Beyond the Seas

Submitted into Contest #44 in response to: Write a story that starts with a life-changing event.... view prompt


Historical Fiction

“I’m sorry Janet. I can’t take you too,” Jayne said to her niece. “You’re a good worker and I’m grateful for the help you’ve given me when I’ve needed you, but I can’t employ you permanently and I can’t afford another mouth to feed. I’ll see if Mr Duff in Nicolson Street will take you on as a housemaid.”


“I don’t want to be a housemaid, Aunt. I want to stay with my sisters. They need me. It was hard enough when Mother died, then Father died too and now our stepmother has abandoned us. It’s all too much,” Janet replied.


“I can’t take Elizabeth either, Janet. I’m only taking Catherine. You’ll have to ask your Aunt Eliza if she can take you, though since she’s already taking Elizabeth, I'd advise you not to get your hopes up.”


Janet asked her Aunt Eliza, but the response was the same. Jayne was taking Catherine and Eliza was taking Elizabeth. There was no room for Janet in either household.  


“I’m sorry Janet, but there’s no more to be said on the subject,” Eliza said.


Jayne spoke with Mr Alexander Duff in Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, a haberdasher from whom she had purchased fabric and other requirements over the years.


“Would you have need of a scullery or general maid, sir? I have an orphaned niece; a robust fifteen-year-old girl of congenial character who will be homeless if I can’t find a position for her.” Jayne asked.


“I’d be happy to take her since she’s on your recommendation Mrs Hamilton,” Mr Duff replied.


And so, it was that Janet Forrest found herself in the employ of a gentleman haberdasher. She was welcomed by his cook who took a liking to her. Janet was quick to learn, liked by her betters and she performed her household duties efficiently. It was because of her confident and congenial demeanour that when time allowed, the cook called her into the kitchen to teach her how to bake and prepare meals. 


But she missed her sisters terribly.


‘Old Mr Duff has more fabric than he could sell in a month of Sundays. He won’t notice if I take some to make Elizabeth and Catherine a petticoat,’ Janet decided.


Indeed, he may not have noticed if Janet hadn’t taken so much and attempted to pawn what she didn’t require. The girl was no wily criminal. She chose to offload the remainder of the bolts of muslin, silk and cotton to a pawnbroker further down Nicolson Street. That gentleman may have been acquainted with Mr Duff or perhaps he simply didn’t want to jeopardise the renewal of his second-hand dealer’s license by accepting stolen goods. He was suspicious so he called the police.


In the Edinburgh High Court, Janet pleaded guilty and despite her legal representative handing in affidavits attesting to her good character from two respectable Edinburgh residents, the sentence was harsh.

“You shall be transported beyond the seas for a period of seven years. Let this be a lesson to you, young lady. I hope that when you have completed your sentence, you will lead a full and productive life. Take her away, bailiff,” said His Lordship, Mr Justice Bowen in the Edinburgh High Court of Justiciary.  


As the judge’s gavel hit the block, Janet was overwhelmed with dread.  

‘What have I done?’  Then, ‘I think I’d be smart to keep to myself in this stinking gaol.’


She was a fresh complexioned, freckled-faced girl of twenty with no prior convictions. Some of the women in whose company she found herself were crafty, hardened vixens with extensive criminal histories. There could not have been more of a contrast between her situation now, and her former life with her caring parents.


There were 184 female convicts, including Janet Forrest, aboard Westmoreland when it set sail for Hobart Town on August 12, 1836. Janet suffered constipation twice during the 113-day journey and on both occasions, she was restored to health by the ship's surgeon. The situation for convicts had improved since transportation began. By Westmoreland's sailing, women were housed comparatively comfortably below deck. Most slept in hammocks.  


“Is it warm enough that you are Janet?” asked an Irish woman who’d committed arson in order to earn transportation, so horrific were conditions in her homeland.


