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Back in 1783, Norwich was the backdrop for one of the most peculiar love stories his city has ever seen. This is how, in 1787, two inmates from Norwich Castle Gaol went on to become one of the founding families of modern Australia.
Title image: Norwich Castle Gaol in 1810. IMAGE COURTESY OF NORFOLK COUNTY COUNCIL LIBRARY AND INFORMATION SERVICE.
Henry Kable was 20 years old when he was convicted for breaking and entering into the house of a Mrs Hambling, in Albrugh, South Norfolk. Along with his father, and a family friend named Abraham Carman, Henry reportedly ‘stripped the house of every moveable’, and even left behind several empty wine bottles…
Sentencing was swift and direct; Henry’s father and his friend were hanged outside Norwich Castle, before a crowd assembled in the Cattle Market. However Henry himself was shown some leniency: he received a commutation of his sentence, and was kept in a holding cell to instead await transportation to America.
Whilst Henry had been spared the same fate as his father, transportation was a grim sentence. Convicts had been sent to the American colonies for years, and worked in terrible conditions. Many did not survive, and were forced to many years of hard labour surviving on the bare minimum of food, water and shelter. Luckily for Henry though, the advent of the American Civil War meant that ships had stopped sailing across the Atlantic, and until the authorities had decided what to do with the hundreds of prisoners also sentenced to transportation, Henry Kable would be kept in the dusty gaol at Norwich Castle.
The prison was grim. Communal gaols such as the one Henry was placed in held 20 or so prisoners on a single cell. Within the straw filled dungeon of the castle (which sometimes flooded with water!), gaolers would make their living from money and bribes extracted from the inmates, and male and female prisoners would be housed together. It was here that Henry Kable met the love of his life: Susannah Holmes, who was 19 at the time, and imprisoned for stealing over £2 worth of silver and linen from the house of Jabez Taylor. In the three years that followed Susannah’s imprisonment, the two met, fell in love and in 1786 became parents to a baby boy, born within the gaol. Henry asked for permission to marry Susannah, but as at the time convicts were outside the law, his request was denied.
In the same year as the birth of Henry and Susannah’s baby (named Henry junior), plans were made to send 750 British convicts to a new colony on the east coast of Australia. In order to keep numbers of male and female convicts even, the British government ordered that female inmates housed in gaols such as Norwich were to be held in the prison hulks at Plymouth, to await their transportation to New South Wales. So it was that Susannah Holmes and her baby were to be sent to Plymouth, and Henry’s request to marry his lover and accompany his family to Australia was again refused. The young family were separated.
John Simpson accompanied Susannah, her baby and two other female inmates on the 325 mile coach journey to Plymouth. Once at the dock however, the ship’s Captain told Susannah that she could not take her baby onto the ship with her, and poor Susannah was taken placed in the cells below the deck of the ship, screaming and shouting.
John Simpson, who had seen the whole scene unfold, stepped in to help. In an incredible act of kindness and courage, he gathered up the baby and took the first stagecoach to London, going straight to the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. He appealed to Sydney to reunite the Norwich family. Public sympathies were so stirred up by the story that Sydney relented, and John Simpson travelled back to Norwich to take Henry Kable to Plymouth, and bring the family back together. In fact, the media attention around the story was so great that a public petition raised £20 to buy a box of provisions for the family, to take to the new colony.
So, on the 11th of March 1787, eleven ships set sail to Australia, and Henry, Susannah and their baby began their passage across the sea. 8 months later, they arrived at their destination as a part of a fleet made up of 600 male convicts, 178 female convicts and 200 marine guards, to begin the hard work building a new settlement. There, upon the instructions of Lord Sydney (the namesake of the new colony), Henry and Susannah were finally allowed to marry, and on the 10th of February, 1788, theirs become the first wedding ceremony to be held in Australia.
The Kables went on to prosper in their new home in Botany Bay, and are now heralded as one of the founders of modern Australia. Extraordinarily, Henry went on to become chief constable of the new colony, and owner of an enormous property portfolio (including half a dozen farms and a hotel called the Ramping Horse – rumoured to be named after Norwich’s Rampant Horse Street). Susannah was loyal to Henry all her life, and went on to have 9 more children. The entire family is buried in Windsor, Australia, and even today their ancestors meet to celebrate their convict heritage. Back in Norwich, very little evidence survives of the two young lovers, who miraculously escaped the death sentence to become instrumental in what has become the thriving city of Sydney.
This post is written with thanks to Mark Mower, and his book ‘Bloody British History: Norwich, and Jocelyn Mack from AST Norfolk. If you fancy checking out the Dungeons, Norwich Castle run Dungeon tours – to find out more click here.