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The Song Of The She-Oak

A defiant woman, her relentless will, and the eventual way.

By Jo HilderPublished about a year ago 13 min read
TOM ROBERTS 1856-1931 She-Oak and Sunlight (1889)

She’d not bled for several months. This itself was no surprise – most of the women stopped bleeding months earlier. So when Elizabeth felt the pangs, at first she didn’t recognize them. But on the second day, a slow, deep crush in her abdomen woke her from sleep. It came in waves, then there was the show of scarlet on her tentative fingers. The first moan slipped out despite her. By then her thighs were wet with blood and she could neither disguise nor relieve the agony. After several hours, as movement above deck began and those below knew it was well daylight, she grasped the wrist of the woman curled up beside her. “I’m dying, Fanny.” An ashen face framed by a mane of matted brown and white hair turned like a macabre looking glass towards her. “We all are, Elizabeth.”


Elizabeth walked purposely with her head down along the street through the crowd towards Spitalfields. Mr Moore did the same on the opposite side. Every now and then they would sneak a glance to check where the other was, to catch one another’s eyes, to send a wink or an imperceptible smile. Elizabeth realised she was picking her thumb with her ring fingernail in her pocket. She quickly took it out, stuffing it into its glove for safekeeping. As she reached the end of the road, she saw John on the opposite corner, waiting. At her nod, he turned and walked through the boarding house door, ducking his head under the lintel as he went. Elizabeth waited. She could feel her heart beating. She was deaf to the cacophony of traffic and voices. The ground was like hot coals, she simply could not stand still. Then John appeared in the doorway, ducking his head again and smiling coyly at her. He strode down the street, and Elizabeth took a deep breath. Now it was her turn.

“I’d like a room, please.” The landlady eyed her up and down from behind the table where she sat wide-kneed, skinning a rabbit. She laid the corpse down and leant across it, arms folded on top. “Do yer, then?”

“Yes, I believe you have two rooms.”

“The other one just went. I got one now. Yer working?”

“I will be, I only just got ‘ere, but I’m promised work in Spitalfields. I sew.”

“So does every secon’ hussie that walks froo the door. I need two weeks rent in advance.”

Elizabeth let the coins fall from her hand onto the table. The landlady’s gaze didn’t move from hers. “Upstairs, second door on left. There’s linen, make it yourself.” She took the key and walked out onto the street. Now, to pass an hour.


The pain and blood and seawater washed around her, under her skin and through her veins, making its relentless way out of her body. She was helpless to prevent it, although she knew it would be worse if it did not come. In a moment, she felt something pass, and between her legs her fingers touched flesh that was not her own. She held the tiny sac in her hands a while, before wrapping it in a piece of her skirt and tucking it into her flaccid bosom. “Sun shines on the good and the wicked.” She heard her mother’s voice. Yet here, where her tiny firstborn lay swaddled against her breast, no sun shined at all.


It was almost sunup when John rolled from her side and put his feet on the floor with a thud. “Sssshhhhhhh!” said Elizabeth. He opened his eyes wide and put his finger to his smiling lips, before tiptoeing his way through the door between their rooms, closing it carefully. Elizabeth lay back and looked at the ceiling. Another day looking for work where there was clearly none to be had. The factories and workshops were full of girls like her, moved to London from the country and now lucky to be off the streets and out of the workhouses and orphanages. The two weeks was almost up, and she and John each owed for the next and those to come. She did not know how they would maintain the ruse much longer – Mrs. Williams was surely becoming suspicious by now. She rose from her bed and pushed open the adjoining door into John’s apartment. She sat on his bed to think for a moment. Surely, she could come up with something – other than resort to being just another hedge-whore on the streets below. Her hands spread on the blanket and spied the freshly ironed sheets. Surely, no one could notice if they were missing, just for a few days? Elizabeth quietly unmade the bed and folded the covers as neatly as she could. Packing them into her sack, she dressed and made her way stealthily downstairs and onto the already bustling street.


