Warning – Major Spoilers.
When I first picked up this story, Beth – The Story of a Child Convict by Mark Wilson, it appeared to be children’s storybook recounting what happened in picture and diarised form to two very young children transported to Australia on the First Fleet and detailing the first year of their stay throughout 1788 and 1789. And yet it is so much more.
I presume Mr Wilson’s work is probably targeted to children aged between six and nine years, although the detail, reading level and subject matter is only for a child who can process mature themes and tragedy.
Beth – the young girl whose early life this true account details – is around eight to ten years old. She was the youngest convict transported to Australia in the First Fleet for stealing a dress and bonnet back in her homeland of England.
On this frightful journey aboard a tall ship, she befriends an even younger child, who I presume would have been around four or five years of age. The little girl’s name is Molly and her mother had been sentenced to transportation with this little innocent in tow. While sailing on this rat-infested slow boat of torture, Molly’s mother dies, meaning the poor little tiny tot is left to fend for herself until Beth takes her under her wing and they become each other’s comfort.
I absolutely fell in love with Beth and her caring heart throughout this poignant account as she sacrificed so much to ensure her little charge was cared for, including giving up her own precious rag doll – the only thing she brought with her – so Molly would have something to help fill the void left by her mother’s passing.
The conditions on the ship are bad enough for its seemingly endless year-long duration, however , what these two youngsters have to endure on their arrival ashore is even worse. They are taken in – written in the loosest of terms – by the colony’s surgeon to be his servants and then housed simply on the dusty ground outside the Sydney Cove tent hospital. It took over a year before they are afforded the ‘luxury’ of living in a stark bare tent to keep out the winter chill in this harshest of lands. Their orders are to help with the cooking as well as start a new garden to grow vegetables for the patients, meagre hospital staff and convicts during every waking hour, with only the clothes on their backs and each other and the precious doll as company.
Both happy and frightening encounters with the local Aboriginal tribes, meagre and often rotting rations, the scourge of dysentery, scurvy and a smallpox epidemic, massive crop failures and scrounging out an existence with nothing whatsoever to make life easy are all described in well-written detail, both from Beth’s point of view, as well as portions taken from the surgeon’s actual journal entries.
My heart broke over and over again learning about their plight, especially as I was reading it to my six-year-old grandson while nestled up close on a comfy sofa and with plenty of food in our bellies. Interestingly enough, my daughter’s home that very morning experienced a power outage and so we decided reading was the best way to fill in the time with a cosy blanket over our legs while waiting for the electrician to arrive. Here we were bemoaning our fate of being unable to cook warm porridge for breakfast and instead sup on the simple fare of cold bread and Vegemite, no warm ducted heating to take the chill off the air – this was Melbourne and a chilly 7 degrees outside – and with no TV to keep us company. What are the odds of picking up something detailing hardships this horrendous while enduring our own nuisance discomforts for a couple of hours? It certainly put into perspective those things which are classed as a ‘hardship’ during this period of time in Australia – what would have been thought as absolute luxury and in often better conditions than even wealthy kings and queens of many of the poorer countries experienced back in those days, let alone the poor and destitute.
The reason for my caution about only young children with a mature thought process reading this book is because, much to my own distress, darling little Molly contracts smallpox and Beth is the only one who tends her during this terrible illness. Darien’s and my eyes filled with tears and my voice quivered relating those sad lines. He looked up at me with shimmering eyes and asked, “Are you really sad, Jema?” – his special moniker for me. I could only nod and swallow hard as he nodded back with a trembling chin.
As grandmother to this precious boy, I couldn’t possibly comprehend a life so harsh for two little people who had no one really looking out for them, even though the surgeon did his best with the tiny amount of spare time he had away from the hospital.
In my opinion, this is not a story for a very young child, despite the beautiful artwork depicting the scenes described, and yet it is a very good lesson for children in the first years of school to gain a true insight into life as a convict at a similar age. Certainly something for them to think about and, hopefully, appreciate the everyday things we all take for granted in this beautiful country, which was a hell on earth for the first white settlers and often the indigenous people who had inhabited it for thousands of years prior.
Thankfully the story finished with an epilogue on a high note with Beth going on to marry, raise several children and live to the ripe old age of sixty-three – a major accomplishment in those days when sickness or hardships cut so many lives short.
Now as I write this, I’m so glad I chose to review this sad account as it gave me an amazing insight into the true nature of what so many of our ancestors endured to give us the successful future and lifestyles we now enjoy … and often take for granted. And I’m glad I read it to my young grandson as it touched his heart just as deeply – in fact, for the rest of my week-long visit, he asked to have this one read as a priority over any other story. Bless him and his lovely caring heart.