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The story of Billy Freeman of Macclesfield (1817-1899)

By Adelaide author Alan Atkinson

                                  ‘‘The defendant wept bitterly during his trial…  said that he had no mother and no friend.”

Forget the date. Just imagine a thirteen-year-old boy being ferried in a long-boat across treacherous mudflats in the sewage-infested Thames towards the towering dark shadow of a one-time naval warship. For months the teenager would live below decks on this huge prison hulk, mostly without seeing daylight, and mercilessly bullied by older boys.

There was only oatmeal gruel and occasional boiled beef to eat. And Bible lessons every day from a chaplain. Once the daily regime of cleaning, washing, learning, and avoiding solitary confinement was over it was early lights out before the monotonous daily routine began again. Many of his juvenile colleagues got sick. Some died. They were buried in the mud nearby with nothing to mark their deaths. The tide would come in and wash any memory of them away. Lost souls. All of them. Any families they once had knew nothing of their passing.

The year was 1830. The boy was called Billy Freeman. He had already seen the inside of gaol several times. Now, he would be held for 18 months on this prison hulk on the Thames before heading overseas alone, with no parents and no friends, sentenced to transportation and hard labour for seven years.

Why? It was his third strike. Two years previously, he’d gone to the Wiltshire market town of Trowbridge with his father looking for work after the mill in his home town closed. There was poverty and hunger everywhere. In Trowbridge, Billy was forever in trouble, hungry, cold, and part of a street gang. It’s likely his father couldn’t cope with him or simply abandoned him. In bitter winter cold, Billy pocketed some warm fur caps from a shop. He wept as he told the judge he had no mother and no friend. He spent a month in gaol. Then he stole glasses and got two more months, with whippings. Once released and no doubt still hungry and penniless, he stole six pounds of cheese.

For that there was no mercy and no clear future for the now 12-year-old, except a trip into the great unknown with other unwanted scoundrels and petty criminals Britain didn’t want or couldn’t cope with. The unknown, of course, was Australia, and South Australia, where Billy would end up, hadn’t even been invented.

Now imagine young Billy in another long boat being ferried out from the prison hulk to the English Channel to join the ship that would take him to Cape Town, then down to the the Roaring Forties and a rough trip to Sydney.

Once again, no member of his family would have known where he was – not his mother and two sisters, who he hadn’t seen for three years, nor the father he’d lost touch with. Leaving England for good, 13-year-old Billy Freeman was on his own. Only the Ship Surgeon cared for his physical health. Billy survived the trip. Several others died from cold, fever, diarrhea, or pneumonia.

Billy’s is just one of many stories of children taken from their families and transported to solve Britain’s problem of overcrowded gaols. While many such stories are now being researched and written, so many more have been lost. Many transportees died without ever seeing family members again.

So how did Billy survive in Australia – and make it to the ripe old age of 81? Clearly his early experiences gave him a mental toughness and determination to succeed. And while his story is not well-known, recent research by myself and other descendants have fleshed out a life full of colour, drama, and personal battles – many of which would have been shared by scores of other unsung early settlers. These are not the stories of the famed explorers, the land planners and the wealthy colonial fortune seekers who took over Australia, while pushing the country’s original inhabitants aside.

Billy’s is a story of an ordinary battler who faced his own life-long struggle to survive, from childhood trauma and loneliness, to an adult life wracked by financial down-turns, droughts, bushfires, crop failures, and debt. (Incidentally, it is also a story which helps give a clearer picture of South Australia’s beginnings – still so often referred to as a ‘convict-free’ state. This myth was perpetuated by the founders to keep up an appearance of South Australia’s ‘high moral tone.’ While convicts may not have been shipped to the state, they nevertheless arrived in their thousands on cattle drives and from other states. Convicts and ex-convicts like Billy in fact helped build the new province, teaching the novice farmers from England how to split wood for fencing and how to till the ground that was so different from the green pastures of ‘home’).

So from child prisoner to teenage transportee, how did Billy – without any family support – fare in his new land? To start with it seems clear he finally found – luckily – a mentor and father-figure who treated him well and fed him well, and from whom Billy learned a great deal. For five years, until he was 19, Billy was indentured to a wealthy New South Wales pastoralist, John Hawdon. From this distance, it seems almost miraculous that the boy who once suffered regular whippings in gaol could turn into such a hard-working teenager that at the age of 19 he gained his Certificate of Freedom – a freedom ranked so high that he was entitled to return to the UK (though he never did).

From working with John Hawdon, and with a reputation for hard work, Billy then got another break – employment by the great explorer Charles Sturt who in 1838 led a cattle drive from New South Wales to South Australia. Court records confirm that Billy took part in that trip – and Sturt was later to give Billy a reference.

Once in South Australia Billy met and married. Finally, he had a family of his own. His wife Sarah was part of a large family who settled in the hills and who Billy no doubt assisted with their farming ventures. Like many early settlers he and Sarah produced many children – though some (not unexpectedly) died young. Suffice to say here their lives had a fair share of drama – including a stint in Adelaide Gaol! – but for that I encourage readers to wait for my book The Trials of Billy Freeman, to be published in 2023.

Billy and Sarah were able through hard work to buy some land near Strathalbyn. They finally settled in Macclesfield, where they are buried. Together.

Alan Atkinson is a freelance writer and editor based in Adelaide. As a journalist, he worked for The Guardian in London, before moving to Australia where he worked on several newspapers and was a senior reporter and producer for the ABC. He has won several awards for his work, including a Walkley nomination. His first non-fiction book was a first-hand account of the 2002 bombings on Bali. Three Weeks in Bali is available as an e-book via Harper Collins. Alan only discovered he had an ancestor, Billy Freeman, buried in the Adelaide Hills a few years ago. Billy’s story will be published in 2023.

Image from here