‘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  lawyer James Boswell appeared for the defence in a most extraordinary case. His clients, five 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…a charge 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 for Botany Bay New Holland now Australia aboard Charlotte, one (1) of nine (9) chartered vessels and part of what is known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’.

‘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.

This fleet sold as a convict transportation fleet, was nothing of the sort in every sense the ‘First Fleet’ was an invasion fleet.


1788 – 18 to 20 January, Botany Bay: After a passage of eight (8) months voyaging across 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’ all eleven (11) ‘First Fleet’ vessels, two (2) warships HMS Sirius and HMS Supply, six (6) transports Alexander, Friendship, Charlotte, Prince of Wales, Scarborough, Lady Penrhyn and 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 British sovereignty over New Holland from ‘Cape York…to South Cape’. See: A Cracker Jack Opinion – No Sweat

1788 – 6 February, Sydney: The fleet’s one hundred and ninety-three (193) female convicts disembarked on 6 February 1788.

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

Extract from official records

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


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

1790 – June, Sydney: During June 1790 a second fleet ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ brought another one thousand (1000) mainly male convicts and soldiers of the New South Wales Corps.

1790 – July: 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. He chartered a vessel Remberg from the Dutch administration and sailed to Batavia with the ‘Botany Bay escapees’, the Bounty mutineers and Pandora’s survivors.

1791 – December, Batavia: William and Emanuel Bryant died at Batavia. See: Pandora’s Box and the Botany Bay Escapees

1791 – December, Sydney: In the meantime HMS Gorgan departed Sydney for England with ‘First Fleet’ marines who were overdue for repatriation.


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

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

Those who did 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. The escapees 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 and, saddened by her death at sea on HMS Gorgan in May 1792, was moved by Mary’s sorrow and courage.

Importantly Tench had lived the ‘misery and horror’ of abandonment and starvation that prompted Mary and her companions undertake their desperate, near suicidal escape from Sydney. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve at Sydney Cove From January 1788 to July 1790

Captain Tench, while in Australia – January 1788 to December 1791- wrote two (2) revealing  journals. Vivid and detailed Tench’s books are considered the; ‘most readable of all the foundation books of Australia’.

His first, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, circulated throughout England and on the continent, while Tench himself was marooned in Sydney and bizarrely was in imminent danger of starving to death 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from London.

Tench sent the ‘Narrative’ manuscript to England by way of Borrowdale a returning ‘First Fleet’ stores-ship that 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 quickly followed, as did German, French and Dutch editions.

1792 – July London: Tench’s second book, Sydney’s First Four Years, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, 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.

James Boswell, aged twenty-two (22), 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 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) and off-shore prison there, 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 stolen ‘in the open’ – London’s parks and foetid alleyways. From his writings 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 many members of 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

On this occasion however 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 again ‘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, found guilty as charged, were ordered ‘to remain on their former sentences until they should be discharged by due course of law’ and then 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. She declined perhaps 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 health was deteriorating. 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 and, in the event of his death, these payments 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 according to C.H. Currey, in maturity much of his effort was spent defending ‘well-nigh hopeless cases’.

Mary Bryant did return to Cornwell and 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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