The Surgeons and their Voyages - Tales from Transcribers

by Colleen Arulappu

Department of the

Physician General

Admiralty, 1st December, 1836

The Surgeons Superintendents of Convict Ships are particularly desired to notice, that they will be required to render a regular Sick Book, with the Journal, and the Nosological Synopsis now added thereto, in a complete and Scientific state, together with a certificate from the Medical Storekeeper at Deptford, as to the condition and number of their Surgical Instruments, in all respects the same as if employed in King’s Ships, agreeably to the new Instructions for the Service Afloat, and that in the event of any failure in these particulars, the Certificates necessary from this Department, to entitle them to receive their Pay and Allowances will be withheld.

W. Burnett

Transcribing the medical journals written by the surgeon superintendents aboard the convict transport ships was a journey itself, often taking often nearly as much time as a voyage and providing many glimpses of life aboard a convict transport ship. The routine, the accounts of illnesses and treatment and occasional brief tales of individual women vary but each surgeon gave something of himself in the journal jottings. Occasionally it was flash of humour, frustrations as their patients’ recovery from illness was slow and tedious, sometimes anger at disruption and revolt but always dedication to the regulations regarding cleanliness and avoiding dampness.  The surgeons deserve their own stories and recognition for their role in the history of transportation. They were men the Royal Navy could be proud of with their records of successfully delivering prisoners to the colonies.   

Colleen Arulappu

The Surgeons and their Voyages - Tales from Transcribers will be published below as a series of chapters.



  • Joseph Steret (Edward 1834) Open or Close

    Joseph Steret

    a.c 1801

    Edward 1834

     ‘by no means fond of taking medicine but very fond of complaining’.

    Joseph Steret was surgeon superintendent of the Edward which left Woolwich, England on 5 May 1834 and arrived in Hobart on the 4 September 1834. He was an experienced Royal Navy Medical Officer who was an assistant surgeon in 1817 and promoted to surgeon in 1824. The appointment to the Edward was his second voyage on a convict transport ship and the only one which carried females.  He served aboard male convict ships: the Camden 1833 to Port Jackson and later the Bardaster 1836 and the Neptune 1838 to Hobart. 

    Although Joseph Steret’s medical journal from the Edward is not a long document it is fascinating and at times humorous.  A quick passage and “tolerably” fine weather made the voyage comfortable enough to prevent serious health conditions developing and allowed him time to write of problem behaviour.  There were one hundred and fifty-one female convicts and twenty children aboard with no deaths of convict women or children during the voyage.  The women arrived at the ship in small numbers at different times and some had travelled considerable distances. Joseph Steret thought the transfer from jail caused fatigue and catarrh but none severe enough to be sent to hospital.

    The Edward was a class AE1 ship, a category of older vessel which had passed the prescribed age but not sufficiently repaired to restore a continuation of a class A1 certificate.  Steret considered the design of the ship with its “great height and comparative shortness” caused the ship in a head-on sea “to labour beyond anything I could have fancied”.  

    In the first weeks of the voyage all of the women and passengers suffered from sea-sickness.  The motion of the vessel led them to suffer headaches and sluggish bowels which Steret said sometimes would “permit constipation to a length quite astonishing”, without complaint or feeling great inconvenience for upwards of fourteen days. He treated these cases by prescribing Croton Oil and Epsom Salts dissolved in an Infusion of Gentian, two or three times a day, to ease the problem.

    Fainting and hysteria fracas were frequent ailments, particularly in the first months.  Cold ablutions brought the fainted back to consciousness and Steret regarded the hysteria as a common problem among young girls. His dealings with a couple of the younger women might have strengthened his opinion.

    However, the main topic of his journal was Mary Creed who had been sentenced to fourteen years transportation "for stealing a watch from the person".  It was her behaviour rather than a medical problem of any importance that put her in the hospital and Joseph Steret was concerned that he might bear the blame if anything happened to her on the voyage.  A letter was sent to him from the medical officer at Horsemonger Lane Gaol stating that Mary Creed had been bedridden for three years although there were doubts about her inability to walk. He also received an official intimation that it was “considered advisable’ to allow her to undertake the voyage as “Her temper and habits in the prison were so vile - her removal was thought to be necessary”. The jail officials clearly wanted to be rid of her. “She is reported by the person who brought her here, to be of the most stormy temper, frequently throwing articles at the matrons and nurses and keeping the whole prison in subjection to her untameable passions; doing so with perfect impunity either from want of power, or will in the persons, having charge, until I understand it is quite a jubilee to have closed her out.” Steret examined Mary and regarded her in sufficiently good general health to justify taking her, even though she would be bedridden for a greater part, if not all, of the voyage.

