1788: Elizabeth Pulley’s first year

Pulley image cropped

It is two hundred and thirty years since my ancestors Elizabeth Pulley and Anthony Rope arrived in Australia so seems an apt time to offer my version of Elizabeth’s first year in the colony.  This excerpt is part of a longer doco-story, The Story of Elizabeth Pulley: and her first five years in Australia.[i]  I uploaded a very much abbreviated version of the first part of Elizabeth’s story, Beginnings and Arrival last year as, Remembering Elizabeth Pulley on ‘Australia Day’.  More detailed stories and stages of her journey can be found at Elizabeth Pulley Sets Sail.  

As Elizabeth would not have been considered one of the better behaved women convicts, she would have stepped onto Australian soil on 6th February 1788.  It also means that she would have been placed on the west side of the tank stream.  Like other convicts she would have been carrying her bed with her.

Before engaging on this part of the journey I would first like to acknowledge the First Nations of Australia and their elders past and present, especially the Gadigal band of the Dharug (Eora) nation on whose country Elizabeth and Anthony landed. I would also like to acknowledge the devastation of Australia’s First Peoples which was the result of British arrival, and honour those who fought and died to protect their land – Australia’s first wars. [ii]

SURVIVAL:  Sydney Cove 1788-1790


Three months after stepping onto Australian soil, Elizabeth Pulley married Anthony Rope.  She was about 26 years of age, and Anthony about 32.  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.

Theirs was not the first wedding in the new colony.  Not long after the convict women landed fourteen couples announced their plans to marry, to the delight of those in charge.  However Judge-Advocate Collins suspected that some had been responding to a rumour that married couples would be given special privileges for, when they realised their mistake, they very quickly applied to be unmarried again.  It was also suspected that some already has spouses in England.

By the time of Elizabeth’s and Anthony’s marriage the colony had more-or-less settled into a routine.  The sound of the drum summoned the battalion and convicts to work, dinner, official assemblies, and divine services.  By the morning ‘Revalie beating’ everyone had to be clean, dressed and out of their tents, and at the end of the day the ‘tattoo beating’ announced ‘lights out’.  The routine was in place well before the women convicts landed.

The formal commissioning ceremony

On the day after the women landed Governor Phillip gathered everyone together on a cleared area used as the parade ground and with great pomp and ceremony, conducted the official commissioning.  With Judge Advocate presiding, Phillip was formally appointed Captain General and Governor over the territory of New South Wales, which England viewed as extending the length of the Eastern coast.  The legal and court system for the colony was also formally established.

Phillip then turned to the convicts, who were seated on the ground and surrounded by soldiers, and urged them to view this as a new start. He did his utmost to encourage their good conduct and co-operation, and warned them of the dire consequences of misbehaviour.  At the conclusion of the ceremony three volleys were fired, interspersed with the band playing God Save the King.  The officials viewed the troops, and a dinner was enjoyed by the officers and gentlemen.

The trials begin

Within a few days a court martial had been convened, and soon after a court of criminal justice.  The trials began.  It was not only the convicts who were at fault.  As was the case during the journey out to Australia, the marines were as much to blame.  Part of the problem was drunk and disorderly behaviour due to the marines bringing liquor ashore, part centred on the women’s camp into which the marines would sneak at night, and the rest centred on the public stores.

Provisions and rationing

Phillip had brought enough provisions for only two years, so food was often rationed.  In addition the stores were continually under attack from the male and female convicts, marines and the guards themselves.  In fact everything – food, clothes, and tools – could be bartered so was at risk of being stolen.  At first those caught were given a warning and pardoned, or flogged, or put in chains, or given harsher rations of bread and water, or, in the case of the marines, drummed out of the camp.  When this did not seem have the desired effect, a gallows was built.  On 27th February, one month after arrival, James Barrett was made an example, and had the dubious notoriety of being the first person to be hung on Australian soil.

Food was a real concern.  Not all the provisions had lasted the journey.  Animals died in transit or on arrival, flour grew mould, and fresh mutton was full of maggots in a day.  Efforts were quickly directed into supplementing the limited stores.  Settlement gardens were dug and seeds planted near the Governors place and the hospital.  The Public Garden and a farm for stock was organised at a cove nearby (the area now marked by the Botanical Gardens at the head of Farm Cove/Woccanmagully), and another garden begun on Garden Island/Ba-ing-hoe.

