Robert Espie

  1. c1790 Derry, Northern Ireland, d 1870

Robert Espie was Surgeon Superintendent on convict ships

Morley 1817 (175 males to Sydney)

Shipley 1818 (150 males to Sydney, 4 deaths)

Dorothy 1820 (190 males to Sydney)

Lord Sidmouth 1823 (97 females to Hobart and Sydney, 1 death)

Lady Rowena 1826 (100 females to Sydney)

Mary 1830 (168 males to Hobart, 1 death)

Roslin Castle 1834 (230 males to Sydney, 3 deaths)

Elizabeth 1836 (161 females to Sydney)


723 males - 8 deaths  358 females - 1 death


The Rules Hung Up in the Prison

A copy of the Rules and Regulations to be observed on Board the Lord Sidmouth Convict Ship during her voyage (to) New South Wales – which was hung up in the prison.


The Surgeon & Superintendent being strictly enjoined to prevent all unlawful intercourse between the sailors and the women, he will punish most severely every appearance of intimacy or advances towards it.-


Any woman who shall be guilty of swearing or any expression of an indecent or immoral tendency (shall) be punished by solitary confinement and put on a bread and water ’till she shall appear to have mended her conduct.-


Cleanliness being essentially necessary for the health and comfort both of the Convicts- and passengers it is particularly order’d that the persons occupying each Bedcabin or Birthplace shall make or fold up their Bed Blanket and pillow in a tight Roll with three cords ready for being stow’d upon Deck and that they will then make their positions of sleeping places and the Deck as clean as shall be judged necessary by the Surgeon & Supt. who will inspect them every morning before Breakfast. Any deviation from this will meet the severest punishment.-


Any person disturbing the peace and comfort of the rest either by sitting up late or being up unnecessarily at night shall be curtail’d of all indulgence during the passage and on arriving at N. So Wales shall be reported as troublesome characters to the Governor.-


Any person found thieving from others shall be made a severe example of by putting them in solitary confinement on Bread and water and stopping all indulgence until evident signs of Reform take place.-


That the prisons shall be convinced they have the due proportion of the Victuals allow’d them by Government - it is the Surgeon and Supts. directions that two women shall attend alternately to the issuing of the provisions and that this may not be dispensed with.-


The Surgeon being anxious to establish a system of good order and industry at the period of the home embarkation thinks it is necessary to say that all complaints and grievances are to be represented to him only, and that in order they may appear clean and decent they shall be allowed two washing days every week Vigt: Tuesday and Friday, but it is of the same strictly forbid they should make any waste of the fresh water.



Lord Sidmouth,

11 September 1822 – 27 February 1823


I cannot but express my great joy at having got rid of so troublesome a charge.

Robert Espie had the rules to be observed during the voyage hung up in the prison and his journal showed that he applied the rules to all on board the Lord Sidmouth.   He entered the Navy List of medical officers in 1814, obtained seniority in February 1815 and, by 1823 had experience as a surgeon on four convict transport ships taking male convicts to Sydney.  As surgeon superintendent on the Lord Sidmouth he was in charge of 97 female convicts and 23 of their children; 50 of the women were destined for Hobart and 47 to Sydney.  There were also 21 free women passengers and 49 of their children. On the day before sailing Rev. Mr Henry Williams of the Church Missionary Society boarded with his wife and three children.  Robert Espie served on four more ships to Sydney and Hobart so his career as Royal Naval surgeon aboard convict transport ships spanned nearly twenty years.

The medical journal from the Lord Sidmouth is an account of the happenings aboard ship as well as noting the illnesses and treatment. Robert Espie recorded much about daily life, the problems and mishaps, the frustrations, the regulations that were broken and the offences and punishments. The entries began while the ship was at Woolwich and he wrote that the women appeared healthy and robust as they arrived from various jails. He said they were tractable and kindly to each as they embarked and settled aboard ship and were organized as best he could devise for their health and comfort. Once the mess groups were sorted they were issued their bedding and showed, “most strictly” how to scrub and clean every part of the prison.  Superfluous baggage belonging to the prisoners and the free passengers were stowed in the hold.  

Mrs Pryor and Mrs Coventry, Christian ladies, visited on six occasions during the three weeks at Woolwich as the women embarked. Mrs Pryor spoke to the women and distributed useful articles of haberdashery. On some visits she gave aprons and items for patchwork to those who had just arrived and offered “a great deal of good advice”. Before the ship sailed, the ladies, accompanied by two gentlemen from the Missionary Society, boarded for a final visit and handed out bibles.  Mrs Pryor read an address, which Robert Espie said was extremely appropriate and affecting, and took leave of the women in a most kindly manner.

