An extraordinary tale of the escaped convict who panned for Australian gold

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On Saturday 20 July 1867 the dock at Lambeth Police court was occupied by a ‘miserably-attired man’ of about 40 years of age. Thomas Nugent, of no fixed abode, was charged with having escaped from the penal colony at Van Diemen’s Land 15 years earlier.

PC Waghorn (101L) said that Nugent had walked into the Kennington Lane Police station to give himself up. He was, he declared to the desk sergeant, ‘without home or friends and perfectly destitute’. He felt he had no other option that to surrender to justice.

Nugent explained that he had been convicted of committing at burglary in Manchester and sentenced to ten years transportation at the assizes held for Kirkdale, Lancashire. He’d gone to Norfolk Island, a notorious penal settlement, but escaped during a mutiny there. For a time he’d found work prospecting in the Australian gold rush and earned enough money to buy his passage back to England. He stayed with his father, a navy pensioner, at Greenwich, before enlisting in the army.

He served in the 64thfoot in Persia (modern Iran) and during the Indian war of independence (or ‘Mutiny’) of 1857. He was discharged with a small pension after suffering a series of injures and being declared unfit. Since then he’d found work on the docks but it was back breaking and his body couldn’t cope with it.  As a result he was forced onto the streets to fend for himself as best he could.

It was an extraordinary story, as the newspaper report stated, and the magistrate was keen to discover whether it was a fantasy or not. He remanded Nugent in custody and requested the police and clerk to very the man’s tale.  At least in the meantime he’d get food, a bed and shelter for a few days.

It seems he was telling the truth, at least about his transportation, or at least in part. The Digital Panopticon reveals that in August 1843 a Thomas Nugent was convicted at Lancaster of a burglary. He had one previous conviction for ‘offences against property’. Nugent arrived in Norfolk Island in May 1846 but absconded in July 1849. He was caught, but ran away several more times before he disappears from the records in 1850. So while he got his dates wrong it is possible, likely even, that this was the same Thomas Nugent. By 1867 transportation to Australia had all but ended so perhaps now he felt safe in handing himself in.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 22, 1867]

‘I did this in a passion, he struck me first’: self-defence, vitriol, and exile to Australia

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George Day was passing along Lucas Place, Coram Street in the parish of St. Pancras, at about 2 in the morning when a woman hailed him from a house there. Day was in his cab and assumed the woman required a cab. It was pretty clear the house was one of ‘ill-repute’ (in other words a brothel) but George went inside anyway.

Once there the woman demanded that he stand her a drink and have one himself. There was no fare and Day soon realized that he’d been tricked, and started to leave. But the young woman kicked up a fuss and a heated exchange ensued, which was loud enough to be heard Mary Ann Murphy who lived nearby.  She described it as ‘a little bit of a bother’ and heard a woman’s voice say:

‘Don’t let him go, he wants to bilk her’.

‘Bilk’ was underworld slang for cheat, and as Murphy looked in through the open door she saw another woman run towards Day and throw something at him.

This woman was Elizabeth Cleveland she had thrown vitriol (sulphuric acid) in the cabbie’s face. The police arrived and Cleveland was arrested while Day was taken away for treatment.  The case came about before the magistrate at Hatton Garden but it was far too serious to be dealt with there. Cleveland was committed to Newgate and took her trial at the Old Bailey on 17 August 1840.

It may be that Day was economical with the truth that morning. Perhaps he knew it was a brothel and he’d gone in deliberately but then changed his mind. However, having crossed the threshold he was expected to pay something, if only for gawping at the girls that worked there. When he refused a fight broke out and that resulted in Elizabeth choosing the first weapon she could find. She didn’t deny throwing acid but claimed she did not know it was so concentrated; it was used for cleaning brass and was usually diluted. There was also some confusion as to whether it was a liquid or a powder (like lime) that was thrown.

It didn’t affect the outcome:  George Day had lost the sight of one eye completely and the surgeon that testified in court said there was little chance he’d ever regain the use of it. The jury convicted Elizabeth and the judge sentenced her to be transported to Australia for 15 years.

