On 3 June 1835 a female convict named Sarah Jones married in Saint John’s Anglican Church in Parramatta, Sydney. Her husband was a free man called Edward Grisdale. What was their story? I will reconstruct it as best I am able given the paucity of the records. This little event throws light on the brutalities of the English penal system and some of the abuses perpetrated on convicts in early Australian colonial days. The couple’s ultimate fate remains a mystery and some of the story is conjecture.
Let’s start with the shockingly named ‘Parramatta Female Factory’. From the early days of Australia’s history as a penal colony, transported convicts had been separated by sex. Women were sent on separate convict ships. On arrival most women were assigned to settler ‘masters’ who needed domestic or other help and for whom the women would work throughout their sentence. Those who for whatever reason couldn’t be placed were sent to newly established ‘Female Factories’, These were part prison, part forced labour camps, part employment offices and, as we shall see, part marriage exchanges and brothels as well.
The Parramatta Female Factory had opened in 1821 and could house 300 women. It was to this factory that Sarah Jones was sent after she arrived on the convict ship Numa in 1834. The journey wasn’t very long as the Factory was situated on the banks of the Parramatta River, just a few miles from the then small town of Sydney. The women were separated into three classes: ‘The First Class consisted of women who had recently arrived from England, women who had been returned from service with good character reports, and women who had undergone a probationary period in the Second Class. Women in the First class were eligible for assignment and to marry. In the Second Class were women who had been sentenced for minor offences and who could, after a period of probation, be transferred to the First class. The third, or Crime, Class consisted of women who had been transported a second time or who had been found guilty of misconduct during the voyage out or since their arrival. Convict women who became pregnant, and female immigrants convicted of vagrancy or other offences were also confined in the Factories.’
One history puts it thus:
While the Female Factories would appear to resemble conventional imprisonment, they did not abate the enforced whoredom of the convict women. Rather they moved the women from the sight of the free population – so that they could ignore the ill-treatment and degradation of the convicts – and enabled their systematic abuse to be conducted more efficiently. Even within the new Factory conditions were appalling and, as the number of women transported grew, very overcrowded.
As well as being brothels the Factories were also marriage markets. ‘Many women were married soon after arrival. The idea was that any man wanting to marry one of the women would apply. They were lined up at the Factory and the man would drop a scarf or handkerchief at the feet of the woman of his choice. If she picked it up, the marriage was virtually immediate.
In 1834 the factory’s matron was a certain Mrs Gordon. She held the position for many years. One historian of Australia’s female factories has this to say about Mrs Gordon:
The Factory at Parramatta functioned as a brothel and as a marriage mart. James Mudie told the 1837 Select committee that many more women were retained in the First Class than was necessary for the size of the establishment. He recounted that Mrs Gordon, the matron, had several times refused to allow him to take as servants women he had selected. It appears that Mrs Gordon unofficially employed the women herself and that she had made “thousands of pounds” from her enterprise. Mudie intimated that she had acquired influence with the authorities by the late 1820s and thus ensured that all reports made of her management of the Factory would be favourable. She was, he evinced, “notorious”.
In even plainer English, Mrs Gordon became a brothel Madame and enriched herself by renting out the female convicts in her ‘care’ for sex and probably also made money by taking a commission for supplying wives to settlers. Remember there were many more men than women in Australia at the time and it could be hard for a man to find a wife.
