Ter­ror and triumph in con­vict lives

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ba­bette Smith

LUCY Frost’s Aban­doned Women is the story of 78 fe­male con­victs trans­ported from Scot­land to Van Diemen’s Land on the ship Atwick in 1838. Frost is too good a scholar to con­fuse fact and fic­tion but the com­bi­na­tion of ex­cel­lent source ma­te­rial and the in­sight she brings to it re­veals the women in all their flawed hu­man­ity. This book is as deeply mov­ing as a novel.

Con­tem­po­raries called the Scot­tish con­victs ‘‘ the worst of the worse . . . worse than the English, even worse than the Ir­ish’’. The Atwick women were colour­ful. They in­cluded Mary Sher­riff, one of the no­to­ri­ous ‘‘ flash mob’’ who tyran­nised the Fe­male Fac­tory in Ho­bart; Eliza David­son, cas­ti­gated by the au­thor­i­ties as ‘‘ a wil­ful fire-raiser’’; and Agnes Camp­bell Robert­son, who raised cash by strip­ping chil­dren of their clothes.

Mary Bent­ley who, Frost spec­u­lates, would not have been trans­ported had she avoided a thug named Fitty Wil­son, left Australia a proud legacy in the courage of her grand­son, Wal­ter Peeler, who won the Vic­to­ria Cross dur­ing World War I.

The Scot­tish archives are a trea­sure trove of in­for­ma­tion, pro­vid­ing de­tails about a woman’s past, her re­la­tion­ships with fam­ily, with men, with chil­dren and the cir­cum­stances in which she com­mit­ted the crime for which she was trans­ported.

The story of 18-year-old El­iz­a­beth Wad­dell is a good ex­am­ple. Frost tracks her in Scot­land through one be­trayal of trust af­ter an­other. She stole first from her hard­work­ing cousin. Worse still, she stole the fam­ily’s most prized pos­ses­sion: a sil­ver watch, which she cashed by sweet-talk­ing a man to sell it.

Af­ter 30 days in jail for an­other theft, she per­suaded a glazier and his wife to of­fer her a job and a place to live. That af­ter­noon, she stole their blan­kets, ‘‘ one pair hav­ing red borders and the other blue’’, and ex­changed them for cash. The pat­tern con­tin­ues through other thefts. ‘‘ Why did she do this?’’ Frost asks. ‘‘ She had em­ploy­ment and a place to live, but in­stead of work­ing, she stole.’’ El­iz­a­beth told a mag­is­trate she lived with her mother but this was a lie. ‘‘ El­iz­a­beth was gen­uinely des­ti­tute,’’ writes Frost. ‘‘[ She] seems to have been very much on her own, not in­te­grated into a fam­ily. Even her sur­name was im­pro­vised.’’

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