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Lucy Frost, Abandoned Women: Scottish Convicts Exiled Beyond the Seas

Lucy Frost, Abandoned Women: Scottish Convicts Exiled Beyond the Seas, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2015, ISBN 978-1-76029-026-9, RRP $22.99, pp 1-231
Review by Dr Catie Gilchrist Lucy Frost, Abandoned Women: Scottish Convicts Exiled Beyond the Seas, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2015, ISBN 978-1-76029-026-9, RRP $22.99, pp 1-231 Lucy Frost’s most recent book, Abandoned Women: Scottish Convicts Exiled Beyond the Seas follows the lives of women convicted of crime in Scotland and who were subsequently transported to Van Diemen’s Land on the convict transport ship the Atwick in 1838. Remarkably, Scottish women constituted 78 out of the 151 women transported on this ship and yet relatively little attention has been given to them by historians. The book skillfully weaves these women’s pre-transportation lives together with their experiences as convicts in the colony and, for those that left paper trails behind them, their subsequent lives as free women. The story starts in Scotland in the 1830s and paints a bleak and stark picture of life for poor and mostly unskilled women. Most of the women we meet in the book were transported for stealing, often a crime of desperation by vulnerable women struggling to survive life in the newly industrializing cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. Many were born in rural Scotland and the transition to the cities had proved fraught and difficult. Some were married with children, others were single mothers, many more were friendless lonely teenagers with little choice but to live off their wits and find shelter and food by whatever means necessary. What is truly remarkable about their stories is the fact that these women’s experiences after they arrived in Van Diemen’s Land were many and varied and the book charts the ups and downs of their lives in the convict colony. Some languished soon after arrival and died in the Female Factories; others were spirited and unruly and refused to conform to colonial ideals of femininity. Many of these women would be assigned to colonial masters and they would spend years oscillating between service in assignment and being sent back to the Female Factory as punishment for some small misdemeanor which had offended their masters – usually for ‘disorderly conduct’ which often alluded to drinking and swearing in the case of convict women. And yet some women of the Atwick like Elizabeth Williamson were assigned to decent masters and served out their sentences with no further offences recorded on their records. Within three years Elizabeth was granted her ticket of leave which enabled her to work for wages and eventually marry. She married twice and remarkably, twenty three years after her arrival as a convict in Van Diemen’s Land, she left the colony as a wealthy widow and sailed back to London. Her story is a reminder that transportation brought opportunities as well as punishment for women exiled from their homelands. Yet many other women and their children were not so fortunate. By 1841 eight of the Scottish women had died; many more would turn to alcohol to cope with their forced exile which often brought them into trouble and some ended their lives as alcoholic vagrants. Others would resist the authorities from the start. Within fifteen months of her arrival on board the Atwick, Ann Martin from Edinburgh had been brought before the authorities no less than ten times. Her convict record would eventually run to twenty two charges of resisting the convict system. Mary Sheriff was similarly a troublesome prisoner for the authorities and her original sentence of seven years transportation would be extended by another six years as she moved in and out of the colonial penal institutions for various offences against the system. Perhaps the most unexplored aspect of convict women’s lives in Australia’s convict historiography is their children. Prior to conviction some children witnessed their mother’s crimes; others were born in prison. Some were left behind in Scotland never to see their wayward mothers again. Other convict women brought their children out with them on the Atwick and fought tooth and nail to hold onto them.  Perhaps more shockingly to contemporary readers, a few convict women brought their children with them and then abandoned them in the colony’s orphan schools; they had no desire to ever retrieve them or even acknowledge their existence once new lives had been forged upon freedom from their penal sentences. This is a rather distressing side of convict women’s lives yet the author writes with both sympathy and nuance - testimony to her abilities as a researcher and author. Many convict women eventually became free and married. Again their experiences varied from those who married violent and abusive men to others who went on to have long and prosperous relations. In both categories many lost children from infant and toddler deaths; others would live to see extended families and grandchildren grow up. Indeed in 1888, the year of centenary in New South Wales and fifty years after the Atwick first unloaded its dubious cargo on the shores of Van Diemen’s Land, at least thirteen of the women were still alive; seven of the Scottish women and six of the English. And this is perhaps the essence of this book – a remarkable human story of life and resilience, survival and struggle in the Nineteenth Century. In 1838 Margaret Alexander (eventually Boothman), an illiterate teenager from Stirling arrived on the Atwick having been transported for theft. When she died aged 93 years in December 1912, she had prospered in so many ways; as the wife of a pioneer farmer and as a respected pillar of the community.  She had also left a signed will. And as the author reminds us of these women, ‘none of them had achieved notable success in the eyes of the world, and yet even to have attained what we might call the ordinary comforts of daily life is quite impressive, given the difficulties with which they began’. Lucy Frost has written a meticulously researched, richly detailed and utterly convincing book. You really get to know these women by the closing chapters. Both the writing and the stories are so compelling this reviewer would like to suggest that this book would make a fabulous television drama. In using a wide variety of contemporary sources – from Scottish criminal trial records and petitions sent to the home office, to colonial convict indents, marriage, burial and orphan school records, the author has beautifully brought to life the lives of the Scottish women of the Atwick. This book will appeal to a wide audience – from academic historians to general readers of history, women’s studies and Australian studies. It will also greatly delight readers who enjoyed reading about other ships bringing convict women to the shores of Australia, most notably Sian Rees’, The Floating Brothel and Babette Smith’s A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson and the Convicts of the Princess Royal. Catie Gilchrist has an MA in History from The University of Glasgow, an MA in Women's History from Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, The University of London and a PhD in convict history from Sydney University. Catie has written extensively for the Dictionary including  Forty years of the Elsie Refuge for Women and Children, William Chidley at Speakers Corner, World War I and the Peace Society in Sydney, The Empress Hotel, Redfern and Harriet and Helena Scott. Catie lectures in history in the Department of History at Sydney University and has worked on a variety of academic history projects.
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