From Newgate to the New World
A Study of London's Transported Female Convicts, 1718-1775
- On September 9, 1772 Alice Walker, 19 years old and a London citizen, was tried at the Old Bailey, the major criminal court serving London and Middlesex. Walker was charged with stealing a canvas bag, worth one penny, and approximately £12 in cash, from a waggoner named Thomas Atkins. Atkins claimed that Walker stole the bag from him while the two shared a drink at a local pub. Walker, at her trial, contested that Atkins had given her the money to "buy me some wearing apparel," and that he had asked her to go with him into the country the next day. The morning following the shared drink, the constable of Newgate Prison found Walker in bed with a different man named Michael Johnson, a tailor. The constable found the money in Johnson's possession and the canvas bag in his tailor shop. Despite her protestations of innocence, the court found Alice Walker guilty. Her sentence was transportation to Rappahannock, Virginia, where she would be sold as a convict servant for a period of seven years. See tables of Crimes and Sentences
Alice Walker was only one of about 5,000 women transported to the American colonies the eighteenth century. Although American historians have only begun to examine this phenomenon, current Australian historians study the lives of convicts transported to the Australian penal colonies in great depth. Recent scholarship focused on female convicts, in particular, is a growing field.  However, few American historians have examined the individuals, both men and women, the English government transported to the American colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The transportation of convicts to America by the English government is of vital importance to understanding the connection between the early history of the United States and the history of crime in England.
Convict transportation to the New World began in England during the late 16th century. However, it was not until 1718, that parliament passed the Transportation Act, decreeing that both defendants convicted of clergyable felonies and those found guilty of petty larceny—theft of items under one shilling—could be transported for seven years to work in the American colonies. The courts sentenced individuals convicted of petty larceny to transportation, while they pardoned on the condition of non-return those criminals convicted of more serious capital crimes. Pardoned felons were transported for fourteen years or life. These measures stipulated that returning felons faced the death penalty if caught on English soil before their sentence was complete. In 1720, a further statue allowed the state to contract with merchants for the transportation of these criminals, allowing individuals from the private sector to dispose of the convicts for their own profit. Between the years of 1718 and 1775—when the American Revolution caused the cessation of Atlantic convict transportation—around 50,000 men and women were sent to the American colonies as convict servants and auctioned off as labor. The majority of these convicts came from the London and Middlesex area and approximately 15,000 individuals tried at the Old Bailey alone were sentenced to transportation during the years 1718 to 1775. Of these 15,000 individuals sentenced to transportation at the Old Bailey, over 4,000 were women, ranging in age from 10 to 72 years. The provincial totals made up a mere fraction of these.
While few historians have focused on the issue of convict transportation to the American colonies, fewer still have concentrated on the females who journeyed to the New World. As a result, very little is known about these women. Women constituted roughly a third of the convicts sent to America, and nearly half of the women tried at the Old Bailey during the years 1718 to 1775 were sentenced to transportation. Their history has yet to be written. Although materials for studying individual female convicts are meager at best, a variety of questions can be answered by analyzing an assortment of primary documents, including court records, newspaper ads for runaways and popular literature from the eighteenth century. First, what crimes did these women commit? How old were these women and what were their occupations? What were the experiences of the women on board the transport ships? What kind of lives could they expect to face in the New World? By answering these questions, I hope to present the reader with a greater understanding of the female convicts transported to American during the years 1718 to 1775.
Until recently, historians of the colonial period of American history tended to view convict transportation as a system the British government used to supply cheap labor to the American colonies. Historians frequently assumed that the female convict themselves were primarily prostitutes, and that all convicts eventually "merged in [to] the general population of indentured servants, and each had the opportunity which was vouchsafed to any servant to make his place in the New World." During the 1960s, Walter Hart Blumenthal wrote Brides from Bridewell, which focused on a diverse number of women and children transported to New England, French Louisiana, Australia, beginning with female felons who traveled with Columbus. While the book has merit as an early attempt at looking at the female convicts transported to the New World, Blumenthal tended to romanticize convict women and shed little light on the women's lives either before or after transportation.