“Another whore!” Elizabeth hit the deck hard. The blinding sunlight burned her eyes and skin. She felt herself being dragged and heaped up with other bodies, some moving and moaning, some cold and still. The air scalded her nostrils. She recognised the smell of the sea, salt, and the stench of working men. The ship still heaved and swayed while the long boats were lowered. Bodies were grasped and dropped into boats - it was impossible to tell the dead from the living. Elizabeth felt herself being lowered by the arms into a longboat, and she grabbed out to her sides to steady herself. All she felt was rotting fabric, matted hair and crusted excrement, all caked in a foul crust on every human body. As her eyes began to adjust, Elizabeth heard the sound of voices in the distance. Squinting, she made out a shoreline slowly approaching. There were figures moving on the beach, some bright red, some just a blur of brown and grey. And they were shouting. Catcalling, whooping and mocking. Chilling revelation coursed through her like ice in her veins. She knew then what was coming. And she wished she had died when her wee one did.


“I am wife of Richard Williams. I let a ready furnished lodging to the woman prisoner.” The landlady pointed her fat finger at Elizabeth. “A room on the first floor. Moore was not with her when she came, but he came the same night. He paid three shillings a week - they were there rather better than three weeks. I took them to be man and wife. Ha! But I since find then they are not, the room joining the rooms was stripped - I saw the linens from the bed in his room missing. I made a great outcry and sent for an officer. I missed a bed-gown, a sheet, and a blanket - the receipt for the pawnbroker were found in the woman's pocket. I saw them taken out by the officer.” Mrs. Williams nodded towards the burly man in the corner.

“I know both the prisoners very well,” said Mrs. Jolly, barely concealing her spite and self-righteousness. “By seeing them at our shop. A blanket and a sheet were pledged at our pawn house. I did not take them in. I could not know who owned them, and I doubted it were her.”

Elizabeth looked at the floor. A few feet away, Mr. Moore stood with his cap in his hands, his hair brushed neatly giving his best impression of a wayward boy seduced.

“Thomas Huckweel, now speak to the Old Bailey.”

“I am a constable,” said Mr. Huckweel. “I attest on the twelfth of September I took the woman accused, and I found on her these receipts.”

“Oh, yes!” Mrs. Jolly piped up, “Those are our receipts: my master's name is printed upon them, as you can clearly see.” She nodded approval to herself.

Elizabeth spoke. “I proposed to get the things out of pawn soon as I could, Your Honour; I did not mean to let the things lay in.” She could not keep the tremors from her hands.

The Judge turned to John. “Mr. Moore, what say you in your defence?”

“I – I went out about eleven in the forenoon with intent to get some work; I had been out of work for a long time. I went and got a job and with the money I had intention to get out the sheet and blanket and pay the rent, which was not due for fifteen hours. I had full intent to pay the rent for my own lodging. I well had the money from my work and did not need to get the linen back, it was only that Elizabeth was friendly with me that I felt obliged to get it, rather than use the money for my lodging alone.”

“How came she to pass as your wife?” The judge frowned at Elizabeth.

“She is not so by law, Sir. We are cohabited only by the adjoining rooms with the door between us. I felt obliged as we are acquainted.”

Elizabeth could not bring herself to look at John. He had washed his hands of her, despite their careful conspiracy to use his day’s pay to get the bedclothes out of pawn before they were missed. She was on her own.

“Well, I see it’s you, madam, who stole the linens and attempted to sell them with no means of your own to undo the pledge. Rather, you relied on the generosity of your friend to accommodate you, and he is taken somewhat for granted. With no work of your own by which you could pay your rent, you have succoured upon his good nature, as well and the goodwill and blind eye of your landlady, to compensate for your own sloth and connivance. Elizabeth Rimes, you are found guilty on this day, twenty eighth of October 1789 and sentenced to transportation for seven years.” Elizabeth’s knees buckled and she felt warm urine pouring down her thighs. “As for you, Mr. Moore, although I am inclined to think you are somewhat impaired to allow yourself to be exploited by such a feeble wretch, I see your intentions were charitable. You did not exploit her as you may have, but rather arranged separate rooms for you both for the sake of propriety and offered to make good of her cunning deceit by buying back the stolen goods with your own money. I do not therefore believe you have committed any crime worthy of punishment. You are found not guilty and may go free.”

Elizabeth crumpled. She was carried to the prison wagon and taken to the prison ship hulks moored in the river Thames, there to await her exile to the other side of the world. She would never see or hear from John Moore again.