    Mary told Steret that she had lost movement in her lower limbs around the time of her last conviction when she was given mercurial treatment for a gonorrhoeal discharge. However, he found the limbs were not wasted or paralysed and that she could move them freely. He saw that she used her hands and knees to move about the bed “with facility in that manner” and thought if there was any disability it must have been in her feet and ankles. Other prisoners told him that they had seen her walking and the only medical problem he found was constipation and prescribed a dose of Castor Oil.

    Being constantly bedridden caused difficulties and she soon became a nuisance to those around her. The matron asked Steret to admit her to hospital because her presence had “destroyed the comfort of others in the mess”.  Mary could not believe her bad luck and was “exceedingly astonished” that she remained on board and said that they would have had trouble getting her out of the Gaol had she known.

    Her messmates were anxious to be rid of her because she was one of the most expert thieves and “conveyancers” on board and a “good planner of robbery”. Steret investigated a theft and proved that Mary, with the help of two girls, was the main instigator of the robbery and the receiver of the booty. “She is so cunning that she was prepared for this accusation and had told me this morning that it would be made in order to prejudice me against her, the other women being envious because I was kind to her. She received the information that the evidence against her was conclusive with great coolness merely looking sulky”.

    A battle of wits between Mary and Steret continued with Mary claiming her teeth were loose but he examined them and did not find any problem.  Sea-sickness was common among the women and Mary suffered greatly from it. Steret wrote- “The poor unfortunate has been most dreadfully seasick; with intense headache”He accused her of “shaming” fits and fainting in order to be given wine which she said she was allowed and had a half pint daily while in prison. He remarked, “I do not wonder that she remained in her bed more than two years, when by doing so she got everything she asked for”. Instead of giving her wine to ease the fits and fainting he ordered blisters to be applied to her stomach and neck.  She ripped off the dressings and quickly recovered from in a “special short time’’

    One day after divine service Mary asked to be carried up on deck where she remained for a couple of hours and then “shamed syncope beautifully” hoping for a little additional wine.  Instead she was given water which she spat out.  She got sulky with Steret because he would not give her wine every day and she only received wine occasionally and preserved meats two or three times a week. He remarked that she was, “by no means fond of taking medicine but very fond of complaining”.

    For the first month aboard ship Mary and Steret had come to an understanding that it would be best for her to be quiet, and her bad behaviour was held in check, but it broke out after an argument with another woman.  Steret wrote, A storm in the Hospital between Creed and one of the women. She uses the most foul, and abusive language with a fluency to me quite astonishing – but the threat of the strait waistcoat and shaving and blistering her head as if she were mad quieted her”. After that incident Steret put her in Coventry for a week or more and peace reigned. Two weeks later she was in a particularly good humour and made a display of trying to walk across the hospital with the aid of two girls and then busied herself making a pudding. Steret said all the “fine weather behaviour was to obtain a little more wine and she constantly asked for medicine which she seldom if ever took.

    Mary had excoriations about the labia caused by her dirty habits and she was annoyed with Steret for not examining them but instead had directed the nurse to examine her. The abrasions were of no consequence and she continued to be very sulky with him because he would not give her wine every day and only a gill when allowed.

    One night a light was not sent down early enough for Mary’s liking so she took a broomstick and began beating it against the deck. Steret’s response was not to send down a light at all and the next morning he ordered her removal, “bag and baggage”, into the centre of the after prison. He organized some of the ship’s crew to assist in her removal which was not a simple task.   She tried to scratch and kick and bite the men and I understand frightened some of them, however there she is”. There seemed to be some satisfaction in “however, there she is”.

    On the prison deck Mary managed to get drunk and made a glorious row and had to be restrained by a strait waistcoat. Steret avoided going near her and she screamed and shouted until she had lost her voice. “I would not be much astonished at this, from the mode in which she exercised her lungs” he wrote.

