Tag Archives: convict transportation

1727: Three at Tyburn

Daniel Defoe* once summarized early 18th century England’s class strata as

  1. The great, who live profusely
  2. The rich, who live plentifully
  3. The middle sort, who live well
  4. The working trades, who labour hard, but feel no want
  5. The country people, farmers, etc. who fare indifferently
  6. The poor, who fare hard
  7. The miserable, that really pinch and suffer want.

These ranks of “poor” and “miserably poor” were quite enormous in the 18th century, with something like a tenth of the population subsisting below the “breadline” even when the harvests were good.

It is arguably the struggle to control this lot that brings us that era’s notoriously aggressive “Bloody Code” of hanging laws; certainly the law flaunts its class character openly in many particular capital statutes such as the Black Acts to enforce rural enclosure and harsh laws against labor organizing.

The heaving of these great swells could not but drown a great many already struggling to keep their heads above the waves. And our visit this week to the Ordinary of Newgate brings a sad quartet of Tyburn hangings culled from that fringe of disposable young men “that really pinch and suffer want.”

Thomas Johnson, alias “Handy”

Handy’s nickname tells us something about the progress of his life, for (according to the Ordinary) in his infancy “his Right Arm and Hand had been bruis’d, so that being distorted, they decay’d and were only of the bigness of a Child’s Arm and Hand, neither had he the Use of them, having no strength and scarce any Motion in them.”

Abandoned to be succored by the Stepney parish poor relief around the age of three, Handy was considered able-bodied enough to be dropped from the rolls once he hit adolescence — and maybe the gentlemen of Stepney had a point, for Handy once set to shift for himself “turn[ed] Thief and Housebreaker … [and] made considerable proficiency, and turn’d dexterous in his Profession.” But he had a near-impossible task of finding honest work: city and country were everywhere awash in working poor ready to hire who had two good hands.

Eventually one of Handy’s misadventures caught him a sentence to convict transportation — which was yet another juridical innovation of the Hanoverian age for managing the mother country’s vast underclass. But transportation, a sort of mercantile slavery in the colonies, depended for its part on a market for the human cargo and our man’s crippled arm again militated against him. Handy would lament this again at the very gallows, where he

exclaim’d against one who Transported Felons, saying that after he had caused them to Work for him in these foreign Countries; he brought them Home to England in the same Ship which he had carried them off; and that the Reason of his returning was, because No body would Buy him, and that he must have starv’d there and that when at Home he had no way to get his Bread because he wanted his Right Hand to enable him for Work.

This act — returning from convict transportation — itself constituted a capital crime. And when arrested again, Handy confessed it, almost whimsically. He would tell the Ordinary that he was wearying of life and anticipated additional indictments, but the record of the trial suggests that he sent himself to the gallows to revenge himself on the informers who would have made evidence against him in hopes of pocketing a reward: “the Prosecutors thought to hang him for the sake of the 40 Pounds allowed by the Government, but he would baulk their Expectations, for he would be hanged for returning from Transportation according to Law.”

Samuel Hammond

In comparison to Handy, Samuel Hammond had it made.

Apprenticed to a man named Thomas Barker, Hammond had a path to Defoe’s “working trades” class (“who labour hard, but feel no want”), undone by a youth’s impulsiveness. One day when Barker chastised him — “You Blockhead you’ll break the Drill, why don’t you use the Pliers” — Barker grabbed a sword and stabbed him through the ribcage. Barker’s son arrived to find the apprentice brandishing the weapon over his fallen father, “saying to the Decesed [sic], D – n your B – d you Son of a B – h I’ll kill you; upon which then Deceased said, you have done it already.”

The Ordinary reported that Hammond was tearfully repentant and insisted even before his conviction on joining chapel services for the condemned. The only grievance he could point to against his master besides that “blockhead” burn was that he was sweet on a maid in the house whom Barker had also “corrected … for a Fault” months before. We hear this frightened young man through the Ordinary here, so one can only guess whether our surviving account elides a longer litany of domestic cruelty for the boy or the maid.