Recent historians, however, conceive of crime and the convict trade differently, while further work has also been done on the place of women felons in the criminal justice system and in transportation. First, historians have considered the history of crime in the 17th and eighteenth century as a larger context for the Transportation Act. As the population of England grew during these centuries, population shifted to the cities, chiefly London. Crime rates in London increased correspondingly. As more and more people were caught and convicted of crimes—many of them petty—the problem of what was to be done with these offenders became imperative. Capital punishment was not a viable option for many petty criminals, but when fewer convicts were executed and crimes of a less serious nature came increasingly to trial, Newgate Prison became appallingly overcrowded—a near-death sentence in itself. The British government's decision to transport these felons to the American colonies, therefore, reflected not just the desire for cheap labor in the colonies, but also the reform of the criminal justice system. The transportation laws of 1718 and1720 aided the city of London by relieving it of the cost of supporting large numbers of petty criminals in the two main prisons of Newgate and Bridewell. These laws, it was hoped, would also function as an effective deterrent to crime. One author noted that "transportation provided a means of excluding a felon from civil society almost as effectively as did death." In fact, many people sentenced to transportation petitioned the government for an alternate sentence. Elizabeth Howard, a twelve-year-old girl convicted of stealing three yards of ribbon worth three shillings and two pence, begged that the Mayor of London would "let her receive corporal punishment here for the heinousness of her crime and not to transport her out of her native isle." Unfortunately, Howard became ill while still in prison and she died there. 
Secondly, historians have questioned the notion that convict servants simply were amalgamated into colonial society. Rather than merging into polite society, these convicts remained outcasts, often treated very similarly to slaves. The runaway ads prevalent in New England newspapers during the eighteenth century reveal this bias, which was based on class structure of colonial America and prejudices against British convict servants.
Recent historians have also commented on the place of women within both the criminal justice system of Britain in the eighteenth century and as transported convicts. Not only did crime rates among the male population rise in this time period, but also both the perception of women as the cause of criminal activity and the percentage of women tried for a variety of crimes expanded. So-called "lewd women" were increasingly blamed for turning young men to lives of crime. Women, therefore, were implicated in male crimes. The predominance of this view also meant that more women were considered capable of committing crimes.
The crime rate among women was also unusually high during the seventeenth and eighteenth century in comparison to crime rates in other centuries. Historians have attempted to understand why this is so. In a recent study of crime during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, J.M. Beattie suggested that the rise of female crime could be attributed to a variety of factors. Many young women in this era moved to London seeking work. However, they faced a variety of problems in the large city. Their pay was considerably less than that received by men. Many women worked in the textile industries or went into domestic service, but few stayed in one job for a long time. Work for women also tended to be more seasonal, especially for women who worked in market gardens or peddling goods on the streets. Wives of unskilled male laborers also tried to supplement their family's earnings by performing a variety of odd jobs. However, with low wages and irregular work, many women were forced to consider other options to support themselves and their families. Some women turned to prostitution, others to begging. Still other women chose to steal, and of the thousands tried for theft at the Old Bailey, nearly half between the years 1718 and1775, received a sentence of transportation.
This last information comes from records of the Old Bailey, which are now available online. Still relatively underused, they contain a wealth of information on female crime and transportation in the eighteenth century. The records of the Old Bailey provide the researcher with at least basic information on the trials of all women sentenced, including those women sentenced to transportation. The majority of the transported women were found guilty of theft, primarily simple grand larceny, defined as stealing goods worth more than a shilling, but some of these women committed theft crimes as diverse as pick pocketing, receiving stolen goods, shoplifting, housebreaking, and highway robbery, all of which were distinguished from simple grand larceny. The items that these transported women stole were usually clothing, or household goods, including linen sheets, watches, silver spoons, candlesticks, gowns, holland shirts, stays, aprons, cloaks, jewelry, snuffboxes, and soap.
