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 stowaway from Newcastle nearly becomes another murder victim in 1888

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When John Henry Marler was brought before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court on a charge of attempted murder it must have excited some interest in the district. Marler was a sailor, recently arrived in the capital from the north east of England on the Albert, a brig out of North Shields.

The brig was probably bringing coals from Newcastle but it had at least one passenger that the captain wasn’t aware of. Mary Jane Pascod had stowed away  on board, or at least had been pressured into doing so by Marler. Marler had proposed to the young woman before he’d left for London and had urged her to accompany him. The girl was reluctant to leave and quite likely even more reluctant to marry the sailor but somehow he smuggled her onto the ship.

Mary Jane was right to be worried about the 32 year-old seaman. He had a violent temperament, especially when he’d been drinking, and the couple argued. He was 12 years older than Mary and when she told him she didn’t want to have anything more to do with him he flew into a rage and threatened her. When they docked at the Isle of Dogs he went ashore and drank heavily.

He was seen later that night by a watchman on the wharf near the Albert. Marler spoke to the watchman, saying:

‘Stop me from going on board that ship to-night. If I do, I shall kill that woman’.

The watchman (John Stacey) didn’t stop him but did notice how drunk he was, and so he followed him onto the brig. Stacey saw Marler approach where Mary Jane was hiding and draw out a knife. He was about to bring it down on the young woman when Stacey pounced, grabbed his arm and wrestled the knife away.

He told his version of events to Thames court who must have listened all the more intently, knowing that just a few days earlier there had been a brutal stabbing in the East End that had left Martha Tabram dead in George Yard, near the Whitechapel Road. Martha was, arguably, the first of the official ‘Ripper’ victims that summer and later it was suggested that a sailor (albeit a foreign one) might have been responsible for the serial murders that so shocked the nation in 1888.

Mr Lushington decided to deal with Marlee there and then, sentencing him to six months imprisonment with hard labour. He instructed the police to send a telegraph to let Mary Jane’s family and friends know she was safe but would require help in getting back home.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Monday, August 13, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

Fall asleep in London and you risk losing your shoes

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John Woods was sleeping off the effects of an evening’s drinking when he was discovered, curled up on a doorstep on the Minories, by detective George Westwood of the City police. Westwood noted that another man was standing nearby. He was elderly and rough looking and looked over at Woods and noticed his shows were off, and lying by his side.

‘That man will lose his shoes’, he said. ‘I have been robbed myself before now’. He then wandered off.

Westwood’s suspicions about the older man clearly outweighed any concern for the sleeping drunk. After all he was likely to be found by a local beat bobby and asked to move along or risk being arrested. As he followed at a distance he noticed that the man doubled back and approached the sleeper. When he saw him pick up the man’s shoes and walk away he wasted no time in arresting him and taking him back to a police station.

The man gave his name as John Farrell, a 60 year old labourer who, when searched, was found to have a number of pewter drinking fountain cups in his possession. Enquiries were made and these were found to belong to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association, who identified two of them as having been stolen from Tower Hill. The Association had been established in 1859 to provide free drinking water for Londoners. The fountains were provided with cups which were not disposable (like modern paper or plastic ones) but pewter. You weren’t supposed to take them away.

Farrell was brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House and charged with the theft of Woods’ shoes and the unlawful possession of the cups (a lesser charge). John Woods was in court as a witness and prosecutor and was still a little tipsy it seems. He explained that he was a sailor and had been drinking scotch whisky, something he was unfamiliar with and so had felt very drowsy that night.

It was pointed out that the shoes seemed almost new but Woods said he’d had them for seven years.  He then explained that he hardly ever wore them at sea, preferring to work barefoot on the ships as the ‘salt water kept his corns soft’. He only wore them on land to protect his feet but they made his corns itch, which was why he’d taken them off.

He was in a forgiving mood and said he was not worried about prosecuting or punishing the old defendant any further. If the Lord Mayor was happy to forgive him, he would too.

