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

A bareknuckle fight in the grounds of Ally Pally

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Police constables Rudkin (696Y) and Mitchell (467Y) had got a tip off that an illegal prize fight was happening on their patch, which covered the area around Alexandra Palace in north London. So, on the morning of Sunday 18 November 1883 they hurried off to investigate.

As the officers were coming along a public footpath from Muswell Hill to Mr Cotton’s fields they saw a lot of male heads gathered in a large circle and the sounds of ‘blows and scuffling’. They were close to a railway bridge and some observers had stationed themselves up their to get a better view of proceedings.

This also allowed several people to see the approaching policemen and the cry went up:

‘Look out! here’s the police!’

The crowd scattered in all directions with the two bobbies in pursuit. PC Mitchell saw one of the men that had been fighting and chased him into a field, catching him up and arresting him. His name was William Rearden and he was stripped to waist and wearing only ‘slippers’ on his feet. The other boxer managed to get away so the coppers had to be satisfied with breaking up the fight and the capture of just one of the fighters.

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Rearden could hardly deny being in a fight. He was bleeding from his mouth and ears and there was a large and recent bruise developing on his chest. This was bare-knuckle boxing, not a fight sanctioned by the Queensbury rules.

Rearden was adamant that he’d done nothing wrong. When captured he surrendered immediately and promised to ‘go quietly’ to the police station. He insisted it was just a fight to settle a dispute he had with his adversary, no ‘prize’ was involved. The police had found no evidence of a ‘professional’ fight: no ring, no gloves or seconds and of course, no second fighter was in custody.

In the end the case came before Mr Bodkin at the Highgate Police court. Rearden told the magistrate that he was an ex-soldier who had served in Egypt and South Africa, He’d been decorated for his service and proudly wore his medal ribbons in court.  He was able to produce a certificate of his service and good character and was still on the Army Reserve list.

Moreover, he was in work, as a bricklayer, and he had no record of being in trouble with the law previously. All this counted in his favour and persuaded the justice that a ticking off would suffice. Fighting in public was unlawful Mr Bodkin told him but in light of his record he would merely bind him over to keep the peace for six months. Having agreed to enter into recognizances of £20 Rearden (known as ‘Roberts’ in the Army) was released to his friends.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 20, 1883]

‘What a ruffian you must be’ to punch a defenceless woman

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Lydia Morgan was drinking with her husband in a pub in Chelsea when an argument broke out. Her husband was quarrelling with another, younger, drinker when a friend of the teenager tried to intervene.

Mrs Morgan told the intruder to mind his own business and sit down. With that the lad, Patrick Cook (19), punched her in the face knocking her off her stool. The assault broke Lydia’s nose and she was taken to hospital to be treated for the injury.

The next day Cook was in court at Westminster Police court to answer for his actions.  He claimed that Lydia’s husband had been preparing to fight him (he ‘had his coat off’) and was drunk. Mr Morgan and his wife flatly denied this and their version of events was corroborated by Thomas Cook, the landlord of the Royal Oak in Keppel Street (who was no relation to the defendant).

Mrs Morgan had appeared in court with her face half covered in bandages and the policeman that brought the charge presented a certificate certifying that her nose was broken. Mr Selfe, the magistrate, thought he recognized Patrick Cook and asked the officer. The constable said that Cook was a violent lad who had been in court in September that year for stabbing a man with a fork. He’d served six weeks for that assault.

That certainly counted against him and cemented the justice’s view that he was guilty of this offence.

‘What a ruffian you must be’, he told him.

‘The instant you get out of prison here you are indulging in your naturally savage propensities. You have committed a serious and perhaps permanent injury upon this poor woman, who it is clearly shown offered you no provocation whatever’.

He then proceeded to sentence the lad.

‘If you had struck her more than once I should have given you the utmost punishment the law allows, and as it is I’ll stop your brutal habits for a little time, by imprisoning you for three months, with hard labour’.

