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Saturday, 27 April 2013

About those convicts

My time, at the moment, is mainly given over to Australian history, but because the convict topic is done to death, I have had little to say about it. I have, however, been thinking about transportation, the convict system, and its effects.
Four fastidious Britons emoting over the convict stain and the
Australian lack of human genetic diversity.

Britons of a certain appalling sort, usually lower-middle-class oiks or the toffy-nosed inbred offspring of the degenerate aristocracy, find it amusing to taunt Australians on their first encounter about their "convict taint".

I blame the English education system for letting them out in such a state of ignorance, because, as you will see, the story is far more nuanced than the simplistic notion of wicked felons and good "free" people.

Today, Australians are proud of their convict ancestors especially when the ancestors are clearly not wicked villains, and one of the convicts I want to look at was no villain.

There have always been two views about the convicts. One side agreed with "Major" James Mudie who wrote The Felonry of New South Wales and was horsewhipped for it.   Mudie said all convicts were evil and would never improve. Today, people often claim that the convicts, especially their own ancestors, were "transported for stealing a loaf of bread". Mudie was neither an officer nor a gentleman, and he richly deserved his come-uppance.

(For details, see 'New Publication', Australasian Chronicle, November 21, 1840, p.2, : for a commentary (which farewells Mudie in an unfriendly way), see 'The Breakfast Table', Australasian Chronicle, January 12, 1841, p.2,  There appear to have been no newspaper articles that supported him.)

The truth about the convicts is somewhere in the middle: some convicts were total villains, some were complete victims. In other words, there were good convicts and bad ones. There were also good and bad "free" people. Out of 245 marines (soldiers) who reached Australia, Judge-Advocate David Collins mentions four marines who received 200 lashes for manslaughter in 1788   and six marines who were hanged for robbing the colony's food stores in 1789.   And those were the ones supposed to enforce the law!

(For details of these bad good guys:  David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, pages 75 and 83 in the online edition.  In the print edition, the pages are 38 and 49.)

On January 10, 1787, two Elizabeths were tried at the Old Bailey. Elizabeth Hayward was 13 or 14 when she left England. She was the youngest female convict on the first fleet, sentenced to be transported for seven years. The charge was stealing a gown worth 4 shillings, a bonnet worth 2 shillings and a cloak worth 1 shilling. Hayward was an apprentice, accused of taking the items from her master, Thomas Crofts, and pawning them.

(Elizabeth Hayward's case: Old Bailey Online. Use your search function or look for case 219 or Reference Number: t17870110-60. Her sentence is listed separately, almost at the end.)

At some time between June 1 and June 10, 1787, Arthur Bowes Smyth, the assistant surgeon on the convict transport Lady Penrhyn, wrote a list of the convicts in his journal. He wrote that "Elizabeth Haward" was 13. Three pages earlier, he had listed Elizabeth Beckford was 70, but a month or so later, he gave her age as 82.

(Beckford's age: see Arthur Bowes Smyth, Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, 1787 March 22-1789 August 8, page 17.)

Elizabeth Beckford was charged with stealing twelve pounds weight of Gloucester cheese, value 4 shillings (40 cents in today's money, but worth a great deal more in 1787). The cheese belonged to Henry Austen, and she was sentenced to be transported for seven years. The report says "The prisoner was taken instantly with the cheese", meaning she was caught on the spot.

Elizabeth Beckford's case: see Old Bailey Online. Use your browser's search function or look for case 226 or Reference Number: t17870110-67. Her sentence is listed separately, almost at the end.

The two women were thieves, but before we judge them harshly, young people used to be apprenticed at about the age of 12. They got almost no pay, and usually, their families had to pay the master a fee called a premium. An apprenticeship usually lasted five years or more, and for the first couple of years, the apprentice was often made to do servant work like sweeping and cleaning, work that had little to do with the trade they were supposed to be learning. Apprentices lived in the master's house, and were fed by the master, but there was little joy in the life of an apprentice.

There was no joy at all for older people. There was no aged pension, and an old man or woman with no family and no savings had little choice but to steal, or to go into the workhouse. There, the inmates would be fed horribly, treated worse, and exposed to all sorts of diseases.

Workhouses still existed in 1904, when an Australian poet named Jennings Carmichael died after her husband deserted her. Her three sons were placed in an English workhouse until Australians found out about them in 1909, and took up a collection to pay the boys' fares back to Australia.

(See Jennings Carmichael: Her Children in a Workhouse, The Argus, April 16, 1910, p. 4,  and see other articles in Trove which are tagged 'Jennings Carmichael'. You will see the tag when you go to the link above: click on the tag, and at last count, 103 other articles will be listed: it seems we volunteers who do the tagging have been busy).

So perhaps we should not blame the two Elizabeths too much for stealing. They may have had their reasons. The gaols of Britain were filled with deadly diseases like tuberculosis, spread by coughing and "gaol fever" (we call it typhus today) which was spread by lice. Whatever their reason, the two Elizabeths gratefully accepted their fates and both were shipped out in the Lady Penrhyn, which carried women convicts and a few of the children of women convicts.

