3 Austrailan Women
Ye fair British Nymphs of beauty and fame, too
Listen to my story, beware of my fate, too
Once like you I was happy, once like you I was blest
Though now I am wretched with sorrow opprest
Oh! Pity my sorrows! Ah, me well-a-day
As a convict I am forced now to Botany Bay.
– Louisa Harewood
Old Bailey – February 1787
Justice Thomas Swain glanced at the wall clock on the far side of the courtroom. This morning was never going to end. The chamber was overheated and stuffy beyond human tolerance, or at least beyond his tolerance; his black robe hung on him like a thick horse blanket. His scalp was itching madly beneath his powdered wig but he dare not reach up to scratch it. Making matters worse, his sweet-smelling nosegay was fading, no longer warding off the overwhelming stench of the spectators crowded into the public gallery and the gaggle of filthy prisoners being paraded in and out of his court.
Almost noon. They had pushed through thirteen cases already this morning and now had to resolve one last sentencing before he could gratefully adjourn for lunch. He let out a heavy sigh of exasperation so that everyone in the chamber knew exactly how he felt. He glared at the adolescent standing in the docket in front of him.
“How old are you?”
The waif of a girl mumbled something he could not hear.
“They tell me I am fourteen years old, Sir,” she replied in a shy voice.
“They? They who?”
The girl stared at him blankly.
“Who told you that you are fourteen years old?”
The girl nodded at the prosecutor and the row of magistrates sitting on the benches directly below him. The shackles on her wrists were too heavy for her to lift her hands to point.
“Those men, Sir, there,” she said, nodding again at the row of men, wearing black robes, powdered gray wigs, and stern faces. He guessed she was twelve, thirteen maximum. But if she was fourteen, she could be tried as an adult and be given the full punishment that the prosecutors and magistrates obviously thought she deserved for major thefts of property.
She looked like a large throw-away rag doll. Her round face was covered with freckles and framed by stringy red hair sticking out from her bonnet. Her ragged gray dress had probably not been washed in a year, or more. And, of course, bare feet. She had undoubtedly never worn a pair of shoes in her life.
“What does your mother tell you?”
The girl appeared to be startled by the question, “My mother?”
“Where is your mother?”
“I don’t know, Sir.”
“You don’t know? Do you mean you don’t know now, at this moment? Or you don’t know in general?”
The girl smiled as if suddenly remembering a joke she wanted to share with him. “My mother doesn’t do generals, Sir. Mostly just sailors and tradesmen who have two shillings and are willing to do it standing up in the alley.”
Hooting and raucous laughter exploded across the public gallery. This was exactly the kind of moment they came for. High entertainment for sure. Her comment would be repeated across the city of London for the rest of the week.
Justice Swain slammed his gavel, giving the gallery a withering scowl before returning his attention to the girl. She was older than she looked, already wise in the ways of the world. Her comment did not do her any good in his eyes.
“I can see, Miss, that you have inherited both the gift of wit and the bane of insolence that is so prevalent in the Irish race. But I warn you, another reply like that and you will be severely punished. Do you understand me?”
The girl frowned again, obviously not understanding everything he had said, except the part about being severely punished. She duly hung her head to acknowledge she was being chastised. Street theatre, Justice Swan thought, she is showing me what she thinks I want to see. “And your father? Do you have a father?”
The girl mumbled something that the judge could not hear.
“Speak up, lass. I cannot hear you.”
“We are looking for him, Sir. Me father came over about a year ago, to find work, he did but we have not heard from him since. So we came over to find him, we have. But we’re still looking.”
“Do you and your mother have a fixed abode?”
“I do not know what fixed abode means, Sir.”
“Fixed abode? Do you have a place where you and your mother live?”
“We mainly sleep in the streets. Sir. But we have not seen my mother now for several weeks.”
Justice Swain leaned forward to read the accusation sheet lying in front of him, then raised his head to look at her again. “Ah, yes, at last…’We.’ And who is this ‘We” that we are now referring to? Could this be the scoundrel that made off with the silver locket and top coat of Surgeon Murray, and the hat of Master Prescott while you were assaulting them on the street last night?”
The girl’s face blanched white as if caught in a trap, then flushed bright red as if angry at both him and at herself. She bit her lip and looked down at the floor before looking back up to face him. “I meant my Mum, Sir. Myself and me Mum, only, Sir. We, my Mum and me, we sleep mainly in the streets.”
“You lie!” Justice Swain shouted.
The girl blinked, stumbling back a step, stunned by the judge’s anger.
“I will ask you once again.Who do you mean by We? If you lie to me you will be severely punished. Do you understand me? Severely punished.”
The girl struggled, tears in her eyes, obviously not wanting to reply, but finally whispered, “My… my brother Timothy and me.”
“And where is Master Timothy? Does he have a fixed abode? An address?” “No, Sir.”
“And how old is Master Timothy?” Justice Swain asked with exaggerated sarcasm,
“I don’t know, Sir. I really don’t know. But he is younger than myself, he is. I know that.”
