‘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, prominent diarist and lawyer, appeared for the defence in a most extraordinary case.

His clients 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] with ‘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 about 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 ‘beyond the seas‘ aboard Charlotte one (1) of nine (9) chartered vessels that, together with two (2) warships HMS Sirius and HMS Supply, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ invaded 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, ed. W. Hugh  Oldham, Library of Australian History, 1990.

Commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN the ‘First Fleet’ with an overwhelmingly male complement – 1500 souls – sold as a convict transportation fleet, was nothing of the sort. In every sense it was an invasion fleet.

Two hundred (200) Royal Naval personnel, two hundred and forty-five (245) marines, the Navy’s military-arm, five hundred and seventy (570) male convicts ‘rationed as troops serving in the West Indies’, twenty (20) officials, approximately four hundred and forty (440), merchant-seamen, thirty-one (31) marine wives and one hundred and ninety-three (190) women convicts.


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, Sirius, 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.

Tench described the bay as; ‘very open, and greatly exposed to the the fury of the S.E. winds, which, when they blow, cause a heavy and dangerous swell’. 

So the following day – 21st- Phillip set out with two (2) other small row-boats to explore land to the south. This too was scrubby and appeared to have little fresh water and was just as exposed to dangerous swell.

Next morning the party turned north and nine (9) miles (14km) to the north of the initial landing site found the entrance to a large harbour with a multiplicity of inlets and coves.

An ever practical Phillip wrote to Lord Sydney; ‘the different coves were examined…I fixed on the one that had the best spring of water and in which the ships can anchor so close to the shore that a a very small expense quays may be made at which the largest ships may unload’.

1788 – 23 January, Botany Bay: By late afternoon – 23rd  – Phillip’s party was back in Botany Bay and signalled the fleet prepare to leave at first light the following day.

1788 – 24 January: At first light the cry ‘another sail’ rang out –  the cause of the alarm two (2) French ships. Arthur Phillip knew them as La Boussole and L’Astrolabe under command of Comte Jean-Francoise La Perouse. See: Britain By A Short Half-Head

In August 1785, hidden in shadow he had watched these ships make a dramatic exit from Brest naval base and he knew New Holland, with ready access to India, was of interest to the French king Louis XV1.



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 Britain had beaten France her arch-enemy in the race for New Holland.

‘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 in Sydney Cove 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: Three (3) 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 – 3 June, Sydney: Lady Juliana the first contact from England arrived with two hundred and twenty-six (226) ‘useless female’ convicts.

1790 – June, Sydney: At the end of June Neptune, Suprize, Scarborough, the death ships of the 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 women, 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, that had arrived earlier (20 June) but had been driven north by an east-coast low weather system entered the harbour with the first supplies from England.


1791 – 28 March, Sydney: Despite Justinian’s provisions and arrival on 17th December 1790 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 RN arrested the Botany Bay escapees and chartered a vessel Remberg from the Dutch administration and sailed to Batavia with Pandora’s surviving crew, the captured Bounty mutineers and the Botany Bay escapees’. See: Pandora’s Box and the Botany Bay Escapees

1791 – December, Batavia: At Jakarta William Bryant and 20 month old Emanuel died of malaria.

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

1792 – March, Cape Town: Meanwhile Captain Edwards who had 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 convict escapees survived the voyage from Batavia to Cape Town.

The convict survivors transferred onto HMS Gorgan one, 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 the antics of cruel Captain Edward Edwards had, for many weeks, filled a multitude of newspapers, magazines and scandal sheets.

James 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

After all Tench had shared 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. Reprints followed quickly, as did editions in German, French and Dutch.

All the while Tench himself was in danger of starving to death 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from London.

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. To mark his entry into society Boswell 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 1775-17830, 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. His many infirmities reflected a dissolute life. Boswell’s 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 were awash with prostitutes 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’. He often frequented these public performances outside Newgate gaol. The ‘dead dance[d]’ to the jeers and whistles of large rowdy holiday crowds that routinely attended 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 and 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 and 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 had died in fever-ridden Jakarta in December 1791 and Charlotte’s death 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. It has been said her family had a reputation; ’eminent for sheep-stealing’ and Mary was reluctant.

Perhaps she feared further entanglement with the law so Boswell paid Mary’s sister to come to London and reassure her.


1794 – 3 October: Boswell’s deteriorating health was not helped by a run-in with a mugger, most likely with a ‘pimp’ over who was to get the money.

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 were to be distributed from his estate. It is not known if this was done.


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’.

For Mary Bryant and those he championed Boswell’s reputation was that of saviour. See: The Great Escape From Sydney Cove

Mary Bryant returned to Fowey and eventually remarried. Nothing more is known of James Martin, Nathaniel Lilley, William Allen or John Butcher.


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