Whipping boy!

*This is a reprise of an article I was invited to post on English Historical Fiction Authors*

Convict carved milestone.

If, like me, the generations of one’s family in Tasmania can be traced back to Settlement, then it is a fair enough assumption to believe there exists a convict somewhere in the family tree. My great great grandfather was such a man.

William Owen Millington was born on the 10th June, 1810. Where in England is not known precisely but given that he married his first wife, Mary, in Chipstead in 1836 and that he was tried and found guilty of his crime in Chichester in 1837, one must draw a circle around those areas and assume he and his family lived within that circle.

I rather like the description of Chipstead in the Domesday Book: its assets being three hides, seven ploughs, one mill, and woodland worth five hogs. I’m sure if William had realised that the whole of the Chipstead estate had been worth so little in the Domesday Book that he may not have followed the path he took so many years later. But then we know, don’t we, that value is a relative thing?

What price starvation though?

As a carpenter William was unable to provide as he may have wished. At the age of twenty seven, he stole two sheep for the sustenance of his growing family. Found guilty of the theft, he was tried and sentenced to transportation to the penal island of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), where fourteen years hard labour was to be completed. His marriage with Mary, like that for all transported convicts, was effectively annulled as he left. Sentences were in blocks of seven years: whether it was a kerchief or a loaf of bread and the age of the perpetrator meant nothing. In William’s case, two sheep equalled fourteen years. In addition, under British civil law, a man could be declared dead after seven years of absence. In effect, this made it possible for families left behind to move on with their lives. It also enabled any convict who lived to work out his pardon, the chance to remarry in the colonies without the charge of bigamy.

So William was transported from Southampton on the William Bemtick and after sailing in miserable hulk conditions to the other side of the world, arrived in Hobart on 26thof August, 1838. Tasmania as a penal colony had been in existence for some 30 years at this point and the town of Hobart had been established and outlying settlements were growing with the opening up

of valuable agricultural holdings. The town of Bothwell in the Central Highlands of Tasmania was one such and it was William’s good fortune that he was a competent carpenter and was sent there to serve his time, indentured to a resident vicar.

A Bothwell house…

Bothwell was a town that served large pastoral estates of cattle and sheep graziers and in the first two decades of its settlement, churches, a school, soldiers’ barracks and hotels were built, so there was scope for William to earn his pardon.

No convict could work for money; it was a condition of the sentence. At best he had minimal shelter, clothing and sustenance and could expect no more, so one wonders why my great great grandfather could have been so ill advised as to present an invoice for his work to the vicar. He was of course lashed, how many times we are unable to ascertain, but enough to make sure he trod the straight and narrow through the hot highland summers and freezing winters that Bothwell offered, until he became a free man in 1851.

I always wonder why he didn’t hasten then to the goldfields of Ballarat and Bendigo on the mainland for what is euphemistically called the Great Australian Goldrush. And where it is often claimed, the true Australian identity began to form. Instead, with the desire for major wealth no doubt beaten out of him, he settled in Hobart and married again – to a widow called Elizabeth in Saint David’s Church of England, later Hobart’s Saint David’s Cathedral. He continued his carpentry trade but as often happened with carpenters historically, also became a Hobart undertaker.

A ‘humane’ cell at Port Arthur

William Owen Millington was lucky to be sent to Bothwell as an indentured convict rather than be shipped to the misnamed ‘model’ (meaning humane) prison of Port Arthur, lucky too that the infamous hell hole of Sarah Island in the far west had ceased operations in 1833. In both instances he may well have been lucky to survive. His trade was a gift, the opening of pastoral lands with towns close by a godsend, and he lived to tell the tale.

As members of the family have tried to track down William’s descendants in England, it has become obvious that many don’t know that ‘lost’ William was in fact a convict. Perhaps there remains the need to ignore such skeletons whereas here in the colonies, one knows one has truly ‘made it’ if one can show such a thing in one’s own ancestry.

What I find most astonishing is that this many years later, William’s great great great grandson, my own son, is a qualified joiner and carpenter but also, ironically, a working member of a family of sheep farmers.