Historians and some contemporary observers traditionally believed that the transported female convicts were career criminals or prostitutes. While some of the women sentenced to transportation may indeed have been prostitutes, many of the charges brought against these women reveal that they were often household servants accused by their employers.
Of women transported during the years 1718-1775, none were accused of prostitution. While this would seem to give the lie to colonial stereotypes about the women sent to America, the problem with comparing women identified as prostitutes, though not indicted, is that the Old Bailey Records show no convictions for prostitution at all. Other records may supply this missing data, but for the moment, in looking at the busy year 1725 as an example, of the twelve women referred to as prostitutes in trials for theft, only one was transported. If these figures are borne out for other years, the colonists may have simply assumed—mistakenly—that all female convicts were prostitutes.  Comparisons of transported and non-transported convicts weakens, however, when faced with the fact that, while crime, place of origin, and sentence are nearly always present in the records, and while on occasion detailed accounts of the women and their crimes are given, in only 16% of cases (in the sample year 1725) is occupation information available.
Otherwise, still using the cases from 1725, where occupation is known, the convicted women not transported greatly resembled the 125 women transported. If the court usually transported domestic servants convicted of theft—usually simple grand larceny—it may be because that was the typical profile of all convicted women of known occupation in that year. An interesting feature in the 1725 data however, is that fact that 69%, or 18 of 26 thieves known to be servants were employees of their prosecutors, where as only 31%, or 8 of 26 non-transported thieves known to be servants were employed by prosecutors. This may indicate that transportation was a more humane form of punishment, or safer for the employer.
Finally, and very tentatively, in the 7% of cases in 1725, in which age is known, both transportation and acquittal are far more frequent among the younger women. This could suggest that women transported were both more saleable as servants, and were seen as having a chance to remake their lives, or that the executions of young women would arouse controversy.  Perhaps this also reveals a demand for marketable female felons in the colonies—women who had experience cooking, washing, and cleaning, and who were young enough to survive the passage across the Atlantic.
Whether transportation as a punishment was "severe" or "mild," the speculative picture is of servants more than prostitutes, and of women involved in simple household thefts. In short, the women transported to the American colonies were generally rather like the convicts not transported.
Historians also assumed that many of these convicted women were dependent criminals—i.e. they stole under the guidance of men. However, recent studies of gender in criminal activities revealed that although only a third of women acted alone, more women were prone to steal in female groups of two or more than they were to steal with men. Thus, these women were acting independently and their thefts reflect the growing problems of poverty and crime in the city of London, rather than females seducing—or being seduced by—men to a life of crime.
The women sentenced to transportation were a diverse group in terms of age and marital status. Some of the women were young and single, like Alice Walker. Others were older women, like Elizabeth Cowan, who was transported in her late 40s. In 1742, Catherine Davis, a young married woman who stole six yards of lace from a White-Chapel shop, was pregnant at the time of her transportation. Mary Featherstone, convicted of larceny, gave birth in the Cambridge prison while awaiting transportation. Despite her protestations, she was not allowed to bring the child with her. The British government also transported a number of female children and teenagers, some as young as nine or ten years. In July of 1731, a little girl named Elizabeth Armstrong was tried at the Old Bailey:
Elizabeth Armstrong, alias Little Bess, of St. Michael's Cornhill, was indicted for feloniously stealing two Silver Spoons, the Property of Rose Merriweather, the 3d of this Instant July. It appeared by the Evidence, That the Prisoner (who was a little Girl of about 9 or 10 Years of Age) having gotten in at the Prosecutor's Kitchen Window, which had been opened, and left so till about Six o'clock in the Morning, had handed out two Spoons to her Accomplices, and was surprised by the Apprentice coming out at the Window. The Fact being fully proved, the Jury found her Guilty to the Value of 10 d [10 pennies].
