‘Boswell appeared for the defence, sometimes in well-nigh hopeless cases. He was never deterred, however, either by the poverty of his client, or by the weight of the evidence against him. On the contrary he seems to have been prone to espouse the causes of the more forlorn the more pertinaciously. C.H Currey, The Transportation Escape and Pardoning of Mary Bryant, Angus and Robertson, 1963.

 1792 – July, Old Bailey London: In 1792 James Boswell, diarist and lawyer, appeared for the defence in a most extraordinary case. His clients were five [5] convicts – Mary Bryant, William Allen, James Martin, Nathaniel Lilley and John Butcher known collectively as ‘the Botany Bay escapees’ .

Each was charged, in accordance with Act 4, Geo. I, c. 11 Transportation Act of 1717[18] ‘return before expiry of sentence…being at large within the kingdom…if proven ‘return before expiry’ attracted mandatory death.

1792 – 2 July, London: It is not clear how James Boswell came to defend Mary Bryant but as she stood in the dock of the Old Bailey, London’s central Criminal Court it would be hard to imagine anyone ‘more forlorn’.

1786 – March, London:  Six (6) years earlier –  March 1786 – in the same court Mary Bryant, then Mary Braund (Broad) aged 18 years stood charged with theft of a silk bonnet. Found guilty and sentenced to death she was reprieved and commuted for transportation ‘beyond the seas’.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: Mary sailed aboard Charlotte one (1) of nine (9) chartered vessels that, together with two (2) warships, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’, to invade the island continent of New Holland. See: A Cracker Jack Opinion – No Sweat

‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between marines and [583 male] convicts…the standard adopted was that of troops serving in the West Indies’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts To The Colonies, edited Hugh  Oldham, Library of Australian History, 1990.

The ‘First Fleet’ sold as a convict transportation fleet, was nothing of the sort. In every sense it was an invasion fleet, with a complement of 1500 souls, one-half of them convicted criminals – seven hundred and fifty (750) men, one hundred and ninety-three (193) women, two hundred (200) Royal Naval personnel, two hundred and forty-five (245) marines, the Navy’s military-arm, and twenty (20) officials .


1788 – 18 to 20 January, Botany Bay: After a passage of eight (8) months voyaging 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’ the fleet’s eleven (11) vessels, warships HMS Sirius and HMS Supply, six (6) transports Alexander, Friendship, Charlotte, Prince of Wales, Scarborough, Lady Penrhyn with three (3) store-ships Fishburn, Borrowdale, Golden Grove, reached Botany Bay between 18-20th January 1788.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: The fleet sailed nine (9) miles (14km) north of Botany Bay to Sydney Cove where Governor Phillip raised the Union Jack and claimed, in the race for New Holland, Britain had beaten France her arch-enemy.

‘Owing the the multiplicity of pressing business necessary to be performed immediately after landing, it was found impossible to read the public commissions and take possession of the colony in form, until the 7th February‘. Marine Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1961

1788 – 6 February: The fleet’s one hundred and eighty-nine (189) female convict camp-followers and thirty-one (31) marine wives and approximately thirty (30) free children landed on 6 February 1788.

1788 – 7 February: Captain, now Governor Arthur Phillip with all the; ‘pomp and circumstance of glorious war’ without consent or entering into a treaty with the First Nations’ Peoples, as required by international law, took formal possession of the entire eastern coast of New Holland; ‘from Cape York in the northern most extremity…to South Cape’.

1788 – 10 February: Four (4) days later Mary Braund married William Bryant a fellow convict, both from Cornwell. Reverend Richard Johnson the fleet chaplain, who earlier had baptised Charlotte their daughter at Cape Town, officiated at the wedding.

The Englishmen women and children of the ‘First Fleet were left to starve. Abandoned and Left to Starve at Sydney Cove From January 1788 to July 1790

Extract from official records

Extract from Marriage Register showing the marriage of William Bryant and Mary Braund 1788


1790 – 4 April, Sydney:  Emanuel their second child was baptised by Rev. Johnson on 4th  April 1790.

1790 – June, Sydney: During June 1790 Neptune, Suprize, Scarborough, the death ships of a second fleet ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ brought another one thousand (1000) men including one hundred and fifteen (115) infantry, first contingent of the New South Wales Corps.

‘The ships had embarked 1017 prisoners, of whom 939 were men and 78 women…Between embarkation and arrival 256 men and 11 wome, a total of 267 had died…at least 486 sick were landed’. Charles Bateson, The Convict Ships, Brown, Son & Ferguson, Glasgow, 1959. See: Slavery – How the mindset of slavery Came to Australia 

1790 – 20 June: At the beginning of July 1790 Justinian, a stores-ship, arrived bringing the first supplies from England.