Everyone, including the convicts, was encouraged to develop their own garden and keep chickens for which they were given Saturday free from normal work.  Sunday was for the compulsory divine service.  However, by the end of the first year it was realised that the soil was not very good, not much grew, ants and field mice were a problem, and the stealing of tools and provisions was still rife.  Even the officers, who were free to wander, hunt, and explore, found that survival was not as easy as it seemed.  One remarked that he did not know how the ‘natives’ did it.

Building the town

As well as working in the gardens convicts were involved in the major project of constructing the town.  The aim was to get everyone and everything out of the tents: that is, the hospital and stores built, the Governor and officers in proper housing, the marines in barracks, and the convicts in huts. Both men and women were expected to be gainfully employed, although a number of women were pregnant or had young children, so were excused.

It was a slow process.  In spite of Phillip’s motivational speech the convicts were more inclined to ‘slack off’ or escape into the woods.  Nine men and one woman were soon missing.  As one report recorded, ‘not more than 200 out of the 600 were at work’.  Part of the difficulty was that the officers and marines did not consider the convicts to be their responsibility once the convicts had landed on shore.  So, the supervision was carried out by the more trusted convicts who, naturally, had a difficult time.  Another problem was a lack of skilled labourers, especially carpenters, bricklayers and farmers.

Waves of sickness did not help.  By the end of February ‘the flux’ (dysentery) became a mini-epidemic, with reports of over two hundred being hospitalised.  Scurvy too began to take its toll.  There were attempts to augment the diet with wild celery, spinach and parsley to fight the effects of malnutrition.  Native sarsaparilla was found to be effective in treating scurvy, but soon became scarce around the settlement.

The tank stream, being the only real source of fresh water, was strictly monitored.  It was forbidden to cut the trees along its banks in an effort to protect it from the heat of the sun.  Smaller streams around the settlement quickly dried up in hot weather.


Phillip was only too aware of the limits of confining survival hopes to one small area.  From the first day he had encouraged his officers to explore and map every bay and stream along the river, as well as the land to the north and north-west, in the hope of finding other suitable sites for settlement.  In mid-February the Supply set out, with supplies and a small number of convicts, to settle Norfolk Island with the aim of cultivating flax, corn, cotton and other grains, as well as sending back pine for building and trading purposes.  Norfolk Island had originally been settled by Polynesians but they had long gone before the British arrived.

The following month Phillip led a party north to explore Broken Bay, the traditional land of members of the Guringai nation.  He returned to the area in April, moving further inland beyond the end of the river hoping to find the mountains, another river, and other sources of fresh water and fertile land. During April and May excursions were made west to carefully assess the land at the head of the harbour.

Clash of cultures

It was not long before the Traditional custodians, probably members of the Dharug nation south of the river and Guringai nation north of the river, began to react to the effect the newcomers presence had on their previous way of life.  They were not pleased that the English had monopolized their fishing grounds, nor about the large numbers of fish the seine could haul in.  At first they assisted, and were rewarded with part of the catch.  At some stage the reciprocal arrangement fell apart. The Traditional owners began to avoid contact and steal equipment, probably in retaliation for their own spears and tools being ‘souvenired’, in spite of official orders not to do so.

By May some sheep had been killed by dingoes belonging to an Aboriginal band [iii], and convicts gathering native plants and reeds from the outskirts of the settlement had been attacked, wounded and killed.  There was a suspicion among the officers that some convicts had also killed Aboriginal people, and that the attacks were payback.  Winter was fast approaching, fish were scarce, and the Indigenous Australians were no longer so willing to accommodate the encroachment on their food sources and their land. Yet there are reports of continuing friendly encounters and sharing of food, with a number of officers noting how hungry the Indigenous population looked.

Settling in

In spite of the difficulties the tent city was slowly being transformed into a town.  By the time of Elizabeth’s and Anthony’s wedding, saw-pits had been dug, a stonemason found, the stone quarry begun, a bricklayer found, and a site for the brickworks chosen, although chalk or lime was still not available.  Some of the women were employed making shingles for the roofs, the pegs to attach them, and in crushing shells for lime.

Sydney cove with ships

The foundation stone for the Governor’s house had been laid and at least one of the storehouses had been completed and was being used for divine services.  The hospital was having shingles put on its roof and the building of huts for the officers and women had commenced.  The general construction of the huts was of pine for the posts and plates, and cabbage trees split in half for the sides.  The huts were then plastered with clay and thatched with rushes or shingles.

Elizabeth and Anthony

During this time, Elizabeth and Anthony had met, set up a relationship and Elizabeth was pregnant.  Records suggest that both of them were employed. Anthony served as a labourer at the brick pits, which were situated near the marshes at the source of the tank stream.  Elizabeth may have been doing jobs, or acted as a home help, for the overseer of women convicts, though this is not as certain.  In November the overseer wrote a letter home, which included the comment that, ‘The girl that was with us, Elizabeth Pully is married, and has a fine little boy.’