J. C. Byrne had witnessed the scene of these marriages at Parramatta first-hand in 1835. In his book Twelve Years’ Wanderings in the British Colonies, from 1835 to 1847, he writes:
AT ALL PERIODS during the progress of the colony, and up to the present time, (1835) single men could obtain wives, on application, from amongst the female convicts, at the chief depot in Parramatta. The form is a strange one, and well worth relating. A man desiring a wife, and being unable to suit himself elsewhere, proceeds to the female factory at Parramatta, and presents himself to the matron and master of that institution. The certificate of a clergyman or magistrate is produced; setting forth that the applicant is a proper person to have a wife given to him, from the many under charge of the matron. The applicant in then introduced into a room of the building, whilst the matron proceeds to the class department, that contains the best behaved of the female convicts. Notice is here given that a wife is required, and such as are willing to be married step forward, and are marshalled in batches into the presence of the would-be Benedict. On they pass, the man speaking to individuals as they attract his attention, inquiring their age, etc. till someone is met with who pleases his taste, and possesses the required perfection’s. The inquiries then become mutual; the lover wishes to know if the fair one has ever been married; the question is reiterated by the female, who also desires to learn how many head of cattle or sheep, or what land or houses, her lover is possessed of. Mutual explanations take place, and if satisfactory on both sides, the matron is acquainted with the fact, and a day named for the marriage. All the time, this lady is present, and has frequently to witness strange and ludicrous scenes; scores of females passing for review, between whose personal and other claims, the applicant balances his mind, sometimes leaving it to the matron to decide whom he shall take. When this knotty point is settled, the authorities are informed of the fact; the clergy of the place publishes the banns, and if no impediment intervenes, on the appointed day, the parties are married; the woman leaving the factory, and returning to a state of freedom in the colony, during good conduct. These marriages are of frequent occurrence, thousands having thus obtained wives.
Maybe this was how Sarah Jones found her husband Edward Grisdale? Yet it seems that Sarah and Edward already at least knew each other because they had arrived on the same ship, the Numa. Edward ‘came free’ while Sarah was a convict sentenced to ‘14 years bond’. This is written in the Australian convict records. As I will later show, Edward was almost certainly a seaman on the Numa and maybe he and Sarah had fraternized or consorted during the voyage. (The goings-on on board the female convict ships are the stuff both of true history and legend). Or maybe they just recognized each other at the Parramatta Factory cattle market?
Why had Sarah been transported to Australia for fourteen years? What heinous crime had she committed? Luckily we know exactly why because there is a transcript of her trial at the Old Bailey in London. We know this is the right person because the Australian records tell us her trial was held on 5 September 1833 at Middlesex court i.e. at the Old Bailey. I think it is worth quoting the whole transcript:
SARAH JONES was indicted for stealing, on the 27th of June, 1 purse, value 6d.; 1 ring, value, 5s.; 2 sovereigns; and 10 shillings, the goods of George Gibbs , from his person.
GEORGE GIBBS. I am a tailor. On the 27th of June I was returning from Vauxhall-gardens – I was quite sober- I fell in with the prisoner in the Commercial-road, she was walking along and appeared to be in a state of intoxication – when I got up to her she laid hold on my arm – I asked her what was the matter – she said, she had been out so late with a party of friends, and was afraid to go home to her parents, and she asked me as a favour to go home with her – I went half way down a street, and asked her which house it was, she then said she did not live there but in White Lion-street – I told her I could not go there, as I lived in Norfolk-street – she hung upon my left arm – my purse was in my left hand breeches pocket, and my watch was in my fob – I bade her good night and went away – I then missed my purse, which contained a gold ring, two sovereigns, about 10s. in silver or more – I knew it was safe three minutes before I saw the prisoner, and I had not met any other person – I then ran down the street, and saw a policeman at the bottom – I told him the circumstance, and the prisoner was taken on the 6th of July – I had not been with the prisoner more than three minutes.
ABRAHAM SCOTT (police-sergeant). I received the information – I had seen the prisoner three times that night, and I knew her – I told one or two of our men, and she was taken and lodged in the watch-house – I went and saw her, and took the prosecutor, who identified her as the girl – I went to her lodging, and found the duplicate of the ring.
JOHN VAUGHAN. I am a pawnbroker and live in Whitechapel, this ring was pawned by the prisoner on the 5th of July.
GEORGE GIBBS. This ring is mine; it has three letters on it, by which I can swear to it.
Prisoner’s Defence. I met the prosecutor, he walked with me some time, and asked me to go up a court, which I did, he then said, he had no money, but he gave me the ring off his finger as a pledge till the following night; but as he did not come, I kept it for a few days, and pawned it.
GEORGE GIBBS. There is not a word of truth in it.
GUILTY. Aged 19. – Transported for Fourteen Years.
