Thursday, 17 July 2014

Found in an old newspaper - crime and punishment

I’ve been using the British Newspaper Archive a lot for my research recently. (If you haven’t seen it and you’re looking for British or Irish ancestors, there’s a special offer on until Sunday, 20 July – a month’s subscription to the BNA for £1.)

Wondering if the Old Bailey trial of my 2x great grandfather, James Thomas Richards, had been reported in one of the digitised papers, I searched for his name and 1835, the year he was sentenced to transportation to New South Wales. Could I find him?

The Morning Chronicle, April 15, 1835
Well, yes and no. No report of the trial, but his sentence was recorded. There he was, at the bottom of a long list of others. Looking at the list, and remembering that it represented only a tiny number of the convicts who would be sailing for Australia, got me thinking.

They were all going to be thrown back in prison, or crammed into a hulk (a ship which wasn’t seaworthy, but could be used to relieve the overcrowding in prisons). There they would wait until the next ship was ready to leave on the months-long journey to the other side of the world, where they would be put to work for seven years, or 14, or the rest of their lives.

It’s true that many convicts, like James Thomas Richards, would end up having a good life in their adopted country. And most would have much better lives than they could have hoped for if they hadn’t been caught and sent to Australia. But the men and women waiting for the next ship couldn’t know that. And yes, some people did try to get transported because they believed anything would be better than the poverty and hunger they suffered in city slums or in the countryside.

But what faced them wasn’t just a dangerous sea voyage and hard work. It was exile. It was being on the other side of the world from your family, your friends, your sweetheart, and all but your youngest children. With no way to contact them – remember, it was quite normal not to be able to read or write if your work didn’t call for it and you’d had little or no education.
And yet many would be deeply relieved, because the alternative sentence for their crimes was worse. Although the death penalty had been removed for crimes such as stealing goods worth a shilling (5p), theft of a sheep or a rabbit or damaging Westminster Bridge by the time James was sentenced in 1835, you could be strung up in public for crimes like forgery and coining, arson, burglary, theft from a dwelling house, rape and attempted murder as well as murder and treason.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the British penal system wasn’t geared towards imprisonment as a punishment (except for debtors). Prison was mostly the place where you waited for trial and for your sentence to be carried out. And for 220 different crimes, the penalty was death. Many judges and juries weren’t willing to sentence men, women and children to death for stealing a pocket handkerchief (for example) and so they would find them guilty of a lesser, non-capital offence. Or a death sentence would not be carried out and the convicted person might be transported, or even reprieved. But still, that threat hanging over many criminals must have been terrifying.

As the descendant of four convicts myself, I’m very glad that they ended up in Australia.

Further reading:

Old Bailey Online: Punishments at the Old Bailey
Port Cities London: Prison hulks on the River Thames (has a good short history of transportation)
Timeline of Capital Punishment in Britain



  1. Thanks for the reminder to search the BNA for my light-fingered ancestors.

    1. Haha, Jill, who'd have ever thought people would be happy to find out that our ancestors were up to no good! (I still think Trove is the absolute tops, though)

  2. A very interesting perspective on the penal system then and the implications of transportation.

    1. Thank you, Sue, I certainly found myself reassessing my earlier views on what transportation could have meant a couple of centuries ago.

  3. Great post. Wish I could prove the ones I have found as my ancestors... maybe one day.

    1. Thanks, Fran. Some of them seem as eager to avoid us as they were to try to wriggle out of getting caught. One day... just keep sleuthing... and best of luck!

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