Elizabeth Cleveland had been born in Peterborough in 1787 and so, like many Londoners then and now, was a migrant to the capital. In 1840 she was 53 years of age (considered ‘old’ by one witness). She was finally put on board a ship (the Rajah) and sent to Van Dieman’s Land on 1 April 1841, landing on 19 July that year. Her record reveals that she claimed to have acted in self-defense (‘I did this in a passion, he struck me first’).

It also noted that she was a widow with one living child. Elizabeth could read but not write, she was 5’ 2” high, had brown eyes, greying dark brown hair, and was fresh faced with freckles. She gave her occupation as a cook and laundress, which is probably the role she had played in the brothel, looking after the prostitutes there.

Her instincts were to protect the young women worked with but in this case it had gone terribly wrong with awful consequences for George day and for her.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, July 20, 1840]

A hero of the Peninsula and Waterloo meets the ‘terror of Chelsea’: who comes out best?

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I’ve just been revisiting the rise and fall of Napoleon in case I need to step in and provide some teaching cover for a colleague who is temporarily unwell. We all need to be prepared to teach outside of our specialism from time and as long as its not too far removed most jobbing historians can do it.

While Napoleon and the French Wars might seem a long way removed from my research area he is someone I have studied and be interested in for most of my reading life. As a child I quickly went from a love of Nelson to the man Nelson dedicated almost his entire career to thwarting. I saw Bonaparte as a brilliant mind, flawed by vaunting ambition, and ultimately let down by those closest to him and his inability to recognize when he had overstretched himself.

Of course while most of France adored him in the early 1800s much of the rest of Europe hated and feared him, most especially the English. He represented a challenge to British dominance and to the institution of hereditary European monarchy; he was a child of the revolution for all his abandonment of democracy. Most of all he wasn’t an aristocrat, he was – like so many of the men that rose through the ranks of the Imperial Army – a self-made man and the crowns of Europe had little time for that sort of success story.

The wars against France left a deep scar on Europe and on Britain and so those that served at Napoleon’s final defeat in Flanders were held in high esteem. Charles Miller was one such veteran of Waterloo – he had served throughout the whole of the Peninsula Campaign in Spain and Portugal, a war that did so much to undermine Napoleon’s grip on the European continent.

In 1838 (twenty years after Wellington’s victory at Waterloo) Charles Miller was serving with the Royal Veteran Battalion in Chelsea. He was quartered at Chatham and on Friday 12 October he had traveled to the Chelsea College to pick up some money that was owed to him. As he looked around for somewhere to spend the night he ran into a man named Thomas Ivey who promised to guide him to a suitable lodging house.

Unbeknown to the old soldier however, Ivey was a crook. He was well known to people in Chelsea as a thief and a rogue and Miller was exactly the sort of easy ‘mark’ he preyed upon. As Miller drew out his purse to buy some apples from a street seller Ivey pounced, snatched it, and ran off.

Miller raced after him but Ivey knew the streets and alleys around Jew’s Row much better than the outsider and he easily avoided him. The solider was persistent however, and eventually, with the assistance of the police, Ivey was captured and brought before the magistrates at Queen Square Police court.

Ivey tried to pretend that while he had met the veteran of Waterloo he hadn’t robbed him; there had been a misunderstanding and he ‘make it all right’. For his part Miller was at pains to say he’d not been drinking (often a charge leveled at those that had their purses lifted when visiting the capital). He had lost everything he had – a sovereign and four half crowns – and so was on his uppers.

The magistrate was determined that Ivey should face trial for this offence but was informed that the man had only recently bee released from Clerkenwell prison for a similar crime. That would surely count badly against him and the justice wanted to make sure they had all the details before sending him in front a judge and jury. So Thomas Ivey was remanded in custody for two days to get the report on his previous conviction.