Robert Espie clearly set out the order which he planned to follow during the journey. Cleanliness, scrubbing the decks and stowing bedding was a daily ritual and he remarked on it each day and, with the few exceptions of rough weather, he was pleased with the arrangements. When he instructed the women in their duties he found that they were expert at cleaning. He also said that it was unusual for the ship to have scupper holes on the lower deck but it enabled the deck to be washed as it was done on a man-of-war. The women were mustered on Sundays and Christmas Day for divine service and in several entries, Robert Espie said they were clean and comfortable. On one occasion he mustered them in their messes and found them “exceedingly clean and orderly”. Even towards the end of the voyage he mentioned that cleanliness and good order were carried on “as usual”.  Hot weather as the ship progressed towards the south made the prison uncomfortably hot and Robert Espie had awnings spread on the main deck and kept the women up all day.

Sea sickness struck as soon as the ship moved along the Thames and even while at anchor at Margate all the women were ill.  Within days the weather became rough and most of the women were excessively seasick. It kept up and many became dispirited.  Throughout the voyage sea sickness and nausea affected some whenever the weather caused the ship’s motion to be excessive. Robert Espie thought the women should be kept occupied and distributed the patchwork left in his charge and in one entry mentioned that they worked at their quilts. The children had schooling supervised by the clergyman and two free women passengers.  According to the journal schooling went on regularly and was attended even by some of the women. An “intelligent prisoner woman” assisted the clergyman. In one entry Robert Espie wrote, “I find that there is no method so effective as keeping them on deck and employed as they seem to have a natural propensity for lolling about.”

Robert Espie’s rules outlined the responsibilities and the consequences for infringements as well as the rights to which the women were entitled and the means for them to complain. He adhered to the regulations closely and throughout his journal described enforcement of the rules by all on board, not only by the women prisoners but, the master and the sailors also.   Rule number one was that there should be ‘no unlawful intercourse between the sailors and the women’ and it was broken even before the ship sailed. “The situation of a Surgeon Superintendent of a woman Convict Ship if he does his duty can be no sinecure as they constantly require to be looked after and particularly to restrain them from contact with the sailors – this can only be done by beginning well at first and checking all appearance of intimacy before the Ship leaves England directing the Master to discharge any sailor who may shew a disposition this way which I did in two or 3 instances, to his no small annoyance”. Robert Espie upheld the regulation and two or three sailors were dismissed. The master of the ship, James Ferrier, was not at all pleased. It was not to be his only conflict with Robert Espie.

Although the women were said to be orderly as they boarded, not all kept up the good behaviour and some soon became obstreperous.  While the ship was still at Woolwich, Robert Espie had occasion to bring out the handcuffs. One woman was accused of violent and abusive conduct in the prison after dark and another of violent and abusive language.  Each was handcuffed for a day. One of them, Sarah Bolland, was released after promising to be better behaved but it was a promise she did not keep as she had two further periods of confinements. Robert Espie described her as an abandoned character.

Twenty women’s names were mentioned in accounts of punishments and four women lost their wine allowance following an incident of poor behaviour.  Trouble after the prison doors were locked at dark merited punishment. Violent and abusive conduct, fighting, disturbing the peace or being disorderly towards messmates resulted in being handcuffed or put into solitary confinement in the coal hole. The penalties were sometimes applied for the eight hours of daylight but more often for a twenty-four-hour period.  At least ten women spent time in the coal hole. Two women, who spent twenty-four hours cuffed together in the coal hole because of riotous behaviour, were released but returned for another twenty-four hours after they said they did not value Robert Espie and used many “hard words of indecorous meaning”. A serious charge of abusive and mutinous conduct also earned two women twenty-four hours handcuffed together, side by side, in the coal hole. Perhaps there was only one set of handcuffs or Robert Espie let them have a free arm for balance.

Six women had their heads shaved; a loathed punishment. Theft immediately resulted in that sentence and four women were so proved guilty; one of whom had acted a servant to the clergyman. Two women behaved boisterously and outrageously one afternoon while the ship as at anchor in Rio Harbor.  Robert Espie said they were incorrigible and ordered their heads to be shaved as it was the only punishment which they seemed to regard.

The ship was in Rio for two weeks while water was loaded; a task Robert Espie stated was tedious, expensive and laborious. But that was not the only problem in Rio Janeiro. Robert Espie strictly enforced the rules of behaviour and punished the offenders regularly but he also protected the rights of the women. Several went to him and complained that they had not received their usual allowance of provisions. He investigated and found that it was “entirely owing to the villainy of the ship’s steward” and wanted him dismissed.  That was a position that the ship’s master did not agree with and refused. Robert Espie prevented the ship from sailing until he had redress for the “ill conduct of the steward”. The standoff continued for nearly three days before the master reluctantly dismissed the steward and the ship proceeded out to sea.

The Rev. Henry Williams, who became a well-known figure as leader of the Church Missionary Society in New Zealand, organized the schooling aboard ship and conducted divine service on Sundays.  Robert Espie usually referred to him as “the missionary” or “the clergyman” but one remark summed up his feelings about the man.  After divine service one Sunday, Robert Espie wrote- “the Methodist tears up preaching by the roots”. Rev. Williams had a forceful, energetic personality and preached to his congregation of prisoners who reacted by singing bawdy songs. Rev. Williams wanted it stopped and the master of the ship was not in favour so the task fell to Robert Espie.  The penalty of losing half their wine allowance after bad behaviour one Sunday was surely linked to that singing.