Their marriage is recorded as being on 19th May at St Phillips Church of England, Sydney.  It probably took place where divine services were being held, that is, under a tree, or in the storehouse.  A week after their wedding they held a ‘marriage supper’, supposedly for a friend, which resulted in some entertainment for the rest of the town and has become part of the Rope-Pulley legend.

The ‘marriage supper’, at which the infamous ‘Sea Pye’ was eaten, took place on ‘Sunday Sennight’ 25th May.  It was held in Anthony’s hut where both Elizabeth (now Rope) and Elizabeth Mason lived.  Also present were ‘Price, Day…a Marine and a woman named Williams’.  Both James Price and Samuel Day had travelled out on the Alexander with Anthony.  Both probably worked with him at the brickworks and Price had helped Anthony build his hut.  Elizabeth’s friend, Frances Williams, has already been mentioned.  The marine was Robert Ryan, with whom Frances later had a daughter.

The location of Anthony’s hut could have been near the brickworks, or in the married quarters along the west side of the Tank stream closer to the Cove.  On Tuesday 13th May, George B. Worgan, one of the Surgeons, had

‘walked out to Day, as far as the Brick Grounds, it is a pleasant Road through the Wood about a Mile or Two from the Village, for from the Number of Little Huts & Cots that appear now, just above Ground, it has a villatick appearance.

I see they have made between 20 & 30,000 Bricks, and they were employed in digging out a Kiln for the Burning of them.’

Near the brickworks was ‘two acres of ground…marked out for such officers as were willing to cultivate them and raise a little grain for their stock’.

The animal, which it was alleged comprised the ‘Sea Pye’, had also been in the area during that month.  It seems that George Johnston, Lieutenant of Marines, had sent out a ‘She Goat’ to some land ‘a little beyond the Brick Kilns, at the head of Long Sea Cove’ to graze.  William Roberts, ‘a person who looks after the stock’ had tethered it ‘by a rope…round her horns to a stake’, and at some stage on Saturday 24th May she went missing.  The same day its skin was found ‘near a Point where the Brick makers were collecting Sand’.

Anthony Rope and James Price were charged with stealing its flesh ‘with force of arms…on or about 24th May’, and Samuel Day and Elizabeth Rope were charged with a similar offence ‘on Sunday 25th May last’.  A number of friends and co-workers came to their defence, swearing they had seen the goat already dead and ‘crows at it’. William Earl swore that he had told Anthony about seeing ‘the Animal lying there’.  Others corroborated that Earl had told them as well.  Another admitted that Price had passed some meat on to their hut and they had made a meal of it.  Although there was disagreement about the cause of death, that is, whether it was mangled by an animal, or killed cleanly by a person, the evidence from friends held and the four were acquitted on 2nd June.

Winter scarcity

By now winter was taking its toll.  Over the next two months the settlement relied on salted meat.  The Aboriginal population was starving.  Some were found dead.  Others began to appear closer to the settlement and took ‘with force of arms’ the odd animal, fish from the fishing boats, and other food and clothing.  They weren’t the only ones.  Although a number of Officers had remarked how ‘better behaved than expected’ the convicts were, some of them, as well as the marines, continued to make trouble, in spite of the executions which followed.

Internal conflicts

For their own part the Officers maintained their refusal to be involved in anything else but ‘their duty of soldiers’ and setting up home and garden for themselves and their help.  The marines felt insulted that they were expected to live on the same rations and under the same conditions as everyone else (that is, the convicts).  There had also been dissent between some of the Officers about who had the right to pass judgement in a particular court-martial, which unfortunately mushroomed into a series of official complaints and arrests.  The friction between Major Ross, Commandant of the Marines, Captain-Lieutenant Tench and some of the other officers, continued the rest of the year.

Disappointment tests resolve

The sheep were dying, the crops disappointing, and, to add to the strain, the cattle on the Governors farm went missing.  The expected fresh turtle from Lord Howe Island did not eventuate.  There was a desperate need for new clothing, especially for the women.  Some of the thatched huts burned down when fires were lit inside.  Chimneys were outlawed.  There were no beds or cots, so convicts still slept on the ground.

The transports had begun to return to England, leaving everyone, including the Officers, feeling isolated.  Then, in August the rains turned everything into mud.  The brick kiln fell in, bricks were destroyed, the roads were impassable and the Lieutenant Governor’s house had fallen down.

