David Lewis Paget
The Hulks - Poem by David Lewis Paget
I was wandering down by Woolwich
Next to a magistrate, one time,
The smell, it was overpowering
From the hulks that lay in line,
We could hear the moans of the convicts
And the rattle of countless chains,
‘There lies the scum of England, ' said
My friend, with a great disdain.
We saw some down by the river bed,
Driving the posts in deep,
Trying to stop the erosion
Of the banks from the tidal sweep,
They worked in fetters from neck to legs,
And some were double chained,
‘How could you call this human,
All this misery, and this pain? '
‘They're felons, they deserve it
They have earned their bowl of gruel,
Coiners, thieves, pickpockets…' - I said,
‘Can't you see that it's cruel?
Their only crime is they haven't got
What raises us from them.'
‘We can't have ruffians tainting the lives
Of well-bred gentlemen! '
He turned and left at the Warren, where
His friends were building a ship,
While I went wandering on to where
The ‘Lady Penrhyn' sits,
The women crowded the outer rail
To catcall and to cry,
‘What do you want, a Doxie?
Here's a hundred you can try.'
They laughed and jeered, as women do
When they've fallen far from grace,
Selling themselves on London's streets
And now, this terrible place.
‘We're going to go to New South Wales
Do you want to come on board?
We need some pretty boys in the crew,
Get a wife for you, Milord.'
A guard appeared by the group up there
And beat them with his cane,
They scattered back to the inner hulk,
I didn't see them again,
But a girl alone on the after deck
Was weeping, fit to burst,
So I stopped and stared back up at her
And spoke, but she spoke first.
‘Oh John, it's awful, I can't go on,
What brings you walking here,
I hoped you wouldn't see me like this,
These rags, and me in tears, '
She wiped her eyes, and I said, ‘My God!
It's Mary Gold, my friend,
What terrible thing have you done, my girl,
What brings you to this end? '
‘Oh John, my father's been out of work,
And mother has been so ill,
I only borrowed a loaf of bread,
Took sixpence from the till.
Now I'm transported for seven years,
For seven years of hell!
They said they'll make me a servant girl,
I've been raped on board, as well.'
She burst again in a flood of tears
As I stood in disbelief,
Mary, she was a lot of things
But the girl was not a thief.
She'd only wanted to feed her folks
And for just one loaf of bread,
The weight of the British Penal law
Had descended on her head.
A soldier on the wharf came up,
Told me to move along,
‘You can't converse with these slatterns
Be on your way, it isn't done! '
So I left her there with a sorrowful wave
And blew her a kiss goodbye,
They sailed next morning on the tide
And I watched her mother cry.
She went to the Parramatta Gaol
So I heard, and stood in line,
To wait for a man to pick her out
As a wife, a hundred times,
She died next year of the cholera
It was more than sad, he said,
The magistrate who had sentenced her
All for a loaf of bread!
17 January 2013
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