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Berkshire Family Historian
June 2003

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Berkshire Family Historian
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Seven years’ transportation
Peter Ford

The sentence of transportation was introduced towards the end of the sixteenth century. Its purpose was to provide a cheap form of labour for the fledgling colonies in North America, drawn from the growing pool of convicted prisoners who would otherwise have been executed for one of the hundreds of capital offences then on the Statute Book. As well as convicts, vagrants and other socially ‘undesirables’ were also included in this human cargo.

The American War of Independence in 1775 brought the practice to an abrupt halt, yet the courts continued to hand down sentences of transportation. Parliament empowered the courts to impose an alternative sentence of hard labour on redundant ships mostly moored on the Thames. Those moored at Woolwich were the Warrior and the dilapidated old Justitia, unofficial flagship of the hulk fleet. Transportation to New South Wales commenced in 1787. Before reaching Australia, convicts spent about eight months on the hulks doing hard labour for about ten hours a day. Many convicts attempted to escape the rigours of transportation and the opening chapters of Dickens’ Great Expectations paint a vivid picture when guns were fired, warning people about escapes from the hulks. Indeed Magwitch would either have escaped from the Warrior or the Justitia.

This article focuses on one individual, Peter Ford’s great great uncle, Francis Ford, who was sentenced to seven years transportation in 1849 for stealing half a bushel of oats and other unspecified articles. Like many prisoners he was not transported but served his sentence on the Justitia.

Francis was an agricultural labourer, the son of the village blacksmith at Silchester, a village with a population of around 400 on the Hampshire/Berkshire border. At the time of his crime he was married with three children and a fourth on the way. It was only the rector’s note on the infant’s baptism ‘n.b father serving 7 years transportation’ that gave me the first clue about this episode of criminal history in our family.

The theft was committed on 1 December 1848. Francis appeared at Winchester Quarter Sessions on 2 January 1849. The judicial process was distinctly ‘fast-track’. The land-owning Justices dealt with 95 cases. The age range of the prisoners was between ten and 51. All were either illiterate or, at best, could only read imperfectly. There was no legal representation for the prisoners and no distinction was made between children and adults — a 12 year-old was given six months’ hard labour for petty theft. All those found guilty were given periods of imprisonment with hard labour varying from one week to six months, other than eight who were sentenced to transportation.

Apart from the barest details of age, standard of literacy, crime and sentence, no other records of Quarter Sessions remain, unlike Assize Court records which can be found at the Public Record Office. We must, therefore, best guess the Justices’ sentencing policy with regard to the eight. Five were found guilty of sheep or horse stealing for which transportation was very much the traditional punishment and one had a previous conviction. But Francis and his partner-in-crime stole goods of much less value than those who had only received up to six months’ imprisonment. Why were they sent for transportation? The reason for the draconian punishment is probably to be found in their Plea for Mercy.

The Plea

The legal right of appeal against sentence or conviction was not established until 1907, so until then a convict’s only hope for relief was to submit a plea for mercy either himself or through a third party on his behalf to the Sovereign. In practice this meant to the Home Secretary. Francis Ford’s plea took the form of a lengthy obsequious letter signed by 35 leading villagers — the rector, churchwardens, farmers, Poor Law Guardians, postmaster, private landowners and tradesmen. The bundle which contained the plea together with associated correspondence was located in the Public Record Office and as well as providing useful information about local history gave the important clue about his sentence. He had stolen from his employer while he was in a position of trust. We would think today that the language in which the plea was couched was excessively grovelling and humiliating —full acceptance of guilt, the deepest regret and contrition, led astray by his colleague, an honest sober and industrious father and so on. But like nearly all the pleas the fateful annotation ‘Q7 nil meant it was rejected.1

‘In Durance Vile’

The penal object was that conditions on the hulks should mirror those in the convict settlements as closely as possible. The prisoners were roused at 5am to a long day of unremitting back­breaking manual labour in the dockyard; the only respite afforded was compulsory chapel services when the prisoners could at least sit down.
Eventually, if the prisoner escaped death through typhus, cholera, tuberculosis or one of the other numerous potentially fatal

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The Warrior moored on the River Thames at Woolwich

infections which plagued them even more than the public at large, the day for release would eventually dawn. Francis returned to Silchester seemingly healthy in spite of the rejection of the Plea for Mercy which had been submitted shortly after the sentence. He must have earned some remission for good behaviour as there was only a four year gap in the parish baptism register for his offspring. He fathered five more children and died in 1889, aged 71.

The fate of anyone convicted of a crime in the Victorian era was in all probability one of unmitigated brutality, although we should bear in mind the conditions in which the poor lived at this time. I doubt if the honest poor were any better off. Punishment pure and simple was the ethic of the penal code. Meaningful rehabilitation had no place. Of course there were reformers and good men (and women) who spoke out but they were not the establishment and it would be some time before their more humane and constructive attitudes had much real impact on penal reform.

References and further reading

1 PRO Plea for Mercy and attached correspondence HO18 277/24

Illustrated London News 21 February 1846. An extensive, illustrated description of the hulks and the daily round.

Branch-Johnson, W. The English Prison Hulks, 1957, Christopher Johnson

Carter, Paul. The Local Historian, vol. 31 no. 3. ‘Early nineteenth century criminal petitions’

Priestly, Philip, Victorian Prison Lives (1999), London

PRO/H08, quarterly returns of prisoners in the hulks

PRO/HO19, register of criminal petitions

PRO/HO18, the criminal petitions

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