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Shropshire Bedlams
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Sway With Me
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Life's Little Ironies
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The Transports
25 Years Later
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A Daughter of Albion
Rupert Bear
Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band
Poor Murdered Woman
In Merstham Tunnel
The Murder of Maria Marten
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Hark! The Village Wait: Lyrics and Notes
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Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy
Two Unsolved
John 'Babbacombe' Lee
The Summer Before The War
Meet On The Ledge
Mr Fox
A Picture of Britain
Elegy Written In A Country Church Yard
The Duck Race
Morris Off

THe Transports: A Ballad Opera

Free Reed FRRD 021/022 (2 LP, UK, November 1977)
Topic Records TSCD 459 (CD, UK, 1992)
A 25th year Box-Set
Commemorative Issue by Free Reed is
now available
Arranged by Dolly Collins, ensemble directed by Roddy Skeaping.

the music you hear:
The Ballad of Henry and Susannah
from The Transports
performed by
Peter Bellamy and Dave Swarbrick


In 1783 a 19-year-old youth named Henry Cabell, from the Suffolk village of Mendham, was sentenced, along with his father and another man named Abraham Carman, to be hanged for burgling a country house at Alburgh in south Norfolk. There is no hint, in the brief reports of the trial, of the poverty that may have driven these villagers to crime - but it was noted as particularly reprehensible that they stole the hangings from the bedsteads and the pickled meat from the casks in the cellar. They were brought in chains from Thetford Assizes to the county gaol at Norwich, which was then housed in some old brick buildings inside the roofless stone keep of the Norman castle. Cabell senior and Abraham Carman were publicly executed on the high green mound of the castle, while a crowd stood in the cattle market below and watched them swing from the gallows.

Young Henry Cabell's sentence was, however, commuted to transportation for fourteen years. He was kept in the castle gaol, among some forty or fifty other felons, to await shipment overseas. Towards the end of the same year, 1783, another 19-year-old, a girl named Susannah Holmes, from the south Norfolk village of Thurlton, was sentenced to death for the theft of some household linen and silver (value £2.13s.6d.). Her sentence, too, was commuted to transportation, and she also was kept in Norwich gaol to await the sailing of a prison ship to the colonies.

Henry and Susannah were imprisoned for three years - simple, unlettered young villagers, awaiting penal servitude in some unknown country far across the ocean, for offences which would nowadays be met, in all probability, by suspended sentences and a period of probation.

The reason for the long wait was that 1783 was the year in which a defeated Britain recognised the independence of the United States, and was thereby deprived of the American colonies to which she used to transport her convicts. Crime was rife in the towns, whose population was beginning to swarm under the influence of the industrial revolution. In the country, landless labourers and discharged soldiers resorted under stress of poverty to smuggling, highway robbery, burglary, and horse, sheep and poultry stealing. Vainly, the law increased the severity of its penalties. Hanging disposed of the major offenders: whipping, and hard labour in the local bridewells, punished the petty criminals. Yet the gaols were full and the hulks were crowded with felons the Government had been accustomed to pack off to America, to work out their sentences at forced labour for the colonists.

At last, in 1786, it was decided to send a fleet of prison ships to found a colony in New South Wales, on the east coast of Australia, which had been explored by Captain Cook some seventeen years previously. There, in a hitherto uncultivated continent on the far side of the earth, inhabited only by the sparse and wandering tribes of its aborigines, the embarrassing surplus of the criminal population would be out of sight and out of mind.

Meanwhile, in the mixture of squalor, barbarity and laxity that prevailed in an 18th century gaol, Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes had contrived to become lovers. In the spring of 1786 Susannah bore a son, named Henry after his father. Henry Cabell - described at the time as "a fine, healthy young fellow", in spite of his years in prison - was devoted to the mother and child, and pleaded repeatedly but in vain to be allowed to marry. Then, when the child was five months old -"a very fine babe, which the mother had suckled from birth" - the gaoler of Norwich castle was ordered to send his female convicts to Plymouth, to join the expedition then fitting out under Captain Arthur Phillip.

