by Rhonda Arthur


                Surgeon superintendents were appointed by the Royal Navy and had the care and supervision of female convicts who arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) on transport ships between 1820 and 1853. On embarkation the surgeon had to decide if the prisoner’s state of health was likely to be endangered by a voyage half-way around the world. Pregnancy was not considered a cause for being re-landed.

The majority of the female convicts had never been on a long sea voyage and all were facing an unknown future. Some of the women were pregnant at the time of their trial and had given birth in jail while awaiting a transport ship. Others embarked before parturition and they had the daunting prospect of giving birth high on the ocean waves.

Medical journals were kept by the surgeon superintendents. Some of the journals had the name of the patient and date of confinement entered in the sick list, the number of parturitions in the nosological table, and/or the total number of births at sea in the general remarks. Sometimes the case notes are brief and to the point, and other times are in detail, particularly for convicts and free passengers who had complicated and prolonged labours, were unwell and needed medication, or had died in childbirth. It is these cases that remind us that childbirth was painful and perilous for the mothers and the infants born at sea.

Many of the prisoners travelled considerable distances to join the ship and arrived wet, cold and miserable. Time and tide didn’t wait for Mary McLachlan per Emma Eugenia 1842 whose confinement occurred three weeks prior to embarking. Mary and her infant son travelled 480kms from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and arrived suffering from colds and exposure. Both died on the voyage.

Elizabeth Nowlan per John Calvin 1848 didn’t have long to consider her plight and delivered a ‘remarkably fine’ daughter on the first night of sailing from Kingstown Harbour, Ireland.

A peculiar case of parturition occurred when the Cadet (2) 1849 was in the Plymouth Sound. Mary Hughes was suddenly seized with cholera symptoms of spasms, cramps, vomiting, and purging. The surgeon, JC Bowman, immediately gave her a liquid relaxant which was rejected and another was immediately given, but she got worse: her skin turned cold and clammy, the extremities turned blue, her pulse imperceptible and she was quite prostrate. An anodyne draught was again rejected. The surgeon then prescribed an inhalation of chloroform and put her to sleep for 20 minutes. On waking, Mary complained only of thirst and wanted a repetition of the chloroform. A little cramp returned and another inhalation put her into a complete state of collapse. The following day Mr Allen of the RN Hospital was consulted and occasional stimulants were given. By the evening Mary had slightly rallied, her pulse became perceptible and extremities warm, and she remained in that state for two days, when labour commenced. The surgeon said this was the first time he had been informed that Mary was pregnant. He found the baby descending by a breech presentation and she was delivered of a seven month infant. Mary had a whiff of chloroform as the placenta was being extracted and she remained prostrate until pronounced dead, at 4pm the next day.

The Gilbert Henderson 1840 recorded the highest number of births in the medical journals. Sir John Hammett MD RN was eminently qualified and had accepted his appointment in order to take up a land grant in VDL awarded for his medical services. All nine infants were safely delivered, though Ann Smith’s son was stillborn. These women and their infants were given repeated doses of castor oil (Oleum Ricini), ‘a valuable medicine’ in Hammett’s opinion. In addition to the 2½lbs of castor oil supplied by the Medical Storekeeper at Deptford, the surgeon purchased 2lbs at Teneriffe and 1lb at the Cape of Good Hope, all of which was expended.

Mary Morgan per New Grove 1835 had her hands full. She gave birth to her ninth child at sea and all of her children were on board. Mary was sentenced to 14 years transportation, for three indictments of larceny, once for stealing a petticoat, a child’s shirt and 6 cakes to the value of 1s 9d. A crime perhaps committed in despair to feed and clothe her children.

Samuel Sinclair, surgeon superintendent of the Mary  1831, supplied six changes of bed and baby linen to both Bridget Monaghan and Sarah Walton. It was the only journal that mentioned issuing these items for birthing mothers.

As the ships got underway sea sickness and bowel complaints arose. The Sir Charles Forbes 1827 had five women on board in advanced stages of pregnancy and all suffered severe and persistent dysentery. Curiously, three infants were delivered with their arms around their necks:

  • Mary Govier, a convict, suffered from sea sickness and diarrhoea. Her labour was rendered exceedingly difficult by the infant’s arms entwined round its neck and was stillborn. Mary’s diarrhoea continued incessant, and she rapidly sank and died.
  • Mary McCarty, a convict, was debilitated by sea sickness and naturally anxious about the outcome, the surgeon turned the baby and saved it from strangulation.
  • Sarah Green, a free passenger wasn’t so fortunate. Her infant was stillborn with its arms round the neck, and the nuchal cord was so twisted it caused difficulties. Sarah’s daughter, Mary Green, aged 12, was accompanying her on the voyage, to join Sarah’s husband and her father, as he had been transported five years earlier. The surgeon often found Mary sitting alone in tears, and she repeatedly begged him to let her go home. Sarah Green’s troublesome diarrhoea exacerbated her condition and died eight days after her accouchement. Her little girl, Mary, died of tetanus on the voyage.