“Luckily” Samuel Hammond did not suffer the ignominy of hanging for all that: he fell grievously ill in the pestilential Newgate cells, and “after that Sentence of Death was pronounc’d upon him, he was never able to rise and go to Chappel, but lay in a high Fever, to Thursday, the 7th of September, when about 11 o’Clock at Night he expir’d.”

Henry Chaplin and Peter Boother

These housebreakers each blamed the other as well as several other confederates (one of them still at large, plus two others who had given evidence against them) as the principal authors of the robbery that did them in. Oh, sure, they were there, invading Daniel Lyver’s house — where the gang “in a violent Manner broke the Windows, burst open the Window-Shutters and the Door, took the Goods mentioned in the Indictment, and beat him [Lyver] at the same Time with much Barbarity” — but (each said) he’d been there urging all his accomplices to come away and not steal all the pewter. Each carried that eye-rolling story from trial to gallows.

Chaplin was about 27; his father had tried to teach him his trade of “Ribband-weaving” which suggests (as does his surname) that his family might have been among the Huguenot weavers who escaped France’s religious crackdown decades before. He must have been a restless sort, for instead of sweltering over a loom he joined the army around age 15, perhaps about the right timing to put down the Jacobites, and afterwards basically went adrift in London’s criminal substratum. There he led “a very vicious Life … much addicted to Drinking, Swearing, and Whoring.”

His companion in the Lyver home and at the triple tree was Peter Boother, “about 21 Years of Age, descended of honest but very poor Parents, about 14 Miles from this Town his Father having been a mean Labourer in the Country.” The Ordinary does not give us a clear picture of Boother’s path into the felonious way of life, merely that he was young, penniless, and completely uneducated; combined with Boother’s tearful susceptibility to the Ordinary’s preaching, it suggests an impressionable youth, malleable to the forces around him which happened to be those of vicious want. (Chaplin, the Ordinary noticed, “appear’d to be a Man of more Resolution than his Companion, being more compos’d and settled in his Behaviour.”)

* Defoe had a few thoughts on the death penalty, too.

1788: Thomas Barrett, the first hanged in Australia

On this date in 1788, Thomas Barrett became the first person legally executed in Great Britain’s Australian colonies when he hanged at Sydney Cove for stealing from government stores. It was barely a month after the First Fleet had arrived from England to found the penal colony.

More than just a milestone, Barrett packed an amazing criminal career into the few years he surfaces for us in the documentary record.

Our man was condemned to death in 1782 for stealing a silver watch, the first of three death sentences he would hear. That sentence was reprieved in favor of convict transportation, a system which had ground to a halt with the American Revolution and still awaited the creation of the Australian pipeline.

In 1783, a convict hulk that had been rejected by the now-independent North American colonies, the Swift, mutinied. Barrett would meet survivors of that mutiny who were stashed away with him on the Censor, one of the earliest of the Thames’ frightful stationary convict hulks where reprieved felons awaited their deportation.

In 1784, Barrett and one of the Swift mutineers, Charles Kellan, rebelled once again on their next convict transport ship, the Mercury — earning Barrett his second death sentence, and his second reprieve. Three more years on the fetid hulks ensued while legislators* and cartographers stroked their beards over Britain’s next move in the convict transportation game.

And this is when Australia the prison was invented. That First Fleet Barrett arrived on was a flotilla of eleven ships carrying 700 or so prisoners was it, the literal first European colony Down Under.

Besides being a man of spirit and enterprise, as his mutiny showed, Barrett was a skilled craftsman who enlivened the tiresome trip around the world by fashioning little metallic mementos. The journal of the ship’s surgeon John White narrates with more admiration than censure an escapade off the coast of Brazil that revealed Barret’s talent for counterfeiting.

