Remembering Elizabeth Pulley on ‘Australia Day’


I’ve had difficulty selecting a title for this blog as I remain conflicted with the title of ‘Australia Day’ continuing to be used for 26th January, when that day also signifies the beginning of the colonisation, slavery and murder of the First Nations in this country.  Promotional images of Aboriginal people in traditional costume dancing, singing and playing didgeridoos, does not ‘whitewash’ the historical reality for me. The enactments of the past of British arrival and Aboriginal opposition were at least more honest.   Public emphasis on it being a day for ALL Australians to celebrate also grates as it continues to ignore First Peoples’ stories. These days we are aware of, and can no longer ignore, the anomaly.[i]

The arrival of the British First Fleet into Sydney Cove on 26th January, 1788 is historical reality.  The union jack was raised, the cove (re)named and the land claimed for Britain.  My ancestors Anthony Rope and Elizabeth Pulley were convicts on that fleet, and it is their story that I wish to honour here.  The following are adapted excerpts from a longer study, Elizabeth Pulley: The First Five Years which I researched as part of background for thesis from 1998-2008 and later serialised in Elizabeth Pulley Sets Sail.  I am presenting it as a story based on facts on hand at the time, but a story none-the-less, and I apologise if some of the ‘facts’ prove to be inaccurate.

 BEGINNINGS (note that this is an earlier version to the ones I have serialised on Elizabeth Pulley Sets Sail)

At midnight on Christmas Eve in 1782 Elizabeth Pulley broke in and stole 10 lbs cheese, 3 lbs bacon, 24 oz butter, 3 lbs raisins, 7 lbs flour and 2 rolls of worsted material from the shop of Elizabeth Mimms at Hethersett in the South-East of England.

As far as I know Elizabeth was a single woman, an orphan, poor and had no known trade.  Little else is known about her background at this time, except that she was orphaned at the age of six, so it can only be imagined how she lived and survived.  According to Portia Robinson[ii] “it was the very poor, especially the single women, the washerwomen, the charwomen, the street-sellers, the silk-winders, streetwalkers and those of “no trade” who lived in…cellars and garrets…” in “…all the major cities and towns of Britain”.  Their lives “were characterised by squalor, poverty, dirt and disease…”.  The poverty had grown with the spread of the industrial towns and cities which were unable to deal with the increased population.

When Elizabeth stole from Mrs Mimms it was the middle of Winter and, after all, Christmas, the time of celebration and the giving of gifts.  Some of the more privileged made a habit of giving gifts to the poor as well.  Perhaps Elizabeth had nothing and wanted what everyone else had – a good meal, a Christmas pudding and a new dress for herself and family or friends.

Whatever the case Elizabeth was arrested, tried, confessed and sentenced to death.  She had done this before.  During the previous four years at least she had been arrested annually and convicted of stealing.  She had been gaoled, publicly whipped and sentenced to twelve months hard labour in the house of correction at Aylsham.  It had made no difference.  She still stole.  Perhaps there was no alternative for someone like her.

The courts had tried everything.  There was no improvement.  The gaols and prison hulks were overflowing already.  Transportation to America was no longer possible after 1781 when America won its independence from Britain.  So in 1783 the judgement was made that Elizabeth “should be hanged by the neck till she be dead”. She was about 22 years old.

Meanwhile in 1770 Captain James Cook had found “New Holland”.  Since then the British government had been examining the possibility of reviving transportation and New Holland was suggested as a potential site.  By 1786, three years after Elizabeth’s conviction, the plan to send convicts to NSW was put into operation by the government and preparations began.

At some stage during this period Elizabeth’s death sentence was reprieved and instead she was to be transported for seven years.  She spent the time waiting, imprisoned in Norwich Castle.

It was 1787.  The seed was planted.  The seed of hope and new beginnings for the 778[iii] convicts who were to travel from England on the First Fleet, and the seed of despair and death for the indigenous people of this ‘new’ land.

Two years later in another Winter, the Winter of 1789, thousands of the original inhabitants of the Sydney basin (country of the Gadigal, Eora and Darug) died from the effects of smallpox considered to be brought in by the new arrivals.  That was another beginning.  Over the next ten to fifteen years the original population of Australia was decimated by 50% – 90% as the smallpox epidemic was quickly followed by measles and influenza.

For Elizabeth, this was her only chance.


Winter had ended and spring festivities, including Lent, were in full swing when on 11th March 1787 Elizabeth Pulley, and Susannah Holmes, with whom she had spent the last 3 years in custody, were received on board the transport ship, Friendship, at Plymouth, England.  Elizabeth’s future husband Anthony Rope was on the Alexander.

The Friendship was captained by Lt. Ralph Clark and during the eight months and one week[iv]  journey Elizabeth was mentioned a number of times in Clark’s journal[v].  She was one of a group of women who continued to cause trouble throughout the passage, and was eventually moved to another ship, the Prince of Wales.   I need to add that when the women were moved it did not stop Lt. Clark’s complaints.


On Saturday 19th January, 1788 the Prince of Wales and the rest of the Fleet arrived at the entrance to Botany Bay (Kamay).  There was great excitement and relief at having arrived safely.

In spite of their explorations Captain Phillip and the officers were unable to find a suitable settlement site so Phillip ‘judged it advisable to examine Port Jackson’.  While he was away the officers continued their explorations around Botany Bay as well as clearing the land in preparation for settlement in case Port Jackson did not prove to be suitable.  The indigenous Australians were not happy, ‘The Natives were well pleas’d with our People until they began clearing the ground at which they were displeased & wanted them to be gone’.