Elizabeth was sentenced to be transported. Her fate in the American colonies is unknown.
Convict women also varied in their occupations in the new world. Accounts of runaway convict servants from the Virginia Gazette reveal the diversity of female convict jobs. Elizabeth Berry, an Englishwoman, had worked as a dairymaid and a spinner. Sarah Knox, a widowed woman from Yorkshire, was a skilled dancing mistresses. Winifred Thomas, a young Welsh woman, was known as a knitter.
The journey over to the new world was often particularly dangerous for women. After the passage of the Transportation Law of 1720, once contract merchants filled the holds of their ships with transportees, the convicts were no longer under the care of the British government. In 1773, Alice Walker journeyed on board the Justitia, a ship notorious for its ill treatment of transported convicts a generation before. In 1743, the ship's captain, Barnet Bond, set severe water rations, allowing prisoners only one pint each day. At the end of the journey, 50 out of 170 convicts had died, and most had started to drink their own urine to stay alive. Convicts could expect to be at sea for six to eight weeks, kept in the lower part of the ship. Some convicts became seriously ill on the journey, while others died. Catherine Davis, the pregnant woman transported because she stole six yards of lace, gave birth on the convict ship the Forward. The baby died two weeks after its birth, and when Davis herself seemed on the verge of death, the ship's captain stole the goods from her trunk. Other women either by choice or through coercion turned to prostitution during the journey. Susanna Ball and Anne Ellis were transported to Virginia on theSuccess' Increase in 1774. While on board these female felons became "kept-women." Anne Ellis was the mistress of the second-mate, while Susanna Ball was sexually involved with a silversmith aboard the vessel. Goronwy Owen, a schoolteacher bound for Virginia, traveled on a convict vessel with his family in 1757. While a passenger on board the convict vessel Trial, Owen made some interesting observations concerning the treatment of female felons:
The seamen are a frightfully vile bunch of men. God be my keeper, every one of them has taken to himself a strumpet from amongst the she-thieves and do no work except whoring wanton in every corner of the ship. Five or six of them have already contracted the pox from the women, and there is no doctor here save myself . . . Do you remember how this tadpole of a captain promised that my wife could have one other she-thieves to serve her whilst at sea? One of them is here in the cabin, but it was to serve this husband's penis, and not to wait upon my wife, that she was brought here.
Although this account is particularly vehement towards women, it reveals that many female felons, willingly or not, had sexual relations with the crewmembers and even passengers of convict ships. However, the fact that a large number of sailors had sexually transmitted diseases should not necessarily be attributed to the female felons. In 1774, an unknown letter writer to Felix Farley's Bristol Journal mourned the sentencing of his two sisters to transportation:
Banished from all her friends, an affectionate mother, and other ties more tender, to a foreign country; perhaps to be rudily despoiled of her virginity and abused at will by the brutish seamen.
Venereal disease rates among "brutish" seamen were well known.
Upon arrival in the colonies, most convicts were immediately put up for sale. Some convicts, however, were forced to wait for a while until they were declared medically fit to enter the colonies. Advertisements in local newspapers announced the arrival of convicts, such as this one from the Virginia Gazette in 1768:
Just arrived, The Neptune, Captain Arbuckle, with one hundred and ten healthy servants, men, women and boys; among them are many valuable tradesman, viz. tailors, weavers, barbers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and joiners, shoemakers, a slaymaker, a cooper, cabinet-maker, bakers, silversmiths, a gold and silver refiner, and many others. The sale will commence at Loede Town on Rappahannock, on Wednesday the 9th of March. A reasonable credit will be allowed, giving approved security, to Thomas Hodge. Port Rappahannock. Permit Captain Arbuckle, of the ship Neptune, from London, having on board one hundred and ten convicts, to land them on this district, and to trade . . . 
