Some years ago, I built a database as part of my Local History studies with the University of Oxford. My assignment was to incorporate information from the Old Bailey Online transcripts, and was an exercise in the value of databases in historical research. I thought I’d try and be ‘a bit different’ with mine, an ego-borne disease common among students, so I avoided the obvious (being from Australia) and initially settled on the fate of those who stole from the 17th Century Royal Mail. It didn’t take long to discover that there was no meat in such a blindingly brilliant plan, as the punishment for pinching a letter was, quite simply, death. Furthermore, as most of those who relieved His Majesty’s public of its mail were illiterate, the only possible conclusion I could draw in terms of motive was that people mailed each other money and others thought they could help themselves to it. So much for stunning my Tutor with scholarly brilliance!
Transcript from a trial held at the Old Bailey in 19th Century England
After a cup of tea and a quick sulk, I and my somewhat mollified ego decided to put our pants back on and leave that particular party, settling instead for something akin to common sense. I grew up in Australia, I studied Local History with the University of New England and I should jolly well apply myself to the most sensible course of action – convict transportation. Having grown up with stories of convicts and bushrangers and having taken those school excursions to Moreton Bay and seen the grisly fingers in jars and the tiny cells in which the transported existed, I’d been conditioned to classify convicts as one of two sorts – those who were hardened criminals and those who stole to feed themselves. What I wasn’t prepared for was the possible existence of another type of convict – the one who chose transportation as a means of escaping poverty.
Of course, such a possibility wasn’t apparent in the trial transcripts themselves. No prospective escapee in their right mind would advise the presiding ‘beak’ of their plan for a somewhat terrifying means of escape from the claws of abject poverty, and as the presumption of guilt and a lack of legal representation was the fate of those in the dock, there was little chance to remain anything but mute throughout the reading of the charges and the witness statements. No, my conclusion began to make its hazy presence known as I began adding further primary source information to the database; the post transportation records pertaining to these individuals.
By the time transportation had reached its peak, the early Ticket-of-Leave scheme no longer provided for a land grant to those transportees who had been of good behaviour, however it did provide for parole terms that were, in light of conditions in England at the time, more than generous. Those serving a seven year sentence could, providing they were well behaved, expect to be free within three or four years, with permission to settle within certain prescribed areas. In New South Wales from the 1830s to 1850s, this area was known as the Nineteen Counties and spanned an area almost as large as England itself. Although permission to become settlers or squatters outside of prescribed areas was unlawful, it nevertheless took place, as settlers and convicts alike realised that the authorities could not possibly police such a policy. Added to this, was the dearth of skilled labourers available within the colonies.
Regardless of their past, the convict carpenters, masons, wheelwrights et al released from their bonds were able, in 1841, to easily draw a wage of 8s to 12s per day. Many of their English counterparts were earning less than a third of that, and the man on the land was existing on less than 8s every week. As time passed, the widening gap between the transported haves and the English have-nots was becoming apparent to those back home.
In England in 1846, The Rev Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne began a series of Letters to the Editor in The Times. In his letters, he was responding to that publication’s cries to rescue the starving people of Ireland from the tragedy they were suffering as a result of the Potato Famine. While he acknowledged the terrible suffering of the Irish, he pointed out the comparable suffering of England’s Agricultural Labourers.
‘When, Sir, that I call to mind that about a tenth of our population are partly supported by the poor rate, and that yet the felon in hulks is better dieted than the pauper – nay, than the independent labourer in many counties – I cannot but come to the conclusion that were we not forced by law to keep our people from starving, they would be no better off than the Irish are.’ The Times, Monday May 4, 1846
Convicts being rowed out to one of the numerous hulks that littered The Thames in the 19th Century.
As the naysayers publically refuted the good Reverend’s words in their own letters to The Times, Osborne was supported by an articulate Royal Navy Captain, resident in Dorset, who argued that Osborne’s observations were mild in comparison to the reality of life on the land in that County. Osborne then submitted a series of reports on the living conditions he witnessed first hand in December, 1846
‘I found a farm labourer, with his wife and six children, one of them not a month old, living in a house which belongs to a farmer there: the floor of the bedroom is so decayed that I was cautioned not to step on part of it; the walls are full of cracks; the rafters are so rotten that a piece will break off in a moment in your hand; in two places the roof is only kept from falling in by hurdles, bound under the worst parts; and after all, when the winds are very high the inmates are sometimes afraid to lie in bed, and obliged to get up and go downstairs in the night, for fear the roof should fall in on them. But wretched hovels like this are eagerly caught up whenever they become vacant, and, I find, crowded with inhabitants. In Cranborne itself, I understand, a family of eight persons was living in a single room until a few days ago. In Edmondsham, a village close by, I went to a house, or more properly a barn, for it consists of a single room, and has neither floor nor ceiling; I found living there a widow and her seven children. There are two beds, but no curtains to either; the three eldest sons are young farm labourers, 20, 17 and 16 years old; the daughters are younger, and for them she is allowed 6s a week by the parish. The rent of this dwelling she understands to be paid by the parish; I suppose it must be 2/- a year as that is the sum paid by the out-door pauper for the next house, which differs only in having some bricks for the floor.‘ The Times, Friday December 25, 1846.
The Reverend Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne
Assisted Emigration to Australia was generally only available to the skilled labourer with a family, as a means of further populating the colony with God fearing citizens. Unskilled labourers or the illiterate were generally unable to find sponsorship or references to support their desire to leave, which left them with limited means at their hands. It is little wonder that many might have entertained the thought of facing imprisonment and transportation as a means of escaping the finality of their future in England. To the man with a family however, the added burden of providing for his wife and children might have seemed insurmountable, unless he discovered that the Workhouse would shelter his family in until such time he received his parole. In such circumstances, Parish Unions generaly sponsored a convict’s wife and children to emigrate, happy to make room for those waiting at their doors for food and shelter.
As my research continued, and as I added more and more information to my database, it began to make sense to me. Records of single convicts marrying and appearing in later Census’ were readily available, and provided evidence of a life far beyond the initial sentence, family trees provided further evidence of survival and prosperity, and Assisted Emigration records confirmed that women and children were indeed sponsored by Parish Unions to join ticket-of-leave convicts in Australia. Weighed against Census information pertaining to those who remained in England in similar circumstances, including those in similar professions from the same villages as convicts, it became clear that it was the transportee who prospered, while their English counterparts continued to struggle into the next generation, with only the hope of a son becoming apprenticed to provide any light for their futures.
While the ordeal of transportation must have been terrifying for all concerned, and the interminable wait for parole unbearable, it stands to reason that an astute man in straightened circumstances might have seriously considered such a desperate move as a means of survival in 19th century England.
As to stealing mail in the 17th Century, that’s another ‘post’ in itself!