Remember MeBy: Lesley Pearse
Mary gripped the rail of the dock tightly as the judge came back into the courtroom. The windows were small and dirty, letting in only a meagre light, but there was no mistaking the black cap over his yellowish wig, or the expectant hush from the gallery.
‘Mary Broad. You will be taken from this place, back to whence you came, and there you will be hanged by the neck until dead,’ he intoned, not even looking directly at her. ‘May God have mercy on your soul.’
Mary’s stomach lurched and her legs buckled under her. She knew only too well that hanging was the usual punishment for highway robbery, but a small part of her had clung to the belief that the judge would be merciful because she was such a young woman. She should have known better.
It was 20 March 1786, and Mary Broad was just a few weeks short of twenty. She was an average girl in every way, neither particularly tall nor short, not outstandingly pretty but not plain either. The only thing which set her apart from the other people on trial that day in the Lenten Assizes was her country girl appearance. She had a clear complexion, which even after weeks of incarceration in Exeter Castle still had a faint glow. Her dark curly hair was tied neatly back with a ribbon and her grey worsted dress, though soiled from the gaol, was a plain, serviceable one.
A babble of noise broke out all around her, for the courtroom in Exeter was packed to capacity. Some of those present were friends and relatives of other prisoners to be tried that day, but the majority were mere spectators.
Yet the noise was not one of sympathy, nor outrage at such a severe sentence. Mary hadn’t one friend in the whole room. A sea of grimy faces turned towards her, eyes alight with malicious glee, the slight movement wafting up the smell of their unwashed bodies to her nostrils. They wanted a reaction from her, be it tears, anger or a plea for mercy.
She wanted to cry out, to plead for her life, but the defiant streak in her which had led her to rob someone in the first place urged her to hold fast to her dignity if nothing else.
A guard’s hand clamped down on her shoulder. It was too late now for anything but prayers.
Mary was barely aware of the ride on the cart back to Exeter Castle, the gaol she’d been held in since she was brought up from Plymouth following her arrest. She hardly noticed the rasp of the iron shackles on her ankles which connected to another heavy band around her waist, her seven fellow prisoners in the cart, or the jeering from the crowds in the streets. All she could think of was that the next time she saw the sky above her would be the day when she was taken to the gallows.
She lifted her face up to the weak afternoon sun. This morning, as she was brought out to go to the Assizes, the spring sunshine had almost blinded her after the darkness of the cells. She had looked about her eagerly, seen new leaves unfurling on the trees, heard pigeons cooing in a mating display, and foolishly taken all that as a good omen.
How wrong she was. She would never see her beloved Cornwall again. Never see her parents or sister Dolly either. All she could hope for was that they would never find out what she’d done. It was better that they should think she’d abandoned them for a new life in Plymouth, or even London, than endure the disgrace of hearing her life had been ended by a hangman’s noose.
The sound of sobbing made Mary look at the woman sitting on her left. Her age was impossible to ascertain for her face was ravaged by pock-marks and she clutched a tattered brown cloak around her head to try to conceal it.
‘Crying won’t do no good,’ Mary said, assuming the woman was to hang too. ‘At least we know now what’s coming to us.’
‘I didn’t steal anything,’ the woman gasped out. ‘I swear I didn’t. It was someone else and they got away and left me to be blamed.’
Mary had heard that same story over and over again from other prisoners since her arrest in January. She had believed most of them at first, but she was harder now.
‘Did you tell them that today?’ she asked.
The woman nodded, her tears flowing even faster. ‘But they said they had a witness to it.’
Mary had no heart to ask for the full story. She wanted to fill her lungs with clean air, fill her mind with the sights and sounds of the bustling town of Exeter, so that when she got back to the filthy, dark cell she would have some memories to draw on. Hearing this woman’s tale of woe would only bring her down even further. Yet her natural sympathy wouldn’t let her ignore the poor creature.
‘Are you to be hanged too?’ she asked.
The woman’s head jerked round to look at Mary, surprise registering on her ravaged face. ‘No. It was only a mutton pie they said I took.’
‘Then you’re luckier than me,’ Mary sighed.
Once back in the Castle, thrust into a cell with around twenty other prisoners of both sexes, Mary silently found herself a space against the wall, sat down, adjusted the chains from her shackles so she could pull up her knees, wrapped her cloak around her tightly and leaned back to take stock of her situation.
It was a different cell to the one she’d been taken from this morning, better in as much as fresh air was coming in through a very high grille on the wall, the straw on the floor looked marginally cleaner, and the buckets weren’t yet overflowing. But it still stank, with an all-pervading stench of dirt, body fluids, vomit, mould and human suffering which she inhaled with every breath.
