Sunday, 4 January 2015

52 Ancestors 2015 - Week 1 - Fresh start - My Family Convicts

 Fresh start is the first theme in the 52 Ancestors 2015 challenge. One of the suggestions is to write about an ancestor or ancestors who had a fresh start.

In Australia, having convicts in the family is akin to a badge of honour. Transportation to Australia began in 1787 with the First Fleet arriving in January 1788. The final transport of convicts arrived in Western Australia in 1868. Consequently many Australian families have convict origins.

With twelve convicts in my family I guess that it could be argued that they all had a fresh start when they came to Australia, even though the conditions on the long trip from England to Australia would have been horrendous and, when they arrived in Sydney Cove, the settlement in which they were to spend the rest of their lives had to be established from scratch.

One of the first things that stands out when comparing the lives of my convicts was how young they were. Of the seven male convicts one was 17, two were aged 18 and one 19, while the other three were 23, 29 and  30 when they were arrested. Of the five female convicts, when they were arrested, one was 15, one 16 and one 18, while the other two were 25 and 26.

I only know the occupations of some of my family convicts before they were arrested, however the information that I do have, plus the information about their crimes as listed on surviving court and convict documents, suggest that most of them were representative of the many people displaced by the agricultural and industrial revolutions occurring in the United Kingdom at end of eighteenth century.

George (18) and Kezia (18) were listed as being labourers, Susannah (26) was a servant and Uriah (18) was a glass cutter. Simeon's parents had been involved in weaving cloth on a farm at Todmorden but his mother had died when he was 15 and his father died the following year. Three years later Simeon (19) was arrested in Manchester for stealing cloth. Uriah (18) and Richard (23) were also arrested for stealing cloth, Kezia (18), Mary H (16) and Jane (25) for stealing clothes and William (30) was arrested for stealing yarn. George (18) stole 10 pigs and a horse (a capital offence) while Charles (17) stole a saddle. Mary B was a 15 year old prostitute who was arrested after a client discovered his watch was missing. In 1798 John (29) was a participant in the Irish rebellion while Susannah (26) was arrested for perjury when she accused her employer, the local schoolmaster, of being the father of her son. Kezia (18) and Mary H (16) stole clothes from their employers.

It was normal for young children to be employed as cheap labour. From the trial transcripts we know that Uriah was living with his father in London when, at the age of 12, he started learning to be a glass cutter. However in 1785, a tax introduced on the employment of maid servants older than 15 resulted in many young women being dismissed. For many girls, the only option for earning a living was prostitution. Other factors affecting opportunities for employment included the end of the American War of Independence when much of the British Army was disbanded resulting in more men looking for work. This also further reduced employment opportunities for women. 

Two of the convicts were married and had children when they were arrested. William (30) and his wife, Mary, had two children. A third child was born after his arrest. Richard (23) had a wife and a new baby to support when he stole a parcel of cloth and two promissory notes from the back of a cart in the middle of the day. Was this an act of desperation or did he do it as a way of escape knowing that he would be transported?

Most of the crimes for which you could be sent to another country on the other side of the world for terms of seven years, fourteen years or life seem trivial today  - certainly the ones for which my convicts were tried and convicted - however the gaols were overcrowded and transportation seemed a valid option to the authorities. Establishing a British colony on the east coast of Australia before the French claimed the country was another incentive and a convict settlement was thought to be a practical way to do this.

All of my convicts had arrived in Australia by 1808, including two on the First Fleet (1778) and two on the Second Fleet (1791). Being transported to the other side of the world, where everything was so different from their previous life, must have been a shock to the convicts. Not only did they end up in a penal settlement but initially there was no housing or other buildings, roads or reliable water supply. Their survival depended on the stores brought with them on the ships and it was not known when the next ships would arrive. There was no need to fence the convicts in as there was nowhere for them to go. The vegetation was very different from home. The climate was different. The animals were different. Their new country was also inhabited by people who looked different and had a very different lifestyle. News from England would only be available the next time a ship came to the colony.  To survive they had to build the initial settlement providing shelter and also start planting crops, which may or may not grow, in the hope that the colony could become self sufficient.

After they had served their sentence many of the convicts had the opportunity to own and farm their own land, providing additional produce for the colony. Simeon, who could read and write, was assigned initially to a soldier who he assisted in his business ventures. Once free, Simeon pursued his own business opportunities. The convicts married other convicts or children of convicts and had children of their own. Generally they became involved in colonial life. Eight of my convicts ended up living in the area near the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales. Two of the convicts, George and Mary B, lived and worked on Norfolk Island until the close of the first settlement when they transferred to Tasmania. Simeon and his wife Mary H remained in Sydney where their house was reputed to be more impressive than the house of the Governor. They also owned and operated woollen mills at Botany where they later moved and Simeon owned several large properties of land. Most of my convicts eventually owned substantial landholdings and some, such as George had other business interest including owning the Seven Star Inn in Hobart. Uriah also owned a number of business interests including a bakery at Windsor.

The convicts faced many survival challenges when they came to Australia but it can certainly be argued that coming to this country provided them with the opportunity for a fresh start which they accepted.

The twelve convicts:
George Guest
William Roberts
Kezia Brown
Mary Bateman
Simeon Lord
Mary Hyde
Charles Daley
Susannah Alderson
Uriah Moses
Richard Holland
John Pendergast
Jane Williams

1 comment:

  1. Twelve convicts - that's impressive! I'll be lucky if I have just one. Our mysterious Robert BUTLER is a possibility, but we're a long way from proving it. (I hope you won't be offended if I make a suggestion? It would be nice to see an 'About Me' section and an email address prominently displayed on your blog.)