Kable/Holmes First Fleeter 1788

Henry KABLE/CABLE/CABELL (c1763-1846)/ Susannah HOLMES (c1762-1825)

Henry Kable had been convicted of housebreaking along with his father Henry senior and a friend, Abraham Carman. Early in 1783 they had stolen goods from a Norfolk country house. They were all convicted and sentenced to death. The trial judge, Baron Eyre, wrote the standard letter seeking the King's mercy on behalf of young Henry and fourteen others convicted at those Norfolk Lent Assizes in 1783. The names of Henry's father and their friend did not appear on the letter. Nor do they seem to have had people who could or would petition the King on their behalf. They were hanged outside the jail, just near the market place, on Saturday, 5 April 1783. Perhaps Henry's youth - he was 17 at the time of his crime - had engaged Baron Eyre's sympathy; perhaps the older men had prior convictions. The letter did not say why some would live and others would die. Henry Kable, the younger, had his sentence commuted to transportation to America for seven years. But the American War meant that transportation to America was no longer possible. So Henry was returned to the Norwich Jail where he had been held since his arrest.

Susannah Holmes had been convicted of breaking into the house of Jabez Taylor and stealing 'one pair of linen sheets value 10 Shillings, one linen gown value 5 shillings, one linen shift value 2 shillings, four yards of Irish linen cloth value 6 shillings, three linen handkerchiefs value 3 shillings, one silk handkerchief value 2 shillings, three muslin neck cloths value 18 pence, two black silk cloaks value 10 shillings, two silver tablespoons value 12 shillings, two silver teaspoons value 2 shillings, goods of said Jabez'.

The law prescribed the death penalty for burglary and the Norfolk assize judge, Mr Justice Nares, put on his black cap and sentenced Susannah to death. It must have been awesome to stand in court as a defendant and have the death sentence imposed.

After the court room rituals had been completed, the judge stayed the punishment and wrote the standard letter. '.... Some favourable circumstances appearing on her behalf ...', the judge wrote to the king, I humbly recommend her to Your Majesty, as a proper object of Your Majesty's Royal Mercy upon the several conditions following ... being transported as soon as conveniently may be to some of Your Majesty's Colonies or Plantations in America for the term of Fourteen Years'. Susannah had been fortunate enough to have her name included in the judge's letter along with one other woman and nineteen men who had been convicted of capital offences on the Norfolk Circuit in March 1784. His Majesty was 'graciously pleased to extend his Royal Mercy' to Susannah.

Norwich Castle jail was a makeshift affair, like many other jails in eighteenth-century England. These were not the high security, single-cell prisons of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There was a great deal more coming and going both between the prisoners within the jail and between the jail and the outside world. In the eighteenth-century jails, prisoners often relied on family and friends to supplement their rations. The mediaeval castle at Norwich had been converted into a jail with rough shelters built up against the castle walls for some of the inmates. The jail was crowded too and food was in short supply. The local residents of Norwich took pity on the prisoners that winter and sent in special food for the festive season. But the numbers of people building up in their local jail since the war had ended transportation to America worried the good citizens of Norwich and they petitioned the government to do something about it.

In the midst of all their troubles - their trials, the convictions, having the death sentence imposed, their reprieves, the execution of Henry's father and the pitiless conditions of Norwich Jail - Henry and Susannah met. Maybe they had known each other before. Maybe love blossomed in their bleak circumstances. Maybe they provided each other with solace in a fearful time. Whatever the case, they formed a relationship and Susannah gave birth to Henry's child in the jail in 1786. They applied for permission to marry but this was refused.