There was an ominous hush. No one was talking loudly, swearing or screaming abuse at their gaolers, as they had in the previous cell. In fact they were all sitting much as she was, submerged in thought or despair. Mary guessed that meant they were all sentenced to death, and as stunned by it as she was.
She couldn’t see Catherine Fryer or Mary Haydon, the girls she’d been caught with, although they’d all been taken together to the Assizes that morning. She had no idea whether they were still back there waiting to be tried, or if they’d escaped with a lighter punishment than her.
Whatever the reason, she was glad they weren’t there. She didn’t want to remember that but for them she would never have considered robbing anyone.
It was too gloomy to see her other cellmates clearly, the only light coming from a lantern in the corridor the other side of the grilled door. But at a cursory glance, aside from the fact that there were men there too (her previous cell had been all women), they didn’t appear very different from those she’d been imprisoned with for the last couple of months.
The age range was wide, from a girl of about sixteen, who was sobbing on an older woman’s shoulder, to a man of perhaps fifty or even older. Three of the women might have been whores, judging by their colourful and even quite elegant gowns, but the remainder were very ragged, women with hard faces, bad teeth and stringy hair, and gaunt-faced men staring silently into space.
There were two women from her previous cell. Bridie, in a red gown with a tattered lace collar, had confided in Mary that she’d robbed a sailor while he slept. Peg was much older, one of the very ragged women, but she had steadfastly refused to say anything about her crime.
Mary guessed from the experiences in that cell that however subdued they all were now, within a few hours the naturally dominant types, like Bridie, would rally themselves to take charge. Much of this was bravado – it was necessary to appear strong if you were to survive prison. Fighting, shouting and demanding food or water from the gaolers was one way of sending out a message to your cellmates that you weren’t to be pushed around.
Mary wondered if there would be any point in anyone asserting themselves now. She certainly didn’t feel inclined to do so herself; all she wanted was to know how many days she had left to live.
Seeing Mary, Bridie hitched up her chains and hobbled across the cell towards her. ‘Hanging?’ she asked.
Mary nodded. ‘You too?’
Bridie squatted down on the straw, her woebegone expression confirming it. ‘That bastard of a judge,’ she spat. ‘’E don’t know what it’s like for us. What good will hanging me do? Who’ll look after the old folks now?’
Bridie had told Mary soon after she was brought to Exeter that she’d taken up whoring to keep her old parents from the parish. But there was something about her colourful clothes and even more colourful nature that suggested she hadn’t had much of a moral struggle. Yet ever since Mary’s first night in prison, Bridie had been kind and protective towards her, and Mary felt she was at heart a good woman.
‘I thought you’d get off though, what with yer innocent face an’ all,’ Bridie said, reaching out her dirty hand to caress Mary’s cheek lightly. ‘What happened?’
‘The lady we robbed was in court,’ Mary said sadly. ‘She pointed me out.’
Bridie sighed in sympathy. ‘Well, let’s hope they get it over quick. There ain’t nothin’ worse than waiting to get a body down.’
Much later that night, Mary lay on the filthy straw-strewn floor among her fellow prisoners, who all appeared to be sleeping soundly, and found her thoughts slip back to her home and family at Fowey in Cornwall. She knew now that she had been born more fortunate than many of the women she’d met since leaving there.
Her father, William Broad, was a mariner, and although there had been hard times when he had no work, somehow he’d always managed to make sure his family never went hungry or lacked a fire. Mary could remember being cuddled up in bed with her sister Dolly, hearing the sea crashing against the harbour walls, yet feeling safe and secure, for however long her father was away at sea, he always left enough money to tide them over until he returned again.
Just thinking of Fowey with its tiny cottages and cobbled streets made a lump come up in her throat. The bustling harbour and town were never dull, for she knew everyone, and the Broads were a well-respected family. Grace, Mary’s mother, set great store by respectability; she kept the tiny cottage spotlessly clean, and tried to instil in her daughters her high standards in cooking, housekeeping and sewing. Dolly, Mary’s older sister, was the dutiful, obedient one, happy to follow her mother’s example, and her dreams were only of finding a husband and having children and a home of her own.
Mary did not share Dolly’s dreams. It was often said by friends and neighbours that she should have been a boy. She was clumsy with a needle and household tasks bored her. She was happiest when her father took her out sailing and fishing, for she felt at one with the sea and could handle a boat almost as well as he. She preferred male company too, for men and boys talked of exciting things, of lands overseas, of war, smuggling, and their work in the tin mines. She had no time for giggling, simpering girls who cared for nothing but gossip and the price of hair ribbon.
It was a thirst for adventure which made her want to leave Fowey, and she fully believed she could make her mark upon the world if she was just somewhere else. At the time Mary left, Dolly had said somewhat unkindly that it was just because she’d never had a sweetheart, and she was afraid no one would ever want her.