Lying on the shore, Elizabeth cast a rueful glance back at The Neptune, anchored and still expelling it's forlorn occupants into the row boats. It was clear a great many were not living beings, but corpses. She could hear a cachophany of voices and smelt cooking fires. She lay there as the sky began to darken above her and the sea turned from lapping waves to pounding surf. Rain began to fall. She opened her mouth and let the fresh water drop on her swollen tongue. As thunder rolled and the rain grew heavier, she felt herself being lifted, then carried. The rain stopped and she realised she was under cover, being lowered onto a bed. She clasped her hands by her sides and felt soft straw. But she did not open her eyes to see who brought her inside. In fact, almost as soon as she was laid down, Elizabeth fell into a fitful sleep.


This work is not so hard, she thought to herself. For any seamstress worth her salt, the making of shirts, aprons and dilly bags was not difficult, once the challenges of working with such rudimentary haberdashery were overcome. Elizabeth and the other women were free to chat, eat and go where and when they pleased. But they were not pleased to wander too far from either Quakers Row, the row of nine tiny huts that accomdated them, or the tent supplied for their work. Men outnumbered women ten to one in Sydney Cove, and neither the officers nor the convict men had any qualms about snatching up a female for either short term pleasure, or long term servitude. Elizabeth and her small contingent were lucky - their work was important, and therefore they were mostly left alone. But the population no longer resembled anything like the gentrified, class-divided society they'd come from. Back in England, you knew your place. Here, the instinct for survival outweighed the pursuit of wealth or status. Your wits were sometimes all that stood between you and being burdened with a child against your will in a savage society where even the adults had to fight for every bite of food. This was no place for letting your guard down.

But despite the cruelty, violence and bewildering environment, Elizabeth felt a faint hope. She'd survived The Old Bailey and the hulks on the Thames. She'd lived through the voyage on the Neptune, and escaped the worst most women could expect in such a masculinised environment so far. And she was growing to love this wild country. She smiled to herself as she punched her needle through the rough flax in a neat row of tiny stitches, then pausing, needle in mid-air. Part of her now lay in an unseen place, claimed by this dark, strange earth as it's own, planted like a seed where no violence or judgement could ever reach, warmed by the sun and watered by the rain. She would never know whether she had a son or daughter. Every joyful laugh and mournful cry were just wishful, wistful dreams. She sighed. And it was in this solemn repose that Elizabeth looked up, her hand shelding her eyes from the sun, to see a man coming toward her. And Matthew smiled at her as he had a hundred times before. No, she was not lost, she mused, here in New South Wales. She was found.


Seventeenth March 1791 – tomorrow. The date was set. It would be a simple affair, as convict couplings frequently were. She chose the day, and Matthew need never know the reason. Elizabeth walked out in the fading light through the colony to the little cove with the whispering She-Oaks and tall Gymea lilies. She waded through knee-high grass until she found the flat stone at the waters’ edge. Kneeling, she placed her posy of native blossoms on the little grave and closed her eyes. She imagined her tiny babe safe in the arms of Christ, tended by the Sacred Mother, watched over by the Holy Father. She placed her palm on the cool rock and imagined the earth beneath slowly reclaiming her sweet, unformed child back to itself. It would be one year tomorrow since her firstborn broke free from the hell of Elizabeth’s womb in the depths of the Neptune in the middle of the ocean. And now, in joining with sweet Mr. Everingham and beginning life as a respectable, colonial woman, the date would be marked forever as not only the most terrible, but the most wonderful day of her life. Her new beginning had finally begun.


I am a seventh-generation descendant of Elizabeth Rimes - Everingham. In Elizabeth, I see not a victim, but a fighter, a warrior, and above all, a survivor. The inspiration embedded in her story of unimaginable circumstances leaves space for me to imagine what life for women - and especially for Elizabeth - might have been like, beyond the historical accounts and fragments of information available. I feel priveliged to give her a voice - my voice - two hundred years later.


About the Creator

Jo Hilder

Jo Hilder is a writer, artisan, an experienced speaker and author of four books, most recently the author of Small and Pure – A Cautionary Tale, released in June 2016 by Rhiza Press.

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