“Aye, I’m good, Colleen, thanks for asking. I’ve folded one of my blankets in half for extra warmth. I must say that sleeping while swaying with the movement of the ship is more comfortable than it would be trying to sleep on the floor; rolling around with the shackles and chains,” answered Janet.


Hardened criminals were chained, but first offenders like Janet and Colleen had their shackles removed when aboard and once at sea they could ascend to the upper deck to exercise in the sun. 


Other than some treatable illnesses and the death of a woman with a pre-existing condition, the months at sea passed without incident. Those convicts who chose to better themselves while in transit were literate by the time they disembarked thanks to the teaching of the ship’s surgeon. Janet was literate already and was able to assist the doctor. She delighted in seeing the joy the women derived from their achievements.


The Westmoreland docked in Van Diemen's Land on 3 December 1836.  


“Hobart Town doesn’t look so bad. I see trees and streets and buildings just like Edinburgh,” Janet said to Colleen when she first saw their future home at the bottom of the world. “We’re here and we’re alive, unlike that poor woman Elizabeth Coak,” she added.  


Fancy dyin’ aboard ship, poor woman. I suppose buryin' her at sea will be savin’ her family the expense of buryin’ her in the churchyard. Good riddance to Westmoreland, I reckon. I’ll not be missing it,” said Colleen as she turned her back on the vessel.


The convicts were processed as they disembarked. There was some uncertainty around Janet’s history and the warden questioned her about her previous circumstances and her attitude in gaol.

“Of course, I was indifferent in gaol. Wouldn’t you be if you’d been tossed into a stinking prison with Scotland’s worst? I’d lost my entire family within four years; my stepmother abandoned me, and my aunts rejected me. And then I was stupid enough to steal too much fabric and get myself caught,” Janet answered. “I only wanted to make my sisters a petticoat. I didn’t want them to forget me. I had no one else.”


“Have you been imprisoned before? asked the warden.


“No, I haven’t been imprisoned before. If I had been, I wouldn’t have cared to repeat the experience.”


“Do you have a child and are you married?”


“No, I don’t have a child and I’m not married and never have been. I might be stupid but I’m not that stupid,” she answered. “I have no idea where you get your information from, but it’s all false. I took fabric from Mr Duff and tried to pawn what I didn’t need. That’s the extent of my foolishness. Nothing else.”


“Wait there with the others,” the Warden said as he motioned her to stand with the women who’d already been processed. “You’ll be taken to the Female Factory shortly.”  


“I wonder what this female factory is,” said a convict of Janet’s age.

“Maybe they make new females out of bits of the likes of us,” said another. They all snickered.

“Well, I suppose all we can hope for is that they find us decent families to work for,” Janet said to the others as they waited to be marched up to the Cascades Female Factory.


Fortunately, the weather was fine and warm which ensured the trudge up the hill to the Cascades was pleasant enough. They reached their destination and were divided into classes. The ship’s surgeon reported on the conduct of each woman on the sea journey and those who’d been well behaved were assigned to first class. Janet was one such girl. She and her cohort were not permitted to converse with anyone from the second and third classes. Only the first-class women were considered suitable for assignation to families in the community. The others were consigned to the washtubs to do laundry. If a convict used profane, obscene, or abusive language, or exhibited disrespectful behaviour she faced solitary confinement at night and would likely have been supervised at picking oakum in the daytime. If standing at the washtub was laborious, picking oakum was arduous. This job involved the pulling of tar out of fibre ropes until the women’s fingers bled.


The overseer spoke loudly so all the first-class women could hear. “You’ll be assigned to people in the community to work in their homes or businesses. If you conduct yourselves appropriately and perform your tasks with care and diligence, you will not need to come back here for harsher duties. But step out of line and you’ll be back at the washtub without hesitation. It’s summer at the moment, ladies, but I’m telling you now, you won’t want to be up to your elbows in ice-cold water and carbolic soap in this island’s winter. Do you see Mt Wellington, at the end of the yard? It is snow-covered in the winter and these buildings and yards are not heated. Right, come forward if I call your name. We’ve found work for some of you already. You’ll begin immediately.”