Henry Cabell desperately renewed his petition to be allowed to marry, and begged to be transported along with Susannah, but was refused. So, in November 1786, the turnkey, John Simpson, set out with Susannah and her baby, and two other women prisoners, on the slow journey of 350 miles on the outsides of coaches, through the dismal November weather, to Plymouth. There was much worse to come; for when, after waiting three hours in an open boat, the women were put aboard the ship on which they were to await transportation, the captain said he had no instructions about infants, and flatly refused to accept the baby. Susannah was dragged, sobbing, to the cells below deck, and threatened to kill herself at the first opportunity. Simpson, the turnkey, was obliged to go ashore with the baby.

Fortunately, Simpson was both a kindly man and a strong character. (He became known, after this incident, as the Humane Turnkey). "Having once before been with his lordship on a matter of humanity", he resolved on a direct approach to the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. So he set off on the first coach back to London, nursing the baby on his knee, and feeding it as best he could at the inns on the way. In London, he left the child with a careful woman, and - followed by a sympathetic crowd - went straight to Lord Sydney's house, where he forced his way into the presence of a secretary, whom he persuaded to make out an order for the restoration of the child to its mother.

Simpson then waited in the hall, ran to Lord Sydney as he came downstairs, and begged him to sign the order. it stands to the credit of this 18th century grandee that, having been waylaid in his own house by a mere turnkey, he listened to his story and "was greatly affected". He made his secretary write immediately to Plymouth, that the mother was to be told her child would be restored to her, and he ordered that the father should accompany her, "directing at the same time that they should be married before they went on board, and adding that he would himself pay the fees". The humane Simpson arranged for the care of the child until he should return with the father, and then hastened to Norwich to break the glad news to young Cabell that he was to be transported. Meanwhile, sympathisers in London, led by a Mrs. Jackson, subscribed for a box of comforts to be shipped for the use of the young couple when they reached Australia.

Thus it was that Henry, Susannah and their infant son eventually sailed in May 1787 in what is known to historians of Australia as the First Fleet. The convoy consisted of eleven ships, carrying 600 male and 178 female convicts, 200 Marine guards, two years' supply of stores, and a deck cargo of sheep, pigs, goats and poultry. They were nearly nine months at sea before they anchored off what proved to be the inhospitable shore of Botany Bay. There is a tradition that when Captain Phillip, the first Governor of New South Wales, eventually decided to disembark in the more favourable locality of Sydney Cove, the sturdy Henry Cabell carried him ashore through the surf on his back, and was thus the first man to set foot on the site of the new colony.

This was not the only precedent he set. For Lord Sydney's instructions in London, that Henry and Susannah were to be married before the convoy sailed, had apparently miscarried. They were in fact wedded on Feb. 10th, 1788, along with four other couples, in the first marriage service ever held on Australian soil. Not long afterwards the colony's first civil court of law was established by that just man, Arthur Phillip, to hear a complaint by Henry against the captain of the ship Alexander, because the box of comforts furnished for him and Susannah by Mrs. Jackson had been broken open on the voyage. Susannah lamented the loss of the luxury of some tea, and complained that there was nothing left but books, which she could not read. The court awarded £15 compensation.

By the way, the family name was henceforward spelt Kable. It is unlikely that Henry was anything more than barely literate, and his name must have been spelt phonetically in the records of the penal settlement.

The landing in Sydney Cove was only the beginning of fresh tribulations for the unhappy convicts. The Government had comfortably assumed in London that from the proceeds of agriculture, stockbreeding and fisheries the settlement would very soon become self-supporting. In fact, the soil was stubborn, the climate harsh, and the expedition's supplies were inadequate. The officers quarrelled with one another and with the governor, the soldiers were unruly, and most of the convicts were poor and unskilful workmen. Four years after the landing, the whole colony was still on half rations. Nevertheless, further convoys of prison ships were sent from England; and, under less humane and able commanders than Arthur Phillip, their miserable freight of convicts fared worse than those in the First Fleet. Ashore, they were subject to the merciless discipline of fetters, the cat o' nine tails and the gallows. Until well on into the 19th century, the history of convict settlement in Australia is one of the most cruel tales in the record of man's inhumanity to man..

