The following presentation was made by Rob Herbert, member #4351 Fellowship of First Fleeters, a direct descendant of Deborah Ellam and her husband First Fleeter John Herbert at a meeting of the Southern Highlands Chapter of the Fellowship of First Fleeters.
Deborah Ellam (1765-1819)
Arrived on the Prince of Wales
Part One of Her Story
Much of the information I will present comes from research by Bruce Sumner, a 4th cousin of mine twice removed, who, although he was born in Australia worked in Europe for many years before retiring to Wrexham in Wales, not far from Chester.
We have to go back to First Fleeters John Herbert and Deborah Ellam to find our common ancestor.
The picture on the right is a romantic image of a peasant girl of that era, and I like to think of Deborah as being something like this before she was sent to prison. In reality, she was probably not as innocent and charming as this girl appears to be.
She may have been in trouble with the law as a teenager, but the inscription on the slab stone of her grave at St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta clearly indicates she was a respected member of her community in 1819. The inscription Reads:
‘Universally respected by her numerous friends and acquaintances.’
The centre photograph is of Deborah’s grave at St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta where she was buried on the 26 June, 1819. Her’s is the slab stone, the head and foot stones are for her fifth son Charles who was buried with her on the 29 June 1832. The photograph on the left is of the grave of Deborah’s husband John Herbert who was buried at St John’s Cemetery on 4 April 1832. The burial service for Charles and John was conducted by Samuel Marsden and, although her burial record does not list the name of the clergyman who officiated at her burial, it was most likely Samuel Marsden who had also officiated at the baptism of some of Deborah’s and John’s children. There is a space between Deborah’s and John’s graves, an unmarked grave; Deborah’s and John’s eldest son Benjamin was buried at St John’s on the 4 June 1866, where in the cemetery he is buried in not known. Could the space between Deborah and John be his last resting place?
I am one of her many Great Great Great Grandsons, through her third son Joseph Herbert, his fourth son Charles Herbert, his fourth son William Sloper Herbert, and his third son William Robert Herbert, my father.
Deborah was baptised at St Elphin’s Church in Warrington, Lancashire, England on the 18th October, 1765.
She was actually Baptised Debby Ellom and the record lists her father as a fisherman. The Ellom spelling of her name here is incorrect, it is spelt just as the vicar must have heard it pronounced.
When we look at her father’s baptism record, at St Mary’s and All Saints Church, Great Budworth, near Norwich in Cheshire, his father’s name is clearly written as John Ellam, and the spelling is Ellam on the marriage entry for her father and mother who were married at St Elphin’s Church in December, 1760.
The Chart shows Deborah was the eldest of four children, all but one of whom were baptised at St Elphin’s Church. Her brother Charles was buried at St Elphin’s in 1775.
Her mother was also baptised at St Elphin’s so the family had a long association with Warrington and the Parish Church.
On the left is a photo of St Elphin’s taken in 1854, said to be the earliest photo taken of the church. On the right is a picture showing the church and adjacent buildings borrowed from the church website.
There was a church on this site as early as 650 AD, the earliest record of a priest was in the Doomsday Book compiled in 1085/6.
The family appears to be living in Warrington, but Deborah was not born there. Indirect evidence indicates she was born in the village of Lower Walton, south of the Mersey River, in Cheshire.
Her father was born in Appleton, a village a few kilometres east of Lower Walton, and her maternal grandparents lived at Higher Walton.
I noted earlier that Deborah’s father Richard was a fisherman at the time of her baptism. The sketch here, of activity on the Mersey River at Warrington looking from the opposite bank, shows St Elphin’s Church on the far right looking much as it does in the 1854 photo on the earlier slide. The sketch shows fishermen in the foreground and illustrates two “Mersey Flats”, the two boats with sails. Mercy Flats were shallow draft, sailing craft, designed for work on the river, they were maned by a two man crew, a master and a mate.
In 1772 Richard Ellam was recorded as a Flatman, and these are the exact boats he would have worked on, very likely in this stretch of the river.
Richard never owned a flat so he would have been the mate.
So life seems to have been okay for the Ellam family at this stage. Richard and his wife had three young children, 7 year old Deborah, 4 year old John and 2 year old Charles, and Richard was in work. Tragedy stuck in 1775 when their youngest son, Charles, died at the age of 5 years.