Bridget Urwin per Henry 1825 was the earliest record of receiving medical intervention during parturition. Wm Bell Carlyle, the surgeon, described her as being ‘a little short woman of an exceedingly slender form’ and difficulties arose when the baby’s head became firmly impacted in the pelvis. Carlyle recorded that he was ‘reluctantly obliged to have recourse to the crochet having failed in the application of the forceps’. Bridget was given a tincture of opium in wine, and exhausted and delirious, delivered a dead foetus. Her recovery was slow and the pitching and rolling motion of the ship caused her headaches and constant nausea. Treatment included wine, laxatives, pain relief and castor oil. Her mother, Rosanna Keenen was also a convict on board the ship but there is no telling if her presence was of any comfort.

While some women underwent their labours and childbirths, as nature intended, so too did the weather. A heavy swell and a rolling sea caused considerable hardship for Alice McQuade and Sarah Ward per Phoebe 1845 who both had difficult labours. They were placed in wooden cradles to counter the motion of the ship.

  • Alice McQuade was on deck when her waters broke and was at once taken to the hospital. On examination, the surgeon found an arm protruding and the liquor ammi entirely discharged. The arm was returned and contractions continued ‘troublesome & teasing’. An anodyne draft and venaesection of fourteen ounces of blood were of little help. Labour soon commenced and Alice became quite frantic and her pulse began to fall. The surgeon considered the only means of relief, was to perforate the thorax of the infant, already dead from compression. The pains became more vigorous and the surgeon ‘assisted by the finger’ facilitated the expulsion of the thoracic and abdominal contents and ‘also used as a hook in aiding the efforts of the uterus’. The infant was bent double backwards and the surgeon succeeded eventually, with a gentle persuasion of the hand and pelvis, to bring the lower extremities down, and the head followed immediately after. Alice was put into a wooden cradle, in addition of another bed and slept soundly.
  • Sarah Ward was averse to being questioned and appeared to be five or six months pregnant. She complained of constant pain in the back, the lower abdomen, and was troubled with frequent nausea. The surgeon admitted her to the hospital, administered an anodyne, and had her placed in a wooden cradle where she was kept as cool and quiet as possible. The surgeon learned from several parties that during gale force winds Sarah had fallen and hurt herself. She indignantly refused an examination but did allow the use of a stethoscope and the surgeon found no sign of a foetal heartbeat. Labour commenced the following day and he took advantage at that moment to overcome her reluctance of being examined and found the infant’s feet presenting with a slight haemorrhage. Sarah was soon delivered of a dead foetus. She then slept and on waking was given castor oil, but complained of soreness in her breasts. Epsom Salts were prescribed and the surgeon got one of her friends to suck her breasts, which she continued to ‘attend to with great assiduity’. Sarah became convalescent and discharged to duty.

On 10 and 11 July 1850 while rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the Baretto Jnr 1850 encountered a severe hurricane and tempestuous sea, with falling snow and hail freezing hard on the deck. Steering was difficult and the ship was in great danger. Lamps continued to be blown out, and the darkness intense. The women kept bailing out, and were thrown about, battered and bruised. Mary Sullivan and her daughter, Mary Ann, three weeks old, landed in Hobart Town on 25 July, but the date of birth was not recorded, no doubt due to the turmoil.

The severity of the weather wasn’t any hindrance for Mary Harrowhill per East London 1843 who safely delivered a fine full grown daughter, after a four hour labour. Mary Deane, on the same ship, safely delivered her daughter after a six hour labour, during one continual gale. They all survived and landed in Hobart Town.

Mary Watson or Murray per Kinnear 1848 was safely delivered of a large male child and discharged from the hospital. However, the ship was caught in a heavy squall and heeled over before they could shorten sail, and she was returned to the hospital. The whole of the prisoners thought the ship was sinking and there was the ‘most bitter wailings and lamentations for an hour afterwards before they could be quieted’. Mary rapidly recovered and returned to her mess.

A month later, the surgeon J G Williams, was called hurriedly to the hospital to Bridget Ryan who was suffering from puerperal fever. He found the nurse sitting in a chair and in her lap was a premature infant and the placenta expelled about 5 minutes before. This was the fourth child Bridget had given birth to, and all were at seven months of gestation. The infant only survived a few hours. Over the course of a few days, the puerperal fever assumed the typhoid form, and Bridget rapidly sank to a moribund state, and ‘a most complicated scene of misery seldom to be witnessed’ by the surgeon.

Some women had copious quantities of milk and others had a low supply caused by prematurely delivering or otherwise were unwell and on medication. Their infants were supplementary breastfed by another nursing mother, if any could be found.

