The story of Susannah Holmes

Fleet leaving Portsmouth

The fleet leaving Portsmouth


A January sun, low and cold, is quietly colouring the round tower of Surlingham Church. The only sounds are the rooks gossiping as they leave their winter roost nearby and the soft crunch from the frosted grass as your footsteps leave a silent trail of footprints across the graveyard.

Almost 250 years ago a baby girl was baptised here who would leave her own footprints indelibly in the margins of history and yet remain strangely anonymous in the county and even the village of her birth.

Her name was Susannah Holmes. Her story and that of her lover and later husband Henry Kable is so strange it almost defies the description stranger than fiction.

Home Sec. Lord North

Home Secretary, Lord North

Sentenced to death for separate robberies, Susannah and Henry were reprieved and transported with their baby son to Australia in the very first famous fleet of convicts. They were among the first couples to be married in that new land. They fought and won the first court case in the history of Australia. Henry Kable became the Colony’s first Chief Constable. He may even have been the first of these reluctant settlers to step ashore on that uncharted continent. So five extraordinary firsts and more besides.

His wife, an illiterate servant girl from a small Norfolk village of two hundred souls, gave birth to eleven children and was once voted one of the 100 most influential women in the history of Australia. It is breathtaking, simply breathtaking.

But for now let’s put away the superlatives for a story, one half of it at least, which starts here in Surlingham. The ancient pages of the Norfolk Chronicle and the Norwich Mercury newspapers record in a matter-of-fact way Susannah’s enforced entrance from the shadows. In November 1783 she was committed to Norwich Castle Gaol accused of stealing clothing, silver teaspoons and linen, value £2.00, from the home of her employer Jabez Taylor at Thurlton nine miles away.

On the 19th March 1784 at Thetford Assizes Mr. Justice Nares donned his black cap and sentenced Susannah to be ‘hanged by the neck until she was dead’. But her life was later spared and she was sentenced instead to fourteen years transportation to the plantations of America. Susannah Holmes would never see her Surlingham village and its round-towered church again.

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Norwich Castle Gaol

In the claustrophobic squalor of Norwich Castle cells she met another young convict also sentenced to death at Thetford Assizes and later reprieved. His story was darker still. The Norfolk Chronicle reported that Henry Cabell from Laxfield in Suffolk had joined his father and uncle Abraham Carman in robbing a house at nearby Alburgh. According to the Chronicle, “they stripped it of everything moveable, took the hangings from the bedsteads and even the meat out of the pickle jars.They also regaled themselves with wine having left several empty bottles behind them.”

It was a grisly affair. The Norwich Mercury reported how the local Constable Mr Triggs and three assistants went to Carman’s house and discovered the gang trying to burn the evidence. When they broke down the door they were attacked by the three men. “A severe combat took place in which Mr. Triggs received a terrible cut to the head and was otherwise much hurt.”

Sentenced to death, young Henry was reprieved on the orders of the Home Secretary Lord North, probably because of his age, and sentenced to seven years transportation.These were the days of ‘the Bloody Code’ when more than 150 offences carried the death penalty. What became of Henry’s father and uncle is recorded by the Chronicle in one chilling seventeen word sentence: “On Saturday last Carman and Cabell were executed on the Norwich Castle Hill pursuant to their crimes.”

Its worth noting here that the spelling of Henry’s name, like his life-story,was wildly unpredictable. The parish records show he was the son of Henry and Dinah Keable. The newspapers called him Cabell, perhaps a mispelling. And when he arrived in Australia it became Kable (probably a phonetic spelling) which it remains today with his dynasty of descendants. So from here Kable it is.

Conditions in the county gaol at Norwich Castle were unsanitary, over-crowded and disease-ridden, stifling in summer, ice-cold in winter with cells often under water. But according to the prison reformer John Howard who visited the prison at this time, the gaoler George Glynne was a humane man. Although prisoners were shackled they were also allowed to mix. So it was that Henry Kable and Susannah Holmes first met and fell in love, simple unlettered villagers awaiting shipment to they knew not where.

Their incarceration lasted three years. The American War of Independence had halted transportation to the New World and plans were being made to send convicts to Australia instead. They might as well have been going to the Moon. The explorer James Cook had only set Western eyes on the Continent’s east coast in 1770.

In 1786 Susannah gave birth in her Castle cell to a baby boy. They called him Henry Jnr. That same year mother and baby were sent on the long journey to the stinking prison hulk ‘Dunkirk’ at Plymouth to await transportation. They went alone. Agonisingly, the order from London forbade father Henry from going with them. He must have thought he would never see his family again.

