Speedy 1799

Dancing on convict ships

An Irish woman dancing. Detail from Tales of the Irish Peasantry.

Anna Josepha King, the wife of Governor Phillip Gidley King, kept a diary describing her voyage to the colony.  Beginning on the day she embarked, Tuesday 19th November 1799, through to her arrival in Port Jackson on 13 April 1800, Anna recorded major events in the voyage, including  a dance held for the 53 convict women on board the Speedy on Christmas Day:

The Ladies seemed all very happy and by way of a treat they had a little dance for about two hours – it was much amusement to us to look at them, some attempted Irish others Scotch steps and in truth I could scarcely make out any sort of steps – but a country jump.

Irish women dancing. Detail from Tales of the Irish Peasantry.

Anna was a keen dancer, so her observations of the steps used by the convicts gives a deeper insight than the more general comments made in the surgeons’ journals.  At the time of writing, the Scotch Reel was a new and popular dance, and Anna refers to her own ‘Scotch’ [sic] steps learned from a dancing master.  During the voyage her family danced the reel on a number of occasions.  In England she regularly attended the fashionable balls in Bath, and she writes about her experience of attending a ball in Cape Town with the understanding of an accomplished dancer.

Her observations about the convict women dancing are significant as not only did she record the event,  but she noted that there was variety in their steps, even if they were ill-performed to her privileged eye.  She makes no mention of the music or type of dance, so it is assumed the convict women  danced their own country dances.


Bassett, M. (1940 ). The Governor’s Lady: Mrs Philip Gidley King. London: Oxford University Press.

Falbe, J. d. (1988). My dear Miss Macarthur : the recollections of Emmeline Maria Macarthur (1828-1911). Kenthurst , N.S.W.: Kangaroo Press.


1.) Transcript of Anna Josepha King’s journal

2.) Willetts, Jennifer. (2019). Convict Ship Speedy 1799-1800

3.) Convict Records  – list of convicts on the Speedy

4.) History of the Speedy


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