The voyage was a long one but there was only one death among the convict women. Fifty-year-old, Mary McGowan, died from dysentery. She started treatment but then refused to take the mercurial medicines Robert Espie prescribed for her.  Mercury was the treatment given to patients suffering from venereal disease and Mary McGowan thought that she was falsely regarded as having that complaint and had been trapped into taking the medicines. Her mouth became very sore from the mercury and she made her feelings known. “This woman who was a most abandoned character attacked me today in the most violent manner regarding the soreness of her mouth and accused me of having beguiled her into it, with many hard sayings and vile epithets not fit to repeat and in fine protested she would not under any terms take any thing again in the shape of physic”. Robert Espie said her obstinacy resulted in her death. “neither entreaty nor force could prevail on this wretch to take anything in the shape of physic”.

There was another tragic death during the voyage.  One Sunday evening three days before Christmas, the children were playing on deck when ten-year-old Robert Borsch fell overboard.  Although others were about, the incident was not discovered for twenty minutes and the boy was never sighted again.

Despite the voyage being so long, Robert Espie managed the health of the women well. Seasickness caused difficulties and bowel problems were treated with purgatives.  The lancet and blistering were used often and patients given sago and wine. Several entries mentioned that patients had Donkins Preserved Meat. Food preserved in cans was a recent innovation by Bryan Donkins who had set up a preserving company. Robert Espie made good use the product to provide more nutritious food to help his patients regain their strength.

Throughout the journal the instances of offense and punishments were numerous but fell within the rights of a surgeon to discipline those he had in his charge. But Robert Espie was unhappy when the boatswain struck one woman because she was insolent.  He said the “unfortunate creature” did not possess her right faculties and took care to prevent the recurrence of any similar incidents.

Those mentioned as free women passengers were the wives of convicts who were re-joining their husbands. One was the mother of twin girls, aged about eighteen months.  The children had been born in the workhouse and Robert Espie said they were starved and weighed only about 15 pounds.  Although they could speak and even displayed curiosity, they did not survive the voyage. Their mother tried to keep breast feeding despite entries to wean them. She was in poor health and barely survived herself.   On arrival in Hobart several of the free women were met by their husbands when the ship docked and within a week all of those destined for Hobart were re-united with their husbands.

Robert Espie continued on the voyage to Sydney with 47 women convicts.  His final journal entry at Sydney Cove

“I cannot but express my great joy at having got rid of so troublesome a charge”.

No doubt the number of resistant and rowdy women who caused problems on the prison deck was high and made Robert Espie’s task of orderly routine difficult to enforce.  However, conflict with the ship’s master and engaging with a forceful religious personality on board could only have added to his angst at times. Rows over the dismissal of the ship’s steward and stopping the obscene ditties which offended Mr Williams and his family made for strained relations even among those on the upper decks.



Rev. Henry Williams

By Unknown - Alexander Turnbull Library; picture ref: 1/2-052461, Public Domain.


Another account of the voyage was given in the writings of Marianne Williams, the wife of the clergyman.  She found the convicts quarters to be wretched and said conditions on board were made more uncomfortable by a plague of cockroaches and told of being becalmed for three weeks just north of the equator.  She also regarded the schooling as unsuccessful but wrote that it helped with maintaining order. Her husband, Henry Williams, intervened to settle a dispute between the ship’s master and Robert Espie. Perhaps it was at the time of the standoff in Rio Harbour.

Robert Espie’s feelings about his experience as surgeon on female convict transports could be summed up in his words in the incomplete journal from his voyage on the Elizabeth to Sydney 1836.   He called himself a “fine dolthead” to get appointed to a women’s ship’.  He was nearly stabbed before the Elizabeth left Woolwich and felt he did not succeed in managing the women aboard to his satisfaction. He said he had strong prejudice against corporal punishment but used a good stout piece of rope to whip the women as other methods such as confinement and cutting their hair proved too lenient. He whipped them “soundly” over the arms, legs and back (whatever the saints may think), till he conquered every refractory spirit among them.

Surgeons were paid passage money to return to England after their voyages to the colonies. After the voyage on the Shipley in 1818 Robert Espie returned to England aboard it accompanied by six other surgeons. No doubt many tales were told during their days at sea.

            When Robert Espie sailed to Van Diemen’s Land on the Dorothy in 1820 his brother, George, was also on board.  After reaching Hobart, Robert Espie was appointed acting surgeon at Port Dalrymple but within a few months resigned due to ill health and returned to England aboard the Guilford with his brother. He married Janet Jerman in 1828.  However, George Espie returned to Hobart and applied for land and was at times in business with Robert who also established a property in the New Town area after his last voyage in 1836 but again it was sold.  In 1854, Robert and Janet Espie applied for a further grant of land. But Janet Espie died in England that same year.

Robert Espie was living in England at the time of the 1861 census.



Medical Journal from the Lord Sidmouth, National Archives UK ADM 101/44/10

Medical Journal from the Elizabeth, National Archives UK ADM 101



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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].

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