The arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 saw some 220 women among the 1350 souls onboard 11 ships: 187 convict women, and 33 sailors’ wives. The women were mostly English, and ranged in age from their mid-teens to 82, but most were in their mid 20’s. John White, Principal Surgeon, was sent on the First Fleet aboard The Charlotte to establish the Colonial Medical Service. He had a first assistant surgeon, two other assistant surgeons, one naval surgeon and one convict interested in medicine to assist him. It is doubtful whether they knew much about midwifery

Some 18 births took place during the voyage, including 2 stillbirths and 1 miscarriage.

  • On April 30, 1987, 30-year-old convict Mary Tilley gave birth to baby William onboard the Lady Penhryn while still at dock at Portsmouth. Although he survived the long journey to Australia, young William would die in Sydney shortly after his first birthday, followed by his mother in July.
  • The wife of Private John Davis gave birth onboard the Prince of Wales, also at dock in Portsmouth. The baby did not survive the journey. Once at sea, the Lady Penhryn saw the birth of convict Isabella Lawson’s baby girl, who would also not survive the perilous journey.
  • June saw convict Elizabeth Colley, 20, birth her stillborn son William, and the same day saw another sailor’s son arrive onboard the Friendship.
  • Baby Daniel was born to sailor Arther Dougherty’s wife Judith in July, and Sergeant Scott’s wife Jane welcomed baby Elizabeth onboard the Prince of Wales, where she was christened by Reverend Johnson. Elizabeth was reported as being “seased with a violent fever which continued… for 3 days… then she got better” in time to be able to visit ashore when the fleet put in at Cape Town.
  • September saw Convict Mary Broad name baby Charlotte Spence for the ship on which she was conceived and born, and the man responsible for her birth. Mary, her husband William, Charlotte, and another son Emanuel, and seven other convicts, would later escape the penal colony to the Dutch East Indies. William and Emanuel would die in the attempt, and Charlotte on the return trip to England. Mary was tried but pardoned, after public sympathy was inspired by her remarkable story of escape.

The eight month and one week trip finally ended when the fleet sailed into Botany Bay. There was much peril when Captain Phillip decided to move the fleet up to Port Jackson: the Charlotte almost went on the rocks, the Prince of Wales and Friendship collided as they entered Port Jackson, the Charlotte ran afoul of the Friendship and then almost did same to the Lady Penhryn. In the midst of this chaos and danger, Thomas Whittle was born on 26 January 1788, as the fleet into Sydney Cove, to Sergeant Major Thomas and Elizabeth.

Although there were no midwives recorded amongst the passengers of the First Fleet, it is evident that convict women assisted birthing women during the voyage. For example, Phoebe Norton, who arrived with the First Fleet, assisted at some of the births on the journey. Phoebe was convicted of stealing household goods at the Old Bailey in London, and was sentenced to be transported for 7 years. The 31-year-old Phoebe fell overboard from the Lady Penrhyn into the Southern Indian Ocean during transportation. She was rescued, and went on to attend to 100’s of babies and become one of the colony’s busiest midwives.

The convict women were finally brought ashore on February 6, and attended an assembly the following day to hear the reading of Phillip’s Commission, which formally established the colony under his governorship.

Adcock et al.

Ann Colpitts
from Burrows, Deborah. (2018). Nurses of Australia: The illustrated story. NLA Publishing, Canberra. p114.

But the arrival of European colonists would have devastating health effects on the First Peoples.

The British colonists dispossessed the First people from their land, with significant physical, spiritual, cultural, and health consequences. Access to Country, traditional foods, and cultural practices was disrupted or denied, negatively impacting health and wellbeing in communities. Disease and previously unknown infections ran rife, and often proved fatal. In many cases, frontier violence decimated the population.

Colonisation thus created problems for First Peoples, which colonial policy and practice then compounded, laying the foundation for an inequality in health that persists today.

Best & Fredericks, 2018

We welcome the descendants of any of our profiled midwives to contact us to collaborate on how their ancestor is described or depicted, and how to best tell their unique midwifery story. We also welcome new stories.