A selection of letters

Letters regarding the transportation of Susannah

The official convict list for the journey to Australia. Susannah and Henry are the  8th and 9th from the top (highlighted).

The official convict list for the journey to Australia. Susannah and Henry are the 8th and 9th from the top (highlighted).

The  cruel decision to separate Susannah Holmes and Henry Kable and send Susannah and her baby alone to Plymouth to await transportation caused a public outcry when the story  was widely reported in the newspapers.

Below is a selection of letters relating to their case.

Lord Sydney, the Home Secretary, to Captain Henry Bradley of the prison hulk Dunkirk in Plymouth:

“I am commanded to signify to you his Majesty’s Pleasure that you receive on board the ship Dunkirk three female convicts which will be sent to you from the gaol at Norwich.”

Reports of the story in the Norfolk Chronicle newspaper prompted Squire Jacob Preston from Beeston to write to Lord Suffield, MP for Norwich:

“My Lord,

The subject of this letter is…to request your Lordship’s interest with Lord Sydney on behalf of two lovers in Norwich Castle, not that their sentence be mitigated but that they may both be transported to Botany Bay.

Susannah Holmes, sentenced to be transported fourteen years embarks tomorrow, or rather to be conveyed from Norwich to the place of embarkation. But having become a mother since her residence in the Castle by one Henry Cable under a sentence for seven years, his attachment is so strong that rather than be separated from her and his child, he is desirous of being transported to the same place…..this is so singular a case that I presume an application under circumstances so authenticated is to be readily attended to.”

Lord Suffield immediately wrote to the Under Secretary at the Home Office Evan Nepean, but in not entirely complimentary terms:

“My Lord,

The circumstances mentioned in the enclosed letter (from Preston) have been the subject  of conversation with many of the Justices of the County….I confess it is not in my power to feel interested that these two poor creatures should be permitted to go together.

I have understood, tho’ it is possible I may be mistaken, that these wretches never were considerate in any misdemeanour but that of child making.

I should however hope there might be less objection should the number of males intended to go be compliant or so limited that another cannot be sent.  Will it be impractical to change one man for another ?”

Eventually after the personal intervention of the Norwich Castle turnkey (jailer) John Simpson with Lord Sydney, the Home Secretary acceded to the request. Captain Bradley wrote sourly from the prison hulk Dunkirk to the Under Secretary Evan Nepean on November 16th 1786:


I beg leave to acquaint you that I yesterday received on board his Majesty’s ship Dunkirk in obedience to Lord Sydney’s commands a male child said to be the son of Susannah Holmes, a woman under my custody, and at the same time Henry Cabel, a convict from the gaol at Norwich, was delivered to me.

I am respectively Sir

Your Most obedient and most Humble Servant

Henry Bradley”

(Note: Bradley had also refused to accept the baby Henry when he arrived with his mother, prompting Simpson to take the baby  to London to appeal personally to the Home Secretary).

On the same day, November 16th, John Simpson wrote to someone known only as “a gentleman in Bath.”

Dear Sir,

 It is with the utmost pleasure that I inform you of the safe arrival with my little charge (Henry Jnr) at Plymouth. But it would take an abler pen than mine to describe the joy with which the mother received her infant and her intended husband. Suffice to say that…the tears which flowed from their eyes with the innocent smile of the babe on sight of the mother who had saved her milk for it, drew tears from my eyes. It was with the utmost  regret that I parted with the child after having travelled with it on my lap upwards of 700 miles backwards and forwards. But the blessings I received at the different inns on the road  have amply paid me.

 I am with great respect your Humble Servant

John Simpson.”

By now Simpson’s heroic efforts had received considerable publicity and a letter written to  him by a wealthy London woman Mrs. Jackson was published in the English Chronicle newspaper. She had collected £20 ( a considerable sum at that time) to be spent on clothes and other goods for Susannah and Henry:

 “Mr. Simpson,

 The sweet story of your tenderness and humanity to the unhappy mother and infant of whose life and happiness you were so careful… has so interested myself and many others in the fate of these now comparatively happy people that we wish to know in what manner it will be to their future advantage to dispose of as little a money as we have collected for that purpose.

I thought there was no person so proper to be consulted on this occasion as yourself who has given such striking proof of your heart and earnestness in their cause.

 …..I cannot conclude this without informing you that your humanity has so deeply impressed the minds of all gentlemen at Lord Sydney’s Office that evey eye glistened.

 I am your sincere well wisher

5th December 1786

Somerset Street, Portman Square, London.”

(Note: these were the clothes and other effects that disappeared en route and which Henry Kable successfully sued the ship’s captain for their loss)

Four days later the Norfolk Chronicle reported:

“The  Rt Hon Lady Cardogan has generously sent to Mr. Simpson, the turnkey of this county gaol, six guineas for his great humanity towards the poor female convict (Susannah Holmes) who was refused the indulgence of taking her infant child with her to Botany Bay.”

Two other letters are worth noting. On July 12th 1788 the  First Fleet’s chaplain the Rev. Richard Johnson, wrote to Mrs. Jackson from the new settlement in New South Wales:

I cannot think of letting the Fleet return to England without dropping you a single line  to inform you of my health and welfare.

 ….Respecting the Norwich gaoler and two convicts Cabel and Holmes, which with a child, were removed from the Norwich gaol to Plymouth in order to be embarked on board one of the transports. These two persons I married soon after our arrival here.

 …As for the various articles (that disappeared), these have not been found. This circumstance has been brought before the Civil Court here when a verdict was found in their favour (the first civil court case in the history of Australia).

 I am sorry this charitable intention and action had been brought to this disagreeable issue, the more so because the public seemed to be interested in their welfare. The child is still living, of a weakly constitution, but a fine boy.

 Your  most Obedient and Humble Servant

Richard Johnson”

 Almost exactly a year later a letter was published in the London Chronicle from Susannah’s husband to his mother back in Suffolk. Whether he wrote it or more likely dictated it we  know not:

“We have an extreme good and healthy climate, very heavy rains and prodigious heavy claps of thunder. Here the sun goes to the left from the eastwards, our summer is very hot, our winter which commences in May is not altogether very cold but very sharp.

We have a little garden which supplies us with cabbage and turnips in plenty.. Some officers are so pleased with my conduct that they continue me in the office of overseer of the women, there being several overseers of the men. Our little boy Harry (Henry) is a promising little fellow and goes to school. It is day here when it is night with you.”

Text edited by Dick Meadows. Reproduced with permission.