What happened to the family between Charles’ death in 1775 and the next trouble for the family in 1784 we do not know. Ongoing research may shed more light on her family in the future but the future for Deborah in 1784 looked very bleak indeed. Perhaps her father was out of work, or perhaps he was dead by then, we haven’t confirmed when he died yet, so maybe the family had fallen on hard times.
Whatever was going on with her family, Deborah at the age of 18 years, was either desperate or simply wilful when she, with two other young women, stole clothing and cloth from the house of Henry Byrom.
Following their arrest in the summer of 1784, Deborah Ellam, Elizabeth Hewitt and Alice Halton were held in Chester gaol to await trial at the summer sitting of the Court of Great Sessions.
This implies that the alleged crime was committed between May and September 1784.
Chester gaol had been located in Chester Castle for several hundreds of years.
The legend on this plan of the castle identifies its key features, including the Keep, the last place of defence if the castle was over run, here called the Caesar’s tower.
Note eight identifies the gateway to the inner bailey, and note nine identifies the gateway to the outer bailey and states that it was used as a prison.
This slide gives a better idea of the layout of the castle showing the main gate way into the outer bailey where the prisoners were held in cells in and below the towers.
The great hall is on the left beside the path leading to the Inner Bailey gate house.
The Great Hall is where the Court of Greater Session met before the hall was demolished in 1790.
The building to the left was the exchequer.
The Court of Great Sessions of Chester was the circuit court for the four northern counties of Montgomeryshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire and Cheshire. It was the main court for the prosecution of felonies and serious misdemeanours in those counties.
Sittings of the court were held twice a year, in spring (April/May) and in late summer (August/September).
As in the English assizes, the Chester judges toured the counties and held court sittings in four separate towns, one in each of the four counties.
On Monday morning the 30th August, 1784, Richard Arden and Daines Barrington Left one of the Arden family Chester houses and took the short carriage ride south through Chester to arrive at the main gates of Chester Castle. They passed through the decaying outer gatehouse, turned left and passed the stairs going down into the cells of the county gaol. They continued the short distance across the courtyard of the outer bailey and climbed the few steps to enter the Great Hall of Chester Castle and took their positions on the judge’s bench.
Chief Justice Richard Arden and Second Justice Daines Barrington had arrived for the first day of sitting of the Chester Court of Great Sessions. The court sat for six days, finishing on the following Saturday.
Richard Pepper Arden, on the left, the chief justice at Deborah’s trial, had only held this position for six months.
Deborah’s trial was only the second sitting of this court over which Chief Justice Arden had presided, the previous being in April/May of 1784.
As well as being chief justice of Cheshire, Richard Arden was a Member of Parliament and had recently been appointed Attorney General for England and Wales.
Daines Barrington, second justice of Chester at Deborah’s trial was, like Richard Arden, a London lawyer.
He was 17 years older than Richard Arden, and had been second justice of Chester since 1778, having previously been a judge of the Great Sessions of North Wales.
He resigned from all his legal offices in 1785, and devoted himself to the study of antiquities and natural history.
Jeremy Bentham, a contemporary, said of him; ‘He was a very indifferent judge; a quiet, good sort of a man; not proud but liberal … impartial in his judgment of men and things. He was not intentionally a bad judge, though he was often a bad one’.
By the time the judges arrived, the jurors were all in place, having been chosen the previous week from the merchants and townsmen of Chester.
The court officials have also arrived. After swearing in the jurors, court business begins.
The gaoler brings up three prisoners from the gaol cells. One of the first cases of this Monday court sitting is about to begin.
Deborah Ellam, who would be 19 in October, Elizabeth Hewitt, and Alice Halton are led to the defendant’s bench.
The plaintiffs Mary Byrom and Elizabeth Jackson, who brought the charge against Deborah, Elizabeth and Alice, are already seated. The charge is read out:
‘Deborah Ellam singlewoman Elizabeth Hewitt singlewoman and Alice Halton singlewoman for feloniously stealing taking and carrying away one Cotton Gown of the value of ten shillings of the Goods and Chattels of Mary Byrom and one Gown made of silk and worsted of the value of twenty shillings six yards of Cotton Cloth of the value of twelve shillings and one Cotton Gown of the value of six shillings, the goods and chattels of one Elizabeth Jackson in the dwelling house of one Henry Byrom.’