In the way of this story it was about to get worse, much worse, before it got better. Mother and baby were also cruelly separated. Captain Bradley who was in charge of the Dunkirk had orders only to receive Susannah and turned her baby away. Readers of the Norfolk Chronicle must have wept at the plight of the girl from Surlingham: “The frantic mother was led to her cell execrating (cursing) the cruelty of the man and vowing to put an end to her own life.”

What happened next you simply could not make up. The dictionary defines a hero as someone admired for their bravery, courage and noble qualities. Such a man was John Simpson, the Norwich prison turnkey (warder) who had escorted mother and child to Plymouth. Exhausted from the long journey, he gathered up baby Henry and returned to London. How the baby was fed we will never know.

In an age governed by unbridgeable class conventions, the humble turnkey did something truly astonishing. He went to the palatial offices of the new Home Secretary Lord Sydney who was finalising plans for the first convict fleet to sail for Australia. Refused entry, Simpson slipped in a side door only to be told that he would have to wait several days to see the man whose name would soon be bestowed on a new city at the world’s end.

The Norfolk Chronicle tells the story much better: “Not long after, he saw Lord Sydney descend the stairs and he instantly ran to him. His Lordship shewed an unwillingness to attend to an application made in such a strange and abrupt manner. But Mr. Simpson described the exquisite misery he had been witness to and expressed his fears that the unhappy woman in the wildness of her despair should deprive herself of existence.”

It worked. Sydney not only ordered that mother and child be reunited but gave instructions that the father should be allowed to join them as well. So Simpson set off wearily for Norwich to collect Henry Kable. Together with the baby, they made the final journey to Plymouth and a remarkable reunion.

The Norwich gaoler, widely feted for a short time as ‘the humane turnkey’, would slip back into the mists of anonymity. Did he have children of his own ? Are there descendants living today of this historical hero of Norwich? We know not. Neither do we know much of the fate of the two other female felons Elisabeth Pulley and Anne Turner who were sent from Norwich with Susannah to await transportation. What we do know is that transportation was a one-way ticket. There was no coming back.

On 11th May 1787 a fleet of 11 ships slipped anchor and edged out of Portsmouth into a stiff westerly breeze. On board were almost 800 convicts, what their Australian descendants would one day hail as ‘the reluctant pioneers.’ Among them was a young Surlingham woman, her baby and husband-to-be. Ahead lay one of the greatest sea voyages in history and adventures for a young Norfolk family well beyond the wildest dreams of any story-teller.

On 11th May 1787 The Friendship eased out of Portsmouth harbour.Trimming her sails in a stiff breeze and sitting deep in the water, she set course for the end of the earth. On board were a young Norfolk girl, her lover and their baby, the recently born son of this convict couple.

Fleet - Friendship


Friendship was one of a fleet of eleven vessels setting out on a voyage of epic proportions into the unknown and into the history books. Her unwilling passengers were prisoners, 72 of them, many of them originally sentenced to death and now sentenced to ever-lasting exile in the British Empire’s newest colony.

Altogether, the fleet was carrying almost 800 male and female convicts and a similar number of crew and marines. The ships were overcrowded. The Friendship, built three years previously, was two-masted, 278 tons and 75 ft. long. As well as the caged convicts, there were 40 marines and the crew. All must have cursed their vessel’s ironic name.

But perhaps Susannah, from Surlingham, and Suffolk-born Henry may have felt differently. At least they and Henry Jr were together. And remarkably they were were not empty-handed. The separation of mother and baby prior to departure had caused such an outcry that the Home Secretary Lord Sydney agreed to reunite them. Their plight had captured the public imagination and an appeal raised money to buy them clothing and a few possessions. But more of that later.

How extraordinary that this simple unlettered couple and their companions, a sorry cargo of humanity being shuffled away from our shores, would one day be feted as the founders of modern Australia. Extraordinary, too, that we know so much about Henry and Susannah and yet so little. An exhaustive reading of all the available contemporary documents reveals scant personal details. We know Henry was the first of nine children and that Susannah had a brother and sister.

What did they look like? We haven’t a clue. There is one description of Henry as a “fine, healthy young fellow” and a suggestion that he might have been red-haired. That’s it. To the imagination we must leave it.

We know much more about the ships, two naval vessels, six convict transports and three supply ships. The itineraries survive and include lists of handcuffs, leg irons, livestock, coal, tools, food and water of course, as well as 5,000 bricks and my favourite, a piano belonging to the surgeon.

