Holborow in Australia 2: William the Convict

When you’re researching Australian family, there’s always the spectre of transportation, much like Massachusetts in the late 17th century. Back in 2007 it was reported that up to 22% of living Australians were descended from convicts (over 4 million people). There is also a one in 30 chance for us Brits.

I remember studying the topic of transportation when I was at primary school (er, about 30 years ago), but I thought that I could do with a bit of a refresher course – and its amazing to find what records are out there for individuals, alongside the social and political history that goes along with it.

And spoiler alert: I feel some degree of sympathy for our William …

It isn’t exactly a secret that Britain sent criminals to Australia. Penal transportation had been a fact of criminal life since the early 1600s when convicts were sent to the fledgling colonial sites in America and the West Indies. However, following the American Revolution it was no longer possible, and what jails there were soon became (even more) overcrowded and another solution to the problem was required.

Of course, it didn’t help that the so-called “Bloody Code” dictated much of England’s judicial system at the time. In effect, this was based on two things: firstly, it was a crime to be poor and was therefore used as a form of class suppression, and secondly, that harsh sentencing made a good deterrent for others (newsflash: it doesn’t). But by 1775, there were around 200 offences that were punishable by death. Whilst murder and rape remained amongst the capital offences (rape until 1841, murder until 1965), many petty offences were altered to receive transportable sentences, especially as they related to crimes against property. No wonder jails were becoming overcrowded.

There was a short-lived trial of transporting to sites in West Africa (Ghana and Senegal amongst them), but thankfully England had claimed possession of a huge, empty (well, empty apart from all the people who lived there) land in 1770 that needed filling up – and certainly before those pesky French decided to get in the act.

Transportation to Australia began in 1787 when the First Fleet left England for New South Wales, and would continue for 80 years. (Whilst the Penal Servitude Act 1857 effectively removed transportation as a punishment, the last transported convicts arrived in Australia in 1868.) It is estimated that around 163,081 people (men, women and children) were sent. In comparison, in the roughly 170 years of American transportation, anywhere up to 120,000 were sentenced this way.

But I’m skipping ahead here a little …

In early Spring, 1792 the American Revolution was over and the French Revolution was in full swing. On the first day of March in the Wiltshire village of Luckington, William and Ann Holborow (nee Guest) would baptise their fourth child and second son, named for his father.

Life for William seemed to follow the usual plan. He didn’t lose any of his siblings in infancy, nor his parents at an unusually young age. However, by 1817 – likely some time before – he was a resident of the parish of St James, Bath (the parish church was severely damaged in the Blitz, demolished and the site sold – it lies approximately where Marks & Spencer is now). On 11 October of that year he married Mary Long, originally from the village of Sutton Veny.

Three years later, their first child, Anne Long Holbrow, was baptised in Warminster. William here is listed as a farmer of “Prebend Farm”. Whilst there is an estate that belongs to the Prebend of Warminster, the primary leasehold was held by the Ludlow family so William must’ve been a minor tenant farmer on the estate.

Their next child, Harriet Hester Holbrow, was baptised in 1824 in Winsley, near Bradford on Avon. By this time William is recorded as a butcher. Thomas William Holbrow arrived two years later and William slips down a rung to labourer. Of note is that the family were subject to a Removal Order in July 1829: “Removed from Bradford to Walcot, Bath. William a butcher, wife Mary, children: Ann 10, Henry 7, Harriet 5, Thomas 3”. This implies that the family had fallen on hard times and either was – or was about to be – considered a burden on the parish and the local poor rates.

However, on March 18 1832, the family is still in Winsley as it is here that Henry is baptised, and William is still recorded as a labourer (i.e. not a butcher). Although it is highly unlikely that William himself was present …

On 3 January 1832, William was being held in Marlborough bridewell awaiting trial at the Assizes, and it is at the Wiltshire Lent assizes in Salisbury, held on 3 March 1832, that William was found guilty of sheep stealing. Thanks to the Bloody Code and the “sheep-stealing Bill” of 1741 which made sheep stealing a capital crime, he was sentenced to death. This was commuted to the lesser sentence of transportation for life. I say “lesser”, but for Mary and the young children it may as well have been a death sentence and no doubt Mary must’ve felt widowed as William was hauled off to the county gaol at Fisherton Anger where we find him in the Calendar of Prisoners dated 3 April 1832.

But his life would be changed by yet another Act of Parliament. In 1776 – to help ease the overcrowding of English prisons – the Criminal Law Act was passed. This became known as the Hulks Act as it called for the use of modified ships as floating penitentiaries. It was designed to be a temporary measure – yet the practice persisted for 80 years.

Ancestry has a record set entitled “UK, Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books”. Within this set we can find William aboard the HMS Captivity, moored at Devonport:

The HMS Captivity had started life as HMS Bellerophon in 1786 and was originally a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line in the Royal Navy. Her final fight was the Battle of Trafalgar in July 1815, and she was the ship aboard which Napoleon surrendered (I suspect that William cared little for the ship’s place in history). Later that year she was stripped of her guns and masts and transformed into a prison ship, and in October 1824 renamed HMS Captivity. She was moved to Plymouth in 1826, and served as a prison hulk there until 1834. She was sold and broken up two years later.

