Sent Down Under
Berkshire Life|September 2020
They were Berkshire petty criminals, sentenced to transportation. Some even became ‘Australian royalty’ as part of the First Fleet
John Wright

Two hundred years ago, life was very unbalanced between the rich and poor, many of the latter group having to steal to provide their families with food.

By the late 1700s crime in Britain was rife. Jails were filling up and the empire-building authorities cottoned on to the idea that they could not only empty their prisons but also populate a new colony, which Captain Cook had claimed for Britain during his 1770 voyage to the Pacific.

On 6 December 1785, orders were issued for a penal colony to be set up in New South Wales, and on 13 May 1787, the so-called First Fleet of 11 ships, carrying the first batch of 1,400 convicts –those sentenced at their trials to transportation instead of imprisonment – left Portsmouth bound for Botany Bay.

Over the years, Berkshire provided its fair share of some 136,000 men and 25,000 women transported. The usual term was seven years, men sent to farm, women being assigned as servants.

Some convicts couldn’t get there soon enough, like 25-yearold Rachel Early from Berkshire who, true to her name, was in the First Fleet. These convicts are thought of today as ‘Australian royalty’ for being original ‘founders’ despite the presence of the continent’s indigenous aborigines.

Facing the Reading Quarter Sessions in 1786 for stealing tea and silk worth 3 shillings (£24 today), Rachel spent part of the eight-month voyage in irons for “theft and dirtiness”. She married on arrival and in 1791 got “10 lashes for refusing to obey orders”, Mollie Gillen wrote in The Founders of Australia.

Newbury-born Lieutenant David Blackburn, as master of the armed tender, Supply, was also in the First Fleet. Arriving in Botany Bay on 18 January, he explored with Governor Arthur Phillip to find that Port Jackson (Sydney) was an even better place to settle.

Phillip had forgotten to bring “musket balls, paper, scythes, axes, crosscut saws, augers, chisels, wheelbarrows, canvas for sails, sheets, blankets, leather for shoes... and a list of convicts or their crimes or information about their sentences,” Mollie Gillen wrote.

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