At the age of twenty, in 1833, Isabella left her Inverness home, where she was born to John and Mary (Williams) Urquhart. She moved not far away to Raddry, Rosemarkie.
Inverness, which means ‘Mouth of the River Ness’, is one of the oldest towns in Scotland.
By 1832 a new iron smelting process had driven Scotland into a new phase of its Industrial Revolution, changing the whole economy, particularly agrarian labour. The cheap iron made rapid industrialisation possible. 19th century Inverness industries included rope making, shipbuilding, sail making, tanning and wool. Crofting (small-scale farming, largely for survival) and fishing continued to dominate the traditional economy.
Like many young, unmarried men and women, Isabella worked as a farm servant moving frequently from farm to farm to improve her skills and wages.
This short-term work provided Isabella, known as Bell, the opportunity to steal from several locations. Bell stood trial at the Inverness High Court on April 23, 1836 for ‘Theft and Falsehood’. She was accused of having on the January 9, 1836 stolen two keys and some clothes. The Inverness Courier reported that Bell told Isabella Fraser that she borrowed clothes to look good when she visited her sailor brothers. Bell was charged with seven other cases of similar fraud from her other jobs. After pleading guilty to all charges, she was sentenced to seven years transportation.
Drawing a simple X, Bell signed the convict record list that bound her has official property of the Crown for the next seven years. Bell’s 113-day journey had just begun as she sailed from Woolwich aboard the convict transport Westmoreland. There were another 185 female prisoners, their children and crew of 28 boys and men on board. Her new world was a far cry from the open hills of Inverness.
Surgeon Superintendent Ellis handed Bell a wooden bowl, spoon and blanket, and flimsy mattress filled with straw. With her new worldly goods in hand, Bell followed the waiting officer through a bulkhead, down a cramped ladder, then through another hatchway to the ship’s lowest deck. Double tiered planks eighteen inches wide and four feet long used as berths, filled the small space. This deck was right above the bilge, distinguished by a rotting stench from accumulating human waste and dead rats. At dawn the Westmoreland started its journey down the Thames. They headed into a storm slowing the ship to a crawl as the prisoners bid farewell to home. Below decks, women and children were tossed as the barque swayed in the choppy seas. After thirteen days of seasick misery, the Westmoreland finally cleared the channel and headed into the Atlantic Ocean. Once England was no longer in sight, the ship became a society unto itself with its own set of rules. After the surgeon retired to his berth the hatch opened. Officers ushered a group of women who had hardened themselves to the harshness of survival. The will to live trumped all matters of the heart. The “wife” of a sailor sometimes provided protection from rape by the other men. In her time aboard ship Bell witnessed things few people see in a lifetime. The Transportation Policy, in its haste to develop Australia, indiscriminately rounded up prisoners who were violent criminals, alcoholics, mentally ill, young girls and mothers with infants.
The barque left the summer heat of England heading for the start of summer in Australia. Bell baked in the stifling heat and was suffocated by the ship’s lack of ventilation, the compounded stench of decay and disease hit them like a blunt instrument. Below decks, the reek of vomit followed Bell everywhere. There was no bathing because fresh water was at a premium. Fair weather brought relief on deck for a while. As the ship crossed the tropics, Mary Talbot, another convict on the ship, described in her diary how with little warning, a wall of wind and water approached the ship. The ship beams creaked under the pounding sea of 30 foot waves. All on board expected to perish. Having survived the hurricane, the ship arrived in Hobart on 3 December. The Captain awaited the arrival of Josiah Spode, Principal Superintendent of Convicts. Once he arrived the prisoners were called in numerical order for inspection and comparison to the surgeon superintendent’s descriptions. As the women’s health and ability to work were evaluated, their skills for assignment to a local colonist was considered. It took nearly two days to examine and interview the prisoners. Bell was assigned to work in the Hobart nursery. The prisoners and children were rowed ashore to Hunter Island and walked over a muddy convict-built causeway, connecting the isle to Hobart Town.
On January 17, 1840, Bell sought permission to marry James Ashdown who was a butcher and cattle dealer by trade. James was a married man with three children when convicted in 1831 for receiving stolen sheep. The jury found him guilty and imposed a sentence of seven years transportation. He arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1832 at the age of 38.
While waiting for the marriage approval, Bell absconded from her master, resulting in an extra year added to her conviction. During December 1940, still not having married James Anderson, Bell was returned to the government House of Correction, Hobart, from her job with R.W. Baker for being pregnant. Despite government approval, there was no marriage. Nor is there any record of a birth or death of a baby Ashdown or Urquhart.
Isabella married Frederick Rosser on April 24, 1843.
Frederick was a labourer born in London. He had moved down to Kent for work as a paper-stainer. He had arrived in Tasmania on the convict ship Recovery in 1837 and worked for a while as a police constable.
After their marriage, Bell and Frederick moved to New Norfolk where their first child Frederick William was born in 1843. The following year they headed east to the Curryjong Rivulet where they tended their land. It was around this time that their second son Tulip was born. The family travelled to Geelong via the ship Julia, in 1846, where William was born in 1849. After starting their new life in Geelong, they moved to the Bream Creek area where John and Felix were born shortly before the death of Frederick (Snr) in 1852.
The following year Bell married John Bright resulting in the birth of Frank and Alex.