That wasn’t true. Mary had no real desire for marriage. In fact she felt pity rather than envy for the girls she’d grown up with who were already saddled with two or three children. She knew that their lives grew tougher with each new mouth to feed, that they lived in fear of losing their husbands through drowning at sea or in an accident in the mines. But then life was hard for everyone in Cornwall, unless you were gentry. Work was either fishing, mining or going into service.
Dolly was in service with the Treffrys of Fowey as an under-housemaid, but Mary had stubbornly refused to follow her example. She didn’t want to spend her days emptying slop pails and laying fires, at the beck and call of a hard-faced housekeeper. She’d seen no future in that. But the alternative was gutting and salting fish, and although she’d done that since childhood, and enjoyed the freedom to chatter as she worked, and the camaraderie of her workmates, no one ever got rich gutting fish. You smelt disgusting, and it was freezing in the winter. Mary would look at the bowed backs and gnarled fingers of the women who’d spent their whole life doing it, and knew it meant early death.
She had heard about Plymouth from the sailors. They said there were fine shops and big houses there, and opportunities for anyone with determination. She thought she might get work in one of the shops, for even if she couldn’t read and write, she could add up quicker than her father.
Her parents had mixed feelings about her leaving. On the one hand they wanted to keep her at home in Fowey, but times were hard and they were struggling to support her. Perhaps, too, they hoped that a couple of years away from them in a respectable trade would settle her down, that she’d find a sweetheart and eventually marry.
Mary couldn’t wait to get away, yet now as she lay on the hard cold floor of the prison cell and recalled the day when she left her home, she was filled with remorse.
It was very early in the morning, a beautiful July day without a cloud in the azure sky, and the sun was already warm. Her father had sailed off for France just a few days earlier, and Mary had insisted that only Dolly should come down to the harbour to see her off. She didn’t want any further lectures from her mother about behaving like a lady on the boat, or being wary of strangers.
Her mother had never been given to displays of emotion, so it was a little unnerving as Mary went to kiss her cheek at the door to find herself suddenly being hugged tightly.
‘Be a good girl,’ her mother said, her voice cracking. ‘Say your prayers and don’t get into any mischief.’
Mary remembered how she hurried away with Dolly, giggling with excitement. It was only as she got to the end of the narrow street and glanced back that she saw her mother was still standing in the doorway, watching them. She looked so old, small and oddly vulnerable, for she hadn’t yet braided her hair up for the day. It was as grey as her dress, making her almost disappear into the stone of the cottage. Even without being able to see her face clearly, Mary knew she was crying. Yet Grace still managed to wave a cheerful goodbye.
‘I don’t know why you think Plymouth will be better than here,’ Dolly said waspishly as they got down to the harbour and saw the boat waiting. ‘I bet you could go right round the world and never find anywhere so pretty.’
‘Don’t be like that,’ Mary retorted, thinking Dolly was jealous. Her sister was far prettier than her, her eyes as blue as the sky above, her complexion clear and pink, and she had a dear little upturned nose. But Mary had a feeling that Dolly often wished she was more daring, and perhaps resented that her life was already mapped out for her.
‘I can’t help it,’ Dolly replied in a small voice. ‘I’m going to miss you so much. Don’t stay away too long.’
Mary remembered how she’d hugged her sister then, and said something about how she would make her fortune and send for Dolly to join her. If she had known that was going to be the last time she’d see her, she would have told her how much she loved her. Yet that sunny morning she couldn’t get on the boat fast enough. It didn’t even cross her mind that she might fail in Plymouth.
What Mary hadn’t anticipated was that hundreds of girls came off the boats in Plymouth every week looking for work, and it was the literate, the prettiest and the ones with good references who got the best positions. All she landed was a job in a seamen’s ale house, washing the pots and scrubbing the floors. Her bed consisted of a few sacks in the cellar.
It was around Michaelmas when the landlord threw her out. He said she’d stolen some money, but that wasn’t true. All she’d done was refuse to let him have his way with her. Without a reference she couldn’t get another job, and she was too proud to go home to Fowey to hear ‘I told you so’.
The moment she met Thomas Coogan down by the harbour, she knew that she was on the way to hell in a handcart. Surely no decent young woman would allow a complete stranger to buy her a dinner, let him hold her hand, and not run a mile when he suggested she stayed with him until she found another job? But there was something about his lean, bony face, the sparkle in his blue eyes, and the stories he told her of voyages to France and Spain that captivated her.
Thomas wasn’t bound by any of the rules Mary had been brought up with. He cared nothing for the King, Church, or indeed any authority. He had a gentlemanly manner and was fastidious about his appearance, and he was more fun to be with than anyone she’d ever met before.
Maybe it was partly because he seemed to desire her so much, to hold her and kiss her. No man had ever wanted her that way before, they saw her just as a friend. Thomas said she was beautiful, that her grey eyes were like a brewing storm and her lips made to be kissed.