1791 – 28 March, Sydney: Despite Justinian’s provisions and arrival of Waaksamheyd a Dutch vessel from Jakarta  survival was still a day to day proposition. At midnight on 28 March 1791 Mary and William Bryant their two (2) young children with seven (7) trusted convict companions, fled Sydney and successfully rowed a stolen cutter 3,254 miles, (5,200 km) north to Timor.

1791 –  6 June, Timor: The group, known as the ‘Botany Bay Escapees’ reached Coupang, West Timor early in June 1791.

1791 – 17 September, Coupang: Three (3) months later survivors of HMS Pandora, wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, together with eighteen (18) HMS Bounty mutineers, retrieved from Tahiti, arrived at Coupang.

Pandora’s Captain Edward Edwards arrested the Botany Bay escapees and chartered a vessel Remberg from the Dutch administration and sailed to Batavia with his captives the ‘Botany Bay escapees’, the Bounty mutineers and Pandora’s surviving crew. See: Pandora’s Box and the Botany Bay Escapees

1791 – December, Batavia: William Bryant and 20 month old Emanuel Bryant died on malaria riven Batavia.

1791 – December, Sydney: Meantime HMS Gorgan sent from England with more infantry and convicts departed Sydney for England with ‘First Fleet’ marines now overdue for repatriation.


1792 – 11 March, Cape Town: Gorgan put into Cape Town on the last leg of her return voyage to England in March.

1792 – March, Cape Town: Meanwhile Captain Edwards left Batavia with his surviving crew and assorted prisoners in three (3) chartered vessels, arriving at Cape Town towards the end of March 1792.

Not all escapees survived the voyage from Batavia to Cape Town  The survivors transferred onto HMS Gorgan James Martin wrote; ‘we was well known by all the marine officers which was all glad that we have not perished at sea’. See: HMS Gorgan and the Botany Bay Escapees

1792 – 18 June, Portsmouth: Mary Bryant with her surviving companions reached Portsmouth in mid June 1792. They were taken off Gorgan and imprisoned in Newgate gaol where, by one means or other, their plight came to the attention of James Boswell.

Their riveting story, linked as it was to Captain William Bligh RN, of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ fame or infamy, gruesome rumours surrounding the wreck of HMS Pandora and cruel Captain Edward Edwards filled a multitude of newspapers, magazines and scandal sheets for many weeks.

Boswell’s motivation may have sprung directly from these sensational reports. But it is also possible Marine Captain Watkin Tench of the Sydney Garrison who, sailed to Botany Bay in the transport Charlotte as had Mary, William and Charlotte their daughter, may have pressed her case with Boswell.

Tench, aware of Charlotte from her birth at sea in September 1787, saddened by her death at sea on HMS Gorgan in May 1792, was moved by Mary’s sorrow and courage.

‘Here on the summit of the hill, [South Head], every morning from day-light until the sun sunk, did we sweep the horizon, in hope of seeng a sail. At every fleeting speck which arose from the bosom of the sea, the hert bounded, and the telescope lifted to the eye’. Tench. ibid

Tench had lived the ‘misery and horror’ of abandonment, uncertainty and the prolonged starvation that prompted Mary and her companions undertake their desperate, near suicidal escape from Sydney.

Tench wrote two (2) revealing  journals. Vivid and detailed they are considered the; ‘most readable of all the foundation books of Australia’.

He sent the first, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, by way of Borrowdale a returning ‘First Fleet’ stores-ship. The manuscript reached Falmouth in March 1789.

In England there was intense public interest in the Botany Bay settlement. ‘Narrative’ was rushed into print and hit the streets of London on 24 April 1789 while Tench himself was in danger of starving to death 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from London. Reprints followed quickly, as did editions in German, French and Dutch.

1792 – July London: Sydney’s First Four Years, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, the second book was nearing completion at the time of Mary’s appearance at the Old Bailey so having the ear of James Boswell would have been no small thing.

What is certain, when Boswell stood to defend Mary Bryant, his motives were deeply redemptive.

‘Boswell’s life is the story of  failure turned to success by a strong devotion [to Samuel Johnson]….He was called to the English bar but had no success. Boswell was unsatisfactory as a son, a husband and a father…but next to Pepys he was the frankest of diarists‘. The Age of Johnson.

At the age of twenty-two (22) James Boswell left his family home in Edinburgh for the bright lights of London and to mark his entry into society began a daily diary.

Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763 opens a door on 18th century England. It reveals among many things middle-class male attitudes towards girls and young women of Britain’s ‘lower orders’.

