"Richard Bennett - Transported" by Nigel Brown
In the 1841 census Richard Bennett was the oldest of four children living with their parents James and Jemima at Overend, Cradley. Richard was 12 years old. He is apparently absent from the 1851 and subsequent censuses and there is no record of a death or burial.
For some years I was aware of this "missing" person, but there the matter lay. Then, in 2006, I purchased a book by Don Cochrane, A Brief History of Lye and Wollescote, and on my first reading I noticed in a footnote that a Richard Bennett of Cradley, aged 19, had been sentenced to 10 years transportation.
Don is also the author of Black Country Criminal Ancestors 1787-1868, and with some advice from him as to where to start my research in previously unchartered waters, genealogically speaking, I began my quest.
I traced Richard's prison service in England for the years before his transportation, including his 1851 census record on the convict hulk 'Warrior' in the River Thames that states his occupation as chain maker and his place of birth as Cradley.
Clearly, this Richard Bennett is my missing man. I have traced him to Tasmania and to his freedom, working as a farmer in the beautiful Huon Valley. And I have found his great, great grandaughter.
On the night of 20 November 1849 Richard Bennett walked from Butchers Lane near Overend to Two Gates and on out of Cradley town towards Wollescote. He joined his friend Thomas Mansell along the way. Richard was 19 and Thomas was 20. They were chain makers, work was short and they were hungry.
Richard's mother Jemima had died four years earlier, leaving his father James with five children to bring up as well as earn a meagre living as a nailor. As a 12 year old child in 1815, James and his five brothers and sisters and their parents William and Lydia, were the subject of a Removal Order from Cradley to Halesowen, under the Poor Law. The Order was quashed but even now, 45 years later, this family were still not strangers to poverty. By 1849, James' father William was a widower too, aged 74 years, a nailor/pauper, living in Colley Lane with two children and three grandchildren.
The two lads walked along Oldnall Road and the landscape changed to open countryside. They made their way towards Pargeter's Farm at Foxcote, just a mile or two from where they lived, and in a fateful moment decided to take a sheep to feed their families.
Caroline Elizabeth Pargetter was a landed proprietor and farmer of 40 acres at Foxcote Farm. She lived there with her cook and dairymaid, housemaid, waggoner and two servants. Richard and Thomas's decision to relieve her of a sheep was not their best decision and they bungled the act. They were caught, jailed and tried at Worcester Epiphany Sessions on 31st December 1849.
Their crime was to have feloniously killed one wether sheep, property of Caroline Pargetter, with intent to steal the carcass. They were each sentenced to 10 years transportation.
For Richard and Thomas, this one desperate act, unsuccessfully executed, brought about the end of their lives as they knew it. We know less about what happened to Thomas after the trial, but for Richard it was followed by a longer trial of extraordinary endurance that ended in a successful life. It was three years before he reached the other side of the world, during which time he endured prison regimes that were worse than the transportation itself.
Thomas was transported to Western Australia, sailing on the Sea Park from the Port of London on 1 January 1854, bound for the Swan River Colony. The Sea Park arrived in Fremantle on 5 April 1854 with 180 passengers and 304 convicts, the journey having taken 94 days. We know that Thomas left behind a young wife Elizabeth and two sons, Joseph and Thomas, who were 6 and 2 in the 1851 census, when they were lodging with another family in Cradley Heath. And we know that Thomas did not marry or die in Western Australia, but not what happened to him after his arrival.
Most convicts in the colony were set to work creating infrastructure and public works such as roads. In Perth, for example, convicts built the Perth Gaol between 1854 and 1856, and some were then housed there to provide labour for capital works in the city and surrounds. The Perth Town Hall and Government House and the Canning River Convict Fence were all built by convicts.