In that year, a fleet of ships was being prepared to transport 750 convicts to a place called Botany Bay. Cook had landed there sixteen years earlier and explored the east coast. Now the British government planned to establish a colony there. Prisoners were being mustered from the overcrowded jails into old ships moored in ports around England. When it was discovered that there were insufficient women prisoners for the fleet, the order came from London to transfer the female convicts at Norwich Jail to the hulks at Plymouth. From there they would be loaded onto the ships bound for Botany Bay. Susannah Holmes was one of these women. Henry Kables distressed pleas to be allowed to marry Susannah and accompany her to New South Wales fell on deaf ears.

Worse was to come. When Susannah and her breast-fed child were delivered to the hulk Dunkirk at Plymouth on 5 November 1786, the captain refused to accept the child on the ground that he had no lawful authority to do so. To his eternal credit, the prison turnkey, Mr Simpson, who had ferried Susannah out to the hulk, took the baby into his care. More than that, he decided to take matters into his own hands. With the infant on his lap, he travelled to London to confront Lord Sydney, the Home Secretary. Undeterred by the refusals of a personal interview from Lord Sydney's staff, he decided to wait at the house until his Lordship did appear. When a no doubt surprised Lord Sydney descended the stairs, Simpson seized his opportunity and persuaded him to order that mother and child be reunited. Nothing daunted, Simpson also secured permission from Lord Sydney for Henry to be allowed to marry Susannah and accompany her and the child to New South Wales. Simpson took the news back to Henry at Norwich and then escorted him to the ship at Plymouth where, according to the captain's report, the family was reunited after 10 days separation.

Simpson's mercy dash, a round trip of some seven hundred miles by coach, and the story of the Cables attracted the attention of the press. The Norfolk Chronicle was pleased to report that 'the laws of England, which are distinguished by the spirit of humanity which framed them, forbid so cruel an act as that of separating an infant from its mother's breast.... it cannot be but a pleasing circumstance to every Englishman to know, that, though from the very nature of the situation of public Ministers, they must, on most occasions, be difficult of access.... when the object is humanity, and delay would materially affect the happiness of even the meanest subject in the kingdom, the Minister himself not only attends to complaints properly addressed, but promptly and effectually affords relief'. The London newspapers were equally fascinated by the story of 'John Simpson, the humane turnkey'. It attracted the attention of Lady Cadogan who organised a public subscription which yielded the substantial sum of twenty pounds - about twice the annual salary of a labourer at that time, and four times the value of the goods Susannah had stolen - enough money to buy clothes and other items for their new life in New South Wales. Their parcel was loaded onto one of the transport ships, the Alexander, and the three of them, Henry, Susannah and the baby embarked on the Friendship, before they set sail on 11th March 1787. At the Cape of Good Hope Susannah and her son were put on board the Charlotte to make way for livestock.

The convict ships arrived in Sydney harbour in January 1788; the voyage took eight months. They went ashore in row boats. There was no dock. There were no buildings either so they lived in tents. But the absence of buildings was not going to delay the landing of British institutions, marriage and the Anglican Church among them. Along with several other couples, Henry and Susannah were married that February by the Anglican chaplain, in one of the first weddings in the new settlement.

But the parcel sent to assist them in beginning their new lives was missing. On the first of July 1788, a writ in the names of Henry and Susannah Kable was issued from the new Court of Civil jurisdiction in New South Wales. The writ recited that the parcel loaded onto the Alexander had not been delivered to the Kables in Sydney despite many requests, and sought delivery of the parcel, or its value. It named the ships captain, Duncan Sinclair, as defendant. The court, consisting of judge-Advocate David Collins and two civilians issued a warrant to the provost Marshall ordering him to bring the captain before the court the next day to answer the complaint against him.

On the day of the hearing the court received evidence that the parcel had been loaded on the ship but - with the exception of some books which was of no use to either of them as Henry nor Susannah could read - the contents of the parcel could not be found. Henry Kable swore that the missing goods were worth fifteen pounds. The court found for the plaintiff and entered a verdict for that amount.