The Lord Mayor was not willing to be so forgiving however. He turned to Farrell and told him that ‘he had been guilty of wicked and mischievous conduct’ and sent him to prison for six week at hard labour. John Woods took his shoes and left the court, hopefully a little the wiser about where he slept in future. And how much he drank.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 12, 1870]

‘I should like to go to sea sir’: a boy’s plea for adventure falls on deaf ears

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What are we to make of young John Speller? The teenager was set in the dock at Hammersmith accused of trying to steal several small steam boats (or ‘launches’) that had been moored at Chiswick and Strand-on-the-Green.

John’s MO was to untether  a launch and let it drift out in the current of the river, then attempt to pilot it. He’d tried this on no less than six occasions without much success. On a launch named Zebra he’d even tried to start a fire to get the boiler going so that he could ‘get up a head of steam’.

Sadly for him he had been caught red handed and now faced Mr Paget in the Hammersmith Police court.  The magistrate listened carefully to the Zebra’s owner and engineer, a Mr Faulkner, who testified against the lad adding that as well as trying to pinch the boat he’d caused damage from the misplaced effort to get the boiler going.

He then turned to John and asked him what he had to say for himself. ‘I should like to go to sea’, came the reply.

So should we see John as a frustrated sailor, a boy in search of adventure, or a delinquent who needed a stiff lesson in discipline? Perhaps he got his chance to sail the world eventually; after all London’s docks brought opportunities for travel every day of their week.

But not that week, or the next four. Because Mr Paget (who clearly had no sense of what it was like to be a teenager anymore) sent him to prison for a month for causing damage to the Zebra and for attempting to steal it.

[from The Standard, Monday, June 11, 1888]

Forced aboard a merchant ship in New Orleans: an echo of modern slavery on the high seas

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New Orleans, c.1841

John Burns was a steward on board a merchant ship named the Rio Grande. He’d sailed with it to New Orleans in 1849 where he’d gone ashore with a fellow crew member who had been taken ill. He took temporary lodgings in a boarding house and made plans to collect his pay packet in the morning. This was normal: sailors often collected their pay onshore, being paid at a shipping agent’s office.

However, this was also when they were vulnerable to thieves and fraudsters who knew they were likely to have been carrying fairly large amounts of cash. In London the Ratcliffe Highway and its associated dockland was notorious as an area where prostitutes would inveigle seaman into bars, get them drunk, take them upstairs and rob them (or assist others in their robbery). I’m fairly New Orleans presented very similar hazards to the unwary.

As Burns left his lodgings to collect his money two men seized him and forced a drink down his throat, which ‘rendered him insensible’. Having dragged him they manhandled him on board a ship called the Ashley, which was run by Alfred Greg. The two men were what were known as ‘runners’ or ‘crimps’; in effect they acted as a press gang for merchantmen, forcing men to serve as seaman against their will.

We are probably all familiar with the concept of the press gang as it operated in the eighteenth century, forcibly enlisting men and boys into the Nelsonian navy but this was nearly half a century later and in a foreign country. In 1849 New Orleans was, as it is today, the largest city in Louisiana, the 18th state of the USA. In 1849 something like half of Louisiana’s population were enslaved and it is hard to think of what happened to Burns as anything other than enforced labour by kidnapping.

Burns tried to explain to the master (Greg) that he was no sailor, just a steward with no experience of seamanship but he was ignored and set to work. He was promised $35 and the ship sailed to England, docking in London in April. When he asked for his pay he was told he’d already been paid, but he’d never seen ‘a halfpenny of it’. Instead the master had paid all the money to the two men that had pressed him.

Perhaps this was a common scam, akin it seems to me, to modern slavery where men and women and kidnapped and forced to live and work in terrible conditions by criminal gangs. The steward had the sense to get away from the ship and present him himself at the Thames Police court where he obtained a summons against Greg. A few days later the master was in court to hear Burns testify against him. Two other crew members turned up to confirm his evidence and Mr Yardley (the magistrate) said it was evident that a ‘gross and scandalous fraud’ had been committed.

