Mary Bryant - The Fowey Woman Who Twice Escaped The Hangman's Noose
She’s a folk hero in Australia and the subject of over a dozen books. Plays and a television drama series have been written about her - and she was born and raised in Fowey.
The remarkable and lucky life of Mary Bryant reads like a novel, but it’s not a work of fiction. She was the only female convict to escape from Botany Bay, spent 69 days at sea before she was recaptured and sent back to England to face almost certain death.
But she was saved by the noted 18th century lawyer and biographer James Boswell and later returned to Cornwall and married a local farmer.
She was born Mary Broad in Lostwithiel Street in 1765, the daughter of a fisherman. In her early 20s she fell in with bad company and was sentenced to death for stealing a wealthy Plymouth woman’s silk bonnet and a few guineas. Mary was sentenced to hang at Exeter assizes, but that was commuted to seven years transportation on the first convict fleet at Botany Bay.
Mary, who gave birth to her first child on board the convict ship Charlotte, met North Cornwall smuggler William Bryant, and married him at Port Jackson, New South Wales.
In 1792, three years after reaching Australia, William and Mary, now with her second child, joined seven other convicts to steal the Governor’s open cutter and make their audacious escape. After surviving near starvation, severe storms and unpredictable natives, they reached Timor in the Dutch East Indies, an astonishing journey of 5,000 kilometres.
However freedom was short-lived and tragedy was not far away. The escapees were arrested and sent back to England. Mary’s husband and two children died of fever on the ship. Mary must have realised she was again facing a death sentence, which she was unlikely to avoid a second time.
But she was indeed a lucky Fowey maid. The London newspapers of the day made her into a cause celebre, likening her remarkable open boat journey to that of Captain Bligh (born in St Tudy, near Wadebridge) when he was cast adrift by the mutinous crew of The Bounty a few years earlier.
Mary’s case was taken up by the lawyer James Boswell, and she received a pardon, Boswell providing her with an annual allowance on her return to Cornwall. The only thing she had to offer Boswell for his kindness was a packet of “Botany Bay tea leaves,’’ she had kept during all those months at sea.
The tea was found with Boswell’s papers in 1930. The papers are now housed at Yale University. In 1956, two of the leaves were presented by Yale to the Mitchell Library in New South Wales. They were identified as wild sarsaparilla, found mainly on the east coast of Australia.