Hertfordshire Transportations

Photo:Gallery on the Warrier convict hulk, anchored off Woolwich

Gallery on the Warrier convict hulk, anchored off Woolwich

Illustrated London News, 1846, from Kellow Chesney: The Victorian Underworld, 1970

Extreme sentences for Codicote offenders: report of a talk to Local History Society in 2003

By Margaret Scott

On 3 June 2003 Harpenden History Society members heard from neighbours Codicote History Society about their research concerning people who were transported from Codicote to the Colonies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Frances Maddex, Margaret Hood and Susan Stephen supplied much information about the history and process of transportation, the crimes causing the ruling, and the types of people who experienced this awful sentence. 

The practice of transportation began with North America and other colonies such as Bermuda, then spread to Tasmania and Australia.  Fifteen men and two women from Codicote have personal records which can be collated from newspapers, diaries, ships’ logs or from the official accounts.  These might be archives from Hertford Quarter Sessions or Assizes and ‘ticket of leave’ records.  Seven years, fourteen years or Life were the normal sentences. 

Crimes of desperation

Members heard about sheep rustling, pollard stealing (corn from the mill), dove poaching, soot stealing (soot was a valuable fertiliser for arable farmers), highway robbery, pick pocketing, shooting a constable and embezzling (from Harpenden’s John Bennet Lawes).  I was amused by the smith’s evidence identifying an ass carrying sacks of soot because it bore one new shoe and three old ones.  We heard of Mr Thornhill’s gardener verifying which dovecote the pigeons rescued from the robbers’ hampers flew back to.  There were shades of the modern offence of ‘benefiting from insurance’, as speakers described a man who lost an ordinary pocket watch but replaced it with a silver one - which was then also stolen!  And we heard a story about a lady of easy virtue.  She fled Hertfordshire after stealing from her parents and in London was acquitted of theft because of a rather dubious character reference from a Hertfordshire acquaintance.  However after another episode of dishonesty she was found guilty and deported from London.

Grim conditions at sea ...

The voyage out could be appallingly slow, preceded by prisoners spending months or years in cramped prison hulks on the river.  One storm off the Kent coast kept the prisoners locked up below deck, being inundated by the sea, for days.  We heard a ship’s doctor’s description of a slow painful death from what sounded like a mixture of a skin disease and blood poisoning, staved off by medical practices of camphor, brandy and opium and ‘scarification’.  Another transportee was praised for putting down a shipboard mutiny but later acquired a bad record for insubordination and theft.

... and grimmer on land

Out in Australia conditions were not really better, with cruel punishments and low rations.  A poor sixteen year old who stole food in the penal colony was forced to choose between becoming the colony’s first hangman or being hung himself.  Two men who absconded into the Bush came back out of fear from an earthquake they experienced but were executed for having absconded.  Those few transportees who had the ability to read or write were allowed to be given a Bible.  It seems that there are numerous letters requesting favour and these are a historic Mail collectors’ dream find!  Sadly, the researchers found no evidence of any of the Hertfordshire group returning home after finishing their sentences. 

There was an elaborate process both on entry to Australia, and the exit before a prisoner could be ‘signed off’ with his ticket of leave.  Bureaucracy included details such as the family and siblings left behind.  Before photographs existed, records of identity had to be noted with precise details such as scars, tattoos and facial information.  We heard of a man who had ‘Eyes – brown; Nose – long; Mouth – small; Chin – double…..’  Transportation reduced after 1841 when a large prison-building programme was underway, and ended in 1867.  Speakers also referred to pressure from the Governor of Australia, who was trying to ‘up-grade’ the population of the country. 

The speakers left behind some notes of Harpenden transportees which they uncovered, and recommended a 1997 book by Ken Griffin, Transported beyond the Seas, published by Hertfordshire Family History Society.  This is an alphabetical list of criminals prosecuted in Hertfordshire who received transportation sentences to Australia between 1784 and 1866.

  Margaret Scott

This page was added by Margaret Scott on 02/02/2011.

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