Ivey paid dearly for his actions that day and I’m sure his choice of victim played a part. On 22 October he was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey and sentenced to transportation. He remained in England until February 1840 when he sailed for Van Dieman’s land to start a 10-year term of exile. Thereafter he seems to have kept his nose clean and in 1846 he earned his ticket of leave. He was freed three years later on the 9 April 1849. He was still just 29 years of age, (being born in 1820, just a year before Napoleon died on St Helena).

What did he do next? Sadly the records don’t tell us that but perhaps he embraced his new start ‘down under’ and put his past life as ‘the terror of Chelsea’ behind him. Nor do we know what happened to Charles Miller, the old soldier that Ivey robbed. I doubt he got his purse back (certainly not the contents) so his immediate circumstances were difficult. Hopefully his regiment supported him because in 1838 he must have been at least in late 40s if not older, and it is likely that in all those years of service he would have picked up one or more injuries.  There was no ‘help for heroes’ in early Victorian England and precious little state support for veterans, despite the supposed affection in which the victors of Waterloo were held. Not for the first time I’m left wondering whether the criminal, in being transported to Australia had the better outcome here?

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 15, 1838]

A close encounter at the theatre sends one ‘very old thief’ back to prison.

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As Daniel Vincer was pushing his way up the crowded stairs of the Victoria Theatre (the ‘Old Vic’ as we know it) he thought he felt his watch move. Reaching to his fob pocket he discovered it was half out and he pressed it firmly in again. Looking around him he noticed a man directly behind him but presumed the timepiece had just come loose in the press of people.

Just second later though he felt the watch leave his pocket. Turning on his heels he saw it in the hand of the same man who was in the process of trying to break it away from its guard. As soon as the thief realized he’d been noticed he fled, with Vincer in pursuit.

The odds favoured the pickpocket but Vincer managed to keep him in sight as they moved through the theatre goers and with the help of one of the venue’s staff, Vincer caught his man.  On Saturday morning, the 13 August 1864, Vincer gave his account of the theft to the sitting magistrate at Southwark Police court.

The thief gave his name as Charles Hartley but Mr Woolrych was told that the felon was an old offender who also used the name Giles. He was, the paper reported, a ‘morose-looking man’ but then again he had just spent a night in the cells and was facing a potential spell in prison, so he’d hardly have been looking chipper.

Had Vincer seen the man actually take his watch, did he have it in his hands? Vincer said he had. ‘He put his hand along the chain’, Vincer explained, ‘and [he] saw the prisoner break it off’. There were so many people on the staircase that Vincer hadn’t be able to stop him doing so, he added.

Hartley denied everything. He’d ditched the watch as he ran and so was prepared to brazen out a story that he was nowhere near the incident.

However, this is where his past indiscretions caught up with him. Stepping forward a police sergeant told the magistrate that Hartly was believed to be a ‘returned transport’. In other words he’d previously been sentenced to transportation to Australia and had either escaped or, much more likely, had served his time and earned a ticket of leave to come home.

‘That’s a lie’, declared Hartley, ‘I never was in trouble before in my life’.

This prompted the Southwark court’s gaoler to step forward and ‘to the prisoner’s mortification’ identify him as a ‘very old thief’. If his worship would just remand him, Downe (the gaoler) insisted he could prove at least 20 previous convictions against him. Not surprisingly then, that is exactly what Mr Woolrych did.

So, did Hartley (or Giles) have a criminal past?

Well the digital panopticon lists a Charles Giles who was born in 1825 who was frst convicted of an offence in 1846 (aged 21). He was accused of forgery at the Old Bailey and sent to Van Diemens Land for 7 years.  He earned a ticket of leave in September 1851 but this was revoked just one year later, on the 13 September.

Could this be the same man? By 1864 he would have been 39 but could have looked older after a life spent in and out of the justice system, and at least two long sea voyages in poor conditions. The gaoler had described him as ‘a very old thief’ but it might have meant he was an experienced offender not an aged one. There are various other Giles’ but none that fit well, and several Charles Hartleys but again none that dovetail with this offence.

