Convicts in the Williams Valley

The European settlement of the Williams River valley was from the very beginning based upon convict labour with the presence of this system influencing many aspects of the district’s early history. At the same time, the lands along the Hunter River had been opened up to grants and settlement very quickly compared to the previous colonial period and an implication of this was that the proportion of free immigrants to convicts was very much greater in the Hunter, and subsequently the Williams River valley in the 1830s and 1840s.[1]

The advantage of being able to make use of convicts as labour is clearly stated by one settler on the nearby Allyn River:

“It was a most fortunate thing for me that I came out at the time I did, one month later and I should not have got convicts, in which case I must have looked out for a situation, or have been ruined in attempting to settle up the country with free servants at most exorbitant wages.”[2]

A later settler on the Williams River could tell of similar advantages. When Christopher Lean arrived in Sydney in the late 1830s it took the new emigrant only two days to secure a job as a ‘sheep overseer’ at £30 per year plus a weekly ration of 12lb beef or mutton, 10lbs of flour, half a pound of tea and 2lbs of sugar. Christopher thought this an ‘ample’ amount. Thus employed, he spent six weeks travelling by bullock to his station where he was in charge of ‘gangs of convicts’, ‘no free men being procurable’. As a free man in a world of convicts Christopher Lean spent the next two years, until May 1841, in what he considered good circumstances: ‘I had a regular routine of duties, but no laborious work. On the whole, time passed away very comfortably.’ The relative ease of his position does not seem unusual, with his cousin Jonathon Wilce, who later settled near Christopher at Fosterton, writing from Bolwarra on the Hunter River in 1840 that: ‘I have no work to do except sow the grain and look after the men.’[3]

First granted his land on the Allyn River in 1826, by 1829 Charles Boydell had cleared some 80 acres with the help of at least three convict workers and was running some 30 cattle and over 500 sheep on it. In that same year, he was successful in applying for another 640 acres to add to his holdings, naming his now 1,280 acres Camyr Allyn. In his diary of that year, the twenty year old Charles Boydell reported that he was setting up his farm with the help of ‘one free man and his wife, two free fencers and several assigned servants’.[4]

Landowners such as Boydell were responsible for supplying the food and basic necessities of their ‘assigned servants’. An account of 1826 detailed the cost of keeping a convict for a year at £17/12/-. This was made up of 13 bushels of wheat at 6s. per bushel = £3/18, and 365 lbs. of beef at 4d. per lb = £6/1/8, or 208 lbs. of pork at 8d. = £6/13/8. Clothing was a ‘frock and trowsers’ provided twice a year at £1/10/-; two cotton shirts, 12s.; two pair of shoes, 16s.; as well as 52 lbs of sugar at 4d. per lb = 17s.; 6½lbs. of tea at 3s. per lb = £1/1/-; and incidentals such as tobacco and soap at £2/10/-.[5] John Lord’s evidence concerning his employment of ‘Hill Coolies’ from India on his Williams River land, compared the cost of three possible types of workers in 1841: Free = £41/18 per year, a prisoner = £16/17/4, a coolie = £18/8.[6]

An interesting aspect of the distinction between an assigned servant and a prisoner of the government in terms of their cost is described by Police Magistrate Thomas Cook of Dungog. According to Cook:

” … when convicts are sent by their masters to any lock-up in the country, to await the appointed day for the coming of a Magistrate, it is understood the culprit brings his rations with him; but having once been before the Court and remanded, all subsequent expense falls on Government.”[7]

Who exactly the convicts of the Williams or nearby Paterson and Allyn valleys were is not clearly known. Analysis of 150 convicts assigned to five estates on the Paterson and Allyn Rivers over a period of years up till the ending of transportation reveals that a typical convict sent to such estates was protestant, single, aged between 15 and 30 years of age, had been sentenced to between 7 and 14 years, and had some education. Catholics made up less than 14%, those under 15 years old 3%, and over 30 years old less than 7%, the totally illiterate 12%, those with a life sentence 33% and those who were married around 10%.[8] Another analysis of the convicts of the Tocal estate on the Paterson River shows half to have been English, nearly half Irish and the rest Scots, with one Swede. Relatives of convicts were also sometimes present, as they could be granted free passage and many took up this offer when it was made. Other families, after an absence of many years, did not make this choice and this was a cause of some convicts committing suicide. Still others, such as Michael Magner, returned to Ireland to bring relatives back with him. Overall about one sixth of married convicts had their families join them.[9]

