Thursday, 19 September 2013

That infernal brothel: the story of Bet Carter (c1770 - ?), a convict to New South Wales

At the end of April 1794 The Surprize convict ship set sail from Portsmouth bound for Botany Bay. Her master was Patrick Campbell and the first mate was Mr McPherson. On board were 23 soldiers of the New South Wales Corp, the regiment established in 1789 to serve in Australia. Six of the soldiers were deserters who had been taken from prison.  

Amongst the 94 convicts were four men known as the Scottish Martyrs: radicals Thomas Muir, Thomas Palmer, William Skirving and Maurice Margarot, who had all been sentenced to transportation for campaigning for parliamentary reform. During the voyage the four men fell out and in an atmosphere of spying and treachery, Thomas Muir and William Skirving ended up on charges of plotting to incite a mutiny. Several people were drawn into this brutal affair, during which the suspects were confined without trial, witnesses were bullied, and accused soldiers flogged and kept chained to the poop in cramped positions and left exposed to the elements.

The Scottish reformers weren’t the only martyrs on board. In his self-justificatory account of the voyage (A Narrative of the Sufferings of T F Palmer and W Skirving), Palmer (a Unitarian minister) , devoted a paragraph to “McPherson’s girl”, another unfortunate caught up in the alleged mutiny plot. Her name was Bet Carter.

One amenity the convict ships were always supplied with was a brothel. The Surprize was no exception. Palmer was most indignant when his friend James Ellis, who accompanied him to Australia as a free settler, was lodged in “a cot in the most flagitious brothel in the Universe”, and the cabin Ellis had paid for was given to a convict woman kept by one of the soldiers, Serjeant Baker. Palmer was even more furious when he himself had to spend part of his confinement in “that infernal brothel. The language of Newgate was virtue and decency in comparison”.

McPherson had picked Bet Carter from that “flagitious brothel”. Elizabeth Carter was a prostitute at “Mother Macclew’s” house in Sharp’s Alley, London. Like many prostitutes, Bet augmented her earnings by robbing her clients. Her downfall came when, with a woman called Elizabeth Ford, she picked up a servant called Benjamin Painton on 8 November 1792. The women took him to Mother Macclew's. He agreed to pay Bet six pence, and gave Ford a shilling to buy gin (an interesting sidelight on relative values). Elizabeth Ford went off on her errand, and while Bet Carter and Painton “were going to the agreement”, Bet picked his pocket. While he was trying to retrieve his purse from her, Elizabeth Ford came back and the three of them struggled.

Mother Macclew came rushing in to see what the noise was about. In fact, “Mother Macclew” was not married to Mr Macclew, the owner of the house; her name was Mary Williams. Mary Williams “found” the purse on the floor by a bed in the room but “not that bed we had been upon”, claimed Painton. She returned it to Painton, lighter by nine guineas and three shillings. Painton refused to leave without his money and a constable was sent for. Constable Mulleins arrested Carter and Ford.

Bet claimed that she had gone to the house alone to hire lodgings and when she went up to her room she found Painton standing on the stairs. He accused her of taking the money, which she swore she had never had. Her story didn’t convince the court. Elizabeth Ford was found not guilty, but Bet was found guilty of stealing, though the court decided that the theft had not taken place in the house. She was sentenced on 15 December 1792 to seven years’ transportation. She was 22 years old.

If the Elizabeth Carter sentenced at the Old Bailey in 1792 is indeed the Bet Carter who became “McPherson’s woman” on board The Surprize, she spent the next couple of years in prison waiting for a convict ship to become available. It was not unusual for prisoners to be kept waiting in this way. Palmer himself was in prison in Perth for three months before being sent to a hulk on the Thames, where he spent a further three months in chains doing hard labour. He was taken to The Surprize from the hulk in February 1792, and waited a further two months before the ship sailed. Nor was a delay of two years unusual. These periods were not taken into account when transportation actually took place.

Like Serjeant Baker’s woman, once she was on The Surprize, Bet sold herself to one of the soldiers in return for better living conditions and protection from the violence of the “brothel”. There “the women were almost perpetually drunk, and as perpetually engaged in clamours, brawls, and fighting”. Conditions for the convicts shut away below decks were dreadful, as Palmer discovered: “it was so close and hot under the torrid zone, we could not bear the weight of our clothes”.

Unfortunately for Bet, first mate McPherson was not popular with Captain Campbell. When he complained to the Captain about Serjeant Baker, who he said had insulted him, he and Campbell had a furious row. The upshot was that Campbell had McPherson arrested and confined to his cabin. The hapless first mate was then accused of being a leader in the mutiny plot. 

Campbell proceeded to question Bet, who said she knew nothing about the plot. This is what, according to Palmer, then happened:-

“She had suffered so much before on McPherson’s account, and besides grief for him she was put in irons. When they went to lay hold on her she fainted away, and fell upon the deck, but no sooner did she recover than her mouth was open to declare her ignorance of any plot whatever; and persisting in it, she was hoisted up and flogged. The girl, finding that she had nothing but barbarity to expect, disdained to gratify their cruelty with a single groan or pity-invoking look.”

The Surprize reached Botany Bay on 25 October 1794. I don’t know what happened to Bet Carter after that. I hope that disdainful Bet, who refused to beg her tormentors for mercy, and whose short existence seems to have been one long tale of violence and exploitation, managed to make a better life for herself in the colony. Somehow, though, I doubt it.


A Narrative of the Sufferings of T F Palmer and W Skirving, during a voyage to New South Wales, 1794, on board the Surprise transport, Thomas Fysshe Palmer (Cambridge, 1797)

The Old Bailey on Line

Convict Record of Australia

Convicts to Australia

See also The Floating Brothel: The extraordinary true story of an eighteenth-century ship and its cargo of female convicts, Sian Rees (London: Headline, 2001)