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The Floating Brothel: The Extraordinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and Its Cargo of Female Convicts (2001)

by Sian Rees

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6041939,431 (3.7)35
"In July 1789, 237 women convicts left England for Sydney Cove in Australia's New South Wales on board a ship called the Lady Julian. The women, most of them petty criminals, were destined to provide the colony's hordes of lonely men with sexual favors as well as progeny. This is the enthralling story of that extraordinary group of women and their voyage halfway around the world."."Historian Sian Rees delved into court documents, letters and journals to extract firsthand accounts of the women's experiences on board a ship that both held them prisoner and offered them refuge from their oppressive existence in London. Forced by the economy of the times to beg, steal and sell themselves, the women of the Lady Julian defined resourcefulness, and set up profitable businesses in their various ports of call. Many formed relationships with the ship's officers and sailors, and when the ship landed in New South Wales, they had newborn babies to show for it. At the heart of this riveting history 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 sights, smells and sounds of an eighteenth-century ship vividly to life. Rollicking and exhaustively researched, The Floating Brothel ends with a grand beginning - the landing of these "disorderly girls" on a rugged continent that they would make their own."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)
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AN intriguing subject- but , since most of the prtagonists were illiterate, there wasn't enough meat left to tell their story ( )
  cspiwak | Mar 6, 2024 |
One consequence of the American Revolution was that Britain could no longer transport its convicts to American plantations. As 130,000 returning soldiers and British loyalists pushed women out of the legal trades, women were forced to resort to petty thievery and prostitution to survive. British jail populations swelled, and as even stealing a pair of shoes or some laundry could earn you seven years Transportation to Parts Beyond the Seas, there was a scramble to find someplace else to ship all these "disorderly women". The solution was New South Wales.

In 1787 the first shipment of male convicts and their military minders arrived in Sidney Cove. After two years, they were in dire straits. Governor Phillip wrote desperately for more food, more skilled labor, and more women. The more eligible women would serve as wives to the officers and colonists, and the rest as comfort women to the soldiers. Britain's answer was to pack 220 female convicts aboard the Lady Julian and send them off to join the First Fleet. Some were as young as 12 and all but a few were of childbearing age. This book is a narrative history of who these women were, their crimes, and their trip across the world to join the men at Sidney Cove.

Although the author did a tremendous amount of research, there simply are not a lot of surviving records and very little at all from the women themselves. The first part of the book was the best documented, because of court records, and I found that part the most interesting. Once the women were aboard the Lady Julian, the author was forced to rely heavily on one of the sailor's accounts, written decades after the voyage. John Nichol had fallen in love and cohabitated with one of the women on the ship. She even bore his son. But he was unable to remain with her in Australia. Life on the ships was harrowing, and this is where the author had to cobble together Nichol's memoir and experiences with other women on other ships, to make reasonable suppositions. Despite the lack of records, I think Rees does a commendable job of bringing to life the women who would become the "founding mothers" of the colonists in Australia. ( )
  labfs39 | Dec 29, 2023 |
Rees's detailing of the events that brought female convicts that would help settle Australia is very well researched. Not only does Rees give a thorough examination of the travel of the Lady Julian convict transport ship on its voyage, there is also examination of the convicts themselves, the circumstances that led to their exile from England, the preparations of the voyage, the political and legal policies that created the penal colonies, and of course the state of the colonies themselves. While this large amount of information may seem overbearing, Rees's writing style organizes it into a fluid and overall entertaining story. While perhaps a better suited for a slower read, it should be recommended. ( )
  NKillham | May 18, 2023 |
One of the unforeseen consequences of the British defeat in the American Revolution, was a dramatic increase in the number of females awaiting trial or convicted in London's Newgate Gaol. True, there were other underlying reasons, like the recent concomitant rise in population and unemployment, but 1783 saw approximately 130,000 discharged soldiers return home.