With that Cook was led away to start his second term of incarceration that year. I doubt it was to be his last.

In 1872 a Patrick Cook was sentenced to a year in gaol for assaulting three policemen. He was aged 25 and gave his occupation as ‘labourer’ (which probably meant he had no actual trade, ‘labourer’ was a common default ). His criminal record notes two previous convictions: three months in November 1865 and six weeks in September, both at Westminster Police court. He served each sentence in Cold Bath Fields house of correction.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 14, 1865]

A fresh start for one young girl with an ‘indifferent character’.

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Yesterday’s blog was about youthful delinquency in 1840s Whitechapel. Today’s concerns more youthful criminals, this time in the West End of London twenty years later.

A crowd of shoppers were peering through the windows of the London Stereoscopic Company in Regent Street, looking at the display of photographs within. As their attention was held by the still relatively new mystery of photography two young thieves were hard at work behind them. John Thompson (16) and his sidekick Catherine Hayes (12) were busy ‘dipping’ pockets to see what valuables they could steal.

Unfortunately for the pair they were also being observed; PC Tiernan (C162) was on duty and had spotted them. As he knew Thompson he arrested him and escorted him to the nearby police station, on his return he saw Hayes put her hand in a lady’s pocket and quickly apprehended her too.

The lady was not inclined to prosecute as he had no desire to be seen at such a common place as a police station house, but she did tell the officer that her purse  contained seven sovereigns, so Catherine’s intent was proven.

The two would-be felons were brought before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street Police court where they were accused of attempting to pick pockets. Detective Cannor of C Division testified to knowing Thomson ‘for some time’. The lad had previously been convicted of shoplifting and, since his arrest for this crime, had been identified as wanted for the theft of a gold watch valued at £15.

PC Tiernan had looked into the character of Catherine Hayes and found that it was ‘very indifferent’. She had been expelled from school on more than one occasion, for being suspected of stealing property that had gone missing.

The nineteenth-century justice system had made some limited progress in the treatment of juvenile likes these two. Magistrates had the powers to deal with them summarily for most offences, saving them from a jury trial and more serious punishment. But it still operated as a punitive rather than a welfare based system.

Mr Knox sent Thompson to gaol for three months as a ‘rogue and vagabond’. This was a useful ‘catch all’ that meant that no offence of stealing actually had to be proven against him; merely being on the street as a ‘known person’ without being able to give a good account of himself, was enough to allow the law to punish him.

As for Catherine the law now had a supportive alternative to prison or transportation (which she may have faced in the 1700s). Catherine Hayes would go to Mill Hill Industrial School until she was 16 years of age. There she would learn useful skills such as needlework and laundry, things that might help her secure a job when she got out. It would be taught with a heavy helping of discipline and morality, in the hope that this might correct and improve her ‘indifferent’ character.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 21, 1876]

A specialist thief on the Great Northern Railway

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King’s Cross station, c.1862

When, in October 1868, a customer reported losing several of his possessions on a train the Great Northern Railway company called in their own in-house detective team. In 1868 this meant that William Thorogood was immediately set on the trail of the thief.

It didn’t take the private detective long to spot a young man strolling quickly across the platform at King’s Cross. The man was sporting a ‘portmanteau, rug, umbrella and [walking] stick’, all matching the description given by Mr William Kingsworth, the traveler that had complained he had fallen victim to a robbery.

The detective quickly moved to fall in step behind the thief and watched as he hailed a cab. As the young man entered the hansom in St Pancras Road, Thorogood clambered in beside him. The man was ‘fashionably dressed’, not obviously then, a thief,  and he gave  name as Robert Johnson. When challenged he emphatically denied stealing anything and asked how Thorogood could possibly prove that he had.

The detective took his prisoner back to the station superintendent’s office where Mr Kingsworth positively identified his property. In court at Clerkenwell the passenger said he’d never seen Johnson before that day and had missed his items after he’d left then briefly on his seat. Johnson denied everything, refused to give his address, and cried throughout the entire hearing. Mr Clarke remanded him for a week and he was led away to the cells.