And yet Henry Kable throve. His character was obviously as rugged as his physique. (Tradition also has it that he was red-haired). He became first an overseer of his fellow-convicts, and then chief constable of the new settlement. Being freed on the expiry of his 14-year sentence, he prospered commercially. in 1798 he opened a hotel called the Ramping Horse, from which he ran the first stage coach in Australia, and he also owned a retail store. His property later extended to five or six farms, and he was a partner in a big fleet of sealers and trading ships. He was one of the "emancipists", or freed convicts, who rose to be commercial barons of the colony - but were described by Bligh of the Bounty (who became Governor of New South Wales after Phillip) as unprincipled rogues.

As for Susannah, she bore Henry Kable ten more children besides young Henry who was born in Norwich gaol, and who survived to become captain of one of his father's ships. Henry, senior, lived to the ripe age of 82, died in the odour of respectability, and was buried in the family vault (no less) beside his Susannah, who predeceased him in 1826. And in 1968, on the 180th anniversary of the landing from the First Fleet, more than a hundred descendants of Henry and Susannah Kable met in Sydney to honour them as the heads of one of Australia's founding families. It was the first reunion to acknowledge convict ancestry. This is the happy ending of the tale.

The Cast

Henry Cabell: Mike Waterson
Susannah Holmes: Norma Waterson
The Turnkey: Martin Carthy
The Father: Nic Jones
The Mother: June Tabor
Abe Carman: A.L. Lloyd
The Shantyman: Cyril Tawney
The Convict: Martin Winsor
The Coachman: Vic Legg
The Transport: The Watersons
Street Singer: Peter Bellamy

Side 1

  1. Overture (5:37)
  2. The Ballad of Henry and Susannah (1) (1:01)
    (Peter Bellamy as Street Singer)
  3. Us Poor Fellows (5:14)
    (Nic Jones as The Father)
  4. The Robber's Song (2:50)
    (A.L. Lloyd as Abe Carman)
  5. The Ballad of Henry and Susannah (2) (2:16)
    (Peter Bellamy as Street Singer)
  6. The Leaves in the Woodland (4:49)
    (June Tabor as The Mother)

Side 3
  1. The Ballad of Henry and Susannah (4) (2:56)
    (Peter Bellamy as Street Singer)
  2. The Black and Bitter Night (7:10)
    (Mike Waterson as Henry)
  3. The Humane Turnkey (1) (1:48)
    (Martin Carthy as the Turnkey)
  4. The Plymouth Mail (4:27)
    (Vic Legg as The Coachman)
  5. The Humane Turnkey (2) (2:17)
    (Martin Carthy as the Turnkey)


Steve Winick's article on Peter Bellamy's work.

The Music Ensemble

Roddy Skeaping: director;
Philippa Davies: flute;
Sophia Wilson: oboe;
Keith Thompson: whistle, garklein-flötlein;
Felix Warnock: bassoon;
Alan Lumsden: serpent;
Oliver Brookes: cello;
Dave Swarbrick: violin on The Ballad of Henry and Susannah

Side 2
  1. The Ballad of Henry and Susannah (3) (2:34)
    (Peter Bellamy as Street Singer)
  2. I Once Lived in Service (4:50)
    (Norma Waterson as Susannah)
  3. Norwich Gaol (4:45)
    (Martin Windsor as The Convict)
  4. Sweet Loving Friendship (3:40)
    (Mike and Norma Waterson as Henry and Susannah)

Side 4
  1. The Green Fields of England (5:32)
    (Peter Bellamy and Dolly Collins, with Mike and Norma Waterson singing chorus, as The Transports)
  2. Roll Down (4:24)
    (Cyril Tawney as The Shantyman)
  3. The Still and Silent Ocean (4:25)
    (Mike and Norma Waterson as Henry and Susannah)
  4. The Ballad of Henry and Susannah (5) (3:23)
    (Peter Bellamy as Street Singer)
  5. The Convict's Wedding (1:05)

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