When the Lady Juliana arrived in Sydney in the winter of 1790, it was 11 months since the ship departed England.

Hundreds of colonists gathered to greet the ship they believed was bringing them desperately needed supplies for the near-starving colony, reports news.com.au.

But the onlookers were bitterly disappointed to see that, instead of food and livestock, the ship had carried more than 200 women. Or as Lieutenant Ralph Clark bluntly put it, "more damned wh***s."

The passengers might have been a feast for the eyes for some, but the women also signified a devastating new burden on the new colony. How on earth were they going to feed another shipload of people?

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Six marines had recently been hanged for stealing food and 90 per cent of the diet in Sydney consisted of rice wriggling with weevils.

While the arrival of the Lady Juliana did little to alleviate the starvation crisis in the colony, the ship did bring long-awaited letters from loved ones and news from England — including news that the French Revolution had erupted in 1789.

Every man on-board the Lady Juliana indulged in a sexual relationship with a convict woman, so — not surprisingly — most of the women either arrived in Sydney pregnant or gave birth at sea.

The first fleet convict ship 'Lady Juliana'. Photo / Supplied
The first fleet convict ship 'Lady Juliana'. Photo / Supplied

The journey from England was lengthy but clearly pleasurable, compared to the experience of the First Fleet and sheer heaven to the hell that was the Second Fleet (where 40 per cent of convicts died). So it's no surprise the Lady Juliana took nearly a year to get to Australia — compared to Surprize which took 158 days and Neptune, 159 days.

There was no hiding the fact that the women were intended to be sex objects and breeding mares for the men in the colony who greatly outnumbered the women who'd arrived with the First Fleet.

A seaman who witnessed the arrival of the women from the Lady Juliana wrote: "They were all fresh, well looking women."

It was 229 years ago that the Lady Juliana earned a reputation for sexual escapades at sea, leading maritime historian Charles Bateson to coin a new name for the ship: "The floating brothel".

A SHIPLOAD OF WOMEN

In 1788, the First Fleet was launched under the command of Governor Phillip, transporting 759 convicts, 13 children, as well as seamen, merchants, officials and livestock to create Botany Bay.

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But the penal colony struggled to survive as food supplies quickly dwindled. The new settlers were inexperienced farmers and much of the livestock sent from Britain had died.

British Home Under-Secretary Evan Nepean decided the best solution would be to send more women to Australia so they'd be able to help improve morals in the colony as well as bump up the population via an unofficial breeding program.

The First Fleet launched under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788, before the Lady Juliana reached Australian shores almost two years later. Photo / News Corp Australia
The First Fleet launched under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788, before the Lady Juliana reached Australian shores almost two years later. Photo / News Corp Australia

The 226 females selected for transportation in June 1789 included petty thieves, prostitutes and con artists, who were rounded up from prisons in London.

The women included Deborah Davis, who was sentenced to death by hanging for stealing 15 pounds and 13 shillings from a customer named Timothy Toppings. But she was reprieved and put on the ship for Australia.

Elizabeth Riley, Mary Barnes, Ann Bryant and Catherine Clarke were all sentenced to seven years in Australia for stealing ten yards of fabric.

Sex workers Mary Williams and Catherine White were convicted of robbery and ordered on board the Lady Juliana, while Ann Doyle and Ann Poor were given the same sentence for burglary.

It must have been a relief to escape London's notorious, overcrowded Newgate gaol which was literally overflowing with prisoners and filth.

THE VOYAGE

The journey of the Lady Juliana certainly was a lengthy one; sailing via Tenerife, Cape Verde, Rio Janeiro (where it stayed for seven weeks) and the Cape of Good Hope (where it stayed for four weeks). At every port, the women convicts were allowed plenty of liberty, some women freely "serviced and entertained" the seamen in the ports.

When they were first on-board the ship, the women had to sleep on the orlop deck, close to the section that held sewage — not entirely pleasant but a darn sight better than the horrors of Newgate.

The ship's all-male crew were encouraged to take "wives" for the duration of the journey, which worked out rather splendidly for all parties.

Not only were the women allowed many exclusive privileges, they were also given the opportunity to greatly improve their position — not only on the ship but for their future, as many of these ship love affairs were long lasting.

The Lady Juliana. Photo / Wikimedia Commons
The Lady Juliana. Photo / Wikimedia Commons

It didn't really matter if the couples came together due to lust, love or basic necessity, it made life on-board a lot easier and certainly a lot less lonely.

While most of the women on the Lady Juliana were aged in their 20s and 30s, around 51 were teenagers. According to historian Pamela Horn, 14-year-old Jane Forbes was the youngest to give birth before the ship reached Port Jackson.

In 18th Century England, the age of consent was just 10 years old, so many of the men had themselves teenage wives for the duration of the voyage.

THE LOVE BOAT

The most prolific of the on-board romances was experienced by John Nicol, a steward on the Lady Juliana, who kept a detailed journal of the voyage. He wrote about the "wives" the men chose for themselves. While the women were mostly seen as "scum" in England, nothing stood in the way of true love.