“God have mercy on us.” Justice Swain said, slumping back in his chair. He patted his handkerchief across his forehead, then looked distastefully down at the girl. He had assumed the
brother was going to be a few years older, a true villain that used his younger sister in his evil intentions – not a smaller child than she.
He suddenly felt an overflowing sense of pity, which surprised him. He thought he was inured to the procession of endless hardships and tragedies that passed in front of him day after day from the foul streets of London. This girl was petite, bone thin, looking as if she could easily slip her skinny wrists and bare ankles through the heavy shackles that bound them.
He sighed again, glancing around the court around him. “So, if I may summarize for the court. You know nothing about your father, and your mother has abandoned you and your younger brother on the streets of London and you survive by scavenging like jackals on anything you can steal, pilfer, or shoplift in order to survive?”
Again that blank look on the girl’s face. She obviously had no clue of what “scavenging,” “pilfer,” or “jackal” meant. But she apparently understood the word “abandoned.” She jutted her chin up at him and said, “Our Mum did not abandon us. She left us on the steps of the cathedral and said she would be back. That we should wait there.”
“And you are still waiting for her?” the judge asked incredulously.
“We go back to the steps every evening and night to wait, but she’s never there.” “What do you do with the things you steal?”
“They are usually taken from us by the gangs. Or we are given a few pence by those thieving bastards at the hell houses.”
The gallery erupted in howls once again and Justice Swain was tempted to admonish the girl for her language but decided it was not worth the effort. “And what do you do for food?”
“Oh, we steal that from the street carts and food shops. We’re too quick for ‘em, you know,” she said with obvious pride.
“Do you have any idea of the value of the goods that you are accused of stealing? A very valuable cashmere shawl, a woman’s silver locket, a man’s velvet top coat, and a very expensive silk hat. Surgeon Simon Murray and Master Jonathan Streeter have both testified against you and the jury has found you guilty.”
The judge glanced at Surgeon Murray and Jonathan Streeter sitting in the witness box. “Have either of you recovered your property?”
Jonathan Streeter shook his head negatively. Surgeon Simon Murray sat up straight, glaring angrily at the girl and answered “No.”
The girl squirmed. She did not look at the man but pleaded directly to Justice Swain. “I offered to give the shawl back to the nice woman, I did. Everyone heard me. They did.”
“After you were caught. And your accomplice made off with the coat, the locket, and silk hat, to sell them, no doubt.”
“I didn’t mean to steal the shawl. I was cold, I was. And it was so beautiful and looked so warm. But I offered to give it back. Everyone heard me.”
“And the coat, the locket, and the hat?”
“I do not have them. How could I have stole them if I do not have them?” Her logic was beyond the judge. He rolled his eyes for the benefit of the gallery, who laughed at his pantomime. This whole episode was taking far too long. He was wasting time with this girl. It was past his lunch and the magistrates and jury were restless. Even the spectators were already leaving the gallery.
He slammed his gavel on the desk in front of him.
“You have also been found guilty of using force of arms and assault against upstanding citizens of London, and having no visible way of living, and lying open on the streets, and, of course, Grand larceny for stealing the shawl, locket, coat, and hat.”
The girl’s face was impassive. He might as well been talking to a wall.
“You force me into a quandary. You are far too old to be remanded to an orphanage and your crimes are far too serious to send you to a workhouse. If I order you to prison for the term of years that you deserve, you will only learn even more wicked ways and return to the street more depraved than you already are. You will undoubtedly become an even greater thief than you are now and probably a whore too, as your mother apparently is.”
He stopped his tirade for a drink of water.
“We are better off being done with you. You have no future in His Majesty’s England. Only an evil one at best. The items you have stolen are quite valuable, deserving the harshest punishment. On the other hand there is the mitigating factor that you are quite young and obviously desperate, but that does not excuse your refusal to identify your accomplice. I therefore sentence you, Miss Margaret Dolan, on this day of February 10, 1786, to transportation to parts beyond the seas, for the term of 14 years. With a little luck, and the grace of God, you may find redemption in the new colony. If not, we are well rid of you. May God have mercy on your soul.”
He slammed his gavel again and the judicial chamber instantly emptied, the entertainment for the morning being over. Only the court clerks remained, writing their notes as the bailiff led the slow-moving, clanking Margaret Dolan out of Old Bailey and across the yard to Newgate gaol. No one noticed the ragamuffin little boy watching from the public gallery as his sister was taken away.
JEROME W. MCFADDEN
Jerome W. McFadden is an award-winning short story writer whose work has appeared in 50 magazines, anthologies, and e-zines over the past ten years. His stories have been read on stage by the Liar’s League London and Liar’s League Hong Kong. His collection of short stories, Off The Rails, was published in October 2019 and was chosen as a finalist by both the 2020 Next General Indie Book Awards (short stories) and National Indie Excellence Awards (NIEA). He is also a co-editor of the BWG Writers Round.