    After a few days Mary wrote a long letter to Steret expressing her sorrow and contrition and as usual asked for wine and blankets.  Steret kept well away from her which did nothing to improve her behaviour and she threw a spitting-pot at one girl’s head.  When Steret still had not appeared two days later she sent him an abusive letter, “one of the most extraordinary letters of abuse possible… This I suppose is because I have not been near her since she was turned out of the Hospital”.  Again, “During the night she exercises her lungs in a manner to show there was nothing wrong either with the lungs or trachea, and that the whole affair of her aphonia (loss of voice) was simulation”.

    Another letter of apology and contrition was sent but this time Mary threw the blame on some of the other women and asked for more blankets. Steret had screens put up around her and provided her with an extra blanket as the weather had turned cold. The journey continued and her behaviour remained contained, in fact, Steret said she had “gone on pretty well”, until the last few weeks of the voyage when she managed to get drunk.  It was not revealed how she obtained the alcohol but perhaps some of the sailors had a hand in it. “she contrived to get drunk and threw the whole after prison into a complete uproar. I ordered her to be sluiced with three buckets of cold salt water – which made her tolerably quiet”.  Steret considered her conduct inexcusable as William Martin, the master of the ship, had died from heart disease the evening before and his body had still not been sent to the deep.   

    The drenching with sea water did the trick and Mary was ‘pretty well’ behaved for the remainder of the voyage. But she apparently did not recover her ability to walk because she was set to hospital in Hobart. Steret’s final entry for Mary was: “I had the satisfaction of sending her to the care of my friend Dr Scott at Hobart Town. In nearly quite as good health as I had received her”. Mary Creed, originally from County Cork, Ireland, was 27 years old when she arrived in Hobart. She found her feet and was assigned work but drunkenness and trouble were never far away. In April 1836 she was sent to the Factory in Hobart where she refused to work and was ordered to the wash tubs. A further offence, of mending her stays with parts of a sheet from the hospital, saw her sentence extended and to be served in a solitary working cell. She died at the Female House of Correction on 17 October 1836.

    Nearly as troublesome for Steret was eighteen-year-old Martha Brookes who had been sentenced to fourteen years transportation for stealing a pair of stays. Martha had breast pain and vomited blood clots and was treated with digitalis.  However, when her health improved she had a night out in the main prison with her friends, became drunk and, commenced a fight with another woman.  Steret said that although Martha was a very slight creature and her opponent was at least half as big again she by, “all accounts acquitted herself gallantly – for which she is now doing penance in the “Solitary Cell” on low diet”.  He finished his account with the words, “Requiesat in pace”.

    Joseph Steret’s gentle quirky humour appears throughout his journal. He may well have wished Martha Brookes a quiet time in solitary with his remark but perhaps he wanted some peace and quiet. 

    Another patient, Mary Wake, suffered a bout of diarrhoea and was admitted into the hospital. She was cured after two weeks but obviously enjoyed the medical comforts and food provided and Steret remarked, I do not think my fat friend Mary – would have any objection to remain in the Hospital during the voyage”.  His gentle teasing told us much about Mary and her contentment by being given a better diet and conditions in hospital.

    The descriptions of the character of the patients were colourful insights into things which happened during the voyage and although Joseph Steret added his humorous asides he did not write in derogatory terms of the women. He told of actions which were disturbing to other prisoners and made managing them frustrating and difficult but he did not cast the women as wicked nor write of them with contempt. One young woman was scolded for being careless and thoughtless because her illness was a result of her own actions in exposing herself to the rain. He also wrote of an accident aboard the ship when an unsecured cannonball became loose.  Mary Gillard was sitting by the capstan when the cannonball rolled her way, caught her clothes and dragged her away with it.    A couple of people caught hold of the cannonball and extricated Mary Gillard who ended up with a slight hurt in her side and thigh.

    Joseph Steret complained of the damp and wet of the prison. He said the ship was so high out of the water that the strains on her upper deck and poop allowed rain or fine sprays of water an easy passage into the prison. He felt it contributed to the outbreak of scurvy which affected mostly the old and infirm women.  By the end of the voyage there were many such cases but only a few women were confined to bed.  They were given lemon juice and preserved meats and were able to reach their destination.  Steret felt strongly that if the voyage had continued any longer many could have lost their lives. Not one prisoner died on the journey.