However, it doesn’t seem like he was able to do much about it, perhaps because the crime (of kidnapping) had happened outside his jurisdiction. He could – and did – insist that John Burns was paid however, and would remand the master in custody if necessary until the sum was handed over.

The story served as a cautionary tale for others travelling to ‘foreign’ parts to not get taken unawares by unscrupulous captains in search of a crew.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 23, 1849]

A rabble rouser threatens the peace of the Lord Mayor’s Show

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Today it is the annual Lord Mayor’s show in the City of London. This event has been repeated at this time for hundreds of years and when I was a boy I always made a point of watching it on television, fascinated by the floats and military bands. The ceremonial point of the parade is to swear in the new Lord Mayor at the Royal Courts of Justice, but the ‘show’ is an opportunity to demonstrate the City’s wealth, power and diversity of talent to the nation as a whole. All the livery companies of the City take part and their floats and costumes often make links to the crafts they practice (tailors, grocers, ironmongers etc) or reflect a social or historical theme.

So today Peter Estlin will be sworn in as the 691stLord Mayor of London and head of the City’s Corporation. Amongst many roles the Mayor is appointed chief magistrate of the City and throughout the nineteenth century this meant that office holders routinely sat in judgment on offenders and others brought before them at the Mansion House Police court.

In 1892 one of the Lord Mayor’s fellow police court magistrates, Mr Mead, was the presiding justice at Thames Police court east of City the heart to London’s docklands. On day before that year’s Lord Mayor’s Show Daniel Keefe was put in the dock at Thames and accused of disorderly conduct and of inciting a crowd to disorder.

PC Isles had come across a gathering crowd outside the Sailor’s Home on Well Street. This establishment had been founded in 1828 on the site of an old theatre (the Brunswick) to help the plight of destitute seamen. A man had stood himself on a box so he could be seen and was addressing his audience.

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He was berating the authorities for allowing so many men to be unemployed and told them to boycott that year’s Lord Mayor’s Show in protest. Instead of waiving and cheering the mayor and his aldermen why not ‘test the right of free speech’ instead by demonstrating their discontent with the state of the economy that left so many people impoverished in the East End.

This was just three years after the Great Dock Strike that had seen working men flex their collective muscles and secure small but significant gains from the Dock companies. Throughout that dispute the police had been used to try and break up demonstrations and prevent secondary picketing. The magistracy had played their part too, in fining and imprisoning active participants whenever their saw a way to use the law to do so.

It was evident to PC Isles that regardless of the politics here that Keefe was in breach of the law. By calling a crowd together he was causing an obstruction to the footpath and, under the terms of the Police Code (1889), the officer was obliged to ask him to desist and to require the crowd to disperse. When Keefe refused he arrested him.

In court Mr Mead had little time for Keefe’s attempts to justify himself. Keefe said he had as much right to be on the street as anyone else and that he was hemmed in by the crowd and so couldn’t move when the constable had asked him to. He was ‘vindicating the rights of the unemployed’ (a term that only entered the Oxford Dictionary in 1888) and so his cause was noble. He had even started a ‘labour bureau’ to help men find work.

Mead was uninterested and chose to bind Keefe over in the sum of £5 (about £400 today) which he would forfeit if he broke the peace again within six months. He was, in effect, stopping any attempt by Keefe to ‘rabble rouse’ in the East End and issuing a warning to him and others not to disturb the annual pageantry in the City.

[from The Standard, Thursday, November 10, 1892]

Little sympathy for an old sea dog who served his country

Rare original image showing a black Greenwich Pensioner in Greenwich Hospital uniform

The accusation of forgery that was  levelled against Dixon Dawson at the Mansion House Police court in 1850 was serious and complex, and it reveals a story of bravery, service and a fall from grace that might well be common to thousands of veterans in mid nineteenth-century Britain.

The long wars with Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France had raged from 1790 to 1815 with only small breaks in-between. Before then England had been embroiled in war with its former colony in America from 1776-1787. Throughout that time the Royal Navy had played a pivotal role in operations; helping to move troops, block enemy ports, and ultimately preventing Napoleon’s Grand Armée from invading in 1805.