These men needed work, so naturally females were displaced, and men employed in their stead. Then, in 1785, a tax was imposed on those households employing maidservants over the age of 15. Dismissed servants soon found themselves on the streets too. The Times reported in July 1786 ... upon a very modest calculation, not less than 10,000 have been added to the number of common prostitutes by Mr Pitt's tax on maidservants. By October, the newspaper was reporting an estimate to 50,000 prostitutes. Along with prostitution, shoplifting pickpocketing and theft were ways many women found themselves sent to jail. While many of the offences were capital in nature, growing public distaste for hanging petty criminals meant many crimes were downgraded, and the sentence was transportation. However, that same defeat by the Americans had also put an end to the transport of female convicts to that former colony. What to do with them all?

The British government decided one option was transportation to its new colony of New South Wales, Australia. The Lady Julian was dispatched in 1790 with differing records showing from 172 - 245 female convicts on board, ranging in age from 11 to 68. Siân Rees writes of these ... 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.

The crew and officers had the "right" to a female partner during such voyages. This sounds appalling now, but Rees argued that given the circumstances, some women actually competed for such roles. Women used to competing for everything saw them as offering a degree of protection and security. About thirty women found their voyage potentially easier this way; the rest found themselves lodged in the hold, where power struggles among them were inevitable.

Rees follows the women from their trials, to the voyage from London to Rio to Port Jackson, Australia, a voyage of 11 months. She documents the arrival in their new and frightening world. Throughout, she focusses mainly on five women for whom there is documentation. She also used the first hand account of the Scot John Nicol, the ship's steward and cooper. Nicol took one of the women under his protection, had a child with her, and claimed to have spent the rest of his life trying to find her again after the "distribution" of the women upon their arrival in Australia.

The Floating Brother is a fascinating glimpse into a particular world and time. There should be more books like this.
2 vote SassyLassy | Aug 2, 2022 |
Australia: the final frontier. This is the voyage of the female convict ship Lady Julian. Its two-year mission – to take a boatload of teenage prostitutes, shoplifters, and assorted other miscreants to Sydney Cove. And certainly most of them couldn’t claim no man had gone before.


That’s the basics behind The Floating Brothel, from the Ladies of Negotiable Virtue reading program. With the end of the American Revolutionary War, it was no longer possible to ship convicts to America, so they were sent to various other places instead. A convict colony was established in Gambia, but the climate proved so lethal that it was abandoned; a proposal to send white convicts to the free black colony in Sierra Leone was also abandoned, since people who were perfectly willing to hang a twelve-year-old pickpocket couldn’t stomach making her a slave to a black master instead. Russia was suggested but Catherine the Great proved uncooperative. Thus, Australia.


There was already a convict colony at Sydney Cove, but it was almost all male. The governor, Arthur Phillip, was fairly straight-laced about sodomy; he decreed that any convict literally caught with his pants down with another man would be handed over to the natives to be eaten. Thus, he petitioned for a supply of women. Initial proposals were to “recruit” women from New Caledonia or the perhaps appropriately named Friendly Islands (now Tonga) but these were rejected in favor of using female convicts from England.


There was an abundant supply of the same. Author Siân Rees blames America; the end of the Revolutionary War not only eliminated a convict destination (apparently Canada was considered unsuitable) but also released large numbers of soldiers and sailors who needed employment. Laws were passed requiring jobs for veterans – or at least men – in many occupations previously the domain of women – millinery store clerks, for example. The formerly employed women were turned loose to become loose women. It wasn’t illegal to be a prostitute in England (it still isn’t, in fact) but the girls tended to supplement their income by extracting various valuables from their clients or other thievery, English laws specified the death penalty for a variety of offenses, including “private theft of £1” (“private theft” meant picking pockets; you had to shoplift or burgle somewhat more to get capital punishment for that); thus making off with a client’s watch or purse while he was distracted could end with a ride on the three-legged horse at Tyburn. “Coining” was a hanging offence for men but a burning one for women, and Catherine Murphy became the last woman burned at the stake in England in 1788 after being caught making counterfeit shillings (Mrs. Murphy was tied to the stake by the neck, the prop beneath her feet was removed, and she was left hanging there for half an hour before the faggots were ignited, so she probably strangled slowly instead of being burned alive). Perhaps in response to this, and in celebration of the apparent recovery of George III from one of his bouts of madness, a general amnesty commuted the capital sentences of many to “Transportation Across The Seas”. Interestingly, a number of women unsuccessfully petitioned to have their death sentences reinstated rather than being shipped to Australia; I understand Down Under is a more popular tourist destination now.