The women have no legal representation, the jury makes its decision on the spot, the judges immediately decide the sentence and there is no appeal possible – the trial is short and not-so-sweet!
Justice Arden asks the defendants how they plea. All three women plead not guilty.
Mary Byrom and Elizabeth Jackson make their statements to the court, after which Deborah, Elizabeth and Alice give their versions of the alleged theft.
The jurors are then left to consider their verdict.
On the weight of evidence the jury finds in favour of the plaintiffs. The three women are found guilty.
Sentencing is swift, and after a short consultation, the two justices agree that Deborah Ellam, probably because she is the eldest at 18 and the probable ring-leader, should receive the harshest sentence.
Sentencing is imposed:
‘That the said Deborah Ellam be transported beyond the seas for the term of seven years. And that the said Elizabeth Hewitt be committed to the house of correction at Middlewich, and there confined to hard labor for the term of twelve months, and at the expiration of that time to be publically whipped at the town of Macclesfield. And that the said Alice Halton be confined in the Castle of Chester for the term of six months, unless, in the mean time, she enter into a recognizance of £50 with one surety of £25 conditioned for her good behaviour for 12 months.’
After sentencing, Deborah Ellam and Alice Halton are taken back to the underground cells of the gaol, Deborah to await transportation, and Alice to serve her six months sentence. Elizabeth Hewitt is sent to Middlewich gaol to serve her time.
Transportation of convicts ceased in 1776 during the American Revolutionary War, after the declaration of independence, when the Americans stopped the English sending convicts to America.
Subsequently, the English authorities looked for a solution to the ‘convict problem’.
left: Image from the John Trumbull’s painting, “Declaration of Independence“, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The painting can be found on the back of the U.S. $2 bill. The original hangs in the US Capitol rotunda.
Firstly they implemented the hulks system, where old decommissioned warships were made into floating prisons.
They were moored at Woolwich, Plymouth and Portsmouth and filled with thousands of prisoners.
The government also tried to establish convict settlements on the African west coast, but these all failed.
Right: inset, prison hulk painting by Wayne Hagg. Main image from the painting by Louis Garneray of prison hulks in Portsmouth Harbour in 1810
Meanwhile, conditions for Deborah in the prison at Chester Castle were not great.
At around this time, there were many demands for reform of the prison system and the deplorable conditions in Britain’s gaols. John Howard’s interest began following his appointment in 1773 as High Sheriff of Bedford and for the remainder of his life he traveled widely in Britain and in Europe visiting prisons and recording the treatment of their occupants. In 1784 he published the third edition of his report titled:
The report ran for more than 580 pages and described conditions at Chester gaol on pages 438 and 439. Chester Gaol was particularly bad, and was compared by Howard to the Black Hole of Calcutta: His description of the gaol was chilling.
‘….Under the Pope’s Kitchen is a dark Room or Passage twenty four feet by ten: to it you descend twenty one steps from the Yard. On one side of it are six Cells (Stalls) each about seven feet and a half by three and a half with a barrack bedstead and a small aperture over the door. In each of these are locked up at night sometimes three or four Felons. No window, not a breath of fresh air: only an aperture with a grate in the ceiling of the Passage into the Pope’s Kitchen above. They pitch these Dungeons three or four times a year. When I was in one of them I ordered the door to be shut and my situation brought to mind what I had heard of the Black Hole at Calcutta.’
He recorded that debtors and felons received six pounds of bread a week, equivalent of about three modern loaves of bread. He also records that in July 1783, a year before Deborah was incarcerated at the castle, there were 33 debtors and 15 felons in the prison.
In 1786 things were about to change for many convicts currently incarcerated in prisons and on hulks.
On the 18th August, Lord Sydney, the Home Secretary in Pitt’s government, in a letter to the Treasury wrote;
‘His Majesty….has been pleased to signify me his Royal command that measures should immediately be pursued for sending out of this kingdom such of the convicts as are under sentence or order of transportation.’
Then on the 19th August the Pitt administration, meeting in Cabinet, made the decision to send 750 male and female convicts to Botany Bay.