While most male convicts were sold as artisans, plantation workers, or semi-skilled laborers, female convicts primarily served as household servants or cooks. Female convicts also sold for considerably less than male convicts. The men sold by the convict firm Stevenson, Randolph, and Cheston usually brought 10-14 pounds, while most women sold for between 5 and 9 pounds. Female labor value was cheaper for two possible reasons. First, women's labor was not as valuable to the growing commercial sector in the New World. Second, many women were suspected of having venereal diseases because of the stigma of prostitution. James Cheston, of the firm Stevenson, Randolph, and Cheston, offered buyers of convicts partial refunds if the felons they purchased were found to have flaws unknown at the time of purchase. Four out of the 48 female convicts sold by the firm during the years 1767 to 1775 were returned by their buyers, who claimed the women had venereal disease. Farley Grubb, the economist, speculated that the reason these women were returned, rather than any men—who may also have been affected with venereal disease—stemmed from the fact that convict women were employed within the households predominately: cooking for the families, and caring for the children. The risk of infection, therefore, was higher from female convicts who lived relatively intimately with colonial families. Another factor, which could have led to these women being returned, was the possible sexual exploitation of female convicts by their masters. The sexual exploitation of African slaves by their masters was a relatively common occurrence, and for the unscrupulous men who may have considered a convict servant woman his sexual property, the presence of venereal disease could have been a valid reason for taking these women back to the transportation companies.
We know Alice Walker's fate, for it appears in the digitalized Virginia Gazette. She was purchased by a prominent Virginian, Sampson Matthews, and his brother George on her arrival in March of 1772. The two men owned a large number of both slaves and convict servants, according to reports in the Virginia Gazette. Both men were renowned members of Virginia society. Following the American Revolution, Sampson Matthews went on to become a senator for the district of East Augusta. His brother George was a sheriff during the colonial period. However, their treatment of both slaves and convict servants is suspect, due primarily to the large numbers of both convict servants and slaves who ran away from the brothers. In 1769 three slaves fled from the Matthews brothers, and in 1773 ten convicts ran away, among them Alice Walker.
Newspaper advertisements for runaways provide some of the most detailed descriptions of colonial convict life. The descriptions of women who ran away from their masters reveal scars from beatings, tattoos, and attempts to create ties with other convicts. Winifred Thomas, a convict runaway, sported a tattoo on the inside of her right arm with the initials W.T. and "the date of the year underneath." Another runaway, Isabella Pierce, had scars on her right ankle, causing her to limp. While most of the female runaways advertised in the Virginia Gazette traveled alone, some ran away with other convicts. Alice Walker ran away with two fellow convicts, both men: John Steel, a cabinetmaker, and John Eaton, a shipcarpenter. The runaway ads report that Walker was going by the name of Alice Eaton at the time of her departure:
Run away last night, three English convict servants, viz. John Eaton, by trade a shipcarpenter, about 23 years of age and about 5 feet 3 or 4 inches high . . . Alice Eaton, alias Walker (who goes for the said John Eaton's wife) a low, well set woman, about 20 years of age, and has sandy coloured hair; had on a brown stuffed gown, a red stuff petticoat, and four red silk handkerchiefs. John Steel, by trade a cabinetmaker, about 18 years of age, 5 feet 5 or 6 inches high . . . 
Unlike Alice Walker, some female convicts servants obviously felt a certain amount of loyalty towards their owners, possibly due to good working conditions or kind treatment. One unnamed female convict servant came to the aid of her master and mistress when two male convicts attempted their murder. As a result of the female servant's assistance, both the man and his wife survived.