That first day with him was utterly magical. It rained hard and he took her into a tavern by the harbour and dried her cloak in front of the fire. He introduced her to rum too. She didn’t like the taste, or the way it burned her throat, but she did like the way he leaned forward and licked her lips lightly with the point of his tongue. ‘It tastes like nectar on you,’ he whispered. ‘Drink up, my lovely, it will warm you all over.’
He made her feel so wanton, her whole body seemed to glow, and it wasn’t just the rum. It was his wit, the feel of his hand in hers, the suggestion that she was on the brink of something dangerous yet wonderful too.
With hindsight she ought to have suspected there was something amiss when he never attempted to bed her. He kissed her passionately and told her he loved her, but it never went any further than that. At the time Mary had foolishly believed his caution was out of love and respect for her, but it was only later she discovered the truth.
Thomas Coogan cared for no one but himself. He was a pick-pocket, and when he’d spotted her crying down by the harbour, he knew her well-scrubbed, innocent country girl appearance would make her an ideal accomplice. All it took was a few sympathetic words to win her trust.
It never crossed Mary’s mind in the first few weeks after meeting him that as they stood arm in arm looking in shop windows or strolled around the market, he was often engaged in helping himself to someone’s pocket-book, fob-watch or other valuable with his spare hand. She was too enamoured with his charm, excited by his interesting friends and acquaintances, and bowled over by his generosity to her to study him closely.
By the time she did become aware of it, she was so entrenched in his easy, fun way of life that he could have told her he was a grave robber and she wouldn’t have turned a hair. When he disappeared just after Christmas, leaving her in the dwelling-house he’d taken her to, she was inconsolable.
The chances were that he’d been caught by the constables, and that was what made her fall in with Mary Haydon and Catherine Fryer. She didn’t want to lose face with these two cut-purses, whom Thomas had held in such high esteem. They appeared so worldly, so very daring, and she needed money to pay the rent on Thomas’s room for when he came back.
At first she was just a lookout while the other two snipped off purses in the crowded streets and markets. Sometimes she caused a diversion by pretending to faint or claiming that she’d had her own purse snatched. But the day came when Catherine said it was time she took on some of the danger herself, and when they saw the small, neatly dressed woman walking home through the main street with her arms full of parcels, it appeared to be the perfect initiation.
Maybe if Mary hadn’t been so anxious to prove her courage, she would merely have tripped the woman up and sped off with just one of her parcels. But instead she grabbed the woman’s pretty silk hat with one hand, and scooped up everything she dropped in alarm, throwing the parcels to the other Mary and Catherine before running for it. Unluckily for them, people gave chase, cornered them in an alley and called for the constables.
Most of the details of Mary’s arrest and imprisonment in Plymouth were hazy to her now, for the journey to Exeter later on eclipsed everything else. It took four days in an open-topped cart where she was shackled to three other women, two of whom were her supposed friends but berated her most of the way for getting them caught too. It was January, and the icy wind swept across the bleak moors, almost cutting them in half with its ferocity. If they wanted to relieve themselves, all the women had to get down together, with the guard leering at them. Every step was torture, for the shackles dug into their tender skin and they weren’t yet practised at moving together. At nights they were thrown into a stable at an inn, with bread and water the only nourishment they received. Mary thought she would die of the cold, in fact she hoped fervently that she would, if only to shut out the scorn and ridicule of her companions and the knowledge that her crime, highway robbery, was a hanging offence.
On her first night at Exeter Castle it was Bridie who had comforted her and assured her she would become accustomed to the rats, lice, dirt, stale bread and using a slop pail in front of everyone. Mary supposed that she had now, in as much as she accepted that was all part and parcel of prison life and she deserved punishment for what she’d done. But she couldn’t accept that she was to die in a few days’ time, and would never be free to walk country lanes, to watch the sea breaking on the shore, and see the sun set again.
She wept then, for failing her parents and bringing shame to the family, and for not listening to her conscience when she knew that stealing was wrong.
It was a well-known fact that as many as half of those sentenced to death would get some sort of reprieve. In the next three days Mary’s fellow prisoners talked of nothing else, everyone hoping they would be among the lucky ones.
But Mary was no fool. She knew you needed friends on the outside, a concerned and kindly master or mistress, a member of the clergy, or even a friend with money to plead for you. As the hours and days ticked slowly by, it became clear which of her companions were that fortunate. They were the ones who got food, drink, money and even clean clothes sent in.
Mary looked enviously at the young girl and the woman she knew now to be her aunt, as they ate hot meat pies brought in by one of the gaolers. They had been charged with theft from a lodging-house, but had been protesting their innocence ever since their arrest. Now, judging by the pies and the blankets they’d been given, maybe they had been telling the truth, for someone on the outside was obviously working for their release.