    However, there was one death and it was the master, W.J. Martin, who had been ill at Deptford before the ship left.  He received medical treatment in London for inflammation of the lungs and recovered but in the latter part of the voyage succumbed to heart disease. Joseph Steret performed an autopsy which revealed evidence of damage to the heart and provided an exact cause of death.

    With few medical cases described there is little about the medicines and treatment Joseph Steret used but in the General Remarks he listed saline draughts, camphor and opium, purgatives, ammonia blister and bleeding. He concluded that the “very number of my remedies proved how little good resulted from any one”. He said that ammonia dissolved in camphor mixture and given as an effervescent with citric acid was the preferred medicine. In two cases of pneumonia he prescribed digitalis and said,” it exerts a powerful and beneficial influence over her vascular system”.

    Joseph Steret’s first voyage on a convict transport ship had been in charge of a group of male convicts and in his general remarks at the end of the journal from the Edward he made a comparison between male and female convicts. – “women having fewer restrictions, and much more room than men – they are besides much more cleanly in their prisons and mess places – and are therefore I consider less liable to disease”.

    The last comment in the journal was a tribute to the late master of the ship and the officers. “It is but justice to the late master and officers to say they cheerfully complied with all my demands” –  Joseph Steret was in his early thirties when he made the voyage aboard the Edward.  The fair weather and the fewer cases of serious illness among the women made his task as surgeon superintendent not as onerous as some voyages. He probably had time to converse with the master and officers and his humour would have made him a welcome sailing companion. Perhaps at times they enjoyed a fine wine after the late evening meal unaware of the drunken revelries below.

    After the voyage on the Edward in 1834, Joseph Steret made three further voyages to Port Jackson and Hobart.


    The medical journal from the Edward 1834.

    National Archives UK; ADM 101/22/8 No 37,


    Mary Creed; Conduct record, 40/1/1 page 137

    Martha Brookes; Conduct record 40 /1/1 page 150


  • Robert Espie (Lord Sidmouth 1823) Open or Close

    Robert Espie

    1. c1790 Derry, Northern Ireland, d 1870

    Robert Espie was Surgeon Superintendent on convict ships

    Morley 1817 (175 males to Sydney)

    Shipley 1818 (150 males to Sydney, 4 deaths)

    Dorothy 1820 (190 males to Sydney)

    Lord Sidmouth 1823 (97 females to Hobart and Sydney, 1 death)

    Lady Rowena 1826 (100 females to Sydney)

    Mary 1830 (168 males to Hobart, 1 death)

    Roslin Castle 1834 (230 males to Sydney, 3 deaths)

    Elizabeth 1836 (161 females to Sydney)


    723 males - 8 deaths  358 females - 1 death


    The Rules Hung Up in the Prison

    A copy of the Rules and Regulations to be observed on Board the Lord Sidmouth Convict Ship during her voyage (to) New South Wales – which was hung up in the prison.


    The Surgeon & Superintendent being strictly enjoined to prevent all unlawful intercourse between the sailors and the women, he will punish most severely every appearance of intimacy or advances towards it.-


    Any woman who shall be guilty of swearing or any expression of an indecent or immoral tendency (shall) be punished by solitary confinement and put on a bread and water ’till she shall appear to have mended her conduct.-


    Cleanliness being essentially necessary for the health and comfort both of the Convicts- and passengers it is particularly order’d that the persons occupying each Bedcabin or Birthplace shall make or fold up their Bed Blanket and pillow in a tight Roll with three cords ready for being stow’d upon Deck and that they will then make their positions of sleeping places and the Deck as clean as shall be judged necessary by the Surgeon & Supt. who will inspect them every morning before Breakfast. Any deviation from this will meet the severest punishment.-


    Any person disturbing the peace and comfort of the rest either by sitting up late or being up unnecessarily at night shall be curtail’d of all indulgence during the passage and on arriving at N. So Wales shall be reported as troublesome characters to the Governor.-


    Any person found thieving from others shall be made a severe example of by putting them in solitary confinement on Bread and water and stopping all indulgence until evident signs of Reform take place.-


    That the prisons shall be convinced they have the due proportion of the Victuals allow’d them by Government - it is the Surgeon and Supts. directions that two women shall attend alternately to the issuing of the provisions and that this may not be dispensed with.-


    The Surgeon being anxious to establish a system of good order and industry at the period of the home embarkation thinks it is necessary to say that all complaints and grievances are to be represented to him only, and that in order they may appear clean and decent they shall be allowed two washing days every week Vigt: Tuesday and Friday, but it is of the same strictly forbid they should make any waste of the fresh water.