On January 10, 1787, 15 women appeared at the Old Bailey and were sentenced to be transported. One year later, on January 10, 1788, the women in Lady Penrhyn were cowering under the fury of a storm off the NSW coast, having been at sea since the previous May. Perhaps they began to regret their decision, but they reached Botany Bay about ten days later.

Elizabeth Beckford wasn't there by then. On the night of July 11–12 1787, she died, and it was then that Smyth wrote in his journal that she was 82.

(Beckford's death: Arthur Bowes Smyth, Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, 1787 March 22-1789 August 8, page 30. )

Elizabeth Hayward was not the youngest on board. The convicts' children listed by Smyth as being on board Lady Penrhyn were William Tilley (6 weeks), Mary Mullins (3), Mary Fowles (4), Jane Jones (8) and John Harrison, aged 15.

Elizabeth Hayward was flogged in Sydney for insolence, soon after arriving. She later went to Norfolk Island, and she received another flogging there. (Norfolk Island later became a terrible place, where only the worst convicts were sent, but it was used to grow food for the main colony and it was more pleasant when she was there.)

She may have died in 1830, but she left Norfolk Island in 1813 as the wife of Joseph Lowe along with two of her children. An Elizabeth Lowe died at Launceston, and was buried at St John's, Launceston 29 October 1836, "aged 66", which is about six years too young—but that may be our last trace of the youngest woman convict. If so, she got a good life in the end.

Most of the people sentenced to become First Fleeters on January 10, 1787 accepted their sentences, and so gave their later descendants something to boast about, but one did not. Samuel Burt had been found guilty of forgery, and in those days, forgery was a hanging offence, a capital crime, as the lawyers called it.

Mysteriously (until you know the background), the government wanted him to accept a pardon and serve seven years "to the Eastern coast of New South Wales, or some one or other of the islands adjacent" (or as ordinary folk understood it, to Botany Bay).

Equally mysteriously (until you know the background), the prisoner preferred to be hanged, and here is how the discussion went in court, at the end of the day's proceedings. Notice how politely but firmly, Samuel Burt told the Court (that means the judge) that he wanted to die.

Prisoner:        My Lord, I thank your Lordship; but in the present case, I have an unquestionable right to my own opinion, and as death would be preferable to me, I am determined to persevere in applying for the execution of my sentence.

Court:              You should be aware that if the King's mercy is rejected and abused, when you come to a better temper of mind, which the fear of death will certainly produce, you may have then no opportunity of applying for that mercy which you now refuse.

Prisoner:        I am still determined to persevere in the same opinion.

Court:             I shall remand you to prison, and give you till the first day of next session to consider of it, and if you then refuse his Majesty's pardon, you may expect immediate execution.

Prisoner.        Very well my Lord. 

The background explains all the peculiarity. The young lady Samuel loved did not love him, and refused to marry him. Maybe this was because Samuel was an apprentice gold-beater, and apprentices were not allowed to marry until they had "served their time" and completed their apprenticeship. Samuel decided that he would sooner die, but he must have felt it wrong to commit suicide. From the way he spoke, he was a clever young man, and he found another way to become dead.

He forged a bank draft for 100 pounds, which was a great deal of money back then, and went to a bank where he was well-known, and cashed it. The bank suspected that the draft was forged, but gave him the money as they knew him. He then sent his master the following letter:

"Sir, I take this opportunity of informing you, that I have this morning forged on your banker, for the sum of an hundred pounds; I am ready and willing to resign myself into the hands of justice, life is a burden to me, and as I have forfeited it to the laws of my country, I am ready and willing to resign into the hands of him that gave it me." S. Burt, July 17th, 1786.  

Later, the full story came out.   After that day, Samuel went back to gaol to think. It seems that the young lady had a change of heart, and agreed to marry him, but after he had agreed to accept transportation in the Second Fleet, she visited him in gaol, where she caught gaol fever and died, but by then, Samuel's case had been sorted out, and he had to go to New South Wales.

The Scarborough had transported convicts as part of the First Fleet, and now it was ready to go again, with Burt among the inmates. During the voyage, a plot was hatched among the convicts to over-power the guards, take over the ship and escape. Burt gathered the details and reported to the ship's officers who squashed the plan.

Arriving safely in Sydney, Burt was made a storeman, and was so reliable that on January 31, 1794, he won an unconditional pardon, When the colony's Judge-Advocate, David Collins noted this, he mentioned that Burt's actions on the Scarborough were "at the risk of his own life".  

I wonder if perhaps Burt took that risk deliberately, hoping once again, that he might die? Still, he got here, he lived, he worked hard, and he was pardoned. He received a grant of 16 acres of land at Bulanaming (near Newtown in Sydney's inner western suburbs today) on January 8, 1794, but after that, this interesting Second Fleeter seems to disappear. If he has descendants today, they probably regret not being able to claim descent from a "First Fleeter".

Burt References

Samuel Burt's case: Old Bailey Online, , or you can find an easier-to-read version by going to the search page  then searching for Samuel Burt by name and choosing the supplementary material for January 10, 1787.


Burt's aftermath: The article is headed 'Samuel Burt' and appears in The Times (of London), 19 October, 1790, p. 4, column 1. The same story was reprinted in The Caledonian Mercury, No. 10787, October 25, 1790, p. 2.

Collins on Burt: David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, p. 294. (286 in the printed edition)


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This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.



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