Terror and triumph in convict lives
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.’’