    Lord Sidmouth,

    11 September 1822 – 27 February 1823


    I cannot but express my great joy at having got rid of so troublesome a charge.

    Robert Espie had the rules to be observed during the voyage hung up in the prison and his journal showed that he applied the rules to all on board the Lord Sidmouth.   He entered the Navy List of medical officers in 1814, obtained seniority in February 1815 and, by 1823 had experience as a surgeon on four convict transport ships taking male convicts to Sydney.  As surgeon superintendent on the Lord Sidmouth he was in charge of 97 female convicts and 23 of their children; 50 of the women were destined for Hobart and 47 to Sydney.  There were also 21 free women passengers and 49 of their children. On the day before sailing Rev. Mr Henry Williams of the Church Missionary Society boarded with his wife and three children.  Robert Espie served on four more ships to Sydney and Hobart so his career as Royal Naval surgeon aboard convict transport ships spanned nearly twenty years.

    The medical journal from the Lord Sidmouth is an account of the happenings aboard ship as well as noting the illnesses and treatment. Robert Espie recorded much about daily life, the problems and mishaps, the frustrations, the regulations that were broken and the offences and punishments. The entries began while the ship was at Woolwich and he wrote that the women appeared healthy and robust as they arrived from various jails. He said they were tractable and kindly to each as they embarked and settled aboard ship and were organized as best he could devise for their health and comfort. Once the mess groups were sorted they were issued their bedding and showed, “most strictly” how to scrub and clean every part of the prison.  Superfluous baggage belonging to the prisoners and the free passengers were stowed in the hold.  

    Mrs Pryor and Mrs Coventry, Christian ladies, visited on six occasions during the three weeks at Woolwich as the women embarked. Mrs Pryor spoke to the women and distributed useful articles of haberdashery. On some visits she gave aprons and items for patchwork to those who had just arrived and offered “a great deal of good advice”. Before the ship sailed, the ladies, accompanied by two gentlemen from the Missionary Society, boarded for a final visit and handed out bibles.  Mrs Pryor read an address, which Robert Espie said was extremely appropriate and affecting, and took leave of the women in a most kindly manner.

    Robert Espie clearly set out the order which he planned to follow during the journey. Cleanliness, scrubbing the decks and stowing bedding was a daily ritual and he remarked on it each day and, with the few exceptions of rough weather, he was pleased with the arrangements. When he instructed the women in their duties he found that they were expert at cleaning. He also said that it was unusual for the ship to have scupper holes on the lower deck but it enabled the deck to be washed as it was done on a man-of-war. The women were mustered on Sundays and Christmas Day for divine service and in several entries, Robert Espie said they were clean and comfortable. On one occasion he mustered them in their messes and found them “exceedingly clean and orderly”. Even towards the end of the voyage he mentioned that cleanliness and good order were carried on “as usual”.  Hot weather as the ship progressed towards the south made the prison uncomfortably hot and Robert Espie had awnings spread on the main deck and kept the women up all day.

    Sea sickness struck as soon as the ship moved along the Thames and even while at anchor at Margate all the women were ill.  Within days the weather became rough and most of the women were excessively seasick. It kept up and many became dispirited.  Throughout the voyage sea sickness and nausea affected some whenever the weather caused the ship’s motion to be excessive. Robert Espie thought the women should be kept occupied and distributed the patchwork left in his charge and in one entry mentioned that they worked at their quilts. The children had schooling supervised by the clergyman and two free women passengers.  According to the journal schooling went on regularly and was attended even by some of the women. An “intelligent prisoner woman” assisted the clergyman. In one entry Robert Espie wrote, “I find that there is no method so effective as keeping them on deck and employed as they seem to have a natural propensity for lolling about.”

