Siân Rees

"The Floating Brothel : The Extraodinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and Its Cargo of Female Convicts "

(Reviewed by Karma Sawka MAY 22, 2002)

How sweet it is to take a shower every day, to have fresh clothes to wear, and to live in a society where I am innocent until proven guilty. As I read true stories of late 18th century poverty and squalor in London and its suburbs, about the strange justice system of the time, and the conditions on a convict ship set sail for Australia, I understand the relative luxury of my own life.


IRead Excerptn late 1700s post-war London, many of the women who were working for merchants in the city were displaced, forced to allow the returning soldiers access to employment. Eventually, many of London's women were forced to either theft or prostitution in order to make their way each day. People were convicted and sentenced to seven years to life in prison for such paltry crimes as stealing three pairs of shoes, robbing a man of a few pence, stealing a silver spoon from the house where one was employed, etc. The legal system at the time was crazed, the economy was shot, and the gaols were becoming alarmingly overcrowded.

The next wave of convicts was sentenced to Seven Years Transportation to Parts Beyond the Seas in a new colony being planned in New South Wales in current Sydney, Australia. The initial ship was sent with plenty of male convicts, military men to oversee the planning and building of the new colony, and supplies for a year or so. Later, the Lady Julian was commissioned to sail to Sydney Cove to provide supplies, builders and agricultural experts, and female convicts (who would both relieve the sexual tension in the mostly male settlement and ensure future population growth of the colony; they became colonial comfort women). The plans were to support agricultural, architectural and population growth in the new community. However, by the time the Lady Julian arrived in New South Wales, after an entire year of sailing, the new colony was entering its second winter and was suffering considerably.

Rees does a commendable job of sharing research and facts about this interesting part of world history. The sights, sounds and smells on the ship are described in a factual, but effective manner. Who can imagine the smells of more than 200 women menstruating on a ship with not enough fresh water to bathe nor launder? The odor of the bilge, where the ship's human, animal, and vegetable wastes are stored, in gravel that is impossible to clean? The stench of vomit from seasick human cargo?

Making a few port stops to stock up on supplies along the way to Sydney, the ship became a "floating brothel" when arrangements were made - by the women themselves, by the officers on the ship, and/or by the women's temporary sailor husbands - for everyone to profit by prostitution. Instead of the usual routine, where women would be rowed out to a ship full of paying sailors, in the Lady Julian's case, local men rowed out in boats to be entertained by a ship full of sailing - and selling - women. Of the women on the ship - aged from adolescent to post-menopausal - some came from families of means and were able to shop, usually escorted, in port, and were even allowed to entertain and dine with the local dignitaries. Most, though, were poor and made money and trades however they could. Naturally, several of the women became pregnant (probably by their sailor "husbands") and gave birth at sea, raising questions not only of paternity, but also of identity and nationality.

Rees quips, "Any analogy which assumes a twentieth-century view of morality and personal choice in an eighteen-century mind is unreliable. Whatever the relationship between their parents, the ship babies of Rio were born into limbo. Their mothers had been exiled from one state. They were on their way to another not quite two years old, whose identity was still in question: not yet a nation, not quite a colony, not quite a gaol… Fundamental questions hovered over the extended bellies on board the Lady Julian from which six lost little ship-born Creoles would shortly emerge."

Upon landing at Sydney Cove, the ladies were alarmed to find threadbare, gaunt, pockmarked soldiers whose priority was the cattle and staples rather than relatively healthy women. It was soon proclaimed that the stores provided by the Lady Julian would barely make a dent in the rationing, considering that the ship also brought more than 220 women and their newly born children to the table. The women spent their first night on land guarding their few possessions in the company of their hungry-eyed hosts. Eventually, more supplies made it to Sydney Cove, and many of the female convicts made names for themselves as founding mothers of Sydney. Others sank into obscurity, but very few ever left at the end of their Seven Years Transportation to Parts Beyond the Seas.

Subtitled "The Extraordinary True Story of An Eighteenth-Century Ship and Its Cargo of Female Convicts", The Floating Brothel will treat its readers to a window of London society at the time and the antiquated justice system that led to the development of Sydney, Australia.

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About the Author:

Siân Rees was born and brought up in Cornwall, England, in a family of boatbuilders and designers. She holds a degree from Oxford University and first became interested in the Lady Julian and the transportation of female convicts to Australia while she was living in Sydney. This is her first book. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014