Transports of Destitution

Northampton Mercury 12 Mar 1836

There is much online about the lives of convicts sentenced to transportaion to the various penal colonies, but what happened to families left behind? My kinsman John Dennis, the Leicestershire poacher, was unmarried and without issue, but others had families. I decided to look at some of John’s fellow passengers on the Sarah. I had no particular plan, but just a few lines in I found three men with the same surname. Brothers, I thought. And it was true, Abel, Francis and John Blades had in 1836 been sentenced at the Lincoln Assizes to transportation for life, having beaten and wounded two gamekeepers, with intent to do grievous bodily harm, at Easton on the Hill, about two miles from their home in Stamford Baron, Northamptonshire. This was effectively part of Stamford, Lincolnshire, but the town straddles the River Welland, which delineates the county boundary.

Stamford, Ordnance Survey 1886.  Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Francis, just 19 at the time, had no wife or child, but the older brothers did. So what happened to the familes left behind?


John Sharpe Blades, 25 at the time of the trial, was married to Frances, formerly Sellers, and had children John Sellers Blades and Frances Blades, aged 5 and 3 years respectively. Suddenly, their breadwinner and father was snatched from them, never to be seen again. The 1841 census records Frances (snr) at Alford, Lincolnshire, a semptress (sic), with children John (10) and Louisa (4). Daughter Frances had died in the spring of 1837.

The next thing I found was in the Lincolnshire Chronicle 31 October 1845:  an appeal against an order to remove Frances and her two children, John Sellers Blades and Louisa, her illegitimate daughter. Reading between the lines, and from lessons learned eslewhere, it appears likely that Louisa was claiming some kind of poor relief from the parish of Alford, or had sought refuge in the Workhouse at Spilsby. Alford parish had raised an order to have her returned to her home parish of Stamford, whose representatives had appealed against the order. The order was quashed, so they were able to remain in Alford.

Frances succumbed to consumption [tuberculosis] on 1 April 1846. It is disappointing that the entry of death (thanks to wsmidd for sharing via Ancestry) only records “at Alford”. As far as I can tell, the informant was unrelated. According to Wikipedia: “Tuberculosis is closely linked to both overcrowding and malnutrition, making it one of the principal diseases of poverty”, and this appears to fit Frances’s circumstances.

Assumed widow

The second brother also left a wife, Elizabeth, and two children, Robert (5) and Elizabeth, just a few months old. She may not even have met her father. Elizabeth was baptised at Market Overton, Rutland in 1815, the daughter of John Plowright, occupation plowright! Whether Elizabeth (mother) was more resourceful or just more fortunate than Frances cannot be known, be she seemed at first sight to have fared much better. The 1841 census records her at Back Street, Stamford Baron with her mother, Catherine, and children Robert and Elizabeth. No occupation is recorded for either. Both children would have families of their own and lived longish lives.

The next interesting thing is a wedding. On 17 Apr 1849 Elizabeth married Thomas Spencer, a painter. The parish record says that she was “assumed widow, husband having been absent 13 years and unheard from”. Today it is possible to terminate a marriage if the spouse has been absent and despite all efforts cannot be traced. Presumably, this happened to a lot of women (mainly) and men whose spouse had been transported – tens of thousands.

The 1851 census records Elizabeth with her new husband Thomas Spencer at Back Street, Stamford, with his four children and her Robert, also a painter, and Elizabeth, a servant.

On the face of it, then, Elizabeth was doing reasonably well. Sadly Thomas died in 1853 and things took a turn for the worse. The Stamford Merucry, Friday, 30th January, 1857 reported the harrowing tale of an abandoned baby. It says that after the transportation of Abel Blades his wife married a coach painter named Spencer, who died, leaving several children. She then gave birth to an illegitimate child and left it wrapped in a shawl in the passage of the Red Cow public house, with a label around the neck saying: “Take me in and use me well, for ’tis here my father dwells”. The host of the Red Cow took the child in for the night, but sent it to the workhouse, where it was reclaimed by the mother that day.

In 1861 the widow Spencer was still at Back Street, with five children and one granddaughter, aged 1. Four of the children were really step-children. Presumably, Martha, aged 4, was the child initially abandoned? Elizabeth’s occupation was charwoman. I have encountered this sort of thing before. The economic relationship was that the charwoman operated in the pub, serving tea from an urn and cleaning. The personal relationship was that the dominant publican took advantage of a vulnerable charwoman and the result was a child, in this case unwanted. The fact is that Elizabeth was poor, perhaps in poor health, and struggling to look after six children, who were mainly not hers. Elizabeth died in 1868 at Stamford. I have not been able to find out what happened to the Spencer children.

Daylight robbery

A fourth brother, Frederick Blades, also found himself on the wrong side of the law. The Lincolnshire Chronicle 15 Sep 1848 reported that Frederick had stolen some gold, silver, and a watch from a man with whom he had been lodging. He had left for London by train on the same morning. The police issued a description and offered a reward of two guineas for anyone who put him behind bars. He was soon apprehended and committed for trial at Lincoln Assizes where he was sentenced on 14 Oct 1848 to seven years’ transportation.

Improvement Act

In 1841 another brother, William Blades, was fined 13 shillings for using insulting language with intent to cause a breach of the peace. After that he married and until at least 1881 was a fishmonger, first at Bourne, then Stamford.


Abel Lowe Blades and his wife Christiana also found themselves in reduced circumstances. Abel had been a greengrocer and before that a policeman, so the criminal nature of four of his sons must have been distressing. He and Christiana could also have reasonably expected some support from their children, as was the norm for the elderly, but in 1861 and 1871 they were at Truesdale’s Hospital Alms Houses on Scotgate, and therefore reliant on charity. Both died in the 1870s.

Overall impression

It is clear that the sudden snatching away of Abel and John Blades, permanently, to the far side of the World, had a devastating effect upon their wives and children. Through no fault of their own some were condemned to lives of poverty, poor health and early death. Their younger brother, Frederick, perhaps finding himself impoverished, turned to crime, probably in desperation, perhaps to seek his fortune in London. Like many, I suspect that Abel, John and Francis were simply trying to make ends meet (or meat) and found themselves compelled towards poaching. Abel (snr) and Christiana may have found themselves in the Alms Houses, anyway, but that may have been an indirect effect of losing four of their sons. Here is a sense of the how brutal the judicial system was in England in the reigns of William IV and Victoria.

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