The Life and Times of Mary Wade

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The Life and Times of Mary Wade


A detailed and informative essay describing the world Mary Wade was born into, and the background behind the First Fleet, contributed by Marjorie Morrow, a great, great granddaughter of Mary Wade.


Marjorie Morrow


Published in 'Mary Wade to Us'



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When Mary Wade was born in London in the late seventeen seventies none would have envisaged that this babe would become the founding mother of a large family group which, today counts Mary’s living descendants in thousands. This child was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey when ten years old, and thereby hangs our tale.

To really appreciate the story of Mary Wade we need to let our minds travel back through time for more than two hundred years, so we can place her story in its rightful context, and judge her world by the standards of that world, and not by the standards of 1985.

Into what sort of world was Mary born? European settlement had taken place in the New World of the Americas, and a trade route around the Cape of Good Hope to India and the East Indies were being used by European ships. Ships had been round Cape Horn. The Indian and Pacific Oceans were known, but a large land mass, now called Australia, was not on the map. The idea of a Great South Land was discussed, but, although early navigators touched at places on the Western Australian Coast, the existence of a large land mass was still unproven. Dutch, Portugese, and French sent expeditions to the South Seas hoping for substantial results. The names Dirk Hartog, Torres, Van Dieman, Tasman and others are found on modern maps, but it was the great English navigator, James Cook, who really put Australia on the world map, although the name Australia came later. The various European countries were fighting among themselves, East Indies trade was very important to Britain, and a Great South Land in the wrong hands could materially alter things.

James Cook left Plymouth 25.5.1768, ostensibly on a scientific visit to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus. He sailed in His Majesty’s Barque, Endeavour, with a naval crew. On board also were a good astronomer, Green, two naturalists, D.C. Solander and Joseph Banks, and sundry servants. Cook carried sealed orders from the Admiralty, not to be opened till his scientific mission was completed. These orders were to look for the Great South Land. After leaving New Zealand in March, 1770, the east coast of the continent was sighted 28.4.1770 at Point Hicks (now called Cape Everard). Subsequently Cook sailed north, charting the east coast of the land mass. He spent some time in Botany Bay, so named because of the great variety of new plants found by Solander and Banks. Observations of birds and other animals and of the aborigines were also recorded. Later on, because of this time spent collecting specimens, Banks became accepted as an authority on the new land. Cook continued northward up the coast, noting the entrance of Port Jackson, but not entering the harbour. On this northward voyage the Endeavour struck the Great Barrier Reef, was beached at Endeavour River, where Cooktown now stands, for repairs, then sailed on to Batavia, and via the Cape of Good Hope to England. On 22.8.1770, Cook claimed the whole of the east coast of the continent from Point Hicks to Cape York for Britain, under the name of New South Wales. The name Australia was not yet used.

Other relevant factors influencing Mary’s world at this time were the Industrial Revolution and changes in land usage in Britain in the eighteenth century.

The Industrial Revolution led to the development of factories for the mass production of goods, and this spelt the death knell on the cottage industries. The sale of home produced goods almost ceased, and these sales had provided that little extra income for a poor family which made very hard lives just a little easier.

Sundry Enclosure Acts were passed, the net result of which was that farms became much larger, and ownership was concentrated in fewer hands. There was an increase in food production, but on the debit side, many small tenant farmers and farm labourers lost their “ancient and traditional right” to some form of land usage.

These factors produced a large body of unemployed, many of whom went to larger centres seeking work, and were often unable to cope with their new life-style. Even if work was found, wages were low and the hours long. If these people did not find work they had two alternatives, starve or steal, and the jails soon overflowed.

English society at this stage was clearly divided into the upper class who owned everything, and the lower classes who were utterly dependent on the upper class for employment, essential to their survival. The will to live is strong in all of us, and many turned to crime to survive. The police system of the time was inadequate, and the government used severe punishment for convicted persons as a deterrent. As a result, we find that about 200 crimes were punishable by death. These crimes ranged from treason, murder, and arson, down to picking pockets of more than one shilling. Many people caught were not convicted, as there were no police prosecutors. Even so, in the decade 1780 to 1790 more than 50 persons a year were executed (by hanging) and many more had their sentences changed to transportation overseas for life. Up to the time when the British colonists in North America declared their independence from Britain, many convicts were sent to America, but after 1776, this dumping of convicts ceased.

Early in the 18th Century, a curious system of convict dumping prevailed. In 1717 a Transportation Act was passed which allowed the removal of prisoners overseas. The Government assigned the right to a prisoner’s labour, for the term of his sentence, to an agent, who then became wholly responsible for the prisoner. These agents were often ship’s masters, who transported these convicts to America, and sold them to planters as labourers. However, by 1774, this system was not emptying the jails fast enough, and an Act was passed which enabled the establishment of a penal colony on a suitable site. Thereafter any convict could be marked for transportation. Old unserviceable ships were moored in the Thames and in various ports. These old ships were stripped down and used as detention centres. The convicts were kept in them and required to work as labourers nearby, often in chains. Conditions in these old hulks were bad, and disease among the convicts was rife.

There was another group of people needing help. These were the people who had remained loyal to Britain during the War of American Independence, and were no longer acceptable in North America.

In the seventeen eighties, William Pitt and his government were more concerned with saving their Empire than with emptying the jails. When the war with France ended in 1783, Britain had gained Canada, but had already lost her North American colonies, the loss of which had far reaching consequences.

