Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Matters of Conviction - Sarah Slater

It is difficult to say who Sarah Slater was before she appeared before Lord Ellenborough and The Recorder, John Sylvester, at the Old Bailey. What little is known of her and her life is defined by and recorded by the men she encountered, from her first brush with the law to the last moment of her life. People called her Mrs. Slater, but where was her husband? Was she married at all? Or, at the age of 35, old enough to be referred to as Mistress rather than Miss? Who were her parents? Where was she from? I have strong suspicions. But all that stands is her fifteen years of record under the law, and those records are incomplete. Too much is blank, lost in time. This is what I know:

On 15 January, 1812, Sarah Slater stood before the court in the Old Bailey and was found guilty of selling counterfeit coins at less than their face value.

So it was back to Newgate, and she'd just got out for an earlier coining offence. And now they were asking why she shouldn't “die according to law”.

So she made one last desperate decision: “I beg benefit of the statute

Just like Joe.

Of course they found the records of her last trial. Of course they knew she'd begged the benefit before. That it hadn't worked didn't matter. This was the second time, so it was a death sentence. Sarah Slater was taken down and delivered to Newgate to await her fate.1

Sarah had been part of a coining gang. There were Joseph Cope and herself (known as Mr and Mrs Williams), Robert Butt and his lover Mary, who called herself Butt, but was really Walton. And later there was Mary's real husband, Charles, who came down to London when he deserted the Surrey militia, and had no choice but to accept his wife's new arrangement. There was another member, a “boy Joe learned up”, but he was never caught and his identity is currently unknown.

Robert had a cutting engine and made blanks, but Joe was the boss. He organised everyone, shared out the blanks and showed them how to “finish” the coins. He also had last word on who the coins were sold to. It had all gone well until they met William Stafford, another deserter like Charlie. William made himself a friend to Robert, helped him move house from down near the Mint to up near the Barracks. Robert was careless enough to give him the cutting engine to carry. Stafford visited him in his home, watched him and Mary cut blanks, joined everyone for regular drinks.

The group operated in and around Grub Street (now Milton Street), in the pubs mainly, selling fake coins. The military was a good source of custom. Soldiers seemed particularly "down to the queer” (slang for counterfeit money), it's probably why Robert shifted premises to opposite the barracks and why Stafford was so readily accepted by the group. Joe Cope, the only member who had done time inside for counterfeiting, and who understood better than any of them the risks they were taking, had lodgings over a mile away, and neither he nor Sarah told anyone where they were. He and Sarah were also the only ones to use an alias at the lodgings. Their landlady had no idea of their real names until they were caught and brought to trial. Joe was also the only one who knew the identity of the boy who turned the blanks into coins. Robert's free and easy ways with Stafford must have been driving him mad.

From John Wallis's map of London, 1797. Chequer Alley is marked in red, Peter Street in green, and Newgate Prison in blue (the Old Bailey is right next door. Handy). Hooper street, where Robert Butt had lived is near the Tower of London, where the Mint was housed (not shown here). Map from Old Maps Online http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/crace/w/007000000000005u00180000.html
Stafford was finding it hard on the run. He was working on and off as a shoemaker, his profession outside the military, but at some point he decided life would be better back in uniform. He turned spy for the Mint, to ease his own case, and turned them all in, giving chapter and verse. That was August, 1810.

The gang was tried at the Old Bailey. There wasn't enough proof of counterfeiting.2 However, Robert got an automatic death sentence for the cutting engine3. The Waltons got off, but Charles was sent up to face trial for Desertion.4 Sarah and Joe were found guilty of passing counterfeit coin. Sarah begged the Benefit and got a year inside. Joe begged the Benefit, but he'd done this before. Eight days later he was found guilty of this further, more serious, offence and sentenced to death.5 Newgate was a den of many things, including gossip; Sarah would have heard when he was hanged. Robert, meanwhile, was respited on 8 March 1811 and sent to New South Wales.6

And here was Sarah again, less than three months after her release, up on the same charges, making the same mistake as Joe, receiving the same sentence.

On 23 January, 1812 she entered Newgate for the last time.7 Unlike Joe, her end did not come quickly. She was still waiting when on 4 March, 1812 the Prince Regent respited her sentence, on the understanding that she would spend the term of her natural life in New South Wales.8 Now Sarah waited again, for a transport to the other side of the world.

Newgate Prison was not an easy place. How well one was treated depended on how much one could pay. There was little restriction on who could enter, nor on the activities of the inmates. Contemporary reports reproduced by Henry Mayhew and John Binny spoke of “extensive burglaries and robberies... plotted in Newgate and notes were forged and coining was carried on within its gloomy walls”.9 At least Sarah could have kept up her coining skills, and possibly made new contacts.

Newgate was frequently overcrowded and this was true during Sarah's incarcerations. “Among the women, all the ordinary feelings of the sex are outraged by their indiscriminate association...When the female prisoners lie down on their floors at night, there must necessarily, at least in the women's wards, be the same bodily contact and the same arrangement of heads and legs as in the deck of a slave-ship. The wards being only forty-three feet wide, admit by night of two rows to lie down at once in a length of thirty-seven feet; that is to say, twenty-five or thirty women, as it may be, in a row, having each a breadth of eighteen inches by her length.”10 This overcrowding was still the norm in 1817 when the Society of Friends (the Quakers), led by Mrs Elizabeth Fry, stepped in to try to ease conditions for the women.