It seems that Sarah had accosted George Gibbs in Commercial Road in London’s notorious East End (or he had propositioned her) while she was somewhat the worse for wear and picked his pocket. Her defence that “he gave me the ring off his finger” still doesn’t ring quite true and it wasn’t accepted by the jury. But I must say Gibbs’ story is a bit lame as well. What she in fact was saying was that she had been propositioned by Gibbs and had either had sex with him or was going to, but as he hadn’t got enough to pay she took his ring as a pledge or surety for his payment the next day. Who knows the precise truth?
Before we go on, let’s pause a minute to reflect on the nature of crime and punishment in England at the time. For a first offense (we think) of theft Sarah had been sentenced to fourteen years transportation! Par for the course I’m afraid.
Most (convicts) were sentenced in England for minor crimes such as pick pocketing or theft. As punishment, not only were they exported from their country, many were forced to endure of a life of sexual exploitation. On the ships to Australia, the prettiest were rumoured to have been shared amongst the military officers. Upon arrival in Australia, the women were lined up like cattle to be selected as servants or wives. If they didn’t become either, a life of prostitution was their only real hope for survival.
As we have seen, the trial took place on 5 September 1833 and the Numa finally departed from its anchorage off the English south coast near Portsmouth on 29 January 1834. The Times reported that the ‘Numa, James Laing and Moffat, all with convicts for Australia, lay windbound at St. Helen’s and the Motherbank on 21 December 1833. Altogether 150 vessels were all waiting for moderate weather and a fair wind’. ‘It had blown during the previous week with great violence but without occasioning any loss to the ships whilst at anchor.’ The Numa with the convicts aboard had been sitting at anchor for weeks as storms raged. The conditions on board would have been miserable.
The ship first went to Cork in Ireland to pick up some Irish female convicts and then set sail for Australia with a stop at the Cape of Good Hope. The Numa was commanded by Captain John Baker. Also on board was Surgeon Superintendent Edward Ford Bromley who kept a medical journal of the voyage. He noted the names of those he treated, including that of Sarah Jones – for what I don’t know. Two children died on the trip but the Numa finally arrived in Port Jackson, Sydney on 13 June 1834, after a voyage of ‘135 days’. On board were 134 female convicts, 24 children and ‘18 ton of gunpowder for the public service’.
Once the ‘convict muster’ was made on the 17th June, Sarah was sent to the Parramatta Female Factory and to the tender mercies of Mrs Gordon.
Turning our attention to her husband-to-be Edward Grisdale: Who was he? As already mentioned we know that he had also arrived on the Numa. Convicts had to apply for permission to marry and on15 September 1834, just three months after their arrival, Sarah and Edward were given permission to marry in Parramatta by the Rev. R. Forrest. The record shows that they had both come on the Numa, that Sarah was a convict serving a fourteen year bond and that Edward ‘came free’.
I think there is little doubt that Edward was a seaman on the Numa, and probably a Mate or at least a very experienced mariner. There are three grounds for this belief. First, there were no male passengers on the Numa. The passenger list says that 134 female convicts and 24 children arrived on board. The men would have been crew and the surgeon. So Edward was probably one of the crew. Second, not long after the Numa’s, arrival, we find a Captain Edward Grisdale (sometimes Commander sometimes Master) of the 117 ton schooner Tamar, owned by James Raven, a rising young merchant of Launceston, Tasmania. In March 1835, Captain Grisdale, accompanied by Mr Raven, arrived in Launceston from Mauritius. Later we find the Tamar, still under Captain Grisdale, plying the trade from Sydney to Tasmania. Here is just one of the many newspaper reports and advertisements. It appeared in the Sydney Gazette on 28 April 1835:
FOR CHARTER OR FREIGHT TO HOBART TOWN. The fine first-class Schooner Tamar. Captain Grisdale, Commander, 117 Tons, Register, sails well, and in the event of a suitable Charter not offering, will meet with quick despatch for the above Port -Apply on board, to JAMES RAVEN, Owner.
There is absolutely no mention of any Edward Grisdale, Captain or not, in Australia before 1834.