A week later, on the 26th August, the Treasury issued an order to the Navy Board, which in part said:
‘…..to take the necessary Measures for providing a proper Number of Vessels for the Conveyance of 680 Male & 70 female Convicts to Botany Bay…’
After two years in gaol it finally appeared that Deborah’s sentence of ‘transportation beyond the seas’ was going to happen.
However, Deborah was not one of the 70 female convicts chosen for the First Fleet.
After much deliberation, and surveying of potential vessels, the Navy Board contracted eight merchant ships to transport the convicts, and their supplies to Botany Bay.
After being refitted for the purpose at Deptford naval dockyards, the five transports and three store ships were ready by the 4th December 1786.
The two navy vessels, Sirius and Supply, were also nearly ready. The ten ships of the First Fleet could now start loading convicts and supplies.
But, on the 11th December, 1786 the administration suddenly decided that one shipload of 70 female convicts (the Lady Penrhyn) was not going to make a colony.
The number was increased to 150 women. It was with this decision that Deborah Ellam came to be on the First Fleet.
To transport the additional female convicts the authorities had to hire another ship.
The Prince of Wales was chosen and made ready. She joined the other assembled ships of the First Fleet at the Motherbank, off the Isle of Wight, on the 23rd February, 1787.
The female convicts for the Prince of Wales were found and delivered to the ship. Deborah Ellam and Ann Daley were found at Chester Gaol in Cheshire.
On Monday morning the 12th March, 1787 they were led from their prison cell below the outer bailey gate tower for the next stage of their incarceration.
Both women were loaded into a waiting prison wagon to travel the 378 miles to Portsmouth.
The wagon trundled southwards through the English countryside for the next three days, until on Wednesday the 14th March, 1787 the wagon lumbered into Portsmouth dock.
Considering the state of roads and the type of horse drawn vehicle that was most likely used and, even if there were changes of horses available at regular intervals, it would be an incredible feat to cover the distance involved in three days. They would have had to travel an average of 126 miles each day; this seams to be most unlikely but, that is what the records indicate occurred.
Deborah and Ann were taken from the wagon and transferred to a lighter and were rowed out to the waiting Prince of Wales, at anchor with the ten other ships of the assembled First Fleet.
They were the first two convicts boarded on the Prince of Wales in mid-March, 1787.
In April, ten more female convicts from gaols in Lincoln, Flint and Lancaster were brought down to Portsmouth, and delivered to the Prince of Wales.
And a month later, on the 3rd May, the largest group of 37 female convicts from Newgate prison were sent from London and boarded onto the Prince of Wales, making a total of 49.
By the time the fleet sailed, there was actually more than 150 female convicts on board the transports.
David Collins, Deputy Judge Advocate and Lieutenant Governor, recorded in his journal that there was a total of 192 female convicts embarked on the transports, 50 on the Prince of Wales, 101 on the Lady Penryhn, 20 on the Charlotte and 21 on the Friendship.
Phillip Gidley King’s account of the female convict numbers agrees with Collins except for those on the Prince Of Wales, which he records carried 47, so it is anybody’s guess at the true number on this transport when she left England.
Deborah had now left English soil forever, and was about to start the next chapter of her life, travelling to Australia as a convict on the First Fleet.
Early on the morning of the 13th May 1787 the ships of the First Fleet sailed from the Motherbank bound for Botany Bay.
Deborah Ellam was never to see England again.
Of course, Deborah’s story doesn’t end here—but the next chapter is a story for another time.
To finish up, I have two slides showing Chester Castle as it is today.
This is what Chester castle looks like in the 21st century. The outer bailey has been completely removed, and replaced by the Crown Court and car park.
Part of the inner bailey remains, we can see the half-moon tower, the flag tower and the wall around the court yard. On the other side, the Caesar’s or Agricola tower still stands.
The buildings within the wall are all modern constructions.
St Mary’s Church building still stands beside the Crown Court as it did in the 1700s, outside the wall of the outer bailey. The original Norman Church on this site was built to serve the castle.
The current building ceased to be a church in 1972, and is now the St Mary’s Centre, a performance and music venue.
The last slide shows an aerial photograph of the court precinct with the castle overlayed on it.
The gate and towers into the outer bailey containing the prison where Deborah spent two and half years are gone.
The prison cells, or stalls as they were referred to by John Howard in the third edition of his report, published in 1784, may still be there under the car park.
Notes: The images are from the slides used in the Powerpoint presentation.