Johnson was tried at the Bailey on the 26 October 1868. He pleaded guilty to stealing Mr Kingsworth’s property and asked for several other offences to be dealt with at the same time. He seemed to specialise in stealing portmanteaus (briefcases) from railway trains. The judge sent him to prison for 18 months.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 17, 1868]

‘I always do what I say I will do’: the dark murmurings of a troubled mind

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The owner of Deacon’s Coffee House and Tavern on Walbrook in the City was disturbed by the sound of shattering glass. It was nine in the evening and Mr. Howell rushed out into the front room of his establishment to see to his horror that his window was completely destroyed. His clientele were in uproar and outside a small group of onlookers were gathering around a ‘little old woman’.

A policeman had arrived in a hurry and a small boy pointed out the elderly lady as the culprit. The constable arrested her and led her off to the nearest police station to be questioned and charged. She had already admitted throwing a brick through Mr. Howell’s window telling the proprietor:

‘I said I would break your window and I have done it. I always do what I say I will do’.

While in custody the woman, who gave her name as Emily Howard, told the police should would have liked to have smashed ‘every ______ pane of glass in the house’, and would make good on her promise when they released her. The constable later told the Lord Mayor at Mansion House that she was swearing throughout the interview but seemed perfectly sober.

In court the Lord Mayor heard that Emily had previous for criminal damage. The court’s gaoler (a man named Partridge) said he’d known her for 20 years and that she was someone who’d been in and out of gaol for doing similar things in the past. Emily’s only defense was that someone had thrown water over her but no one seemed to believe her.

The Lord Mayor sent her back to prison for two months at hard labour and she was led away ‘uttering threats of vengeance’ against the coffee house owner and the policeman that arrested her. She sounds like someone that needed help, not a month or two picking oakum.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 16, 1875]

A ‘well known nymph of the pave’ in court once again.

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Clerkenwell Prison , c.1862

PC William Warren (208N) was perambulating his beat when he saw a man and a woman leant up against the railings at the corner of Nelson Place on the City Road. The pair were arguing and when the man saw the officer he called out to him. He gave his name as John Stourton and claimed the woman had picked his pocket, stealing his purse and half a sovereign. Warren arrested the woman and took her back to the station.

Since a search there revealed nothing PC Warren retracted his steps and searched the areas around the railings. There he found the purse close to where the pair had been standing. It had clearly been dropped by the thief as soon as she’d seen the officer appear.

The woman’s name was Elizabeth Lewis but she was more commonly known as ‘broken-nosed Liz’, and was a notorious thief. A ‘well known nymph of the pave’ as Reynolds’s Newspaper described her, Liz had a string of previous convictions. PC Barker (124N) told the magistrate that she had served six months for stealing a watch in 1859, three years for a similar offence in in May 1860 and had committed two like offences since she’d got out of goal.

Whilst the case showed up Liz as an old offender it didn’t too much for Stourton’s reputation either. The court heard that the stonemason, a married man with children, had picked up Liz in the street after she had asked him to buy her a drink.  It was a common enough ploy for women soliciting prostitution and having had a drink she told the justice that Stourton then went with her to a nearby house ‘for an immoral purpose’. She denied stealing anything and was trying to undermine her accuser by pointing out his own, less than respectable, character.

It didn’t work in front of Mr Barker who committed her to take her trial at the in due course. She was brought to the Middlesex quarter sessions on the 17 October where the jury convicted her and she was given yet another sentence of penal servitude, this time for seven years. Her previous convictions really counted against her here, as the system punished her severely for not learning her lesson.

In reality of course there was little hope for someone like Liz. At 35, with a history of prostitution and crime and little hope of finding work she was condemned to repeating her actions and lifestyle until poverty, the cold or an angry punter ended her miserable existence.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 9, 1864]