For the third reason we need to go back to England. When Sarah and Edward obtained permission to marry in September 1834, Sarah gave her age as 22. But there was no age for Edward. When they did eventually marry, in June 1855, Edward was reported to have been 35; making him born in about 1800. (Sarah was still 22!) There is only one eligible Edward Grisdale in the English record born around this time. On 16 May 1802 an Edward Grisdale was baptized in Saint Michael’s Church, Workington, Cumberland. His parents were Edward Grisdale and his wife Mary Robinson. Edward senior was a mariner; when he married Mary Robinson in Workington in 1792 he gave his occupation as ‘mariner’. In the 1811 directory of Workington he is listed as living at Town Head in the town and was a ‘Captain’. In fact we know that he was also a ship owner, his ship being the Mary – probably named after his wife. Father Edward had also been born in Workington but his ancestors were, as you would expect, from Matterdale/Watermillock. It was probably only natural that young Edward followed his father to sea. And if he was made a Captain on his arrival in Australia he most probably had at least a mate’s ticket while on the Numa.
So we can surmise that after he had gained permission to marry Sarah Jones in September 1834, Captain Edward went to sea on the trips already mentioned. Yet it is of interest to note that the last mention we find of Captain Edward Grisdale in the Australian newspapers was dated 18 May 1835 when the Tamar departed Sydney for Hobart. It arrived in Hobart on 5 June 1835. Yet Edward married Sarah in Saint John’s Anglican Church in Parramatta on the 3 June 1835!? How was this possible? I can’t believe there were two Edward Grisdales. Maybe Edward had skipped ship en route or been fired? When the Tamar arrived back in Sydney from Hobart on 14 June it was commanded by Captain Town. It’s all a bit of a mystery.
What we do know is that after his marriage Edward simply disappears. This would be strange if he had lived. He was after all a sea captain and in the decades to come he would, we might think, pop up at least a few more times, but he doesn’t. So perhaps he died shortly after the marriage – possibly at sea but maybe not. There is only one further mention of an Edward Grisdale in the whole of the nineteenth century in Australia. This is the supposed death of ‘Edward Gresdale’ (this was a common misspelling) in 1885 in Sydney, aged 34. At first, before I knew his age had been given as 34, I thought that therefore Edward had lived a long life. But if he were 34 there simply is no Edward Grisdale born in England or elsewhere in or around 1861. For various reasons I think it might be that this death could just possibly have taken place years before 1885 and was only then entered. This is speculation at present but if so it might mean that if our Edward had died in, say, 1835 he would very probably have been 34. It’s a line worth pursuing.
Regarding Sarah, we catch one last definitive glance of her in 1837 in the convict muster of that year. She is listed under her maiden name of Sarah Jones and was living with her ‘master’ Alex Gray in Sydney. There is no doubt that this is her because the Numa is mentioned plus her arrival in 1834 and her sentence of fourteen years. Alexander Gray was for a long time the publican of the Light-house Tavern situated in the squalor of the Sydney docks. It was on the corner of Sussex Street and Bathurst Street. After she had married Edward, unless he had died or done a runner, Sarah would probably have been released into his care on a ‘Ticket of Leave’. That she wasn’t is telling.
What became of her? In years to come there are countless newspaper reports of a Sarah Jones living in this area being arrested for things such as being a drunkard, vagrancy, idleness and obscene language. Sentences of either one or three months were the norm. It is tempting to think that this was her, but perhaps not. Sarah Jones was a pretty common name at the time, including in Sydney. There were as far as I can see at the very least four Sarah Joneses living in Sydney around this time. Most of the reports of the unruly, drunk vagrant Sarah Jones are from the 1860s and even into the 1870s (when ‘our’ Sarah would have been sixty); nothing from the 1840s. In addition, there was a report on Wednesday 11 August 1869 saying that on the previous Saturday evening ‘Sarah Jones, an elderly woman… died suddenly in Wilmott- street’. This might be our Sarah; though I guess we’ll never know.
One could romantically imagine Edward and Sarah living out their days in peace and obscurity somewhere where newspapers never went, but I truly doubt it.