When Hartley came back up before Mr Woolrych on the following Friday PC Harrington (32L) gave the results of his investigation into the man’s past. He told the court that the prisoner had indeed been transported and had been in prison several times. By the middle years of the nineteenth century the criminal justice system’s ability to track a criminal’s life history had improved significantly even if it hadn’t developed the forensic tools that modern police investigations depend upon (such as fingerprints and DnA tests).

Sergeant William Coomber (retired) said he recognized Hartley as a man he had helped put away several years ago. According to him the prisoner had been sentenced (at Surrey Assizes) to four months imprisonment in 1851 for a street robbery, before being transported for 7 years in July 1853. He had earned his ticket of leave in January 1857 but attempted to steal a watch and got another 12 months instead.

Mr Woolrych committed him for trial. By 1864 he wouldn’t be transported again so the unfortunate, if serial, offender was looking at a long term in a convict prison.

[from The Standard, Monday, August 15, 1864]

Two ‘determined thieves’ fail to learn the lesson of their (temporary) exile to Australia

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This week I am exploring the transportation of convicts to Australia with my second year history students at the University of Northampton. One of the aspects we will look at is the nature of those forcibly migrated to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and the treatment they received there. One of my current dissertation students is also looking at the how the system of transportation (and its purpose) changed over the period between its commencement and its end.

In all some 162,000 men and women were sent into exile in Australia between 1788 (when the First Fleet sailed) and 1868 (the last transport unloaded its human cargo in Western Australia). Was Britain simply ridding itself of its unwanted criminals or was she intent on building a new imperial colony on the backs of ‘convict workers’?

By 1862 the experiment with enforced exile was coming to an end. Increasingly colonists were unhappy with being the dumping ground for the mother country’s criminal element and so the prison (and the new sentence of penal servitude) was coming to dominate punishment policy. Within  a few years no more convicts would be boarded onto transport ships to make their slow journey to the other side of the world.

Some, we know, came back. The Digital Panopticon has traced the lives of thousands of those sent abroad and we know that despite the distance exile to Oz didn’t always mean permanent banishment. Two that did were Henry Turner (or Ware) and Henry Mount (alias Davis) and despite the best hopes of the reformers that argued for transportation as a panacea, they failed to learn the lesson they ere supposed to. Once back in England they were soon up to their own tricks and found themselves in front of a magistrate at Lambeth Police Court.

On Sunday evening, the 9 March 1862, while the Woodley family were at church, Turner, Mount and another (unnamed) man were scouting their home in Carlisle Lane, Lambeth.  Turner and Mount gained entry to the house via the front door while the other man kept watch from the street. He wasn’t careful enough however, and the men were seen and the alarm was raised.

The police arrived and Turner (or Ware as I shall now call him) was captured as he tried to get out through a rear door. The lookout bolted and wasn’t found but Davis was discovered hiding in an outside privy (a toilet) two doors down. Both men were seized and taken back to the nearest police station and the investigation handed over to detective sergeant Landridge.

He reported that:

‘On examining the house it was found that the prisoners had broken open every drawer and cupboard in the place, and one in particular in which was deposited bills of exchange and promissory notes of the value of £12,000, but these valuables had escaped their notice’.

£12,000? That’s a pretty large sum today but represents about £700,000 in modern money. You could buy 800 horses with that amount of money or employ a team of 8 skilled tradesman for a decade. How did the Woodley’s come to have that much money or credit on the premises and how did these ‘determined thieves’ fail to spot it?

The pair were also found to have all the accoutrements of house-breaking, including:

‘skeleton keys, and an instrument of a most formidable kind, formed of a clock weight, which if used would be much more dangerous than any life-preserver’.

A life-preserver was a small cosh popular with burglars as it was easily concealed but effective as a weapon. In the popular press of the day there were plenty of stories about burglars and their equipment, fuelling contemporary (and historical) debates about the existence and actives of the so-called ‘criminal class’.