Pitt appointed Thomas Townsend, Viscount Sydney, as Secretary of State, and his duties included finding a place to dump convicts. Several places on the African Coast, Canada, and New Zealand were considered, and rejected. An American loyalist, Matra, in 1783 suggested the east coast of the newly-discovered continent as a suitable site, and Joseph Banks supported the idea. Britain as a maritime nation needed a good navy, and for this suitable timber was needed. An earlier report by Cook, who discovered Norfolk Island in 1774, suggested that Norfolk Island pines could supply timber for masts and spars, and the flax growing abundantly on the island could be the raw material for ropes and canvas sails. It was also realised that a naval base in this area might well be an advantage.

From 1784, the idea of a penal settlement on the east coast of New South Wales was considered. Convicted prisoners marked for transportation to Botany Bay were sent to the hulks, and used as labourers till their transport could be arranged. In the King’s speech at the opening of Parliament in 1787, plans were announced for founding a penal colony in New South Wales.

A naval man, Captain Arthur Phillip, was appointed to lead this expedition to an unknown land, 12,000 miles away, and to found a settlement there. Nothing was known of the physical nature of the new land, or of its climate, rainfall, etc. Phillip’s task was indeed formidable.

The First Fleet was assembled. It consisted of eleven ships, two of which were warships, H.M.S. Sirius of 520 tons and the Supply, an armed tender of 170 tons. The remaining nine ships were chartered merchant ships, six of which were to be convict transports, and three to carry stores.

Provisioning this fleet for the voyage and the first year or so at Botany Bay was a mammoth task. Several government departments were involved. Ration scales were laid down, and minimum requirements for accommodation of convicts were stated, but these regulations were often disregarded. Convicts came from overcrowded hulks and jails where disease was prevalent. Medical inspections prior to embarkation were often cursory; so many convicts boarded transports weak or ill and quite unfit for a long and uncomfortable voyage. This First Fleet finally left Plymouth 13.5.1787, and after an eight month voyage arrived at Botany Bay between 18th and 20th January, 1788. It transferred to Sydney Cove in Port Jackson on 26th January, 1788, and on 7th February, 1788, Phillip proclaimed the Colony of New South Wales, and became the first Governor.

Phillip’s support should have come from his officers, but these were mostly military men with ideas of their own importance, and Phillip was a naval man. The officers would guard convicts, but would not accept as a duty the supervision of convict labour, Phillip had, therefore, to appoint many supervisors from convict ranks, and this often caused trouble.

The soil round Sydney is poor, tools to prepare the ground were inadequate, and methods on cultivation suitable in England failed at Sydney Cove. Very little livestock came with the first fleet, and soon these animals escaped to the bush and were lost. Time passed, tents and huts were erected, and some order was achieved.

At first, the full ration laid down was issued, but it was soon realised that the little colony was dependent on food supplies from elsewhere. As time passed the ration was cut, and cut again. After two years, the ration was reduced to one third of the full ration. Men grew weaker and the hours of labour were reduced of necessity. In fact, the little colony was facing starvation, and still no more store ships had arrived from Britain.

As well as establishing a colony on the mainland, Phillip had been instructed to colonise Norfolk Island as soon as possible, to prevent any other nation taking over.

Norfolk Island was discovered by Cook in 1774, who reported good pine trees and plenty of flax on the Island capable of supplying masts, spars, rope, and canvas for the navy. The Island lies just over 1000 miles from Sydney in a generally north easterly direction, and about 660 miles from Auckland.

It is roughly elliptical in shape, five miles long and three miles across, with an area of approximately thirteen square miles. It has a precipitous coastline with no natural harbour, and an average elevation of 350 feet. There are two main peaks, Mount Banks (1048 ft) and Mount Pitt (1038 ft). When discovered the island was uninhabited and densely forested.

On 14th February, 1788, the Supply, commanded by Lieut. Ball, took Lieut. Phillip Gidley King to Norfolk Island, together with a petty officer, a surgeon’s mate, two marines, two men who knew about flax, nine male and six female convicts. This small and carefully chosen group was to establish a settlement on the island. They were supplied with rations and seed to start food production. The Supply arrived off the Island on 29th February. A shore party was landed by a small boat to examine the Island. Lack of suitable landing places prevented the main party from landing till 6th March. People and goods were put into a small boat and rowed ashore. A storehouse for their rations and shelter for the people were quickly organised. Some land was soon cleared, seeds were planted, and results came fast. The soil is very fertile, and rainfall and temperature are suitable for plant growth. King’s first estimate was that the colony would be self supporting within four years. For the first year, life was not as hard on Norfolk Island as it was on the mainland. The great drawback was lack of good landing places.

As the food position on the mainland deteriorated, Phillip sent more convicts to Norfolk Island to relieve distress on the mainland. However, a drought occurred on the Island and conditions there deteriorated. Also, pests showed up. Blight and caterpillars ruined the crops, and a hurricane on 26.2.1789 caused a lot of damage and food producing gardens were destroyed.

After two years, Phillip decided to send King to England, to report on the colonies, and Major Robert Ross was appointed to relieve King as Controller on Norfolk Island. Ross left Sydney on H.M.S. Sirius on 5.3.1790. The crossing to Norfolk was stormy, and landing was hazardous, and before the cargo was landed the Sirius was wrecked, but the crew was saved. Now, not only were there extra convicts on the Island, but also the crew of the wrecked ship; thus population increased without extra stores. King returned to the mainland aboard the Supply, which had accompanied the Sirius, and Ross assumed control at once. He recognised the seriousness of the position and proclaimed a reduced ration immediately. Things were grim on the mainland and on the Island.

While Phillip and his First Fleeters faced hardship, isolation, and hunger, life went on in London as before. Crime was rampant, and jails filled more rapidly than transportation could empty them. Mary Wade was eleven years old when she fell foul of the law. The transcript of her trial speaks for itself.  See section on ‘The Trial of Mary Wade’