Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Pip Wright back to the Parish Room last night to talk to us once again. As we had expected, he enthralled our audience with his account of the history of penal transportation and with stories of the criminals he has collected after many years research of old newspapers. We also knew we were in for something special when he used his guitar to support the narrative, by playing and singing old folk songs in a superb voice; I hope the following extracts do justice to what was, by common consent, an absolutely superb presentation.
- From early times, Britain apparently had some 200 separate capital offences, incredible though this seems to us today.
- Penal transportation was used where judges particularly didn't wish to execute felons, and also as a way to reduce the prison population.
- Convicts were first sent to America from the 1620's until their revolution in 1776; there was then a hiatus of 11 years until the “First Fleet” set sail for Australia in 1787, landing in what was to become Sydney, and thereafter to Van Diemen's land in Tasmania from 1803.
- It appears that many judges were of the two strikes and you're out variety, so that on a third offence, no matter how trivial, convicts were transported.
- Ten times as many men were transported as women, with some 2,500 from Suffolk alone, including Margaret Catchpole - see also below - and most never returned.
- At this point Pip recounted the story of one miscreant who had a wife and three children who first survived and then prospered under transportation, apparently marrying again and having another three children who he named as before!
- Initially both men and women were transported together, on voyages of from 3 to 9 months duration, with babies often then being born en-route.
- In an attempt to prevent this, women were subsequently separately shipped, but as Pip informed us, this had little effect because the crew were exclusively men!
- Families of transportees often suffered terribly, with wives and older daughters being sent for service and children packed off to the workhouse - brutal times indeed.
- Wikipedia records Margaret as a British adventuress, chronicler and criminal, born in Suffolk, who worked as a servant in various houses before conviction for stealing a horse; she later escaped from Ipswich Gaol and, following recapture, was transported to Australia. Her entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography describes her as one of the few true convict chroniclers with an excellent memory and a gift for recording events. (14 March 1762 - 13 May 1819)
Everyone had a most entertaining evening, learning much from a narrator who really knows his stuff and who can put it across in such an easy and absorbing manner; most appeared thankful that we live in the 21st Century in more enlightened times.
At our next talk, Charlie Haylock will royally entertain us with his rendition of “Suffolk Vernacular”, and we look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room on Wednesday 16th October for what is sure to be a fascinating evenings entertainment.