The founding fathers and mothers of Oz

Daily Mail:


On Thursday, more than 200 years later, those who made those dreadful voyages - 163,000 in all over the years to come - are feted. Twenty-first century Australians celebrate their convict past, taking their lead from premier John Howard, a descendant of transported folk on both sides of his family.

The shipping and court registers of the banished have long lain in the National Archive in London. Now, in the knowledge that two million of us in Britain probably have blood links with Australia's criminal forebears, they have been put online for the hundreds of thousands of amateur genealogists in this country, eager to find out more about their roots.

The history they hide may not be pleasant. Elizabeth, incredibly, was not the oldest on that first ark of despair. Dorothy Handland, a dealer in rags and old clothes, was 82. How she was expected to contribute to empire-building in a virgin land whose hardships could only be guessed at is a mystery as great as the place she was being sent to.

But nonetheless she was among the waggon-loads of prisoners dragged down to the docks in Portsmouth from the sunless ship hulks at Woolwich where they had been held because the prisons were all full. They were dressed in rags, their faces pale from imprisonment, louse-ridden and thin as rakes from the slops they had been forced to live on.

Alongside the grannies were 120 other women, mostly young, like 22-year-old Elizabeth Powley. Penniless at home in Norfolk she had raided someone's kitchen for a few shillings' worth of bacon, flour and raisins and "24 ounces weight of butter valued 12d".

The death sentence on this starving girl was commuted and, as Robert Hughes, historian of the transportations, notes wryly in his book, The Fatal Shore, "she was sent to Australia, never to eat butter again".

At least the youngest of the "passengers", John Hudson, would never be pushed up another chimney. The nine-year-old sweep was condemned to seven years' exile for theft.

All on board were small-time criminals whose punishment, by the standards of later generations, in no degree fitted the crime. James Grace, 11, had taken some ribbon and a pair of silk stockings. John Wisehammer, 15, snatched some snuff from a shop counter in Gloucester.


There is much more in this fascinating story. Be advised there was much promiscuous sex on the way to Australia. You would have to say that the Aussies have come a long way in the last 200 years. Perhaps the trip was good for them.


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