So troublesome are the rats that we shake them off our beds and you will laugh when I tell you that Caroline, who lives with me, the same who lived with Mrs Court, has a poultice up to her leg and the rats ate through the bed clothes and cloths to the bread which they devoured from her leg, and she did not know it.
Sarah Harris is writing to her father in England in November 1841, describing the ups and downs of life in the new Plymouth settlement. Caroline’s predicament makes a good story for sending home, but who exactly was she? We checked passenger records and found only one match: Caroline Screech, unmarried and 20 years old, a passenger on the Amelia Thompson in September 1841.
And Mrs Court, with whom Caroline was living before her departure for New Zealand? Emma and Stephen C Court turned up as the most likely match when I searched for Courts in Plymouth in the England Census records. In 1851 they had three women in their employ which increases the likelihood of them having been in a position to have housed or employed Caroline in the past. Additional searches confirmed that the household of Emma and Stephen C Court matched that of Emma Court (nee Harris) and Stephen Collins Court, including the names of all their children, and that ‘Mrs Court’ wasn’t just an acquaintance but Sarah Harris’s sister-in-law. Then parish records that turned up when I searched for Stephen Court brought me right back to Caroline Screech.
The Plymouth & West Devon Parish Chest Records record the following:
Parish of Ashbrittle, Wellington, Somerset
Mr Stephen Court, Glazier, Old Town Street 1836, June 24
Six weeks maintenance of Caroline Screech his apprentice in sickness from 16 May 3/
18 June 27 By cash
Caroline Screech wasn’t just living in the Court household, she was apprenticed to Mr Court. A search for Caroline Screech’s baptism record showed that she was baptised in St Andrew’s, Plymouth in 1821, making her 15 at the time of her falling ill and Mr Court applying to and receiving support from the Poor Law Guardians of his parish. The baptism record also showed that Caroline was ‘da of base,’ no father recorded and that her mother was Ann Screech. The child was illegitimate.
I set off to find more about Caroline’s mother. There is an Ann Screech in Devon who marries and has her own little Caroline in 1824 (the child dies at one year old), but the most likely match is an Ann Screech living in Plymouth and getting into trouble for theft and prostitution. From the age listed on her criminal records, Ann Screech had Caroline when she was 18 years old. Ann Screech was eventually transported, convicted in 1840 and shipped off to Australia in 1841. Christine Jessie Leppard’s thesis on prostitutes transported to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) 1822-1843 discusses Ann Screech:
“Ann Screech brought her infant daughter Mary Ann with her on the Rajah but left three children at home. The report from Plymouth Gaol described her as a prostitute who was addicted to pilfering and drinking. Her first colonial offence was recorded a year after her arrival by which time Mary Ann would have been weaned and Ann had been assigned. Ann was charged with being absent while attending her child. Eight months later she was found guilty of pawning a fellow servant’s clothes. She may have wanted the money to give Mary Ann a decent burial, or purchase spirits to soften the pain. The thirteen month old was buried on the day her mother pawned the clothes. She had died in the Nursery at the Female Factory.” (159).
Dianne Snowden, writing about the children on board the Rajah, adds more detail to Anne Screech’s story:
“In April 1842, Ann was charged with gross misconduct because she left her mistress’ house without leave to attend her daughter in the nursery; for this, she was given six months’ hard labour at the wash tub at the Cascades Female Factory, Hobart.” (209).
Perhaps her mother’s history was a factor in Caroline’s leaving Plymouth at a young age to live with the Courts as an apprentice. The three children that Ann left behind when she was transported are not named, nor are their ages given. We don’t know whether Caroline was counted among them. What we do know is that Caroline Screech left Plymouth on the Amelia Thompson 25 March 1841, just days before Ann Screech left Woolwich, England on the Rajah 5 April. Ann Screech arrived in Hobart 18 July 1841, house servant assigned as her trade on arrival. Caroline Screech arrived in New Plymouth 3 Sept 1841, her occupation listed as domestic servant.
Caroline Screech’s story reaches us only through the testimony of others. Did she emigrate to New Zealand to get away from her mother’s reputation? Did the mother’s sentences of 1833 and 1840 make life difficult for her daughter? So far we have found no traces of Caroline Screech in New Zealand after her arrival and Sarah Harris’s recollection of her in New Plymouth. We hope she found her fresh start.
Lead writer: Brianna Vincent
Research support: Michele Leggott