The Minstrel left Portsmouth on 4 June, headed for New South Wales. On board with Sarah were 125 female convicts, the new Lieutenant Governor of Hobart, Thomas Davy, and his family, some officers and soldiers. They travelled to Rio de Janeiro, then around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean, coming through Sydney Heads on Saturday, 24 October, 1812.11 Where Sarah was assigned after disembarkation is unknown, as unfortunately no record survives. It is likely she would have been put to work as a servant for some family in the town, cooking, cleaning, washing, whatever was required.

"Sydney in all its Glory", Edward Charles Close, 1817, watercolour, State Library of New South Wales, SAFE/PXA 1187, Digital ID a2821022 & a2821023

Domestic work is often undervalued. The number of people (mainly men) who think it a simple matter and not worth anything (until they have to do it, when it suddenly becomes onerous and unfair) is just ridiculous here in the 21st century. But we are lucky with the ways in which domestic work has been eased. It is an ongoing thankless task, but it is nowhere near as hard work as it was.

No vacuum cleaners, no washing machines, no temperature controlled ovens, no refridgerators. Washing clothes was done when you could, rarely once a week. Sarah would probably have been joining other women at the Tank Stream (it eventually became horribly polluted), scrubbing the clothes by hand, beating them with sticks. Lye soap, also known as black soap, if it was out of stock, would have to be made. There are frequent requests in colonial correspondence for black soap to be sent from the English government in greater quantities, and calls for tender for its production and supply within the colony. Clothes were hung to dry on fences, sticks, jerry-rigged lines, and had to be watched to guard against theft. The men of the Hyde Park Barracks, when they washed their shirt, would drape the wet garment over their own backs to dry, as the only means of ensuring they still possessed it when it was ready to wear again.

If a rug was owned, it was taken out of the house and beaten to remove the dust and dirt.

Some houses in the colony had ovens, which would have been wood or coal fuelled, others relied on open fires. My paternal grandmother had a wood-fuelled oven until the 1980s. To this day I do not know how she regulated the temperature (she was a terrible cook, by the way, but nothing was ever burnt). Anyone able to bake on such a thing, or over an open fire, has my admiration. And that's before you get to making your own gelatine from horn or hoof. Keeping meat fresh and fly-free must have been a thing to itself, particularly in the summer months.

Working as a convict servant would also have had components of animal husbandry. Livestock was kept by most households. Funny to think that now, when one wanders up George Street, but most houses kept chickens at the least, and many had a cow. So Sarah would have been feeding the animals, collecting eggs, probably milking.

Why do I think Sarah was assigned to a family in Sydney Town and not somewhere further afield? Because somehow, in the bustle of Sydney, Sarah met up again with her old partner in crime, Robert Butt. He was working in the Government Lumber Yard (in Bridge Street), in his non-criminal profession as a carpenter. They decided to embark on a new enterprise together: marriage.12 From this time forward Sarah was assigned to Robert, and appeared in the records as “Sarah Slater, wife of R. Butt”. While this may appear initially as sexism, it is actually an economic note. Sarah was reliant on Robert as her master for supplies, as any assigned convict would be. He, as a government-assigned convict, was reliant on the government for supplies.

In church records Sarah was Sarah Butt, but for government purposes she remained Sarah Slater.
Ironically, the convict system gave women an identity that was otherwise denied to them. Free women, both in the colonies and back in Britain, lost their identities when they married. Think of all the birth records that list a child's parents as father's full name and mother's first name. Convict women were recorded as individuals, their names on conviction consistently kept in the records, even after marriage. This was not, however, a sign of progression or a mark of female emancipation, but a bureaucratic necessity to facilitate tracking through the system.

Robert continued to work as a carpenter at the Lumber Yard while Sarah worked out her sentence in their home. In September 1815 a daughter was born, Ann Maria.13 This would have seen an increase in Sarah's workload, and hopefully an increase in the rations Robert received from the government.
They lived in the heart of Sydney, kept out of trouble, led a quiet life for a couple of years, until the Muster of 1817, when Sarah was listed as “Public Factory”.14

This was the factory at Parramatta, later to become the FemaleFactory. It was in actuality a work room above the male gaol, where the women carded and spun fleece for weaving, but it was without any accommodations. The women who stayed there (and many, it seems, preferred to rent rooms in Parramatta) slept on the floor under the machines, making what beds they could with sacking and fleeces.15 Samuel Marsden wrote furious letters trying to get accommodation within the walls of the Factory, as he realised that many of the women were having to prostitute themselves in order to meet their rent.16

I don't know why Sarah ended up in the Factory. She'd have done something wrong, but the records are gone. It could be for a misdemeanour as simple as being somewhere she shouldn't be, or it could be for something we would recognise as an actual crime. Regardless, she was in the Factory. I cannot find out where Ann was. Did she stay with her father (and how did he manage, working and caring for a toddler), or was she sent to the Orphan School for her mother's sentence?