Someone else in Cradley that Richard would have surely known and perhaps Thomas too, was also transported at about the same time. Elizabeth Attwood was the daughter of Samuel and Prudence (née Perks) Attwood who lived in Windmill Hill, Cradley. Elizabeth was tried for stealing money at Stafford on 22 July 1851 and convicted of larceny, the penalty for which was transportation for 7 years. She was 20 years old when the convict transport Sir Robert Seppings left Woolwich on 18 March 1852 with Elizabeth and 219 other female convicts and some children. A westerly gale blasted them for two days after doubling the Cape of Good Hope. They arrived at Hobart Town on 8 July, one month before Richard, and the convicts were taken to a factory called the Brickfields.
Returning now to Richard Bennett, he would have had some idea of what was in store for him, because he was not the first Cradley man to be transported. In 1838, 22-year old Joseph Bloomer of High Town, Cradley (son of Isaac Bloomer and Lucy Cox) was transported to Australia. He and Ferdinando Shakespeare, both nailors, had been indicted for breaking into the shop of William Cox at Cradley and stealing an amount of bacon, cheese and other articles. Both were sentenced to 10 years transportation. Joseph was despatched to Australia on the ship Theresa, departing from Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent on 10 October 1838, arriving Sydney on 31 January 1839.
Richard was only 8 years old at this time, but it is likely that the sentence handed out to Joseph would have been known "around town", if only as a handed-down warning to other youngsters of what could be their lot too.
A Trial of Endurance
Richard's first stop was the "Penitentiary House for London and Middlesex" at Millbank, the largest prison in London, where every convict sentenced to transportation in Britain was sent previous to the sentence being executed. Millbank Prison was completely surrounded by a wide moat and guarded like a fortress. It stood on the Thames river bank, near Vauxhall Bridge and was the first stage of his "penal servitude".
Discipline was severe. Richard worked a 12-hour day, six days a week, starting every day with cleaning out his cell, and perhaps the corridors as well. Most of the convicts confined at Millbank were employed as tailors of one sort or another. They were instructed in making soldiers' clothing, biscuit-bags, hammocks, and miscellaneous articles for the army and navy, and other prisons, as well as the shirts, handkerchiefs, and cloth coats and trousers worn by the prisoners themselves. The cells were well ventilated, and the prison generally kept scrupulously clean, but the site of the building was low and marshy, and its dampness rendered it very unhealthy. In fact, there were ten times as many cases of illness, and three times the rate of deaths, in proportion to the prison population, as at the Hulks, to one of which Richard was later transferred before his journey.
Richard remained at Millbank Prison until March 1851, at which time the inspectors of the prison reported to the Home Secretary recommending the place of transportation. On 10 March he was sent to the hulk ship 'Warrior' anchored in the River Thames near Woolwich Dock, in time to be enumerated there on the 1851 census. On arrival he was described as "healthy".
Many prisoners served their entire sentence on the hulks. Most, like Richard, were housed there until a space could be found on a transport ship to Australia.
The Warrior Hulk
HMS Warrior was built of English Oak in Portsmouth Dockyard and displacing 1,621 tons, was launched on 18 October 1781. She served as a 74-gun man of war, taking part in the battle of the Saintes in 1782 with Admiral Rodney's Fleet, and the battle of Copenhagen in 1801 with Admiral Parker's Fleet. She was also involved in events leading up to the Battle of Trafalgar. In 1818 she became a Receiving Ship until being purchased by the prison authorities in 1840, after which she was used as a Convict Ship.
When transportation to the American colonies came to a sudden end after the war of independence in 1776, convicts sentenced to transportation were confined in old naval ships around the English coast. Intended as a temporary measure only, detention on the hulks lasted for 80 years.
The first hulks were moored on the Thames off Woolwich and the opposite shore, from 1776 onwards. On the southern shore, the Woolwich Warren was a maze of workshops, warehouses, wood-yards, barracks, foundries and firing ranges. The Warren had been the site of naval shipbuilding since the 16th century. The Royal Arsenal was not established there until 1805, but military arms had been made there for more than a century. These facilities were gradually being expanded and an adequate river harbour was essential if development of the Woolwich Warren was to continue.
