US historian Deborah Swiss believes that Elizabeth Fry is an unlikely yet important hero in the history behind Australia Day. This is because Fry, the Quaker reformer along with her army of volunteers helped nearly 12,000 of the 25,000 convict women who were transported to Australia beginning in 1788 with the arrival of the First Fleet.
Author of The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women, Deborah Swiss is justifiably angry that the story of this social activist who cared about these unfortunate women, and who dared to reform the prison system is to be eliminated from Britain’s history courses. The government plans to make more time for teaching about such men as Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell and Lord Nelson by eliminating social history which means the loss of stories such as that of Elizabeth Fry.
One in five Australians has a convict ancestry so this is an important part of our collective herstory. In The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women, Swiss documents the story of Agnes McMillan and Janet Houston who had little choice but to steal in order to stave off their hunger, leading to their eventual arrest and subsequent passage to Tasmania.
Agnes was born in Scotland in 1820 to Mary, a factory worker who was forced to stand for fourteen hours daily throughout her pregnancy and return to work merely a fortnight after giving birth. Child care, being rare at the beginning of the nineteenth century meant that many children would spend their days alone in a one-room flat while both parents worked. From the tender age of seven, Agnes would have been expected to contribute to the family income by working in dangerous coal mines, or as a chimney sweep or petty stealing on the streets.
Life in factories was relentless, with Mary descending into deep despair leaving her vulnerable daughter to fend for herself. Deserted by her family, Agnes joined the local street gang where she met and befriended Janet Houston who was to be her companion on the long journey to Australia.
Agnes and Janet were arrested after a bungled burglary and sentenced to eighteen months hard labour at Mr. Green’s woollen mill. Deborah Swiss describes the millworks, as a ‘notorious breeding ground for abuse and perversion’. ‘If a child fell asleep on her feet, the overseer dipped her head into an iron vat filled with water.’ Agnes’s job was to stand for fifteen hours at a time pulling fatty wool grease out from the yarn. Factory work afforded little dignity and when the lasses began to menstruate everybody knew about it for ‘a trail of blood marked this rite of passage’ with only a mere layer of straw absorbing the fluid.
When Elizabeth Fry dared to enter Newgate jail, known then as London’s ‘prototype of hell’, it was the start of 30 years of visionary reforms by one of history’s most effective and hands-on social activists. Fry stood faced with 300 half-naked women: petty thieves such as Agnes, murderers and even tiny babies living alongside vermin, cockroaches, amid the stench of urine, faeces and menstrual blood. This was the turn of the nineteenth century and any compassion for the poor was extremely rare but in the notorious Newgate prison the desperate women welcomed the uncommon kindness bestowed on them by Mrs. Fry and her friend Anna. Addressing the imprisoned women, Fry asked them what it was that they needed most of all. The answer: ‘a simple shift would suffice’ for even greater than their want for food was their need to cover their nakedness and restore some dignity. Elizabeth Fry duly sought the help of her quaker friends and soon returned to Newgate with a dress for every one of the forsaken women.
Fry worked industriously improving conditions for convict women forced onto transport ships and taken to Australia. She insisted that older women supervise female prisoners in place of the all-male ships’ crew.
Deborah Swiss wrote:
‘Ahead of her times, Fry believed that needless cruelty towards the downtrodden only hastened their descent into becoming hardened human beings and repeat offenders.’
This herstory is about work of Elizabeth Fry and the plight of women who lived in such desperate times. These were illiterate women, their single mothers had no pensions, there was no child care. We need to remember this and be thankful for the social gains that have been won and ever vigilant.
For these reasons and more the life of Elizabeth Fry needs to be told and not eliminated from history books.