Incarceration, transportation, slavery, freedom…

Debtors prison in the 1700s.

Thomas McQueen, son of Dugal McQueen, married a woman by the name of Elizabeth ______ Berry. She is said to have been born in France sometime in the 1700s. Somehow she ended up in England. In 1739 at the Lent term of court in the Oxford Circuit, an Elizabeth Berry, wife of Ambrose Berry, was sentenced to transportation to America for seven years for theft at St. Aldate[’s street]1 in Oxford. It is believed that this is, quite possibly, our ancestress. We don’t know what she stole or why she did and I am sure the court didn’t much care either. We also do not know if her husband was alive or around when she was arrested or transported.

Transportation of convicts to America by the British started as early as 1610 and continued until the American Revolution. It was about 10 or so years later that England started sending their convicts to Australia. (In the meantime, male convicts were confined to hard labour on prison hulks2 on the Thames, and the women were imprisoned.)

When England started transporting its convicts, the reason touted about was the belief that the sentence would reform the criminals. But most everyone knew it was merely a ruse to just get rid of them. The first transportation act was passed in 1718 and allowed the courts to sentence felons to seven years transportation to America.

While Elizabeth waited for her court date she sat in prison.

Prisons in England in the 1700s were mostly unregulated institutions. In fact they were usually privately owned by: franchises, individuals, or municipal corporations. The location of the prison could be the cellar of a business, an old castle, or a courthouse dungeon. However, while the locations might differ, the things they all had in common were the appalling conditions and complete lack of care for the prisoners. In fact, everyone was locked up together without regard to sex, age, type of crime, or sanity. These places were overcrowded pits of disease, death, and despair.

Because a large majority of these ‘prisons’ had not been built for holding prisoners, there was a universal use of irons, straight-jackets and chains by jailers to keep the prisoners confined. At one prison the jailor secured his prisoners by chaining them on their backs to the floor, putting an iron collar about their necks that contained spikes, then placing an iron bar over their legs.

Jailers were not paid for their employment. Instead they relied on bribes, tips, and fees to make their livelihood. They profited from the sale of gin, acted as pimps, and charged inmates fees if they wanted to be released from their chained confinement, for a short amount of time. These conditions, of course, attracted the most vile of people to the job. This also meant that imprisonment could be a life sentence. If your sentence was up but your fee wasn’t paid ‘for services rendered’ you weren’t released until it was. Life in prison could happen to those who were merely waiting on their day in court, and then were pronounced innocent.

The merchants who shipped these convicts off to America made a fortune for themselves, and the plantation owners who bought them made a fortune on cheap labor. Many convicts died on the trip over and more died from the treatment they received from their ‘owners’. Many of the women who were transported to the colonies were used as prostitutes/mistresses to meet the demands of the men, whether they were willing or not. Those who were able to escape being prostituted worked for the managerial class.

Happily, for us, Elizabeth survived the horrors of her incarceration, her dreadful transportation to America, and her 7 years of slavery indentured servitude (unless she ran away! You go girl!).

By about 1755 Elizabeth was married to Thomas McQueen3, (both were of Baltimore), son of Dugal, who had been transported to America as a Scottish prisoner of war in 1716.

1 A search of the internet shows that St. Aldate is actually St. Aldate’s Street in Oxford, England.
2 These hulks were old navy ships anchored along the banks of the Thames.
3 Researchers have been unsuccessful in finding a marriage record for them, but their first known child was born in 1756.