    Robert Espie’s rules outlined the responsibilities and the consequences for infringements as well as the rights to which the women were entitled and the means for them to complain. He adhered to the regulations closely and throughout his journal described enforcement of the rules by all on board, not only by the women prisoners but, the master and the sailors also.   Rule number one was that there should be ‘no unlawful intercourse between the sailors and the women’ and it was broken even before the ship sailed. “The situation of a Surgeon Superintendent of a woman Convict Ship if he does his duty can be no sinecure as they constantly require to be looked after and particularly to restrain them from contact with the sailors – this can only be done by beginning well at first and checking all appearance of intimacy before the Ship leaves England directing the Master to discharge any sailor who may shew a disposition this way which I did in two or 3 instances, to his no small annoyance”. Robert Espie upheld the regulation and two or three sailors were dismissed. The master of the ship, James Ferrier, was not at all pleased. It was not to be his only conflict with Robert Espie.

    Although the women were said to be orderly as they boarded, not all kept up the good behaviour and some soon became obstreperous.  While the ship was still at Woolwich, Robert Espie had occasion to bring out the handcuffs. One woman was accused of violent and abusive conduct in the prison after dark and another of violent and abusive language.  Each was handcuffed for a day. One of them, Sarah Bolland, was released after promising to be better behaved but it was a promise she did not keep as she had two further periods of confinements. Robert Espie described her as an abandoned character.

    Twenty women’s names were mentioned in accounts of punishments and four women lost their wine allowance following an incident of poor behaviour.  Trouble after the prison doors were locked at dark merited punishment. Violent and abusive conduct, fighting, disturbing the peace or being disorderly towards messmates resulted in being handcuffed or put into solitary confinement in the coal hole. The penalties were sometimes applied for the eight hours of daylight but more often for a twenty-four-hour period.  At least ten women spent time in the coal hole. Two women, who spent twenty-four hours cuffed together in the coal hole because of riotous behaviour, were released but returned for another twenty-four hours after they said they did not value Robert Espie and used many “hard words of indecorous meaning”. A serious charge of abusive and mutinous conduct also earned two women twenty-four hours handcuffed together, side by side, in the coal hole. Perhaps there was only one set of handcuffs or Robert Espie let them have a free arm for balance.

    Six women had their heads shaved; a loathed punishment. Theft immediately resulted in that sentence and four women were so proved guilty; one of whom had acted a servant to the clergyman. Two women behaved boisterously and outrageously one afternoon while the ship as at anchor in Rio Harbor.  Robert Espie said they were incorrigible and ordered their heads to be shaved as it was the only punishment which they seemed to regard.

    The ship was in Rio for two weeks while water was loaded; a task Robert Espie stated was tedious, expensive and laborious. But that was not the only problem in Rio Janeiro. Robert Espie strictly enforced the rules of behaviour and punished the offenders regularly but he also protected the rights of the women. Several went to him and complained that they had not received their usual allowance of provisions. He investigated and found that it was “entirely owing to the villainy of the ship’s steward” and wanted him dismissed.  That was a position that the ship’s master did not agree with and refused. Robert Espie prevented the ship from sailing until he had redress for the “ill conduct of the steward”. The standoff continued for nearly three days before the master reluctantly dismissed the steward and the ship proceeded out to sea.

    The Rev. Henry Williams, who became a well-known figure as leader of the Church Missionary Society in New Zealand, organized the schooling aboard ship and conducted divine service on Sundays.  Robert Espie usually referred to him as “the missionary” or “the clergyman” but one remark summed up his feelings about the man.  After divine service one Sunday, Robert Espie wrote- “the Methodist tears up preaching by the roots”. Rev. Williams had a forceful, energetic personality and preached to his congregation of prisoners who reacted by singing bawdy songs. Rev. Williams wanted it stopped and the master of the ship was not in favour so the task fell to Robert Espie.  The penalty of losing half their wine allowance after bad behaviour one Sunday was surely linked to that singing.

    The voyage was a long one but there was only one death among the convict women. Fifty-year-old, Mary McGowan, died from dysentery. She started treatment but then refused to take the mercurial medicines Robert Espie prescribed for her.  Mercury was the treatment given to patients suffering from venereal disease and Mary McGowan thought that she was falsely regarded as having that complaint and had been trapped into taking the medicines. Her mouth became very sore from the mercury and she made her feelings known. “This woman who was a most abandoned character attacked me today in the most violent manner regarding the soreness of her mouth and accused me of having beguiled her into it, with many hard sayings and vile epithets not fit to repeat and in fine protested she would not under any terms take any thing again in the shape of physic”. Robert Espie said her obstinacy resulted in her death. “neither entreaty nor force could prevail on this wretch to take anything in the shape of physic”.

