The Surgeons and their Voyages - Tales from Transcribers

by Colleen Arulappu

Department of the

Physician General

Admiralty, 1st December, 1836

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

W. Burnett

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

Colleen Arulappu

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



  • Joseph Steret Open or Close

    Joseph Steret

    a.c 1801

    Edward 1834

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    The medical journal from the Edward 1834.

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


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

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