Sarah spent her life overcoming hardship and adversity. An early life of crime enabled her to survive the brutal conditions of poverty in England during the 1770s. Deception and concealment were part of her ruse when she was caught red handed stealing fabric in a haberdashery shop. She used her ingenuity to survive on board the Lady Juliana, also known as the “Floating Brothel”. She then met William Tunks in the new colony of New South Wales. William had been a marine on board the First Fleet ship HMS Sirius. They had three children who survived to adulthood and another 3 who died as infants. Together they farmed land as pioneers on Norfolk Island, in Windsor and then Penrith. Sarah adapted to difficult situations in the best way she could and survived to the age of 74. The dynasty of the Tunks family in Australia that began with her and William continues today.
Sarah was born in London around c1763 1. Greater mobility across England led to over population in the cities and rising unemployment gave way to poverty, poor living conditions, and human suffering. There had also been a migration of Jewish people fleeing persecution from Eastern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal. Sarah is listed in John S. Levis’ book These Are The Names, as being a Jewish convict. She was living in harsh circumstances in London, no doubt driven to theft as a means of survival. It is well established that stealing was common in the city of London as a way of supplementing the meagre employment opportunities and few pennies that the masses of the poor had.
A Life of Crime
The Old Bailey was London’s criminal court. There is a conviction for a Sarah Lyon 2 on 22nd February 1786 for feloniously stealing some lace on the 13th February. She was accompanied by Ann Gibson who was found not guilty. Sarah was sentenced to being privately whipped and confined for six months in the House of Correction. A further indictment was on the 26th May 1788 for theft, grand larceny when Sarah was aged about 18 years old. She went shopping for silk handkerchief material and some binding at a haberdashery shop in London. After discussing her needs with a salesman she bought and paid for some items and ordered others. Suspicions were raised however, when she walked from the shop and a piece of silk material that she had concealed beneath her skirts fell to the floor and was noticed by the manager. The police were called and Sarah was arrested. She was then tried and convicted on 25th June, 1788, at the Old Bailey in London and sentenced to transportation to New South Wales for seven years for stealing seven yards of silk worth 20 shillings. She of course professed her innocence saying, “I never touched anything but the binding; and I looked at the handkerchiefs and bought three, and left a deposit for them; I was very willing to be searched, as I knew I was innocent.” 3 Mr Walford, the haberdasher, is quoted as saying, “This is what we want; we will make an example of her.” Sarah is also quoted as saying that she would send her sister around to collect the silk handkerchiefs the next day and she described her as, “short and black.” Sian Rees in her book The Floating Brothel gives an excellent account of the common four-step sequence of eighteenth-century shoplifting. 4
Step one was to tumble the muslins on the counter. Step two was to divert the shopman by sending him away for scissors or change. Step three was to stuff a piece of cloth up your skirts and step four was to leave the premises unhurriedly and without ungainly lumps. If packaged with skill, up to 60 yards of material could disappear beneath a woman’s’ petticoats, and tradesmen all over London were losing money to ladies fingering the muslins.
Sarah was sent to Newgate Gaol to await transport to Sydney. Here the conditions were deplorable. Over 150 women were living here in three cells designed to house 70 women. In the severe winter of 1788 the prison populations were “malnourished, debilitated, cold, inadequately clothed and infested with disease-bearing lice. Its cells were a happy home for typhus.” 5 It is interesting to note that Ann Gibson, who was with Sarah when she was indicted in 1786, was also convicted on the 25th June 1788 for a stealing offence that occurred on the 22nd of May 1788. They were both transported on the Lady Juliana. The two ladies were perhaps working together!
In March of 1789 woman from Newgate Gaol were being taken to board the Lady Juliana. The Lady Juliana spent months tied up in the Thames and finally set sail with a total of 226 female convicts on the 28th July in 1789. She was the first convict ship to leave England since the First Fleet. The female convicts were allowed visitors while tied up on the Thames and they had their irons removed. This was indeed a humane approach not seen before. The Lady Juliana arrived in Sydney on 3rd of June, 1790. The journey was one of the slowest by a convict ship having spent 45 days in Rio de Janeiro and 19 in the Cape of Good Hope. By this time, Sarah had spent 11 months in gaol and nearly a year sailing out to the new colony of New South Wales.