Yet some of the prisoners, even those without any hope of reprieve, had become quite jovial in the last couple of days. Maybe it was because in their eyes a quick death was preferable to the misery of a long prison sentence, or a lingering death through gaol fever. There was also a certain amount of status in being hanged, for huge crowds gathered to watch. If they could go to their death with dignity and courage and get the admiration of the watching rabble, they might become heroic figures, maybe even a legend.
Dick Sullion was one man who felt this way, and he had cheered Mary considerably with his humour and his philosophy of life. Like her, he had been charged with High Toby, the common name for highway robbery. But Dick’s crime fitted the description more accurately than Mary’s did, for he’d lain in wait on isolated roads for unwary travellers, taking not only their valuables but their horses too.
He was a big man, close to six feet, with a ruddy face, wide shoulders and an irrepressible sense of humour. The first morning after her trial, Mary had woken to hear him singing some bawdy ale-house song about going to the scaffold drunk. She had of course assumed he was drunk then, for those who had money or goods to bribe their gaolers could be inebriated all day and night. But as she sat up, he smiled at her, and his blue eyes were clear and bright.
‘No sense in lying around moping,’ he said as if to explain himself. ‘I’ve had a good life, and I reckon it’s better to hang than lose my wits and looks in a place like this.’
‘Some of us would rather sleep than think on that,’ she retorted.
Mary had learned in her first few days of imprisonment back in January that it was advisable to befriend someone tough and wily as a protector, and as Dick appeared to fit the bill in every way, she allowed him to move closer to her, and talked to him.
She soon discovered that Dick had no money left to buy drink or extra food. He told her he’d blown all he had in the first few weeks before his trial. But even if he couldn’t make her last few days more comfortable in a physical sense, he was strong, tough and knew the ropes, and his chatter and laughter cheered her.
Dick was Cornish too. It was good to be able to talk about home with him, and it wasn’t long before she told him how she felt about her crime and letting her family down.
‘Ain’t no good worrying about that,’ he said, his local dialect as thick and reassuring as her father’s. ‘We all do what we gotta do to survive. It’s the government’s fault we’ve come to this. The high taxes, the Enclosures Acts, they rob us blind at every turn and live in palaces while us lot starve. I took from those who could afford it, so did you. Serves ’em right, I say.’
Mary, who had been brought up to be honest and God-fearing, didn’t entirely agree with him about that, but she wasn’t going to say so. ‘Aren’t you afraid of dying though?’ she asked instead.
He shrugged. ‘Been too close to it so many times, it don’t have no meaning any more. What’s hanging compared with a naval flogging? I had my first when I was only sixteen, now that’s summat to be scared of, pain so bad you cry out to death. Hanging’s quick. Don’t you worry, little one, I’ll hold your hand right up to the end.’
Mary took some comfort in Dick’s words. She made up her mind that if she was to die, she’d do so bravely.
Four days after her trial, around ten in the morning, the gaoler came to the cell door and called out for Nancy and Anne Brown. They were the aunt and niece accused of robbing a dwelling-house. He said they had been acquitted due to new evidence and were free to leave.
Despite her own predicament, Mary was delighted for them, and got up to hug and kiss them goodbye. She’d talked to the two women at some length in the previous couple of days and was sure they were as innocent as they claimed to be. They had barely left the cell when the gaoler called out a further four names, three men’s and Mary’s.
‘You lot come with me,’ he said curtly.
Mary turned to Dick in dismay, thinking she was to be led to the gallows then and there.
Dick put one big hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. ‘Don’t reckon it’s that,’ he said confidently. ‘At the end of each quarter session they go through the list and pick out likely folk for transportation. My guess is that’s what they want you for.’
The gaoler roared at them to follow him, giving Mary no time to say a proper goodbye to either Dick or Bridie.
As she shuffled along the dark passage behind William, Able and John, her fellow cellmates, their shackles clanking against the rough stone floor, she heard Dick’s voice boom out behind her. ‘Seven years, that’s all it is till you’re free, my little one. Be brave and strong and you’ll see the end of it.’
Able, a sickly-looking man in his thirties, glanced back at Mary. ‘What does he know?’ he said dourly. ‘I heard tell they ain’t sending no more felons to the Americas now the war’s over.’
Mary had heard the same thing too while she was in Plymouth. If it was true, it would be a relief, for she’d been brought up with horror stories passed on by sailors of the terrors that lay in store in that far-off land. Convicts there were treated the same as the black slaves, starved, beaten, made to work on the land till they dropped dead from exhaustion. Yet if not to America, where would they be sent, and would it be any better?
