Robert Jones was convicted at the Old Bailey in February 1792 of stealing a pair of silk stockings from the shop of Richard Marsh, and sentenced to transportation for seven years. We can picture Robert and trace his journey to New South Wales from the official records. The Criminal Register (HO26) records that he was 30 years old, 5 feet 9 inches tall, with light hair and black Eyes, he had been born in Wales and was a labourer. The register also notes that he was delivered on Board the Royal Admiral at Gravesend in May 1792, which is confirmed by both the Newgate gaoler’s lists of prisoners and the transportation registers. The Royal Admiral landed in New South Wales in October 1792, and Robert can be found in the early convict records which have been digitised by NSW State Records. (According to some records, the Royal Admiral sailed in May 1791, but this can’t be right.)
But these records include very little of Robert’s own words or voice. During his trial, he spoke only once, to say that he would leave his defence to his lawyer. And, it seems, there may be someone missing from these official registers and records of his voyage.
I came across Robert in TNA’s Discovery summary descriptions for HO47, which noted Robert’s petition for mercy, and was immediately intrigued:
The prisoner requests in his petition, and a covering letter, that his wife be permitted to travel with him when transported. (HO47/15/32)
These records are available on Findmypast, so I just had to take a look at the images of Robert’s petition and letter. (If you have a subscription, here he is.) In rather flowery language, Robert asked that his sentence might be mitigated to service with the East India Company ‘so that he may not be torn from the arms of his disconsolate unhappy wife’, emphasising that he had never been in trouble before, until ‘misfortune and necessity brought him to this melancholy transgression’.
Your petitioner humbly craves your pity to be pleased that he may not be taken from his beloved wife the only happyness that a human being can with dolefull trouble condole with in this miserable unhappy place of abode [Newgate, presumably] where he hopes to make an atonement for his past offences…
The judge’s report gave short shrift to the first part of the petition, since Robert had been ‘convicted upon satisfactory evidence’. But he agreed to recommend that Mrs Jones would be permitted to sail to New South Wales with her husband. According to another letter, she was willing to go, and a number of female passengers did sail on board the Royal Admiral, but at present the project has no further record of whether Robert’s wife was actually among them.
If it weren’t for the rich records of HO47 we wouldn’t even know of her existence – the official lists and registers record only convicts. There are a few other early cases like this in HO47 (eg 1796, 1809), but most existing records of this kind are from later in the 19th century, after the institution of formal procedures for applications for wives and families to travel with husbands to Australia or for reuniting them after the convicts had arrived. This kind of correspondence gives us rare and precious glimpses into the emotional lives of the convicts we’re studying.
[This post is one of a series of Convict Tales, in which we post about individual convicts whose lives the project has begun to link together. It may be updated as we learn more.]