The convicts were put to work improving the river. The main jobs were dredging the river to stop the drift of its main channel toward the centre of the river, using the spoil to raise the level of the Arsenal's marshy ground, and driving in posts to protect the riverbanks from erosion. Convict labour was also used for digging the canals and building the walls around the Arsenal and the nearby docks. The convicts worked long hours on the banks of the Thames and at the dockyards at Woolwich: 10 hours during summer, 7 in the winter.
The standards of hygiene on board the floating gaols were so poor that disease spread quickly. The sick were given little medical attention and were not separated from the healthy. Gaol fever (a form of typhus spread by vermin) spread among them. Dysentery, caused by drinking brackish water, was also widespread. The living quarters were very bad. The hulks were cramped and the prisoners slept in chains around their waists and ankles. Attempts by any prisoners to file away or knock off the fetters led to floggings, extra irons and solitary confinement in tiny cells.
Because of the isolated position of the hulks, convicts were less able than prisoners ashore to arrange visits from family and friends. The prisoners had to live on one deck that was barely high enough to let a man stand up. They were poorly dressed as well as unhealthy. The quality of the prisoners' food was kept as low as possible. Sometimes, the captain of a hulk would allow the convicts to plant vegetables in plots near the Arsenal. This attempt to add something extra to the poor diet of the prisoners depended on the goodwill, or otherwise, of the individual in charge.
Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of convicts died aboard the hulks at Woolwich and their corpses were unceremoniously dumped in the Arsenal's marshground. On a still, warm day the smell of the prisoners, dead and alive, would pollute the river from bank to bank. The hulks lined the river like a floating shantytown.
Mutiny and Transportation
'Warrior' served as a hulk until 1851 when a mutiny broke out on board. The disturbance was put down by a detachment of Royal Marines and the prisoners were sent to Millbank Prison, a return to their first place of incarceration and an even greater liklihood of illness and death. Richard was transferred on 30 December, having received three quarterly reports of Very Good Behaviour, and one of Good Behaviour. Thus it seems that Richard was not one of the mutineers, or that any part he played in the mutiny went undetected. 'Warrior' was sold off soon after and was broken up in 1857. By then Richard Bennett was on the other side of the world.
After his second spell in Millbank Richard was transferred to Plymouth, from where he sailed on the Lady Montagu on 9 August 1852, one of 290 convicts destined for Van Dieman's Land ("VDL"), 10 of whom died on the journey. The ship arrived in Hobart Town 122 days later, on 9 December 1852 at a time when transportation was coming to an end.
Conditions in VDL were quite depressed at this time. There was little work and wages were low. The island had become a giant prison camp with over 70,000 transportees living there. Local opposition to the continued landing of convicts in Van Dieman's Land was growing, mirrored by protests in England against the harsh system. The discovery of gold in Victoria and New South Wales on the Australian mainland in the early 1850s fuelled the British Government's reluctance to continue funding the transport of convicts. Convict transportation came to an end in 1853.
Richard was one of the last of more than 74,000 convicts transported to the Australian Island State alone, later re-named Tasmania, over a period of some 41 years.
Under the Probation system that continued until the end of transportation, convicts were assigned to Probation Stations all over the island, and had to work for the government until they had earned a ticket of leave.
Ticket of Leave, and Pardon
Richard was despatched to Port Cygnet on the Huon River, located some 35 miles south of Hobart. The Port Cygnet area was first settled in 1834 and in 1836 an apple orchard was planted. In 1845 four Probation Stations were established in the district for several hundred prisoners. They included blacksmiths, boat crews, brick makers, charcoal and lime burners, carpenters, coopers, carters, gangs for clearing and cultivating, erecting barracks, splitting timber, sawing, fencing timber cutting, rolling logs and hard labour! There were also servants for officers and others and storekeepers.