The Lady Juliana earned the reputation as the “Floating Brothel” because the captain made extra earnings from his cargo of women at each port and from passing ships. If the ladies on board were not prostitutes when they embarked, they certainly were given every opportunity to learn the trade on the voyage to Australia. All the seamen and officers on board were encouraged to take a “wife” for the duration of the voyage. This meant better provisions for the women who were in this “privileged” position and was no doubt seen as a shrewd thing to do. Extra food rations and better treatment on board meant the convicts on the Lady Juliana arrived in a better condition than most other convicts, especially those on the remainder of the Second Fleet.
Arthur Phillip in dispatches to England had requested more skilled men, more food and more women to remedy the imbalance of the sexes. The colony was on the brink of starvation and rationing of food was at an all-time low. Imagine the dismay the folk of early Sydney Town felt when they discovered that the Lady Juliana arrived with a greater cargo of woman than supplies of food or skilled men that they so desperately needed. The new colony was still in crisis.
How did Sarah fare on this voyage?
John Nicol was a 34 year old experienced mariner, who was a steward to the officers on board the Lady Juliana. He dictated a book in 1882 titled The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner. In one of his anecdotes from Santa Cruz, John Nicol refers to the behaviour of a convict called Sarah Sabolah. The story concerns a group of Jewish women convicts led by this woman. Sian Rees in her book The Floating Brothel quotes from John Nicol’s book. She asserts that the name Sarah Sabolah was probably an alias or family name of the Jewish thief Sarah Lyons, convicted the previous year of stuffing seven yards of handkerchief silk up her skirt in a London drapery. 6 The story is as follows: –
Sarah Sabolah’s Santa Cruz exploit must have been carried out with the knowledge of the officers or she and her friends would never have got a lift to the beach or acquired their props – a couple of bolts of cloth and some pieces of wood. She and her group were dropped at one end of the quay, robed themselves in borrowed black and shook the spume from the crucifixes they had knocked together in the orlop hold. Then they assumed suitable expressions and processed solemnly from one end of the main drag to the other. Even among a people as accustomed to lavish displays of penitence and piety as the Canary Catholics, the trudging line of barefoot English convicts, bowed beneath their crosses, caused a stir, and the inhabitants of Santa Cruz pressed coins and benedictions on the women. Sarah must have been a woman of some cunning to have come up with the scheme in the first place and may have sewn her share of the takings into her seams for a rainy day. Others probably drank their profits away before they left Tenerife.
So, with some ingenuity Sarah’s voyage to the new colony had some lighter moments perhaps. It seems she overcame adversity by having an enterprising spirit.
Sian Rees writes that although the officers had given rum to the marines when the First Fleet landed in 1788 “to make merry with the women on landing,” 7 no such celebration occurred with the landing of the second Fleet. It is still highly probable though that many marines found their way to the comfort of a woman’s arms each night after dusk. It is possible that Sarah met William in Sydney Town before she left for Norfolk Island on the 1st August, just two months after she arrived. Whether their relationship started in Sydney or not, Sarah was transferred to Norfolk Island on HMS Surprise on the 1st August 1790 with 150 other convict women from the Lady Juliana.
Sarah was employed at Charlotte Field (now known as Queensborough) on Norfolk Island. She was not always a compliant convict on Norfolk Island. Perhaps this was brought about by the intense hunger and isolation that people felt on Norfolk at that time, or the turbulent political scene that existed in the early colony. Major Ross was in charge but was not being supported by his Officers. There are many historical accounts that suggest that the Officers had more control than Major Ross on Norfolk Island. Ralph Clark was appointed quartermaster general and he had a very poor opinion of the convict women. It was Ralph Clark’s job to mete out the punishments and he was not easy on the women when they transgressed. However, he had little control over them and resorted to harsh punishments for minor infringements. Despite the floggings and other restrictions, the convict women continued to show contempt for him and went about stealing and cavorting in the villages of Queensborough and Phillipsburg. D’Arcy Wentworth was sent to Norfolk Island as assistant surgeon and part of his responsibility was to attend the lashings to determine if the offender was fit enough for the full count of the lashings.
