I was once researching transportation to Australia from 1787 to the 1850s. Convicts were originally transported to the American colonies but then came the War of Independence. This put an end to that, but in the same period came the discovery of Australia.
BACKFILL: WHY AUSTRALIA?
Having no police force, the British home authorities fell back on a harsh criminal code as a deterrent. (For example, according to the Criminal Records of London’s Old Bailey, on January 9th 1822, twenty three prisoners were sentenced to the standard seven years transportation for first time offenders and one for fourteen years as a second offender. Among them were four women. The average age of the seventeen prisoners was 22 and the average value of their thefts, 15 shillings. The latter ranged from coats, a pair of shoes, a roll of cotton, boots, two dead pigs, a side of beef, window curtains a gig harness, gloves, a hat and a handkerchief. (Hardly the crimes of the century!)At the same time, the authorities wanted Australia settled, so by setting the criminality bar low, they killed two birds with the same stone. They not only got rid of social irritants but those with particular everyday skills essential to a new colony, the really hard cases being kept securely locked up in motherland prisons.
(In fact the extreme penalties were totally counter-productive. If hanging was the penalty for robbery and murder, then why stop at just robbery when you could kill your victim and increase your chances of escape. One was as well to get hung for a sheep as a lamb! Juries became increasingly reluctant to convict alleged criminals for minor crimes and so incur the death penalty. A warning to hangers and floggers everywhere in time and place!).
The point of my research was to investigate whether
the transported convicts were indeed of a hardened criminal class or victims of circumstance. I amassed as much evidence as I could- primary and secondary sources from both British and Australian archives, assessed their validity and prepared to make my judgement.
It was then that I made a chance discovery that brought the research close up and personal.
A CHANCE DISCOVERY.
Tucked away in a New South Wales archive, I found this entry for 1820…“Landed July 17, The Neptune under Master William McKissock.” reading on I found that there were 155 convicts aboard. Among them was a 32 year old man, sentenced on September 8th, 1819 for theft at Great Yarmouth Quarter Sessions. His name was Charles Farman.
I did not need to check my family records to know he was not a direct ancestor but the Farmans originated in east Norfolk, from North Walsham to Gorleston. So if not belonging to my family, Charles was certainly one of the clan. Having now studied transportation from above looking down, I thought it time to look at it from ground level…through the eyes of an actual convict and who better than Charles? So come with me and let us find Charlie.
All that we know for certain is that he was born in 1788 in the Norfolk parish of Great Yarmouth. Of his family we know nothing, for the parish registers were destroyed by either fire or water in the 1942 air raid that gutted the church.
On the other hand, we do have a detailed description of what he looked like by September 26th 1838 when the following was taken and shown on his eventual Certificate of Freedom…
Year of Birth…1788
Height…5ft 2 ¼ inches
Hair…brown mixed with grey
General Remarks…Lost several front teeth; Slight scar on bridge of nose; Perpendicular scar centre of forehead; Brown natural mark on ball of right thumb.
Hardly an heroic or prepossessing figure and not as I had hoped, a rebel with a cause but 14 years for stealing a few herrings in a town with a permanent glut of them?
Charles’s case was heard in Yarmouth’s Toll House. According to the court records…
“Towne and Boro of G.Yarmouth, Oyez and Terminer and Gaol Delivery. 8th of September 1819.
YARMOUTH TO DEAL
Convicted in Gt. Yarmouth , Charles was then held in the Toll House gaol until the following March of 1820. He was then probably shipped out of Yarmouth to Deal in a vessel en route from Aberdeen, Leith, Newcastle, Yarmouth and the Thames. (Based on ports of origin of his fellow convicts).
Finally March 23rd, 1820, Charles left the Downs on the Neptune (Master William McKissock) along with another 155 convicts. (Deal = Ships anchored in the Downs of the town of Deal where they waited for favourable winds. The Downs is the harbour of Deal and is enclosed by the North and South Forelands, as well as the deadly Goodwin Sands).
The Neptune’s complement of 155 convicts were from all over the British mainland…
Scotland 8%; NW England 13%; NE England 10%; Wales 6%; Midlands 15%; East Anglia 2%; West 23%; London 23% and SE England 1%.
DR. THOMAS REID
Conditions of the imminent voyage can be assumed from the journal of Dr. Thomas Reid. He was the surgeon/convict welfare supervisor on the Neptune, (the self same vessel that was to transport Charles), on its previous voyage to Sydney just two years earlier.
(Once published in 1821, the journal, presented as “TWO VOYAGES TO NEW SOUTH WALES AND VAN DIEMEN’S LAND” (Thomas Reid MRCS; Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, London 1822. was dedicated to prison reformer Elizabeth Fry at whose behest, Reid had sailed.)
Reid’s descriptions must have held true for Charles Farman’s voyage and reveal a detailed insight into everyday life aboard a convict vessel…clothing, food, sleeping 8, illness, conflicts between sailors and the thirty soldiers, boredom, the effects of alcohol and Reid’s attempts to teach young lads to read and write.
CRIMES OF CONVICTS.
He carefully listed the crimes and numbers of transgressors… Forgery 8; Housebreaking 6;Robbery in a Dwelling House 3; Stealing in a dwelling House 10; Burglary 28;Highway Robbery 7; Horse Stealing 8; Felony 44; Sheep stealing 7; Cow Stealing 1; Frame breaking 1; Desertion 2; Assault and robbery 1; Having forged notes 6; Stealing from a person 1; Stealing-various small thefts 17; Grand Larceny 10; Larceny 1; Capital respite (one of them an infidel 6; Obtaining goods by false pretences 1; Breaking out of prison 1; Aiding in escape from prison 1...
(For explanation of crime definitions…go to “Old Bailey Records on Line”)
The thorough Dr. Reid then provided a break down of convict sentences…Transported for Life… 85; Transported for 14 years… 33; Transported for 7 years…52.
CHARACTER OF CONVICTS.
Finally he provided a subjective snapshot of the prisoners’ conduct...
Bad Character 34; Old offenders 17; Good 1; Very bad character 10; Orderly 43; Very orderly 2; Indifferent 4; An infidel 1; New Prisoners not reported on, transported for life 24; ditto transported for 14 years 10; Transported before 6; Second sentence orderly 6; Belonging to a gang, bad 2; Old thief orderly 1; Noted pick pockets, behaved well 5; Behaved very well, convicts for felony 4. Total 170.
READY TO SAIL.
So the Neptune, with its human cargo of convicts from all over mainland Britain bearing varying degrees of guilt and character, different dialects, accents and even languages guarded by 30 armed soldiers and the ship’s crew, once provisioned and granted a favourable wind was ready to sail.
Doubtless, two years later the s voyage.
PART II. THE VOYAGE TO van DIEMAN‘S LAND.
“TWO VOYAGES TO NEW SOUTH WALES AND VAN DIEMEN’S LAND”
Thomas Reid MRCS; Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, London 1822.
4.4 Great Yarmouth Borough Sessions Court
Sessions books, 1786-1864: see list Y/S 2.RLIE.
papers, 1786-1863: see list Y/S 3.
Calendars (lists) of prisoners, 1888-90, on microfilm MF/RO 611/4-5.