Musters came and went. Held over several weeks every year, they were an indispensable means of recording the movements and conditions of the inhabitants of the colony, free and convict, on and off stores. Men were mustered separately to women, free separately to convicts.17 They are not perfect documents, only as good as the clerk recording the details,18 but they can allow us (just as they allowed the government) to see what people were doing and where they were stationed.

Sarah moved between Sydney, living with her husband and child, and Parramatta, always listed as a convict, never with a ticket of leave. In her final muster, 1825, the letters “fs” (free by servitude) appeared beside her name.19 However, it is not possible for a Lifer to be free by servitude.20 Sarah's purported freedom was an error.

In the end, there was one final record:

Burials in the Parish of St. Philips Sydney, in the County of Cumberland N.S.W. In the Year 1826
No. 19 Sarah Butt of Sydney, buried 18th April 1826, age 50 years, ship Minstrel, quality or profession blank.21

Blank, as so much of her life has become. But finally, at last, she was free.

1Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0), January 1812, trial of SARAH SLATER (t18120115-124), accessed 13 March 2013
2Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0), October 1810, trial of ROBERT BUTT MARY WALTON CHARLES WALTON JOSEPH COPE SARAH SLATER (t18101031-1), accessed 13 March 2013
3The Statutes at Large, From the Magna Charta, to the End of the Eleventh Parliament of Great Britain, Anno 1761 [continued to 1806], (London: Danby Pickering, 1764 1808) Cap XXVI, 86-87, e-book edition
4TNA, HO77, Newgate Prison Calendars 1782-1853, piece 17, “Middlesex Prisoners upon Orders”, FindmyPast, ROBERT BUTT MARY WALTON CHARLES WALTON JOSEPH COPE SARAH SLATER, accessed 12 June, 2016
6TNA, HO13, Home Office: Criminal Entry Books 1782-1871, “Correspondence and Warrants”, Piece 21, page 305, FindmyPast, ROBERT BUTT, accessed 12 June, 2016
7TNA, HO26, Criminal Registers: Middlesex and Home Office 1791-1849, piece 18 Page 98, FindmyPast, SARAH SLATER, accessed 12 June, 2016
8TNA, HO13, Home Office: Criminal Entry Books 1782-1871, “Correspondence and Warrants”, Piece 22, page 384-385, FindmyPast, SARAH SLATER, accessed 12 June, 2016
9Mayhew Henry & Binny John, The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life, (London: Griffin Bohn & Company, 1862) p.593, e-book edition.
10Sir Richard Philips, “Letter to the Livery of London”, 1808 in Mayhew and Binny, ibid., p. 593
11Trove, “Postscript”, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Monitor (1803-1842), 1812, 24 October, p.3 c.2, accessed 1 June, 2016 http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/628559
12State Records Authority NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, 1787-1856; NRS 12937 microfilm, Reel 5002, 624/1839 V1839625 23A, ROBERT BUTT SARAH SLATER, accessed 10 June, 2016
13State Records Authority NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, 1787-1856; NRS 12937 microfilm, Reel 5003, 3697/1815 V18153697 1B ANN MARIA BUTT, accessed 16 May, 2013
14Ancestry.com. New South Wales, Australia, Settler and Convict Lists, 1787-1834 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007.
Original Data: Home Office: Settlers and Convicts, New South Wales and Tasmania; (The National Archives Microfilm Publication HO10, Pieces 1-4, 6-18, 28-30); The National Archives of the UK (TNA), Kew, Surrey, England., accessed 13 July, 2013
15White Charles, Early Australian History: Convict Life in New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land, (Bathurst: C & GS White, 1889), accessed 30 May, 2016, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks12/1204081h.html#CHAPTER_XII_THE_FEMALE_CONVICTS
16Marsden is a complex character. He was brutal and cruel when he thought punishment was needed (I'd have hated to be his child), but he was also genuinely concerned for the welfare of those under his care, particularly the women of the Factory. It is worth the time to read widely about him. And yes, I do think he was a closet Methodist, a charge he always denied.
17For instance, Trove, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Monitor (1803-1842), 1817, 25 October, 1, col 1-2, accessed 13 June 2016, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/2177532
18One muster for Sarah, everyone on her page has a sentence of 7 years, which is wrong, and Sarah is listed as a Publican, a “fact” I must regard with a grain of salt.
19Ancestry.com. New South Wales and Tasmania, Australia Convict Musters, 1806-1849 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007.
Original Data: Home Office: Settlers and Convicts, New South Wales and Tasmania; (The National Archives Microfilm Publication HO10, Pieces 5, 19-20, 32-51); The National Archives of the UK (TNA), Kew, Surrey, England, 1825 Muster Sarah Slater, accessed 13 July, 2013
20Kristyn Harman and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, email message to author, 16 June, 2016
21State Records Authority NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, 1787-1856; NRS 12937 microfilm, Reel 5003, 1126/1826 V18261126 44B SARAH BUTT, accessed 10 June, 2016   

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