‘None will doubt but that our emigration, has proved most useful to the British nation’*. A lack of opportunity at the end of transportation.

convicts-leave-england

In April 1867 two teenagers appeared at the Greenwich Police court accused of the possession of  a variety of items that didn’t belong to them and being unable to ‘give a satisfactory account; of where they acquired them. Basically then, it was assumed they’d stolen them.

Arthur Edmonds was just 13 and lived in Birdcage Walk, Hackney while Thomas Taylor was older (at 16) and gave his address as Oakford Terrace, Boston Street, Goldsmith’s Row close to what is now Haggerston Park. So what were these two doing south of the river in Greenwich?

Well, as the court was told at 5 o’clock on Friday evening, 26 April, Thomas walked into a pawnbroker’s shop in Deptford and attempted to pledge 13 silver spoons. The assistant was suspicious and called the police. When PC Savage (484A) arrived he quizzed Thomas about the spoons and didn’t believe the lad’s explanation that he had found them while across Blackheath.

Thomas was arrested and Arthur picked up soon afterwards. When they were searched Thomas was found to have a small clock on him while his younger partner in crime was in possession of a huge haul. The police found:

‘an eye glass, £1 12s6d. in money, seven silver, and four brass coins, a syringe’ plus ‘a watch, [and] eight shirt studs’.

The pair were charged before Mr Traill and Edmonds’ father identified most of the goods his son had on him as his own. He explained that Arthur had run away on the previous Thursday (25/4) taking with him a writing desk in which most of those items had been stored. He’d also taken some clothes and the watch, which belonged to one of his other sons.

Taylor had previously been before the magistrates at Worship Street, which was much closer to home, so perhaps his desire to pawn the goods in South London was a deliberate move to avoid detection. Thomas told the court that he’d met Arthur and the younger boy had asked if he could join up with him. It sounds as if Arthur Edmonds was an unhappy youth or perhaps just a troublesome one. Did he run away for the adventure or because home was a place he feared?

The magistrate decided that the state needed to intervene here and sent both lads for trial at the next Sessions so that Arthur could be committed to a juvenile reformatory where he might learn some discipline and be removed from bad influences. Thomas was too old for a reformatory so if was convicted he’d face prison and probably lose all chances of leading an ‘honest’ life in the future.

One option for the pair might have been to transport them to the Australia and earlier in the century it is entirely possible that this is where they might have wound up, Thomas Taylor especially. But by the 1860s fewer and fewer convicts were being transported overseas and the last ship (the Houguomont) sailed in October 1867 with 280 ‘passengers’ on board.

Taylor is not an uncommon surname and Thomas a very frequently used first name but in December 1867, just 8 months after this incident, a Thomas Taylor was committed for trial at the Old Bailey by justice Newton at Worship Street. The17 year-old brushmaker was convicted of stealing 4 pairs of boots and sentenced to 4 months in Cold Bath Fields house of correction. The age is about right as is the area, so this may well be the same young man. His brush with the law at Greenwich clearly didn’t do enough to put him off.

Last night I went to the theatre, the Theatre Royal at Stratford to be precise. There I watched a production of Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenberger performed by the Ramps on the Moon players in collaboration with the Nottingham Playhouse. The play is focused on the experience of a group of convicts transported to New South Wales in 1787 as part of the First Fleet to reach Botany Bay. In what is a play within a play a small number of transported felons battle prejudice and systemic abuse to put on a performance of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Sergeant, a restoration comedy that involves nearly all the cast playing more than one role.

It is based on a true story and is a reminder that it was those banished to Australia in the late 1700s and early 1800s that carved out a new life for themselves that did so much to establish the colony on the other side of the world. Transportation officially ended as a punishment in 1868, with the Houguomont being the very last transport ship to arrive in Western Australia in January that year. Thereafter most of those convicted by English courts would be sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment in the increasingly rigid British penal system. The opportunity for a new life, despite the fears it brought with it, would have to wait until British society was sufficiently affluent – about 100 years later – for some members of the working classes to choose to emigration ‘down under’.

Our Country’s Good is an excellent play and the Ramps on the Moon troupe are fantastic players, so do go and see it if you can, in London or elsewhere.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 29, 1867]

*Wisehammer’s prologue to The Recruiting Sergeant, Our Country’s Good, (1988)

One thought on “‘None will doubt but that our emigration, has proved most useful to the British nation’*. A lack of opportunity at the end of transportation.

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