  • Elizabeth Paton per America 1831 was safely delivered of a healthy infant but the following morning complained of pain in her abdomen, which the nurse inconsiderately attributed to ‘overfeeding as she sat more than usual during the day’. Eliza developed a fever and was troubled with tenesmus and diarrhoea. Her infant wasn’t getting enough nourishment and was opportunely fed two or three times a day, by a woman who had more milk than her own infant required.
  • Margaret Hebbron per New Grove 1835 had ‘milk fever’ after the delivery of her stillborn son and was given several doses of laxatives and kept on a low diet until she recovered.
  • Esther Fynn per Waverley 1842 and her infant were doing well for a couple of days until Esther suffered constipated bowels and her milk dried up. Baby Fynn was ‘accustomed’ to take oatmeal gruel. Esther was immediately given castor oil and allowed preserved meat, soup, sago and wine and they both arrived at Hobart Town.

The surgeons ensured that the decks and water closets were kept clean and a solution of chloride of lime was used to lessen the odour, but imagine the horror:

  • Sarah Robinson per Westmoreland 1836 gave birth in a water closet. She had tried to conceal her labour pains and about midnight got out of her berth and went to the water closet. One of her messmates who suspected her state, heard cries and immediately ran to her assistance and actually withdrew a full-term female child from the pan.
  • Frances Shepherd per Atwick 1838, was in her eighth month of pregnancy, when she fell down the water closet ladder about twelve days before her parturition and had not felt well since. Her female infant was stillborn in a putrid state, the body livid and the cuticle separated very generally throughout, caused by paracyesis (an ectopic pregnancy).

Harvey Morris, the surgeon-superintendent of Elizabeth & Henry 1847 took the opportunity in his case notes to rail against ‘the mistaken humanity of many philanthropic individuals who do not consider punishment necessary in the management of convicts’, particularly of women in the family way or who were breastfeeding. Mary Lane had had a natural labour and safe delivery of a healthy infant, but she was frequently reported for using the most disgusting language. A few days before her confinement she was seen ‘dancing in a state of perfect nudity before her fellow prisoners’. Her infant died twelve days after birth and post mortem examination clearly showed that he had been cruelly neglected, though there was no evidence of personal violence. Morris believed that Mary Lane’s infant and Jane Burt’s child who had accompanied her on board, would both still be alive, if their mothers had been punished when they deserved it.

Emma Williams arrived on board the Aurora II 1851, pregnant and suffered from phthisis, which seemed to be in check when she was delivered of a very premature delicate girl, ‘perfect in every respect’ but only the size of ‘a common rabbit’. Emma’s phthisis returned and her milk dried up and the baby was fed for a few days by Ann Buicks, who had lost her own infant shortly before. The poor little girl suddenly expired not having reached its natural term. Emma was despondent and regretful for having been seduced which led to her present predicament. The surgeon, WSB Jones showed her every kindness and consideration and had her carried up to his cabin every day ‘for a change’, and had a bed made up on deck, for which she was grateful. But her appetite was capricious and the surgeon did his utmost to encourage her to eat any food that she fancied from the cuddy table. But she couldn’t bear the smell of food and existed entirely on porter and wine and wasted away.

An early record of a convict who fell pregnant on board was Ann Williams per Mary Anne 1822. James Hall, surgeon recorded that Ann had been ‘impregnated privily by one of the sailors on board’, and had come to his attention when she was showing signs of a miscarriage. Ann said the cause was from a fall about an hour before, but Hall was not convinced and thought she had ‘attempted by mechanical means to excite a miscarriage, as she was a wicked woman...’. Hall’s next observation records, ‘the motions of the foetus are sensible to her, a recumbent posture is enjoined’, and nothing further is known of Ann Williams or her state of health.

Jane Willis per Garland Grove 1841 was pregnant the entire voyage, and gave birth the day after the ship landed in Hobart Town. The surgeon only recorded ‘partus filial’ and she was discharged to the Colonial Hospital.

There is no case note for Martha Grey per Woodbridge 1843, only the date of her parturition on 21 September 1843, but she had a permanent reminder of the voyage to VDL and named her son Woodbridge.

The infants who survived the voyage and landed in Hobart Town had other challenges ahead, and even more menacing than the ocean: the convict nursery.

The infants remained in the convict nursery until they were weaned and were then placed in orphanages. Information about these establishments can be viewed on the Female Convicts Research Centre website under ‘Convict Institutions’.

Almost all of the medical journals have been transcribed and can be viewed on the Female Convicts Research Centre website under ‘Convict Ships’.  Transcribing these journals was an initiative of Colleen Arulappu and I wish to thank her for her helpful suggestions and tireless efforts in proof-reading this paper.

Official registration began in 1838 and infants who were born at sea prior to that date, were occasionally registered, by either the surgeon or the master of the ship on arrival in VDL. The names of mothers and/or their infants who were born during the voyage, and not appearing in the medical journals are sourced from the FCRC database and

The attached table has the name of the ship, the surgeon superintendent, the medical journal’s ADM ref., names of mothers, date of parturition and general remarks of the infants born at sea.



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For academic referencing (suggestion only) Database: [http address], FCRC Female Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land database, entry for xxxx ID no xxx, accessed online [date].

For academic referencing (suggestion only) Website:  Female Convicts Research Centre Inc., accessed online [date] from [http address].