The assignment of a convict was not the end of the story but rather part of an ongoing bureaucracy, one that at the local level was dealt with by the magistrates. Magistrates spent much time dealing with the relations between convicts and the masters to whom they were assigned. Routine, were applications by landholders for convicts, as in September 1837, when Magistrate Cook needed to ask James Edward Ebsworth of Boorall to sit with him in a ‘Special Petty Sessions’ for this purpose.[10] Authorising ticket-of-leave men’s transfers to other districts was another major part of a magistrate’s role, with Cook, for example, reporting in the beginning of 1838 on the transfer of 11 men to various districts.[11] Identification and being able to access a convict’s records was naturally important and characteristic of this was adding the name of the ship on which a person arrived to the convict’s name, as when Williams River landowner Myles sent a list of convicts, 24 in total, that included such names as William Mumford (Lady MacNaughton), John Farrell (Clyde) and John Pritchard (Printra), to complete the transfer of property and servants to ‘John Hooke of Wiragully Farm’.[12]

Part of this government bureaucracy included the ‘Board of Assignment of Servants,’ which was responsible for where convicts were placed, and to which magistrates could only make recommendations if a crime were not involved. In October 1836, for example Magistrate Cook at Dungog Court was investigating a complaint of J Devlin, assigned to Mr Holmes; Devlin is described as ‘a poor simpleton’.[13] Later that same year, James Williams appeared before Cook to request ‘slop Clothing’.[14] The following year, Joseph Webster found himself removed from service with Mr Rogers for complaining from ‘Peak, and not ill usage’. Cook felt Webster was ‘one of those Convicts who pretend to know Rules, Laws, and regulations better than their superiors,’ and feared this ‘levelling Spirit Contaminate whatever they come near’. Cook suggested Webster go to the ‘Ironed Gang’ at Port Macquarie.[15] The assignment of servants did not always work out, as when Cook ordered that Sarah Robinson be removed from the house of Michael Doyle – ‘She being a greater burden than a comfort to an industrious Family’.[16]

A labour force based on sentenced prisoners was not easy to manage and punishments were a major part of the system. The degree and nature of this punishment was often debated by landowners who as magistrates also determined these punishments. Charles Boydell, for example, criticised a law that would limit punishments, as this would allow a servant to sin ‘to the utmost limit of his tether’.[17] A lost sheep could result in a flogging. And a master could be criticised for being too easy on his convict charges. Masters for a time could determine whether free passage for a convict’s wife and children should be granted, and could also recommend ticket-of-leaves. In 1827, Governor Darling had removed this last authority, as many masters refused to make such recommendations in order to retain good workers.[18]

The control and punishment of the convict population of the district was a major function of a magistrate with the first letter in the Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook (1834-1839) complaining that two years on a road gang is inadequate power to punish absconders.[19] This was written by the first magistrate of what was then called Upper Williams, local landowner George Mackenzie, J.P., who at the end of January 1834 was investigating the activities of William O’Neil, ‘here by servitude’, who was occupying Crown land on the Clarence Town road and having no visible means of sustenance was suspected of receiving and stealing cattle. Having been convicted of harbouring prisoners of the Crown O’Neil was given notice to quit.[20] R. G. Moffat (Captain 17th Regiment) added the following March that O’Neil is ‘a most notorious Sly Grog seller’.[21]

Local landowners acted as magistrates with the limitation that they could not sentence their own convicts. This often meant sending convicts away for sentencing with a consequent loss of labour. The 1825 appointment of a scourger to Paterson was significant therefore in allowing local punishments to be handed out. In 1827, Paterson also received a new lockup built for £95. In addition to scourging, punishments included being sent to road or other labour gangs with or without irons. Men from these road gangs would be assigned to help at harvest times.[22]

