How ancestors of today’s Hampshire residents were sentenced to a new life Down Under

PUBLISHED: 00:00 30 April 2020

Contemporary drawing of convicts in an Australia chain gang

Contemporary drawing of convicts in an Australia chain gang


Ancestors of today’s Hampshire residents faced a life-changing voyage overseas for the smallest of misdemeanours 200 years ago

Various convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) AustraliaVarious convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) Australia

Hampshire provided its fair share of the 136,000 men and 25,000 women transported to Australia over 80 years after the First Fleet embarked on its eight-month voyage in May 1787 – some 2,000 of them from the Winchester and Southampton areas.

Punishments in the 1700s were often disproportionate to the offence. You could hang for 160 different crimes including chopping down a tree, but the death sentence was often changed to transportation.

In those days the big divide between rich and the poor who took risks to survive meant that British gaols soon filled up, as did the hulks (prison ships) moored at Langstone, near Portsmouth. It wasn’t long before the empire-building British government seized on the idea of using prisoners to populate a new colony, where female convicts were assigned as servants and men were sent farming. The typical term was seven years, at the end of which they were, technically, free and could save the £30 for a passage home. But by then many had re-offended or died or married and settled in their new country. Charles Dormer, tried at the Hampshire Quarter Sessions at Winchester Castle and transported in 1817 “for stealing fowls”, seven years later did raise the fare and return to Hampshire, only to be transported for another seven years for stealing a horse!

Burglar Richard Lane was tried in Winchester in 1784 for breaking into David Jones’s house “and stealing thereout one Pinchbeck Watch” and “for stealing the same goods being in a Booth or Tent in a Fair and the said David Jones being in the same Booth or Tent, value 20 shillings.” He was sentenced to seven years transportation and in 1789 was put on the Scarborough and sailed as part of the Second Fleet to Australia. That voyage was a nightmare. Dubbed ‘the Death Fleet’, convicts were so cramped below decks with bad food and hygiene that 278 died. “As they came ashore,” the Sydney Cove Chronicle wrote in June 1790, “such as could not carry themselves crawled upon all fours. Those unable to move were thrown over the side, as sacks of flour, into the small boats.”

Basingstoke-born Charles O'Hara Booth, commandant of the Port Arthuer Penitentiary in Tasmania from 1833 Photo: LINC TasmaniaBasingstoke-born Charles O'Hara Booth, commandant of the Port Arthuer Penitentiary in Tasmania from 1833 Photo: LINC Tasmania

Others sentenced to transportation for life at Winchester during the Lent Assizes in 1823 were William Barnett for forging a cheque for £2 10s, William Blandford for stealing a bay horse, James Godden for setting fire to hay ricks, and Peter Coombs, 14, for stealing five sheep. Southampton-born John Jones was 20 when sentenced for stealing a shirt. In Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) he received 50 lashes for “using beastly language,” Maxwell-Stewart Hamish and Susan Hood wrote in Pack of Thieves?: 52 Port Arthur Lives. Jones learned to climb high walls when sent to the New Norfolk gaol for absconding from a road gang and escaped frequently.

Winchester kitchen maid, Mary Warren, 27, was banished for fraud in 1825, Phillip Tardif wrote in Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls. She spent her seven years with ten different employers, receiving the usual punishments in the colony like “cell on bread and water” for “abusing her Mistress, drunkenness and absenting herself without leave.” She was dismissed for the less common offence of “exposing her person” and “being frequently afflicted with a violent bleeding at the nose and a severe headache.”

Mary King, 20, was a housemaid from Bishop’s Waltham, transported in 1826 for “stealing some aprons.” She was sent to a House of Correction Down Under for “returning to the Male Orphan School one night by scaling the walls.” Some Hampshire women suffered at the hands of the authorities, such as convict Harriet Jones who was a victim of unflattering report writing, described in her gaol record as: “Head: Large, Nose: Long. Thick at end.” Sometimes it was the other way round, Eliza Smith taking exception to the attentions of the first mate on her convict ship and “attempted to strangle him by twisting his neckcloth tightly round his neck.”

The Southampton Assizes heard other women discussed, such as Sarah Cockburn whose crime related to her claim that she couldn’t work. Her record says: “She states that about three years ago she fell out of a window and broke both arms, and in consequence is very weak in the wrists. Could not attend to a dairy where there are many cows.”

Teenagers weren’t exempt from transportation, nor children even younger. James Kennedy, 17, was deaf and lived in Bowlyard, Southampton with his parents. He was sent to Australia because in 1802 he was found guilty of committing “assault and battery on a woman, Elizabeth Butcher.”

The colony faced starvation in its early years. The Hibernian Journal heard from one Irish convict: “Famine is staring us in the face and happy is the man that can kill a rat or crow. I dined heartily the other day on a fine dog.” You would think one very welcome convict would be a food-producer. Yet Portsmouth baker Joseph Johnson, 20, transported in 1817, was constantly flogged for trivial misdemeanours such as “drinking... stealing a shawl from George Russell... making two loaves disappear... fighting in the bakehouse... disappearing after being paid £2 in advance wages... pretending to have a fever... and exposing his person and representing himself to be free.” Rather than see him as a potential saviour the penal authorities kept this lively Hampshire man a convict for an unheard of 43 years.

Serious offenders in Tasmania were sent to the infamous Port Arthur Penitentiary on its south-eastern peninsula, which is separated from its mainland by a narrow neck of land guarded by a line of vicious dogs. Basingstoke-born Charles O’Hara Booth was appointed Port Arthur’s commandant of convicts almost as soon as he arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in the Georgiana in 1833 at 33.

The son of Richard Booth of Basing House and Mary Patricia, née Rézé, of Gibraltar, Booth developed the penal settlement, establishing a harbour, a government farm and the use of semaphore in a bid to arrest escapers. Booth briefly found out what bushrangers were faced with when in 1838 he himself was lost in the bush for four days and suffered exposure. Months later he married Elizabeth Eagle, the widowed stepdaughter of his army surgeon.

Though less tyrannical than other commandants, the rules at Port Arthur were nonetheless notorious for being fairly petty. According to Phillip Hilton and Susan Hood in Caught in the Act, John Glanville committed 55 offences over ten years including “having turnips improperly.” One convict got a reprimand for “washing his shirt during Divine Service”, another for “baking light bread.”

And so the list of crimes at Port Arthur goes on: “having lollipops in his possession… setting fire to his bedding… drawing improper figures on his slate… groaning at the Governor… threatening to split the overseer’s skull with his spade… gross filthiness within the barrack square… wilfully breaking his wooden leg… apprehending Godfrey Moore and biting his nose off.”

Best of all was ‘Billy’ Hunt, his crime: Absconding. Nothing unusual about that, except that Billy was “dressed as a kangaroo at the time and was attempting to hop to freedom, only to be shot at by rationed soldiers who had grown accustomed to hearty kangaroo stews.”

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