The Aboriginal people were also astonished by the amount of fish the new arrivals could catch in their sein – ‘when they saw the quantity of Fish brought on shore at once were much astonished which they expressed by a loud & long shout, They took some of the Fish (which the Officer permitted) & ran away directly’.   The encroachment of the British on indigenous land and food sources had begun.

Underneath the surface friendliness of the British, who attempted to engage peacefully, there was quite a different attitude,  ‘The Governor’s plan with respect to the Natives, was, if possible to cultivate an acquaintance with them without their having an idea of our great superiority over them’…hmmm!

Phillip and his party returned to Botany Bay on 23rd January with good news about Port Jackson.  The fleet raised anchor and headed north.


On 26th January 1988, after an almost disastrous exit from Botany Bay, the fleet ‘Came to an Ankor at. 1/2 p, 6 OClock in Port Jackson Close to the New town Which Was Crisned this Day’.  The ships scattered through the bay, anchored, and were secured by ropes tied to the trees on shore.

The next day some of the convicts and troops began to clear ground and set up tents.  Collins, the Judge Advocate for the colony, was poignantly aware of the impact their arrival would have,

The spot chosen for this purpose was at the head of the cove, near the run of fresh water, which stole silently along through a very thick wood, the stillness of which had then, for the first time since the creation, been interrupted by the rude sound of the labourer’s axe, and the downfall of its ancient inhabitants;  a stillness and tranquillity which from that day were to give place to the voice of labour, the confusion of camps and towns, and ‘the busy hum of its new possessors’

Then on 28th the rest of the marines, their wives and children and the male convicts disembarked, and some stock was landed[vi].  At this stage Anthony Rope would have been put to work on shore, assisting in the preparation.  As the women convicts were not yet allowed to disembark, Elizabeth Pulley probably would have watched the activity from the deck of the Prince of Wales.

Immediately, some of the convicts began to run away as there were no longer any constraints.  A number ended up back at Botany Bay, and tried to obtain a passage on French ships which had arrived there, but they were dismissed with threats and were given ‘a days provisions to carry them back to ye settlement.’

Then on 5th February ‘slops of every kind’ were issued ‘to all the women & Childn. on board previous to their landing tomorrow…5 of the women, who supported the best Characters on board were this day landed on the Governor’s side of the Encampment, & had Tents pitch’d for them not far from the Governor’s house’.  The other women, who would have included Elizabeth Pulley, were directed to the west side of the Encampment.  The sailors were to remain on board the ships.

Finally at 5 a.m. on 6th February 1788 Elizabeth and the rest of the convict women prepared to disembark. ‘They were dress’d in general very clean & some few amongst them might be sd. to be well dress’d’[vii].  The peace did not last long as the women faced the waiting men on shore. It was a riot. ‘The Men Convicts got to them very soon after they landed, & it is beyond my abilities to give a just discription of the Scene of Debauchery & Riot that ensued during the night’.  One hour later there was also a ‘violent storm of thunder, lighteng. & rain’.

Elizabeth Pulley had arrived, carrying her bed with her.  The messy scene that was enacted on that first day was an apt introduction to the ensuing uneasy early years of settlement.

Three months after stepping onto Australian soil, Elizabeth Pulley married Anthony Rope.  She was about 25 years of age, and Anthony about 29.  Frances Williams loaned Elizabeth special clothes for the occasion, and Elizabeth Mason and John Summers acted as witnesses.  Elizabeth Mason had been one of ‘Pulley’s crowd’ on the Friendship, transferring with her to the Prince of Wales where they must have met up with Frances Williams.  John Summers had travelled out on the Alexander with Anthony.

It took a while but eventually Elizabeth and Anthony did make a life.  As the colony expanded they and their growing family moved to the newly opened areas west of Sydney until they were able, more or less, to support themselves off the land.  Elizabeth had eight known children.  One died young, some had children, some made a success of their lives, others had difficulty as in most families, but they survived.

The indigenous population, however, did not survive as well. Their land and food sources were increasingly overtaken, foreign diseases caused multiple deaths, and their fightbacks[viii] against British encroachment were squashed.[ix]

Whereas for me the 26th January will remain a symbol of my own British ancestors’ arrival and survival in Australia, part of our family tradition to be honoured and celebrated, stories such as these are complex and conflicted.  The other side of Elizabeth’s story challenges the current dating of our national day and has still to be accommodated.  It is important that we find a way to honour the whole, not just part.  That is yet to come. [x]

c. Annette Maie, 2017


[i] As the concept of ‘Australia Day for All’ is tied up with our understanding of ‘nationhood’ the date probably will not undergo a change until we cut our ties with Britain and become a truly independent nation.

[ii] Robinson, P.  The Women of Botany Bay.

[iii] Numbers seem to differ as some sources say only 759 actually sailed, some convict names did not appear on the Registers, and others had aliases.

[iv] according to Judge-Advocate David Collins, Fletcher, B. H. (ed.) An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Volume 1, by David Collins.

[v] Fidlon, P. G. & Ryan, R. J.  The Journal and Letters of Lt. Ralph Clark 1787-1792.

[vi] including mares, stallions, cows, a bull and a calf, ewes, poultry, goats and hogs.

[vii] Fidlon, P. G. & Ryan, R. J. The Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth:  Surgeon, Lady Penrhyn, 1787-1789

[viii] The first Australian armies to fight for their homeland;  also not yet officially recognised.

[ix] Grassby, A. & Hill, M.  Six Australian Battlefields.

[x] Addendum.  This year Freemantle, Western Australia has taken the lead and rescheduled their celebration and fireworks to 28th January, calling it ‘Unity Day’.  Let’s hope this is the trigger for further changes across Australia.