William must have been one of Captivity’s last convicts. Again, I’m sure this distinction would’ve been lost on him – especially after a year on board. The right hand column above is annotated as “VDL 23 April 1833”. The VDL here referring to Van Dieman’s Land – what would later be called Tasmania. The Royal Navy Medical Journals collection at Ancestry holds a journal kept by Mr John Love, Surgeon of the ship Atlas. As can be seen, William was one of 100 convicts loaded aboard the ship from Captivity, and was one of the total number of 200 headed for Tasmania. He would be one of about 76,000 convicts transported there between 1804 and 1853.

116 days after leaving Devonport, William arrived at the Derwent River, Van Dieman’s Land on Saturday 24 August 1833 (beating Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle by 2 and a half years).

From here we turn to the amazing convict collections held by Libraries Tasmania. We all know that I love an archive, especially with an online searchable interface, and LT does this extremely well! So what’s to be found? Well, for William there are four records: the Appropriation List, his Conduct Record, his Description List entry and his entry on the Muster Roll.

Appropriation Lists were used “to record the trade of the convict and how his or her skill was used. The basic details given therefore are name, trade and employer, which may include the settler to whom the convict was assigned, or the road gang or other government departments taking the convict. Sometimes the following additional details are given: age, where tried, sentence and native place. The lists, which concern both men and women, are alphabetical by initial of surname for each ship/journey.”

Appropriation List entry for William, showing he was assigned as ploughman to W. P. Ashbourner [sic]

Quick biographical note on William’s “employer”: William Page Ashburner had been the mayor of Bombay in 1823 and was the son (and stepson) of a wealthy merchant in India. He was only a few months older than William, and moved back to England following the death of his wife, Hester, in 1838.

Description Lists give “particulars of the physical appearance of convicts … from 1828 the following details are fairly regularly available: trade, height, age, colour of complexion, hair, whiskers, eyebrows and eyes, shape of head, visage, forehead, nose, mouth and chin and information of tattoos, deformities, scars, speech impediments, pigmented spots, birthmarks, etc. Native place is also usually given.”

Description of William Holbrow, Ploughman, of Bradford [on Avon].

Musters were “conducted periodically as a means for keeping track of and enumerating convicts in the colony. The first muster was held in 1795. General musters usually included both convicts and ex-convicts and were generally conducted under the order of the Lieutenant Governor and an officer of the Commissary.”

Conduct Records for each convict “falls into two parts: that relating to the convict’s history before arrival, and the details of his career in the colony. The former details include (normally), offence, date and place of trial, sentence, gaol report (i.e., the British gaol), hulk report, whether married (the last three begin to appear from 1816), and by 1821 a statement of relatives and religion is added. Also recorded here is the convict’s own statement of his crime, which was taken by personal questioning on board ship before disembarkation and which usually expands the information formally recorded of the offence. The information contained in these “confessions” (the word is used in 1826) varies greatly, but often includes particulars of previous offences, connections and way of life. The information of conduct after arrival consists chiefly of offences which are recorded on a standard pattern: date of trial, place of convict’s employment or name of his master, charge, sentence, magistrate. Instances of good conduct are sometimes recorded, as are the grant of emancipations, and if death occurred while the convict was on strength, it is noted.”

Conduct record of William Holbron [sic]

This record really ties everything we’ve learnt so far together. The box at top right can be transcribed as this: Transported for sheep stealing. Gaol kept: Not known. Hulk kept: Good. Married. Stated this offence stole a lamb once 3 months in stealing cabbages. Married 4 children wife Mary at NK [Not Known] Bradford. Surgeon’s Report: Behaved well.

Of the other comments, there are minor infractions for drunkenness, being out after hours and being absent without leave. He is accused of falsely complaining against his master in 1835 and is then removed from his Master and seconded elsewhere, including to work on the Bagdad Bridge by order of the Lieutenant Governor.

He was granted his Ticket of Leave in 1841. This enabled him a greater number of freedoms in the colony, but not to carry firearms, board a ship or otherwise leave the colony. It also meant that he could acquire property, marry or – perhaps most crucially – bring his family from England.

Unfortunately for William, this wouldn’t happen. Left in England with four children to raise and no occupation of her own, Mary would’ve have effectively been widowed, as previously mentioned. Her choices would’ve been few: enter the workhouse or find a new husband. She chose the latter, and on 10 November 1836 she married a man 17 years her younger (despite some creative fudging of her age on subsequent census entries!), Thomas Strugnell, in Walcot, Somerset. The marriage entry lists her a “widow”. After the marriage, they continue to live in Winsley near Bradford on Avon.

Left alone in Tasmania, William would be granted a Conditional Pardon in 1846 after almost 13 years away from home. This would have removed all restrictions, except for leaving the colony.

Life would’ve been hard for William, and despite his pardon he may well have been forced back into government labour force. Eventually, as he reached his 70s, he was forced into the Paupers’ Depot at Port Arthur on 23 November 1863. Seven years later he was admitted to the Cascades Invalid Depot. This had been opened up in 1869 on part of the site used for the Cascades Female Factory.

On 13 April 1876 William, aged 84, succumbed to “senilis” (i.e. old age) in the Invalid Depot and died a pauper.

William Holbrow’s entry of death

He had outlived his wife by five years and one of his daughters by eight years. He’d survived transportation, overcome the harsh life of a convict in an unfamiliar environment, been cut off from his wife and children, pulled himself up by his bootstraps and tried to make something off his circumstance … Yet despite this, I can’t help but feel he met a somewhat ignominious end all the same.

Prison-ship in Portsmouth Harbour, convicts going aboard, Edward William Cooke, 1828, hand-coloured etching. Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia: an9058453


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