Following The emperor Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in June 1815 very many soldiers and sailors were returned to civilian life as Britain did not keep a large standing army in the early 1800s. Many of these were wounded, physically or psychologically (although there was little understanding of this at the time). Some of the old soldiers would have found a bed at the Chelsea Hospital while the former ‘tars’ could apply to be helped at Greenwich.

Dixon Dawson ended up at Greenwich where he lived for a while after working as a domestic servant for several years after he left the Navy. Dawson seems to have wanted to start a business, perhaps to provide security for himself and his daughter (we presume his wife was dead, as she is not mentioned), but lacked the funds. He then set upon a course that would have dire consequences because at some point he managed to forge a series of cheques in the name of his former master’s daughter in an attempt to defraud them of upwards of £300.

Dawson was caught and committed by the sitting magistrate at Mansion House (Alderman Gibbs) to take his trial at the Old Bailey in August 1850.

From the trial record it seems likely that Dawson was guilty. He’d tried to gain money he wasn’t entitled to and had involved others in his criminal actions. He’d abused the trust of his master and the kindness of the staff at Greenwich. Not surprisingly then he was found guilty.

But no one seems to have disputed Dawson’s back story, and several people spoke up for him and made it plain that he had never been a problem to society before. He had no previous criminal convictions, nor was he a drunk. There were occasions in the hospital when his behaviour was somewhat erratic and it seems likely that Dawson, at 71, was suffering both the effects of his increasing age and of the wounds he had sustained in his naval career.

Dawson had been wounded several times and once in the head. In his own statement to the court he explained that he’d been wounded at Cape Legat in 1803 and this:

caused me to be in a deranged state of mind now I have advanced in years, and at times to be very troublesome‘.

If his story is true (and no one seemed to doubt at the time, and some confirmed it) Dawson saw service from 1790 to the end of the wars in 1815. He served with Nelson and was wounded on the deck of HMS Victory fighting close to the Admiral. He fought for his country in Italy, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe and should have been able to look forward to a peaceful retirement. Sadly of course, old servicemen had to work in the 1800s and there was little in the way of support for most of them. Many ended up as beggars, vagrants, or worse, as Britain certainly wasn’t a ‘home fit for heroes’ in the early Victorian period.

Dixon Dawson offered a heartfelt plea for mercy to the court, citing his service history and the wounds he sustained.

‘My Lord, I am innocent of the crime laid to my charge; I have only been six weeks discharged from the strong-room in the Infirmary of Greenwich Hospital, which can be proved by Sir John Liddell, the doctor of Greenwich Hospital; I trust in God, my Lord, you and my prosecutors will show me mercy, and send me down to Greenwich, and they will keep me confined at the hospital; I have an only daughter; I am afraid it will break her heart if I am sent to prison; I hope, my Lord, you will show me mercy for God’s sake, as we all expect mercy from God; I can assure you I know not what I have done, or what has been done.—Your humble petitioner, Dixon Dawson.’

Perhaps he was a good con man but I suspect his mind was affected by the years of service, the wounds and old age. He was probably guilty and that is what the jury decided but I think the state should have helped him and certainly not allowed him to be punished for what he’d tried to do.

There was little room for sympathy in the early Victorian justice system however. This story doesn’t really have a happy ending. The jury did express their sympathy for Dixon and the judge took this into consideration. Instead of sending him to prison he ordered him to transported to Australia for ten years. This old sailor would have to make one last journey on a wooden ship, one that would take him halfway around the world and separate him from his daughter and his friends for ever.

I’m not sure he ever made it to Australia. The Digital Panopticon has no record of him arriving there, nor of him being in prison after the trial. Perhaps there was a happy outcome after all but I doubt it. I rather fear that the stress and anxiety caused by his confinement and trial was the last straw for this old salt.

[from Reynolds’s Weekly News, Sunday, August 4, 1850]