Janet was assigned to Mrs McDougall. Just as she had at Mr Duff’s, before she exercised the poor judgement that took her over ten thousand miles beyond the seas, she performed her work diligently. 


However, there was one occasion in June 1837 when she was reprimanded for being absent from her duties and later, in July, she was admonished for insolence and sent to the Cascades to work at the washtub for a month. Afterwards, she worked in the kitchen while the Commissioner sought another position for her. Once at the washtub was enough for Janet. She took more care when expressing annoyance or objection to her mistress or master thereafter.


“Don’t be wanting to stay at the Cascades,” she said to a new first-class arrival. “It’s back-breaking work and the sound of garments meeting washboards will permeate your dreams forevermore. I’m never again going to be ordered back to the washtubs.”


Janet was soon consigned to the home of Mr and Mrs Walker. One night she was sent to the outbuilding adjacent to Walker’s house to replace a bridle. She did not immediately return. Her mistress became concerned and donned a wrap to go out to look for her. The tack room was locked from the inside and there were muffled protestations from within. Mrs Walker peered through the window then stood at the door and thumped on it repeatedly. She called out. The voice that cried back was Janet’s.


“Help, Mrs Walker, help me.”


“Quiet, you stupid bitch,” Janet’s attacker spat as he withdrew himself. With his breeches in disarray, he swung Janet around to face the door and pulled her back to him. He held her close to his chest with one hand while he slapped the other over her mouth.


“Open this door Brendan Owens or I’ll get my husband and a dozen other men to do it for me.”


Brendan Owens shoved Janet away from him and fastened his breeches. He adjusted his shirt, ran his fingers through his hair and opened the door.


“Ah, Mrs Walker, how are you this evening? Luckily, I was walking past. I was able to be of assistance to Janet,” Owens lied.


“If you don’t want your father to hear of this incident, I suggest you make yourself scarce – permanently. Don’t ever set foot on my property again.” 


Owens swung around to grab his hat and was gone.


Janet felt sick. Mrs Walker put her arm around the girl. Janet began to cry.


“He was lying," Mrs Walker.  "I had put the bridle away. I had come out and was locking the door from the outside when he came up behind me and pushed me in and locked the door,” Janet cried in earnest.


“Don’t worry, I believe you lass. He’s got a reputation, that one. He’s done this before. His father is a solicitor in town. I imagine Brendan Owens will think twice about coming near here again for fear of me telling his father. The loathsome boy would not want the family name besmirched and his future jeopardised,” Mrs Walker said. "I’ll fill you a hot bath, and you can soak for a while. Then I’ll make you a cup of tea and you can go to bed and sleep as long as you want to.”


“Oh, Mrs Walker, thank you for believing me. Does it mean that you won’t send me back to the Cascades?”


“No, of course, I won’t send you back there. Owens is a bully and a rapist. Even if you had encouraged him to come in, what I saw through the window was rape. And I don’t believe you encouraged him, anyway.”


Later that year the result of the rape came into the world. Fortunately, Janet was enamoured with him. She named him James Forrest.  She did not register the birth. It wasn’t uncommon among convict women to fail to register the birth of a child, particularly if the pregnancy was the result of rape. The chances of trying to prove Brendan Owens had fathered the child of a convict were very slim indeed. Many free settlers considered convict women to be of loose morals. The despicable among them had no qualms about taking from the women what they wanted on their terms when it suited. The reality was that most of the women earned their passage to Van Diemen's Land for stealing food, or goods to sell to enable them to buy food.


Fortunately, Mrs Walker didn’t consider Janet a loose woman nor did she think that the girl had enticed Brendan Owens to the tack room.  


“Janet Forrest is a good girl and a hard worker. I’ve no wish to lose her and I’ve certainly no desire to see the girl punished for being raped by a degenerate like Owens,” Mrs Walker confided to her husband.  “Furthermore, while I’d love to see that loathsome Owens punished for the rape, I don’t want Janet to be cross-examined in a court of law. She wouldn’t stand a chance against a family of the Owens’ standing.”


