Australian politics in 1912


Inger Sheil

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I wouldn't say we call Melbourne a "waste of time", Tarn. There is a traditional interstate rivalry, but I thoroughly enjoy Melbourne and its culture - as shown to me by ET member Fiona, who works in the Arts community. She took me on the ultimate pub crawl/public art tour last year. I gather she has enjoyed visiting Sydney and doing the rounds up here with me in tow. It's not 'vicious' - the rivalry is good natured for the most part (at least among all my interstate friends).

Sydney has a few sites connected with our convict history, probably most notably The Barracks near Hyde Park. Built between 1817 and 1819 by convict labour, it first served as the central lodgings for male convicts. After a long and interesting history, it is today a fascinating museum:

http://www.hht.net.au/museums/hpbm/hyde_park_barracks_museum

I have 6th and 7th generation Australian heritage on both sides - quite long by Aussie standards, unless you consider the original inhabitants - they've been here for anywhere up to 80,000 years! As Dave mentions, we're quite chuffed with our convict ancestors - I was appalled to find that my assumption all my Irish ancestors were convicts were incorrect, and some were in fact free settlers who came out in the 1870s. We have a few First Fleet connections (I'm only using a touch of irony when I tell you that's the equivalent to Mayflower or Norman Invasion connections in other lands), but the first Sheil - from whom I am directly descended - arrived in 1812: here's his headstone:
http://www2.campbelltown.nsw.gov.au/LocalHist/scripts/ExtSearch.asp?SearchTerm=003974

He came out on the Guildford in 1812. I've read through records of his trial, and it turns out that he was sentenced to death for "stealing" 56 yards printed calico, valued at 5 shillings and 1 penny, from his English employer. Actually, the cloth never left the shop - it was alleged he had wrapped it up with the intent to steal. In the end, it came down to his word against his employers. His sentence was commuted to life transportation, and it all worked out well for him in Oz. In 1817 he married an English born convict woman and in 1818 he received a pardon.

The sentence of hanging seems unduly harsh for the crime, but was actually fairly typical of the time - as was commuting it to transportation.

One interesting convict is on the maternal side - sent out for, according to genealogical notes from an elderly Uncle, "Plotting to assassinate the King." Can't have been a terribly serious attempt - perhaps a bit of loud talk in a pub?

By 1912 the family was predominantly Irish. However, my Swedish great grandfather came out as a free immigrant, and married a young Scotswoman who had signed up for one of the schemes encouraging women to emigrate to the colonies. Their offspring married into he Irish side. Maternally, it was a similar story - my grandmother, of German/Spanish/English extraction married into an Irish family.
 

Bob Godfrey

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I would have to question the suggestions made here that the transportees were guilty mainly of crimes which we would now consider to be misdemeanors. The records of convictions at the 'Old Bailey' in C19th London are dominated by crimes which would today result in nothing more than a caution or probation. But the records of the transportation ships show a much higher proportion of men convicted of crimes of violence including murder and rape. At trial, conviction for these crimes normally resulted in a death sentence, but a very large proportion of these were then commuted to transportation for life. So maybe those modern Aussies shouldn't be quite so keen to find a convict lurking in the family tree!
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sashka pozzetti

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I had heard of someone being transported for stealing some bread, and thought that was bad enough, but being transported for not stealing some fabric, but looking like you might, is a new low!!! I will wait to be told that someone was transported for 'looking a bit guilty' !!!

and by the way, I have been to Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney, and they are all equally fantastic cities for different reasons that everyone should try and visit.
 

Inger Sheil

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There were certainly some hardened criminals in the transportation ships, Bob - men who were transported were more likely to have been up before the courts before, where as women were more likely to be first time offenders. There was also a component of solidiers who found themselves shipped Down Under for crimes like desertion, mutiny and insubordination. There was also a political factor in many of those convicts shipped directly from Ireland to NSW - the first transportation from Ireland took place in 1791 (and, given the timing so soon after 1798, it's no wonder that Australia would have our own 'Vinegar Hill').

This will give you an idea of the composition of the First Fleet:
http://firstfleet.uow.edu.au/dload/ff_db.xls

The vast majority of crimes are theft - right down to stealing a silk hankerchief. Of course, even with theft some involve serious cases of assault and battery.

Within my own family, I've already mentioned Dennis - whether he was guilty of wanting to steal that cloth, or whether there were other motivations behind the shopkeeper's charges, are impossible now to know. Also in the family tree we have James Tyson, Australia's first home-made millionaire. His mother, Isabella, was a convict, sent out for stealing some gingham and a few coins to about the value of a pound. His father, William, resigned his army commision so he could accompany her to Oz in 1809. I could go on, but it's much the same - a few coins here and there, or a small item. Not even larceny on a grand scale!

Off hand, we can't claim much in the line of murderers or rapists. Petty theft seems to be the most you could say about my convict ancestors - although you may want to watch out for fabrics around us. We're a bit light fingered with the calico and muslin, it seems.

On the other hand, I can see reasons to be proud of these people. They escaped from lives of poverty and, in some cases, petty theft. Cast away on the far side of the world, they made lives for themselves and their children - in most instances, better lives than they could have enjoyed had they stayed in England, Ireland or Scotland. All these countries benefited in the end - and from the free settlers as well. Oscar Pedersen was able to leave his large, financially burdened family in Sweden, make his fortune here, and send money back home that helped them establish a large family business - which is why, to this day, we're close to the Swedish side. Patrick Sheehan left his own large family in the 1870s, relieving the burden on poverty-stricken Ireland and making his own way down here. One reason why I admire Mary Robinson so much is her acknowledgement of what the migrants gave to those who were left behind.

And then there are the other figures of my heritage - Mary Bradbury, who followed her convict father out to Oz and there met Dennis Sheil. William Tyson, who gave up his commission to follow Isabella out to Oz. There's a lot of courage in these stories, tangled up with the convicts.

And the end product has been generations of prosperous Australians, and remarkable people like James Tyson.

No...can't say I see any reason to hide or be ashamed of my family or national history, good or bad. I'd rather know about the past and acknowledge it, even when it's not glamourous, aristocratic and involves the odd old lag.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>but in Adelaide aborigines are to be seen in the city.<<

I saw quite a few in Sydney as well. I don't recall seeing any in Townsville though I recall seeing a few in Perth. Can't say as I visited a city there I didn't like although Townsville was dead quet compared to the other two. They rolled up the streets when the others would still be buzzing with activity.

>>The sentence of hanging seems unduly harsh for the crime, but was actually fairly typical of the time.<<

British laws were pretty harsh around the time of the 17th to 18th centuries but you could have done a lot worse in some other countries. One thing you have to keep in mind is that nobody had a well developed penal system in the sense that we would understand. Prison was just a place you were held for trial or...if convicted...to await your date with the executioner or deportment. (You just can't have the star attractions at a hanging trying to cancel the engagement! It tended to annoy the crowds who turned up for the show!)

The idea of a penal system where one served a set term in prison for a specific crime was a 19th century development.
 

Inger Sheil

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The idea of a penal system where one served a set term in prison for a specific crime was a 19th century development.
In the last decades of the 18th Century, when transportation began, it was set for specific periods - e.g. 7 yrs, life, etc. You'll see these pentalties doled out in the link to the First Fleet I gave above. Many were pardoned, like Dennis - sentenced in 1811, arrived in Oz in 1812, he was married in 1817 and pardoned in 1818.

If you were guilty of stealing goods worth more than a shilling (A$50 today) it was a death sentence - in many cases, in reality, this meant transportation.

Interesting comment from the NSW Records site:
For a long time, Australian historians believed that the convicts were mainly part of a dangerous criminal class in their native towns, who were born and bred to a life of crime. This theory has been rejected by contemporary historians, who have proved that most of the offenders were ordinary working-class men and women. Most were first offenders and about 75% were convicted of petty larceny or receiving stolen goods.
Indigenous Australians are not always identifiable by appearance - I worked with three people of indigenous ancestory in one job, and while all were proud of their ancestory, their racial background wasn't usually immediately apparent. I've seen people grumbling about this or that about Aborginals, and shared wry grins with my colleagues before I delicately drop into the conversation the fact that they're speaking to a member of the race they're denigrating. The backpeddling that ensues is hilarious. I don't like to make generalisations about an entire race, but my Aboriginal friends and the colleagues I've worked with all share a great sense of humour.

I'm surprised you didn't run into any Aboriginal people in Townsville, Michael - there's a large population there. There's a nightlife there, too, but it's hidden under the country town facade - I remember an absolutely riotous night with fellow divers at the conclusion of a Coral Sea dive trip. Remember, that is, up to the point where it all becomes hazy. There's a good time to be had - if you ever make the trip again, let me know and I'll take you to a place that not only serves good beer, it also manages decent cocktails in the small hours of the morning.

Sashka, glad you enjoyed Oz - let me know if you're ever in Sydney again. I agree that all three cities have distinct characters - Brisbane I must admit I don't know so well (but have spent a bit of time in Cairns, which has only been a pleasure to visit).
 

Bob Godfrey

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Inger, nobody was ever sentenced to death for stealing a shilling, unless they did considerable damage to the rightful owner in the process! Or they raided the Church poor box - Sacrilege was a serious crime in those days. Throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th, a theft of items valued at one shilling or above was the point at which petty larceny became grand larceny, which was generally punished by confinement with hard labour. The mandatory death sentence was required for grand larceny involving for instance cattle or sheep rustling, or theft of items valued at £2 or more from a house or just 5 shillings or more from business premises. For women, 10 shillings was the crucial figure is all cases.

In practice, the Courts and Juries were very reluctant to impose the death sentence, or even a term of imprisonment which was costly to the community. So in nearly every case of theft without violence the stolen goods, including sizeable hauls of valuable jewelry, were examined by the Court and revalued at just 10d, so that the charge could be reduced to petty larceny. The convicted felon could then be dealt with cheaply (by flogging or branding) or usefully, by the C18th equivalent of community service - several years in the army or navy. These common practices of commuting grand to petty larceny, and the reluctance to impose imprisonment for the latter, became far less common once transportation developed as a viable alternative not only to pressed military service but also to imprisonment or execution.
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Dec 2, 2000
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>>I'm surprised you didn't run into any Aboriginal people in Townsville, Michael - there's a large population there.<<

That's why I was suprised at that. Maybe I was blind or I just didn't get around to any of the places where they happened to be about.

>>if you ever make the trip again, let me know and I'll take you to a place that not only serves good beer, it also manages decent cocktails in the small hours of the morning.<<

Thanks for the offer, but I don't think it's likely I'll ever get to The Land Down Under again. I had the U.S, Navy as a taxi service when I was running around loose on the Pacific Basin. Had to work for my "passage" but it was worth it. (Good beer? I guess that rules out Foster's!)

I remember the nightlife in both Perth and Sydney! They didn't even bother with the small town veneer, although given the sheer size of these cities, it would have been an unconvincing effort. The shopping was excellant as well, and bookworm that I am, I was in hog heaven in their book shops! I found a really comprehensive title dealing with merchent ship types in a used booksellors in Perth.

On the question of how the death penalty was administered in Great Britain, some might find http://www.richard.clark32.btinternet.co.uk/hanging1.html to be of some interest. It notes that "Some 2,169 people, including 146 women, were hanged at Tyburn between 1715 and 1783". It also mentions that at the beginning of the 19th Century, there were 222 crimes on the books for which you could get your neck stretched.

By all accounts, the executions were quite a party!
 

Inger Sheil

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I'm not saying it was typical, Bob, and using the First Fleet as a case study, most who were sentenced to death and had their sentences commuted were guilty of stealing sums in excess of 5 shillings (Dennis Sheil, although of a later transport, is a case in point - he clocked in at the grand sum of 5 shillings and a penny).

Often values were deliberately revised to under 1 shilling so defendants were not guilty of grand larceny. But we do find cases of burglary, theft and livestock theft valued at less than 5 shillings (sometimes less than 1 shilling) where the death penalty was originally handed out. On the First Fleet we some cases like William Blunt, coachman. Theft valued at less than 1 shilling in a burglary case, original sentence death, commuted to transportation. John Brindley managed assault and robbery, valued at 1 shilling, and he originally had death. James Caldwell, burglary, minus 1 shilling, death. Thomas Crowder, burglary, minus 1 shilling, death. Samuel Day, 2 shillings, burglary, death. William Kilby, stealing livestock (poultry), 1 shilling, death. Samual Midgely, burglary, less than 1 shilling, death. John Mowbrey is a curious one - his crime is valued at less than one shilling, yet he is recorded as stealing a silver watch. Perhaps he failed in the attempt. Regardless, his original sentence was death. Thomas Smith, stealing various goods, value less than 1 shilling, death. Martin Stone, burglary, value less than 1 shilling, death. Thomas Stretch, burglary, value 3 shillings, death. James Thomas, Assault and stealing a hankerchief, 1 shilling, death. Thomas Timmins, stealing livestock (a mare), value less than 1 shilling, death. Daniel Williams, stealing livestock (cattle), value less than 1 shilling, death. Barring James Thomas, who apparently was violent in grabbing his hankerchief, assault is not charged in any of these cases (there are plenty more where the value was under 5 shillings, but 'assault' is linked to theft).

