Deborah Ellam

More of an extraordinary story rather than an extraordinary woman

Botany Bay

Deborah Ellam was baptised at St Elphin’s Church, Warrington, on 18 October 1765.  Her parents were Richard (a fisherman) and Hannah.  When a teenager, Deborah was employed as a servant by Henry Byrom of Moore.  It is not known where he lived, but there were few houses in the village at that time and not many would have been large enough to warrant servants.

Whilst there, Deborah and two others were clearly tempted by the fine clothes of their mistress and others.  They stole three gowns and several yards of cloth from Mary Byrom and Elizabeth Jackson.

Deborah’s accomplices were Elizabeth Hewitt and Alice Hatton, but nothing is known about them.

All three women were tried at Chester Quarter Sessions on 24 August 1784.  They were all found guilty.  Elizabeth was sentenced to 12 months hard labour in Middlewich, followed by a public whipping in Macclesfield.  Alice was sentenced to six months imprisonment in the Castle of Chester, unless she entered into a ‘recognizance’ of £50 on the promise of 12 months good behaviour.

Deborah was obviously considered to be the ringleader.  She was sentenced to be ‘transported to parts beyond the seas’ for seven years.  

Deborah was sent to Australia aboard the ‘Prince of Wales’, which formed part of the first fleet of convict ships to go to Australia.  This fleet of 11 ships departed from Portsmouth, England, on 13 May 1787 to found the penal colony that became the first European settlement in Australia.  The ship carried three male and 63 female convicts, three convict children, 25 crew and 29 marines.  

The behaviour of the convicts was generally described as good despite the voyage being long and arduous. They sailed to Tenerife where they took on fresh water, vegetables and meat and then on to Rio de Janiero.  There they stayed a month, whilst the ships were cleaned and repaired and fresh supplies taken on board.  The women’s clothes had become lice infested and they were provided with new ones made from rice sacks.  They sailed back across the Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope where they stocked up on plants, seeds and livestock ready for their arrival in Australia.  The ‘Prince of Wales’ eventually arrived in Botany Bay on 20 January 1788, 252 days after leaving England.

Just three months later, Deborah married John Herbert (the 50th marriage in the penal colony), who had been deported for committing highway robbery.  They were allocated a garden plot to care for on the site of what is now Sydney Botanic garden.  The marriage was a stormy affair.  One day John returned home to find that pigs had got into his garden and rooted up plants.  He accused Deborah of neglect and he hit her and she returned his blows.  A court case ensued and she was sentenced to receive 25 lashes!

Things became more settled and they raised seven children.  The couple became quite prosperous.  By 1806, they had cleared 35 acres, of which 29 acres grew wheat and maize.  They also had 5 horses (a sign of their relative wealth), 7 cows, 56 sheep, 2 goats and 12 pigs.  Their landholdings were extended and they bought several houses in Parramatta township.

Deborah died in June 1819.  Her headstone tells us that she was ‘universally respected by her numerous friends and acquaintances’.  A far cry from the young woman convicted of theft and sentenced to be ‘transported to parts beyond the seas’.

Today, many Australians are proud to be able to prove their descendance from the First Fleeters.  There is a memorial garden in Quirindi Creek, Wallabadah, New South Wales.  Deborah is one of those commemorated there.

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