By 1847 there were 530 convicts in Cygnet, but in 1848 the number of convicts began to decline - probably by pardon and tickets of leave. By the time Richard arrived in 1854 the Probation Stations were already dismantled.
Notwithstanding "leaving the service of his master" in June 1854, for which he paid with one month's hard labour, he was granted a Ticket of Leave on 27 March 1855. Once granted his ticket, Richard was permitted to seek employment within a specified district but could not leave the district without the permission of the government or the district's resident magistrate. He was now permitted to marry and to acquire property. The ticket of leave had to be renewed annually, and he had to attend muster and church services.
A Conditional Pardon followed on 29 September 1857 which removed all restrictions except the right to leave the colony. Finally, on 30 October of the same year, Richard received his Certificate of Pardon. By this time he was established in Cygnet.
From Chain Maker to Farmer
In 1862 Richard took a lease on a hut and 20 acres of land at Port Cygnet and in 1867 he is listed living at Nichols Rivulet. On 2 February 1874 he married Margaret Gelan, also a convict. Margaret was tried in Co. Galway 30 October 1847 and sentenced to 7 years for larceny. She was married to a John Larkin (in Ireland), the name under which she was transported, arriving in VDL from London on the 'John Calvin' on 18 May 1848. In 1852 she married a James Baker in Tasmania (another convict) who committed suicide by taking poison in 1872. Richard was a farmer at the time of his marriage to Margaret, and was also listed as such in the Post Office directory for Buckingham County, Tasmania for 1890-91. They lived in a slab hut in Guy's Road, Cygnet.
Despite the horrors of Millbank Prison, the hulk Warrior and a four month journey to the other side of the world, it is fair to say that the rest of Richard's life was in many ways probably better than that he would have experienced had he stayed in Cradley at that time. He would have had a good life in a very rural part of Tasmania that is about as different as anywhere could be from our Cradley in the nineteenth century. His great grandaughter remembers her mother telling her what a lovely gentle man he was.
It is likely that from at least the day of his trial in Worcester on the last day of 1849 Richard never saw or had any contact with any member of his family again. It is almost inconceivable that he received visitors from Cradley whilst in prison in London, and he could barely read or write. He died of old age on 19 December 1895, 46 years after he failed to steal a sheep from Pargeter's Farm near Cradley in the Black Country. Margaret survived him until 1911 when on 15 December she died at the New Town Charitable Institution in Hobart.
David Coad has written an excellent two volume History of Tasmania: Vol. 1. Port Cygnet 1792-1860 and Vol. 2. Port Cygnet 1860-1900 and has a web site about the Convicts of Cygnet. Tom Wills also has a web site dedicated to Cygnet (history, pioneers, genealogy, etc.).
The Cygnet area was first explored by Bruni D'Entrecasteaux who, in 1793, sailed up the Huon River and named the narrow bay which runs up to Cygnet, Port des Cygnes (the Port of Swans) because of the large number of swans he observed in the area.
Today the farmers of Cygnet (population: circa 800) still rely on dairy cattle, apple orchards, mixed farming and saw milling for their economic livelihood. There are three pubs, two petrol stations, a bank and two supermarkets. Cygnet also hosts many cafes, a hardware store, a couple of backpackers hostels and a Camping Ground. There are also several art studios, a print workshop with an old print press, a library linked to the collection of the State Library of Tasmania and a museum. Cygnet is something of a local mecca for the creative arts in the region. About a mile south of the city center is a safe anchorage for pleasure craft with easy road acces to Cygnet. Events in Cygnet include the Cygnet Folk Festival, some film festivals and art exhibitions.
Richard Bennett was my first cousin 4 times removed. He was a nephew of my great, great, great grandmother Elizabeth Bennett who married James Attwood, both of Cradley, on 30 May 1825 at St. Mary's Parish Church, Old Swinford.
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