Nicol writes: When we were fairly out at sea, every man on board took a wife from among the convicts, they nothing loath. The girl with whom I lived, for I was as bad in this point as the others, was named Sarah Whitlam. She was a native of Lincoln, a girl of modest reserved turn, as kind and true a creature as ever lived. I courted her for a week and upwards, and would have married her upon the spot, had there been a clergy man on board. She had been banished for a mantle she had borrowed from an acquaintance.
Her friend prosecuted her for stealing it, and she was transported for seven years. I had fixed my fancy upon her from the moment I knocked the rivet out of her irons upon my anvil, and as firmly resolved to bring her back to England, when her time was out, my lawful wife, as ever I did intend anything in my life. She bore me a son in our voyage out. What is become of her, whether she is dead or alive, I know not. That I do not, is no fault of mine, as my narrative will show.

SARAH WHITLAM

Aged 18 years old, Sarah Whitlam was convicted of stealing a haul of clothes "with force and arms", a charge she strenuously denied. The Scottish sailor, John Nicol, claimed that he fell in love with her at first sight, when he was instructed to remove her chains.

Prior to boarding the Lady Juliana, Whitlam had been forced to travel for 36 hours strapped to the outside seat of a coach, which would have been horrendous in an English winter.

John Nicol, a steward on the Lady Juliana, kept a detailed journal of the voyage and his love affair with one of the women on board. Photo / Wikimedia Commons
John Nicol, a steward on the Lady Juliana, kept a detailed journal of the voyage and his love affair with one of the women on board. Photo / Wikimedia Commons

"I first fixed my fancy on her the moment I knocked the rivet from her irons upon my anvil," John Nicol wrote. A few days into the voyage, Whitlam was settled in Nicol's bunk.

According to Sian Rees, author of The Floating Brothel, Nicol petitioned to marry Whitlam but was denied by the British navy. He pursued his request for the next year, until he was forced to return to England.

Later, he was devastated to hear that Whitlam married another man two days after his departure.

Rees claims the seamen tried various forms of contraception but, clearly those attempts were useless because seven babies were born on the ship and many more were born shortly after arriving in Australia.

ELIZABETH BARNSLEY

One of the most interesting women on the Lady Juliana was Elizabeth Barnsley, who, according to her convict records, had been sentenced to prison for stealing 17 yards of muslin cloth.

On the voyage she became a mother figure in more ways than one.

John Nicol described Barnsley in his memoirs as: "A noted sharper and shoplifter" whose family "for one hundred years back, had been swindlers and highwaymen".

Displeased with what she'd been expected to wear on boarding the Lady Juliana, Barnsley petitioned the government agent to wear her own clothes instead of convict dress. (The women were allowed to wear their own clothing once on the ship).

"She was very kind to her fellow convicts, who were poor. They were all anxious to serve her. She was as a queen among them," Nicol wrote.

Clearly an astute businesswoman, Barnsley took a leading role in overseeing her fellow convicts' economic circumstances when the ship stopped at various ports, working as prostitutes and "servicing" the local men.

The book 'The Floating Brothel (the ship the Lady Juliana) by Sian Rees contains illustrations of 18th century female convicts turned shipboard prostitutes. Photo / News Corp Australia
The book 'The Floating Brothel (the ship the Lady Juliana) by Sian Rees contains illustrations of 18th century female convicts turned shipboard prostitutes. Photo / News Corp Australia

She made sure the prostitutes were properly paid and well looked after.

Historian and author of The Second Fleet: Britain's grim convict armada of 1790, Michael Flynn told news.com.au there were several reasons why the convicts on the Lady Juliana arrived in NSW in good health.

"The women were lucky that the ship stopped at three ports for repairs, so they were able to benefit from having fresh meat, fruit and vegetables. So, by the time they arrived in Sydney, they were in pretty good shape, unlike the other Second Fleet ships, where the death rate was shockingly high," Flynn said.

"It also helped that the women were reasonably well looked after by the men, they were given generous rations, the ship was kept quite clean and the women were allowed up on deck. It was a completely different story on the other ships, of course."

The arrival of the Lady Juliana meant the ratio of women in the colony went from about 20 per cent to 40 per cent and thanks to the on-board romances, the population of Sydney rose even further.

A British newspaper reported: "The female convicts carried to Botany Bay, by the Lady Juliana transport, were delivered very soon after their arrival of thirty-seven children, the exact number of men in the ship!"

Many of the women of the Lady Juliana managed to turn their misfortune into happiness, creating successful lives for themselves as the founding mothers of Australia.

Some of Lady Juliana's high profile passengers also included:

• Rachel Turner, a convict who rose to a position of wealth in the colony with her husband Thomas Moore (the NSW suburb Moorebank is named after the couple).

• Eleanor Higgins (an early settler of the Epping area)

• Elizabeth Steel, the first known deaf Australian

• Mary Wade who, at 13, was one of the youngest convicts on-board, serving time for highway robbery. At the time of her death, Wade had over 300 living descendants and today her descendants number is in the tens of thousands, including former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.