At Cape Town, Susannah and the other women on board the Friendship were transferred to the Charlotte to make way for 30 sheep. One of the marines wrote in his diary: “I think we will find them more agreeable than the women.”

The 13,000 mile voyage through often uncharted and turbulent seas took 252 days and almost unbelievably not a single ship was lost. Sadly the same cannot be said of the convicts. Forty three either died en route or as the manifest puts it ‘left our vessels.’ Twenty two babies were born to prisoners or marines’ wives. Remarkably, only two died. Happily Henry Jr. also survived.

Arthur Phillip who commanded fleet

Arthur Philip, commander of the fleet

And for that we have to thank the other hero of this strange story. If the first was John Simpson, the Norwich prison turnkey whose herculean efforts had reunited Susannah and Henry, the second was the Commander of the expedition Captain Arthur Phillip. Clearly a man of genius, his navigational skills took them safely through the iceberg-strewn Southern Ocean.

On the 18th January 1788 the fleet arrived in Botany Bay and a week later sailed into what they called Port Jackson. There is a strong tradition that has endured to this day that the ‘fine, healthy young fellow’ Henry Kable carried Captain, later Govenor, Phillip through the surf and on to the beach.

We know Port Jackson by another name. Phillip dedicated the new settlement to the Home Secretary Lord Sydney who had ordered the establishment of this far-off penal colony.

And here we have to reach for the superlatives to continue our lovers’story. Two weeks later they and three other couples were wed by the fleet’s chaplain– the first marriages in this new land. And another first followed. Their possessions, purchased after that public appeal, had disappeared from another ship, the Alexander. So they sued its captain Duncan Sinclair. And they won.

Two and half centuries later this remains an historic judgement. Governor Phillip had Royal assent to establish a court of civil jurisdiction with a judge advocate and the writ issued by the Kables was the inaugaural hearing. This would have been impossible in England where convicts were regarded as ‘dead’ in law with no rights whatsoever.

Blackstones’ criminal law bible put it rather more bluntly: “A felon is no longer fit to live upon the earth…to be exterminated as monster and a bane to society…he is already dead in law.”

Well, on the other side of the world a young Norfolk felon and her husband once condemned to death were well and truly alive in person and alive in law as well. The court ordered the captain to pay them £15 in compensation. It was a canny decision of course. How else would this society of convicts ever develop without any legal rights, especially as 80,000 more would arrive in the years ahead ?

In the years that followed the Kables thrived. At first, conditions were harsh in the primitive hovels gathered round the bay. Famine was ever-present. But Henry was undaunted. He was made an overseer of convict gangs, then a constable and finally Governor Phillip appointed him as the first Chief Constable of New South Wales. As with so much of this young family’s life you simply could not make it up.

Susannah laboured in a different way. She gave birth to ten more children. All but one survived. The family grew rich and powerful. For a while Henry ran a public house called the Ramping Horse, named it is believed after Rampant Horse Street in Norwich. Drunken revellers were conveniently carted off to the nearby gaol also run by the Chief Constable.

At the last we are still not quite done with the firsts.The first ship of any size in the new colony was named after the Kable’s eldest daughter Diana. It was built by her father as part of a fleet that traded across the Pacific. And the same daughter of convict parents married brilliantly to a senior civil servant who had come to help establish the colony. It was Australia’s first ‘society’ wedding. By now her father had served his sentence and grown ever more wealthy with several estates and trading partnerships as well as just one more first on this vast continent, a stage coach service.

wide shot Kable grave

Kable grave, Australia

Henry Kable died in 1846 at the age of 82. He was buried alongside his beloved wife who he had outlived by 21 years. Susannah was 61 when she died in 1825. Ten generations later

the dynasty they founded is thriving and meets appropriately enough at Kable’s restaurant in Sydney to remember their celebrated forebears who famously became known as the First Fleeters.

Next year will be the 250th anniversary of the birth of Susannah, the Surlingham lass who is rightly regarded as one of Australia’s founding daughters. A few years ago she was voted one of that country’s most influential historic figures. How strange, how very strange, and how very undeserving, that in the country and county of her birth she is all but unknown.

Back in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church at Surlingham which Susannah Holmes would have known so well, the first snows of 2013 are falling. Everywhere is whitening. The skeletal trees are leafed with snow and beneath them the graves are lost to view. It is a tantalising thought that if it was not for a theft of linen and silver teaspoons, she would probably be laying here today beneath a snow-filled Broadland sky, anonymous and utterly forgotten.

Click here for additional images from the period, including the convict manifest.

This article by Dick Meadows appeared first in the Eastern Daily Press on the 19th and 26th of January 2013. Reproduced with permission.