The Story of Bet Carter, A Convict to New South Wales

A paragraph in Scottish radical T F Palmer's account of his voyage to New South Wales on board a convict ship in 1794 prompted Lucienne Boyce to look for the story of Bet Carter, who was transported on the same ship.

At the end of April 1794 the Surprize convict ship set sail from Portsmouth bound for Botany Bay. Her master was Patrick Campbell and the first mate was Mr McPherson. On board were twenty-three soldiers of the New South Wales Corp, the regiment established in 1789 to serve in Australia.

Amongst the ninety-four convicts were four men known as the Scottish Martyrs: radicals Thomas Muir, Thomas Palmer, William Skirving and Maurice Margarot, who had all been sentenced to transportation for campaigning for parliamentary reform. During the voyage the four men fell out and, in an atmosphere of spying and treachery, Thomas Muir and William Skirving ended up on charges of plotting to incite a mutiny. Several people were drawn into the affair, during which suspects were confined without trial, witnesses were bullied, and accused soldiers flogged and kept chained to the poop in cramped positions and left exposed to the elements.

The Scottish reformers weren’t the only martyrs on board. In his self-justificatory account of the voyage (A Narrative of the Sufferings of T F Palmer and W Skirving), Palmer (a Unitarian minister), devoted a paragraph to “McPherson’s girl”, another unfortunate caught up in the alleged mutiny plot. Her name was Bet Carter.

One amenity the convict ships were always supplied with was a brothel and the Surprize was no exception. Palmer was furious when he had to spend part of his confinement in “that infernal brothel. The language of Newgate was virtue and decency in comparison”. 

Botany Bay

The first mate McPherson had picked Bet Carter, sentenced to seven years’ transportation, from that “infernal brothel”. An Elizabeth Carter was sentenced to transportation at the Old Bailey in 1792. She was a prostitute at “Mother Macclew’s” house in Sharp’s Alley, London. Like many prostitutes, Bet augmented her earnings by robbing her clients. Her downfall came when, with a woman called Elizabeth Ford, she picked up a servant called Benjamin Painton on 8 November 1792. The women took him to the house in Sharp’s Alley. He agreed to pay Bet six pence, and gave Ford a shilling to buy gin. Elizabeth Ford went off on her errand, and while Bet Carter and Painton “were going to the agreement”, Bet picked his pocket. While he was trying to retrieve his purse from her, Elizabeth Ford came back and the three of them got into an altercation.

Mother Macclew came rushing in to see what the noise was about. In fact, “Mother Macclew” was not married to Mr Macclew, the owner of the house and her name was Mary Williams. Mary Williams “found” Painton’s purse on the floor and returned it to him, lighter by nine guineas and three shillings. Painton refused to leave without his money and a constable was sent for. He arrested Carter and Ford.

Bet Carter was sentenced on 15 December 1792 to seven years’ transportation. She was twenty-two years old. If the Elizabeth Carter sentenced at the Old Bailey in 1792 is indeed the Bet Carter who became “McPherson’s woman” on board the Surprize, she spent the next couple of years in prison waiting for a convict ship to become available. It was not unusual for prisoners to be kept waiting in this way. Palmer himself was in prison in Perth for three months before being sent to a hulk on the Thames, where he spent a further three months in chains doing hard labour. He was taken to the Surprize from the hulk in February 1794, and waited a further two months before the ship sailed. Nor was a delay of two years unusual. These periods were not taken into account when transportation actually took place.

Conditions for the convicts shut away below decks were dreadful, as Palmer discovered: “it was so close and hot under the torrid zone, we could not bear the weight of our clothes”. Like many of the other women, Bet sold herself to one of the soldiers in return for better living conditions and protection from the violence of the “brothel”, where “the women were almost perpetually drunk, and as perpetually engaged in clamours, brawls, and fighting”.

Unfortunately for Bet, Captain Campbell disliked first mate McPherson. When the first mate complained to the Captain about one of the soldiers, who he said had insulted him, he and Campbell had a furious row. The upshot was that Captain Campbell had McPherson arrested and confined to his cabin. The hapless first mate was then accused of being a leader in the mutiny plot. 

Campbell proceeded to question “McPherson’s girl”. Bet said she knew nothing about the plot or McPherson’s alleged involvement. This is what, according to Palmer, then happened:-

“She had suffered so much before on McPherson’s account, and besides grief for him she was put in irons. When they went to lay hold on her she fainted away, and fell upon the deck, but no sooner did she recover than her mouth was open to declare her ignorance of any plot whatever; and persisting in it, she was hoisted up and flogged. The girl, finding that she had nothing but barbarity to expect, disdained to gratify their cruelty with a single groan or pity-invoking look.”

The Surprize reached Botany Bay on 25 October 1794. I don’t know what happened to Bet Carter after that. I hope that Bet, who refused to beg her tormentors for mercy, and whose short existence seems to have been one long tale of violence and exploitation, managed to make a better life for herself in the colony. Somehow, though, I doubt it.


Lucienne Boyce writes historical fiction (To The Fair Land, the Dan Foster Mysteries), non fiction (The Bristol Suffragettes), and biography (currently working on a biography of suffrage campaigner Millicent Price).  



A Narrative of the Sufferings of T F Palmer and W Skirving, during a voyage to New South Wales, 1794, on board the Surprise transport, Thomas Fysshe Palmer (Cambridge, 1797)

The Old Bailey on Line

Convict Record of Australia

Convicts to Australia

Convict Transportation Registers Database

See also The Floating Brothel: The extraordinary true story of an eighteenth-century ship and its cargo of female convicts, Sian Rees (London: Headline, 2001)

Picture Credit:-

‘Botany Bay’, [New South Wales, ca 1789, watercolour by Charles Gore, State Library of New South Wales, (out of copyright).



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