On the 26th March 1791 Sarah was sentenced to 25 lashes for striking and ill-using another convict by the name of Catherine or Charlotte White. Ralph Clark considered Sarah to be a “D/B” 8 which was his code for damned bitch. On a second occasion the 6th June 1791 he ordered Sarah Lyons to 50 lashes for abusing D’Arcy Wentworth. Sarah only received 16 lashes as D’Arcy Wentworth intervened and begged that she be forgiven. Tom Keneally in his book A Commonwealth of Thieves writes that this tender heartedness of Wentworth did not prevent Sarah from having further floggings. Just over a month later on the 14th July 1791 Sarah was sentenced to 25 lashes for not having leave to be in Phillipsburg. Was Sarah a troublemaker? Did she resort to breaking rules because the struggle for existence depended on it? Perhaps she antagonised the officers if she was not forthcoming with demands they made on her. At any rate to have been lashed at all further illustrates the misery and fragility of life she experienced on Norfolk Island.
Was Sarah Jewish?
John Nicol dictated his book Life and Adventures 1776-1801, in 1822, over 30 years after the sailing of the Lady Juliana. He referred to Sarah Sabolah as a Jewish thief and that the name was probably an alias for Sarah Lyons. The reference to her sister being black in the Old Bailey records could possibly refer to her being a Sephardic Jew with an Iberian background. Peter Christian, a descendant of William Tunks who had researched the family tree, stated that the Reverend Samuel Marsden had a dislike for Sarah calling her that concubine with two illegitimate children and friendly with one, Amelia Levy. Amelia Levy was a Jewish convict from the First Fleet who was on Norfolk Island at the same time as Sarah. Amelia also returned from Norfolk Island to live in the environs of Parramatta. Their common experiences, including a Jewish background probably helped their friendship developed. In September 1795 Sarah was described as a Jewess when she gave evidence at a trial of three men charged with burglary. She was sworn in on the Old Testament. There is a record of Sarah being employed by an Innkeeper in the 1822 Muster records. The innkeeper and his wife were Jacob and Esther Isaacs, which again links her to the Jewish community. Her name is listed in The Jewish Museum in Sydney as a Jewish convict and John S Levi lists her short biography in his book. The Tunks Descendants Association engaged the services of an English researcher to look for further information about Sarah’s background. However, despite the endeavours of researchers, there is still no further information on her background before her trail in the Old Bailey. Lyons or Sabolah, which one was her true name and which one was an alias? It will remain a mystery.
Look for the rest of her story in the William Tunks profile.
Natalie Logan 2020
- Memorial to a Marine-Joyce Cowell
- The Second Fleeters -C J Smee
- The Second Fleet Britains Grim Convict Armada of 1790 Michael Flynn.
- The Floating Brothel 2010-Sian Rees
- The Commonwealth of Thieves 2005-Tom Keneally
- These Are The Names-John S Levi
- John Nicol, Mariner, Life and Adventures of a Mariner edited by Tim Flannery
- Founders of Australia-Mollie Gillen
- The Tunks Family Tree edition 2004
- Australian Genesis-Jewish Convicts and Settlers 1788-1960
- The Journal and Letters of Lt Ralph Clark 1787-1792 edited by Paul G Fidlon 1981
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/index.jsp
- Researcher- Judy Steel-daughter of Joyce Cowell
- Researcher-Gillian Hughes in England
- Tunks Descendants Association Tunks Talk July 2013 Vol 84 lists birth as c1770. Aged at burial was 74 which gives a birth date of c1763
- Sarah Lyon was name on first conviction
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 30 September 2014), June 1788, trial of SARAH LYONS
- Rees, Sian, The Floating Brothel p2
- Rees, Sian, The Floating Brothel p43
- Rees, Sian, The Floating Brothel p127
- Rees, Sian, The Floating Brothel p208
- Keneally, Tom, A Commonwealth of Thieves p296