Mary Bryant, daughter of a Cornish fisherman, came from the ‘lower orders’ as did most English criminals transported, first to America and, following Britain’s loss of her colonies via the American War of Independence (1775-1783) to Australia.  See: Britons, Never, Never Shall Be Slaves.

When James Boswell met Mary Bryant in 1792 he had only three (3) years to live. Boswell’s many infirmities reflected a dissolute life, his face bore evidence of repeated episodes of venereal disease.

Surely to the older Boswell, Mary’s face was the haunting face of countless ‘abandoned, deceitful, profligate wretches’ from whom young Boswell ‘purchase[d] copulations’.

‘I had now been some time in town without female sport. I determined to have nothing to do with whores, as my health was of great consequence to me….I picked up a girl in the Strand; went to a court with the intention to enjoy her in armour [condom]. But she had none. I toyed with her’. Diary Entry, 25 November 1762.

Boswell wrote in detail of the ‘hazards‘ of sex ‘in the open’ – London’s parks and foetid alleyways and we discover how little ‘pillow-talk’ has changed; ‘she wondered at my size, and said if I ever took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak’.

‘In the Strand I picked up a little profligate wretch and gave her 6d [5 cents]. She allowed me entrance. But the miscreant refused me performance. I was much stronger than her and volens nolens pushed her up against the wall’. Diary entry – Saturday 4th June 1763

1763 – 4 May, London: The diary entry of May 4, 1763 has young James Boswell outside Newgate prison to watch three (3) ‘unhappy criminals dance’ at the end of a rope.

Boswell, in common with his ‘class enjoyed hangings’ and often frequented Newgate to see the ‘dead dance’ to the jeers and whistles of large rowdy holiday crowds that routinely attended public executions. See: Ketch Connection: Sydney 1788 – London 1868 – Melbourne 1967

However on this occasion Boswell identified strongly with Paul Lewis son of a clergyman and similar in age to himself.

‘Clearly Lewis also reminded Boswell of himself because he was unexpectedly shaken by this encounter….In Lewis Boswell confronted an emblem of his own mortality and guilt. So an honest pity was born’. Professor V.A.C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree, Execution and the English People 1770-1868, 1994

There can be little doubt, in Mary Bryant, Boswell ‘confronted an emblem of his own mortality and guilt’ and felt ‘honest pity’ for the childless widow.

1792 – 7 July: Mary and her fellow accused, stood in the dock of the Old Bailey on 7 July 1792. The Crown did not press for the death penalty, on the contrary the prosecution urged clemency, but the judge would have none of it he imposed a ‘severe’ sentence.

All were found guilty and ordered ‘to remain on their former sentences until they should be discharged by due course of law’ and returned to Newgate in chains.

Boswell was well aware such an ‘indeterminate sentence’ held a very particular danger for his clients. ‘To remain on former sentences’ meant they might remain in prison for years while opposing lawyers battled over what constituted ‘return before expiry’.

Boswell bombarded friends and acquaintances for money to fund an appeal and circulated a petition canvassing public support.


1793 – 2 May: Boswell’s ‘pertinacity’ won the day Mary was pardoned and released from prison on 2 May 1793. Boswell went to Newgate to assure Martin, Lilley, Allen and Butcher of his continuing efforts on their behalf.

1793 – 2 November: The four (4) men were set free on 2 November 1793 they went straight from the prison to Boswell’s home to thank him. It is thought he gave each man some financial support.

Mary’s nights and days were tormented by the loss of her children. Emanuel and his father who died in fever-ridden Jakarta in December 1791 and Charlotte on HMS Gorgan while en-route to London.

Boswell found Mary quiet lodgings in Little Titchfield Street and counselled she return home to Fowey in Cornwell. Perhaps because she feared further entanglement with the law, her family had a reputation; ’eminent for sheep-stealing’, Boswell paid Mary’s sister to come to London and reassure her.


1794 – 3 October: Boswell’s deteriorating health was not helped by run-in with a mugger. In  October 1794 he instructed David his younger brother, who handled the author’s financial affairs, to pay Mary a gratuity of £10 a year. Payments were to be made on the first day of May and November, in the event of his death, these payments to be distributed from his estate.


1795 – May:  James Boswell died in May 1795 aged fifty-five (55) years. ‘Prone to drinking’ his reputation was of a brilliant but flawed man. He suffered life-long depression, his health diminished by alcohol and venereal disease, nevertheless in maturity according to C.H. Currey, much of his effort was spent defending ‘well-nigh hopeless cases’.

Mary Bryant returned to Fowey and it is thought she eventually remarried. Nothing more is known of James Martin, Nathaniel Lilley, William Allen or John Butcher. For Mary Bryant and those he championed Boswell’s reputation was that of saviour. See: The Great Escape From Sydney Cove

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