Voyage of the Courtesans

Full Episode

In 1789, more than 200 female thieves, prostitutes, and con artists were rounded up from London’s most notorious prisons and shipped off to an Australian penal colony aboard a leaky vessel named the Lady Juliana. For the English government, the convicts had two uses: to prevent the starving and isolated male colonists from engaging in “gross irregularities,” and to act as breeding stock for the troubled outpost. But once aboard, the wily women turned their banishment into opportunity, transforming their ship into a rowdy floating brothel.

By the time they reached Sydney Cove, they were fit and healthy, and some had even amassed enough money to support themselves. Instead of an assured life of servitude, they took control, and — along with their offspring — helped guarantee a new world’s future.

Using intensive research and long-hidden historical records, SECRETS OF THE DEAD: “Voyage of the Courtesans” intertwines current investigations with actual details of the voyage of the Lady Juliana. Three 21st-century Australian women — each of their great-great-great-great-great grandmothers had been a convict in Georgian England — discover the startling story of their ancestors. Helen Phillips, a senior Anglican minister for the diocese of Tasmania, is a descendent of a prostitute named Rachel Hoddy. Delia Dray, a sheep farmer and senior government horticulturalist, traces her lineage back to Ann Marsh, who was convicted of stealing a bushel of wheat. Meagen Benson, a successful bank communications manager, descends from destitute street urchin Mary Wade, who was sentenced for stealing a child’s clothes in a public place.

How did Rachel Hoddy, Ann Marsh, and Mary Wade find themselves on a prison ship banished to the ends of the earth? What became of them once they reached Sydney Cove? Providing information from archived documents, detailed records and excerpts from the memoir of Lady Juliana steward John Nicol, and historians’ accounts, SECRETS OF THE DEAD: “Voyage of the Courtesans” follows the modern-day women as they return to the scenes of their ancestors’ crimes in London and discover how these derelict convicts became the founding mothers of Australia.