James stayed with his mother during her sentence until he was two, at which time Janet was compelled by law to take him to the Queens Orphan School at New Town.  


“Mummy will see you as often as I can, my darling,” she said as she discharged him to the care of the Superintendent’s wife, the Matron of the Orphan School. Once again, as Janet had done by not registering his birth or christening James, she also avoided disclosing the identity of the father upon enrolment in the school.  


In April 1840, Janet was absent from her tasks and was reprimanded but immediately returned to service. It was then that Mrs Walker realised why Janet occasionally slipped away. Another of their employees proved to be the distraction.  


He was William Butterworth, formerly John Grayson. He had changed his name to spare his father, son and legal wife in England the shame of having a convict son, father and husband.  


“You don’t want to jeopardise getting your Ticket of Leave, Janet, said Mrs Walker. “You’re too good a person to end up back at the Cascades. What about taking a position elsewhere where William Butterworth won’t be such a distraction. Look, the government will be more than happy to allow you to marry when you apply. I’m sure they’ll be delighted to relinquish the responsibility of your upkeep by allowing you to marry. The duty of providing for you will fall to your husband as soon as you are wed. But just take it slowly and do it right. Will you promise me that, dear?” said Mrs Walker. 


William continued to work at Walker’s Mill while Janet went to work for Mrs Patterson. Once again, the girl was found to be absent without leave and behaving disrespectfully towards her employer. She was reprimanded but the issues were withdrawn, though her Ticket of Leave was withheld for a month. That document was finally granted on 27 January 1842. She was a free woman and able to marry William without the need for government permission. They were wed on 3 July 1843.


Though Janet confided to her husband that her son James was the result of rape, she did not disclose the name of the rapist.


“I’m sorry Janet,” said her husband, “I can’t stomach the idea of a yellow-belly rapist’s bastard son under my roof.”


This was the only issue Janet and William argued over. She longed to bring her son into their home, but her husband would not allow it. Not surprisingly, they were both busy, she with producing a succession of William’s offspring, visiting her beloved eldest son, and assisting her husband in his occupations. He continued as a miller and later became a respected publican.

It wasn’t until William died of consumption in 1850, that Janet was able to retrieve her son from the orphanage. It was then that James chose to take his stepfather’s name.

Janet lived a respectable life as a publican and raised her five boys and a girl until her death on 27 February 1857 at the age of 41.

James Butterworth eventually emigrated to New Zealand where he became a purveyor of Maori artefacts. Upon his death in 1903, due to his admiration for, and appreciation of their culture he enjoyed the respect of Maori throughout the land.

June 05, 2020 05:05

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Kelly Ellen
23:28 Jan 20, 2021

Great story! So much detail, you can really tell you wanted to convey precise information that shows you really did your research!


01:37 Jan 21, 2021

Thank you Kelly Ellen, for a very long time Australians did not like to admit if they had a convict ancestor. But people have learned to be proud of their family history, particularly since knowing that many committed petty crimes out of hunger and desperation or crimes in order to be transported; to escape the poverty of their homelands. Convicts built Australia. When I did my own family tree I was astonished to find I had a convict. I'm a New Zealander. (Whalers and sealers settled in NZ, not convicts). My ancestor fared well in Tasma...


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Arya Preston
07:11 Jun 07, 2020

This story is very intriguing and the descriptions are well written!


07:49 Jun 07, 2020

Thank you. A fair bit of research to get the descriptions right. And a visit to the Cascades Female Factory when I was in Tasmania last year helped. (The name Van Diemen's Land was changed in 1855 to Tasmania.) I think Hobart would have to rate as my equal favourite Australian city, along with Brisbane.


Arya Preston
08:21 Jun 07, 2020

Well, that extra effort really added onto your writing and the emotions you were trying to evoke :)


09:34 Jun 07, 2020

Thank you so much, Arya, for your lovely comments.


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