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
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, maddermarket.co.uk
Above: Peter Bellamy at Norwich Castle
Top: The Transports