Once out in the yard, Mary saw other prisoners lined up, including Mary Haydon and Catherine Fryer, her old partners in crime. There were five women in all, and some fifteen or sixteen men. Mary Haydon tossed her head and looked the other way when she saw Mary, but Catherine glowered at her, so clearly they still held her responsible for their plight.
A judge, or at least Mary assumed that’s what he was, by his wig and gown, came down the few steps into the yard, flanked by a couple of other men, then read aloud from a piece of parchment.
Mary could make no sense of what he was reading. She heard ‘At Assizes and general delivery of the gaol of our Lord the King,’ then what sounded like a string of ‘Sirs’ who were all unknown to her. It wasn’t until she heard her own name mentioned that she began to listen more intently. At the words, ‘His Majesty has been graciously pleased to extend the royal mercy on them,’ Mary’s heart leaped. But as the judge read on, her heart sank again, for it was as Dick had said, mercy on condition they be transported for seven years.
After the judge had left the prison yard, leaving the prisoners there alone with the guards, they turned to one another, their delight that they weren’t to be hanged mingling with an acute fear of what transportation would mean.
‘I never met anyone who ever came back from it,’ one man said gloomily. ‘They must have all died.’
‘I know a man that did come back,’ another man retorted loudly. ‘He had money in his pockets too.’
Mary tried to make sense of the babble of conflicting opinions around her. While she personally felt that a seven-year sentence, however hard, had to be better than hanging, every single person in the yard appeared to be more knowledgeable on the subject than she was, so there was no point in her volunteering that opinion. But as the woman standing next to her began to cry, she put her arm around her to comfort her.
‘It’s got to be better than dying,’ she said softly. ‘We’ll be out in the fresh air, we might even be able to escape.’
Able, who was standing in front of her, must have heard what she said for he turned to her, a scornful expression on his face. ‘That’s if we don’t die on the voyage,’ he said.
Mary thought privately that he wasn’t long for this world anyway. He had a hacking cough, he was very thin and the only one of them in the cell who showed no eagerness when the daily mouldy bread was dished out.
‘As long as I’m still breathing, then I’ll still hope,’ she retorted staunchly.
Less than an hour later, doors in the prison yard opened and two large horse-drawn carts were led in.
The prisoners had all pondered on why they had been left out in the yard, but no one had anticipated they would be moved from Exeter Castle that same day. But that was what was planned, and without any further delay, they were chained together into groups of five and ordered up on to the carts. Once again, Mary found herself alongside Catherine and Mary. On the other side of her was the woman she’d comforted earlier, whose name was Elizabeth Cole, and another called Elizabeth Baker. Behind their bench were five men, one of them Able.
For the first hour, as the cart slowly trundled its way out through Exeter, Catherine Fryer and Mary Haydon kept up a volley of abuse towards Mary.
‘It’s all your fault,’ Catherine repeated again and again. ‘You brought us to this.’
Elizabeth Cole, who went by the name of Bessie, squeezed Mary’s hand in sympathy, and finally called a halt to it.
‘Shut yer mouths, you two,’ she snapped at them. ‘We’re all in this together now, whether we like it or not. There ain’t no sense in blaming Mary, you’d have been caught before long anyway. Besides, none of the rest of us wants to hear all that stuff.’
Mary was touched by Bessie’s intervention. She was an odd-looking woman, red-haired and fat, with a cast in one eye and several teeth missing, but the fact she’d been brave enough to speak out suggested she wasn’t as downtrodden as she looked.
There was an echo of agreement from the men sitting behind them, and perhaps that finally persuaded the two women to stop, for they lapsed into silence.
After a little while one of the men in the back prodded Mary. ‘Sweet-talk the guards into telling you where we’re heading,’ he whispered.
‘Why me?’ she whispered back.
‘You’re the bonniest,’ he replied.
Up until that moment Mary had fully believed she had absolutely no assets – no money or property she could bribe anyone with, no influential friends. All she had was the clothes she was wearing and they were worn and soiled. But as she glanced at the row of women, she saw she was younger, healthier and stronger than all of them.
Mary and Catherine had been living by theft for years before she met them. Back then she’d been fooled by their gaudy clothes into thinking they were superior to her in every way. But cheap silk didn’t wear well, not in prison, and their pinched features and grey skin, the hollow look in their eyes and their gutter language showed up what they really were. As for Bessie and Elizabeth, while she didn’t yet know what crimes they had committed, or anything of their family background, they both had that worn-out appearance she had observed so often among the very poorest back home in Fowey.
All at once she saw a chance for herself. She was young and strong, no man had spoiled her, she knew she had a quicker mind than most, and she had determination.
She waited until Bessie asked to relieve herself, and once all the women had climbed down from the cart, Mary positioned herself so that she shielded her squatting friend from the guard with her skirt, and smiled warmly at him.
‘Where are you taking us?’ she asked. ‘Is it back to the prison in Plymouth, or straight to a boat for the Americas?’
