Act 1: The case of the Kables
Henry Kable and Susannah Holmes met in jail as teenagers, and clearly sparks flew. (Just as clearly, Norwich Castle Jail circa 1780s was a little more co-ed than modern penitentiaries). Both were teenagers, Susannah was three or so years older, and possibly they already knew each other, given that they’d both been convicted of carrying out large-scale burglaries in the same town (Thetford, Norfolk) in England. The result of their meeting was not just a child, but the first civil case in Australian history, one which fundamentally inflects the basic nature of our society.
Their young age was not out of the ordinary for most of the First Fleet convicts. Neither were their crimes. Both burgled properties of considerably numerous items, far more than the ‘stealing a loaf of bread from sheer hunger and want’ of historical folk-myth which are falsely held to be the dominant type of transported convict crime. Fifteen year old Henry, in company with his father and a third associate, had relieved Abigal Hambling’s house of linen sheets, silk and satin petticoats, a chintz linen gown, ten pairs of linen sheets, brass candlesticks, a copper saucepan, Lisbon sugar and (most logistically impressive of all) three feather beds. Susannah, meanwhile, had burgled Jabez Taylor of linen shifts, sheets, Irish linen cloth, a silk handkerchief, muslin neckcloths, two black silk cloaks, two silver table spoons, two silver tea spoons, forgetting only the partridge and the pear tree (presumably these were bolted down to the premises). They, along with other soon to be convicted British felons, were unwittingly self-selecting themselves for the much greater enterprise of beginning a new settlement on the other side of the world.
So far, so similar. But now it starts to get really interesting.
The baby, Henry junior, born in jail, (itself no extraordinary 1780s event), set in trail a whole new cascade of consequential actions. The new family found that they were to be separated – not all were on the ship’s manifest to make the journey across several oceans. In one of those exquisitely quirky, arbitrary twists of ‘they made this up, surely’ history, John Simpson, the official in charge of getting felons from jailhouse to ship, decided the story couldn’t end here. Instead he rode a day and a night to Downing Street, London, to make Home Secretary Baron (later Viscount) Sydney intervene to ensure all three, Ma, Pa and baby Kable, could make the journey together. Sydney saw him coming, and tried to fob him off, and away. But Simpson cornered him eventually –I’m seeing a ‘gotcha!’ moment on the back stairs – and painted a word picture of young love torn asunder, and, more to the point, a mother beside herself to the point of suicide. Subtext is clear here: that wouldn’t look great for me or your Lordship, now would it?
It worked. The order was issued. The family got their wish. All three sailed to New South Wales. And, remarkably, they went with top class luggage, thanks to well-wishers who’d read about their story in the papers, thanks to Simpson, (aka ‘the humane turnkey’). The press, and the constantly hungering reading public, was as keen then as now for a good story of power and love against the odds, and with the Kables they got it in bucketloads. It became this week’s cause celebre, and the great, the good and the mawkishly touched kicked in money enough to set the family up in the new colony. Two thieves were starting again, love had found a way, and London readers could sigh happily over this incongruous happy ever after.
This story though, still had greater and bigger miles to run.
Artist: Bernard Caleo
Music: Bruce Woolley
A story told in three acts: