The Leicestershire Poacher (2)

In The Leicestershire Poacher (1) on 18 October 1836 at Derby Quarter Sessions John Dennis (estimated at 26 years old) of Measham, Derbyshire, England was convicted of stealing two geese and sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation.

prison hulks woolwich
The only known photograph of prison hulks at Woolwich, shortly before they were removed in 1856.  From Ideal Homes:  A history of south-east London suburbs.

HMS Justitia

John was sent to the prison hulk Justitia on the Thames at Woolwich, London, where he was received on 1 November 1836. He was later transferred to the Sarah in which he sailed from Spithead (Portsmouth) on 29 November 1836. The voyage took 79 days. 255 prisoners boarded Sarah, one was returned to land and nine died during the voyage. John was one of 245 men disembarked in Van Diemen’s Land on 29 Mar 1837. This was a much shorter timescale than many experienced.

Remarkably, there is an online account of conditions on the Justitia by a convict. Here are a few extracts:

Before going on board we were stripped to the skin and scrubbed with a hard scrubbing brush, something like a stiff birch broom, and plenty of soft soap, while the hair was clipped from our heads as close as scissors could go. This scrubbing we endured until we looked like boiled lobsters, and the blood was drawn in many places.

We were then supplied with new ‘magpie’ suits — one side black or blue and the other side yellow. Our next experience was being marched off to the blacksmith, who riveted on our ankles rings of iron connected by eight links to a ring in the centre, to which was fastened an up and down strap or cord reaching to the waist-belt. This last supported the links, and kept them from dragging on the ground. Then we had what were called knee garters. A strap passing from them to the basils and buckled in front and behind caused the weight of the irons to traverse on the calf of the leg.

In this rig-out we were transferred to the hulk, where we received our numbers, for no names were used. My number was 5418 — called ‘five four eighteen’.

Our first business was repairing the butts, a large mound of earth against which the guns were practised. After completing this we were employed some days at emptying barges, and then at a rocket-shed in the arsenal cleaning shot, and knocking rust scales from shells, filling them with scrap iron, etc., as great preparations were going on for the China war. At other times we would be moving gun carriages or weeding the long lanes between mounted guns. One particular job I had was cleaning ‘Long Tom,’ a 21-foot gun at the gate.

hms dromedary hulk deptford e tucker 1821
HMS Dromedary at Deptford, E Walker 1821.  Similar to Justitia.

On board the Justitia Hulk there were about 400 of us, and occasionally the ‘Bay ships’, or transports, would come up the river to take off drafts from the different hulks. We always knew the transports by the number of soldiers on their decks. The drafts were, of course, for transportation to the various penal colonies.

Shortly before my turn came to be removed to the transport ship, our kind captain of the Justitia … with the greatest kindness he told me he would manage to let me have the choice between Bermuda, Botany Bay, and Hobart Town, in Van Dieman’s Land. He said [he] thought, if I chose Bermuda, I might get a remission of half sentence, the climate was deadly, and he would advise me to go to Van Dieman’s Land, and he would endeavour to make arrangements for me to be kept in Hobart’s Town. I thanked him, and assured him I would be ever grateful for his kindness, of which I was soon to have another proof in the treatment accorded me on the voyage.

I have now arrived in my story at the year 1839, when I was about to say good-bye to the old country, with no knowledge when or how I might again set foot in it. On the arrival of our ship, the Asia ‘5th’ — so called from the voyage on which she was starting being her fifth one to the colonies — we were ranged on the quarter-deck of the hulk, and two smiths freed us from our irons, now endured for nine months. Our irons being off we were taken by boats in batches to the Asia, there to be guarded by a detachment of the 96th Regiment.

Previous to our removal the doctor of the Asia came on board the hulk, when the captain, following up on his former acts of kindness, pointed me out to him, said that my conduct had been very good, and that he believed there was in me the making of a good man. this was the means of making my life on the long, weary voyage somewhat more comfortable than it otherwise might have been. On being put on board the Asia there were served to each man his cooking, eating, and drinking utensils, with a small keg for water. We were then told off to the bunks, which held four each. Besides these bunks there were some hammocks, and, through the captain of the Justitia having spoken of me to the doctor, I was given a hammock at the bottom of the hatchway, and soon appointed to a billet. A sailor was sent to show me where the water and pumps stood, and my duty was to fill the men’s kegs. Some time after, having made friends with the steward’s assistant, he managed to put a bag of biscuits close to a partition, so that, by putting my arm through a chain hole, I could just reach it. My friend filled up the bag again when it got low, so that I was provided with extra bread throughout the voyage.

After arriving at Portsmouth, and just before starting again, the bumboats came alongside, and those who were lucky enough to have any money were allowed to buy. Very few had anything to spend, but I had been careful to save up the little that I had received while at Woolwich. I had in all eight shillings [they were given a penny per week]. Part I spent at Portsmouth, and the rest at Teneriffe.

This is [from] Chapter VIII of the book “Old Convict Days” by William Derricourt (a.k.a. Day) edited by Louis Belke, The New Amsterdam Book Company, New York, 1900.  More here.

It would have been convenient if William had been aboard Justitia at the same time as John, but he was convicted on 17 June 1839 (though he maintained his innocence throughout his long life), and sailed on the Asia on 25 April 1840, arriving at Hobart on 6 August.

Poacher Turned Gamekeeper to come.

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