As former convicts Ware and Mount were prime examples of such a group of ‘professional’ criminals. The magistrate at Lambeth listened to sergeant Langridge detail their return from Australia and assert that he would be able to provide proof not only of this crime but their previous criminal records. Satisfied that they were desperate felons he committed them to take their trial at the next sessions. I doubt they went back to Australia after that, more likely they received a lengthy sentence of penal servitude and served out their time in the brutal English prison system.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 14, 1862]

Two urchins and a strumpet; three different fates.

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In March 1842 two teenagers were set in the dock at Lambeth Street Police Court before the sitting magistrate Mr Henry. The pair, John Pierse (16) and John Hawes (14), were charged with burgling a house north of the river, in Goodman’s Fields. The evidence against them was provided by another ‘young urchin’ who wasn’t named in court. Their hearing was quickly followed by that of a young girl who was accused of receiving the property the had stolen.

Frederick Edwards was a printer and bookseller who lived on Leman Street, near Whitechapel. In 1888 Leman Street was the headquarters of H Division from which the investigation into the ‘Ripper’ murders was conducted. In 1842 that station was yet to be built and the Metropolitan police still lacked a detective branch (that would come later in the year). H Division were probably using an old watch house at 26 Leman Street in 1842 as their first purpose-built station (at 37-39) was not completed until 1847.

Between 2 and 3 in the morning of Thursday 3 March the young thieves broke into Mr Edwards’ property though a window and stole as much as they could. They boasted of their exploits to one of their young friends and ultimately that was to prove their downfall. This star witness told Mr Henry that:

‘they ransacked both parlours, and carried away all the portable property they could’. This included silver cutlery, candlesticks and plate as well as clothes. The lads then took their bounty to a field near Limehouse Church and buried it.

On Friday they returned to the scene and dug up the silver before handing it over to Mary Davis who pawned it for them. Later that evening the two Johns, Mary, and the ‘urchin who gave evidence against them’ all enjoyed ‘ gorge of roast-pork, plum-pudding, and ale, at a beer-shop’ before heading off to the Victoria Theatre for an evening of light entertainment.

Mr Henry asked the boy (whose name we later discover to have been Joseph Mason) what the trio had done next. He was told that they had walked back over London Bridge together but then separated; Pierse and Mason found digs in Wentworth Street while Hawes (also known as ‘greeny’ – perhaps because of his youth?) and Mary went off to sleep together somewhere. The magistrate was as outraged by this piece of information as he was by the theft itself. Hates was just 14 years old and Mary 18 and the notion that they had been sleeping together was ‘scandalous’ he said.

It took the police, in the person of PC Argent (H126), the best part of  week to track them down. He found the pair in a lodging house in Elder Street, Spitalfields in a room shared by five other men and two women. He added that Pierse, on the day following the robbery, had escaped from the police who had tracked him to a house on Essex Street, Whitechapel, where a gun had been found. For such a young criminal John Pierse was developing quite the reputation.

Mr Henry remanded the boys for further enquiries and now it was Mary’s turn to be examined.

She was described as a ‘strumpet’ and a ‘little prostitute’ by the court reporter. It was alleged that she had pledged several items of plate, knowing them to have been stolen. Mary admitted taking the items to the pawnbrokers for her friends but denied all knowledge of them being stolen. The magistrate clearly didn’t believe her so remanded her for a week as well.

The case came up at the Old Bailey on the 4 April and Hawes (who gave his age there as 12) pleaded guilty and was recommend to mercy by the prosecutor. The judge sentenced him to be sent to prison for a year. Davis (now determined as 17 years of age) and Pierse (or Pearce) were convicted after a short trial and sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years.

Mary (or Maria) arrived in Van Dieman’s land on the 24 September 1842. She’d had a troubled journey, falling sick on the transport ship the Royal Admiral. In March 1844 she applied for permission to marry and so we might hope she made a new life for herself ‘down under’. It is less clear what happened to Pearce.