For absconding and other crimes, punishment with the lash was often inflicted, as when in 1837 William Forbes and William Daley received 50 lashes each. John Ford was given 50 lashes plus 12 months on the ‘Ironed gang’ and John Cairns also 12 months.[23] Michael Welsh received 100 lashes for ‘Cooking’ sheep and cruelty to animals, and 12 months in an ‘Ironed Gang’ for absconding a second time.[24] The following year William Evans, who dared to complain against his Master – a complaint Cook regarded as ‘trifling and vexatious,’ – was given 50 lashes and returned.[25] Some exceptions were recognised, however, as when Edward Birmingham was described as a simpleton who ‘absconded through ignorance’.[26]

Another common punishment was loss of ticket-of-leave, a punishment that limited a person’s mobility and thus made a servant of less use, as when J M Pilcher wrote to complain that his overseer Downs had been so punished. Cook reminded Pilcher that such a ticket was ‘only to be enjoyed during good behaviour’.[27] Other technicalities associated with punishing a useful class of people was the need to inform the bench before trial that a master wanted a convict back, otherwise they would be sent to Sydney on conviction.[28]

The granting or withdrawal of tickets-of-leave was a major part of convict life and of convict control. A ticket-of-leave meant limited travel and the need for permission to go outside one’s nominated district. Such tickets-of-leave were needed for those with life sentences, followed by a conditional pardon that did not allow them to return to Britain or Ireland. At Tocal, those with life sentences took an average of 12 years to obtain a ticket-of-leave. Those whose terms had expired were free to return to Britain but few seem to have done so. It was reported that some masters even failed to inform a convict that a pardon had been received. An additional form of control were convict bank accounts, which held any money earned until gaining a certificate of freedom, and Magistrate Cook states that it was usual for constables to search prisoners for the purpose of taking their money.[29] This system continued well after the ending of transportation with only the greatly increased population due to the gold rushes making it easier for convicts to disappear into the wider population.[30]

Convicts had few options, but they could resist by setting fire to the barns and crops of masters they considered too harsh or unfair, though simple absconding was the most common form of rebellion, with one third of Tocal’s convicts having done so at one time or another. Such absconders might simply live in the bush for a time, become bushrangers, or pose as free men in a town, a practice made easier by many employers, often former convicts themselves, desperate for workers. The Habouring Act, 1825, and Bushranging Act, 1830, were introduced to reduce this problem.[31]

Despite these laws, a flaw in the system of controlling convicts remained many settlers’ desire for labour at any price. This point Magistrate Cook made in July 1838 when he detailed the case of Pat Brady (alias Brown) who absconded in December 1836, taking a steamer to Sydney, from where he walked to Parramatta. Here he took up with a party being taken down to Port Philip, and was paid £3. He then returned to the Hunter region and took a contract with Mr Dawson of Black Creek as a shepherd for £22 and a large ration ‘without anything to show for his freedom’.[32]

The constables used by these magistrates for escorting prisoners and arresting bushrangers were usually ex-convicts, a circumstance that often caused difficulties. In September 1834, Senior Constable Thomas Rodwell was replaced in his position due to being intoxicated ‘while in the discharge of his duty’. His replacement was Michael Connolly, a ticket-of-leave man and former constable at Bathurst.[33] A few years later, a constable brought in his prisoners drunk, having given them rum at a Public House near Paterson – ‘the day being wet & cold’. Magistrate Cook seems to have sympathized and waived the charge of neglect but did fine the Senior Constable £5 for breach of the Licensing Act; half of this to go as a reward to the informer, in this case the Police Magistrate at Paterson.[34] Such constables were not always unreliable and Cook was very pleased with the work of what seems to have been a lone constable placed at Gloucester, Patrick Conway, who gave ‘good service in taking bushrangers and putting down sly grog shops’. Cook felt that his 1s per day pay should be increased.[35]