This was the first civil case ever held in Australia. It is extraordinary in many ways. In the first place the whole story of the Kables is extraordinary. Their conditions of imprisonment at Norwich jail allowed the opportunity to conceive the child. The intervention of Simpson, his ability to gain access to the relevant minister, and the fact that the plight of Susannah, Henry and the baby could move the minister in an age usually noted for great social distances and lack of sympathy for criminals is also extraordinary. The fact that the case of Susannah and Henry Kable was taken up in the press and moved people to contribute to a public subscription also speaks of a sympathy not usually associated with the eighteenth-century English views on crime and the dangerous classes. The fact that they went out to Botany Bay together and were allowed to marry also runs counter to stereotyped views about the treatment of convicts. It was not unusual for convicts to be accompanied by their spouses, though usually the spouse was free.

Their subsequent history is also quite extraordinary. Henry's career started as an overseer, then as a constable and eventually Chief Constable. He ran a number of business ventures in parallel, usually in partnership with fellow ex-convicts Lord and Underwood and became very wealthy. Some of these ventures were boat building with Underwood (the first vessel of any consequence built in Australia was called the Diana after the Kable daughter.), Australia's first export industry of Bass Strait seal skins and oil and Australia's first attempt at public transport , a coach service to Parramatta which failed because the track was too rough for the coaches. He was also a substantial landholder at Petersham, Lane Cove, Cowpastures (Camden), on the Hawkesbury and in Sydney itself, including a large house next door to the gaol he ran as Chief Constable until he was dismissed from this position in 1802. ( The Regent Hotel now occupies the site of both the gaol and the Kable house.)

He also had a fleet of 25 ships trading widely in the Pacific and to what is now Malaysia and China. In 1808, Kable and Underwood fell foul of Governer Bligh by writing him a letter requesting some waterfront reform by permitting goods which were to be transhipped to another vessel to pass customs on the incoming vessel without being taken to the dockside. Bligh took exception to the tone of the letter and both men were fined 100 pounds and spent a month in the gaol that Kable used to run. Around 1808, the wheels began to fall off the Kable machine. His partnerships with Lord and Underwood broke up in a welter of law suits which were not settled until 1819, one of his sons was killed by Malay pirates along with all hands on a Kable ship in the Straits of Malacca and his son-in-law, the well educated and well connected William Littleton Gaudry who married Diana in what is said to have been the colony's first "society" wedding, turned out to be a disappointment as a business partner. In 1811, the Kable family moved to Windsor where Henry operated a store and a brewery and owned and farmed land. He also lent money to his fellow farmers and was tough in foreclosing to the extent that, after the flood of 1809, 50 farms were transferred to his name. Henry and Susannah had 11 children, only one of whom died in childhood. The eldest, Henry, never married and died in 1852 at the age of 66 and is buried in The Oaks, NSW. One of the younger sons, John became Australia's first bareknuckle fighting champion as "Young Kable".

Susannah Holmes died on the 6 Nov 1825 at Windsor, NSW Australia, age 63 and Henry Kable died on 16 March 1846 at Windsor, NSW Australia, age 84. They are buried along with others of the family in a vault behind St Matthew's Church, at Windsor, NSW Australia.

Henry and Susannah had the following eleven children;

Henry Kable (1786-1852)

Diana Kable (1788-1854) married William Lyttelton Gaudry

Enoch Kable (1791-1793)

James Kable (1793-1809)

Susannah Kable (1795-1885) married  James Mileham

George Esto Kable (1797-1853) married Susannah Jones

Eunice Kable (1799- 1867)

William Nathaniel Kable (1801-1837)

John Kable (1802-1859) married Eliza Frances Dyel (Doyle)

Charles Dickenson Kable (1804-     ) married Mary Charlton

Edgar James Kable (1806-1849) married Charlotte Chaseling


State Records NSW.

State Library Sydney.

University of Wollongong website

June Whittaker's Book "Kable"



Bob Rickards,

Gillian Morthorpe,

Aileen Willis,

Joan Price

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