As for John (or William) Hawes he stayed in England following his period of imprisonment and doesn’t seem to have trouble the law thereafter. Tracing lives isn’t an exact science but the Digital Panopticon project suggests that William made it to old age, dying in 1907 at the age of 77.

So here we have three young lives caught up in crime as part of a strategy of survival in mid-Victorian London; it is worthy of a Dickens sub-plot. Who knows what happened to Pearce or indeed to Mason. Dod the latter stay out of trouble or get sucked back into a life of crime having avoided incarceration by grassing up his fellow diners? Did Mary really make it in Australia as we now know that some did? The colony was largely created by individuals such as her who cared out a new existence on the other side of the world. Perhaps John Pearce kept his nose clean in Van Dieman’s Land and didn’t trouble the record keepers thereafter. If he served his time and earned his ticket of leave he too might have enjoyed a new life away from the squalid slums of his native Whitechapel.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 10, 1842]

One of the ‘most expert pickpockets in London’ is caught red handed

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What! Eighteen Stone! Oh, you’ll do; – here’s your Ticket-of-leave!” (Punch, 13 December, 1862)

Michael Welch – who also went under the name of John Hunt – had already had several brushes with the law. He had served time in Portsmouth Prison and had previously been sentenced to 7 years’ transportation. Fortunately for Welch his sentence had come at a time when Britain was bringing the process of transporting felons to Australia to an end.

Transportation to New South Wales had been resisted (by the inhabitants) from the 1830s and in 1840 it ceased (although between 1788 and then some 150,000 Britons had been sent there). Convicts continued to be sent to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) until 1853 and to Western Australia from 1850 onwards (albeit in small numbers), but the reality was that after 60 or so years of dumping her unwanted criminals and some political prisoners in the new colony Great Britain was forced to look at alternative ways to deal with crime.

The answer was imprisonment at home, in the hulks (which also served as embarkation off points for transportees) and in the national prisons (such as Pentonville or Portland) where convicts could be set to building sea defences or other public works, or ‘broken’ on the treadwheel and crank.

Adopting a system pioneered with transported convicts in Australia those sentenced to long spells in prison could earn a ticket-of-leave (effectively parole) whereby they might be released early so long as they behaved themselves thereafter. Welch was one such ‘ticket-of’leave’ man.

Unfortunately for Welch he was unable to stay out of trouble.

In October 1854 he was spotted on Fleet Street attempting to pick the pockets of passers-by. Inspector Daniel May of the Metropolitan Police’s Detective force was mingling with the crowds on Fleet Street at around half past seven in the evening when he saw Welch.

‘I watched him for about half an hour’, he told the magistrate at Guildhall; ‘at length I saw him put his hand through a hole in his coat where his pocket should be, and take a handkerchief from a gentleman’s pocket’.

He informed the victim of what had happened and soon afterwards seized Welch and took him into custody.

When he was searched he had no less than 14 other silk hankies. The magistrate was amazed:

‘I suppose they are the product of a whole day’s work, are they not? he asked the detective.

‘Oh no sir’ the policeman replied, ‘I believe it was only two hours’ work’.

‘He must be a very clever fellow to get so many handkerchiefs in two hours’, said the Alderman. ‘He is one of the most expert pickpockets in London’ confirmed Inspector May.

Now the magistrate turned his attention to the accused and, having established his history of imprisonment and recent release, upbraided him for his lack of gratitude to the criminal justice system.

‘Did they give you a ticket-of-leave to rob people of their handkerchiefs?’ he asked the man in the dock. ‘No sir’.

Welch was remanded in custody so that the owner of the handkerchief could appear to prosecute him.

Postscript: On 23 October 1854 a John Hunt was sentenced to four years penal servitude at Old Bailey for stealing a handkerchief valued at 2s belonging to a George Pullen. Hunt had ‘before been convicted’ and pleaded guilty. There are no details (because of the guilty plea) but I suspect it is the same man.

Four years for the theft of a handkerchief worth about £2 in today’s money.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, October 11, 1854]