The town of Dungog seems to owe its very existence to convicts, not only in the usual sense that they supplied the workers opening up the new grants and building the first buildings, but also in the sense that the distance between Clarence Town (the furthest a boat could travel up the Williams River) and Dungog was reputedly the distance a convict could walk in one day. Be that as it may, a courthouse and lock-up was established in 1834 near the junction of the Williams River and Myall Creek at a location variously known as Upper William or Dungog. The reason for the choice of Dungog for a court also lay in part with the convicts of the Australian Agricultural Company (AAC) established across the ridge to the east of the Williams River. Here was a high concentration of convicts given mainly shepherding duties and their tendency to leave or go bushranging was high. The only place for these bushrangers to go at first was down to the farms of the Hunter River, which took them via Dungog. As Williams River landowner and Magistrate George MacKenzie wrote to the Colonial Secretary, the Dungog courthouse is ‘directly in the thoroughfare between the AAC extensive establishment and Hunter River.’[36] The problems of the previous magistrate in dealing with the AAC led the government to relocate the new Police Magistrate (Thomas Cook) to Dungog, though with jurisdiction over and the requirement to visit Stroud and the AAC. A general reduction in the number of Police Magistrates in 1839 saw the Dungog/Port Stephens police district keep its paid magistrate’s position.[37]

A few years later, in 1838, a barracks for troopers was built in Dungog. This was felt to be a great improvement in the service, which seemed to consist mostly of escorting absconding convict workers to court. A service that the billeted and part-time police had done very inefficiently according to a writer due to their preoccupation with other duties and tendency to do their escort duties at night, when absconders were prone to escape.[38] The location of these government services also led to Dungog being surveyed for a town plan in 1838.

A convict of the area about whose life a little more detail is known was James Davis Smith. Born in London in 1821 he was convicted of stealing a shawl worth 12 shillings. As this was a second offense, he was sentenced to transportation for life. He was aged 12 at the time. After a month in Newgate and three in a hulk, he was placed on the Henry Tanner with some 219 other convicts and on 1st July 1834 left England for Port Jackson, arriving on October 25th. Authorities took a careful description of the young boy as having a ruddy complexion, brown hair and blue eyes. He also had a tattoo of a ‘women on inside of lower right arm, “J.D.” with mermaid and anchor above the outline of a Brig.- lower left arm’.[39]

James was assigned to “Lewinsbrook”, the property of Alexander Park to which he travelled on the Sophia Jane to Morpeth via Newcastle and by wagon onto this property near Gresford. There James found some two dozen other convicts including at least one his own age. James was granted a ticket-of-leave in 1845 and a conditional pardon in 1849. Conditional meaning the pardon would become ‘wholly void’ should he ever ‘go to, or be in, any part of the United Kingdom’. In 1851, James married Jane Elizabeth Parker, herself the daughter of a convict mother, Caroline Parker, who was transported in 1829. The couple leased 35 acres from Alexander Park and used it to grow tobacco. There they raised 12 children before moving to Singleton in 1875 to run a tobacco manufactory until a final move in 1881 to take up a property of 240 acres near Combarra, where James died in the 1900s aged 82. Like many former convicts, he never told his children how he arrived in Australia, hinting at a seafaring youth instead.[40]

In 1840, transportation ended and, in the following year, assignment of convicts to private settlers.[41] With the ending of transportation many former convicts left the Williams Valley to take up work in the more heavily settled districts along the Hunter River. The resulting labour shortages lead to higher wages and strenuous efforts on the part of landowners to re-establish some form of cheap labour. In 1840, for example, the Australian Immigration Association was formed to find such cheap labour, including Indian coolie labour, and in December 1840 the Paterson and Williams River District Committee was established.[42] In 1842, a petition was submitted requesting that Indian coolie labour be introduced with a public meeting held at Paterson Courthouse on 19th Oct, 1842.[43] In 1846, proposals to reintroduce transportation were heavily protested against and again in 1850.[44] The resolution carried at a Paterson meeting seems to sum up attitudes to the still well-remembered convict system:

That the renewal of transportation of convicts to New South Wales, in any way or under any circumstances, would be injurious to the well being of society, and utterly subversive of the social happiness now enjoyed.[45]

A similar meeting held around the same time at Dungog reports the attitude of a former convict to this system. A local correspondent reported Michael Ryan telling the gathering that he knew:

… by experience the bad effects of the old system, and very feelingly mentioned an instance of cruelty towards a party of 22 men, himself being one of them, who, because some robbery was perpetrated in the neighbourhood, were all flogged, without any trial or conviction by the whim or caprice of a fiend in command, and which was the cause of driving some of them to desperation.[46]

Convict Sources

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Perry, Australia’s first frontier, pp.72-75.
  2. Arthur Edwin Way to Benjamin Way Esq, Clevedon, Gresford, Allyn River, NSW, Sept 11th 1842. (accessed 4/7/2010).
  3. Lean, The Lean Family History, pp.47-48.
  4. Sullivan, Charles Boydell, pp.21-22 & p.24.
  5. Atkinson, An account of the state of agriculture and grazing in New South Wales, p.114.
  6.  Sydney Herald, 4/10/1841, p.1S.
  7. Cook to AAC, 10/8/1837 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  8. Readford, Guide to Assigned Convicts of the Paterson/Gresford Area 1821/1838, pp.4-25.
  9. Walsh, Voices from Tocal, p.7, p.32 & p.116.
  10. Cook to Edwards, 30/8/1837 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  11. Cook to Superintendent of Convicts, 21/1/1838 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  12. Lawrence Myles to Police magistrate, 18/12/1837 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  13. Cook to Board of Assignment of Servants, 7/10/1836 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  14. Cook to Board of Assignment of Servants, 16/12/1836 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  15. Cook to Board of Assignment of Servants, 26/4/1837 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  16. Cook to Bench of Magistrates, Newcastle, 26/9/1838 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  17. Sullivan, Charles Boydell, p.38.
  18. Walsh, Voices from Tocal, p.42, pp.86-87 & p.111.
  19. Mackenzie to Colonial Secretary, 3/1/1834 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  20. Mackenzie to Colonial Secretary, 31/1/1834 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  21. Moffatt to Mackenzie, 7/3/1834 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  22. Walsh, Voices from Tocal, pp.88-89, p.96 & p.100.
  23. Cook to Colonial Secretary, 21/9/1837 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  24. Cook to Colonial Secretary, 1210/1837 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  25. Cook to Police Magistrate, Maitland, 24/11/1838 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  26. Cook to Colonial Secretary, 21/9/1837 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  27. Cook to Pilcher, 1/10/1837 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  28. Cook to Ebsworth, 8/6/1838 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  29. Cook to Colonial Secretary, 10/8/1837 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  30. Walsh, Voices from Tocal, pp.112-114.
  31. Walsh, Voices from Tocal, pp.97-99.
  32. Cook to Colonial Secretary, 23/7/1838 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  33. Mackenzie to Colonial Secretary, 18/9/1834 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  34. Cook to Police Magistrate, Paterson, 25/8/1838 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  35.   Cook to Colonial Secretary, 26/10/1837 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  36. Mackenzie to Colonial Secretary, 16/4/1834 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  37.  The Sydney Gazette, 16/11/1839, p.4.
  38.  The Sydney Gazette, 31/3/1838, p.2.
  39. Readford, The History of James Davis Smith, pp.3-36.
  40. Readford, The History of James Davis Smith, pp. 3-36.
  41. Walsh, Voices from Tocal, p.115.
  42. Sullivan, Charles Boydell, p.76 & Australian, 12/12/1840, p.1.
  43. Sullivan, Charles Boydell, p.204 & Australian, 14/11/1842, p.3.
  44. Sullivan, Charles Boydell, p.101 & p.113.
  45.  Maitland Mercury, 28/9/1850, p.3.
  46.  Maitland Mercury, 28/9/1850, p.4.