We dreaded the hour of separation,” he would write, “but we exchanged faith; she promised to remain true, and I promised to return when her time expired.” Then he sailed to China and spent the rest of his life looking for her, from 1801 working as a cooper in Edinburgh, settling at Cousland, Midlothian and dying at 70 after living in poverty in a room in Tolbooth parish. He never found out that Sarah Whitlam had married someone else the day after he’d left her in Sydney.

Robert Burdett Smith CMG, a prominent solicitor/politician (his £33,891 estate in 1895 worth £3.5 million today), forever lived down the fact that his father was convict Northumberland-born John Lloyd Smith, tried for horse-stealing in Edinburgh in 1830. Transported to Sydney, he set up as a carcass butcher, went bankrupt and got life for forgery.

There were always would-be reformers. Thomas Braidwood Wilson, born at Kirknewton, West Lothian in 1792, was surgeon-superintendent on convict ships where he insisted on cleanliness, daily lime juice and wine. Teaching convicts to read and write, he wouldn’t allow “the slightest slang, flash songs nor swearing.” Wilson was on the Governor Ready in 1829 when it was wrecked in Torres Strait and with crew members rowed 1,000 miles, arriving in Timor 14 days later. The New South Wales town of Braidwood is named after him.

Contemporary drawing of convicts in a chain gang in Australia

Contemporary drawing of convicts in a chain gang in Australia

Convicts didn’t always come off worse. Leith silversmith Alexander Dick was a free settler in Sydney in 1824. Setting up business, one commission was a silver collar for a publican’s dog for killing 20 rats in two minutes two seconds. The 25 lashes he ordered for his assigned convict Alexander Robertson backfired when Robertson accused him of receiving 12 silver dessertspoons stolen from the colonial secretary’s home. Dick was imprisoned on Norfolk Island for four years.

In Tasmania in the 1830s Leith-born William McColligan, 15, “was punished for having thread in his possession, unpicked from jackets and waistcoats for use as fishing lines, and for concealing missiles in his bedding,” Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Susan Hood wrote in Pack of Thieves?: 52 Port Arthur Lives.

He was in Point Puer boys’ prison, near the infamous Port Arthur Penitentiary where serious offenders were sent on Tasmania’s south-eastern peninsula, separated from its mainland by a narrow neck of land guarded by a line of vicious dogs.

Offences here were often odd or ridiculous. Caught in the Act by Phillip Hilton and Susan Hood cited John Glanville committing 55 offences over ten years including “having turnips improperly”, one reprimanded for “washing his shirt during Divine Service”, another for “baking light bread”!

Simon Jewey, 14, received 50 lashes for “indecently exposing his person, laughing in church and making a noise in school”.

Other crimes, variously, were “feloniously, wilfully and diabolically” interfering with a dog; having lollipops in his possession; setting fire to his bedding; drawing improper figures on his slate; threatening to split the overseer’s skull with his spade; gross filthiness within the barrack square; wilfully breaking his wooden leg; apprehending Godfrey Moore and biting his nose off; groaning at the Lieutenant-Governor” and one woman for “concealing a man under her bed.”

Best of all, was George “Billy” Hunt, transported for stealing a handkerchief. His crime in Tasmania was “absconding”; nothing unusual about that, except that Billy was “dressed as a kangaroo and was attempting to hop to freedom, only to be shot at by rationed soldiers, who had grown accustomed to hearty kangaroo stews.”