Wiltshire, England, May, 1829
The stone bench under Bill’s buttocks was hard and cold, but not nearly as icy as the twisting knot in his stomach. His face contorted as tears ran from his eyes, over his bristly cheek and into his beard.
The other prisoners gave him a wide berth. He knew they would find no words of comfort to offer him. As if it wasn’t bad enough to face the prospect of never seeing his family again but then to have the news that not only his wife but his three-month-old baby had passed away. Now Bill’s other three children would be left motherless as well as fatherless. Even the most hardened of criminals would cringe at the thought. And Bill Nipperess certainly didn’t think of himself as a hardened criminal. Poaching one lamb to feed his family seemed a paltry reason to be shipped to the other side of the world for the rest of his life.
Bill wasn’t a man to say much at any time, but now he couldn’t even bring himself to look at the small huddle of prisoners who had gathered on the far side of the cell. He wondered if he’d ever have the heart to speak again. It had been hours since the warden had hissed his gruesome message into the darkness, as if were some piece of irrelevant gossip. In another life such heartlessness would be considered utterly inhumane. But Bill knew the prisoners’ lives had ceased to matter to their jailers. Soon they would all be taken on board one of the ships being readied to sail to New South Wales. In no time at all they would just be forgotten refuse.
‘Can I get you a drink of water?’ One of the prisoners called, his voice cracked with pity.
Bill didn’t answer. He sat as stone-like as the walls and floor around him, his eyes staring into nothingness.
‘P’raps he’ll go stark raving mad,’ another whispered.
‘P’raps it’d be better to be so,’ said a third. ‘Better than knowin’ what we’re to go through … an’ thinkin’ about his younguns all alone.’
‘I heard he has sisters. Let’s hope they take care of the little ones.’
‘Small comfort I should imagine, for he’ll never see them again now.’
Bill was thirty years old when he arrived in Sydney Cove on the convict transport, Katherine Stewart Forbes. It was February eighteenth, 1830. Along with some of his fellow prisoners he was assigned to tented convict quarters at Parramatta and put to work on one of the farm plots taken up by members of the military corps. As the months passed, his body hardened and tanned with the physical work but his mind remained tortured. He was sure he would never heal from the devastating loss of his freedom, his home, and his family. He would never forgive himself for leaving his Martha alone, pregnant with their fourth child and ailing from the impoverished existence he had been able to provide in Wiltshire. He had nightmares about Martha’s last days and hours. Her ravaged face was etched into his mind like a raw burn. Her anguished cries woke him often and he would wretch with the agony of the sound in his ears.
However, as the months turned to years, Bill could not deny the glimpses of hope rising within him. He had heard other convicts talk of bringing their families out from England. The pessimism that had reigned in the early days of the colony had gradually been replaced by visions of rich pasturing and successful industries. Even a modest land holding and hard work could produce a life that far surpassed the meager existence available for the common man in England. Well-behaved convicts were regularly given Tickets of Leave before their sentences expired. This enabled them to work as paid employees rather than in servitude. They could become more independent and make choices about their future. If they were seen to honour this privilege they were sometimes granted a Certificate of Freedom, which saw them released from all the obligations of their convict status. They became free men in a new and growing colony where prospering was encouraged and assisted.
In June of 1839, after working hard as an assigned convict for nine years, Bill was granted a Ticket of Leave. He was given a transfer to Fielding’s sheep farm in the Parramatta area where he became known as a diligent worker; a no-nonsense character who could be trusted with responsibility. It was here that he began to dream of a better life. Although at first he had tried hard to push thoughts of his children from his mind, now he began to think about them more and more. Beth was his eldest. A pretty, fair-haired six-year-old she had been when he left. Then there were his boys: Tom and Henry. They’d been just four and two. His sisters had called Tom, ‘Nipper’, from the beginning. He wondered if the nickname had stuck. He teared up whenever he thought of their rascally grins, their hazel eyes and masses of floppy curls. Could he possibly bring them to this foreign place? Could he take them from the only family they would likely remember? Would they want to be with him? Could they ever forgive him?
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Genre – Historical Fiction
Rating – G
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