On December 1st, 1722, Margaret Hayes went into a shop and began to barter with the owner, Elizabeth Reynolds over the price of a pair of stockings. In the middle of their discussion, she grabbed the stockings, which were on display and ran out into the street. Alerted by Elizabeth’s cries, Margaret was pursued by a number of people and dropped the stockings to the ground just before she was apprehended. At the trial she denied ever having gone into the shop but was found guilty of theft. As the goods were priced at the princely sum of two shillings, Hayes faced a penalty of death by hanging. Often in these cases the jury would take pity on the felon and devalue the stolen goods. Mercifully, this was exactly what happened to Margaret; the jury devalued the stockings to ten pence and she was transported to the American colonies for a period of seven years.
Most surviving accounts of transported convicts focus on notorious criminals or scandalous circumstances. However, the overwhelming majority of those transported to the colonies were ordinary men and women, convicted of petty offences. After being handed down their sentences they promptly disappeared from the history books.
The only reason we know anything about Margaret is that she was one of the passengers on board the Jonathan, which sailed from London on February 19th, 1723. The Jonathan was a former slave ship and was bought by Jonathan Forward for his fleet. The difference with this vessel was that records were kept of all the convicts on board. From the ship’s records we know that Margaret was thirty years old, she was a widow with a dark complexion. When I was writing Five Guns Blazing, this unknown woman caught my interest. I wondered how desperate a person must have been to have risked going to the noose all for a pair of stockings. I wondered whether Margaret had children, and if so, what happened to them, how she would have felt being torn from those children and having to leave them behind. I tried to build a character around Margaret and through her, show the plight of women transported to the colonies during the eighteenth century.
Conditions on board the ships were horrendous; many of the convicts died during the voyages of cholera and typhoid. Those that survived were severely weakened by scurvy, dysentery and fever. Convicts went on board shackled and in chains. A hatch was opened and they went below deck, where they would spend the rest of the voyage. Usually the chains were removed in the prison deck but sometimes not. They were allowed on deck at intervals for fresh air and exercise.
If they survived the voyage, convicts were sold to plantation owners and worked alongside indentured servants and African slaves. The status of convicts varied depending on the plantation; some were treated in line with indentured servants while others were subjected to the same forms of degradation as slaves, the big difference being that the convicts were only sold for the terms of their criminal sentences.
Nobody knows what happened to Margaret, or whether she made it as far as America. Most of the convicts at that time were illiterate so there are very few surviving journals. The Jonathan caught fire after it landed in Maryland and never made it back to England.