Although many colonists purchased convict labor, the prevailing opinion of convicts was overwhelmingly negative. In an article submitted to the Virginia Gazette in 1751, Benjamin Franklin suggested that in return for the felons transported to the colonies, the colonists would ship rattlesnakes over to England, for "the rattlesnakes seem the most suitable returns for the human serpents sent us by our mother country."  Thomas Jefferson himself tried to whitewash the issue of the convicts' place in American history. When a fellow American submitted an article for an Encyclopedia, describing three classes of people in early America—servants, slaves, and convicts—he responded:
The Malefactors sent to America were not in sufficient number to permit enumeration as one class out of three which peopled America . . . I do not think the whole number sent would amount to 2000, and being principally men, eaten up with disease, they married seldom and propagated little. I do not suppose that themselves and their descendants are at present 4000, which is little more than one-thousandth part of the whole inhabitants. 
Therefore, it is clear that the numbers of convicts sent to the colonies was something educated
Americans either denied or scorned, despite their part in the convict trade.
What happened to convict women during and following their period of servitude? Although books like Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders—published in 1722—painted a rosy picture of life for transported felons, the author's depiction of a female convict's life was in fact propaganda in support of the Transportation Acts of 1718 and 1720. Although Defoe's personal experiences in both the transport trade and Newgate Prison made him a reliable source for convict narratives, his political position was decidedly supportive of governmental aims to combat crime. Defoe's work presents transportation as an opportunity for convicts to start again. He represents the colonies as a happy place: Moll and her husband serve a kind master, who quickly sets them free. The couple is immediately able to set up a prosperous business following their discharge, and Moll ends her days back in England, "resolved to spend the remainder of [her] years in sincere penitence for the wicked lives [she had] lived." 
This does not seem to be the case for most female convicts. Few of the convict women listed in either the Old Bailey Proceedings or the Virginia Gazette can be traced. In a few cases, family members were able to retain relationships. One woman from Ireland, Mary M'Creary, worked with her son, John, at a Maryland Manor. However, her situation seems to be an isolated case. Only one female convict's death is registered in the Virginia Gazette—Elizabeth Canning. However, Canning was a noted celebrity at the time of her trial and a book published in 1754—which publicized her story of being kidnapped by a gang desirous of gaining girls to serve as prostitutes—made headlines in England, despite her conviction for perjury.  Canning was convicted in 1754, and died in Connecticut 20 years after her transportation. She apparently wed a man named Treat before her death and chose to stay in her new country rather than return to her native soil. 
It appears that Alice Walker returned to England following her escape from Sampson Matthews in 1773. Whether or not she was with John Eaton, the man who posed as her husband, is unknown. Walker was discovered in London in 1774, indicted for returning from transportation, and again tried at the Old Bailey. This time the punishment allotted was death. Luckily for Walker, the jury recommended mercy, and Walker was given a conditional pardon: her execution would be stayed if she would agree to be transported for a further 14 years. Walker returned to the colonies. Her remaining story remains unknown.
Finally, the experiences of British convict women transported to American colonies during the eighteenth century were primarily negative compared with the experiences of other American colonists. Most of the women transported to the colonies were thieves. Their crimes ranged from thefts of under a shilling, to major robberies. However, many of these women and girls may have had few options in life, due to a rising poverty problem in England's largest cities. The women were of many different ages, occupations, and marital statuses. Their journeys to the colonies were often difficult, many sought to avoid them, and some were sexually exploited. Female felons could expect to be purchased in America and to work as servants to colonial families. Usually these women were separated from all family members and many were mistreated. Some women chose to run away, others to stay and complete their sentences. Some of the women must have had children, raised families, and contributed to society. Yet, unfortunately, most of the women disappeared from all official records, leaving the scholar to assume that they died poor, unable to rise above the stigma of a convicted felon.
- For theft, older women—two were transported and two received a death sentence.
- For receiving stolen goods, older women—1 was branded, one acquitted and one transported.
- For theft, younger women—four were acquitted, six were transported, and one was branded.
- For theft, prostitutes, or presumed prostitutes—10 were acquitted, one was transported, and one was given a death sentence.
- For servants to the prosecutors accused of theft—18 were transported, three received a death sentence, one was branded, and four were acquitted.