I'm not saying these men were lambs. I'm sure the reason why death sentences were originally handed out in some of these 1 shilling or less cases is because the offender had been up before the courts, and it was thought a rather good thing to hand down a hard pentalty (the 18th century version of 'three strikes and you're out'). Nor do I condone crime - there were plenty of other men and women living in poverty in the 18th - 19th century who didn't resort to stealing bolts of cloth to make a living. What I find admirable in my ancestors - and what I'm proud of - is not their crimes. It's what they did with their lives once they got here. Cast on an alien shore, they struggled and made something of themselves. So no - I feel no shame about them. I don't need to admire crime to admire what they did in the way of redemption. And they're part of who we are - I don't hold by a view that eliminates the negative and highlights the positive. The blood and the iron and the lash are part of who we are - not the sum total by any means, but it's there, and I recognise it.
 

Bob Godfrey

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No worries, Ing, I'm not having a go at your ancestors. Believe me, they couldn't have been worse than mine, many of whom could only be located in the census returns by reference to the entries for the Clerkenwell House of Correction! Who knows, if my lot hadn't been able to run faster than yours I might well have been an Australian myself. :)

On a more serious note, most of those examples you've quoted were found guilty of crimes for which the death penalty was mandatory irrespective of the value of the goods purloined - livestock theft, for instance, and robbery with violence. The prescribed sentence for burglary (ie breaking and entering) was always death, even when the miscreants got away with nothing. In cases of uncomplicated theft where the courts and juries had a free hand, they could and did take account of the defendant's age, character and circumstances and generally did their best to avoid the more extreme penalties. As I said above, they were less likely to do so once transportation became an available option and it was perceived that both the Empire and many of those so consigned might benefit from it. But still the standard punishment for opportunist theft of goods in transit, food (like the proverbial loaf of bread) from shop counters, washing from lines etc was a few months in jail and/or a flogging or a one shilling fine, even where the charge was maintained as Grand Larceny.

There are, incidentally, quite a lot of transcription errors in the First Fleeter spreadsheet, including cases where a man is shown to have been sentenced to death where the actual Court sentence was 7 or 14 years transportation. That might explain some of the more puzzling examples.

The 'first fleeters' were I think fairly typical in that the great majority of the 'lifers' were thieves of one kind or another. No murderers or rapists as far as I can see. The statistics suggest that remained the policy for decades to come, but at some stage there must have been a change, as the proportion of felons transported got much higher and if there was ever a process of selection it seems to have fallen by the wayside. The manifests of the convict ships in the 1850s have murderers, rapists and other dangerous felons in plenty.

Am I right in thinking that transportation for life meant exactly that, and if a felon so sentenced was eventually released to make a successful life as a freeman he could (like Magwitch in Great Expectations) still face execution if ever he returned to England?
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Bob Godfrey

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Just to clarify the point about burglary. If a man entered the house next door unbidden and walked out with his neighbour's gold watch, he was probably risking nothing worse than a flogging and 6 months confinement in Newgate. If the same man entered the same house with the same intent but needed to break in, and even if he found nothing at all worth stealing, he faced the prospect of the rope or of transportation for life. So an open window or an unlocked door could make all the difference between life and death.
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Modern definitions of burglary are still quite bewildering to the rational mind. My son, aged 13, sneaked into the much-hated school he'd just left, and let off a smoke bomb outside the staff room. All doors open etc., and only the day before he'd been a member of the school. Regrettably, this jolly device set off the smoke alarm, which automatically summoned both police and fire brigade, and also made a singe mark in the carpet approximately the size of a 10p piece. Son legged it of course, but came back when he realised his mate had been caught. Me summoned to the nick, and police were quite obdurate, and charged him with burglary. My protestations that they were all quite mad was met with a lizard-like gaze, and they took the opportunity to fingerprint and DNA him. Told later by a police friend that it helps in the targets - burglary - cleared up! And the law allows them to do it. Son not taken to court, but just given a severe talking to, and was assured that if he kept his nose clean the fingerprints and DNA would be removed from the record when he got to 18. All lies, of course. We keep them. We have thousands of biometric records of people who were never charged with any crime on record. You find this out when, as a mere witness to a crime, you offer to have your fingerprints taken for elimination purposes, and they cheerfully come back with all your personal details ....