    There was another tragic death during the voyage.  One Sunday evening three days before Christmas, the children were playing on deck when ten-year-old Robert Borsch fell overboard.  Although others were about, the incident was not discovered for twenty minutes and the boy was never sighted again.

    Despite the voyage being so long, Robert Espie managed the health of the women well. Seasickness caused difficulties and bowel problems were treated with purgatives.  The lancet and blistering were used often and patients given sago and wine. Several entries mentioned that patients had Donkins Preserved Meat. Food preserved in cans was a recent innovation by Bryan Donkins who had set up a preserving company. Robert Espie made good use the product to provide more nutritious food to help his patients regain their strength.

    Throughout the journal the instances of offense and punishments were numerous but fell within the rights of a surgeon to discipline those he had in his charge. But Robert Espie was unhappy when the boatswain struck one woman because she was insolent.  He said the “unfortunate creature” did not possess her right faculties and took care to prevent the recurrence of any similar incidents.

    Those mentioned as free women passengers were the wives of convicts who were re-joining their husbands. One was the mother of twin girls, aged about eighteen months.  The children had been born in the workhouse and Robert Espie said they were starved and weighed only about 15 pounds.  Although they could speak and even displayed curiosity, they did not survive the voyage. Their mother tried to keep breast feeding despite entries to wean them. She was in poor health and barely survived herself.   On arrival in Hobart several of the free women were met by their husbands when the ship docked and within a week all of those destined for Hobart were re-united with their husbands.

    Robert Espie continued on the voyage to Sydney with 47 women convicts.  His final journal entry at Sydney Cove

    “I cannot but express my great joy at having got rid of so troublesome a charge”.

    No doubt the number of resistant and rowdy women who caused problems on the prison deck was high and made Robert Espie’s task of orderly routine difficult to enforce.  However, conflict with the ship’s master and engaging with a forceful religious personality on board could only have added to his angst at times. Rows over the dismissal of the ship’s steward and stopping the obscene ditties which offended Mr Williams and his family made for strained relations even among those on the upper decks.



    Rev. Henry Williams

    By Unknown - Alexander Turnbull Library; picture ref: 1/2-052461, Public Domain.


    Another account of the voyage was given in the writings of Marianne Williams, the wife of the clergyman.  She found the convicts quarters to be wretched and said conditions on board were made more uncomfortable by a plague of cockroaches and told of being becalmed for three weeks just north of the equator.  She also regarded the schooling as unsuccessful but wrote that it helped with maintaining order. Her husband, Henry Williams, intervened to settle a dispute between the ship’s master and Robert Espie. Perhaps it was at the time of the standoff in Rio Harbour.

    Robert Espie’s feelings about his experience as surgeon on female convict transports could be summed up in his words in the incomplete journal from his voyage on the Elizabeth to Sydney 1836.   He called himself a “fine dolthead” to get appointed to a women’s ship’.  He was nearly stabbed before the Elizabeth left Woolwich and felt he did not succeed in managing the women aboard to his satisfaction. He said he had strong prejudice against corporal punishment but used a good stout piece of rope to whip the women as other methods such as confinement and cutting their hair proved too lenient. He whipped them “soundly” over the arms, legs and back (whatever the saints may think), till he conquered every refractory spirit among them.

    Surgeons were paid passage money to return to England after their voyages to the colonies. After the voyage on the Shipley in 1818 Robert Espie returned to England aboard it accompanied by six other surgeons. No doubt many tales were told during their days at sea.

                When Robert Espie sailed to Van Diemen’s Land on the Dorothy in 1820 his brother, George, was also on board.  After reaching Hobart, Robert Espie was appointed acting surgeon at Port Dalrymple but within a few months resigned due to ill health and returned to England aboard the Guilford with his brother. He married Janet Jerman in 1828.  However, George Espie returned to Hobart and applied for land and was at times in business with Robert who also established a property in the New Town area after his last voyage in 1836 but again it was sold.  In 1854, Robert and Janet Espie applied for a further grant of land. But Janet Espie died in England that same year.

    Robert Espie was living in England at the time of the 1861 census.



    Medical Journal from the Lord Sidmouth, National Archives UK ADM 101/44/10

    Medical Journal from the Elizabeth, National Archives UK ADM 101