The Floating Brothel

Written by Sian Rees
Review by Audrey Braver

The Floating Brothel tells the story of “…ordinary women who, by a caprice of fate, found themselves in extraordinary circumstances.” These women are female convicts who were sentenced to “transportation to parts beyond the seas,” in this case, Australia. Descriptions of living conditions in Newgate Prison and aboard the ship, The Lady Julian, are graphic. Their journey from the Old World to the New is no romantic adventure. Nevertheless, in a world where a woman was burned at the stake (1787) for counterfeiting a half-penny which was a crime of high treason, a sentence of transportation for the length of their natural lives was considered merciful. Fortunately for the passengers of The Lady Julian, the officers in charge were enlightened and made every effort to see that the voyage was as comfortable and pleasant as could be. Their efforts even extended to allowing the crew to choose “temporary wives” from among the prisoners, which provided them with certain protection and privileges, a definite advantage to the crew as well.

Sian Rees’s scholarship and research are evident. Based on many records and reminiscences, primarily a memoir of John Nicol, steward of The Lady Julian, the author relates the facts in a narrative that evokes emotions in the reader–who cannot help but feel compassion and concern for these women. We are anxious to learn their fates, and of those whose lives were documented, we do learn something. In fact, this reviewer was left wanting more. Much, much more.