As you know, the beginning of white Australia was 26th January 1788. On that day eleven ships were at anchor in Port Jackson. Onshore, fluttering flags announced British sovereignty. Beneath their protection, men were clearing a section of land, which would later be called Sydney. The female convicts on Lady Penrhyn (about 100 of them) could, for the next ten days, only watch from their vessel. Among them was a gutsy, heavily pregnant, red-headed, seventeen-year-old, Sarah Bellamy. This is her story.
Sarah was born in Belbroughton, Worcestershire, in 1770, the year Cook landed at Botany Bay. During the first six years of her life, she and her family were deemed paupers. Her parents struggled with illness, were dependent on parish support, including parish housing, and produced eight children. Parish support was paid for by way of a levy on householders, and I can’t help wondering if there was the same resentment towards the Bellamy family as there is today towards “dole bludgers”. As the Bellamy children reached a suitable age they were apprenticed to local employers where they were given board and clothing in return for work. Sarah was nine when she was placed with James Spurrier, a farmer at Fairfield. It was the end of childhood. Perhaps the end of family.
Sarah gained notoriety at the age of 15 when she was charged and found guilty of grand larceny in the Worcester Assizes, essentially for stealing from her then employers, Benjamin and Sarah Haden: fifteen guineas and “things” in their dwelling. She begged for public whippings on two market days but was instead sentenced to seven years transportation.
Sarah turned 18 three days after she stepped onto Australian soil, having given birth, a few days before, to a son. On February 10thshe baptised him Joseph Downey, and named Joseph Downey, Quartermaster on the Lady Penrhyn, as his father. She buried her son a few days later. A notable beginning for a new life in a new land.
Governor Arthur Phillip judged Sarah a woman who would make a contribution to the new colony and as a result she was assigned a two-room hut on the east side of the Tank Stream and served as housekeeper to naval officer Lieutenant Faddy.
It is her next appearance in a court of law, in August 1789, on a charge of disturbing the peace, which reveals her true substance. According to evidence, two drunken officers called at Sarah’s hut, abused her verbally for not allowing them in, and assaulted her through the window. Her screams brought the watchmen followed by accusations from the officers. She met their accusations and orders with calm authority – he was a gentleman, she a prisoner who must go where he ordered. However she did not know what she had done. It was he who disturbed the peace. Watchman Harris recalled that Sarah spoke “collectedly” while “Captain Meredith and Mr Keltie seemed worse for liquor”. Sarah herself explained “she was determined not to put up with such unmerited treatment”. The charge was dismissed and Sarah declined to bring charges against the officers. No need. They were humiliated. She had her self-respect.
Sometime over the next six months Sarah began a relationship with James Bloodworth. He too was a convict transported for seven years. He too established a reputation as reliable and co-operative, as well as being a skilful brick maker and builder. They began life together in the house he built in O’Connell Street and in October 1790 Sarah gave birth to their first son, James. James senior was soon pardoned and appointed Building Superintendent on a salary of £50 per annum which he held for 14 years. He was also later given the opportunity to return to England, to his wife and four children there, but he chose to stay with Sarah. Together they had eight children though only four survived into adulthood. “There is not a house or building which did not owe something to him,” wrote Judge Advocate David Collins. That included the first Government House. The couple were given land grants at Petersham, 50 acres to James (Bloodworth Farm) and 20 to Sarah (Bellamy Farm) and they increased their holding by buying 200 acres. Here they cleared land, sowed wheat and maize, raised hogs and kept some horses while James continued as superintendent. They might never be rich like some in the officer class, but they would be more comfortable than many. Except life often deals a blow from left-field.
On 23rdMarch 1804 James died from pneumonia aged 45. A week earlier Sarah 34, had given birth to their last child Charlotte, who died a few days after her father’s funeral. James was rewarded with the first state funeral and first obituary . The Sydney Loyal Association in which Bloodworth had been Sergeant accompanied the bier with “arms reversed” and “Drum muffled and Fife” and performed Military Honours.
A state funeral is obviously a satisfying end for a former convict but it was of little help for a widow’s future, especially one with five children under fifteen. Perhaps the real cause of James’ death was worry. When he died his estate was virtually insolvent. Sarah as sole executrix paid off debts of £350 and Governor King secured her house by putting it in the name of her fourteen-year-old son James.
There is nothing like a will to cause friction in a family. In 1824 James claimed Sarah’s house in O’Connell Street as his own and ordered Sarah and her daughter Elizabeth to leave. Sarah petitioned the Governor to intercede but obviously without success. In 1828 she was living in her daughter Elizabeth’s house and worked as a washerwoman for Sarah Burgis. In 1843, while James was establishing himself and his large family on land near Rylstone and Bathurst, Sarah aged 73 died at Lane Cove. No announcement. No obituary. Perhaps no attendees.
Convicts are more visible in our history than free workers. Nevertheless I have only caught fleeting glimpses of Sarah and I am left wondering what she was like as a mother, a neighbour, a mother-in-law, a grandmother, a washerwoman. I do know her genes, her blood, runs through thousands, perhaps tens-of-thousands of Australians. And through numerous local families, many more than those named Dunn, Howe, Brown, Bloodworth, Cox, Morrison, Gardiner, or Lee.
Patriarchal world history has rarely recognised the female line but I hope one day to see a street or park named, not Bloodworth, but Bellamy.
An image of Old Government House as depicted in Morton Herman’s Early Australian Architects and their work, 1959