This morning a boat came alongside, in which were three Portugueze and six slaves; from whom we purchased some oranges, plantains, and bread. In trafficking with these people, we discovered, that one Thomas Barret, a convict, had, with great ingenuity and address, passed some quarter dollars which he, assisted by two others, had coined out of old buckles, buttons belonging to the marines, and pewter spoons, during their passage from Teneriffe. The impression, milling, character, in a word, the whole was so inimitably executed, that had their metal been a little better, the fraud, I am convinced, would have passed undetected. A strict and careful search was made for the apparatus wherewith this was done, but in vain; not the smallest trace or vestige of any thing of the kind was to be found among them. How they managed this business without discovery, or how they could effect it at all, is a matter of inexpressible surprise to me; as they never were suffered to come near a fire; and a centinel was constantly placed over their hatchway, which, one would imagine, rendered it impossible for either fire or fused metal to be conveyed into their apartments. Besides, hardly ten minutes ever elapsed, without an officer of some degree or other going down among them. The adroitness, therefore, with which they must have managed, in order to complete a business that required so complicated a process, gave me a high opinion of their ingenuity, cunning, caution, and address; and I could not help wishing that these qualities had been employed to more laudable purposes.

Duly impressed, White found that more laudable purpose by commissioning Barrett to create a medallion celebrating the arrival of their vessel to Australian soil. This Charlotte Medal from Barrett’s hand is one of the most celebrated artifacts of Australian colonization; it depicts the Charlotte at anchor in Botany Bay with a narration on the reverse of its long journey from home:

Sailed the Charlotte of London from Spit head the 13 of May 1787. Bound for Botany Bay in th Island of new holland arriv,d at Teneriff th4 of June in Lat 28 13 N Long 16 23 W depart,d it 10 D’, arriv,d at rio janeiro 6 of Aug in Lat 22,54 S Long 42,38 W, depart,d it the 5 of Sep’ arriv,d at the Cape of good hope the 14 Oct’ in Lat 34 29 S Long 18 29 E depart,d it th13 of Nov’ and made the South Cape of New Holland the 8 of Jan 4 1788 in Lat 43,32 S Long 146,56 E arrivd at Botany Bay the 20 of Jun’ the Charlotte in Co in Lat 34.00 South Long 151.00 East distance from great Britan Miles 13106

But Barrett’s legitimate artistic career was as brief as it was scintillating.

The colony had a tight supply situation and its isolation and heavy convict population seemed to Governor Arthur Phillip to demand the strictest discipline, like that of a ship upon the sea: any significant failure of order could imperil the entire project. He assembled the little colony in early February to impress upon all that stealing rations would be harshly punished.

White, again, in his entry of February 27, 1788:

Thomas Barrett, Henry Lovel, and Joseph Hall, were brought before the criminal court, and tried for feloniously and fraudulently taking away from the public store beef and pease, the property of the crown. They were convicted on the clearest evidence; and sentence of death being passed on them, they were, about six o’clock the same evening, taken to the fatal tree; where Barrett was launched into eternity, after having confessed to the Rev. Mr. Johnson who attended him, that he was guilty of the crime, and had long merited the ignominious death which he was about to suffer, and to which he said he had been brought by bad company and evil company. Lovel and Hall were respited until six o’clock the next evening. When that awful hour arrived, they were led to the place of execution, and just as they were on the point of ascending the ladder, the judge advocate arrived with the governor’s pardon, on condition of their being banished to some uninhabited place.

As the infant colony had scarcely prioritized establishing an executioner right off the boat, one of Barrett’s fellows was pressed into the disreputable role. Another narrative underscores the tension this incident must have created among the convicts, half-starved and under the lash on the empire’s most distant moon. “The unhappy wretches were conducted wt. a party of Marines walking before them … with a large party of Marines drawn up opposite the Gallows … in case an insurrection should take place … & all the Convicts were summoned to see the deserved end of their Companions.” Hall and Lovel’s pardons should probably be read in this light; Phillip had a job to enforce obedience without triggering rebellion and once he had established the firmest precedent wisely reflected that the quality of mercy blesseth him that gives and him that takes. Two other thieves (of wine, in their case) named Daniel Gordon and John Williams were likewise condemned on the 29th of February only to be spared for banishment instead.


A small marker at Sydney’s Circular Quay commemorates Barrett’s execution. (cc) image by mazzle278.

Barrett is an important character in the BBC drama Banished.

* The Home Secretary who orchestrated the pivot to Australia was the Viscount Sydney: hence, the Australian city of Sydney.