He was a hard-looking man, with brown, broken teeth and a battered hat pulled down over his slanty eyes.
‘You’re bound for the prison hulks at Devonport,’ he said with an evil grin. ‘Don’t reckon you’ll get much beyond there.’
Mary gasped involuntarily. She might not have seen a prison hulk but she knew their evil reputation. They were old warships, moored in estuaries and creeks, the government’s answer to overcrowding in prisons. The responsibility for running them was passed over to private individuals whose only interest was making as much money as possible from each prisoner. It was said that the unlucky felons who got sent to them would die either of starvation or of overwork within the first year. For the sideline of these notorious hell-holes was that the prisoners were forced to do slave labour on land, usually building ‘hards’ along the river bank.
‘I didn’t think they sent women there,’ she said, her voice trembling.
‘Times are a’changing,’ he grinned. ‘You’d better pretty yourself up if you want to make it off there alive.’
Mary gulped and looked him in the eye. She knew gaolers and guards were punished too harshly to dare let anyone escape, however ‘nice’ a prisoner was to them. But he probably thought she was stupid enough to be ignorant of this and hoped she might make up to him imagining he would help her in return.
‘But the judge said it was transportation.’ She forced herself to squeeze out a few tears.
‘They mean it to be,’ he said, his voice softening. ‘But they can’t send no one to the Americas since the war. They tried Africa, but that didn’t work. There’s talk of a place called Botany Bay, but that’s on the other side of the world.’
Mary vaguely remembered the sailors in the ale house she’d once worked in talking about a man called Captain Cook who had claimed for England a country that was on the other side of the world. She wished now she’d listened properly, but at the time it held as little importance for her as whether King George was really mad, or what grand ladies wore to balls in London.
‘Do you think that’s where we’re bound then?’ she asked.
He shrugged and scowled at the other women who were crowding around Mary to hear what he was saying. ‘Get back on the cart,’ he said curtly. ‘We’ve got a fair few miles to cover before dark.’
Once back on the cart, Mary decided there was no point in thinking upon anything more than the present. It might be uncomfortable in the cart, but it was better to be out in the spring sunshine than in a stinking gaol. She would keep herself poised for an opportunity for escape.
She doubted there was any hope of that before Devonport. If the guards on this journey kept to the same routine as those on the way from Plymouth to Exeter, she and her companions would remain shackled together constantly.
But there was a faint possibility that the chains would be removed when they had to get into the small boat to be rowed out to the hulks. If so, she could jump out and swim for it. She smiled inwardly. It was a very faint hope, for surely any guard worth his salt would anticipate such an attempt, but then few people knew how to swim, even sailors like her father couldn’t. The thought of swimming was pleasing, to be able to wash off the prison stink and make for a stretch of coastline she knew well. It was worth any risk, and even if she couldn’t do it then, maybe she could jump from the side of the hulk at night.
But as the afternoon shadows lengthened and it grew colder, Mary’s spirits began to sink again. Even if she could escape, where would she make for? She couldn’t go back to Cornwall, she’d be caught again in no time. And how would she get anywhere else with no money, wearing filthy clothes and boots with holes in them?
By dusk Mary was in too much pain to think beyond lying down. Even the slightest movement from herself or one of her companions made the iron shackles bite into her ankles. She had torn a strip off her petticoat to act as a bandage beneath the iron, but the cotton was stiff with dried blood now, and it rasped against the wounds rather than protecting them. She had hunger pains in her stomach, her back was so stiff she doubted she could walk, and she was shivering with cold.
Four days later, when the cart eventually reached Devonport, Mary’s companions were too deeply demoralized even to react to their first sight of the prison ship moored out in the river. It had been raining solidly for the past two days, and they were all soaked through to the skin. Many of them were feverish and everyone was exhausted through lack of sleep due to the cold in the barns and sheds they’d been locked into overnight.
There had been no conversation on the cart today. The only sounds were groans, sneezing, coughing, sniffing and the clank of chains as they vainly attempted to get more comfortable. Able was now seriously ill, unable to sit upright, and with each strained cough he brought up blood.
‘That’s yer new home, the Dunkirk,’ the guard said, turning in his seat to grin maliciously as he pointed at the old hulk moored out in the river. ‘She ain’t a very pretty ship, that’s for sure, but then you lot ain’t so pretty either.’
Mary had suffered as much as her companions, but whether it was because she was the youngest and the most healthy at the outset, or just because she had kept her mind active by thinking about escape, she appeared to be the only one affected by the sight of the hulk.
With its masts cut down to mere stumps and surrounded by wispy sea mist, it had the eerie look of an ancient wreck waiting for one good storm to dismember it. But worse still than its appearance was the putrid stench wafting from it on the wind.
