One young man’s attempt to escape the horrors of Norfolk Island and exile to Australia

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In late January 1852 a man calling himself George Parker was placed in the dock at Lambeth Police court charged with returning from transportation. George (not his real name it seems) had a colourful story to tell and one that gives us a glimpse into the realities of convict transportation to Australia in the 1840s and 50s, and one that involved one of the most famous detectives of the nineteenth century.

Whilst some convicts did return from exile in Australia at the end of their sentences it was extremely rare for anyone to escape from the colony. After all, as the historian Robert Hughes wrote, from 1787 onwards:

An unexplored continent would become a jail. The space around it, the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick’.1

Australia was a penal colony for much of the period between 1788 (when the First Fleet arrived) and 1868 when the convict system ended. It made the perfect prison: thousands of miles and more than half a year’s sailing away, sparsely populated and largely uncultivated, and surrounded by dangerous seas. If you could escape the military and civil guards where would you go? Into the bush to die of starvation or be killed by aborigines or the wildlife? Or into the sea to take your chances with the sharks and treacherous currents?

It wasn’t much of choice and so hardly anybody attempted it.

However, it seems that George Parker did, and survived to tell the tale.

He was brought to court at the behest of Sergeant Jonathan Witcher ‘of the detective force’ at the Metropolitan Police. Jonathan – better known as ‘Jack’ – Witcher is famous as one of London’s first members of the Detective Branch that was founded by Scotland Yard in 1842.

In 1851 Witcher (pictured below right) had courted controversy when he and another officer had been accused of entrapment when they caught two bank robbers red handed in St James’ Square. Witcher and Inspector Lund had been watching John Tyler (himself a returnee from transportation) and William Cauty case the London and Westminster Bank and drew criticism because they allowed them to carry out the raid on the bank rather than preventing it.

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Witcher had a stellar career as a detective and his investigation and arrest of Constance Kent for the murder of her 3 year-old half brother Francis, was later immortalised by Kate Summerscale in her 2008 book The Suspicions of Mr. Witcher which was dramatised for television.

In 1852 Witcher was on the hunt for an escaped convict named James Punt Borritt and had teamed up Inspector Shaw of P Division. Acting on information received Witcher and Shaw took up positions on the Blackfriars Road. At midday they spotted their quarry and moved in to arrest him. Borritt (who was using the name Parker) was taken to a station house where he denied being the man they wanted.

He could deny it all he liked but Witcher found marks on his person that corresponded with those in his prison record: ‘namely a scar under his left ear, and an anchor [tattoo] on the right arm’. He was charged about brought before Mr Norton at Lambeth.

There the magistrate was addressed by Inspector Shaw who testified that he had arrested Borritt for a burglary and robbery in the Ratcliffe Highway in June 1839. He’d been convicted at the Old Bailey and received a sentence of 15 years’ transportation.  Somehow Barrett had escaped and in 1844 Shaw had been summoned to Liverpool to identify him. Tried for returning from transportation before his sentence was up, Barrett’s penalty was increased to exile for life.

Now Inspector Shaw explained that the man had escaped again and returned to England after being sent to Norfolk Island, a penal colony where the ‘worst description of convicts’ were sent between 1824 and 1856.   In a story with echoes of Hugo’s Les Miserables Borritt, (a sailor by trade) had been dispatched with a small crew of others to help rescue a ship in distress in the seas off the island. According to Inspector Shaw’s evidence:

‘The boat and the crew disappeared, and none of the latter, with the exception of the prisoner and another desperate fellow named Sullivan, had afterwards been heard of, and there were strong reasons to suspect that the prisoner and Sullivan had despatched their comrades and by this means effected their own escape’.  

Mr Norton granted the police request to remand Borritt in custody while they sought witnesses to testify against him.

The record of Borritt’s trial in July 1839, where he was accused alongside three others for burgling a premises in Shadwell and stealing a large quantity of clothes, is in the Digital Panopticon database. Borritt was 25 and arrived in New South Wales on 27 April 1840, five months after leaving England on the convict ship the Mangles.

A further record, from 1852, records his second trial at the Bailey for returning from transportation before his time. He pleaded guilty and was sent back to Australia to finish his sentence. After he was sent back from Liverpool on the Hyderbad in 1844 the authorities chose to send him to Norfolk Island for two years but this record suggests he was back in VDL when he escaped again. Shaw’s story might be true or it could have been an invention to impress on the magistrate the need to keep him custody as a dangerous criminal. This source suggests he stowed away on a merchant ship, a much less colorful tale than the one told to the Lambeth magistrate by Inspector Shaw.

Whatever the case it was end of Borritt’s attempt to escape the fate the English justice system had handed him. He made a plea for mercy at his trial in which James admits the charge of returning from transportation but says he has already paid for his crimes several times over. It also reveals how he escaped.

‘The condition of a convict at a penal station is too horrible to be voluntarily endured’ he wrote to the Common Sergeant in his petition for mercy. He goes on to explain why he turned to crime in the first place as a teenager in desperate poverty.

he went on, (in a petition that was published the Juvenile Companion as a cautionary tale for its young readership) to say:

Dire necessity, created by a want of employment, once goaded me to the commission of an offence against the laws of property, but it was not aggravated by personal injury or cruelty. For that offence, I was sentenced to fifteen years’ transportation. I was conveyed to the most penal settlement, Norfolk Island, which, from the horrible personal sufferings to which all prisoners there are exposed, is commonly designated the “Ocean Hell”.

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Here, my lord, I endured almost incredible misery for eighteen months. At the end of that period I and eight other convicts effected our escape in an open boat. For eight days and nights we were beaten about at sea without chart or compass, with death from exhaustion and shipwreck staring us in the face’.

They made land at the Caledonian Islands (or New Caledonia, now owned by the French) about 750 miles east of Australia.  There he says they were set upon by ‘savages’, stripped and locked. They escaped again and made it to Star Island in the New Hebrides where, after resting for seven months they came back to England, only to be arrested and sent back to Norfolk Island.

His second escape was from Van Dieman’s Land (modern Tasmania) as a stowaway in a merchant ship.

In that situation I was concealed sixteen days, in the most miserable plight, being almost dead from suffocation and want of food’.

He clearly felt he’d paid his dues for the robbery on the Ratcliffe Highway. Unfortunately for him the judge thought otherwise.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 January 1852]

  1. Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, (London, Harvill Press, 1987), p.1

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