From Nor­folk to Oz

The as­ton­ish­ing story of crim­i­nals sen­tenced to hang, a baby torn from his mother’s arms, a bur­glar turned chief con­sta­ble and Aus­tralia’s first set­tler, all be­gan in Nor­folk. This month the tale re­turns full cir­cle with the re­vival of a folk opera writte

EDP Norfolk - - Inside - ROWAN MAN­TELL re­ports.

Mu­si­cal retelling of an ex­tra­or­di­nary story

IN JAN­UARY 1788, ex­actly 230 years ago, Henry Ca­bell waded ashore in Aus­tralia. As he stag­gered up the beach, car­ry­ing the ship’s cap­tain who had brought him from Eng­land, he be­came the first set­tler to set foot in Aus­tralia.

Back in Nor­wich, Henry had been sen­tenced to hang for bur­glary. Im­pris­oned in Nor­wich Cas­tle he met an­other pris­oner who had been sen­tenced to trans­porta­tion for theft. De­spite the des­per­ate cir­cum­stances the pair fell in love and, still im­pris­oned, had a son to­gether.

Su­san­nah Holmes would have been trans­ported to Amer­ica, but as the for­mer colony had de­clared in­de­pen­dence she was or­dered to be shipped out on the first con­vict trans­port to Aus­tralia.

But the cap­tain of the ship re­fused to take her baby. Su­san­nah was dragged, sob­bing, on to the ship and the Nor­wich gaoler who had ac­com­pa­nied her took the baby to Lon­don, to beg that mother and child should not be sep­a­rated. Com­pas­sion­ate and re­source­ful he ar­rived at the home of the Home Sec­re­tary him­self, who not only agreed the baby should travel with Su­san­nah, but also or­dered that Henry should be trans­ported with them.

News­pa­pers dubbed the gaoler ‘the hu­mane turnkey’ and a pub­lic col­lec­tion raised £20, then

dou­ble an av­er­age an­nual wage, for Henry, Su­san­nah and their baby.

Henry and Su­san­nah were sent on the eight­month voy­age to Aus­tralia on dif­fer­ent ships. Henry’s was the first to ar­rive and the man sen­tenced to death in Nor­wich car­ried the cap­tain ashore, be­com­ing the first set­tler to set foot in Aus­tralia.

Al­most a fort­night later Su­san­nah’s ship ar­rived and within days the cou­ple were wed, in Aus­tralia’s first Chris­tian mar­riage cer­e­mony. Soon there were more firsts. They sued be­cause the col­lec­tion funds went miss­ing en-route and were awarded com­pen­sa­tion in Aus­tralia’s first civil case heard un­der English law.

Henry went on to open a shop and ho­tel, run Aus­tralia’s first mail ser­vice, buy his own whal­ing ships, and, per­haps most re­mark­ably of all, be­came Aus­tralia’s first chief con­sta­ble.

The baby, born in prison in Nor­wich, and also called Henry, was the el­dest of the cou­ple’s 11 chil­dren. To­day there are many hun­dreds of de­scen­dents.


The fas­ci­nat­ing story of Henry and Su­san­nah Ca­bell in­spired Nor­folk mu­si­cian Peter Bel­lamy to write his folk opera The Trans­ports.

Peter grew up in Warham, near Wells, in the 1940s and 50s and went to school in Fak­en­ham. He stud­ied at Nor­wich School of Art be­fore join­ing a folk band. In his 1968 solo al­bum, Mainly Nor­folk, he sang tra­di­tional songs from the county.

Early in the 1970s he came across the story of Henry and Su­san­nah and told their story in The Trans­ports.

It was first per­formed at Nor­wich Cas­tle 40 years ago and went on to be sung across the coun­try and abroad, in­clud­ing in Aus­tralia.

Song ti­tles in­clude the Bal­lad of Henry and Su­san­nah, Rob­ber’s Song, Nor­wich Gaol, Black and Bit­ter Night, Hu­mane Turnkey and Con­vict’s Wed­ding.

A renowned record­ing fea­tured many of the finest mu­si­cians from Bri­tain’s 1970s folk re­vival in­clud­ing, Martin Carthy, June Ta­bor and Dave Swar­brick and in re­cent years was named one of the top 100 record­ings of the 20th cen­tury.

Peter Bel­lamy went on to per­form at Syd­ney Opera House and tour the USA, but took his own life in 1991, aged just 47.

Now a new pro­duc­tion of his mas­ter­piece is re­turn­ing to Nor­wich, with some of to­day’s finest folk mu­si­cians, in­clud­ing the Young’ns, who have twice been best group in the BBC Ra­dio 2 Folk Awards and Nancy Kerry, a for­mer folk singer of the year. The new pro­duc­tion fea­tures mu­si­cal ar­range­ments by Paul Sartin of Bel­low­head and Faus­tus and is nar­rated by Matthew Cramp­ton who has re­searched his­toric and mod­ern forced mi­gra­tions and said: “There’s sel­dom been a more vi­tal mo­ment to re­visit The Trans­ports – it’s not just a great mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ence but a sharp re­minder of folk mu­sic’s power in por­tray­ing the way the world works.” The show is tour­ing Eng­land along­side a project called Par­al­lel Lives, work­ing with or­gan­i­sa­tions sup­port­ing refugees.

The Trans­ports is at the Mad­der­mar­ket The­atre, Nor­wich, on Wed­nes­day, Jan­uary 24. Box of­fice 01603 620917, mad­der­mar­

Above: Peter Bel­lamy at Nor­wich Cas­tle

Top: The Trans­ports

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