Mary was already shivering so violently that her teeth were chattering, but she felt an even icier chill run down her spine, and her empty stomach lurched with nausea. This, she sensed, was going to be real hell, a hundred times worse than Exeter Castle.
She thought she’d been in hell there, and was glad when they’d first left, delighting in the fresh air and sunshine. But all too soon she’d found herself wishing she was back in the Castle. Late the previous night, cold, wet and hungry, every bone in her body screaming in pain, she would even have accepted a noose being put round her neck to end it all. Now it seemed there was even more horror in store for her.
‘Ain’t no use looking like that,’ the guard said, and leaned back in his seat to give Mary a poke with the stick. He’d already struck several of them when they took too long getting off and on the cart. ‘That’s the wages of sin out there. You lot deserve it.’
A few days earlier Mary would have cursed him, spat in his face or even lashed out at him, but she had no fight left in her.
‘Are we to be taken out there now?’ she asked instead, her quick mind telling her she’d better keep on the right side of him.
‘No, it’s too late,’ he said, touching the horses with the whip to get them to move. ‘You got another night in a warehouse first.’
It wasn’t just the occupants of the two carts from Exeter who spent the night in the warehouse. They had hardly got inside and slumped down on to the dirt floor when the doors opened again and another couple of dozen people joined them.
They were in an even worse state than Mary’s party, having come all the way from Bristol. Their clothes were mere rags, they all looked feverish, and gangrene had clearly taken a hold of a gaping wound in one of the men’s legs, for the smell was unmistakable.
There was a feeble attempt at conversation, questions asked about friends who had been incarcerated in Exeter Castle and Bristol’s Bridewell, but the main thing everyone was concerned about was how long they would be kept in the prison ship before being transported.
‘I heard a party escaped from Gravesend,’ one fierce-looking man from Bristol claimed. ‘The guards opened fire on them and killed a couple, but the rest got away. Since then they’ve kept everyone in chains.’
Bessie, sitting next to Mary, began to cry. ‘We might just as well been hanged,’ she sobbed out. ‘I can’t take no more.’
The same thought was in Mary’s head too, but faced with Bessie’s utter dejection she swept it away. ‘We will be all right,’ she insisted, putting her arms around the woman and hugging her tightly. ‘We’re just cold, wet and hungry now, we can’t think straight. In a day or two everything will look different.’
‘You’re so brave,’ Bessie whispered. ‘Aren’t you scared too?’
‘No,’ Mary replied without a second thought. ‘Not now I know I’m not going to be hanged.’
Later that night as Mary lay in a huddle with the other women, desperately trying to draw some warmth from their bodies, she realized she really wasn’t scared. She was angry that people could treat others so cruelly, ashamed of the crime that had brought her to this, apprehensive about what would come next, but not scared. In fact, when she thought about it, she’d never been fearful of anything. She had taught herself to swim at six by just plunging into the sea. After she’d discovered she could keep afloat, the sea held no terrors for her. Nor did anything else. She was the one who always took dares, found risk exciting. Even when she first found out how Thomas made a living she wasn’t horrified – it just seemed daring, a bit of a lark.
She remembered then how her father had always remarked on how sharp she was. She had always been much smarter than Dolly and her friends of a similar age. She grasped things quickly, was curious about how things worked, and retained the information. She could almost hear her father boasting to the neighbours that Fowey was too dull for Mary, and that he had no doubt she’d come home one day having made her fortune.
How was he going to hold his head up when her recorded crime and punishment was seen in the Western Flyer? He couldn’t read himself, but there were plenty of people in Fowey who could and would be only too glad to pass on such a shocking piece of news.
Knowing she was only about forty miles from home brought on an unbearable pang of homesickness. She could imagine her mother sitting on a stool in front of the fire, some mending in her hands. Mary took after her in looks, the same thick curly hair, which she braided tightly round her head, and the same grey eyes. When Mary was small she could remember her mother undoing the braids at night, running her fingers through them till her hair fell in a dark shiny storm on her shoulders. It transformed her from being just an ordinary woman into a beauty, and Mary and Dolly often asked why she didn’t leave it loose for everyone to admire.
‘Vanity is a deadly sin,’ she’d reply, yet she always smiled as if it pleased her to have a beautiful secret, unseen by anyone but her own family. She kept her feelings secret too, and the girls had learned from a very early age to gauge them purely by her actions. When she was angry she banged pots and poked the fire vigorously; when worried she was silent. Her way of showing affection was no more than a tender stroke of the face or a squeeze of the shoulder. Yet now that Mary knew she would never see her again, those little gestures seemed so precious and important.
She remembered how her mother had hugged her as she left home that last morning in Fowey. She hadn’t really hugged her back, for she was impatient to leave. The last memory her mother would have of her was that. A daughter who went off giggling carelessly. Never to be seen again.