What Was The Mystery of the All Female Convict Ship the ‘Mary Ann’?

The ‘Mary Ann’ was a convict ship, the only ship of the First Fleets to Australia to carry an all-female cargo.

It’s said she sailed “under strange circumstances”.


One hundred and fifty female convicts were brought to the ‘Mary Ann’ from counties and cities throughout England. An article in The Reading Mercury and Oxford Gazette describes a Court Session at the Old Bailey in 1789 when the sentence of Death was first handed down to some of the women who were later transported on the ‘Mary Ann’.

The Judge at the Old Bailey passed sentence of death upon 26 capital convicts. He stated that it was a circumstance much to be lamented, and too plainly deplored the increasing depravity of the times, to have so many wretched criminals standing at the bar to be prematurely cut off from society for their several offences.

The boys, eight in number, and the seven women presented a most dreadful spectacle; they continued several minutes in the bar, some on their knees, filling the Court with their lamentations and cries for mercy.

It is the determination of Government, that all future pardons shall be on condition of transportation for life. And as a further means of clearing the country of thieves and vagabonds the destination of all felons convicted on transportable offences, is to be New South Wales (as Australia was called then).

Over fifty-two years from 1788 to 1840 when transportation of convicts came to an end, more than 12,000 women were transported to New South Wales. A woman transported on the ‘Charlotte’ in 1788 could potentially have been great grandmother to one of the last sent on the ‘Surry’ in 1840.

“With a devil-may-care attitude aided by subterfuge, coquettishness, prostitution or redemption, many in their own way embraced their new life.” (www.jenwilletts.com)

Of the female convicts sent on the ‘Mary Ann’, Susannah Bray was sentenced for 7 years for stealing a bedsheet, Mary Brown to Life for shoplifting (commuted to 7 years), Sarah Donnelly to 7 years for stealing 10 yards of silk ribbon.

The ‘Mary Ann’ was the only ship in the fleet to carry exclusively female, and no male, convicts. Although officially one of the Third Fleet the ‘Mary Ann’ sailed independently of the rest of the fleet, leaving England forty days before the first of the other ships.

I wonder why?

Under the command of her part-owner, Mark Munroe, the 298 ton vessel sailed from England on the 16 February, 1791, arriving in New South Wales on 9 July. This was the fastest voyage yet made by any ship of the three fleets. Bateson in ‘The Convict Ships’ reports a cargo of 150 female convicts but the records of ‘Shipping Arrivals & Departures, Sydney, 1788-1825’ show this to be incorrect. The ‘Mary Ann’ (officially) carried 141 female convicts, six children and one free woman.

There were a number of indications of a hasty departure. As reported by Collins, the Master of the ship “had not any private papers on board (but what added to the disappointments everyone experienced), he had not bought a single newspaper, and having been but a few weeks from Greenland before sailing for this country, he was destitute of any kind of information.” (“An Account of the English Colony of New South Wales” by David Collins)

After a gruelling 143 days at sea “possibly because she called at only one port en route to refresh her prisoners with fresh provisions” a very strange thing happened. “The Master landed a boat in a bay on the coast about 15 miles to the southward of Botany Bay; but no other observation of any consequence to the colony, than that it was a bay in which a boat may land.” (Collins)

How odd.

There’s more.

“Of the ten sail of transports [the Third Fleet] lately arrived, five, after delivering their cargo, were to proceed on the southern whaling fisheries – the ‘Mary Ann’, ‘Matilda’, ‘William and Mary’, ‘Salamanda’ and ‘Brittania’. Two of the whalers, ‘Matilda’ and ‘Mary Ann’, came in from the sea the day on which the others arrived. The former found a boat in a bay on the coast six miles to the southward of Port Stephens …” (‘The Convict Ships’ by Charles Bateson)

First, a boat was landed in a bay apparently before offloading the sick and dying women passengers. Then, later, a boat was found in a bay south of the main settlement.

What were these boats up to?

Read about this all female convict ship and other strange but true mysteries in my acclaimed book.

Best wishes

Neil Smith

PS. To read the whole story of the ‘Mary Ann’ and of my chasing the clues to the mystery around the world click here.

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