The Floating Brothel:
The Extraodinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and Its Cargo fo Female Convicts

By Siân Rees
Published by Hyperion 
March 2002; 0-786-86787-6; 288 pages

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The Floating Brothel by Sian R. ReesForeword

Sydney, Australia: the gleam of the Opera House, the line of the Harbour Bridge, the glitter of sun on sea on glass, the blue of the water, the brown of surfers' skin. It is a city built in one of the world's most beautiful locations - sophisticated, wealthy, and confident. But just over two hundred years ago, Sydney was a collection of dirty huts around a ragged waterline where people were dying from hunger and disease. They had been sent from Britain, 13,000 miles away, to establish the first European settlement on the continent which would become known as Australia.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many European states used transportation to overseas colonies as a means of ridding the home country of ciminals and, at the same time, consolidating their hold on foreign land, cultivating it, defending it and settling it. For decades, the British off-loaded undesirables in America but when the American colonies defeated British soldiers and tax collectors, they also stopped accepting british criminals. By 1783, therefore, Britain had to find somewhere else in the world to transport its criminals. After a few unsuccessful attempts in Africa, the British government decided on New South Wales, Australia, and an advance party of just over a thousand people was sent out in 1787. Eight months after leaving Britain, they landed in a small bay on the other side of the world and named it Sydney Cover. The vast majority of the men and women on this First Fleet were British convicts, sentenced to transportation for seven years, fourteen years and, in some cases, the term of their natural lives.

Two years later, the colonists were in a dire situation. They had been expecting relief from Britain - ships bringing more people, more food, more tools, and more materials - but none arrived. Crops would not grow. Disease swept the camp. The colonial experiment named Sydney Cove seemed destined to fail and its people to die, forgotten. Then, in June 1790, a Second Fleet of four ships from England arrived and saved the colony. One of them was the Lady Julian, which brought a cargo of fertile female convicts to populate Sydney Cove.

The convicts aboard the Lady Julian were ordinary women who, by a caprice of fate, found themselves in extraordinary circumstances: rounded up on the streets of Britain, shipped across the world and landed at a dirt camp in an alien continent. They had been sent into exile to a New World which some regarded as a terrifying unknown but others saw as an escape from a wretchedness inescapable in their own country. Some of the women who arrived as frightened teenage criminals would become the founding mothers of Australia, settling in respectability and prosperity. Others would be lost along the way, recreating in the New World the misery they had left in the Old.

This is the story of their journey from the Old World to the New: the quirks of fate in Britain which decided their exile, their long voyage across the world aboard the Lady Julian and their reception in the struggling settlement on the other side.


Chapter 1: Disorderly Girls

Winter 1788, London. At the bottom of the Mall, outside the royal stables, a 26-year-old Scots prostitute staked out her space and began the night's work.

Matilda Johnson already knew William McPherson by sight as a fellow Scot. As he passed through the mews on his way from Westminster to Oxford Street, he said she stopped him, "pressed me close against the wall and asked me what I would give her." Wise to the ways of prostitutes, McPherson felt for his watch to move it into his waistcoat pocket but it was already up her sleeve. He remonstrated; Matilda flirted and would not give it back. First, she wanted a gin in Orange Street. Next, she wanted a plate of salmon around the corner. He refused, refused again, told her nicely he was not interested that night and wanted his watch. Matilda was confident or drunk enough to assume he would bargain it back and disappeared into a pawnshop in St. Martin's Lane where she announced her countryman would pawn his watch to buy her a petticoat. McPherson was now late and exasperated and asked Pawnbroker Crouch to search her. Realizing he meant it, Matilda finally produced the watch from beneath her petticoats.

It was the pawnbroker who insisted on calling in the constable, hoping for part of the reward. McPherson said afterward that Matilda, now crying, "begged me to take the watch, and I wished to have taken it." By now defender rather than prosecutor, he even accompanied Matilda and the constable to the watchhouse and there "begged the clerk and the constable to discharge her." They refused. Still pleading with McPherson to rescue her, Matilda was shackled, hoisted onto a cart and within hours was in Newgate Gaol as "prisoner for law," awaiting trial at the Old Bailey.

A few days later, Charlotte Marsh and her mother Ann Clapton were out shoplifting among the linendrapers of Holborn. They entered Edward Bowerbank's drapery on Newgate Street as the afternoon light was fading and went through to the back shop. They asked the assistant to show them some aprons and launched into the four-step sequence of eighteenth-century shoplifting. Step one was to "rumble the muslins" on the counter. Step two was to divert the shopman by sending him off for scissors or change. Step three was to stuff a piece of cloth up your skirt and step four, to leave the premises unhurriedly and without ungainly lumps. Every shoplifter did it and every linendraper was watching out for it. Skillfully packaged, up to 60 yards of material could disappear beneath a woman's petticoats...

Copyright 2002 Sian Rees
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)


A seafaring story with a twist -- the incredible voyage of a shipload of "disorderly girls" and the men who transported them, fell for them, and sold them.

This riveting work of rediscovered history tells for the first time the plight of the female convicts aboard the Lady Julian, which set sail from England in 1789 and arrived in Australia’s Botany Bay a year later. The women, most of them petty criminals, were destined for New South Wales to provide its hordes of lonely men with sexual favors as well as progeny. But the story of their voyage is even more incredible, and here it is expertly told by a historian with roots in the boatbuilding business and a true love of the sea.

Siân Rees delved into court documents and firsthand accounts to extract the stories of these women’s experiences on board a ship that both held them prisoner and offered them refuge from their oppressive existence in London. At the heart of the story is the passionate relationship between Sarah Whitelam, a convict, and the ship’s steward, John Nicol, whose personal journals provided much of the material for this book. Along the way, Rees brings the vibrant, bawdy world of London -- and the sights, smells, and sounds of an eighteenth-century ship -- vividly to life. In the tradition of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, this is a winning combination of dramatic high seas adventure and untold history.

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Siân Rees was born and brought up in Cornwall, England, in a family of boatbuilders and designers. She holds a degree from Oxford University and first became interested in the Lady Julian and the transportation of female convicts to Australia while she was living in Sydney.

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