Mother left grinding her teeth, hitting bottle, and contemplating a little light arson at the local police station which, the last time I actually needed it, was closed 4 days a week to the public, despite the fact that you could see people inside working.
 
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sashka pozzetti

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That is so bad. It doesn't exactly make your son respect authority does it? Of course he shouldn't have done it, but what a ridiculous over-reaction. When I think of things I have done, I would hate to be a teenager nowadays.

Did anybody ever get pardons from the ridiculous crimes they were exported for? And what happened if they were found innocent later?. One of my ancestors (c1820's) was apparently found guilty of killing her husband when she threw a dish at him. He was drunk.... again, and the wound went septic and killed him. She was only given a very minimal sentence, because the character witnesses said that she had been driven to the edge and was otherwise a lovely woman. Did people convicted ever get let off for similar reasons?
 
Jul 22, 2001
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Transportation is a subject I have been researching as part of a local history project. I have been studying 4 cases from a small Sussex village. In one of the cases 2 men were convicted in 1808 of stealing 4 hens, 2 ducks and a drake ( valued @ 2 shillings each), and 21 shillings worth of geese and ganders. The man who stole the birds was given a 7 year transportation sentence and the man who purchased the stolen birds got 14 years.I couldn't find a previous offence for either man and I don't think they returned to England. In another case(1838) a man was convicted for stealing a pair of woollen stockings. He got 7 years transportation, although upon further investigation this was his second offence, the first being a theft of a hat and coat from a local workhouse. At first I had imagined the clothes were for him, but then I found a roaring trade in the village for selling second hand clothes ;)
 
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Actually, Sashka, I was right behind him (secretly of course, at the time). I think it was just the thing to have done, and I'm sorry I ever sent him to that school in the first place. They could have asked the police to just let him go, but they didn't. But you're quite right - it was a ridiculous over-reaction
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He's now a law-abiding (I think) 21-year old, but still snarls whenever the police are mentioned.

Crime, sentencing, transportation etc.
How can we judge it now - realistically? Much of it sounds totally ludicrous to us, even criminal in itself, but maybe they were wrestling with public order situations we can only dimly grasp. Anyway, whatever the facts of the matter, there must be a lot of proud descendants who are quite pleased that their forebears were transported and constructed such an excellent result from what must have then seemed a somewhat unpromising start. They obviously had an initiative lacking in my ancestors who were merely imprisoned here for the most trifling offences.
 

Bob Godfrey

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Emma, theft of livestock was always taken very seriously, though the death penalty applied only to theft of cows, sheep or horses. Bearing in mind the number (and consequent value) of the birds taken, your poultry thief was lucky to get off with 7 years. He was almost certainly a first offender, or he'd have got 14. The receiver, who did get 14 years, was probably a man 'known to the Court'. 7 years for the stocking thief is predictable for a persistent offender. On his first conviction his likely sentence was 6 months and perhaps a touch of the whip to drive the lesson home. In his case it obviously didn't work!
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Jul 22, 2001
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Hi Bob

I just find these stories fascinating, in fact the old bailey website is one of my favourites ( apart from this one of course
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! ) The chap who stole the stockings got 2 weeks solitary confinement for that particular crime, which seems really lenient.
 
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sashka pozzetti

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An interesting example of the other end of the law. My GGGrandfather was a Victorian policeman who was fined 2 shillings in 1890. He was guilty of talking to much with the public when on duty. I think I may have inherited his genes. :)
 

Bob Godfrey

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Now I'm confused, Emma. Did the stocking thief get 7 years transportation or 2 weeks in solitary? Or was that the earlier sentence for lifting the hat and coat? He certainly got off lightly, and probably benefitted from the fact that there were no facilities locally to detain him for much longer than that. Local courts tended to flog and release petty offenders for much the same reason.

The old Bailey records are certainly addictive! I've been a fan for years. I find the witness statements to be an invaluable source of information about the details of everyday life, the morals and standards, the cost of just about everything, and of course the vocabulary and speech patterns of earlier times.
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