Phillip was getting quietly desperate.  His letters back to England stress the lack of involvement of the Officers, ‘the great want of proper persons to superintend the convicts’, and the need for ‘support from the mother country, on which for a few years we must entirely depend’.  Provisions such as, clothing, blankets, tools, medicines and food, were needed.  He was also concerned that England was planning to send out more convicts.

‘I hope few convicts will be sent out for one year at least, except carpenters, masons, and bricklayers, or farmers, who can support themselves and assist in supporting others.  Numbers of those now here are a burthen and incapable of any kind of hard labour, and, unfortunately, we have not proper people to keep those to their labour who are capable of being made useful.’

Progress and hope

Even though by November everyone had fallen out, and the Officers and marines just wanted to go home, there was progress in some areas.  Lieutenant Dawes’ Observatory had been built, the Governor’s brick house was finished, the Lieutenant Governor’ hewn-stone house was completed.  Most Officers huts had plastered roofs, and the Officers were being ordered to focus on building public barracks for their men.  Fresh fish, rather than salted, was back on the menu as fish began to return with the warmer weather.

The news from Norfolk Island was also good, as the agricultural efforts there were beginning to look promising.  So Phillip turned his attention west.  Since the excursions there in April and May Phillip had been seriously planning a satellite town near the head of the harbour and on 3rd November a settlement was established there.  This area was the land of the Burramatta (barra = place, matta = eels) band of the Dharug nation.  It was at first named Rose Hill by the British but later renamed Parramatta (the place where eels lie down).

There were other highlights to the year.  One was the Kings Birthday celebrations on the 4th June, for which everyone received a three-day holiday and a ration of spirits.  The earthquake later in the same month gave everyone a fright.  On 12th August the Prince of Wales’ birthday offered another excuse to celebrate and make merry, and for a few months speculation about the discovery of a ‘gold mine’ set tongues wagging.  It was found to be a fabrication and the perpetrator was ‘rewarded for his ingenuity with a hundred lashes’.

And, of course, on the 30th October Elizabeth’s and Anthony’s first child, Robert, was born.  He was christened three days later, on 2nd November.  Ryan’s memoirs (Toby Ryan was Elizabeth’s & Anthony’s grandson from their second child) state that Robert was the ‘first white male child born in Australia’.  This may be wishful thinking.  Ryan also recounts the family tradition that Robert was born ‘in the Soldiers’ Barracks, Wynyard Square’[iv].

Conflict between the British and the First Peoples resumes

By the end of the year relations between the First Peoples and the settlers were causing great concern.  In November, Phillip was writing home, ‘I now doubt whether it will be possible to get any of those people to remain with us, in order to get their language, without using force’.  Then, on 18th December there were rumours of an assembled Aboriginal force near the brick-kilns. It turned out there were only fifty men and they were soon dispersed, but Phillip had made up his mind. [v]

On 31st December Phillip sent two boats to Manly Cove/Kay-ye-my where two Aboriginal men were seized.  They were possibly from the Kayimai band of the Guringal nation based around north Sydney and Manly cove/Kay-ye-my. One escaped, but the other was dragged to the boat, ‘fastened by ropes’, and taken back to the settlement where he was imprisoned.  His name was Ar-ab-a-noo.

c. Annette Maie, 2020

[i] This story springs from the research my mother, Madge Rups (nee Rope), undertook in the 1970’s and 1980’s which I extended from late 1990’s onwards to include the social context and British-Indigenous relations and conflict.  It is a compilation drawn from the Journals of the First Fleet, the Historical Records, the Picman Catalogue, the Colonial Secretary’s Papers, as well as articles from the Royal Historical Society Journal and Proceedings, and other writing.

[ii] Some of the wars were first researched and published by Al Grassby and Marji Hill in 1988 as Six Australian Battlefields. A more recent article is, What are the Frontier Wars?  A map of known massacre sites is also available online.  I believe it is updated as information becomes available.

[iii] Refer note regarding vocabulary and correct naming of clans and nations in the Elizabeth Pulley Sets Sail series.  The Indigenous groups around Sydney cove on the south side of the harbour included the Gadigal and Birrabirragal of the Dharug (Eora) nation.

[iv] If Elizabeth and Anthony were living near the brick pits this could be so, as the hospital was on the other side of town, near the cove, and the barracks were in between.  She may have been caught unawares.   The debate about whether Robert was the first white male child is addressed in the Rope-Pulley Family Newsletter, December 2014, No. 77

[v] They could have been from the Gadigal or Kamegal bands of the Dharug nation.