The original intent was to have a whole convoy of vessels set out together but organization was lacking; eventually the Guardian set out loaded with supplies and cattle, followed shortly thereafter by the Lady Julian, loaded with girls. I use “girls” deliberately; very few of the convicts Rees can trace were out of their teens – and some weren’t even into them. Unfortunately Rees’ account of the voyage is highly speculative. The log of the Lady Julian has been lost, and only one of the passengers and crew left any sort of record – the ship’s steward and cooper John Nichol – and Nichol’s narrative was not a diary but his recollections from thirty-three years after the event, when he was an elderly man living off charity. Thus Rees has to presume that the convicts with farming experience – some were on board for sheep rustling – helped with the cattle, and the convicts who could sew repaired sailors clothing, and others did laundry. Reasonable but undocumented. What Nichol did document was a passionate shipboard romance (she bore him a son halfway through the voyage) with 17-year-old thief (she claimed she was innocent) Sarah Whitelam. Years later, Nichol was still carrying a torch for Whitelam; before the Lady Julian left Sydney to continue to Canton he signed an oath promising to return and marry her; he visited her family in England, and for the rest of his maritime career he attempted to somehow find passage to Australia and reunite with Sarah. Sarah seems to have felt differently; the day after Lady Julian and Nichol weighed anchor for Canton she married a convict; when her husband’s sentence expired (a convict’s wife automatically acquired the same sentence termination date he had – thus short timers were in high demand as spouses) the couple and their children made their way to Bombay and Rees lost track of them.


There were several other births during the voyage or shortly thereafter, although perhaps fewer than you might expect on a shipload of teenage girls and sailors. Rees comments on the contraceptive methods of the age, which involved a sponge soaked in rum or vinegar and tied to a string or a cervical cap molded from beeswax (sheep-gut condoms existed but were out of the price range for a sailor). The arrival in Sydney was less tumultuous than expected; the Sydney convicts may have been starved for female companionship but they were even more starved for food. English crops grew poorly in the New South Wales climate, and rations had already been reduced to four pounds of flour per man per week. Thus it was disappointing when the Lady Julian arrived laden with ladies instead of bread, cattle and salt meat. The Guardian (which was supposed to precede the Lady Julian with a load of foodstuffs and livestock) had had an unfortunate encounter with an iceberg and lost her rudder and nearly foundered before limping into Capetown with a jury rig (fans of Patrick O’Brian may recognize the adventures of the Guardian as the inspiration for the Aubrey-Maturin novel Desolation Island). Rees notes that later female convict ships arriving after the food situation had stabilized met with more enthusiastic receptions; convicts and guards swarmed aboard even before the anchors had been dropped to literally tackle their choice of ladies before someone else got to them.


A quick read. I found Rees’ writing a little pedestrian given the subject matter, but perhaps she was resisting the temptation to go sensational (I note from the Internet that someone has picked up a movie option on The Floating Brothel). Illustrated with period engravings and pictures; end matter includes a cast of characters and a bibliography. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 22, 2017 |
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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.
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"In July 1789, 237 women convicts left England for Sydney Cove in Australia's New South Wales on board a ship called the Lady Julian. The women, most of them petty criminals, were destined to provide the colony's hordes of lonely men with sexual favors as well as progeny. This is the enthralling story of that extraordinary group of women and their voyage halfway around the world."."Historian Sian Rees delved into court documents, letters and journals to extract firsthand accounts of the women's experiences on board a ship that both held them prisoner and offered them refuge from their oppressive existence in London. Forced by the economy of the times to beg, steal and sell themselves, the women of the Lady Julian defined resourcefulness, and set up profitable businesses in their various ports of call. Many formed relationships with the ship's officers and sailors, and when the ship landed in New South Wales, they had newborn babies to show for it. At the heart of this riveting history 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 sights, smells and sounds of an eighteenth-century ship vividly to life. Rollicking and exhaustively researched, The Floating Brothel ends with a grand beginning - the landing of these "disorderly girls" on a rugged continent that they would make their own."--BOOK JACKET.

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